Maine has a reputation for being cultured, foodie, outdoorsy and steeped in history. It’s also known for being, particularly if you check into historic seaside hotels and dine out on lobster dinners. But a vacation in Maine doesn’t have to cost a fortune – you can hike, swim, cross-country ski and enjoy the arts scene, all for free.
From York to Fort Fairfield and everywhere in between, you’ll find loads of free (or inexpensive) activities to keep you busy in Maine year-round, meaning you can save your money for special experiences such as special seafood dinners and the odd overnight stay on the shore.
Whether you fancy a hike on the rocky coastline in search of local wildlife, or front-row seats at a mashed-potato wrestling match, you’ll find plenty of fun for free Maine – just keep your camera ready! Here’s a guide to the top free things to do in Maine.
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1. Tour Maine’s lighthouses
Most of Maine’s lighthouses are free to explore, including the famous Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, commissioned by George Washington and probably the most photographed lighthouse in the country. Pack a picnic and enjoy the adjacent 90-acre Fort Williams Park with its stunning ocean views and old forts. Not far down the road, you can swing by the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse and Big Light in South Portland.
As you head up the coast, you’ll find more lighthouses in the Midcoast region, such as Owl’s Head Lighthouse and Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in Rockland and the famous Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde (you might recognize its profile from the movie, Forrest Gump). West Quoddy State Park in Lubec is the easternmost point in the continental United States and home to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, a distinct candy-striped tower commissioned by Thomas Jefferson.
Planning tip: While many lighthouses are free to visit, staying in a lighthouse costs a little more. One of the more affordable options is the Little River Light on an offshore island near Cutler, built in 1876 and still used to keep this stretch of coast safe for shipping.
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2. Visit Stephen King’s house
Horror fans won’t want to miss Stephen King’s spooky mansion on West Broadway Street in Bangor. This stately red mansion and its creepy wrought-iron fence evoke the author’s most famous works, and the supernatural-looking wooden tree carving in the front yard is worth the stop alone. Unfortunately, you probably won’t catch a glimpse of the famous author (as he resides mostly in Florida), but you never know! There are plans to eventually open the house to the public as a museum.
Looking for more free stuff to do in Bangor? Snap a selfie with the Paul Bunyan statue, look for wildlife in the 80-acre Bangor City Forest, or walk or bike along the Penobscot River Walkway. Fort Knox (the other Fort Knox) and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge are a 25-minute drive from Bangor, offering incredible views of the Penobscot River and tons of history.
Planning tip: If you’re on a literary kick, other famous homes you can visit or see from the street include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s residence in Portland, EB White’s home in Brookline, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house in Brunswick.
Maine’s beaches are lovely in summer, but just as beautiful out of season © MaloriMay / iStockphoto / Getty Images
3. Sunbathe on southern Maine’s beaches
Southern Maine is largely taken up by York and Cumberland Counties and it provides a home for most of the state’s 1.3 million people. It’s easy to understand why – York County is home to some of Maine’s best sandy beaches. Long Sand Beach in York and Ogunquit Beach a little further north are two of the most beautiful beaches in New England, perfect for vacations during Maine’s short, warm summers.
Old Orchard Beach toward Scarborough is one of Maine’s busiest beaches during the summer, thanks to its nostalgic pier and amusement park. As you head north, sandy beaches begin to disappear, replaced by Maine’s signature rocky coastline, but you’ll still find a few sandy spots for a dip in the Atlantic as you drift up the coast.
Planning tip: Maine’s southern beaches get extremely busy in the summer; consider visiting out of season, when the long, lovely strips of sand take on a different character, inviting long, contemplative walks.
4. Stroll the First Friday Art Walk in Portland
Maine’s largest city is the state’s cultural hub, home to world-class restaurants, hip breweries, cool coffee shops and more. It’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars here just on food and beer, but there are lots of free things to do to help you balance your budget.
Portland’s First Friday Art Walk happens on the first Friday of every month, and many of the city’s art galleries and studios open to the public for free, often providing free snacks and wine. For more art, the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) in the heart of downtown has a permanent collection of over 18,000 artworks by art greats from Andy Warhol to Claude Monet, and entry is free late on Friday afternoon.
Planning tip: As well as European greats, the PMA is home to one of the largest collections of works by Winslow Homer – considered to be one of the greatest American painters of the 19th century – who spent much of his life in Maine. PMA owns Homer’s studio in Prouts Neck and tours are available for an additional fee.
For a Maine adventure. hike the Appalachian Trail, which cuts through several Maine parks and reserves © Cavan Images RF / Getty Images
5. Take a hike through the Maine forests
Maine is home to thousands of miles of hiking, biking and nature trails. As well as various sections of the Appalachian Trail, take time to explore the free-to-visit Alewive Woods Preserve in Kennebunk, a 625-acre nature preserve with 2.5 miles of easy hiking trails.
Just an hour north of Portland, Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton makes for a perfect day hike, with rewarding views of western Maine. With kids in tow, the Shoreline Trail in Moosehead region’s Lily Bay State Park is an easy two-mile trail for the whole family, and you may even see a moose if you’re lucky.
For slightly harder hiking trails, the Bethel area is home to Grafton Notch State Park and the Mahoosuc Public Lands. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park, and there are other nearby easier trails if you prefer a shorter day hike.
Planning tip: To avoid crowds on the trails, consider hiking in the spring or in late fall once the summer crowds have departed and the leaf-peepers have returned to the cities. Just bring appropriate outdoor wear for the changeable weather.
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6. Jam out at LL Bean’s outdoor concerts
Every summer, famous outdoor outfitter LL Bean hosts Summer in the Park at its flagship store in Freeport. Shop for flannel shirts and duck boots before enjoying a free concert by big names such as Walker Hayes and Brandi Carlile. In addition to regular concerts, LL Bean also hosts free yoga classes, fitness classes, movie nights and more – shaking up its traditional image! All events are family-friendly so even the little members of your family can have heaps of fun.
Many Maine parks groom their trails in winter for cross-country skiing © Carl D. Walsh / Getty Images
7. Cross-country ski, snowshoe and sled in winter
With thousands of miles of cross-country skiing trails throughout the state, snow doesn’t have to stop your fun. Many walking trails across the state can be accessed in winter with snowshoes or cross-country skis, including many routes in Acadia National Park, which are free to use during the winter months. Acadia Winter Trails Association volunteers groom miles of the carriage trails for skiing.
There are 15 miles of free cross-country ski trails to play on in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. If you’re new to cross-country skiing, you can explore the beautifully groomed trails at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester for less than $20.
Planning tip: Sledding fans (both adults and kids) will find loads of great sledding hills to enjoy. Bring your best sled to Payson Park in Portland, Essex Street Hill in Bangor or Mighty Hill in Gorham.
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8. Experience the Maine Potato Blossom Festival
For a unique Maine experience, head north into Aroostook County for the Maine Potato Blossom Festival, held annually in Fort Fairfield in July. The festival takes place when the potato fields blossom, and features more than 85 events spread over nine days. There’s a town-wide yard sale, nightly entertainment, a huge parade, fireworks and legendary mashed potato wrestling bouts. Most events are free or low cost and the festival is great family fun.
Acadia National Park is free during National Parks week in April © Chris Bennett / Getty Images
9. Explore Acadia National Park
Every April, the US National Park Services celebrates National Park Week, and you can visit any of the country’s national parks for free, including Acadia National Park. Located on Mount Desert Island about 3½ hours north of Portland, this was the first national park established east of the Mississippi River and it’s a true highlight of Maine.
Featuring 27 miles of scenic motorways, 158 miles of hiking trails and 45 miles of carriage roads mostly built by the Rockefeller family, Acadia National Park is an incredible place to explore. Watch the sunrise over the country from atop Cadillac Mountain, take a chilly sip in the Atlantic at Sand Beach, or hike to the summit of any of the granite peaks in the park.
Planning tip: While Acadia National Park encompasses a large section of Mount Desert Island, there’s more to this scenic piece of coastline than the national park. Head outside the park boundaries to find free hiking trails and peaceful places to swim.
Cycle one of Maine’s bike routes to see some of the state’s most beautiful landscapes © Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald / Getty Images
10. Traverse the state on two wheels
Maine is a great place to explore on two wheels, with light traffic on the backroads, and plenty of backroads to explore. If you’re in the southern Maine region, hop on your bike and cycle the 22-mile Eastern Trail from Big Light in South Portland to Kennebunk.
For more hardcore cyclists, the multi-day Down East Sunrise Trail from Ellsworth to Ayers Junction covers just over 100 miles on paved or gravel roads. Bond Brooks Trails in Augusta has 6 miles of free-to-use single-track mountain biking trails and Quarry Road Trails in nearby Waterville has more mountain bike trails that are free to all.