Stretching across the Florida panhandle region of the state from Pensacola in the west to Jacksonville in the east, North Florida is a great destination for tourists any time of year—especially for the number of free things to do you'll find there. Whether you're looking to hit up the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico or if you'd rather venture to historic sites in the state's capital of Tallahassee, North Florida is full of free activities for visitors all ages.
Located on the Atlantic coast just northeast of Jacksonville, Amelia Island is part of a chain of barrier islands that offer postcard-perfect destinations that won't wreck your vacation budget. Wandering around the historic downtown district of Amelia Island and window-shopping at the unique shops there are free. Alternatively, spend the day on one of the many beaches of the island; Main Beach and Peter's Point both have free parking lots nearby and South Fernandina Beach has a limited number of free street parking spots within walking distance.
Many museums across the state offer free days throughout the year, but the Florida Museum of Natural History never charges admission because it's the State of Florida's official state-sponsored and chartered natural history museum. Located in Gainesville on the sprawling campus of the University of Florida, the museum features a Butterfly Rainforest and houses an expansive collection of fossils and ethnographic exhibits. It is open to visitors year-round but is closed on state and federal holidays.
If you're looking to spend time outdoors on your trip to Gainsville, head to the northwest side of the city to Alfred A. Ring Park, which stretches down along Hogtown Creek and features a 1.4-mile hiking trail through a small but dense forest. Nearby, you'll also find Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park—which is built around 12 hot springs that feed into a 120-foot sinkhole filled with several significant fossils. This attraction does charge a small fee per visitor.
Located on the eastern coast of North Florida and considered the most populous city in the state, Jacksonville offers a wide mix of entertainment options, including a number of free things to do. To explore a bit of the culture of the region, head to the Jacksonville Farmers Market from dawn to 6 p.m. any day of the week. This farmers market is Florida's oldest, and you can browse over 50 vendor booths selling fresh produce, seafood, and other local goods as much as you like for free.
Get Lost in Jacksonville's Natural Beauty
For the more aesthetically inclined visitor to Jacksonville, the city also offers a number of ways to enjoy the outdoors on your trip. Athletic visitors can enjoy biking along the 14.5-mile trail of tree canopies known as the Baldwin Trail, while the stunning Jacksonville Arboretum and Gardens offers expansive grounds to wander at your own pace. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Skyway—an automated monorail train that's free to use—offers great views of the city and can get you from place to place without costing a dime.
History buffs visiting Jacksonville will love a trip to Camp Milton Historical Preserve or the Kingsley Plantation to explore the Sunshine State's war-torn past. Camp Milton offers free access to wooded trails that wind past replicated structures from the Civil War, and it also hosts an annual costumed reenactment that is free to attend. Located in eastern Jacksonville next to the Baldwin Trail's Halsema Trailhead, Camp Milton is a great place to visit before or after riding the trail. Meanwhile, the Kingsley Plantation—located about 25 miles northeast of Jacksonville on the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve—is a living history museum that features a fully-preserved estate from the plantation period of Florida's history. You can stop by here seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to check out the estate and wander the grounds for free.
Pensacola is surrounded by some of the best beaches on the Gulf Coast, and many of them are free to enjoy. Head out to the small town of Pensacola Beach—which does cost a small toll to enter—and find free parking at Casino Beach to explore some of the city's nearest and best beach spots. Once you park, you can then take the free Pensacola Beach Trolley any time from Memorial Day through the end of September to access other great spots like Navarre Beach, Fort Pickens, Oriole Beach, and Tiger Point.
Although it's more known for its thriving nightlife scene and fantastic beaches, Pensacola is also a place of learning, culture, and art. Home to a number of colleges and universities as well as several respected museums, Pensacola is more than just a beach town. Head to the National Naval Aviation Museum—the largest naval aviation museum in the world and one of the state's most visited museums—for a free education about the city's significance in U.S. military and aerospace history. The museum offers free parking and admission seven days a week as well as complimentary autograph signings with real pilots inside the museum on certain days.
Tallahassee offers amazing free guided tours of its Capitol Complex, where Florida's lawmakers meet to conduct official business. The old capitol building is located on the same block as the new building and offers both guided and self-guided tours—although the guided tours tend to fill up very quickly. For the new capitol building, guided tours require reservations made months in advance, so plan accordingly.
For a bit of a history lesson on your trip to Tallahassee, stop by the Museum of Florida History in the city's Capitol Hill district any day of the week (except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day). Known as the official history museum for the State of Florida, the museum collects, preserves, exhibits, and interprets evidence of past and present cultures in Florida and offers free admission to all visitors.