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America's best free attractions

Aug. 7, 2013 at 9:31 AM ET

Video: If you still want to book an affordable trip this summer, Nilou Motamed of Travel + Leisure shares fun and free options, from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago to the Getty Center in L.A.

Enjoying what America has to offer can get expensive fast: In 2011, the U.S. travel industry made $813 billion, and some of America’s most popular cities are also its most expensive. 

Travelers of all budgets can appreciate a good deal, and with high gas prices and airline fees, it’s refreshing to know that there are still attractions that give another meaning to the land of the free.

Smithsonian Museums, Washington, D.C.
The National Zoo, National Museum of Natural History, and National Air and Space Museum — which displays The Spirit of St. Louis — are the biggest crowd-pleasers among the 18 Smithsonian institutions in D.C., otherwise one of the country’s priciest cities. Indeed, making knowledge accessible is key to the mission of the world’s largest museum and research complex. Affordable-travel expert Tim Leffel observed that the three museums he visited with his wife and daughter would have set them back more than $100 in most European capitals.

(Click here to see T+L's full list of America's best free attractions.)

New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
Most national parks encourage you to tune into nature; this one celebrates jazz in its birthplace, New Orleans. There’s live music at the visitor center in the French Quarter and the Old U.S. Mint six days a week, and a kids’ music workshop on Saturdays at Perseverance Hall in Louis Armstrong Park. The visitor center also hosts free talks, video documentaries, and exhibits on local jazz history. You can pick up one of two self-guided audio tours, “Jazz Sites in New Orleans” or “Jazz Walk of Fame.” nps.gov

The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Maximize your time at the Getty by visiting on a Friday or Saturday, when this sprawling hillside art complex is open late — allowing you to take in sunset views. The light-filled museum interiors display an impressive collection of European and American art including Vincent van Gogh’s famous Irises. Debbie Dubrow of the family travel blog Delicious Baby recommends the Family Room’s interactive exhibits, giant illuminated manuscripts, and an art treasure hunt. “And whenever you need a break, just pop outside to the Getty’s fabulous gardens,” she says. While parking is admittedly expensive ($15), the Getty is also accessible by public transit.

Conservatory at Bellagio, Las Vegas
Take a breather from the hectic win-or-lose atmosphere of Vegas at the Bellagio’s 13,000-square-foot Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Horticulturists create seasonal over-the-top displays, rearranging the gardens and their trappings — gazebos, bridges, giant topiaries. After the free live musical performance at the gardens (5 to 6 p.m. daily), step out onto the Strip to witness the light-and-music show put on by the Bellagio fountains.

Staten Island Ferry, New York City
Even in the most expensive city in America, you can find great deals like free admission nights at MoMA (otherwise $25), discounted Broadway tickets, and lower hotel rates in July and August. Then there’s the thrill of one of the world’s most beautiful ferry rides on the Staten Island commuter ferry — which also happens to be free 24/7. Board at sunset, when Lady Liberty is silhouetted against a pink-and-orange sky. You’ll pass the Statue of Liberty, with a panoramic view of glittering downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Jersey City. “It’s one thing I always recommend when people ask what they should do in New York,” Leffel said.

Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia
Folks line up to see the 2,000-pound Liberty Bell — enshrined in glass — and tour Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution drafted. (Look for George Washington’s “rising sun” chair.) Mara Gorman of the blog The Mother of All Trips also enjoyed visiting the Second Bank of the United States, “which houses a wonderful portrait gallery with paintings of many of the principal figures of the American Revolution.” Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Washington all attended services at nearby Christ Church.

Royal Hawaiian Center, Honolulu
Free cultural programming sets the remodeled Royal Hawaiian Center apart from your average shopping mall. You can drop by for a traditional Hawaiian massage (lomilomi), lei-making, Hawaiian quilting, or a crash course in playing the ukulele or dancing the hula. There are also free performances, including Polynesian song and dance, and hula ‘auana, which is hula’s modern form. It’s an added bonus that parking is unusually affordable for Waikiki: free for an hour with validation. royalhawaiiancenter.com

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