The best free, family-friendly spring break attractions in America
The best free, family-friendly spring break attractions in America
Across the United States, school-age children will get a much-anticipated week off of classes known as spring break. The time period varies from coast to coast, but typically, spring break falls between late February and mid-April, with March being the peak period.
Parents of younger children in particular might be scrambling to come up with ways to entertain their kids during their week off. Whether you're jetting off on a dream family vacation and are looking for economical activities or you're simply taking one of the best spring weekend trips in America and want to save as much money as possible, many major U.S. cities have popular tourist attractions that are actually free to experience. These museums, zoos, gardens and more offer educational family fun without costing you anything for admission.
The Alamo (San Antonio, Texas)
If you're in Texas this spring break, remember the Alamo. This National Historic Landmark in San Antonio was the site of an infamous battle during the Texas Revolution that has become the stuff of legend. Entrance to the Alamo Church and grounds is free, though the site does offer a 45-minute interactive tour designed just for kids for an additional fee. The Alamo is also near other popular attractions, such as the San Antonio River Walk, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in America.
American Museum of Natural History (New York City, New York)
The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is one of the country's coolest museums, and though it charges admission when you pre-purchase, tickets are actually pay-what-you-wish if you buy them in-person on the day of your visit. The museum has posted suggested donation amounts for admission, and it might not seem like proper etiquette, but you can choose to forgo a donation and enter for free. The museum also offers free guided tours of its various exhibits and artifacts, which include dinosaur fossils, giant sequoia trees and Easter Island Rapa Nui statues.
Bellagio Water Show (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Many Las Vegas casinos and the world's most spectacular hotels loom larger than life and have world-famous reputations. While The Venetian is known for its gondolas and New York-New York has a roller coaster, the Bellagio is home to Nevada's top free attraction. The Fountains of Bellagio put on a free daily show that happens at either 15- or 30-minute intervals from midday until midnight. Water is shot up to 460 feet in the air during this dazzling display.
It's easy to spend an entire getaway in Birmingham focused on some of the most fabulous food and drink in Alabama, but for a relaxing and free foray into nature, head to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Open daily from dawn to dusk, this attraction is comprised of 30 total gardens spanning almost 68 acres, including a lily garden and crape myrtle garden.
Brooklyn Children's Museum (Brooklyn, New York)
If you're in New York and winter weather hasn't quite cleared out, the Brooklyn Children's Museum is a great place for kids to spend a day playing indoors. The world's first dedicated children's museum, it offers "pay as you wish" hours from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays, and while it might seem rude to some, you can pay nothing and enter for free. It has both permanent and rotating exhibits that cater to different ages and abilities, including a sensory room to serve children with autism spectrum disorder.
Cable Car Museum (San Francisco, California)
San Francisco is one of the 101 best weekend getaways in America, but it can be expensive. However, the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco is free. It documents the history of the California city's quintessential mode of transportation. Visitors can see antique cable cars from the 1870s before hopping on the modern cable car at the nearby Powell/Hyde or Powell/Mason cable car stops.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport Overlook (Charlotte, North Carolina)
If your children are interested in planes, the Charlotte Douglas International Airport Overlook in North Carolina is one of the few American airports with a designated public overlook area. Kids can get an amazing seat for watching planes come in and out of one of the busiest airports in the country. Along with benches and grass to spread out in, the overlook also gets food trucks that come out to sell snacks starting in the spring.
Jason E. Miczek for the Washington Post/Getty Images
Children's Museum Houston (Houston, Texas)
One of the most acclaimed children's museums in the country, the Children's Museum Houston offers free admission for Family Night, held every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The museum has something for kids aged from infants to upper elementary school, including a super-sized play city, an obstacle and ropes course and an inventor's workshop. This exciting, play-friendly museum is right up there with the best places in America for indoor fun.
Como Zoo & Conservatory (Saint Paul, Minnesota)
Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in Minnesota is open 365 days a year and is always free. Whether your kids are animal-lovers, plant-lovers or both, they'll enjoy the gorgeous gardens and more than 60 species of animals from around the world.
Denver Art Museum (Denver, Colorado)
America is home to plenty of world-class art museums, but not many of them are enticing spring break destinations for young children. However, the Denver Art Museum offers lots of kid-focused programming, including extra activities during spring break. All spring break activities are included in general admission, which is always free for kids 18 and younger.
Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum/Mark Borghi Fine Art, New York, NY
Desert Botanical Garden (Phoenix, Arizona)
You might not think of the desert as the best place to see beautiful blooms, but Arizona is home to some of America's most underrated parks and gardens, including the Desert Botanical Garden. It has multiple trails that wind through gardens of wildflowers, cacti and more amazing native plants. While the garden typically charges admission, visitors can come for free all day the second Tuesday of every month.
Courtesy of Desert Botanical Garden
Embarcadero (San Diego, California)
There are many inexpensive ways to have fun in the vibrant coastal town of San Diego, including visiting the Embarcadero. Spanish for "dock," the Embarcadero area along the San Diego harbor is home to many historic monuments, landmarks and sculptures. Visitors can watch the ships, have a picnic or fish off the pier. To beat the heat, kids can splash around in Waterfront Park's lengthy fountain with jets and wading areas.
Located in the heart of downtown Boston, Faneuil Hall Marketplace includes Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, North Market and South Market. This historic marketplace is bustling with dining and shopping as well as street performers such as musicians, magicians, acrobats, contortionists and more who perform for tips. Free outdoor activities at Faneuil Hall also include chess games and lessons, arts and crafts, workout classes and more, and are just a few of the reasons why this spot is one of the most-visited tourist spots in America.
Golden Gate Park (San Francisco, California)
The Golden Gate Bridge might be the most photographed bridge in the world, but you and your family would be missing out if you simply snapped a pic without exploring nearby Golden Gate Park. One of the places everyone should visit in a lifetime, this park sprawls across more than 1,000 acres and beside trails for walking and biking, the park has plenty of cool free amenities, like an archery range and a skate park. As for other attractions, the Conservatory of Flowers is free for children 4 and under and the Japanese Tea Garden is free for kids 5 and under.
Griffith Observatory (Los Angeles, California)
You might recognize Griffith Observatory as a Hollywood filming location you can actually visit. The Los Angeles landmark has appeared in everything from "Rebel Without a Cause" to "La La Land." But there's much more to Griffith Observatory than its photogenic exterior. Admission to the observatory building, grounds and telescopes is always free. This includes many exciting exhibits about space as well as solar telescopes to look at the sun during the daytime as well as telescopes to admire stars and other astronomical events in the night sky.
Honda Heritage Center (Marysville, Ohio)
If you or your kids are car lovers, there's a free attraction for you. Marysville, Ohio, located outside of Columbus, is home to the Honda Heritage Center, a free museum with historic and vintage Honda vehicles. Visitors can also take a free auto plant tour and see the car manufacturing process first-hand.
Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
Philadelphia is one of 50 destinations you should visit before you turn 50 because of its historical significance. Get your kids started early by planning a visit to the free Independence National Historical Park. It includes Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed, and the iconic American symbol: the Liberty Bell.
International Rose Test Garden (Portland, Oregon)
Portland is one of those cities that really come alive in the springtime. It's known as "the City of Roses," so it's only fitting that a family outing in this Oregon city would include a stop at the International Rose Test Garden. Founded in 1917, it is the oldest official continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States. It's home to 10,000 roses and offers views of downtown and Mount Hood. The roses can begin blooming as early as April, so those with later spring break dates will be in luck to catch the beautiful blooms.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Kubota Garden (Seattle, Washington)
Take a free trip to Japan - or what feels like one - when you visit Seattle's Kubota Garden. This American hidden gem is a 20-acre Japanese garden that includes native Northwest plants. It has plenty of streams, waterfalls, ponds, bridges and more for families to explore.
Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, Illinois)
Chicago may be one of the most expensive destinations in America, but there is free fun to be had in the Windy City. Look no further than the Lincoln Park Zoo. Visitors to this zoo will forget they're in the Midwest as Lincoln Park Zoo transports them around the world to see some of the planet's most amazing animals, all for free. Home to more than 1,000 animals, this zoo is sure to have your child's favorite species. Kids can also see zookeepers feed the seals and tropical birds and communicate and work with gorillas.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park (Atlanta, Georgia)
Atlanta is a city that is surprisingly affordable. For a free, important educational activity in this Georgia city, head to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. Take free ranger-led tours at sites in the park such as the International World Peace Rose Gardens, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birth home, historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center.
The most visited tourist attraction in Illinois, Millenium Park is home to one of the most famous landmarks in America, the Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known as "the Bean." It has plenty of other free sights to offer visitors as well, including a 3.5-acre urban garden, art exhibitions and Crown Fountain, an interactive video sculpture that shoots water and will delight children. Millennium Park is also next door to the new Maggie Daley Park, which has a whimsical 3-acre playground.
New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park (New Orleans, Louisiana)
After enjoying some of the best food and drink in all of Louisiana, no visit to New Orleans would be complete without listening to some jazz. And the city actually has its own national park dedicated to jazz that's free to visit. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park preserves and celebrates this musical style with regular jazz performances, lectures, films and exhibits. Families can also take multiple free, self-guided jazz walking tours using maps and guides available here.
Home to some of the most spectacular beaches in the world, Hawaii is a hot spring break destination for many families. There are so many things to see and do across the Hawaiian islands, but for a free, family-friendly cultural activity, check out the Royal Hawaiian Center in Honolulu. This shopping mall is actually home to the most active event space in Waikiki, The Royal Grove. Every day, the Royal Grove hosts free activities including hula, lei-making and ukulele lessons as well as free live entertainment.
While St. Louis' most iconic landmark is the Gateway Arch, this city is also home to a fantastic free museum that's a great option for Midwesterners. The Saint Louis Science Center is a free, non-profit museum, though it does offer additional ticketed attractions. Its hands-on areas include a garden where kids can learn how their food is grown and a fossil exhibit where they can dig for dinosaur bones.
The Smithsonian Museums (Washington, DC)
On top of being one of the safest cities in the world, Washington, D.C., is rich in museums that make wonderful affordable family destinations. Admission is free for all Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History and more. Kids will enjoy getting up close and personal with bugs, learning about fossils and strolling through the butterfly pavilion at the National Museum of Natural History or gawking at the collection of planes and spaceships at the National Air and Space Museum.
One of the best zoos in the country is both free and open 364 days a year, making it a top spring break destination for animal lovers. Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian's National Zoo is home to 2,700 animals, including cheetahs, lions, gorillas, elephants and the zoo's most famous residents, giant pandas Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and baby Bei Bei.
South Congress Bridge bats (Austin, Texas)
Between its amazing bars and restaurants, outdoor activities and live music scene, Austin is one of the top spring vacation destinations in Texas. For a memorable, unique and free activity in Austin, cozy up to a spot along the South Congress Bridge around dusk. Starting in March, more than 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats call this bridge their home. They emerge in a spectacular swarm every night between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., putting on an aerial display as they hunt for their dinner.
Staten Island Ferry (New York City, New York)
There are plenty of pricier harbor tours you can take in New York City, but to take in the skyline and cruise past the Statue of Liberty, you and your family can simply hop on the completely free Staten Island Ferry. This free ferry runs 24 hours a day between The Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan to St. George Terminal on Staten Island. The ride takes about 25 minutes and departs every 30 minutes, or every 15 minutes during weekday rush hour, which you should avoid if you want a leisurely ride. Trying to snap photos on a crowded ferry is one thing tourists do that locals hate.
USS Constitution and Museum (Boston, Massachusetts)
One of the best free museums in the U.S. is the USS Constitution Museum. This 1797 commissioned warship, nicknamed "Old Ironsides," is the oldest one in the world still afloat. Active-duty U.S. Navy members serve as the crew on the USS Constitution. They give oral presentations about the ship and can answer any questions you and your kids have. The ship itself is free to visit, while the museum has a suggested admission fee. Whether or not you visit during spring break, Boston is one of 50 American destinations every history buff should visit in their lifetime.
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