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The JS Guide to Getting Everything for Free in Boston

Boston has plenty of freebies for penny-pinching students, from its top-notch art museums to grand historical landmarks. And as travelers, we get to reap the benefits. Here's how to do Beantown on a budget.

See recent posts by Sarah Pascarella

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Discover the Waterfront

There’s nothing more appealing in fall than a stroll along the HarborWalk, which hugs the Boston harbor and passes Charlestown, the North End, Fort Point Channel, and Dorchester, among other neighborhoods. To see the banks of the Charles River, head down to the Esplanade, with its views of Back Bay townhouses and Fenway on the Boston side and MIT on the Cambridge side.

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Hang out in a park

Designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Emerald Necklace encompasses more than seven miles of green space, stretching from downtown Boston into Brookline, Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. Highlights: the Boston Common and Public Garden, the Arnold Arboretum, and Jamaica Pond. Depending on the weather, you can picnic, bike ride, snowshoe trek, or sled ride—all gratis.

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Ride a Bike

Boston is the perfect city for bike lovers, and there's a free downloadable bike map that outlines the best trails. The routes are rated beginner, intermediate, and advanced and feature detailed info regarding terrain, neighborhoods, safety and places to see en-route. If you only have an afternoon, take the Minuteman Bikeway, which stretches from Cambridge to Bedford and passes many Revolutionary War sites along the way.

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Hit the Beach

Looking to spend a day on a sandy stretch? Take the T to Revere Beach, America's first public beach, for a few rays (and great people watching). Late July typically brings the annual sand sculpting competition, where artists worldwide create eye-popping, gravity-defying sculptures along the waterfront. Or, stay in the city proper and check out the beach areas at Castle Island in South Boston.

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See Amazing Art

In Boston, there's no shortage of free museums – but timing is everything. The Museum of Fine Arts offers "admission by voluntary contribution" on Wednesday nights after 4 p.m. and free entrance on select open house days (typically coinciding with national holidays). The Institute of Contemporary Art is gratis to all every Thursday night after 5 p.m. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is free for visitors named Isabella (yes, it's true). And at the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge locals always get in free, and Massachusetts residents get comped on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon. For a laugh, head to the Museum of Bad Art in the basement of the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square; there's no charge if you have a movie ticket, or you can request a free pass in advance from info@museumofbadart.org.

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Get Your Drink On

It's no secret that Bostonians love to drink—there's a pub on almost every corner. Sam Adams has first-come, first-served brewery tours every day, where you'll get to sip free suds. Somerville Brewing Company, makers of Slumbrew craft beer, opens its doors throughout the week. If you're a wine lover, swing by the tastings at Central Bottle in Cambridge, Urban Grape in the South End, and The Wine Bottega in the North End.

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Catch a Performance

Between the music students, arts foundations and public performance spaces, Boston has a free live show going on most every day. Our favorites: Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's Shakespeare on the Common series, the Boston Landmarks Orchestra concerts at the Hatch Shell and the Boston Public Library's Concerts in the Courtyard on summer Wednesdays and Fridays. Berklee College of Music's Summer in the City series typically features hundreds of free events all summer long, where aspiring musicians can hone their chops.

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Get Literary

Many of the world’s greatest writers have called Boston home, and a thriving literary scene continues to this day. Start at the grand Bates Hall reading room at the Boston Public Library. Then take a self-guided walking tour of the Boston Literary District, with stops at the city's best bookstores and famous landmarks featured in popular novels. For present-day literati, check the event listings at Brookline Booksmith, Harvard Book Store, and Trident Booksellers & Cafe, which regularly offers free readings from local and international authors.

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Window Shop

Take an afternoon to browse Boston's boutiques, filled with one-of-a-kind art works, antiques and clothing. The best window-shopping ‘hoods: Boylston and Newbury streets in Back Bay and Charles Street in Beacon Hill. The Cambridge Antique Market always has something unusual on offer, and in recent years, the North End has had a boom of contemporary art galleries and clothing boutiques. Not to be outdone, there's also South End and Brookline's Coolidge Corner lined with stylish one-off shops.

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Tour a Campus

Harvard. Tufts University. MIT. Boston is a college town, and you’d be remiss not to check out the city’s historic campuses. Head over the river to Cambridge for Harvard University's self-guided audio walking tour or mobile app tour, and to MIT, which offers a downloadable map that highlights the best stops.

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Go for a Hike

Some of New England’s greatest hiking trails are easily accessible from Boston. Among those on our to-do list: the Blue Hills Reservation, with its views of the city skyline from the Eliot Observation Tower; the rugged and quiet Middlesex Fells Reservation; and Concord's famous Walden Pond, with a scenic path that winds around the namesake waterway.

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Take it to Church

Religion aside, Boston's churches are architectural masterpieces worthy of your time. Take a free tour of the Church of Christ, Scientist near Symphony Hall, or of the North End's famous Old North Church. Trinity Church in Copley Square has free guided tours on Sundays. And for those who don't mind a ride on the T's red line, the United First Parish Church in the suburb of Quincy and nicknamed the "Church of the Presidents", houses the tombs of John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams.

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Gaze at the Stars

With skyscrapers and pollution, city stargazing isn't much of a pastime – to the naked eye, that is. But at Boston University’s Coit Observatory, you can see the stars through telescopes and binoculars, with free viewings available most Wednesday evenings. Programs kick off at 7:30 p.m. in fall and winter and 8:30 p.m. in spring and summer. Caveat: admission is free, but tickets are required, so register online to secure a spot.

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Attend a Lecture

Educational seminars, lectures, workshops — they’re almost all free in Boston. Check the Massachusetts Historical Society to see a list of upcoming events, where you'll learn about the Commonwealth's history. The Boston Public Library has multiple free activities every day, from guided art and architecture tours to book discussions, and the Boston Literary District regularly hosts gratis "Literary Lunch Breaks" featuring guest author lectures and discussions.

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Go for a Stroll

Just follow the red path: There's no better way to see Boston's most famous historic sites in one go than by walking the Freedom Trail. This two-and-a-half-mile red walking path retraces the route of Paul Revere's famous 1775 ride and passes 16 landmarks including the site of the Boston Massacre, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, and the Bunker Hill Monument. Bonus: many sites along the route are free.

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