You don't need a fat wallet to enjoy some of the best museums in the country and soak up exhibits ranging from refined to frankly quirky. See the Blue Angels practice daredevil maneuvers, stroll through lush gardens, explore history before the Industrial Age, or enjoy works by some of the finest artists the world has ever known. In every state, there is something for all ages, and most of these museums are free. Those that charge admission set prices at $10 or less -- about what it would cost to go to the movies.
Cheap or Free Museums in All 50 States
For less than a latte ($2 for a self-guided tour), visitors can marvel at the accomplishments of jazz greats and travel from the age of boogie-woogie to the jazz space age of Sun Ra at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Even the area surrounding the museum is steeped in history -- it's located in the Civil Rights District along with the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and Kelly Ingram Park, where many demonstrations took place during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
This striking building was designed to evoke Alaska's mountains, glaciers, and other natural wonders. Its inhabitants include Otto, a stuffed grizzly who stands more than 8 feet tall, and Blue Babe, a mummified steppe bison said to be 36,000 years old. The Museum of the North also displays large collections of gold and Alaskan art. Admission prices are lower for state residents: $8 for adults and $5 for children (compared with $12 for adults and $7 for children visiting from out of state).
With three locations on campus, the Arizona State University Museum (free admission) features contemporary art installations; art from Arizona and the Southwest; pieces from North, South, and Central America; ceramics; and more. Check the calendar to coordinate a visit with the museum's annual street party or short film and video festival.
While visitors pay $2.50 to explore the grounds at the Historic Arkansas Museum, admission to the museum itself is free. It includes access to eight galleries and Arkansas' premier collection of state-made decorative, mechanical, and fine arts objects. Explore the 175-year history of the Bowie knife and see exhibits about Arkansas' first people, the Caddo, Osage, and Quapaw Indian tribes.
This expansive arts center, a Los Angeles institution, features fine art collections, rare antiquities, and a special room for kids with hands-on learning and activities. The Getty Center boasts impressive architecture and visually appetizing gardens that change seasonally. Admission is free but parking is steep ($15); the center can also be reached by bus.
Want to rock out? The Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum (free admission), which was started in 1874, displays mineral, fossil, gemstone, meteorite, and historic mining artifact exhibits on two floors. Even better, it's home to a moon rock collected during the Apollo 17 mission.
The Submarine Force Museum (free admission) is operated by the U.S. Navy and maintains an impressive collection. With more than 33,000 submarine artifacts, 20,000 significant documents, and 30,000 photographs, the museum changes displays often, so a return visit may be in order.
With seven exhibits and 37,000 square feet of interactive activities for children of all ages, the Delaware Children's Museum ($8.75) is a great location for a full day of fun. "Stratosphere," a 30-foot climbing structure, and "The Power of Me," which tests physical skill and strength, ensure that both bodies and brains get a workout.
While all Smithsonian museums are free to the public, this is a must-see if you have a junior astronaut in the family. Famous crafts and artifacts make this one of the most visited museums anywhere. Go ahead -- touch the moon rocks and take a moment to dream big.
Riding in the National Naval Aviation Museum's flight simulators will set you back $20, but admission to the world's largest naval aviation museum is free -- and there's plenty to see. Check out World War I biplanes, one-of-a-kind flying machines, and survivors of epic aerial battles. On Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from March to November, visitors can watch the Blue Angels practice, then meet and greet the famed pilots.
The Georgia Museum of Art (free admission) is both a university museum at the University of Georgia and, since 1982, the official state museum of art. Located on the East Campus of UGA, this museum features a diverse collection of visual arts media and offers programming for all ages. Don't miss the sculpture garden with its large, outdoor pieces.
Dedicated to the state's military history, the Army Museum of Hawaii gives visitors a very different view of the state than nearby Waikiki Beach. It traces conflicts from early Hawaiian warfare to Pearl Harbor to the Vietnam War. Although admission is free, donations are welcome; audio tours cost $5.
This fun and inexpensive museum ($3 for adults) is dedicated to America's most famous potato-growing state. After getting a photo op next to the giant baked potato out front, visitors to the Idaho Potato Museum can enjoy colorful images that showcase the history of the potato, highlighting its nutritional importance as well as the role it played in American agriculture and industrialization.
Chicago may be the heart of the Midwest, but the National Museum of Mexican Art invites visitors to immerse themselves in Mexican art and culture in the only Latino-themed museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. See textiles, folk art, ceramics, and more from the Maya, Mezcala, Michoacan, Remojadas, Teotihuacan, and Toltec cultures. Admission is free.
Offering art workshops and classes for all ages, the Anderson Center for the Arts is free every Tuesday and the first Sunday of each month ($2 for adults at other times). In addition to offering classes for the community, the museum hosts a continually updated collection and changing exhibitions.
Founded in 1858 and the oldest university museum west of the Mississippi River, the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History has plenty to engage visitors of all ages. The William and Eleanor Hageboeck Hall of Birds has more than 1,000 birds on display, while the Biosphere Discovery Hub takes visitors through 10,000 years of history. Admission is free.
Visitors to the Pawnee Indian Museum learn about the first Americans through the story of a real Pawnee village from the late 1700s. View the excavated floor of a large Pawnee earth lodge and the rare sacred bundle that hangs above the altar. A nature trail has picnic facilities. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 for students.
The Great American Dollhouse Museum houses more than 200 dollhouses and tiny structures furnished in remarkable detail and populated with equally small people. While it's $7.95 for adults and $5.95 for children to enter the museum, the gift shop focused on miniatures is a sight to see -- and free to everyone.
This two-in-one museum is dedicated to two pioneers of Louisiana aviation (both of whom died in plane crashes) as well as the history of the Louisiana cypress lumber industry. State-of-the-art displays at the Cypress Sawmill Collection and Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum include numerous aircraft, artifacts, photographs, and films. Admission is free.
With a special emphasis on modern and contemporary art, the University of Maine Museum of Art has an impressive collection including works by David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, Joan Miró, Jasper Johns, Judy Pfaff, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Susan Rothenberg, Diego Rivera, Frank Stella, Kara Walker, and Andy Warhol. Admission is free.
Located in Charm City, the Walters Art Museum is home to an expansive collection that ranges from the ancient world -- including art from pre-dynastic Egypt, Greek sculpture, and Roman sarcophagi -- to 20th century Europe. Visitors are invited to join drop-in art classes and kids' programs, too. Admission is free.
The U.S.S. Constitution, which dates back to the late 18th century and survived the War of 1812, can still sail under its own power and has a crew of active-duty sailors. "Old Ironsides" is currently in dry dock in the Charlestown Navy Yard, where visitors can board the ship for free (adults must show ID) and check out the museum (suggested donation of $5 to $10 for adults and $3 to $5 for children).
Not many museums offer yoga classes on a pay-what-you-please basis, and that's just one reason to drop by Grand Rapids Art Museum. The eco-friendly building is LEED Gold certified and hosts fun family programming, classical music performances, and "uncorked" adults-only art classes. General admission is $8; free on Tuesdays.
Admission is free at this world-class art gallery and museum. In addition to modern and classic sculpture, photography, and painting from around the globe, Minneapolis Institute of Arts offers youth and teen programs the second Sunday of every month. Visitors can also enjoy a meal or craft beer from the museum's locally owned restaurant partner, which specializes in healthy, sustainable food.
This Jackson-based museum houses a collection of diverse artists from Mississippi, elsewhere in America, and Europe, as well as one of the most interesting collections of Peruvian pre-Columbian ceramics around. The 1.2-acre Art Garden at the Mississippi Museum of Art (free admission) is a lush outdoor space featuring fountains and permanent art exhibitions -- it's perfect for a picnic.
Recognized internationally as one of the finest general art museums in the United States, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (free admission) maintains a collection of more than 35,000 works. Saturday and Sunday afternoons offer free, hands-on family art activities, and stroller tours and toddler story times ensure there's something for all ages.
As the first in the state to display dinosaur skeletons, the Carter County Museum has been home to vertebrate and invertebrate remains from the Pierre Shale, Hell Creek, Fort Union, Arikaree, and Pleistocene formations since the early 1930s. With complete skeletons of dinosaurs on display, along with regional natural and social history and artifacts, this museum has just the stuff to wow junior paleontologists.
This Smithsonian-affiliated museum includes the world's premier collection of fossil elephants, interactive paleontology exhibits, American Indian exhibits, and many great programs. Entry to the University of Nebraska Museum is $6 for adults, but adding a visit to the Mueller Planetarium and its 34-foot, domed theater pushes the price to $10.
Explore the boomtowns of the West as well as Nevada history, ranching, and pioneer life at the Central Nevada Museum. See miners' cabins and gear, a saloon, and a stamp mill and learn about the influence of the Western Shoshone people through artifacts on display. Visitors can also view the Tonopah Army Air Field observation tower. Admission is free.
Is it hard to remember what came before the iPhone? Find out at the New Hampshire Telephone Museum ($5 for adults, $3 for students). Stroll through rooms full of phones from a time when the smartest thing about telephones was the operator. The museum's history of telecommunications can be viewed via guided or self-guided tours.
Get a sense of the supernatural at this out-of-this-world museum in Roswell, New Mexico, the town famous for an alleged alien crash site. The Roswell UFO Museum ($5 for adults, $2 for children) offers a display of "life-size" aliens (they move!) and presents theories about a government cover-up.
No, it's not in New York City, but this Albany-based museum houses vast collections covering the science, history, anthropology, and art of the Empire State. The New York State Museum has exhibits ranging from Harlem in the '20s to indigenous birds of the state to objects commemorating the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Admission is free.
With exhibits such as "Extreme Mammals," the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (free admission) is bound to capture the imagination. Filled with dioramas, theaters, and interactive experiences, the museum also has dinosaur skeletons, live snakes, tree frogs, and a two-toed ground sloth to wow the kids.
Learn about the native peoples -- Ojibwa, Dakota, Assiniboine, and Cree -- who once lived in this corner of North Dakota. Stone and bone tools, a Red River oxcart, and other objects from Pembina's fur trade industry are on display at the Pembina State Museum (free admission). When you're done, take in the 360-degree views from the observation tower -- on a clear day, you can see 10 miles in any direction.
The Cincinnati Art Museum, one of the oldest in the country, has a collection of more than 65,000 works spanning 6,000 years. In addition, there are traveling exhibitions and art-related programs and activities. Parents can rest easy knowing strollers are allowed. Admission is free.
This art museum at the University of Oklahoma houses an extensive (and impressive) variety of art. Visitors can take in work by such famed artists as Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh. The museum also has collections of Asian art, photography, art of the American Southwest, and Native American art. Admission is free.
The Museum of Natural and Cultural History has a remarkable 300 million years of history, geology, and archeology all under one roof. Be sure to check out the geophotography exhibit to get a sense of Oregon from the ground up. As part of the University of Oregon's structural geology course, students investigate geological processes through photography. Admission is free the first Friday of each month; otherwise the cost is $5.
The treasures of the American Philosophical Museum include a notebook kept by Lewis and Clark, a miniature portrait of Benjamin Franklin, and a drawing for the world's first computer. But this isn't just a building full of interesting objects -- this unique museum interprets historical themes and connects them to issues relevant today. A $2 donation is suggested.
Have you ever milked a cow? Made a candle? Cooked a meal over an open hearth? Visitors can do all those things at Coggeshall Farm Museum ($7 for adults, $3 for children). Experience first-hand how families lived on tenant farms in the 1790s and gain a new appreciation for early American settlers.
Located on one of Charleston's only remaining cobblestone streets, the Old Slave Mart Museum ($7 admission) is housed a building where slaves were once auctioned. Plan to spend at least an hour reading the informative posters about the history of the space, and bear in mind that the museum is not suitable for young children.
Taking a trip to the state capitol? The Tennessee State Museum, Tennessee State Capitol, and Military Museum are all free. With three floors and more than 60,000 square feet, the Tennessee State Museum provides an in-depth education about the state's history from prehistoric times to today. The military branch explores America's overseas conflicts, beginning with the Spanish-American War in 1898 and ending with World War II in 1945.
While everyone wants to see the Alamo Shrine, where a band of fighters made their last stand against Mexican troops, there's much more to see on the 4.2-acre site. Stroll the sprawling gardens, visit the Long Barrack Museum, and see the Wall of History.
Love modern art? Utah Museum of Contemporary Art ($5 suggested donation) is home to a wide variety of "thinking" and "concept" exhibits designed to explore what it means to exist in today's world. Special children's exhibitions and programs make this museum appealing for all ages.
One admission fee buys access to both the Vermont History Museum and the Vermont Heritage Galleries, which makes the price ($5 admission for adults, $12 for families) a bargain. Experience a full-size Abenaki wigwam, a re-creation of the Catamount Tavern where Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys gathered, a railroad station complete with a working telegraph, and a World War II-era living room.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a diverse collection of works from ancient to modern times, including sculpture, photography, and Native American Art. Two elegant restaurants beckon visitors after they explore the museum.
Experience how it used to be before we worried about gasoline prices and oil changes. One of the finest collections of 19th century carriages, buggies, wagons, and related artifacts in the country, the Northwest Carriage Museum ($6 admission) takes visitors back to a simpler, slower-moving time.
With only 10 percent of the museum's collection on view at any given time, the Huntington Museum of Art ($5 admission; free on Tuesdays) has an astounding amount of artwork to catch visitors' attention. Four permanent exhibitions and five temporary galleries of art and objects include glass, folk art, silver, prints, and more. For a taste of the outdoors, visitors can enjoy a well-marked and maintained nature trail.
Opened in 1992, this quirky museum is a salute to the "King of Condiments," with almost 6,000 mustards from around the world. Mustard fans can stop by the tasting bar to sample some of the hundreds of varieties on hand for free and take home their favorite tangy goodies from the large shop.
The University of Wyoming Art Museum (free admission) encourages a hands-on approach with educational programs for all ages. It has a vast collection of American and European paintings, prints, and drawings. Native American artifacts such as Shoshone tribe hide paintings, as well as African art, Haitian art, and Japanese netsuke, are also on display.