Bostonians are justifiably proud of their city. Founded in 1630, it’s one of the oldest permanently inhabited settlements in the U.S., and boasts an incredible stock of historical architecture to prove it. The undisputed economic capital of New England, Boston is home to headquarters or satellite offices of major companies such as Iron Mountain, New Balance, athenahealth, Liberty Mutual, and Boston Scientific. Along with surrounding communities, Boston also harbors top-tier research and education institutions, from Harvard and MIT, to the University of Massachusetts and Tufts.
Boston is a major tourist hub too. According to the city government, the city hosts more than 12 million visitors per year. Thanks to a busy international airport and a nearly unmatched cultural and historic pedigree – in the U.S., at least – many of these visitors come from overseas. Upon arrival, they’re greeted by a smorgasbord of attractions and diversions to fit every imaginable taste and personality. And though Boston has a reputation as a crowded, expensive coastal city, visitors enjoy a surprisingly robust array of fun, free, or nearly free attractions within or just beyond the city limits.
Whether you’re in Boston for a quick weekend getaway, a leisurely week-long vacation, or a business trip that includes some personal time, be sure to check out the many available budget-friendly sights and activities.
The Freedom Trail
If you walk around Boston long enough, you’re sure to stumble upon something of historic significance. If you’re looking to combine as many of the city’s historic high points as possible into a single morning or afternoon of adventuring, The Freedom Trail offers the best bang for your buck.
The 2.5-mile trail is an urban walking route marked by distinctive red-brick sidewalk pavers. It begins at Boston Common, the city’s answer to Central Park, and culminates at either Bunker Hill Monument or the USS Constitution, depending on how you walk it. Including the endpoints, it covers 16 sites of historic significance.
1. USS Constitution and Museum
The USS Constitution is a lovingly preserved and restored Navy vessel docked at the Charlestown Naval Yard. Built in 1794, the three-masted battleship saw extensive action in the War of 1812 and remained in service for nearly 90 years, earning the nickname “Old Ironsides” in the process.
It’s free to explore the ship’s decks, though security is tight and periodic restoration work may restrict access to certain areas. Free tours are given every 30 minutes, Tuesday through Sunday between 10am and 5:30pm from April 1st to September 30th, and from 10am to 3:30pm Tuesday through Sunday the rest of the year.
The nearby USS Constitution Museum, run by a private organization, features interpretive exhibits and detailed historical information about the ship. It’s technically free, though there’s a suggested donation of $5 to $10 at the door.
2. Bunker Hill Monument
Bunker Hill Monument, a 221-foot stone obelisk perched on a knoll above Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, commemorates the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. Due to a mapping error, the monument actually sits atop Breed’s Hill, not nearby Bunker Hill.
Regardless, it’s free to walk about the grounds of the monument, and the spot offers panoramic views of Boston, Cambridge, and neighboring communities. To learn more about the battle, check out the free Bunker Hill Museum, just across the street from the monument.
3. Paul Revere House
Amid the red-brick walk-ups of Boston’s densely packed North End, wood-sided Paul Revere House sticks out like a sore thumb. Built in 1680, it’s the oldest original house in central Boston and an ode to the man who, a century later, famously rode through the night to warn fellow colonists that the British army was on the march. To access the impeccably preserved interior, adults need to pay a $3.50-per-person admission fee (students get in for $3 each), but you can get a good sense of the house’s scale and construction from the outside as well.
4. Faneuil Hall
Built in 1741, Faneuil Hall hosted some of the most consequential meetings of the colonial era and effectively became the political birthplace of the American Revolution. It’s still used as an event space to this day, with annual citizenship ceremonies for immigrants and political events like the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Admission is free.
5. Site of the Boston Massacre
The Boston Massacre was one of the most consequential confrontations of the colonial era. In 1770, a dispute between a private citizen and British soldier turned violent, culminating in a firefight that killed several colonists. The so-called massacre was effectively the point of no return for relations between the Brits and the colonists, and was a major justification for the full-blown war that would begin a few years later. Today, the site of the massacre is marked by a ring of stones and hosts annual reenactments of the fateful day.
6. Old South Meeting House
Like Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House proved critical in laying the groundwork for the colonists’ revolt. Built in 1729, the old Puritan meeting house was for a time the largest structure in the entire city. Its biggest claim to fame is that in 1773, it hosted the angry citizens’ meeting that led directly to the infamous Boston Tea Party. Though admission costs $6 per adult and $5 per student, it’s worth entering to get a sense of the structure’s historic touches and scale – all the more impressive given its age.
7. King’s Chapel and Burying Ground
Built in the early 1750s, King’s Chapel is an imposing colonial house of worship that still puts on Anglican services today. It’s free to enter and explore, though it’s best to check the worship schedule before visiting. The adjacent burial ground is the final resting place of many colonial-era elites, including Mayflower voyager Mary Chilton and first Massachusetts governor John Winthrop.
8. Park Street Church
Built in 1809, Park Street Church is new by the standards of Boston’s old churches. Its 217-foot steeple is eye-catching and nearly unmatched among structures of its era. The church is also famous for playing a key role in the 19th-century abolitionist movement, serving as the de facto spiritual home of famed anti-slavery campaigner William Lloyd Garrison. An active Congregationalist church today, it’s free to enter and explore – just be mindful of the worship schedule.
9. Massachusetts State House
Completed in 1798, the gold-domed Massachusetts State House sits on a nearly seven-acre parcel in the heart of Boston, adjacent to the exclusive Beacon Hill neighborhood. Paul Revere, long removed from his messenger days, actually laid the first metal dome on the structure.
To get the full measure of the State House, view the front steps and entrance from across the street, then walk into the public rotunda. Admission to the public areas is free, as are guided or self-guided tours. Don’t miss the Sacred Cod, a five-foot wooden cod statue that has kept watch over the Massachusetts halls of state government since the 18th century.
Parks and Natural Areas
Despite its crowded cityscape, Boston has plenty of grassy and wide-open spaces. It’s particularly proud of the Emerald Necklace, a string of parks beginning at Boston Common and winding through the city’s outer neighborhoods. Plus, there are miles of waterfront to explore, including several beautiful sand beaches.
10. Boston Common
Located in the heart of the city, Boston Common is Boston’s answer to Central Park, though it’s quite a bit smaller – about 50 acres total. First laid out in the 1630s, it’s the oldest city park in the United States. Its colorful history features public executions, cattle grazing, troop encampments, and civil unrest.
Today, Boston Common is much quieter – a leafy oasis in the middle of a bustling business district. It’s free to enter and use at any time of the day or night and hosts free music performances on many summer evenings.
11. Public Garden
Though the Public Garden is immediately adjacent to the Common, and the two are often conflated, they’re actually distinct entities with very different vibes. The Public Garden is the country’s first public botanical garden, its paved pathways designed to lead visitors on a journey through native and ornamental vegetation and landscape features that sparkle at any time of year.
Take refuge on one of the many benches beneath towering willows and oaks, or pause on a bridge and watch Boston’s famous mallards herd their chicks. Like the Common, the Public Garden is free to access.
12. Charles River Esplanade
The Charles River Esplanade runs just east and northeast of the Common and Public Garden. The Esplanade itself is a straight, grand riverfront pathway along a grassy, shady bank. This is a great area to take photos of the Boston skyline or try your luck at shore fishing, if you can procure the right equipment. The Hatch Memorial Shell, a centrally located bandstand here, puts on free summer evening shows. Be careful crossing Storrow Drive, the fast, narrow highway separating the Esplanade from the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.
13. Boston HarborWalk
The Boston HarborWalk is a series of mostly separated, paved pathways winding for miles along Boston Harbor and adjoining inlets. Parts of it are rather industrial, but there are plenty of public beaches, waterfront parks, and historic districts too.
Many of the high points lie just south of central Boston, including the area around the mouth of the Neponset River, the sheltered M Street Beach along Old Harbor, and Dorchester Basin and the adjacent campus of UMass-Boston. If you prefer building-side murals, art galleries, cute cafes, and historic architecture, stick to the HarborWalk’s northern stretch.
14. Pleasure Bay
Pleasure Bay, a circular, sheltered body of water surrounded by parks and beaches, is easily accessible from the HarborWalk. It’s definitely worth spending a couple of hours strolling around the bay – start at M Street Beach, head out along the Head Island Causeway, gaze in awe at Fort Independence on Castle Island (a 19th-century military installation that’s free to enter and explore), and head back to Marine Park and the mainland.
15. Franklin Park and Zoos
527-acre Franklin Park is the biggest jewel in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York’s Central Park, it’s more woodsy and natural-feeling than the city’s other major parks. Entry to Franklin Park is free, but its two zoos do charge admission – $19.95 for adults at Franklin Park Zoo and $15.95 for adults at nearby Stone Zoo.
16. Harvard Yard
Few college quads are more famous than Harvard Yard. The historic heart of Harvard University, this shady, 22-acre expanse is bounded by several buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. During the school year, it’s a hub of activity for the university’s students and faculty. During the summer, sightseers and prospective students abound. It’s free to enter through one of the 27 gates leading out to surrounding streets or other parts of campus.
17. Back Bay Fens, Fenway Park, and Riverway
Fenway Park is not usually a cheap or free Boston attraction. Great seats at or near field level run $100 or more, even when the Red Sox are playing less popular teams. However, at $10 to $30, the upper bleachers and standing-room seats can fit into a budget-friendly Boston vacation without breaking the bank. If you can’t catch a game, opt for a Fenway Park tour instead for $12 to $18 per person.
Even if you don’t make it to a game, the area around Fenway Park is beautiful – and free. Check out the Back Bay Fens, a verdant park area lining a picturesque urban stream, and the Riverway, a continuation of the same green space on the other side of Fenway. If you’re taking a fitness vacation in this part of Boston, the trails along the creek here are excellent for jogging and biking, particularly around Leverett and Jamaica Ponds.
18. Revere Beach
As a four-season town, Boston’s beaches aren’t pleasant year-round. In summer though, youthful Revere Beach is a great place to relax on the sand, dive into the waves, and people-watch. This being Boston, even Revere Beach has historic cred as America’s first public beach. Entry is free, and you can avoid parking fees by taking transit directly from central Boston.
Neighborhoods and Local Sights
Thanks to the city’s legendary compactness, travelers can hit multiple distinct neighborhoods in the course of a leisurely stroll around Boston. Once you’ve had your fill of the town’s history and natural beauty, get a feel for its eclectic present in these vibrant, unique neighborhoods.
19. North End
Located across Interstate 93 from Boston’s financial district, the North End is a densely populated cluster of red-brick walk-ups famous for its Italian immigrant influence. Check out Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, then wind your way through the confusing streetscape to any of the dozens of corner taverns and eateries that keep the neighborhood fueled.
20. Beacon Hill
With notable residents such as former Massachusetts Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as the Governor of Massachusetts, Beacon Hill is the past and present home of Boston’s elite. As you walk up and down the neighborhood’s hills, passing handsome townhouses along the way, keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of the gold-domed State House. Rest your legs at Ashburton Park or Louisburg Square.
Boston’s Chinatown can’t rival San Francisco’s or New York’s in size, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Washington Street, Beach Street, Tyler Street, Hudson Street, and Harrison Avenue are particularly fruitful for those seeking affordable dim sum, small-plate Cantonese dumplings served in a dizzying variety of styles – typically at $3 to $6 per plate. Chinatown Park offers a nice respite as well.
Technically two neighborhoods, Allston-Brighton nestles into a broad bend of the Charles River, nearly cut off from the rest of Boston by Interstate 90 and the city of Brookline. Allston-Brighton’s housing stock – mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is new by Boston standards, but no less appealing to the eye.
Sometimes called “Allston Rock City,” the district is known for its live music venues and watering holes. Venues such as Brighton Music Hall offer affordable evening shows, sometimes with no cover.
23. Jamaica Plain
Located southwest of central Boston, Jamaica Plain is a working- and middle-class neighborhood nestled amid several Emerald Necklace parks. In addition to its ample green space, the neighborhood is renowned for repurposed industrial and warehouse properties, as well as a vibrant Latin American culture that supports dozens of affordable eateries and bodegas. Victorian houses built at the turn of the 20th century abound here, though most are privately owned and aren’t open for tours.
While in Jamaica Plain, don’t miss the Footlight Theatre, the country’s oldest community theater. Tickets typically range from $17 to $20 per performance, though some special performances may command a premium.
24. South Boston
Known locally as “Southie,” South Boston is an Irish-American stronghold with proud local traditions and deep-rooted neighborhood institutions. Though it’s safe to visit today, Southie has a sordid and grotesquely appealing past – most famously as the personal fiefdom of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, whose life and times loosely inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film “The Departed” (and whose brother, ironically, was a Massachusetts state senator and one-time president of the University of Massachusetts). If you visit during March, don’t miss the legendary St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Wedged between the Mystic River and Boston Harbor, Charlestown is a picturesque neighborhood characterized by 19th-century red-brick rowhouses and rugged hillocks with great views of central Boston. After visiting Bunker Hill or the USS Constitution, take a stroll through Charlestown’s side streets and stop for a cheap bite to eat at historic Warren Tavern, a local hotspot since 1780.
Cambridge isn’t technically a Boston neighborhood – it’s a proudly independent city in its own right. However, it’s located just across the Charles River from the Back Bay, Allston-Brighton, and Beacon Hill, close enough to the city to function as a cohesive part of the whole. It’s also home to some of the Boston area’s top attractions, including the campuses of Harvard and MIT.
Cambridge’s power lies in its neighborhood squares, each of which functions as a local downtown for the surrounding area. Each square is slightly different – for instance, Lechmere Square is a popular shopping destination, Central Square is a miniature financial district, and Harvard Square is awash in history. In nice weather, Cambridge’s riverfront is a treat to walk along as well.
Located just north of Cambridge and northwest of Charlestown, Somerville is another independent city with a distinct identity. A former industrial settlement that suffered through a long period of economic stagnation in the 20th century, Somerville today is a vibrant, offbeat destination that’s increasingly popular with young professionals.
Davis Square has a dense concentration of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, many of which have affordable happy hours. Assembly Square is a great place to find discounts on clothing and consumer staples.
Arts, Culture, and Entertainment
Boston’s historic heft is nearly matched by its cultural cachet. The city is home to dozens of world-class arts, culture, and entertainment institutions that appeal to people of all tastes and ages – and many are surprisingly affordable or outright free. Here’s a representative sample of what Boston has to offer in this department.
28. Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Museum of Fine Arts Boston – or, as it’s known locally, MFA – occupies an imposing classical structure near the Back Bay Fens. Founded in 1876, the museum holds more than 450,000 individual pieces of art spanning virtually every major period and culture. The recently expanded contemporary gallery is particularly noteworthy, as is the museum’s extensive evening programming. Admission sets you back $25 per adult, but what’s inside is well worth the price.
29. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston
Pitched out over South Boston’s deep harbor, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (ICAB) cuts an imposing figure. For the $15-per-adult price of admission, you can view some of the edgiest and most mind-expanding pieces of modern art on display anywhere in the world. ICAB anchors a bustling section of South Boston, so be sure to allocate some time for on-foot exploration before or after your visit.
30. Boston Art Commission and Public Art Boston
If you want to take in some high culture but don’t want to venture indoors, check out the Boston Art Commission‘s interactive map of public art installations, murals, sculptures, and pop-up displays around the city. The selection changes frequently, so you quite literally never know what you’re going to find.
31. Commonwealth Museum
The state-run Commonwealth Museum is a loving ode to the history and culture of Massachusetts. The signature exhibit features an in-depth look at the state’s pre- and post-independence history, with artifacts and interpretive displays to illustrate. Admission is free.
32. Boston Public Library
If you want access to hard-to-find volumes on Boston’s history or architecture, visit one of the Boston Public Library‘s 24 branches. The library system also offers an impressive lineup of indoor and outdoor classes, seminars, talks, and performances throughout the week. If you’re looking for a break from sightseeing, check the schedule at your nearest branch.
33. Museum of African-American History
The Museum of African-American History, sits just two or three blocks from the Massachusetts State House. It features art, artifacts, and interpretive exhibits highlighting the history and contributions of Massachusetts’s African-American population.
A satellite location in Nantucket, a popular summer island destination, commemorates Nantucket’s thriving colonial and post-independence population of free African-Americans. Admission is free in Boston and $5 in Nantucket.
34. Gibson House Museum
The Gibson House Museum is an impeccably preserved 19th-century brownstone on Beacon Street, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Home to successive generations of the Gibsons, a prominent merchant family, the four-story rowhouse is a relic to patrician Boston. In addition to 18th- and 19th-century furniture, the Gibson House features stunning sculptures, paintings, and other artifacts from the family’s travels around the world.
To minimize impact, visitors aren’t allowed to roam freely around the house – visits are by guided tour only. Tours happen Wednesday through Sunday at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm. Admission is $9 for adults and $6 for students.
35. Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society‘s Back Bay headquarters features a rotating slate of historical exhibits, most focused on the state’s colonial and early post-independence history, as well as lively event programming. Admission is free. The Society also sponsors on-location events around Boston, most of which are free and open to the public.
When to Visit Boston and What to Bring
Visitors to Boston can reliably expect to encounter unpredictable weather, dense crowds, and lots of walking. With that in mind, the bag you pack for your trip to Boston should include the following items:
- Weather-Appropriate Clothing. Boston’s four-season climate features oppressive summers and cold, famously snowy winters. In summer, bring breathable cotton clothing – more than one change per day if you plan on walking extensively. In winter, pair a heavy, waterproof coat with under-layers that you can easily shed as you move indoors, plus a hat, gloves, scarf, and possibly face mask. In spring and fall, take the layers and leave the heavy coat at home.
- Rain Gear. Soaking rain is possible at any time of year in Boston, and torrential thunderstorms are common in summer. Snow is frequent and sometimes occurs without warning during the winter months. No matter when you visit, take an umbrella and raincoat. Consider a waterproof or water-resistant bag as well.
- Comfortable Footwear. Many of Boston’s historic and cultural sights are best seen on foot, so bring a sturdy pair of sneakers or running shoes. If you plan on going out on the town, make sure your evening footwear is comfortable too.
Boston’s climate and tourist seasons are likely to influence when you visit the city, unless your employer’s schedule or other circumstances force you to travel at a particular time. Weather-wise, the best times to visit Boston are the shoulder seasons – late April through early June and mid-September through late October. Crowd-wise, the best times to visit are non-holiday parts of the cold season, roughly November through early April.
Keep in mind that spring and fall are unpredictable in coastal New England – the temperature can hit 80 as early as March and as late as November, but it can also snow for Easter and Halloween.
How to Get Around Boston
As its myriad attractions from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries attest, Boston is an old city. Much of central Boston was built out prior to the invention of the automobile. Ditto for dense, close-in satellite towns like Cambridge and Somerville. Though some Boston residents do use private cars to get around on a daily basis, the city is one of the least car-friendly (but most walker-friendly) communities in the United States.
For visitors, parking is a serious hassle, with a strict permitting system that all but closes off some neighborhoods to nonresident drivers looking to park their cars on the street. If you drive a car into Boston, you can expect to pay hefty parking fees, ranging from $0.50 per hour in long-term or commuter garages to more than $3 per hour in street spaces or centrally located garages. And, if you’re playing the street parking game, budget for parking tickets ($15 to $120, depending on the violation) and possibly towing fees ($100 or more).
MBTA (The “T”)
Fortunately, Boston has an excellent public transit system overseen by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Between the cost of gas for stop-and-go city driving, street or garage parking rates, and the ever-present threat of tickets, riding public transit is likely to be cheaper and more predictable than driving.
The MBTA system is extremely comprehensive, consisting of the following:
- Five subway or at-grade intracity rail lines, commonly referred to as the “T”
- A dozen commuter rail lines
- More than 100 bus routes
- Several commuter ferries
The MBTA’s mobile-friendly website has interactive schedules and trip-planning features that can help you get from point A to point B on the fly.
If you’re not going to be in Boston for very long, or are planning on walking most places and only occasionally using transit, purchase a single-use, paper CharlieTicket at a station payment kiosk prior to each bus or train trip. CharlieTickets are good for one bus or train fare, with a $0.50 to $0.60 surcharge added at the point of sale.
If you’re planning on using transit more often, purchase a reloadable CharlieCard at the station instead. These plastic, RFID-enabled cards are free to purchase and never come with a surcharge when loading funds onto them. You can also load your CharlieCard online, meaning you don’t have to venture out to a payment kiosk.
CharlieCard holders get the added perk of an annually updated MBTA discount coupon book, good for discounts at restaurants, stores, and points of interest around Boston. You can download a PDF version of the book online or pick up a physical copy at most MBTA stations.
Biking and Bikesharing
Despite its crowded streets, aggressive drivers, and unpredictable weather, Boston is an increasingly bike-friendly city. Dozens of miles of separated paths and protected lanes follow many of the city’s main arteries, creating a fun, healthy, cheap transportation network for locals and visitors alike.
If you don’t have access to a friend’s bike, consider using Hubway, Boston’s popular bikesharing program. Hubway is membership-based, meaning you have to sign up for a membership plan (which you can do online or at one of Hubway’s 140-plus stations scattered around the Boston area) to check out a bike. Hubway offers one-day ($6), three-day ($12), monthly ($20), and annual ($85) plans, making it easy to choose the option that best balances cost and time horizon.
Rides also have a per-30-minute cost. Rides shorter than 30 minutes are free, but subsequent half-hour segments rapidly become costly – up to $8 per half-hour for rides longer than 90 minutes. If you’re taking a long ride around the city, it definitely pays to plan your route in advance and make sure you hit a station at least every 30 minutes.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
As a major city, Boston is a hub for ridesharing and carsharing. In fact, nearby Cambridge hosts carsharing giant Zipcar’s world headquarters. Ridesharing companies Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar all operate in Boston as well. Zipcar is great for trips to destinations that aren’t served by reliable transit, including far-flung beaches and most inland nature preserves, while Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are all reliable (and often cheaper) alternatives to taxi service.
Ridesharing and carsharing operating procedures and costs vary by company. If you anticipate needing a ridesharing service in Boston, prepare by downloading all three companies’ free apps – you only have to pay if you hail a ride. In addition to its hourly rates (starting at $7.79 per hour and capped at $79 per day), Zipcar’s “occasional driving” plan assesses a $25 one-time application fee and $70 annual membership fee, so it’s not advisable to sign up unless you plan to use it in your hometown, as well.
Though I grew up in New England, just a few hours from Boston by car, I can count on one hand the number of times I visited the city before I turned 18. When I did, it was mainly to see its most popular tourist attractions, some of which are mentioned here, and then retreat to more familiar territory.
It was only after I got older and began visiting friends who’d moved to Boston that I started to appreciate the city’s unique heritage and eclectic culture, the way it deftly blends the old, the new, the foreign, and the wholly unexpected into something transcendent and unmistakably American. It’s impossible to put a price tag on Boston’s role in shaping American history, its contemporary meaning and cultural relevance, or the promise it offers to an uncertain world. That makes its budget-friendly cityscape all the more remarkable – and definitely worth seeing for yourself.
What’s your favorite budget-friendly Boston attraction?