1. The Freedom Trail + the Black Heritage Trail
Boston’s Freedom Trail is a can’t-miss attraction when you’re in Boston; absolutely one-of-a-kind, and totally free! While many tours are available, it’s really easy to do it yourself: just follow the brick path (usually 2 bricks wide in the middle of the sidewalk), which will guide you from start to finish. The Trail walks you through the history of the American Revolution and beyond in Boston, such as the Boston Common (Boston’s Central Park), the site of the Boston Massacre, the Massachusetts State House, and more. It is (approximately) 2.5 miles in length, and comprises 16 stops.
For a bonus, check out the Freedom Trail’s “sister trail,” called the Black Heritage Trail, which guides you along 10 sites important to Black history in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, including the 1806 African Meeting House, which is the oldest Black church in the U.S. You should budget at least a half-day for the Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail: while they can be walked from end-to-end in about 2 hours, you will certainly want to stop to learn more or go inside certain attractions.
There are several museums included on the Trail (though those are unfortunately not free), as well as Paul Revere’s house. You can also check out several of Boston’s best neighborhoods while on the Trail, including Beacon Hill and the North End.
The Freedom Trail is fantastic for all ages and activity levels: it is largely flat, totally paved, and virtually impossible to get lost– just follow the brick path to stay on the trail. For a step-by-step guide to the Freedom Trail, see Why Not Walk’s guide here.
2. Take a tour of the Massachusetts State House
With its distinctive golden dome, the Massachusetts State House is hard to miss while walking around downtown Boston. It’s the second stop on the Freedom Trail, but we wanted to highlight that you can request a free tour of the jaw-dropping interior from the Secretary of State’s office.
Tours are given every weekday year-round between the hours of 10 AM and 3:30 PM and are conducted by staff of the Tours and Government Education Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office. Each tour lasts about 45 minutes and includes an overview of the history and architecture of the beautiful State House. For more information and to book a tour, see here.
3. Copley Square & Newbury Street
Copley Square, located in the Back Bay area of Boston, is one of our favorite parts of the city. Be sure to check out the historic Old South Church and Trinity Church, as well as Newbury Street, a gorgeous outdoor walking street lined with upscale shops and eateries.
We recommend taking a peek inside both churches for examples of period architecture and neat fun facts. If you walk a bit further, you can window shop in the Prudential Center (called “The Pru” by locals), one of Boston’s tallest buildings, and a fun place to spend some time wandering. We especially recommend checking out Eataly, a full-size Italian market! A block over from Newbury Street is the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, a beautiful tree-lined park that merits a stroll in all seasons. Don’t miss the trees arching over the walkway, especially in fall or summer. The area has really fantastic architecture, as well, and the individual row house gardens are a sight to behold in the spring.
Back in Copley Square itself, don’t miss the Boston Public Library, one of Boston’s most beautiful buildings. The Bates Room in particular is stunning, with its “old world” feel, wraparound walls of books, and antique green lamps– perfect for a quiet study spot or cozy Instagram shot. There is also a beautiful open-air courtyard in the center of the library, accessed by a door next to the cafe on the ground floor.
The Library was completed in 1895 in the “Renaissance Beaux-Arts Classicism” style and was called “a palace for the people” at the time of its opening. It features grandiose balustrades, staircases, and a variety of murals by Boston native John Singer Sargent.
The Boston Public Library system was established in a small former schoolhouse in 1848 and has the honor of being the first free city library in the United States. The library’s staff offer free “Art and Architecture” tours daily at various times. For a list of times and more information, see here.
4. Harvard University & Harvard Square
Though not in Boston, Cambridge is right across the Charles River, and Harvard is a perfect example of the collegiate vibe Boston and Cambridge are known for. Harvard Square has neat shops and bookstores to explore, and you can extend your visit to the area by visiting MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) nearby as well.
Near MIT, don’t miss the Kendall Square Rooftop Garden, on top of 4 Cambridge Center. This is quite the well-kept secret; a rooftop oasis right in the middle of bustling Kendall Square! We love to come here to eat a snack or read a book at one of their tables or relax for a bit sitting in the nice grassy area.
5. The North End & Boston Harbor
The North End, Boston’s historic Italian neighborhood (and Boston’s oldest neighborhood, continuously inhabited since 1640!), is a must-visit for foodies in particular but has something for everyone.
Check out our Definitive North End guide for our favorites, as well as a guided tour to the neighborhood and its history. In a nutshell, you can’t miss Regina’s for pizza, Giacomo’s for home-made pasta, and of course the legendary Mike’s vs. Modern Pastry cannoli rivalry– which will you choose?
The Boston Harbor is nearby, for beautiful ocean views or whale-watching tours if you’re interested (though those don’t fall into the “free” category, sadly!) Christopher Columbus Park is a lovely place to sit and relax, and it’s definitely worth exploring the lovely cobbled streets, featuring some of Boston’s oldest surviving architecture.
6. Parks & Outdoor Spaces
Strolling around the Boston Common and Public Garden, Boston’s two premier parks are one of our absolute favorite things to recommend. Not only are these parks beautiful, but they are also historical; indeed, the Common is the oldest city park in the U.S., dating back to 1634! Boston has a number of excellent parks that are easy to walk to and are simply delightful.
Don’t miss the Emerald Necklace, a set of 6 interconnected parks stretching from Brookline to Dorchester, named for its location on the neck of the Shawmut Peninsula.
Of course, this was before the city had much of the surrounding landfilled in the 1800s, so the area looks very different now. The parks in the Emerald Necklace were designed by renowned “landscape architect” Frederick Law Olmsted.
Each of the 6 parks is worth exploring. Three are very close to each other (and interconnected): the Fens, the Riverway, and Olmsted Park. Jamaica Pond is a surprisingly large body of water with a lovely walking path, Franklin Park has a really fun zoo (sadly not free, though!), and the Arnold Arboretum has 281 acres of flora and fauna to explore and learn about. However, we think the best way to relax in Boston is to meander along the Charles River Esplanade, for spectacular views of Cambridge across the river.
7. Visit the Sam Adams Brewery
One of the pioneers of the American craft brew scene, Sam Adams is one of our favorite free recommendations for a visit. While it’s certainly a bit touristy, with free hour-long tours leaving every 40 minutes and complimentary beer tasting there is much to try and learn about the beer-making process here. They often let you taste special not-yet-released beers, so this is an extra special treat for those visiting. Although it is free, we really recommend reserving your tickets in advance, as the tours do book up quickly. You can do that here.
This is one of the most fun free things to do in Boston.
8. Castle Island
Another outstanding historic site, Castle Island is one of the best examples of what is known as a “star fort” left in the United States, called Fort Independence. Free tours are offered of the fort each hour, and you’re sure to learn a lot about how the soldiers lied and what their day-to-day routine was like. After touring the fort, Castle Island is a great place to walk around and enjoy the ocean views, or grab a snack at Sullivan’s if you’re feeling hungry.
9. Improv Boston
Take in a free improv show at the fun Improv Boston house, where creativity and laughter abound. It is always a good time here at Improv Boston and you will be amazed at how well these improv actors think on their feet and come up with witty banter. They also offer free improv classes, so if you are looking to hone your skills this is a good way to take your improv to the next level.
10. Stargazing at the Boston University Observatory
Staring into the night sky is often a magical experience but viewing the celestial bodies with BU’s Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope is extra special. It is truly a marvel to take in the stars and planets through this high-quality telescope and is a wonderful way to learn a bit more about the universe. Keep in mind that, while free, these tickets go like hotcakes each time they are released! See here to book yours.
This is one of the most unique free things to do in Boston!
11. Museum Free Days
Boston is home to many great museums, each worth a visit in their own right. However, unlike our previous home base, Washington D.C., very few of them are free. However, several offer free entry on certain days, which is a really smart thing to take advantage of! The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) offers free entry on Wednesday in the evenings from 5 pm-9 pm. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is free for MA residents Sunday mornings from 9 am-12 pm and on Wednesdays from 3 pm-5 pm. The Institute of Contemporary Art is also free on Thursday evenings from 5 pm-9 pm.
We hope you enjoyed this guide to the best free things to do in Boston!
Meet the guest authors: Tegan & Alex
Tegan and Alex are travel, hiking, and biking enthusiasts currently based in Boston, USA. There is nothing they love more than exploring new places by walking, and they have visited over 30 countries together since they met in 2015. Their love for “walking the world” led them to found Why Not Walk, a travel guides site. Follow them on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest to start planning your next adventure.
Keep up with Tegan and Alex’s adventures on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook!