Top 10 Picks for Free Vacation Fun in Virginia

Stretching from the salty air of the coast to the peaks and valleys of the mountains, Virginia offers so many things to enjoy without spending a bundle of money. Some of the nation's most scenic drives, engrossing historic sites, delightful small towns, and other unique attractions are free to explore, making Virginia an affordable choice for a day trip, weekend getaway, or family vacation.

Virginia's Scenic Byways

Throughout Virginia, there are about 3,000 miles of historic, heritage, and scenic drives. They include five routes officially designated as America's Byways: the Blue Ridge Parkway, Colonial Parkway, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Skyline Drive, and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway. In addition, there are numerous heritage trails, Civil War itineraries, and wine trails to discover.

The Virginia Beach Boardwalk

First built in 1888 as a five-block, wooden-planked promenade, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk of today is a three-mile concrete esplanade stretching along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Throughout the summer and on many spring and fall weekends, the Boardwalk is a beehive of activity, often offering free entertainment, festivals, and seasonal evening fireworks.The Virginia Beach Boardwalk is a great place to enjoy a relaxing stroll or a bike ride on the adjacent path.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail

One of the most famous hiking trails in the world, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) extends from Maine to Georgia for more than 2,175 miles. About 550 miles of the A.T. cross Virginia. Permits are not required to walk on the trail, although some areas require camping permits. Along the 104-mile Shenandoah National Park section of the trail, backcountry camping permits are required for all backpackers. Many areas along the Virginia portion of the A.T. are well suited for casual walks and day-hikes as well as for long-distance hikes, although even a short hike requires a bit of planning. 

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac from the National Mall in Washington, receives more than 4 million visitors each year. Whether paying tribute to a lost loved one or taking a journey through history, a visit to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is an interesting, powerful, and memorable experience. There is no admission fee to visit the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, although there is an hourly charge to park in the Visitor Center parking lot. The parking fee can be avoided by taking the Washington Metropolitan Area Metro (Blue Line) to the Arlington Cemetery Station, which is located near the cemetery entrance. Also, on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, free commemorative ceremonies are open to the public.

Arlington Monuments and Memorials

In addition to Arlington National Cemetery, there are several very interesting monuments and memorials in Arlington that are well worth exploring. The iconic United States Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial) and the lesser-known but lovely and moving Navy-Marine Memorial (known affectionately as Waves and Gulls) are both worth visiting, and there is no charge to view them. 

The Crooked Road—Virginia's Heritage Music Trail

Spend a day, a weekend, or longer meandering along the Crooked Road in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, the home of authentic old-time mountain music. Listen to country music jams on the porches of local establishments, browse the traditional shops of luthiers and fiddle makers, and experience the unique culture and heritage of the region. Plan your stops ahead of time and you will be able to hear plenty of free music during your travels. 

Torpedo Factory Art Center

Located along the riverfront in Old Town Alexandria, this world-renowned art center is housed in a renovated torpedo factory. Spend an hour or several browsing the interesting array of ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, and sculpture, created by artists in 82 working studios and six galleries.

National Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center

The companion museum to the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in December 2003, is in Northern Virginia near Washington Dulles International Airport. Among the many aircraft exhibits, visitors will find such history-making icons as the space shuttle Enterprise and the Enola Gay. Admission to the museum is free, although a fairly hefty daily parking fee is charged to park in the on-site lot. Other additional fees for special exhibits such as flight simulators and IMAX Theater movies are charged as well.

Virginia's Main Street Communities

Several unique communities dotted across the Virginia landscape have been identified as Virginia Main Street Communities. Recognized for their hospitality, historic and natural attractions, and architectural gems, these communities are fun to explore one-by-one or by combining several into a multi-day itinerary. The National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Tourism Corporation offer a wealth of information about each town to help you plan an interesting self-guided itinerary.

Virginia Festivals and Events

Many of the wonderful seasonal festivals held throughout Virginia are free, especially those held in downtown areas and sponsored by communities or local organizations. While admission is often free, it may not be so easy to attend without spending at least a few dollars on tasty regional foods or unique handmade crafts. A small sampling of fun free festivals and events includes the annual President's Day George Washington Birthday Parade in Alexandria, Wolf Trap Holiday Sing-A-Long,​ and the summertime Virginia Highlands Festival.