Quite often, the most interesting way to explore and get to know a new place is simply by walking around and watching people. Especially in cultures that are very different from your own, people-watching is often more fascinating than visiting a museum, church, or temple. Markets, parks, beaches, and just regular streets give you glimpses into locals at work and at play, couples, families, etc. And this costs you nothing!

Granted, in several large cities, your sightseeing list is likely to include some “must-see” monuments, museums, or temples which probably justify the expense. Just choose wisely (depending on your schedule, budget, and interests) and don’t feel obligated to see everything in the guidebook and cram your days with “sights” from morning to night. Just “being” and soaking in the atmosphere from a local cafe brings its own rewards.

Having said that, I’ve compiled a list of tips for saving money on sightseeing during your next trip, without cutting into your enjoyment. It is surprising the number of things you can do for free in any given city.

Ghent, Belgium (saving money on sightseeing)

Sightseeing in beautiful Ghent, Belgium

 9 ways to sightsee for free (or at least for less)

  • Several cities offer free walking tours. Start by checking out the Global Greeter Network to see if they cover the city you’re visiting.
  • Drop by the tourist office and look for those free “city guide” booklets. They often offer discount coupons for attractions.
  • Most museums have a free evening, or day. Some are always free! For example, the Louvre in Paris is free on the first Sunday of the month. Websites or a good guidebook should have the details.
  • During the warm (or dry) season, many towns and cities offer free music concerts, movies, even theatre in the park.
  • There is always a festival happening somewhere (jazz festival, wine festival, and so on) and they offer many free events.
  • Walking, hiking, or just enjoying nature in an urban park, is (usually) free.
  • Markets are colourful, full of locals, and usually fun to walk around. They can also provide cheap food or souvenirs.
  • Some cities offer a pass (for a fixed fee) that allows entrance to several museums and attractions, and often public transit as well, over a given number of days. Depending on what you’re planning to see, these can save you a lot of money.
  • As mentioned in my transportation post, a ferry ride to a nearby suburb or island can often replace a more expensive cruise as a way to get you on a local river, or lake, and with similar views.
Guided walk with Eric, Portland, OR

Free (tips only) city walk in Portland, USA

For more inspiration, here is a post I wrote about 10 free things to do in Perth. Perth is Australia’s most expensive city. And here is another one about 10 free things to do in Toronto this summer.

Remember that some very popular attractions need to be booked in advance. Fortunately, many can be booked online. Examples that come to mind are the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Robben Island in Cape Town, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Hypogeum in Malta, and the Alhambra in Granada (Spain). These are not free!

Hop-on hop-off buses

These brightly painted double-decker buses seem to be proliferating all over the world. They look awfully touristy, and even tacky. And they’re not cheap. So what’s the deal? Are they worth it, or not? My answer is “maybe”. It depends a lot on what you want to see, how much time you have, how large the city is, and how good and cheap the public transit is. Basically, if you want to see a lot of attractions over a large distance in a short time, these buses begin to make sense. You need to read the brochure, look at the itinerary, the cost, and the frequency of pick-ups.

Riding the hop-on hop-off bus in Cordoba, Argentina

Riding the hop-on hop-off bus in Cordoba, Argentina

The main advantage: you don’t have to plan how to get somewhere and can see many attractions in a short time. Some buses also provide commentary.

The main disadvantage: you need to look at your watch constantly and may not be able to linger by fear of missing the next bus and having to wait 30 minutes or more. You are being herded.

In Athens last year, I ended up on such a bus mostly because I had a free voucher for it. By that point I had already visited most sights on my own, which were easily accessible by metro. The bus stopped at all the same places (except perhaps one I that I hadn’t seen). Because it could only move on the main traffic-chocked streets, it missed all the pedestrian alleys of Plaka, as well as the narrower streets that link plazas and ruins, which in my opinion are what make Athens interesting.

One last tip

If ever you arrive somewhere without a guidebook, and quickly want to know what there is to see at your location, go to TripAdvisor and enter your city in the Search box at the top. Then select “Things to do” from the for field next to it. This will give you a long list of attractions and activities, with ranking and reviews. Categories on the left hand-side let you filter the results further. (Tip: You can use TripAdvisor to find hotels and vacation rentals too!)

Do you have some other sightseeing tips? Please let us know in the comments below.

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