What are the world's best free attractions?

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Like most budget travellers, the word that makes my eyebrows leap the highest is 'free'. While the you-get-what-you-pay-for statute makes it uncool to grade, compare or criticise free stuff, certain free attractions are indisputably superior to others and, in many cases, completely outshine their un-free neighbours.

Some cities like London and New York have enough exceptional free activities to easily fill a week. Other destinations want money from you for something as simple as peeking in the front door (Le Grand Casino, Monte Carlo), sitting down for a few minutes (Las Ramblas, Barcelona), or voiding your bladder (pretty much all of Norway).

Here’s a sampling of some of the world’s best free attractions:

The Kensington High Street Roof Gardens, London

Our previous, exhaustive article on free things to do in London omitted this singular attraction, comprised of three different gardens, covering 1.5 acres. Unfortunately, its popularity means that it’s frequently closed for special events.

Related article: 20 free things to do in Washington, DC

Outdoor art, Buenos Aires

BA uniquely has a number of distinctive neighbourhoods and streets known for outdoor artistic expression like La Boca, Caminito and Calle Lanín. Buenos Aires’ official tourism site has several downloadable self-tour maps and itineraries.

St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

In addition to being one of the planet’s holiest Catholic sites, St Peter’s Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world, capable of holding 60,000 people. It contains works by Michelangelo (notably the dome), Raphael and Bramante among many others.

Smithsonian, Washington DC

The world's largest museum and research complex offers attractions like the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum and the National Zoological Park.

US Capitol, Washington DC

Going on a parliamentary tour is usually free. The Capitol is no exception – get your West Wing on with a tour of the United State's political nerve centre. Be on the lookout for statues of two famous residents per state, plus some of the most stunning, baroque/neoclassical architecture in the nation.

Cathedral of Our Lady of Paris (aka Notre Dame), Paris

One of the world’s great landmarks, Notre Dame took over 200 years to construct, including its (at the time) cutting edge flying buttresses, three spectacular sections of stained glass windows and the unholy 7800 pipe organ. Wretchedly detailed, free English language tours run on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm and Saturdays at 2:30pm. Bonus freebie: if you’re in the neighborhood after 6pm on Fridays, or on the first Sunday of the month (or you can prove that you’re under 26 years old), slam several Red Bulls, cross the river and avail yourself of the free entry to the mammoth Louvre Museum.

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

One can find remarkable markets in numerous destinations around the world, but few compare in historical significance and sheer size to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Opened in 1461, it’s one of the largest covered markets in the world, comprised of over 58 streets and more than 4,000 shops.

Mosquée Hassan II, Casablanca

Morocco’s largest mosque, and the fifth largest mosque in the world, boasts a glass floor, the world’s tallest minaret and a retractable roof. Non-Muslims may only enter the mosque on guided tours, but everyone is free to wander the grounds.

Central-Mid-Levels Escalator and Walkway System, Hong Kong

This 800-metre-long, outdoor, covered escalator is the largest system of its kind in the world. Opened in 1993, it carries people up the 135 metres from the Central Business District to the Mid-Levels residential neighborhood.

Parc Güell, Barcelona

Gaudí’s outdoor masterpiece, where the artificial and natural flow seamlessly into each other.

Gateway of India, Mumbai

Stand under the monumental arch that faces Mumbai Harbour and bask in the chaos of touts and laughing kids. A fitting start to a trip to India.

Bahá'í House of Worship (aka Lotus Temple), Delhi

Completed in 1986, the Lotus Temple serves as the Mother Temple of the Indian subcontinent and is famous for its award-winning flowerlike architectural design.

Finally, while crowd-sourcing for this post, I received lots of feedback on non-location specific free things that you could do in any number of destinations around the world. Some of those include:

  • Bridge walks - the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
  • Free ferries - the Buiksloterweg ferry (Amsterdam), Staten Island (New York), Algiers Ferry (New Orleans) and the not-quite-free, but very inexpensive traghetto, aka 'the poor man's gondola', for quick trips across the Grand Canal in Venice (look for the green signs).
  • Scenic vistas - Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the Grand Canyon, any Tuscan hill town.
  • Unnatural attractions -  the nightly Hong Kong Symphony of Light show, the hourly dancing fountains at the Bellagio, Las Vegas.
  • Public libraries - for example, the Humanities & Social Sciences Library (part of the New York Public Library)

And then there's perhaps the best free travel idea of all: the nearly always fascinating pastime of people watching.

What are some of the great no-cost attractions you’ve encountered on your travels?

Further reading: Check out our articles, 20 free attractions in London and 40 free attractions in New York. The Thorn Tree forum also has plenty of great suggestions when it comes to free things.