Free for all
At festivals and attractions across the region, fun doesn't cost a thing.
© Beth Gauper
A young woman hands out apples at Bayfield's Apple Festival.
It's amazing how many things are free around here.
We pay nothing to watch fireworks and water-ski shows, use trails and parks, visit zoos and museums and go to hundreds of outdoor festivals, art fairs and concerts.
Our children fill baskets at free Easter egg hunts and rake in armfuls of candy at summer and fall parades.
Who's behind all this largesse? Foundations, businesses and taxpayers, but mostly thousands of hard-working volunteers. We take them for granted, but you won't find so much non-stop generosity in other regions and especially not other countries. We're lucky folks.
Here are some of the best free things to see and do in the Upper Midwest.
Some are free all the time, and others just for a day or two, so mark your calendars. If you're a mom or a dad, watch for
free admissions on Mother's Day in May and Father's Day in June.
Do you know of other really cool free things to do? Tell us, and we'll add them to this list.
And for many almost-free things to do, see our Cheap Trips section.
The most incredible deal, hands-down, is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a palace of world-class art, old and new. Its monthly Family Days, which feature music, dance, games and storytelling, also are free. Just for comparison, the Chicago Art Institute now charges $18.
In Wausau, Wis., the family-friendly Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum always has something children love — in spring of 2012, "Dinotopia'' — and beloved Birds in Art exhibits.
In Madison, free
tours of the magnificent State Capitol
are given daily. Madison on the Cheap lists other free museums and attractions, including the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
and Museum of Contemporary Art.
If you have a Bank of America credit or debit card, you get free admission the first full weekend of each month to 150 Museums on Us, including Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and Art Institute and the Twin Cities' Fort Snelling and Minnesota History Center.
Near Milwaukee in Genessee Depot, Ten Chimneys gives away 200 free tickets for its $35 Estate Tour on May 26. If you're one of the first 100 people to call on a certain Sunday — watch for the date to be posted in April — you'll be sent two free tickets to tour the house and treated to cake and champagne.
© Beth Gauper
In Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo is fabulous and free.
On State Street in Madison, the Overture Center holds fun Kids in the Rotunda concerts on Saturdays during the school
year. In Chicago, the Cultural
Center in the Loop draws on the deep well of local talent to offer performances year-round.
In summer, there are way too many fabulous concerts to list; nearly every town offers some.
Most notable is Chicago's Grant Park Festival, where top-tier
classical musicians perform in Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion from mid-June to mid-August.
In Madison, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra performs Concerts on the Square Wednesday evenings from late June
through early August.
In Chicago, believe it or not, you can ask for someone to give you a private two- to four-hour tour on the topic of your choice; it's called the Chicago Greeter program.
Reserve seven to 10 days in advance. There's also an Insta-Greeter service available at shorter notice.
On the Mississippi near Savanna, Ill., the Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge offer free four-hour eagle-watching van tours every Friday and some Saturdays from early January through February.
On Lake Superior, the port town of Duluth offers free walking tours of Bentleyville, a large and fabulous show of lighted figures, from Thanksgiving through
Christmas. There are even free cookies, hot chocolate and marshmallows to roast over fire pits.
In summer, nearly every town holds a festival, and they're all good (especially the ones with big parades and
If you're a kid, bigger isn't always better: People in small towns tend to throw the most candy during their parades. Our
family's favorite is Nordic Fest in Decorah,
For a list of the best fests, see our Events Calendar.
In the Twin Cities, Metro Transit offers free bus passes to get to major festivals and sports playoffs, and many smaller events, too.
Between Baraboo and Lodi, the Merrimac Car Ferry has crossed the Wisconsin River since 1848 and has been free since
Michigan holds Free Fishing Weekends the second weekend of June and the third weekend of February.
If you're in Traverse City, Mich., at the right time, you might be able to sail on the Madeline, a 92-foot twin-masted wooden replica of an 1840s commercial schooner.
She was built to be authentic to the era, so she doesn't meet Coast Guard requirements to sell tours or cruises.
© Beth Gauper
The views of the Mississippi River Valley from Pikes Peak State Park, those in every Iowa park, is free.
In Iowa and Illinois, admission to state parks always is free.
The first Sunday in June is open house in the Wisconsin state parks, with free admission. The second Saturday in June is open house in Minnesota state parks. Many parks also offer special events on those days.
There are many Free Entrance Days every year, generally on Martin
Luther King Jr. Day in January, National Park Week in late April, National Park Service Birthday in late August and National
Public Lands Day in late September.
On the Wisconsin River, the town of Spring Green calls itself the Birthday Town. If
it's your birthday, you get free admission to House on the Rock, a free tour of the Hillside Studio at Frank Lloyd Wright's
Taliesin and a free entree at Spring Green General Store.
Many festivals, especially food festivals, are generous with treats. Watch for free watermelon, strawberries, ice cream, pancakes, pasties and, especially, sweet corn.
And art-gallery crawls are an excellent source of free wine, cheese, crackers and fruit.
Call the day you want to tour for exact times, 414-931-2337 or 800-944-5483. Admission is first-come, first-served; Saturday
is busiest, though visitors won't see production that day.
© Beth Gauper
The Aqua-Bats perform a weekly show in Minocqua, Wis.
Lucky us — the Upper Midwest, especially Wisconsin, is the epicenter of water-ski shows. Watching is one of the most fun things you can do on a balmy summer evening.
Nearly all are free, thanks to spangled athletes and powerboat drivers who volunteer their services all summer long, though donations are much appreciated.
Camping also is free on the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. It's first-come, first-served along the Namekagon River from Hayward, Wis., and along the upper St. Croix. On the lower river between St. Croix Falls, Wis., and Stillwater, Minn., a permit is required.
In Pleasant Prairie, Wis., near Kenosha, the Jelly Belly Center gives free 35-minute tours year-round, with free samples.
For more on tours, see Braking for jelly
Near Iron River, Mich., Ski Brule offers free lift, rental and lesson to first-time skiers on Fridays, snowboarders on Fridays and Wednesdays and Nordic skiers Sunday. Reserve in advance.
In Boone, Iowa, 15 minutes west of Ames, Seven Oaks Recreation offers free ski or snowboard lessons daily for those 7 years and older.
For more, see Bargains for
Last updated on May 3, 2013
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