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15 free and inexpensive places to go this summer

Cafe Du Monde Fill up for just a few dollars at Café du Monde in New Orleans. | Photo courtesy New Orleans & Company

Inflation has rippled through the economy in recent months, affecting everything from eggs to electricity. But don’t despair about not being able to afford fun. For a just a few bucks or less, enjoy these inexpensive outings across the region.

1. Forest Park attractions

St. Louis

The Muny

The Muny provides more than 1,400 free seats during each performance. | Photo courtesy The Muny

Forest Park’s free attractions have made it a favorite destination for generations. Catch an outdoor show in one of more than 1,400 free seats reserved for each performance at The Muny. The season closes with The Color Purple (August 3–9) and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (August 12–18). You’ll also find free entry to the Missouri History Museum, the Saint Louis Science Center, and the Saint Louis Art Museum.

You can also stroll through the world-famous Saint Louis Zoo, home to more than 14,000 animals, without paying admission. From a treetop boardwalk and see-through tunnels, glimpse monkeys and lemurs in the zoo’s latest habitat—the Michael and Quirsis Riney Primate Canopy Trails. And for $5.95 per person ages 2 and up, encounter stationary and animatronic dinosaurs in the Emerson Dinoroarus exhibit, open through October 31 this year.

2. The Money Museum at the Fed

Kansas City, Missouri

Money Museum

Learn about money and the economy at the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. | Photo courtesy the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Leave your money in your pockets when touring the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank. It’s free. Study the history of inflation, see the Harry S. Truman collection of U.S. minted coins, and learn how to decide whether to splurge or save. Visitors even get a parting gift bag of shredded money. In St. Louis, explore finances further at the Economy Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank, which also offers free admission.

3. Lincoln Home National Historic Site

Springfield, Illinois

Cozy Dog Drive In

Savor a corn dog at Cozy Dog Drive In. | Photo courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Save your pennies because you won’t need them at the Lincoln Home. This National Historic Site preserves Lincoln’s home along with the 13 other historic houses in the neighborhood. Established 50 years ago, the site offers a glimpse into the Lincoln family’s 17 years there. Use the cents saved on admission at Cozy Dog Drive In, home of one of the first versions of the corn dog. You’ll pay just $2.55 for a hand-battered, crispy fried hot dog.

Read more: Midwestern presidential homes and museums

4. National Great Rivers Museum

Alton, Illinois

National Great Rivers Museum

The Melvin Price Locks and Dam. | Photo courtesy Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau of Southwest Illinois

At the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, the National Great Rivers Museum examines the history of the Mississippi River and the forces that have shaped the powerful waterway. Among the 20 interactive and kid-friendly exhibits in this free museum, you can pilot a towboat down the river. Visit at the right time, and you might catch a barge passing through the lock system during daily tours.

5. Monastery Immaculate Conception

Ferdinand, Indiana

Monastery Immaculate Conception

Free tours of the Monastery Immaculate Conception showcase heavenly architecture and gardens. | Photo courtesy Visit Dubois County

Experience spiritual peace and enjoy amazing architecture at the Monastery Immaculate Conception, home of the Sisters of St. Benedict. Known as the Castle on the Hill with a dome that’s visible for miles, the site dates to 1867 and includes lovely gardens, a labyrinth, and 3 shrines. Explore on your own or take a guided tour offered at various times Tuesday through Sunday. Stop in the St. Benedict’s Brew Works on the grounds of the monastery for some spicy Wisconsin cheese curds and a pint of Sanctimonious Stout, which will set you back $10.50. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

6. Howell Wetlands

Evansville, Indiana

Donut Bank Bakery and Coffee

Fuel up on inexpensive—but delicious—donuts at Donut Bank Bakery and Coffee before exploring Howell Wetlands. | Photo courtesy Donut Bank Bakery and Coffee

Bank on a good breakfast at any of 9 locations of Donut Bank Bakery and Coffee in town, where you can pick up a Chocolate Long John or any other assorted donut for just $1.39. Sufficiently fueled up for a hike, head to Howell Wetlands, one of Indiana’s largest urban wetlands at 35 acres. Boardwalks over a lake and Bald Cypress Basin form part of the free 2-mile trail system that also showcases a lowland hardwood forest and an upland meadow among other natural wonders.

7. Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead

Overland Park, Kansas

Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead

You can pet goats, explore barns, and ride a wagon at Deanna Rose Children's Farmstead. | Photo courtesy City of Overland Park, Kansas

Down on the farm has never been so much fun, especially after 2 p.m. from Monday through Thursday at Deanna Rose Children’s Farmstead, when admission is free. Otherwise, it’s just $3 per person ages 3 and older. The 24-acre farmstead features playgrounds, barns, a 1-room schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, and more than 250 animals and birds. For a few extra bucks, feed the livestock, take a wagon ride, or go fishing in the pond.

8. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Strong City, Kansas

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Explore the prairie and peek in a historic 1-room schoolhouse at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. | Photo courtesy Kansas Tourism

Lose yourself and your worries in the peaceful wide-open spaces of this national preserve that protects one of the last remnants of the nation’s tallgrass prairie ecosystem. And you don’t have to worry about an admission fee, either. Hike trails that pass through tallgrasses before linking to scenic overlooks with breathtaking views of grazing buffalo. Explore the ranch house, barn, and outbuildings in addition to the prairie, and you can peer through the windows of the historic Lower Fox Creek 1-room schoolhouse nearby.

9. Walmart Museum

Bentonville, Arkansas

Walmart Museum

The Walmart Museum preserves the history of the retailer and founder Sam Walton's legacy. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT)

Discover the humble origins of Sam Walton’s enormous retail enterprise at his original Bentonville store that’s now the Walmart Museum. Like any Walmart store, the museum overflows with stuff, but in this case it’s company memorabilia and historical displays, including Walton’s Ford pickup truck. Shop for retro toys and souvenirs in Walton’s 5 & 10 and indulge in a single-scoop ice cream cone for just $1.29 at the Spark Café Soda Fountain, both located inside the museum.

Read more: Why mountain bikers, art lovers, and foodies are visiting Bentonville, Arkansas

10. Historic Arkansas Museum

Little Rock, Arkansas

Historic Arkansas Museum

A sculpture of square dancers enlivens the entrance to the Historic Arkansas Museum. | Photo courtesy Historic Arkansas Museum

Open a free window to the past at the Historic Arkansas Museum, which encompasses a city block in the heart of Little Rock. Museum exhibits and artifacts chronicle the state’s frontier era and beyond, and visitors can see some of Arkansas’ oldest buildings, including the 1827 Hinderliter Grog Shop, an 1830s log house, and the 1840s McVicar and Brownlee Houses. A Living History program brings original residents and other historical characters to life.

Read more: A guide to visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas

11. Louisiana State Capitol

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Louisiana Capitol

Free tours showcase the intriguing history of the 34-story Louisiana Capitol, the nation's tallest statehouse. | Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

For the best view in Baton Rouge, head to the 34-story state Capitol building, the nation’s tallest statehouse. Completed in 1931, the soaring landmark overlooks a 27-acre campus highlighted by lovely lakes and gardens. On weekdays, you can take in the spectacle—and nearly all of downtown Baton Rouge—from the 27th-floor observation deck. On free tours, learn about the skyscraper and its mastermind, colorful and controversial Governor Huey Long, who was assassinated in the building and is buried on the grounds.

12. Royal Street

New Orleans, Louisiana

Royal Street

Peruse art galleries, boutiques, and antique shops along Royal Street. | Photo courtesy New Orleans & Company

Window shopping along the French Quarter’s Royal Street is free, but there’s a good chance you’ll find something to buy. Unlike bawdy Bourbon Street, which runs parallel, Royal offers a touch of Creole charm and refinement. The street brims with art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, eateries, and the occasional fortune teller. 

Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter serves up delicious beignets and coffee 24 hours a day. | Photo courtesy New Orleans & Company

After browsing, eat cheap, which isn’t always easy in the Big Easy, with a snack at the legendary Café du Monde where 3 beignets will fill you up for $3.75.

13. The birthplace of Kermit

Leland, Mississippi

Kermit the Frog Exhibit

Leland honors native son Jim Henson, creator of Kermit the Frog and the Muppets, with an exhibit that celebrates his life and work. | Photo courtesy Visit Mississippi

Hometown of Muppet creator Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog, Leland is justifiably proud of its native son (and frog). The town’s “Birthplace of the Frog: An Exhibit of Jim Henson’s Delta Boyhood,” housed in the former Washington County Tourist Center, celebrates Henson with a tableau that includes photographs, memorabilia, and a replica of a scene from The Muppet Movie. The site is on the banks of Deer Creek, where Henson played as a boy and found the inspiration for the beloved amphibian. While admission is free, donations are accepted.

14. Mississippi Delta tamales

Greenville, Mississippi


Wrapped in corn shucks, savory hot tamales are a Mississippi Delta delicacy. | Photo Matt Hellman –

You can’t visit the Mississippi Delta without sampling a steaming tamale wrapped in corn shucks, a menu staple with a rich history. Some say Mexican laborers introduced tamales to the area when they picked cotton in the early 1900s, while others say U.S. soldiers brought back recipes from the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s. A few dollars will buy a bundle of hot tamales at most any local shuck shack, such as Hot Tamale Heaven in Greenville, where 3 golden brown fried tamales are $5.99.

15. Windsor plantation ruins

Port Gibson, Mississippi

Windsor Ruins

Photographers often capture historic Windsor Ruins, free to visit, for the site's stark beauty. | Photo by Tom Beck/courtesy of MDAH

While all that remains of Windsor plantation just south of Port Gibson are 28 full and partial masonry columns in a state of decay, the eerie site remains one of Mississippi’s most iconic landmarks. The ruins, which are free to visit from dawn until dusk, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and provide a fascinating subject for photographs. Both Union and Confederate troops used the home, completed in 1861. A cigar left on a balcony ignited a fire that destroyed the mansion in 1890. No visitor amenities exist at the site, which can be inaccessible after heavy rains.

Suzanne Corbett is a contributor from St. Louis, Missouri. AAA Explorer Regional Editor Dennis R. Heinze contributed some information.

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