10 Cities on a Shoestring Budget

Get away without going broke and take in the cheap — or free — family sites.

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No. 10: San Diego, California

When good weather is as plentiful as it is in San Diego, you don't need much else to enjoy the laid-back, SoCal vibe and miles of welcoming coastline. There is much more to see here than just the famous and fabulous, though somewhat pricey, San Diego Zoo and Sea World, (though we won't deny it  those are worth the trip). Here are some alternative, equally awesome places to kick back and enjoy some quality family time in the sun for next to nothing:

  • Balboa Park
    Free. This 1,500-acre park is a favorite for visitors and locals alike, with wide open spaces, funky flora, miles of walking trails, a train ride, and 15 museums on the premises. Each of these attractions charges its own admission fee, some as little as $2 for kids; others can be pricey.
  • La Jolla Shores
    Free. What more do you need than a sandy spot on a great, family-friendly beach in a simply fantastic San Diego neighborhood? Consider stoking up some barbeque in one of the beach's several, also-free fire pits, but you might need to save your spot somewhat early in the day.

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No. 9: Asheville, Carolina Mountains

The North Carolina Mountains are a special place, offering beautiful views along with a quirky, quaint, and colorful town in Asheville. An adventure here won't break the bank; many of its most enticing attractions are in its outdoor activities, but even those with admission fees tend to keep them on the reasonable side.

  • Looking Glass Falls.
  • Free. There are waterfalls to behold all along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but this one is a real beauty, and well worth getting out of the car for a closer look. Wading and climbing on the rocks is welcome, as is snapping a gorgeous souvenir photo.
  • Sliding Rock
  • $1 to enter. Way cheaper than a water park and definitely an adventure, visit this ever-popular spot in Brevard where you can slip and slide hard and fast across slippery rocks into a clear six-foot-deep pool. Kids under seven will need to slide with a parent.
  • Thomas Wolfe Memorial
  • $1 for adults, 50 cents for students and children. Visit the childhood home of one of the greats of 20th century American literature. Teens familiar with Wolfe from high school English class will be enthralled to learn where the inspiration came from for several of Wolfe's most memorable settings and characters. This is where you "can't go home" to, as in "You Can't Go Home Again."

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No. 8: Washington, D.C.

Your tax dollars are hard at work here in our nation's capital, where you'll be sure to marvel at the buildings and monuments and perhaps renew your sense of American pride. As you might expect, many attractions are free and open to the public, including several must-sees, such as:

  • The Capitol Building
    Free. See where the laws get made, and perhaps have an up-close-and-personal encounter with a Congress member, but whatever you do, don't miss the National Statuary Hall's "whispering gallery."
  • The National Air and Space Museum
    Free. Aviation lovers and kids with a mechanical bent will be in awe at this enormous museum, part of the Smithsonian Institute, filled with life-size aircraft, a planetarium, movie theater and even flight simulators. The theater and planetarium shows cost about $8 each.
  • The National Museum of American History
    Free. Endless artifacts offer something for everyone in the family at this must-visit arm of the Smithsonian. Jewels from the annals of pop culture are especially engaging for teens.

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No. 7: Southern Utah

Ok, Southern Utah isn't really a city as much as an area  a breathtaking and unforgettable area, of the American Southwest. Aside from national park fees  generally $25 per vehicle, per park  you'll pay nothing to see some of the most incredible sights in the country and make memories with your family sure to last a lifetime.

  • Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park.
  • Free. Walk the entire 11 miles, or a more accessible, flat, one-mile section to take in incredible views of Bryce Amphitheater and Fairyland, with stratified rock formations that are right out of a "Star Wars" movie.
  • Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Free. Try a more challenging, less crowded hike that offers a chance to marvel at the pink-and-orange hued spires sticking up like inverted icicles out of the Utah landscape.
  • Emerald Pools, Zion National Park
  • Free. Take an easy or moderate hike to see a series of tranquil pools and waterfalls in one of Utah's must-see national parks. There's no swimming allowed, but you can catch the spray to cool off in some spots, and you're bound to get a beautiful photograph.
  • West Rim Trail, Zion National Park
  • Free. This is a highlight of any trip to Zion for a courageous hiker. The trail's steep ascent to Angel's Landing makes it appropriate for older, experienced kids who don't mind heights and can handle a four-hour round-trip.

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No. 6: St. Louis, Missouri

Catch the spirit of this friendly Midwestern city where you'll be pleased to find a plethora of things to do and see that are just perfect for families. And best of all  many of them are 100 percent free. You might want to spring for the trip to the top of St. Louis' world-famous Gateway Arch ($10-$20 per person) but beyond that, there's heavy fun to be had that's light on the pocketbook.

  • Forest Park
    Free. Most of the attractions in this expansive park are free, not the least of which is the incredible St. Louis Zoo. (Don't miss the penguins or the carousel.) The park also offers biking trails, ball fields, a science center, and playgrounds, playgrounds, playgrounds.
  • Grant's Farm
    Free; though parking in the lot is $10 per car. A tram and petting zoo are the big draw for young children at this, the ancestral home of the Busch (as in, Anheuser-Busch) family. Majestic Clydesdale horses are housed in barns near the entrance, which will delight horse lovers.
  • National Great Rivers Museum
    Free. Budding scientists and engineers will love to learn about the history of the Mississippi River and how locks and dams work at this fascinating  and free - museum about 20 minutes outside downtown St. Louis. Tours, interactive exhibits, and a wading fountain make this especially fun for older kids, school-age and up.

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No. 5: Boston, Massachusetts

Beautiful Beantown is great for strolling, with historic landmarks galore that you can take in for free all over the city. Many of these lie along the mostly-free Freedom Trail, from the graveyard where Paul Revere is buried to that famously gorgeous park, Boston Common. But put on your walking shoes and hit a few more bargain attractions you may not know about:

  • Faneuil Hall Marketplace
    Free.The building itself, built in 1742, and significantly expanded marketplace together form one of the most heavily touristed attractions in the United States. A wander into and around it is free, though you may be tempted to indulge in a bowl of clam chowder or pick up a souvenir Red Sox cap at one of its many stalls and eateries.
  • The Longfellow House
    $3 for adults, free for kids 15 and under. Hop over the bridge to nearby Cambridge, Mass., and step back in time with a visit to the former home of 19th-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Be aware, the house is closed for the winter months but the gardens and grounds remain open year-round. The house opens its doors again in the spring.
  • Boston Children's Museum
    $1 every Friday from 5-9 p.m. on Target $1 Friday Nights program.This is one of the nation's most popular children's museums and offers intriguing exhibits for kids of all ages. Admission is always just $1 for those under a year old, but get the whole family in for just a buck per person on Target-sponsored $1 Friday evenings.

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No. 4: Seattle, Washington

The outdoor beauty of the Pacific Northwest is its main attraction, making it almost unnecessary to go inside at all. But there are plenty of both in Seattle, from the original Nordstrom's department store to walks or drives around one of the city's many lakes and bays. Don't miss:

  • Pike Place Market
    Free.This famous indoor-outdoor marketplace offers the quintessential Seattle experience. Sample local seafood, pick up cool souvenirs or simply watch the fish-throwers at work.
  • Olympic Sculpture Park
    Free.Enjoy a gorgeous view from this free, waterfront park and permanent outdoor art exhibition. Larger-than-life sculptures and plenty of space to roam are great for energetic little ones, and a cafe and pavilion offer respite on chilly days.
  • Museum of Flight
    Free the first Thursday of each month.Plan your visit to take advantage of free admission to this amazing museum, actually located in nearby Tukwila, Washington. Aviation fans will be captivated by the plethora of planes, plus interactive exhibits and models kids can climb on.

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No. 3: San Antonio, Texas

It's more than just the Alamo. But even this must-see, historical place offers free admission in San Antonio, one of the nation's most popular family vacation spots. Don't miss:

  • El Mercado
    Free.A lively atmosphere and colorful merchandise makes El Mercado a must-do when in town. From maracas to pinatas there's plenty to look at and enjoy but best of all, you can get some tasty tacos or enchiladas for a great price to complement your new sombrero.
  • The Alamo
    Free.That's right, folks. San Antonio's prime attraction is free. History comes to life for kids and adults alike in this fascinating old mission where the epic battle of 1836 took place. Afterwards, stroll the beautiful Alamo gardens, and visit the gift shop.
  • San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
    Free to enter the park; bicycle rentals optional ($10-$30).A 12-mile trail runs through this magnificent park, which leads you past four of San Antonio's less famous, but equally intriguing, missions. Kids will enjoy biking it; bring your own two-wheelers or rent them nearby.

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No. 2: San Francisco, California

The City by the Bay isn't known as a bargain mecca, but for a daytripper, a world of sights and sounds are in store that won't cost you a dime. Aim for a good-weather day and take in some of the city's most famous attractions, like:

  • Golden Gate Bridge
    Free. Walk it, drive it, or bike it, but you've just gotta do it, and your reward will be incredible views of the city and undoubtedly some stellar photos. The bridge is 1.7 miles long, and may test your fear of heights. But the vistas are truly unforgettable.
  • Golden Gate Park
    Free. This glorious expanse of flora and fauna offers up a Japanese Tea Garden, koi pond, paddle boats, buffalo, and more, and it's completely free. If you've got little ones, don't miss the park's children's playground.
  • Lombard Street
    Free. The crookedest street never fails to delight kids of all ages  and their parents  as it zigs and zags to allow cars to navigate one of the city's most steeply graded hills. There's always a line of cars waiting to drive down so you might choose to walk it instead, which will allow you to linger and marvel at this ever-popular, whimsical landmark.
  • Chinatown
    Free; loads of inexpensive eateries. Wander the streets and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling neighborhood, which you can access by Cable Car. This is a great place for picking up inexpensive souvenirs or stopping in for a very reasonable ̬and tasty— lunch.

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No. 1: Chicago, Illinois

The Windy City is known for its fun vibe and friendly personality, which carry through its many unmissable, world-class attractions. In addition to strolling the always-free Navy Pier, you may be surprised to learn that you can also take part in a number of other Chi-town activities for next to nothing:

  • The Art Institute of Chicago
    Free admission on Thursdays, from 5 p.m.-8 p.m.Plan an early evening out and take advantage of free admission to view one of the most impressive art collections in the world. Little ones will enjoy the Thorne Miniature Rooms, and the Arms and Armor collection. Teens will be in awe of famous works by the likes of Seurat and Monet.
  • The Lincoln Park Zoo
    Free. That's right — the zoo is completely free, and you'll find thousands of animals, from apes to flamingoes. Avoid the pricey parking lot by seeking a spot further west, and enjoy a pre- or post-zoo stroll in the ultra-cool Lincoln Park neighborhood.
  • Millennium Park
    Free. From November to March, it's also free to ice skate; $10 to rent skates. Super steel sculptures, free entertainment, and picnicking on the grass  all are in store at this all-new Chicago gathering place, which adjoins Grant Park. In winter, lace up your skates and glide on the 16,000-foot ice rink.

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