21 Free Things to Do in Boston
This is a carefully compiled list of free things to do while you're visiting Boston. It's been designed to skim and browse to your heart's content so that you can dip into the activities that intrigue you most. Read on to discover the city's best museums, tours, events, entertainment, places to eat and lots more—all with one low entrance price: $0.
Now make no mistake—this isn't a list of second-rate destinations out in the suburbs where the buses don't run. These are major tourist attractions, most of which are in the downtown area and within easy walking distance of hotels and subway stops.
I worked in the city for 18 years and know a thing or two about the sights. I started this list a number of years ago when my children were growing up, and frankly, I grew tired of taking out a bank loan every time we visited Beantown. That's when I realized there were many exciting things to do in Boston without having to spend a dime.
21 Free Boston Attractions and Activities
- Boston Freedom Trail
- Black Heritage Trail
- Irish Heritage Trail
- Bunker Hill Monument
- Old North Church
- U.S.S. Constitution
- Boston Public Library
- Massachusetts State House
- The Custom House
- Massachusetts Historical Society
- MIT Campus Tour
- New England Aquarium
- Free Lunch at Quincy Market
- Stargazing at Coit Observatory
- Museums Galore
- Harvard Square Entertainment
- Loads of Events (From Festivals to Feast Days)
- Free Movies at the Hatch Shell
- Amazing Parks (The Emerald Necklace)
- Boston Common and Public Gardens
- Blue Hills Reservation
Though you only see 21 items here, there are over 50 activities listed in this article! Continue scrolling to discover them all.
A Little Bit of Bostonian History
If you're a newbie to Boston, you may want to read the following quick history and watch the video below, as it shows many of the places listed here. (Bonus: the narrator has a Bostonian accent.) I'll keep it brief and try not to sound too encyclopedic (and that's the biggest word you'll find here).
The city of Boston has a population of about 600,000 and was founded in 1630 by Puritans from England who named their town after Boston, Lincolnshire, in England. You can expect to find many places in New England named after towns in England that people left behind, such as Manchester, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Worcester.
Much of the city today is built on reclaimed land from the sea and surrounding marshes. Situated at the mouth of the Charles River as it enters Massachusetts Bay, Boston played a key role in the Revolutionary War and was a major seaport and trade center in the early years of America's history.
The city brims with historic buildings sandwiched between skyscrapers, parks and chic shops. It may make for an odd sight at times, but it provides a unique and satisfying blend of old and new architectural styles.
A lot of people's money and time has gone into preserving Boston's rich history and heritage for you to enjoy. Luckily, all it will cost you to experience it is a little of your shoe leather.
A City With Rich Historical Significance
When it comes to a city in America to visit for historical significance, it's hard to beat Boston. It's practically impossible to walk a few steps there without stumbling over some colonial or revolutionary landmark. These trails and locations will help you discover the rich history of the city and its past residents, allowing you to sneak in an educational experience while having fun as well. Sound like a good deal?
1. The Boston Freedom Trail (Old Boston)
Put on your walking shoes and trek 2.5 miles of the nation's history on The Boston Freedom Trail. Just follow the red-bricked trail as it winds its way through 16 historical sites, including:
- the Boston Massacre,
- the Old South Meeting House (where the Boston Tea Party episode began),
- Faneuil Hall,
- the Granary Burying Ground,
- Paul Revere's House,
- and many more!
You can pick up a free map at the visitor's center on Boston Common or print one out online. Allow at least 2–3 hours to walk the trail, though if possible, I recommend taking a full day to visit all the sites.
2. The Black Heritage Trail (Beacon Hill)
Beacon Hill is a distinctive Boston neighborhood with alleys, walled gardens and narrow, cobbled streets lined with original gas lights. These features alone make the area a delight to walk in, but the historic Black Heritage Trail makes a stroll through Beacon Hill even more fascinating.
The trail consists of 14 sites beginning at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in front of the State House and winding through the hill around memorable Louisburg Square, Charles Street and Phillips Street before ending at the African Meeting House.
Free maps are available at the Abiel Smith School. Ranger-guided tours are also free and run Monday–Saturday.
3. The Irish Heritage Trail (Downtown Neighborhoods)
Since colonial times, Boston has had a thriving Irish population which has shaped the art and political traditions of the city. If you have a tinge of Irish—and let's face it; most of us do, especially as March 17th approaches each year—then take this 3-mile self-guided walking tour through Boston's downtown, North End, Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.
There are about 16 sites marked on the tour map that you can easily walk to, and an additional 6 sites are located in Charlestown, East Boston and Dorchester, which you'll need a car or public transportation to view. Many of the sites are memorials and plaques that commemorate great sons and daughters or major events, with some parks and gardens sprinkled along the way.
The Heritage website provides maps and details about each site so you can plan a visit and even combine it with the other free walking tours already discussed.
4. Bunker Hill Monument (Charlestown)
The Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17, 1775, and is mostly remembered because of the legendary command, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!"
While the American forces were eventually overwhelmed and retreated after three assaults, the site is commemorated by the 221-foot granite obelisk and is marked as the first major battle of the Revolutionary War.
The area surrounding the monument is a park with a museum, and you can climb the stairs all the way to the top. The monument is open 9:00 am–5:00 pm. See the park website for more information.
5. Old North Church (North End)
Old North Church is in Boston's famed North End neighborhood, an area known more for Italian restaurants and pastry shops than for one of the most significant events leading to the Revolutionary War. From the steeple of the church, Robert Newman held up two lanterns as a signal from Paul Revere that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea and not land.
Though the steeple itself has been replaced twice since the lanterns were lit—both times because of storms, not fighting—it still makes for a stirring patriotic sight.
Update: In June 2018, the Old North Church introduced a general admission fee of $8.
6. U.S.S. Constitution (Charlestown Navy Yard)
This vessel was built in Boston and launched in 1797 to provide protection for American ships sailing the North African coast. "Old Ironsides" saw her most memorable action in the War of 1812 when she defeated the H.M.S. Guerriere in the 35-minute battle that made the United States into a naval superpower.
Today, this historical ship is permanently docked at the Charlestown Navy Yard and offers free tours every 30 minutes.
Catch a Free, Guided Tour
Some buildings and places are so immense or significant that having a knowledgeable guide can really help you to appreciate them fully, and the sites on this list definitely fall into that category.
These tours are popular during the summer tourist season, so sign up early.
7. Boston Public Library (Copley Square)
The Boston Public Library in Copley Square is much more than just a collection of books, although if you measured it purely by its number of rare volumes, it would stand out as one of the greatest collections in the world.
But the central library also houses fine art, rare prints and even interactive multimedia exhibits. So while at its heart, it is indeed just a library, that's sort of like saying Mt. Everest is just a mountain, right?
You can get a free tour on Mondays at 2:30 pm, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:00 pm, and Fridays and Saturdays at 11:00 am.
8. Massachusetts State House (Beacon Hill)
Charles Bullfinch's 1798 masterpiece sits on top of Beacon Hill and is the oldest surviving building in the area. The distinctive gold dome was first covered in copper in 1802 and eventually gilded with gold leaf in 1874. There are many rooms and chambers to see and architectural styles to admire.
Free tours are conducted by staff and volunteers covering the history and architecture of the State House. They're given weekdays from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and last approximately 30–45 minutes.
9. The Custom House (Boston Harbor)
This landmark building is one of the more distinctive shapes in the harbor area and used to be the tallest skyscraper in Boston. The original foundation was laid on reclaimed land, and at one time, the Boston waterfront came right up to the building.
Today, the building stands back embedded among taller office buildings and busy traffic routes. The tower was added on to the foundation in 1915, and when the customs officials moved to another building, it was sold to Marriott Hotels.
Free tours are available by appointment and include a trip to the 26th-floor open-air observation balcony and the Rotunda Museum. It's open 10:00 am–4:00 pm daily, except Saturdays.
10. Massachusetts Historical Society (Back Bay)
The Massachusetts Historical Society collects, preserves and makes available to the public manuscripts and artifacts related to the state. The society has a large collection of papers and letters from historical figures and politicians from Massachusetts.
They also publish books and loan their materials to other museums and libraries. They hold numerous seminars and weekly tours, all of which are open to the public and (of course) free.
11. MIT Campus Tour (Cambridge)
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge is spread out over a huge area and encompasses unusual architectural styles, art collections and a crazy numbering scheme for its buildings. Wait . . . let me be fair. I'm sure it makes sense to MIT students, but to the average visitor, it's a challenge.
There are two ways of touring the campus: self-guided and organized. Campus tours depart from the lobby of Building 7, located at 77 Massachusetts Avenue (though this is the address of every building), and generally last 75–90 minutes. They are offered at 11:00 am and 3:00 pm Monday–Friday.
You can pick up a map for a self-guided tour at the Information Center Room 7-121, which means Building 7, First Floor, Room 121. And Building 7 is located at 77 Massachusetts Avenue . . . on second thought, just ask a student for directions.
Family Fun at No Cost
I don't know about you, but every activity I do with my kids seems to empty out my wallet, and then they want to eat.
So here are some things to do in Boston that not only leave your wallet intact but feed you as well, at least on Wednesdays.
12. New England Aquarium (Central Wharf)
In the summer school vacation months, this place is better described as a "zoo" rather than an aquarium. Just kidding. But it does get mobbed with families on vacation, and it continues to be one of the most popular attractions in Boston.
The New England Aquarium is also one of my favorites because I love the familiar things like the massive ocean tank with its sharks and giant turtles swimming around together, but I also enjoy the new exhibits that revolve in and out.
The Aquarium is involved in whale conservation programs and conducts whale watch cruises during the season, though an extra fee is required. Free tickets for general admission are available from the Boston Public Library free ticket program. These free passes will admit up to four people from September–June and do not include admission to the IMAX Theater.
13. Free Lunch at Quincy Market (Haymarket)
Quincy Market is the place to eat at lunchtime in Boston. Don't argue. Just go there. You can book a table at your favorite Italian restaurant in the North End in the evening, but at noon, Quincy Market is where it's at.
In one long building are hundreds and hundreds of food stalls ranging from . . . ah forget it, just go. But wait a minute, you say. Food is not free, right? Well, every Wednesday, Quincy Market has their International Food Festival where you can sample foods for free at stalls bearing "The Taste of Quincy Market." Sure, they're not going to feed you a heaping plate of food, but sample enough from the variety of offers, and it'll keep you going until snack time.
14. Stargaze at Coit Observatory (Boston University)
Looking for a heavenly experience after an early dinner on a cloudless Wednesday evening? Take yourself and your family over to Boston University's Coit Observatory, where you can do a spot of stargazing through their telescopes and binoculars.
This is definitely one of those "weather permitting" activities, but it is available most of the year and begins after 7:30 pm. In the spring and summer, you can come after 8:30 pm. The public stargazing lasts for about one hour. Call 617-353-2630 ahead of time to confirm the free gaze is on for the night. Boston's weather is unpredictable, after all. Bring a sweater or coat too, since it's an outdoor event.
15. Get Lost in a Museum (Citywide)
I grew up in London, where most museums were free to visit. So when I came to Boston and found I had to pay for a museum, I was a little perplexed. After all, didn't they build the museums and purchase the artifacts with donations and taxpayer's dollars?
Well, I've long since understood the laws of economics and am not worried about paying for a trip to the museum. But with the drop in attendance, most museums have introduced opportunities to visit for free, though they are limited. These museums offer free hours on certain days and times. You can also participate in the public library's free ticket program.
Please note the free passes from the library program require you have a valid library card from the Boston Public Library.
Museums With Free Days in Boston
- Museum of Fine Arts: Free on Wednesday from 4:00 pm–9:45 pm.
- Museum of Science: The public library free-ticket program works here.
- Harvard University Art Museums: Free on Saturday from 10:00 am to noon (includes Fogg Museum, Arthur Sackler Museum and Busch-Reisinger Museum).
- Harvard Museum of Natural History: Free to Massachusetts residents on Sunday from 9:00 am to noon and Wednesdays from 3 to 5 pm (September–May). Also free to Bank of America cardholders on the first weekends of every month.
- Institute of Contemporary Art: Free on Thursday from 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm.
- Peabody Essex Museum (Salem): Free on the first Friday of the month from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
- Commonwealth Museum (Columbia Point): Free every day.
Entertainment for Nothing and Tickets for Free
Okay, so my apologies to Dire Straits. As much as I enjoy seeing a show or concert in Boston's Theater District, there's something mesmerizing about a performer on the street or an event like the 4th of July fireworks that makes you want to get involved.
The amount of work and time people contribute to practicing their performance or organizing these events which keep our spirits high and keep the fun in our hearts is staggering. Luckily, Boston has no shortage of free events to consider.
16. Harvard Square Entertainment (Cambridge)
Just a short "T" ride across the Charles River to Cambridge and Harvard Square, and you're planted in a different world of cafes, shops and meeting places with students and plenty of atmosphere.
For no fee at all, you can browse during the day, but the fun doesn't end there. When the sun goes down, the street performers come out in force, and the shops stay open late. So browse the bookstores and gift shops, find a cafe and listen to a singer/guitarist or watch in disbelief as the magicians and jugglers do their thing. Any way you dice it, you can't beat the price. Take the red line to Harvard Square.
17. Catch a Boston Event (Citywide)
The diversity of Boston and its heritage means there's always a parade, street festival or concert performance going on in the city most months.
Here's a quick rundown of just a few of the free events to do in Boston from spring through fall:
- Reenactment of Boston Massacre: March 5th at the Old State House
- St. Patrick's Day Parade: mid-March in South Boston
- Boston Marathon: third Monday in April in Copley Square
- Patriots Day Parade: third Monday in April at City Hall Plaza
- May Fair: May in Harvard Square, Cambridge
- Duckling Day Parade: second Sunday in May on Boston Common
- Hidden Gardens of Beacon Hill: third Thursday in May in Beacon Hill
- Street Performers Festival: late May at Faneuil Hall
- Performing Arts Series at Hatch Shell: June on the Esplanade
- Boston Seaport Festival: mid-June on the Boston Waterfront
- Scooper Bowl (Ice Cream Festival): early June at City Hall Plaza
- Dragon Boat Festival: second Sunday in June on the Charles River
- Cambridge River Festival: mid-June on the banks of the Charles River
- Boston Harborfest: July 4th week at the Boston Harbor
- Italian Feast days: July and August in the North End
- Boston Pops 4th of July Concert and Fireworks: July 4th on the Esplanade
- Annual Festival of Betances: late July in the South End
- Copley Square Concerts: July and August in Copley Square
- Boston Caribbean Carnival: third weekend in August in Franklin Park
- Boston Arts Festival: second weekend in September at various venues
- Feast of Saints Cosma & Damiano: late September in East Cambridge
- Boston Blues Festival: late September on the banks of the Charles River
- Boston Globe Book Day: mid-October in Back Bay
- Columbus Day Parade: early October in East Boston and Downtown
- Head of the Charles Regatta: late October in Cambridge
Then it gets too cold for me, and I look for inside stuff.
18. Free Movies at the Hatch Shell (The Esplanade)
The Hatch Shell is where the famous 4th of July celebrations take place with concerts and fireworks. The Shell is in an area along the Charles River known to locals as the Esplanade, which can be accessed by a footbridge from Beacon Hill.
Every Friday evening from mid-June through the end of August, you can see a popular family film under the stars for no cost at the Hatch Shell. People grab a blanket, some lawn chairs and a picnic and settle in for an evening of cinema.
You can even pick up a bag of popcorn (not free) from one of the many vendors catering to the audience.
When you've reached saturation point on the historic trails or your recall of which museums you visited yesterday is hazy, it's time to take a break from being a tourist and seek refuge and quiet in one of Boston's parks.
These playgrounds are not just for show but are recreational destinations for residents. Some are known only to the locals. In my view, these are the best free deals in town, as no matter how many times you visit, there's always a surprise lurking just around the next bend.
19. Emerald Necklace: Six of the City's Best Parks (West Boston)
The Emerald Necklace is a collection of six parks spread over six miles circling Boston's western neighborhoods. The parks are the Back Bay Fens, Riverway, Olmstead Park, Jamaica Park, Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park.
You can access the first park from Boylston Street near the Museum of Fine Arts. The parks include green open spaces, rivers, ponds, wildlife habitats, nature trails, shrubs, flowers, bridges and even a zoo at Franklin Park (though there is an admission fee for this).
Created by Frederick Law Olmstead, these jewels of Boston are a gift of the peoples of the city and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for all to enjoy.
20. Boston Common and Public Gardens (Beacon Hill/Downtown)
Boston Common is the oldest park in America and is where a colonist's sheep once grazed. Today, Frog Pond, sculptures, free summer theater performances and park benches shaded by maples provide an oasis in the surrounding concrete and red-brick structures of Massachusetts' capital city.
The Public Gardens are a short walk across Charles Street, which separates these two sections of Boston's major park. The gardens have a more formal layout, and the popular lagoon was added in 1871. The famous swan boats have been operating since 1877. The formal displays of flowers in spring and summer are splendid, but there are also plenty of deciduous trees that ensure showy fall foliage.
If you're around at lunchtime, do like everyone else does: purchase something from a vendor and spread out on the grass to catch some inner-city peace.
21. Blue Hills Reservation (Milton)
Just a 30-minute drive from the crowded waterfront attractions of downtown Boston is one of the best-kept secrets of this city, the Blue Hills Reservation. The park consists of 22 hills and 125 miles of trails covering an area of 7,000 acres.
Blue Hills is open year round from dawn to dusk, and activities include:
Downhill and Cross-Country Skiing
Swimming at Houghton Pond
The summit of Great Blue Hill is the reservation's high point at 635 feet and has an observation tower offering views of the Boston Skyline and surrounding countryside. Use of all the trails is free.
Tips on Getting Around Town
Plan A for getting around Boston is to walk. Seriously, that's my first choice, and of course, it's free. This is a small city, and just about everything here is within a reasonable walking distance of the downtown area. But realistically, there are some destinations that it's not really practical to walk to, and your legs will get tired before the end of the day unless you're training for the marathon.
So when you need to take the weight off your feet, go to Plan B, which is taking the "T." This is Boston's subway system, which is the oldest in the country. (At times, it shows.) But it mostly works, and the network will get you out to all the locations mentioned in this guide as well as back to your home base. It's not difficult to figure out and navigate, but . . . it isn't free. Sorry, but you have to buy tickets to use the subway.
And if you have a car? Park it in a garage and forget about it. You won't need it, and it'll be a terrible waste of your time and cause you hours of frustration trying to find your way around.
Most of all, enjoy these free things to do in Boston!
Help Me Keep This Article Current!
This article was started in February 2008. All the information was correct at that time, and I have done my best to update it as programs have changed over the years. Usually, people let me know by adding a comment or sending me an email. This is good, and I appreciate it.
However, if you intend to make use of any of the programs, please double-check first to ensure the program is still being offered or restrictions have not been introduced which could prohibit your eligibility for a free program.
I believe this to be the most complete list of free things to do in Boston you'll find on the web, and I'd like to keep adding to it as well as keep it accurate, so please keep sending in corrections.