date published: August 2, 2004

Our guide to free and low-cost activities helps you enjoy the city without breaking the bank
by Christine Celli

Summertime always brings with it a bevy of our favorite things to do: eating lobster at an outdoor clam shack, trekking down to Cape Cod for surf and sun, or taking in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. But the premium activities often come at a premium price and can put a real strain on your bank account-especially when you add the cost of bringing along the whole family. Thankfully, some of the best things to do in the city are, as fate would have it, free. With better weather comes the opening of outdoor venues and parks that offer a slew of inexpensive and even free events for every member of your family-from live music to outdoor Shakespeare to fun family movies. Grab a blanket, a picnic basket and your travelling companions and take in some entertainment that won't put a dent in your wallet.

Boston attracts a host of top-notch musical talent to the area, but tickets often go fast and border on unaffordable for most fans (Jimmy "Buffett" at Fenway Park, anyone?). The good news is that a variety of artists take advantage of Boston's ample green space and use the summertime to offer free outdoor concerts. Local radio stations are responsible for organizing much of the entertainment, such as WCRB-FM, which hosts live concerts Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. at the Hatch Shell, including the Longwood Symphony Orchestra on August 18 and the the Hillyer Festival Orchestra on August 25.

You can enjoy some of Boston's famous attractions while taking in a free performance by the Boston Landmarks Orchestra. The orchestra performs a program of classic works by everyone from Mozart to prolific film score maestro John Williams, culled from popular films past and present. The concert takes place August 29 at 6 p.m. at Piers Park in East Boston.

Pop music is also on the bill thanks to some of the major radio stations in town. Oldies 103.3-FM's summer concerts continue at the Hatch Shell with Frankie Valli and Ronnie Spector performing August 21 at 7 p.m. And every Thursday in Copley Square, WBOS-FM puts on free shows for rock fans. The last show of the series is this week, when The Pat McGee Band takes the stage on August 19 at 5:30 p.m.

If blues is the only thing that soothes your aching heart, the Boston Harbor Hotel hosts a free concert series Thursday nights with local and national blues artists performing on a floating stage anchored behind the hotel. Performances run from 6-10 p.m. and feature such acts as Toni Lynn Washington on August 19 and The Nighthawks on August 26. 

Since Boston is home to several well-known theater companies and arts centers, it's a mecca for award-winning plays and musicals throughout the year. However, tickets can be pricey and hard to come by, as is the case with The Lion King, the big Tony Award-winner packing them in at the Opera House. Currently, scoring tickets to that show may be a long shot. But, you can still see a top-notch theater production without breaking the bank. Get half-price admission to all the big shows in town by heading to either Copley Square or Quincy Market's BosTix booths. Tickets go on sale the day of the performance at 11 a.m. The available shows change regularly and the booths are cash-only.

If you head to the booth at Quincy Market, you can double your good fortune by taking in a free show from the street performers that entertain the masses there all summer long. The acts undergo a public audition in May to get their gigs, so you can be sure they've all received a stamp of approval from audiences and deserve a buck or two in their hats at the end of the show. Performers include magicians, jugglers and one-man bands. You can also catch the two-person circus show put on by the Daredevil Chicken Club (pictured below).

If you'd rather enjoy a free show in an air-conditioned theater, signing up for ushering duty with the Blue Man Group at the Charles Playhouse is the way to go. As an usher, you must dress in black, show up one hour before the show and stay for 15 minutes afterwards to help clean up the mess. The Volunteer Ushering Program is subject to availability, so if this sounds appealing, call 617-426-6912 a few days in advance to set up a date to see the show.

If you would rather get up and boogie than lay back and watch a play, you might enjoy a chance to show off your dancing moves or even learn some new techniques. You can give swing dancing a whirl at the Boston Harbor Hotel every Wednesday night starting at 6 p.m. This hands-on experience takes you back to the time of zoot suit riots and big band entertainment, and the only cost is your time and enthusiasm. If you aren't into swing and would rather square dance like they did on the old frontier, then head over to Copley Square Tuesdays from 7:30-10 p.m. for Folk Dancing by the Fountain. No matter how well you can do-si-do, all are welcome to partake in this celebration of traditional dance and culture.

Nothing is better than sitting back and relaxing at the movies with the family. However, at $9 or more per person, plus the cost of soda and popcorn, catching a flick can end up being a pricey endeavor. But what if you could watch the film at not cost?

In most cities, happy hours are a great, cheap way to unwind after work with bargain cocktails. But we like to do things a little differently in Boston (okay, and it's actually illegal for bars here to offer discounted drinking hours). So, happy hour has turned into a cheap eats extravaganza. If you're hungry and money is scarce, try these spots for some good, affordable grub.

  • Bonfire, 20 St. James St., 617-262-3473. Boston's preeminent restaurateur Todd English offers four gourmet tacos for $12, Sunday-Friday from 5-6:30 p.m.
  • McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, North Market Building, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, 617-720-5522 and 34 Columbus Ave., 617-482-3999. A happy hour menu, offered Monday-Friday from 3:30-6:30 p.m. and weekends from 10 p.m.-midnight, boasts a variety of dishes-including oysters, steamers and a halfpound burger with fries-
    all for only $1.95 each.
  • Grendel's Den, 89 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-491-1160. Everything on the menu at this Harvard Square pub is half-price daily from 5-7:30 p.m. and Sunday-Thursday from 9-11:30 p.m.
  • Bukowski's Tavern, 50 Dalton St., 617-437-9999. Known primarily for its extensive beer menu, Bukowski's offers burgers and dogs for $1.69 (fries or cheese are a buck more) Monday-Friday from noon-8 p.m.
  • Boston Billiard Club, 126 Brookline Ave., 617-536-POOL. Shoot some pool and snack from a menu of appetizers for $2.95, Monday-Friday from 4-7 p.m.
  • Cactus Club, 939 Boylston St., 617-236-0200. Go Tex-Mex with half-price appetizers offered Monday-Thursday from 4-6 p.m. or to anyone with Red Sox tickets.
  • Pour House Bar and Grill, 909 Boylston St., 617-236-1767. This popular nightspot has varying food bargains Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 6-10 p.m.

Believe it or not, there are several locations where you can take in a free film and, better yet, bring along your own low-cost snacks without having to suffer the wrath of a theater's "no outside food" policy. The Boston Harbor Hotel hosts a film series called Movies by Moonlight at Rowes Wharf every Friday night at dusk. You can see a movie, gratis, and even indulge in some popcorn for a mere 25 cents. Twelve Angry Men is the featured film on August 20, followed by The Great Escape on August 27. In addition, CBS4 hosts Free Friday Flicks, weekly movies screened at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. The films begin at dusk and the series includes hits like The Sandlot on August 20 and The Haunted Mansion on August 27. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino also has jumped on the free outdoor movies bandwagon, starting his own series, Mayor Menino's Monday Night Movies, a weekly outdoor movie appearing at a different Boston park each week. Independence Park in South Boston hosts The Lizzie McGuire Movie on August 16, and Orchard Park in Roxbury screens Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas on August 23. Movies begin at dusk and are appropriate for the entire family. So spare yourself the expensive theater prices, and pack a picnic basket and blanket to enjoy a classic film or a recent hit movie under the summer stars.

After five lunches, five admissions to area attractions, five stuffed animal souvenirs and five ice cream cones, you may not have enough cash left for dinner, let alone enough to occupy the kids for the next two days. Don't blow all your fun money at once; take these tips and breeze through Boston with your children and a still-bulging wallet instead.

The most classic family entertainment option in the Hub is not only affordable, it's also a relaxing reprieve for your feet, which are likely to be worn out after marching around town all day. The Swan Boats, which float through the tranquil lagoon in the Public Garden, are a 124-year-old tradition that will put a smile on the kids' faces and allow parents a chance to relax and let someone else do the work. The cruise is only $2.50 for adults and $1 for children.

One place we're sure your kids already have at the top of their list is The Children's Museum. Visits to the museum on Friday from 5-9 p.m. are only $1 per person. Or stop by the museum for free summer afternoon activities, including food sampling and mural painting. Also on your family's list should be the Museum of Fine Arts Family Free Night Out on Wednesday from 5:30-8:30 p.m. In its fourth season of stories and crafts, Family Night Out features local street artist Sidewalk Sam, who helps kids create their own sidewalk art in front of the museum.

Monday through Thursday afternoons from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. are also brimming with activity thanks to the MFA's free Children's Room program.

The Children's Room is an interactive learning environment that encourages children ages
6-12 to take a closer look at the MFA's impressive collection by offering gallery talks. Following the talk, children can participate in an art-making activity inspired by the artwork viewed.

Among the many free events offered at the Harvard Coop, located in Harvard Square, are book readings and craft workshops geared towards children. Pre-school story hour is Tuesday at 11 a.m., and children's stories and craft activities take place Sunday at 11 a.m. For more literary pursuits, the Boston Public Library's family-oriented activities include live performances, storytelling, interactive computer games and films. For a full schedule of kids-related events, call 617-536-5400.

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Additional research and reporting by Diana Aramburu.

Boston is home to several world-class museums, but there are other smaller cultural institutions of interest throughout the city-some offering free admission, including:

  • Boston Fire Museum, 344 Congress St., 617-482-1344. Open Sat only from noon-4 p.m. or by appointment. This hidden gem highlights the history of firefighting in Beantown.
  • Commonwealth Museum, Massachusetts Archives Building, 220 Morrissey Blvd., 617-727-9268. Learn everything you ever wanted to know about Massachusetts at this museum across from the JFK Library, which features an exhibit on the Sacco and Vanzetti trial.
  • McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, 140 Commonwealth Ave., Chestnut Hill, 617-552-8100. This small but dynamic space currently displays two summer exhibitions as well as a permanent collection.
  • Museum of Afro-American History, African Meeting House, 46 Joy St., 617-725-0022. Located on Beacon Hill, this museum explores the history of African-Americans in the Hub.
  • Museum of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, 4th floor, Faneuil Hall, 617-227-1638. This tiny museum, open Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m., houses artifacts of the oldest chartered military organization in the Western Hemisphere.
  • U.S.S. Constitution Museum, Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown, 617-426-1812. Learn about the exploits of "Old Ironsides," the oldest commissioned warship in the world, and tour the interactive exhibits at this museum.

The following museums offer "pay as you wish" admission during the indicated times:

  • Harvard Art Museums: Busch-Reisinger Museum, Fogg Art Museum and Sackler Museum, Sat 10 a.m.-noon.
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History, Sun 9 a.m.-noon.
  • Institute of Contemporary Art, Thu 5-9 p.m., currently featuring the exhibit Kai Althoff: Kai Kein Respekt (pictured right).
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Wed 4-9:45 p.m.