This post is by staff writer April Dykman.
When I’m planning a vacation, I usually pick up a copy of a “cheap and free” guidebook that lists inexpensive attractions and secret-gem restaurants. A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting my friend Frank, who is a recent transplant to the East coast, and he saw my guidebook. “I need something like that so I know what inexpensive stuff there is to do in my own town.”
Which made me think, so do I!
When I’m visiting some other city, I usually have a list of free attractions or inexpensive, Zagat-approved restaurants, but I can’t really name places like that that are in my hometown. That’s not because I’m a big spender when I’m at home, it’s because my husband and I love to cook, so we rarely eat at restaurants, and we live in the country, so it’s just easier to stream a Netflix movie than to drive to the theater. Nevertheless, sometimes we have company over and want to show them around or we feel like getting out of the house, and it’d be nice to have a budget-friendly guide to our town.
But we don’t live in New York City. We don’t even live in a mid-sized city — we live 30 minutes outside of one. So until Frommer’s gets around to writing a book about our little town (which will be never), finding inexpensive entertainment isn’t as easy as buying a guidebook.
Undeterred, I started a list of resources where I could learn more about free and cheap attractions, things to do, and restaurants in any town, large or small. Here’s what I found:
- Google “Free things to do in [your city]“. Yes, it’s obvious, but someone has already made a list of ideas for your city, even if it’s a blink-and-you’ll miss kind of town. Your luck here will vary, though. The first list that popped up on my search had some lame ones — why is a pediatric center in a neighboring city on a list of fun things to do in my town? But it also had some good ideas, like visiting an 80,000-year-old living cave.
- Check out travel sites. Here’s another one where your results will vary, but it’s worth a search. I was surprised to find attractions and restaurants listed for my town on TripAdvisor, but there wasn’t much, and the search results didn’t turn up anything new or particularly exciting. If you live in a mid-sized or large city, travel sites will probably yield better results for you.
- Research at the library. The library is always a good place to begin a search for things that are free! Everyone knows you can checkout books and DVDs, but hunt for the “events calendar” either online or in person. Most of the activities I found at my library were for kids, like book clubs, art classes, story time, and Bow Wow Reading Dogs, a reading program that uses dog therapy to help below-grade-level readers improve their skills. For adults, there was a GED class, computer classes, a knitting group, and a program called Travel Talks that’s all about traveling — from planning a trip and getting a passport to what to take and when to go.
- Search for a local parks and recreation site. One of the goals of of my town’s parks and recreation program is to “enhance the quality of life” for its citizens. I discovered a list of upcoming events on the website, such as movies in the park, a kite festival, free Zumba classes, and a very active senior citizens group that plans events like wine tasting and picnics. The department even has its own Facebook page (sometimes I underestimate our town!), which is another way to keep up with upcoming events.
- Go to your state’s parks and wildlife website. Most state sites provide a map of parks with a list of sites and recreational activities to help you plan your visit. Whether you want to rent kayaks or go fishing, you can probably find a nearby park that will accommodate.
- Subscribe to local ‘zines. We have a local paper called Impact News that’s a great resource for new restaurants and events in our area. (You can search for local blogs if you don’t have a paper that specifically covers your community.) For example, in the last issue there was a story about new bakery in my area that offers daily lunch specials (and included a coupon for a free coffee when you buy a pastry). There’s also an event calendar in the paper and online, with free or cheap activities like fun runs and special open-air markets.
- Browse The Historical Marker Database. My little town isn’t in the history books, but that doesn’t mean nothing ever happened here! One interesting site I read about in the database was the spot where 30 people were massacred by a band of Comanche Indians. There’s also a historical site nearby where the a skeleton of a prehistoric woman was found, the earliest intact burial uncovered in the United States. Try searching for your town’s historical markers — there might be a site or two worth a visit.
- Seek out the arts (but enjoy high-culture for less). Our own Donna Freedman covered this topic thoroughly, so if you missed it, take a look. My town might not have museums or a ballet company, but the city nearby does, and there are a lot of ways to enjoy these activities on a budget.
It’s natural to get excited about traveling somewhere new, but obviously there’s a lot I haven’t explored in my own backyard, or my neighboring backyards! And just like the destination cities I’ve visited, there’s plenty for a “budget traveler” to do right here. In fact, after browsing the Texas State Park and Wildlife site, I’m feeling the urge to kayak some unexplored (by me) waters.
How much do you know about budget-friendly attractions in your own town? Do you have other places you go to learn about new, inexpensive activities and restaurants?
This article is about Odds and Ends