Touring a historic old place like Boston can get expensive fast, because there is something to see around every corner—literally. But, I am here to tell you that with a little digging—which we've done for you—it is possible to get a full-on cultural experience at top sights without breaking the bank. Nearly all of the city's major museums have weekly times where it’s free to get in. Orchestras and other professional arts groups put up discounted rush tickets or host flat-out-free performances. Rich and storied places, like the Boston Public Library, Harvard Yard and the USS Constitution, don’t even issue tickets. Check out these ways to find culture on the cheap:
Try a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts after dark and find the experience has a different feel. For one, the place is less crowded, leaving more room to ponder Shōhaku’s “Dragon and Clouds” and other masterworks. On Wednesday, admission is free 4-9:45 pm, and from 6-9 pm the museum hosts its very cool “Drawing in the Galleries” series, open to anyone who wants to drop in—materials provided. Over in the Seaport District, the Institute of Contemporary Art hosts the "ICA Free Thursday Nights" program with free admission 5-9 pm, and again on the last Saturday morning of the month for adults traveling with children. At Boston Children's Museum, everyone pays just $1 on Friday nights 5-9 pm, and toddlers will love to join the Pajama Party at 7:30 pm on the third Friday of each month. Is your name Isabella? If so, you get in free at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum—for life. Admission is also free for members of the military and their families, and on your birthday, which includes, if it's the third Thursday of the month, special evening programming, concerts, gallery games and art activities. Across the river in Cambridge, Harvard Museum of Natural History is free for Massachusetts residents on Sunday mornings 9 am-noon, and any day of the week during operating hours for military and their families Memorial Day through Labor Day. Gallery visits are always free to learn about the ancient world at Harvard Semitic Museum or multidisciplinary art at McMullen Museum of Art and MIT List Visual Arts Center, for the inside story on Old Ironsides at the USS Constitution Museum, and about the history of Boston's water system at Waterworks Museum. And lastly, if you're a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit or debit card holder, admission is free to the MFA and the MIT Museum on the first weekend of each month through the Museums on Us program.
Historical & Otherwise Fun Things to Do
It's easy to see most of The Freedom Trail, Boston's premier journey through Colonial history, without spending a dime: Gain free admittance to Boston National Historical Park sites, including Bunker Hill Monument and USS Constitution in Charlestown, and also Faneuil Hall, where the park's visitor center is located. Ranger-led tours with themes like "Meetings, Mobs and Martyrs" and "Allegiance to Revolution" depart from here. Privately operated sites to add to your for-pennies itinerary include Old North Church—significant because it’s the place from which Robert Newman and Capt. John Pulling Jr. signaled to Paul Revere with two lanterns that the British were marching to Lexington and Concord by sea—the gleaming gold-domed Massachusetts State House with its free guided tours M-F 10 am-3:30 pm, and each of the three burying grounds (Copp's Hill, Granary and King's Chapel).
Of course, there's loads of other local history unhampered by fees. Check out The Black Heritage Trail that runs through Boston African American National Historic Site; tours with a ranger are free M-Sa at 2 pm through Memorial Day, and then at 10 am, noon and 2 pm through the summer. There's also the Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea, which spans one mile and is filled with informative glass panels at eight historical spots that highlight Boston's history with the sea. Enjoy stops at Beacon Hill, King's Chapel, Rose Kennedy Greenway and Long Wharf to name a few. The walk is completely free and makes for a delightful stroll in the summer months.
Take a stroll past historic pre-Revolutionary sites in the heart of Boston or cross the river into Cambridge for neighborhood walking tours courtesy of Free Tours By Foot—completely cost free, but if your adventure proves to be really good you can pay the guide what you think it's worth. Hit the Crimson campus for an hourlong, guaranteed-to-be-informed adventure across historic Harvard Yard on the Ivy League university's official Harvard Student-Led Walking Tour. A charming refuge in the heart of Back Bay, Boston Public Library is known as much for its books as it is for the amazing art and architecture seen throughout the building. Take a complimentary tour, offered once daily, and learn all about how Chavannes, Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and others contributed to the building's beauty. Then have a quiet lunch in the idyllic outdoor courtyard, before investigating the rare books department to see what they've got on display: might be a first edition of Cervantes' "Don Quijote" or a rare Paul Revere hand-colored print of the scene of "The Bloody Massacre" of 1770.
Anchored at the Charlestown Navy Yard, the USS Cassin Young is a restored World War II Fletcher-class destroyer and a modern contrast to the USS Constitution warship, docked beside her. It is open Tu-Su 10 am-4 pm, and it's free to hop aboard. Speaking of Boston Harbor, feast your eyes on a panoramic view of the coastlines of East and South Boston, Fort Point Channel and the Seaport District from the 14th-floor Observation Deck at Independence Wharf; you will need your wallet—to show ID. One of the Boston Harbor Islands (although today it's connected to South Boston by a causeway), Castle Island is a lush and lovely outdoor retreat in nice weather. It is home to a popular two-mile walking circuit as well as Fort Independence where you can take a free guided tour on the weekend.
Stargazing in Boston—through scientific equipment no less—is on the house for would-be astronomers. Museum of Science's Gilliland Observatory (Friday 8:30-10 pm), Boston University's Coit Observatory (Wednesday at 8:30 pm) and Harvard College Observatory (third Thursday of the month) all feature free public nights.
One of the country's premier music schools, Berklee College of Music calls Boston home, which means our budgets benefit from loads of free concerts presented by students and faculty. Catch the next big star (Trey Parker, Esperanza Spaulding and Bruce Hornsby are just three among many Grammy-winning alumni) at Cafe 939 or one of a few recital halls on campus. Another renowned local school, New England Conservatory specializes in classical music, jazz and contemporary improv, and it offers more than 900 free performances per year (do the math and that's at least two, sometimes three, per day). Lots of them, from chamber music to to big band to opera scenes, take place in Jordan Hall, a National Historic Landmark.
In season (September through May), classical music fans get the deal of a century at Symphony Hall, where the world-class Boston Symphony Orchestra offers $9 day-of rush tickets for concerts on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Nearly-free theater discounts are hard to come by in this town, but American Repertory Theater sells $25 tickets to most shows, and if you're under 35 years old you can score a $25 dollar ticket to any Huntington Theater Company performance through the "35 Below" program.
Because you've got to eat: For $5, check out Somerville's Taza Chocolate Factory, which serves up ample samplings of small-batch, Mexican-style artisan chocolate on-site, as well as a pretty cool 60-minute tour of the place. Head back to Boston, and for an additional $5, get a buzz on a tour at Harpoon Brewery—beer tasting (pilot beers, Boston Irish Stout and the new UFO Big Squeeze Shandy, among them) included. The recently-added Beer Hall sells crazy-good baked pretzels with a variety of dipping sauces for $5 more. Total snack investment: $15. And worth it.