Cities are where the people are. You may want to spend a good chunk of your gap year away from the crowds but there’ll likely be times when you want a bit of buzz and a bit of company. And then, cities are the place to be. Trouble is, cities are expensive. And the most desirable, exciting and entertaining cities often tend also to be the most expensive.
Fear not. Experienced gapper and travel writer, Francesca Harper, has found us five free things to do in five of the world’s most expensive cities. The cost rankings come from a UBS 2011 survey into costs of living around the world.
Oslo (rank #1)
Norway‘s capital – and Scandinavia in general – is often dismissed by backpackers as being too expensive, with reason it seems! But there are some great ways to get the most out of this city without spending a Krone.
- If visiting in winter (which let’s face it is the best time to head to Norway; need we mention the Northern Lights?) then take advantage of free winter admission into a selection of Oslo museums. The ones not to miss are the Munch Museum (think ‘The Scream’) and The National Gallery.
- You might be surprised to learn that summer temperatures in Oslo regularly hit 20+°C, so tag along with the locals and go for a dip off the coast of an Oslo fjord island or in one of the lakes in Oslomarka Forest.
- Just above the city is a selection of evergreen forests which provide an impressive 1,600-mile network of cross-country skiing tracks. Although you will have to hire them or bring your own skis, entry to the tracks is free.
- Oslo has various festivals on all year round where there is free access to activities, events and performances throughout the city. My favourites include the National Music Day in June and the Oslo Culture Night in September.
- Window shopping is never particularly exciting, especially when you’re a cash-strapped backpacker. But Oslo’s antique, flea and Christmas markets provide great places to soak up the local atmosphere.
Tokyo (rank #6)
With its silver sky-scrapers and suited-and-booted population, I was hardly surprised to see Japan‘s largest city make this list. But while many visitors are happy to spend their time wandering through the neon-lit back streets, here are 5 other, free Tokyo attractions.
- Although Tokyo is very much a modern city, there are still Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dotted throughout with some dating from as far as the 7th century. The most popular (and free) examples include Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Zozoji Temple near the Tokyo Tower and Meiji Shrine in Shibuya.
- You can’t go all the way to Japan’s finest city and not really see it. So head up to the 45th floor in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for panoramic city views and, on smog-free day, a glimpse of one of Japan’s ‘Three Holy Mountains’, Mount Fuji.
- The East Garden is set in the accessible grounds of the Imperial Palace, offering a sprawling lawn that is made up of former castle remains. As the royal family lives in the palace, access to the buildings and inner grounds is restricted, but on the Emperor’s birthday and for the New Year’s greeting the doors are thrown wide open; you will probably even catch a peek of the royal family themselves.
- Japan is all about technology, so spend a day immersing yourself in the latest – sometimes even pre-released – gadgets over the four floors of the Sony Building in Ginza. But if all that playing has become too tempting, then head down the gadget shopping district Akihabara, the Mecca for all things digital. Who needs money for food, anyway?
- Not just the best free way to experience the real Tokyo, but the best on any budget, is to spend a Sunday in the Yoyogi Park. During the week it’s a popular but peaceful park, but on a Sunday it turns into a platform for a range of performers including music acts, dance-off competitors and martial arts experts.
Sydney (rank #7)
Being on the other side of the world, Australia is a long way to go to then not be able to afford to actually see or do anything when you arrive. Luckily in Sydney you don’t have to rely on having a lot of money to get what all the fuss is about.
- Views cost nothing, so get yourself down to Circular Quay and spend an hour or so gawking at the iconic Sydney Opera House and taking zillions of pictures from every possible angle.
- Australia has both the oldest continuous civilisation as well as one of the newest national identities, so head to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (free admission) and spend a day following the country’s historical and social development through the Aboriginal to modern-day collections. It is worth, however, splurging $5 on the audio tour to get in-depth narration on specific and important artworks.
- There are various walks you can do for free, but our favourite has to be the 2-hour, 6km Bondi to Coogee coastal walk that takes you past some idyllic swimming spots.
- Being a predominantly dry, arid continent, Australia is known for its many landscaped botanic gardens and Sydney’s is no exception. The Royal Botanic Gardens isn’t the biggest, but there are various patches of grass, benches and secluded spots to spend a few hours reading, picnicking and generally chilling Aussie-style with your mates.
- Can’t afford a bridge climb or simply don’t have the bottle? Then a walk across the lengthy Harbour Bridge on the pedestrian path still offers some excellent views of the harbour and the city.
Paris (rank #12)
France‘s capital is famed for being pricey just as much as it is for being the romance capital of the world, but you need not part with your beloved cash to fall in love with this city.
- Yes the views from the top of the Eiffel Tower are pretty spectacular, but to see the iron beast itself you can view it from, well, anywhere in the city. Definitely take a walk to the tower at night, though, as it’s lit up like a Christmas tree.
- Although without a hunchback, the gothic Notre Dame cathedral is still one of the most impressive sights in Paris. While there is a fee to go up the tower and enter the museum, a walk around the cathedral itself to see the immense organ, stained-glass windows and many Catholic artefacts and sculptures is highly recommended.
- Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent; just a few of the most famous perfume designers in the world. A visit to the Fragonard Perfume Museum located in Napoleon III’s townhouse to learn all about the history of eau de parfum will leave you smelling of roses.
- Take in a free, live fashion show by heading down to Rue de Faubourg St. Honore, a road lined with the HQs of some of the world’s biggest fashion houses (Lanvin, Lancôme and Hermès) where Parisian men and women saunter down wearing the latest fashions.
- Think the art galleries of Paris are too expensive? Think again. The Louvre, Musée D’Orsay and Pompidou Centre all have free entry on the 1st Sunday of every month. Accordingly, expect crowds.
New York City (rank #14)
Anyone heading to the USA will more than likely be passing through NYC. Known for being big, brash and ever so glamorous, it’s not exactly synonymous with budget travelling. But we wouldn’t be doing our job if we couldn’t save you a dollar or two.
- Somewhat unfairly, America has a reputation for charging admission to all their galleries and museums. But in New York City you can visit Socrates Sculpture Park, National Museum of the American Indian and even the Smithsonian Museum completely for free. Many other big city galleries and museums operate free entry at certain times, so check their individual websites for deals.
- The Statue of Liberty may be partly closed for a general spruce up, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pop past and say hello. The free Staten Island Ferry passes right by the lady so there’s plenty of opportunity to get snap-happy.
- Part park, part movie-set, you would be silly to leave the city without exploring some of the 843 acres that make up the Central Park first. If you have got a couple of notes to spare, then it is worth treating yourself to ice-skating during the winter and roller-blading during the summer.
- The non-profit organization behind Downtown Boathouse operates free 20 minute kayaking lessons on a first-come, first-served basis. Although not long on the water, it certainly allows you to experience the harbour from a whole new angle. Alternatively, more experienced kayak-ers can sign up for a guided trip, but due to the high demand, participants are selected via a lottery, but they are definitely worth the gamble.
- No need to string this one out; head down to Brooklyn’s Mark Bar after 6pm any night of the week for complimentary pizza when you buy a drink, and at noon on Sunday’s for free coffee and bagels.
The bottom line? Even the biggest cheap-skates can find something to do for free in the world’s most expensive cities.