Land of the Free Vacations

Gas at $4 a gallon? A trip around the country can still be a bargain. These 25 destinations teach a little bit about history, science, nature, and culture -- without costing a cent.

By Carl M. Cannon from Reader's Digest | July 2008
Panda PartyJIM YOUNG/REUTERSPlenty of American cities have a zoo. Only four have giant pandas.

     


  • 1

    Rocket Launch

    Cocoa Beach, Florida
    Jump-start your adventure by observing a NASA shuttle or rocket launch on Florida’s “Space Coast.” Locals celebrate launch day at Cocoa Beach Pier, though the better view is from Space View Park in Titusville, 30 miles away. Watching is free-and to see a launch is to remember it forever.

  • 2

    Flight Check

    Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

    As you greet the sunrise on the dunes, you’ll have the same Atlantic Ocean view Orville and Wilbur Wright enjoyed the morning they pioneered flight. Admission to the museum at Kitty Hawk is free for those 15 and under, and the beach is open to all.

  • 3

    Citizenship Ceremony

    Charlottesville, Virginia

    Every Independence Day, an event guaranteed to inspire lumps in the throat and warm feelings of national pride takes place at Thomas Jefferson’s home. Since 1963, the highlight of Monticello’s July 4th festivities has been the swearing in of new American citizens. Over the years, some of the most poignant sentiments have come from foreign-born guest speakers (architect I. M. Pei, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). Filmmaker Ken Burns will speak at this year’s event.

  • 4

    Cemetery Walk

    Arlington, Virginia

    Veterans of every armed conflict from the Revolutionary War to the war in Iraq are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, as are astronauts, explorers, Supreme Court Justices, and Presidents. John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline, and brother Robert are buried near the Tomb of the Unknowns. At the top of the hill is Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s former plantation, plus a panoramic view of Washington, D.C.

  • 5

    Gallery Tour

    Washington, D.C.

    Monuments and museums dot the capital, with free entry to almost all of them. Don’t overlook one of the lesser-known showpieces: Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery stands as visual testimony to American greatness, with images ranging from sports heroes to movie stars.

  • 6

    Panda Party

    Washington, D.C.

    Plenty of American cities have a zoo. Only four have giant pandas. On July 9, Tai Shan, the panda cub born to great fanfare at the National Zoo, celebrates his third birthday. To ensure a glimpse of the cub and his parents, arrive in the early morning or late afternoon, when pandas are most active.

  • 7

    9/11 Memorial

    Shanksville, Pennsylvania

    On September 11, 2001, passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 tried to gain control of the plane. They lost that fight, and their lives, but saved many others. The memorial being built in the field where the jet crashed is not yet permanent, but your memories of the visit will be.

  • 8

    Afternoon in the Park

    New York City

    Central Park is full of free fun, with its walking paths, softball games, open-air concerts, and 21 children’s playgrounds. The Central Park Conservancy offers basketball clinics on Thursdays and Saturdays for kids 9 to 17-no preregistration required. Admire the miniature remote-control sailboats on the pond, visit the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon, or take in one of the many no-cost dance, theater, and film events run by Central Park SummerStage.

  • 9

    Ancestor Search

    New York City

    Forty percent of us trace our heritage to the immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island in New York Harbor. You’ll pay a ferry charge to get there ($12; $10 for seniors; $5 for kids) but no fee to visit the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island. At the American Family Immigration History Center, $5 lets you search the ships’ records to discover when your ancestors arrived on these shores.

  • 10

    Campus Visit

    Cambridge, Massachusetts

    If you hit the Boston area on a Sunday, you can hear Reverend Professor Peter Gomes, known for his mellifluous voice, dry humor, and ecumenical sermons, preach at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Nearby is Annenberg Hall, the freshman dining facility modeled after the great halls at Oxford and Cambridge. Henry James referred to this building as a “house of honor and hospitality.” Contemporary visitors who peek through the doorway at the soaring ceilings and stained-glass windows will simply think, Hogwarts.

  • 11

    Bridge Crossing

    Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts

    The confrontation here between the minutemen and the British launched the Revolutionary War. On any July or August day, you can visit Concord’s old North Bridge free of charge, cross the river where the Americans made their stand, and see Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words etched in stone: “By the rude bridge that arched the flood,/Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,/ Here once the embattled farmers stood,/And fired the shot heard round the world.”

  • 12

    Natural Wonder

    Niagara Falls, New York

    This phenomenon on New York’s Canadian border has beguiled human beings for centuries. Native Americans called it Thundering Waters and believed its roaring sound emanated from the spiritual world. Legend claims they sent a maiden over the falls in a canoe. Since then, generations of daredevils have tested its power. Gaze from Prospect Point in Niagara Falls State Park. Admission is free, although parking costs $8.

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