If you’re like me, you love to do things. . . but you hate to spend money. And while I definitely have a thirst for adventure, it will always take a backseat to my preference for paying my bills on time.
Over the years I’ve gotten really savvy at finding free things to do, or cheaper ways to do more moderate-to-expensive things. I clip coupons and Groupons, scour the internet for discount codes before I purchase anything, and earn points through a variety of credit card and loyalty programs. Using these tricks I’ve flown places for free, gotten ridiculous hotel upgrades, and paid for Christmas gifts via cashback bonuses. My best budget achievements? Twice in the past three years I’ve planned trips to Europe, and each six-day vacation cost me less than $1,000 for everything. (Yup, everything. Flights, hotels, admissions, transportation, food, EVERYTHING. They weren’t even hostel trips!)
Obviously, some of these things take a lot of time and effort to plan. (Sometimes, insomnia does pay off.) It all comes down to time vs. money. . . and while I may not have a lot of money, I am a BOSS at maximizing my time. I listen to travel podcasts while on the treadmill, read the “free events” sections of local magazines while waiting for a haircut, and swipe through discount email listservs while in line at Walmart.
But if you’re not a huge fan of multi-tasking, and you don’t want to develop an intense dependency on caffeine and under-eye concealer, then stick with me, kid! I’ll do all the legwork for you. . .
I’m going to start sharing some of my favorite free and inexpensive things to do in the cities I’ve visited frequently. Hopefully, this will help you all to maximize your fun. . . and not your credit cards. First up – my backyard city of Baltimore!
- Museums: Baltimore (and our neighboring DC) spoil us with a lot of affordable museums. The Walters Art Museum and The Baltimore Museum of Art are two of my favorites – and are completely free! Inexpensive options include: The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History & Culture ($8), The Baltimore Museum of Industry ($12), and the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum ($10). Fort McHenry is $10, but the surrounding park is completely free, and gives you awesome panoramic views of Baltimore. Pro Tip: Visit the American Visionary Art Museum on MLK Jr. Day, and admission is free!
- Movies & Theaters: We have some pretty cool theaters. Check out the historic Senator and Charles Theatres, or even Bengies Drive-In, home to the biggest movie screen in the US, and a movie-going staple since its start in 1956. Most shows at Bengies are $10 and under, and The Senator and Charles typically run between $7-$12. Plus, during the summer there are tons of free outdoor movie options. . . the American Visionary Art Museum does Flicks on the Hill, Little Italy hosts Cinema al Fresco, and Films on the Pier happens in Fell’s Point. (I’d link to these, but none of the Summer 2017 schedules are out yet). And, if you’d rather have the real, live, theater experience, Fell’s Point Corner Theatre has some pretty good stuff for only $15.
- The View from Above: For a city that mostly pays tribute to its long, flat, water-focused skylines, we do have some good high-rise views! My favorite spots include: The original Washington Monument, where you can climb the 227 steps to the top for $6. It’s a long way up, but it’s worth it, I promise. The Top of the World Observation Level (that giant building in the Inner Harbor) is also a $6 admission. You can see panoramic views of the city, and enjoy all the historic maps, photos, and “then vs. now” exhibits the place has to offer. Prepare to spend some time here. . . there’s a lot to take in! Finally, the iconic Patterson Pagoda, open mid-April to mid-October, is a free and completely unique piece of architecture.
- The National Aquarium & The Maryland Science Center (no wait, really!): Two of Baltimore’s best-known tourist attractions also happen to be the most expensive. The trick is to know when to go. . . Fridays after 5pm at the National Aquarium, tickets are half-price! And on Fridays at the Science Center, you can stargaze for free (access to the Observatory only), through their historic telescope. Pro Tip: Many of Baltimore’s museums and attractions participate in “Pay What You Want Day,” which happens once (maybe twice?) a year. The lines are ridiculously long, but if you go early, you can get in for as little (or as much!) as you’d like.
- Sippin’ Pretty: When the weather’s nice, there’s nothing better than sitting harbor side and watching the sun set or the ships sail. Baltimore’s got some great waterfront bars and coffee shops, where for a few bucks you can grab a drink and soak in the views.
- Window Shop: We’ve also got some quirky neighborhoods (I’m looking at you, Hampden), historic main streets like Fell’s Point, and cute little boutiques you can poke around in if the weather isn’t so great. At Christmastime, Harbor East has awesome window displays and free hot chocolate on certain weeknights.
- Take Me Out to the Ball Game: If you’re willing to sit in the nosebleed section, you can catch an O’s game for a pretty decent price. The cheapest seats usually start at $15, and for those who still have Student IDs, Friday night games the student section is $7. You can also tour Camden Yards (still one of the coolest field trips my elementary school took) for only $9, and will get a behind-the-scenes look at the club level, press level, and dugout.
- Free Festivals: To put it simply, we have a ton. From unique Bawlmer icons like HONfest, to Artscape, Light City Baltimore (the inaugural event last year was awesome!), Fell’s Point Fun Fest, the Baltimore Book Festival, and everything in between. During the holidays, Miracle on 34th Street is worth the traffic and the parking nightmare. Console yourself with hot chocolate from the ice cream parlor just up the street, The Charmery, which also sells Berger Cookies & Cream ice cream, because the only thing better than a Berger Cookie is a Berger Cookie in ice cream.
- And Finally, My Favorites: Personally, my favorite inexpensive outing in Baltimore would include a trip to The George Peabody Library, which has to be the most stunning piece of architecture in town, and perhaps the prettiest library I’ve ever seen. Seriously, Belle would lose her mind over it. It’s closed on Sundays, but you can stop by on a Saturday morning, and then head over to Little Italy’s Piedigrotta Bakery, whose owner Carminantonio is credited with the invention of tiramisu – now the best-selling dessert in the world! That’s right, you don’t even have to go to Italy for the most authentic tiramisu of your life. . . it’s hiding in a tiny, unassuming storefront in Baltimore. You’re welcome.
There are so many more affordable Baltimore things I’d love to highlight in future posts (hiking, waterfalls, wineries, breweries, additional art exhibits, hands-on experiences, music venues, sports and social clubs, free yoga, etc., and this doesn’t even touch on cheap eats) but for now I figured I’d start with the big ones. Have something to add? Let me know!
*All photos are my own