The Getty Center
Los Angeles, California
The Getty Center, part of the J. Paul Getty Museum, is a Los Angeles icon, housing a fabulous collection of Western paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. The art is matched by its setting—an architectural showplace of buildings and gardens, with one of the best views in L.A. The nearby Getty Villa, in Malibu, showcases treasures from Greece and Rome.
New York, New York
This intriguing Lower East Side museum is open only for fee-based tours that showcase the lives of immigrants who once lived in the neighborhood. But free attendance is offered at Tenement Talks, the museum's fascinating lecture series on topics of immigration, history, and urban America, held at the museum shop on Orchard Street.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
StenniSphere is the visitor center at NASA's Stennis Space Center, America's biggest rocket engine test facility. Free tours feature shows and exhibits that allow visitors to examine spacecraft, fire up a mock space shuttle engine, or even pay a virtual visit to the International Space Station. The tours launch from the Hancock County Welcome Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
Fairbanks Community Museum and Dog Mushers Museum
The free community museum tells the story of Fairbanks, while a second site in the same building pays particular attention to the faithful, four-legged athletes who helped build modern Alaska. From Native Alaskan sleds to the Klondike Gold Rush days and the modern Iditarod, the Dog Mushers Museum may be the word's foremost museum dedicated to the topic.
St. Louis Science Center Star Parties
St. Louis, Missouri
The stars come out when the St. Louis Astronomical Society hosts its parties at the Science Center on the first Friday of every month (January - November). Attendees can learn “what's in the sky tonight” and peer at the heavens through numerous telescopes while experts answer questions.
Free Days at the Field Museum
Where can you meet Sue, the famous T. rex, explore an Egyptian tomb, and see how life on Earth evolved for four billion years? Chicago's Field Museum is the place, and on several dozen days a year you can see it all for free.
The nation's capital is chock-a-block with free attractions, and most of the Smithsonian Institution's 19 museums and galleries are among them. National Mall attractions like the Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the iconic Smithsonian Castle are must-sees for all visitors to D.C.
California Academy of Sciences
San Francisco, California
The Academy bills itself as the only place on Earth with an aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum, and four-story rain forest housed under the same roof. San Francisco residents can see it all for free on designated days, which are so popular that they've been selectively scheduled according to resident zip codes.
The Museum at FIT
New York, New York
Fashionistas take note: This museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology boasts one of the world's most fabulous collections of fabrics, clothing, textiles, and accessories. They say fashion's only constant is change, and the museum shows off 250 years of style evolution.
Frye Art Museum
This Seattle museum boasts a fine collection that originated with a gift by Charles and Emma Frye—who donated their own art for free viewing by the people of the city. Today the museum furthers their legacy by hosting a wide range of community programs, including tours and talks, some of which are also free.
The Baltimore Museum of Art
The BMA is free to everyone, every day, and boasts a renowned collection of works from around the globe, both classic and contemporary, including the largest selection of Henri Matisse paintings in the world. Visitors can also escape the city streets in the museum’s pair of serenely landscaped sculpture gardens.
The Cleveland Museum of Art
This Wade Park institution, founded a century ago “for the benefit of all the people,” remains free to all and offers a wide range of exhibits, from African art to photography. The museum is undergoing a massive renovation, scheduled for completion in 2013, but many of its collections remain on view, including notable objects of Egyptian art.
The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University
This Dallas museum boasts an incredible array of Spanish art from such masters as Velázquez, Murillo, and Ribera, as well as Goya and Picasso. You might have to go to Spain to find a better collection—and that wouldn't be free. The Meadows Museum is free on Thursdays after 5 p.m.
Sheldon Museum of Art
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
The Sheldon may be at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but with works by the likes of Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol, it's far from your typical university art museum. The price of admission—free for all—is surely near and dear to any student's heart.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
This Indianapolis museum boasts outstanding collections of Georges Seurat and the Neoimpressionists; Paul Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School; J.M.W. Turner; Japanese Edo-period paintings; and Chinese ceramics. Access to the Lilly House, an outstanding example of an early-20th-century American country estate, is included with free admission.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Museum Adventure Pass
Local libraries are the gateway to museum adventure in Detroit, where simply presenting your card earns you free tickets to an impressive lineup of local museums, including the Automotive Hall of Fame, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Cranbrook Institute of Science, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The MIA's Asian collection spans 5,000 years, with exhibits ranging from ceramics to silk textiles. Decorative arts, including furniture, metalwork, and glass, share space here with paintings, prints, and photography, while a contemporary art initiative focuses on showcasing living and working artists.
Travel the free Dinosaur Trail to several locations in Montana. Jordan’s Garfield County Museum has a full-size Triceratops replica, a full T. rex skull, and other Cretaceous fossils from the Hell Creek Formation. About 90 minutes away, the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum boasts one of the world's most complete T. rex skeletons, as well as creatures from the Cretaceous Sea. Three hours farther on, at the Blaine County Museum in Chinook, visitors can actually handle fossils from ancient dinos and sea creatures.
The Miami Art Museum is free on the second Saturday of every month—but in this city you'll have no trouble filling the week's other days as well. The Wolfsonian-FIU museum showcases its modern art and design collection for free every Friday evening after 6:00. Other free museums in Miami include the Bay of Pigs Museum and the World of Bacardi Museum (reservations required).
U.S.S. Constitution and Museum
The Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” launched in 1797 and remains the oldest commissioned warship still afloat anywhere in the world. This ship is an enduring museum of seafaring history, and active-duty Navy sailors give free tours year-round in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard. Onshore, the U.S.S. Constitution Museum houses a large and fascinating collection and charges no admission fee—though a donation is recommended and happily accepted.