It sounds too good to be true – but these top-class experiences wonʼt cost you a penny. From bike trips to walking tours and tasting tea in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, getting to the heart of a destination was never so richly rewarding yet so downright...free.
Staten Island Ferry, New York City, USA
Cruises usually cost a packet. All right, this one only lasts 25 minutes. And thereʼs no quoits or cocktail lounge (though there is a bar selling beer). But it doesn't cost a cent. Ferries have connected Staten Island and lower Manhattan since the 18th century. The tangerine-bright boats that run today have become NYC icons; one, the Spirit of America, is part-made of steel salvaged from the Twin Towers. And though the World Trade Center is now missing, the view of the New York City skyline – which shrinks as you pitch across the bay, and looms large as you return – is still world class.
Ferries run 24 hours daily, from South Ferry at Battery Park. See www.siferry.com.
Itʼs two for the price of none on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. This promenade at the tip of Kowloon hugs Victoria Harbour; it's where modern shopping centres meet the old colonial Clock Tower, and where the Star Ferry chugs in. Itʼs also where, three mornings a week, t'ai chi gurus Mr Ng and Ms Wu lead free sessions of this meditative martial art against a backdrop of Hong Kong Island's just-distant skyscrapers. Revisit at night for something less subtle: as the Symphony of Lights laser-sound spectacular sets the high-rises a-sparkle, Tsim Sha Tsui offers the best seat in the house.
T'ai chi lessons run from 8am to 9am on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The light show starts at 8pm daily. See www.discoverhongkong.com.
Walking Tour, Reykjavík, Iceland
Iceland sure ain't cheap. Despite the economic meltdown, this almost-Arctic island is still going to test your bank balance. So freebies here taste all the sweeter – and Goecco's Reykjavik Free Tours are as unique and feisty as a shot of brennivín (the local firewater – drink with caution…). These two-hour easy ambles around the secret sites of Reykjavík are led by 'performance historians'. You'll see the cityʼs maritime architecture, historical foundations, coolest districts and best bathing spots, accompanied by lashings of Icelandic quirk – stories told with actorly verve, which lift the lid on this inscrutable capital.
Tours depart Ingolfs Square at 1pm Monday to Saturday, from 15 May to 1 October. See www.goecco.com.
Pyramids of spices waft their pungent scents and cabinets of gold glitter and dazzle. Lanterns dangle, ceramics teeter and tourist tat triumphs – Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a retail blitzkrieg, an undercover labyrinth of endless stuff. Browsing the stalls is wonderful but exhausting, as is fending off a harem of eager shopkeepers. So give in and let the carpet-seller with the best lines lead you into his showroom, then sip small glasses of apple tea while roll upon roll of woven flooring is unfurled before you with hopeful theatrics and persuasive spiel. Itʼs Istanbulʼs most atmospheric freebie – as long as the salesman isn't too convincing…
The Grand Bazaar is open 9am to 7pm Monday to Saturday. Take a tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci.
See all of New Zealand for nothing at Te Papa. Well, sort of – this beefy building on Wellington's waterfront is the country's national museum, where you'll find its finest art, its history brought to life, and its Maori culture explained and celebrated. Given the wide remit, the gems inside are unsurprisingly eclectic – from pounamu (greenstone) clubs to stuffed kiwis, and from a pair of prosthetic cycling legs to a 1.4 billion-year-old stone. To learn about the Maori, start with the Treaty of Waitangi display, then visit the marae, a modern take on the traditional meeting house, designed to be used by all cultures.
Te Papa is open daily, including public holidays, from 10am to 6pm (to 9pm Thurs). See www.tepapa.govt.nz.
If only these walls could talk...theyʼd probably talk of walls. Not to mention suspected arson, air raids, Nazi zeal and ignominious decay – the German Parliament building has seen it all since its completion in 1894. But since the fall of Berlin's infamous city-slicing concrete barrier, the Reichstag has risen as dramatically as the eagle on the German flag. Architect Norman Foster masterminded a glorious resurrection, icing the 'new' edifice with a gleaming glass-and-steel cupola, commanding brilliant Berlin views. Best of all? A tour of all this history – including access to the all-seeing dome itself – is absolutely free.
Reichstag tours must be booked in advance; book online at www.bundestag.de.
It can be tough to get your head around Tokyo: itʼs the most populous city in the world, a seething megalopolis of over 30 million people rushing between canyons of skyscrapers. So get some perspective by looking down on it from 202m up – for free. The observatory of the Metropolitan Government Building looms amid high-rise Shinjuku, the district for gadget-shopping and bar-hopping (Shinjukuʼs 'Golden Gai' is a tumble-down shantytown of over 200 bars). Ascend the elevator to the 45th floor of the North Observatory to see the urban chaos below and, on a clear day, distant Mt Fuji making a stand for Mother Nature.
The North Observatory has a cafe and bar, and is open 9.30am to 11pm daily. See www.metro.tokyo.jp.
A Tube ticket might cost a small fortune in the British capital, but itʼs amazing how much there is to do for nowt. Some of the worldʼs best museums – such as the Natural History, the Victoria & Albert and the British – show-off their incredible collections for nothing. But for an even grander spectacle (and a glimpse of a world traditionally reserved for those with bigger budgets) head to Covent Garden's Royal Opera House on a Monday lunchtime. This classical portico-fronted theatre, completed in 1858, runs special recitals, allowing cheapskates to hear top pianists tinkle and baritones bellow without paying a penny.
Some tickets can be reserved online nine days prior to concert; some are released from 10am on the day. See www.roh.org.uk.
Simply, the Musée du Louvre holds the greatest collection of art ever assembled, displayed in a building that is both a typical Parisian palace and a strikingly modern pyramid of glass. There are over 35,000 items in this matchless repository: from ancient Egyptian antiquities to Greek treasures, Persian trinkets and paintings spanning countries and centuries. Its depth and breadth is overwhelming; you really need more than a day. But if thatʼs all you have, make it a certain day: on the first Sunday of the month, the Louvre is free – something, surely, to make even the resident Mona Lisa crack a proper smile.
The Louvre is open daily except Tuesday from 9am to 6pm (to 10pm Wednesday and Friday); regular admission costs €10. See www.louvre.fr.
This article was first published in November 2011 and was republished in September 2013.