American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
America's Top Bargain Destinations for Summer Travel, Part 3
In the first and second parts of this series, I shared 10 of my choices for America's top 15 bargain summertime destinations – the topic of my satellite radio tour, which is happening in less than five hours. Here, without further ado, are the final five picks:
Denver, Colorado: The Mile High City hosts plenty of free attractions, including weekday tours of the Colorado State Capitol (200 E. Colfax Ave., 303/866-2604, 9:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Sept.-May, 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. June-Aug.), a stroll through the Centennial Gardens (1101 Little Raven St.), and the First Friday Art Walk in the Art District on Santa Fe. As with Boston, breweries are a big deal in Denver, and luckily, many of the city's best options offer tours of their facilities. The Great Divide Brewing Co. (2201 Arapahoe St., 303/296-9460, 2-8 p.m. Sun.-Tues., 2-10 p.m. Wed.-Sat.), for instance, features free tours every day, with free tastings along the way. In addition, within a 40-minute drive from Denver, you'll find the town of Boulder, a true paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and a wonderful getaway from the Mile High City. Bicycling, for instance, is a popular activity here, and luckily, outfitters like the Boulder Bikesmith (2432 Arapahoe Ave., 303/443-1132, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily in summer, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily in winter) offer rentals by the day, week, or month. Boulder is also known for such free events as the Boulder Creek Festival (303/449-3137), which typically occurs during Memorial Day Weekend. For more information about Denver, consult VISIT DENVER (303/892-1505 or 800/233-6837), Mindy Sink's Moon Denver, or the author's informative Q&A.
Chicago, Illinois: Last year, I featured the Windy City in a six-part blog series, much of which covered affordable festivals, attractions, and activities. The Chicago Jazz Festival, for instance, offers free jazz performances in Grant Park every Labor Day weekend. In addition, you'll find a free, permanent exhibition about Chicago's architectural history at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (224 S. Michigan Ave., 312/922-3432, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), which also offers a variety of architectural tours. The Lincoln Park Zoo (2001 N. Clark St., 312/742-2000, hours vary seasonally) is also free to visit. In addition, you can enjoy free admission to the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave., 312/443-3600, 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Wed., 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun., $18 adults, $12 students and seniors 65 and over, children under 14 free) from 5 to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and the Field Museum (1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312/922-9410, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, all-access pass $29 adults, $24 students and seniors 65 and over, $20 children 3-11) provides free general admission on 52 days throughout the year.
You'll also save money on food, accommodations, and transportation in the Windy City. One cheap eatery is the Billy Goat Tavern (430 N. Michigan Ave., 312/222-1525, $3-6) in downtown Chicago; the Inn at Lincoln Park (601 W. Diversey Pkwy., 866/774-7275, $125-190) offers clean, relatively affordable lodgings; and for less than $6, you can get a one-day pass for unlimited rides on CTA busses and rail lines (888/968-7282). Chicago typically has amazing summertime weather, making it a great town for outdoor pursuits, from watching baseball games at Wrigley Field (1060 W. Addison St., 773/404-2827, tickets as low as $14) to exploring the city's numerous bike trails to touring public sculptures at Millennium Park (Michigan Ave. and Monroe St., 312/742-1168, 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily), which is free to visit. For more information about Chicago, consult the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau (2301 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312/567-8500) or Moon Metro Chicago.
Traverse City, Michigan: Situated between the Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula, both of which have several wineries and vineyards, Traverse City lies at the heart of Michigan's wine country. Even better, all seven of the wineries on the picturesque Old Mission Peninsula offer free wine tastings. Traverse City is also home to the National Cherry Festival (231/947-4230 or 800/968-3380), an annual July celebration that offers several free spectator events like bed races and leaping-dog competitions, plus inexpensive opportunities to sample regional wines and cherry-related treats. Of course, there are several year-round sources for affordable cherry treats, such as Cherry Republic (6026 Lake St., Glen Arbor, 800/206-6949, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri-Sat.), the Grand Traverse Pie Company (525 W. Front St., 231/922-7437, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sun.), and Moomers Homemade Ice Cream (7263 N. Long Lake Rd., 231/941-4122, noon-9 p.m. daily), whose signature flavor is Cherries Moobilee.
With its proximity to Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, Traverse City also offers access to plenty of free beaches, not to mention Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (9922 Front St., Empire, 231/326-5134, hours vary daily, seven-day permit $10 vehicles, $5 motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians), which features a number of free attractions, including the blacksmith shop, cannery boathouse, general store, and Dune Climb, as well as inexpensive activities, such as bicycling and kayaking. The park also honors annual and lifetime NPS passes, and campsites here cost $12-21 per night. For more information about Traverse City, consult the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau (101 W. Grandview Pkwy., 231/947-1120 or 800/872-8377) or my Moon Michigan guide.
Washington, D.C.: Our nation's capital presents a ton of free, family-friendly attractions and activities; even the city's tourism site lists 100 free or nearly free things to do. As I mentioned in a post last summer, it's free to visit the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (First St. and E. Capitol St. NE, 202/226-8000, 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.), the United States Botanic Garden (100 Maryland Ave. SW, 202/225-8333, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), the Smithsonian (202/633-1000, hours vary daily), the National Building Museum (401 F St. NW, 202/272-2448, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.), the National Zoological Park (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/633-4800, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily Apr.-Oct., 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily Nov.-Mar.), and the memorials in the National Mall (900 Ohio Dr. SW, 202/426-6841, 24 hrs. daily). The nation's capital also offers a variety of cheap eateries, including Five Guys (1645 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/328-3483, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, $3-6), which serves inexpensive burgers, hot dogs, and fries, and Teaism (800 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/835-2233, 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri., $5-10), where you can get budget-friendly bento boxes. The nightlife can be affordable here, too; burlesque shows at the Palace of Wonders (1210 H St. NE, show times vary), for instance, usually only cost $10 per person, though bear in mind that many shows have age restrictions.
If you're looking for an interesting day trip, consider heading to Colonial Williamsburg (757/229-1000), roughly two and a half hours south. The basic admission pass ($36 adults, $18 children 6-17) allows you all-day access to this 301-acre, 18th-century village, including the capitol building, trade shops, and art museums; admission also includes street performances, two tours, and parking. For more information about Washington, D.C., consult Destination DC (202/789-7000) or Moon Metro Washington, D.C..
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which encompasses parts of verdant Tennessee and North Carolina, is one of the only major national parks that doesn't charge an entrance fee, so you can easily tour this vast place, whether via car, bicycle, or foot, free of charge. In addition, you can rent bicycles for $4-6 per hour at Cades Cove Campground Store & Bicycle Rental (10035 Campground Dr., Townsend, 865/448-9034, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily Apr.-May and Sept.-Dec., 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily June-Aug.) on the Tennessee side, and hiking, picnicking, wildlife viewing, and touring waterfalls are all popular, free activities. Moreover, ten primitive campgrounds are available in the park for $14-23 per night. Clingmans Dome, situated along the Appalachian Trail, is one particularly curious (and free) attraction in the park. At 6,643 feet, it's the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. On clear days, it affords incredible, 360-degree views.
Situated within the heart of the Smokies, Gatlinburg (800/588-1817) features a variety of family-friendly attractions, including unlimited mini-golf at Old Gatlinburg Golf & Games' two 18-hole courses (865/430-4653, 10 a.m.-close daily, $16), a Gatlinburg Sky Lift (765 Parkway, 865/436-4307, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily Apr.-Oct., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily Nov.-Mar., $12 adults, $9 children 3-11), and a ton of museums. In nearby Pigeon Forge, Dollywood (2700 Dollywood Parks Blvd., 800/365-5996 or 866/857-2123, hours vary seasonally) offers reasonably priced cabins (as low as $179 per night for seven people) as well as vacation packages with area hotels. For more information about the region, consult Great Smoky Mountains National Park (865/436-1200, 24 hrs. daily) or Deborah Huso's Moon Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains.
Naturally, I hope that you've found these suggestions just as helpful as the first ten, and as always, I welcome your comments. Of course, it goes without saying that I hope you have a happy, safe, and memorable summer vacation, wherever you choose to go!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Photo of Chateau Grand Traverse © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone