Spice up your love life without blowing your budget
Dates That Cost You Nada
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In the movies, couples always seem to have access to the most picturesque date spots—snowy Central Park, say—but the truth is, real life is rarely so romantic. Why? Because we fall into a date-night rut (and, let’s be honest, most of us don’t live in New York City), where we dine at the same restaurant every Friday night—if we go on dates at all.
In case you’ve forgotten, let us remind you: Going out together is good for you. In fact, in a recent Australian study, couples who devoted just 90 minutes a week to “together time” experienced a boost in relationship satisfaction. So call a moratorium on boring Friday nights—and check out the best free date in your state (or cross the border and experience what a neighboring state has to offer!).
Photo: Getty Images
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Birmingham Botanical Gardens
This 67-acre wonderland has more than 25 individual gardens—including a Japanese teahouse and two rose gardens—and 12,000 plants. Be warned: You may suddenly find yourself unusually attracted to your date. In a 2011 French study, women who were exposed to flowers tended to rate a man as sexier. Open daily from dawn to dusk year-round
1. Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival
Watch more than 50 hot air balloons sail through the sky—ideally in the evening, when the floating works of art light up the night, against the backdrop of a southern sunset. Annual event (often held in June); admission and shuttle service are free (on-site parking is $5)
2. Spring Park Light & Water Show
Known as the “dancing waters,” this spectacular display features 51 flumes that propel water 150 feet into the air, synchronized with a soundtrack of famous songs by Alabama musicians. Dusk on weekends from mid-March to December
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Alyeska Roundhouse Museum
This mountaintop museum, located 40 miles south of Anchorage, sits nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, and offers panoramic views of two mountain ranges and seven glaciers. Summer hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Winter hours: Weekends and holiday seasons 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Perfect for hiking, biking, or rollerblading, this 11-mile trail winds along the Alaskan coastline—and if you don’t want to walk the whole thing, simply stake out a spot along the trail and watch for Beluga whales or moose.
Photo: Roundhouse Museum
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If you’re an outdoorsy type, there’s no better date spot than Phoenix’s Camelback Mountain, which rises 2,704 feet above sea level in the Sonoran Desert. Some of the trails are extremely strenuous (although the payoff—an awesome view of the city—is huge). So if you’re just looking for a romantic jaunt, stick to the Echo Canyon Bobble’s Rock Trail, only about a 20-minute climb.
1. Culture Pass from the Phoenix Public Library
If you have a public library card, you can gain easy access to many of the best museums in the Phoenix area—without having to pay admission. Simply check out a Culture Pass for two from your local branch, and visit interesting—and sometimes quirky—local spots like the Superstition Mountain Museum, the Phoenix Zoo, or the Desert Botanical Garden.
2. Rawhide Western Town
It’s a little cheesy, sure—but this 1880s western town is a surefire way to share a laugh with your guy. You’ll have to pay to see the live stunt shows or pan for gold—but it’s totally free to roam the town and enjoy the atmosphere. (And if the mood strikes, you can pay $10 for a shotgun wedding!) Hours vary by season; admission is free (parking is $5)
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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Browse this Bentonville museum’s incredible collection of American art, ranging from the colonial era to now, and then enjoy the 120-acre park, with its walking trails, pavilions, gardens, and Buckyball sculpture, which lights up in an array of colors after dark. Museum hours vary, trails and ground are open from sunrise to sunset daily
Hot Springs National Park
Also known as “The American Spa,” Hot Spring’s national park is famous for its 47 natural hot springs. Although you do have to pay to take a dip at the park’s bathhouse, you can bottle up the springs’ healing waters from the fountains for free. Plus, there are plenty of trails to hike, and the nearby downtown is quaint and perfect for strolling. Open year round
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Cal Sailing Club Open Houses
Join Berkeley’s non-profit sailing club for a free lesson on the water at one of their Sunday open houses. The next dates: July 13th, August 10th, and September 14th. Hint: Bring a spare outfit, because you’re almost guaranteed to get wet! Sundays once a month; sign up between 1 and 4 p.m. in front of the clubhouse
1. Point Dume State Beach and Nature Preserve
Spend your day at this pristine L.A. beach, taking in the rocky cliffs or watching for whales (December through mid-April), or head down the road to the 32-acre nature preserve, which juts into the ocean. There, you’ll find secluded oceanfront spots perfect for a picnic and a boardwalk that leads to a viewing platform. Another sight worth seeing: the Point Dume tidepools. Open from sunrise to sunset
2. J. Paul Getty Museum
This Los Angeles art museum likely makes every free list of activities you’ll find—but for good reason: Not only is the art collection impressive, but the museum’s architecture and surrounding gardens are stunning. The Getty Villa—which looks like every woman’s dream vacay spot—is a second museum modeled after an ancient Roman country house. Admission is free; on-site parking is $15 or $10 after 5 p.m.
Photo: Jennifer Kroon Photography
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North Cheyenne Cañon Park
You could just go for a stroll along a trail—or recruit one of the volunteers to take you on a free guided hike—but what really makes this park stand out is the gold panning at the Helen Hunt Falls Visitor Center, offered daily during the summer. You’ll use a tin pan just like the guys in the Gold Rush did—and who knows, maybe you’ll strike it big. Gold Panning at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m., every day in the summer. Visitor center closes for the season after Labor Day
Celestial Seasonings Factory Tour
This free Boulder tour starts with the best part: sampling as many of the 75 varieties of Celestial Seasonings teas as you want. There’s more fun to come: You’ll take a stroll through the peppermint room—and can watch your guy’s eyes watering from the super-strong scent. If tea isn’t your thing, Golden, Colorado has an awesome alternative: a tour of the Coors’ Golden Brewery—and yes, it includes a free sample. Free tours on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m on Sunday
Photo: Bijan Pirnia, Colorado Springs
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CT Wine Trail
Follow the blue signs along this meandering statewide route, and you’ll find 25 wineries, many of which offer free tours and year-round tastings (this part might cost you, although it varies by winery). Even if you just decide to drive, the scenery is stunning, and there are plenty of picturesque towns to explore along the way. Hours vary by winery
1. Salmon River State Forest
This Colchester park offers more than picnicking and hiking—you can go letterboxing. What’s that? It’s sort of like geocaching, but with stamps and paper. Using clues found on sites like Letterboxing.org, you track down a series of hidden containers, each with a unique stamp (and ink), so you can log your progress in a book. Another way to make it fun: Bring a personal stamp to identify you and your date, and leave your mark on the logbook at every site.
2. Edgerton Park Conservatory
Make your way through this New Haven park’s lush greenhouses and rainforest exhibit, or see a free play during the annual Shakespeare in the Park festival, held on weekends in August this year.
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Old New Castle
Located just 10 miles south of Wilmington, this colonial town—established way back in 1651—is the perfect destination for history buffs: Stroll the cobblestone streets, tour the court house museum and the beautifully adorned churches, or relax at the riverfront park.
Ashland Nature Center
This 130-acre preserve has something for both of you: The center features a Butterfly House, where you can watch 15 species of butterflies in action, and Hawk Watch Hill, where as many as 10,000 raptors flock during the fall. Open year-round, center is open Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; grounds are open dawn to dusk; Butterfly House open June through September
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Island Water Sports
Forget the day date. This Deerfield Beach opportunity is an early-morning date—and trust us, it’s totally worth the crack-of-dawn wake-up call. Island Water Sports offers free surfing, skim boarding, and stand-up paddleboarding lessons from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. every Saturday. (You just have to register online ahead of time.)
1. Siesta Key Drum Circle
Every Sunday night in Sarasota, about an hour before sunset, a drum circle makes the beach their stage, and dancers and fire jugglers add to the carnival-like atmosphere. All you need to do is bring a blanket and enjoy the show.
2. Downtown Disney
This is the one part of Disney World you can enter for free—and once inside the fanciful city, you can sample Ghiradelli chocolate, watch free dance performances on the outdoor stage or musicians at the House of Blues, or pose for pics with the Disney character statues (#DisneySelfie!).
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George E. Coleman, Sr. Planetarium
Gaze at a simulated sky at the University of North Georgia with 1,000 stars, projected onto a 30-foot diameter dome, and view the sun, five planets, and the moon from your spot on the ground. Free shows on Friday nights at 8 p.m.
Noah’s Ark is not a zoo: This Locust Grove animal sanctuary provides a home for more than 1,500 animals—including bears, tigers, and baboons—all of which were abused or unwanted. An especially adorable sight: A bear, lion, and tiger live together in a single enclosure, and are known as “BLT.” Admission is free. Animal Habitat is open Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 3 p.m.
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Photo: University of North Georgia
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Hula Show at Kuhio Beach Park
Framed by two of Waikiki’s famous surf sites, this beachside park is not only beautiful—it also offers a true Hawaiian cultural experience, with its torch-lighting ceremony and hula show, performed by island dance troupes. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 6:30 to 7:00 p.m. (6 to 7 p.m. from November to January)
Sunset on the Beach
Why pay for movie tickets when you can watch a flick on the beach for free? The movie at Queen’s Beach is projected onto a 30-foot outdoor screen (chairs are provided!), and if you come early, you can catch a free concert.
Photo: Waikiki Improvement Association
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Capital City Public Market
Every Saturday from late April through December, local farmers and artisans gather in Boise to sell their goods—and you can check out the handcrafted artwork, fresh flowers, and colorful produce, and if you’re lucky, score a few free samples. Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs
Idaho has the most hot springs of any state—and you can take a dip in this all-natural Lowell one for free. (You’ll have to hike to get there, but the trail is totally manageable.) Arrive early enough, and you may be able to secure one of the smaller pools, perfect for a party of two.
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Lincoln Park Conservatory & Zoo
Enjoy nature right in the center of Chicago: The conservatory showcases exotic plants in its four display houses (there’s a whole section dedicated to orchids!), while the nearby zoo offers a range of exhibits, from a lion house to a sea lion pool. Conservatory: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Zoo: Open daily, hours vary by season
1. The Second City Improv Shows
In Chicago, catch a free improv performance after the last show (every night but Friday), when the cast of comedians comes up with sketches on the spot. Every night except Friday
2. Chicago SummerDance
Don your dancing shoes and take a free, one-hour dance lesson in Grant Park, held on a 4,900-square-foot open-air floor, and then stick around for the live bands performing afterward. June to September; dance lessons from 6 to 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from 4 to 5 p.m. on Sunday; live music and dancing for two hours immediately afterward
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This gorgeous glass dome in Indianapolis hosts more than 300 free concerts and exhibitions a year, including dance performances, art shows, films, and festivals. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
Concerts in the Park
Throughout the summer, the Indiana Symphony Orchestra offers free concerts in parks across the state’s capital city. Although alcohol isn’t allowed, you are invited to pack a picnic to enjoy during the show. Concerts begin at 8 p.m.
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Credit Island Park
This state has a reputation for consisting entirely of farmland, so you may be pleasantly surprised to learn there’s actually an island in Iowa. Credit Island, a 420-acre park located in the middle of the Mississippi River, offers miles of trails, a horseshoe pit, and plenty of picnic shelters. Open daily from 6:45 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Downtown Farmers’ Market
This Des Moines market, which spans nine city blocks, is far from just a pit stop for local produce. Besides the seemingly endless rows of vendors, there are jugglers, mimes, stilt walkers, and local musicians to watch. Every Saturday from May to October, 7 a.m. to noon
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KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum
So what if it’s a little dorky? You’ll have a blast browsing this free museum in Lawrence, where you can see wildlife exhibits ranging from cute (think prairie dogs and foxes) to creepy (live snakes!), and check out fossils of ancient plants and animals. Admission is free, although a $5 donation is suggested
This isn’t your typical park: This Topeka destination includes a historic mansion rumored to be haunted, 2.5 acres of botanical gardens, a water garden, and an old prairie town you can tour. Open daily; hours vary by season
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Keeneland Thoroughbred Racing
There’s a totally free way to see the state’s famous racehorses in action (and it doesn’t involve sneaking into the Derby): In the morning, you can visit Keeneland to watch the horses practice on the track. Year round, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History
Whether you love history—or you just love a stiff drink—this Bardstown collection of antique whiskey bottles and other related artifacts (including a moonshine still and Abe Lincoln’s liquor license!) is a fun, free way to spend an afternoon with your guy.
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New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
Listen to live jazz almost every day of the week at the Old U.S. Mint, now the home of a state-of-the-art performance venue, or at the French Market visitor center in the historic French Quarter. Schedule varies by day
Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge
Don’t shell out cash for a swamp tour. Instead, take a self-guided stroll through the free refuge’s 15,000 acres of Lacombe’s swampland, located in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. Just watch out for the gators!
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10th Mountain Outdoor Club
Think you can’t afford a ski vacation? Wrong: This outdoor club in northern Maine (Fort Kent) allows public use of its grounds, so you can ski the trails in the colder months (there’s even night skiing), or rollerblade come summer without spending a dime.
Allagash Brewery Tour
During the Portland brewery’s hour-long tour, you’ll have the chance to sample four different beers—or if you don’t feel like taking a tour, you can simply stop by the brewery’s store for a complimentary tasting. (Note: You should reserve a spot on a tour ahead of time, especially on Saturdays.) Tour schedule varies
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The Baltimore Museum of Art
This isn’t just a collection of local art—we’re talking works by Matisse (in fact, the museum has the world’s largest Matisse exhibit), Picasso, Cezanne, and Degas. Altogether, there are 90,000 works of art, and after you’ve had your fill of paintings, you can take a walk through the museum’s gorgeous gardens. Open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Mondays and Tuesdays; admission is free
1. The Walters Art Museum
If you’d rather make art than look at it, head to The Walter Art Museum for free drop-in art classes on Saturdays and Sundays. What’s happening this summer? Sculpture-making seminars. (Who knows, maybe you’ll discover your boyfriend’s inner Donatello!) Every Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
2. Cinema al Fresco
Come to Little Italy in Baltimore early to stake out a spot for your lawn chairs, and enjoy the live music, followed by a movie with an Italian theme, like Rocky and Silver Linings Playbook. An extra incentive: free popcorn. Really, who can argue with that? Friday evenings in July & August, music begins at 7 p.m., movies at 9 p.m.
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Open House at the Boston Sailing Center
You can just enjoy the ride as you sail through Boston Harbor—or you can take your turn at the helm and learn how to sail. The center’s free open houses are first come, first serve, so make sure to arrive around 1 p.m., when sign-ups begin. Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., check the website for dates
1. The Museum of Bad Art
Ever wonder how people define “art”—and then wonder why you can’t see the beauty in certain pieces? Well, at this Brookline museum, you can freely laugh at the art that’s so bad it’s funny—without feeling a trace of guilt. Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
2. Yankee Candle Flagship Store
You’ll be doing much more than just sniffing candles (although you will want to take a whiff of the store’s 400,000 options!): There’s an old-fashioned candlemaking museum, and it “snows” every single day inside this South Deerfield store. In the spring, the Yankee Candle Village is on fire with the blooms of 10,000 tulips and daffodils, and during the store’s Christmas in July event, you can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride for free.
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Grand Haven Musical Fountain
This illuminated fountain is like an after-dark rainbow with its bright array of colors arcing across the sky. During the 20-minute show, the water and lights move in sync with the music, which you can listen to from the radio in your car. Schedule varies by season
Lakenenland Sculpture Park
This isn’t your typical sculpture garden. The 80 pieces in this Marquette park are “junkyard art” made from scrap metal—and were once displayed in the lawn of the man who made them. Open daily; MI-28 E/US-41 S (between Munising and Marquette)
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If you can handle the cold, you’re in for a show: Expert kite flyers show off their skills during the annual Lake Harriet Kite Festival, which also features ice fishing, a marshmallow roast, and wagon rides. During the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can take free sunrise yoga classes at the lake (it’s up to you to convince your guy to attend). Festival schedule varies by year; yoga at 6:30 a.m. daily during the summer
Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary
The oldest public wildflower garden in the country, this 15-acre Minneapolis sanctuary includes over 500 plant species and 130 bird species, which you can learn about as you take a self-guided tour along the garden trail’s 49 educational stations. Mid-April through October 15, 7:30 a.m. to one hour before sunset
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Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
Don’t let the boring name fool you: At this Mississippi nature reserve, you might spot river otters, bobcats, and bottlenose dolphins—and even if your wildlife watching flops, you can still enjoy a gorgeous sunset. Interpretative center open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
This roadside Edwards attraction is a little eerie—but it’s the only cactus plantation in the world, and with its 3,500 varieties of cacti, succulents, and other plants, it really is a sight worth seeing. Monday through Saturday, from 9 to 5; Sunday from 1 to 5
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Saint Louis Zoo
Home to 19,800 animals, this free zoo is as worthwhile as the ones you pay to visit. Make sure to check out the River’s Edge exhibit where some of the most exotic animals reside, including cheetahs, Asian elephants, hippos, and hyenas. Summer hours: Friday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but parking is $15 during peak season
The Money Museum
If you don’t want to spend money, you can look at it for free: Watch millions of dollars of cash being sorted in this Kansas City museum (and see what $40 million looks like), test your ability to spot counterfeit bills, and even design your own currency. Weekdays, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission, tours, and parking are free
Photo: Dave Merritt
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Tasting Room at Headframe Spirits
Grab a stool, and sample some of Headframe Spirits’ latest cocktails, made with their vodka, bourbon, gin, or bourbon cream liqueur. Don’t be surprised if a dog greets you: Wylie is the Distillery Dog who socializes with customers while they drink.
Mount Helena City Park
This park rises more than 5,000 feet above sea level, with miles of hiking and mountain biking trails and picnic tables, perfect for a mid-day break.
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Gene Leahy Pedestrian Mall
Wait until the kiddy crowd clears out of this Omaha staple, then stake a claim on the playground: There are two oversized slides even an adult can enjoy (locals recommend bringing wax paper to go faster), as well as a horseshoe pit and waterfalls. Open daily from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
This 3,000-foot cable bridge is the longest pedestrian bridge to connect two states—Nebraska and Iowa—and lights illuminate the deck at night, making it a ideal place for an evening walk.
Photo: Courtesy of the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau
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Bellagio Conservatory, Botanical Gardens, and Fountains
This indoor paradise has the feel of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with its oversized sculptures, flawless topiaries, and elaborate ponds, bridges, and gazebos. Time your visit to see the free live music from 5 to 6 p.m., then step outside to watch the light show at the hotel’s famous fountains. Gardens open daily, 24 hours. Light show schedule varies
1. Ethel M. Chocolates Factory Tour
This Henderson chocolate company, founded by the creator of M&Ms, offers free, self-guided factory tours (and hands out samples at the end!). Afterward, you can explore the gorgeous Botanical Cactus Garden, which are strung with lights during the holiday season. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
2. The Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo
The highlight of Las Vegas’ habitat is Flamingo Island, where a flock of the bright pink birds live, but you’ll also enjoy watching the hummingbirds, turtles, and swans. Open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk; pelican feedings at 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily
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Anheuser-Busch Brewery Tour
Start your day in Merrimack by learning the art of beer making at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, sample some of the brews, and then wrap up your visit at the Clydesdale Hamlet. This stable is home to the iconic Clydesdale horses, the adorable mascots of the American brewery. Tour times vary
The Basin at Franconia Notch State Park
An Ice Age glacier carved out this giant pothole in Lincoln—it’s 30 feet across and 15 feet deep—in the Pemigewasset River, and was a favorite site of Henry David Thoreau. It’s only a 10-minute walk from the highway pull-off, and there are picnic tables and waterfall hikes nearby.
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Cattus Island County Park
In Toms River, borrow bikes from the visitor center, and cruise down the park’s trail to the beach (bring your bathing suit—swimming is allowed!). Don’t forget to pack a cooler, so you can fire up one of the public grills come dinnertime. Open daily from dawn to dusk
What makes this 77-foot-high waterfall in Paterson so unique is that it’s in the middle of an industrial city, but feels as though it’s miles from civilization. If you want more than a beautiful view, you can sign up for a 1-mile walking tour—you’ll see the falls and the nearby downtown—to learn about local history.
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Breaking Bad Tour
If both of you are Breaking Bad buffs, there’s no better way to spend your day: Drive around Albuquerque to see Walter White’s house, Jesse’s house, Tuco’s hideout, and other memorable sites from the show. (Try this self-guided tour from Lonely Planet.)
1. Jemez Hot Springs
Jemez’s main bathhouse isn’t free, but if you hike into the nearby forests, you can take a dip in the natural springs at no cost. One of the most accessible free spots: Spence Hot Springs.
If you’re not afraid of heights, Los Alamos is the perfect adventure date: Explore the Tsankawi section of the Bandelier National Monument, where you can walk along a mesa, climb ladders, and check out an ancient pueblo village carved in the mountainside. Park is open daily from dawn to dusk
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Museum of the Moving Image
Ever wondered how movies are made? The NYC museum’s permanent exhibit walks you through the creative and technical process of filmmaking and TV production. Then apply what you learned: Make a photo flip book, or record your voices over movie dialogue. Or if it’s the culture of movies and TV that appeals to you, peruse the 1,400 moving image artifacts, including TV sets, costumes, and makeup (they even have the makeup from Sex in the City on display!). Free admission on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m.
Summer on the Hudson: Kayaking on the Hudson
Simply show up at The Downtown Boathouse in your bathing suit, and take a free 20-minute kayaking lesson on the Hudson River. Other fun (and free) offerings at Riverside Park: dance workshops, Pilates classes, and yoga sessions. Every Saturday and Sunday now through September, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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There are no paved roads in this area of the Outer Banks, which equals pristine beaches (and hopefully less competition for space on the sand). Sunbathing isn’t the only attraction: This Outer Banks destination is home to wild mustangs, known to run along the shore.
Hornets Nest Park
If it’s an active date you’re after—or just want to watch other athletes in action—head to the Hornets Nest in Charlotte: This park features softball fields, tennis courts, a BMX bicycle track, basketball courts, a fishing pier, a disc golf course, horseshoe pits, and sand volleyball courts.
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The Enchanted Highway
This 32-mile stretch of North Dakota highway in Regent is decorated with towering metal sculptures—be sure to see “A Covey of Pheasants” and “The World’s Largest Grasshopper”—all built by one local artist, who wanted to spruce up the area. Pack a picnic, because there are parks and tables underneath the sculptures.
Celebrity Walk of Fame
Can’t make it to Hollywood? Just head to Fargo’s visitor center. This stretch of sidewalk features more than 110 handprints of famous people, ranging from Garth Brooks to Alice Cooper to Richard Simmons. Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
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Cleveland Orchestra Public Square Concerts
This renowned musical ensemble periodically holds free community concerts, such as the annual “A Star-Spangled Spectacular” show, which ends with an awesome fireworks display.
Shakespeare in the Park
Each year, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus holds free, outdoor productions of Shakespeare’s classics at Schiller Park. This season’s selections: Hamlet, The Barber of Seville, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. from May through August
Photo: Roger Mastrioanni
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Oklahoma boasts the longest drivable stretch of the historic Route 66—and lots of classic (and quirky) roadside attractions: the Blue Whale of Catoosa, the Arcadia Round Barn, and Ed Galloway’s Totem Pole Park.
1. Chickasaw National Recreation Area
This national park—the first one in Oklahoma—is a go-to spot for cooling off: There are flowing creeks with waterfalls, including one called Little Niagara, and the Lake of the Arbuckles and Veterans Lake, both open for swimming. Park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
2. Twister Museum
If you were a kid in the 1990s, then you undoubtedly saw Twister. There’s no better way to reminisce together than visiting this Wakita Twister museum, which goes behind the scenes of the famous flick, showing you how it was made and what props were used. Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 p.m.; April through September
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Crater Lake National Park
Crater Lake National Park is among the snowiest inhabited places in North America—which means it’s a prime spot for snowshoeing. From November through April, the park rangers offer 2-hour guided showshoe hikes (the shoes are provided) through the stunning wilderness. If you’re visiting from July to September, you can still sign up for a guided hike—just minus the snow! Walks at 1 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday, from late November to the end of April
International Rose Test Garden
Although this Portland garden exists for the purpose of testing new types of roses, it’s also a sweet-smelling spot for a romantic stroll: There are more than 10,000 plants and over 500 varieties, with about 200 new rose cultivars being tested each year. Bonus: From the garden, you get an awesome view of Mount Hood, a volcano. Currently open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Photo: CraterLakeNPS on Flickr
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Presque Isle State Park
This Erie park is actually a sand spit jutting out into Lake Erie—and consists of 11 separate beaches, each with its own unique personality. Sunset Point, for example, is known as “Kite Beach,” because it draws kite flyers from all over (and offers an awesome free show for you), while the Mill Road Beaches are known for being clean and quiet. The park is even worth visiting in the winter: The waves freeze to create stunning ice dunes. Beaches are open daily from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The Comcast Experience HD Video Wall
We’re assuming you already know about the free historic sites in Philly—but did you know the city is also home to a 2,075-square-foot LED screen? The Comcast Center offers free programming on the mega-screen—which has 5 times the resolution of a high-definition TV—18 hours a day, including a special 3-D holiday show (starting at Thanksgiving), sporting events, and nature scenes. Open daily from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m.
Photo: VisitErie and Ferralli Studios
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Gallery Night Providence
Not only do galleries across Providence offer free entrance for this Thursday event—and serve complimentary wine and cheese—but this event also includes free two-hour bus tours of selected galleries. (Read: You can drink as much free wine as you want!) Every third Thursday from March to November; bus tours begin at 5:20 p.m. and leave every 20 minutes until 7 p.m.
1. Cliff Walk
On one side of this 3.5-mile pathway is the New England shoreline—and on the other side are Newport’s famous (and sprawling) mansions. Don’t tackle this trail unless you’re a little daring: In some places, the cliffs are up as high as 70 feet!
2. WaterFire Providence
This eye-catching display consists of over 80 bonfires—all of which float on the river—as well as flames dancing on the surrounding bridges. There’s also a glowing Starry, Starry Night installation, with a collection of candle lanterns that appear to be floating in the sky. Schedule varies, lighting occurs shortly after sunset and lasts until just past midnight; admission is free, although a $5 donation per person is suggested
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Hot Summer Nights at Plyler Park
Located near the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk, this park offers a break from the beach, with its free concerts (offered several nights a week), kiddy carnivals on Monday nights (who says grown-ups can’t go?), and fireworks over the ocean on Wednesdays. Concerts begin at 8 p.m.; fireworks begin at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday nights
This barrier island is known for its black-and-white lighthouse—and its relative lack of waves. That makes Sullivan’s Island the perfect spot for a quiet dip or relaxing on the shore with your significant other.
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Historic Deadwood in the Black Hills
This is one place where outlaws are welcome: This South Dakota town was once known for gambling, prostitution, and gunslinging—now it’s a National Historic Landmark, with reenactments of street shootouts (free to watch!), saloons, and the wild vibe of an old-west town.
Archery Basics at the Outdoor Campus West
Make like Katniss and learn to shoot a bow with skill: The staff at this Rapid City, South Dakota facility will teach you how to aim an arrow—and then set you loose on bulls-eye targets. Classes throughout June and July (check website for schedule), from 6 to 7 p.m.
Photo: South Dakota Tourism
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The Jack Daniel’s Distillery
Become a friend of Jack—face to face in Lynchburg: This free tour takes you through the famous Jack Daniel’s distillery, which, interestingly, is located in a dry county. (Unfortunately, if you want a longer tour that involves samples of whiskey, you’ll have to pay a small fee.) Afterward, take a drive through the quaint surrounding town, and consider stopping at the Lynchburg Hardware & General Store. Tours daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
A visit to Nashville isn’t complete without a little music—and at this summer festival, held on Thursdays, you can get a taste of the local music scene for free. And as the name implies, this isn’t just an observer’s event: You’re expected to get in on the action and bust out a few moves. Thursdays at Riverfront Park through June and July; music starts at 6 p.m.
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Fort Worth Water Gardens
This tract of land used to be known as Hell’s Half-Acre for its brothels and saloons—but it’s since been transformed into a magical oasis, with a meditation pool, cascading waterfalls, and a slew of fountains.
Mount Bonnell at Covert Park
Austin may take pride in being (and staying) weird—but don’t think the city is only about quirky art. It’s also got gorgeous scenery to offer: Hike up this short trail, and you’ll score an awesome view of the city and Lake Austin. Hint: Aim to arrive in the evening, so you can watch the sunset.
Photo: Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau
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Utah Olympic Park
Built for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, this nearly 400-acre park is now a year-round training facility for top-notch athletes—and you can enter the park (and watch the athletes in action) for free. If you want a tour, you’ll have to shell out $10—but you get to see the top of the ski jump and the bobsled luge. Activities are available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; museums open at 9 a.m.
Ophir Ghost Town
If you’re into exploring, take a drive out to this mostly abandoned mining town, which fell on hard times after the area’s silver supply was exhausted. You’ll see the former city hall, falling-down houses, and the original post office—all with an eerie vibe sure to give you a chill.
Photo: Utah Olympic Park
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Free Outdoor Movie Fest at Ben & Jerry’s
You have to pay for a factory tour of Ben & Jerry’s (bummer, right?), but there is a way to score free samples: On Tuesday nights in Waterbury, the ice-cream purveyor shows movies outside its factory, and often offers free tastes before the show. This summer’s flicks: The Hobbit 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Despicable Me 2, among other recent hits.
Rock of Ages Visitor Center
Tours of the nearly 600-foot-deep granite quarry in Graniteville, which was featured in a Star Trek movie, cost $5—but you can try your hand at outdoor granite bowling for free. You can also take home a souvenir: The center offers free granite samples to its visitors. Hours vary by season
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The Packard Campus Theater
This Art Deco theater shows classic films you’ll both enjoy—think Caddyshack and Animal House—for free every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Although admission is free, you should make reservations since spots in the 205-seat house go fast. Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. or 7:30 p.m.
1. McCormick Observatory
Embrace your inner nerd: On the first and third Friday of every month, you can take a peek in the University of Virginia’s telescope—which was, at one time, the second largest in the world—for free. (You can also catch one of the rotating science exhibits.)
Maybe you’ll never make it to England to see the real deal—so why not take a few snapshots with this full-size replica of Stonehenge? Built in 2004, it’s made entirely out of foam, but is convincing enough to pass as the real thing in your pics.
Photo: Abby Brack Lewis / Library of Congress
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Mount St. Helens National Park
If you’re not interested in climbing an active volcano (which requires a permit), there’s still plenty to do at this park: Check out the Forest Learning Center, located inside the blast zone of the 1980 eruption. Here, you can see awesome views of the mountain and hike a short trail.
Nordstrom’s Flagship Store
If you’re lucky enough to have a boyfriend who likes to shop—or just enjoys watching you in action—head to the first-ever Nordstrom’s, located in Seattle, for a complimentary wardrobe consultation. (Note: Make sure to book ahead of time). The store’s stylists can dress you for a special occasion, give you a full wardrobe update, or even provide your guy with a menswear consultation.
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Blenko Glass Company
Prepare to be amazed: Watch these Milton glass masters turn piping-hot liquid—it glows like fire!—into beautiful glass sculptures, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for even the most basic of vases. Schedule varies, but demonstrations are often held from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
At this Huntington park, you can ride a zip line, play a bongo, watch a water show, enjoy the scents of the rose garden, or take your dog to the Petco park—no wonder it was named one of the Great Places of America by the American Planning Association.
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Crandon Water Ski Shows
Since 1962, water skiers have been performing on Lack Lucerne during the summer, executing moves as complicated as three-tiered pyramids, and sometimes going barefoot. Wednesday evenings, from late June through late August
Whatever your taste, there’s a tour: You can see how jelly beans are made at the Jelly Belly Visitor Center, sample brews during the Miller Coors Milwaukee Brewery tour, or be a badass for a day at the Harley-Davison Powertrain Operations facility in Menomonee Falls.
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The Hobo Pool
Indian tribes used to lay their weapons in these Saratoga hot springs, once thought to be healing. Today, you can relax in the pool, often as hot as 119°F, for free, or take a dip in the “not so hot” pool, which hovers around 100°F.
Not only does this rink offer free ice-skating, you can even borrow a pair of skates for free. All you have to do is bundle up—and try to impress your date by staying upright! Open skate schedule varies by day