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New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die” so it makes sense that it would offer free family friendly activities. The small state is truly a year round destination, with lakes for swimming and boating in summer, mountains for skiing in winter, and hiking any time. The free things in autumn are a great way to see some of prettiest fall foliage in the Northeast.
Free in New Hampshire: the State for Family Fun
New Hampshire shines any time of the year, but fall is a particularly spectacular season. The fall foliage is magnificent (and free to see) and the New England weather is crisp, but not too cold. You can hike the White Mountains, or climb the highest peak in Mt. Washington, then enjoy tax-free shopping. My youngest daughter spent many years at summer camp in New Hampshire and we came to love the state, even camping there and biking to her Parent’s Visitation Day. (If you are doing that, too, you’ll want to read these tips for parents weekend before you go!) We return for the fall foliage and craft beer, and always find something new to enjoy.
Winters are so cold that Dartmouth College has its students take a winter term off, and go to school one summer. Dartmouth also holds its family weekend in the summer, which always coincided with camp visiting day. We have skied at Bretton Woods at Mt. Washington, which requires extreme weather gear and an imperviousness to the cold. But you are rewarded with snowy slopes and extreme beauty.
Skiing is expensive, but you can snowshoe for free. And in summer, you can avoid pricey water parks and cool off for free in the lakes and along the ocean beaches. You have to pay to ride the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, but you can see gorgeous scenery for free on almost any small mountain road.
I grew up spending summers in New Hampshire and driving to see the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’ in Franconia Notch. This rock formation resembled an elderly man’s craggy face. Alas, the rocks crumbled. And now you have to pay to enter Franconia Notch State Park. It is worth it, though, to see the magnificent Flume Gorge. But after spending your money on this, you can find plenty of other free things to do.
Family Friendly Free Things to Do in New Hampshire
Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, in Cornish.
Fall is the ideal time to explore the 100 acres of forest. There are short nature trails with interpretative panels. National Park Rangers offer daily guided tours of the park. The park shows off the artwork of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s greatest sculptors. You normally have to pay to enter this park, but on National Public Lands Day and Veterans Day, entrance is free. Also, if you are savvy enough to get your 4th grader a free “Every Kid in a Park” pass, it allows you to bring up to three adults for free as well.
The New Hampshire General Court Visitors Center, in Concord.
Take a free tour of the State Capitol building on the weekends. The Visitors’ Center also has exhibits on New Hampshire history.
Lake Winnipesaukee has boat rentals and zip lines at fees that can break a budget, but there are so many towns along the large lake that you can catch about a dozen nighttime shows each summer. Head to the boardwalk at Weirs Beach on Lake Winnipesaukee for great views.
Scenic Free in New Hampshire
See Covered Bridges
The state offers more than just colorful fall foliage. Take a driving trip to see the covered bridges of New Hampshire. There are still 54 throughout the state! Many are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Hike to Waterfalls
The state parks (which charge admission) aren’t the only places with waterfalls. You can find them for free throughout the state. And if you dress warmly, in winter you can hike to see frozen waterfalls. Just don’t forget water resistant warm boots.
Shopping, with Free Things to Do
Settlers Green Outlet Village, North Conway, draws bargain hunters from Boston, Portland, Maine and Montreal. Tax free and outlet stores! You can window shop, but also find plenty of non-commerce-related free activities, including:
An Annual Fall Festival. It includes free, family-friendly activities like face painting, pumpkin painting and horse-drawn hay rides. A local artist gives a pumpkin carving demonstration and there are free apples and cider. The 2019 Fall Festival is Saturday, September 28.
Busker Festival. On the weekend of October 12-13, 2019, street musicians play from noon-3 p.m. around the mall.
Cruise Nights. Antique cars and hot rods show up weekly from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
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Other events around the year include pop-up art exhibits, an Art Cart with free drawing and craft supplies on Saturdays throughout the summer, from 10 am to 2 pm.
Check out a Farmers Market.
Almost every town in New Hampshire has a weekly farmers market, where the community gathers to buy and sample local produce. The short growing season limits most of the markets to June through October. The New Boston Farmers Market, in the town common, features a different musician each week. The market is held on Saturday mornings, with one evening market each August. The Portsmouth Market, also on Saturday mornings, is open longer, from May to early November. This market has events like a pumpkin smash in October.
Free Art in New Hampshire
The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Fine Craft Galleries
Nine locations throughout the state. The galleries showcase contemporary and traditional fine craft, and though everything is for sale, visiting them is like prowling art galleries. The North Conway League of NH Craftsmen Gallery offers demonstrations in its on-site pottery studio on Saturday mornings; The Littleton Gallery has print making demos.
The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover
Recently renovated and expanded, this museum has works by Picasso and Georgia O’Keefe as well as comtemporary African, African Diaspora and Native American art. The museum is free to everyone.
Andres Institute of Art, Brookline
This outdoor sculpture garden is open year round, but you may not want to tromp through the snow to see the large works of art. Fall is a great time to explore the sculptures. The garden is open daily, dawn to dusk.
Public Art in Concord
The capital city has filled Main Street with outdoor sculptures. The free outdoor museum is fun to tour any time of year. A new sculpture shows off how dog friendly the state is.
Free History Museums
The Museum of the White Mountains
Located on the Plymouth State University campus in Plymouth. This museum, opened in 2013, highlights the history, culture, and environmental legacy of New Hampshire. The museum is closed on Sundays and when the school is closed.
Derry History Museum, Derry
The museum has Native American artifacts, including a dugout canoe, and historical exhibits on the town’s 18th century origin. Astronaut Alan Shepard, a local boy, has a gallery devoted to him.
New Hampshire Holocaust Memorial, Nashua
This small memorial was funded by a New Hampshire man who was hidden in the Netherlands during the Holocaust.
Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth
Civil War buffs should head to this museum, which has Civil War memorabilia, along with exhibits on genealogy and maritime history. A new exhibit looks at the 400-year history of brewing in Portsmouth. The research library is also open to the public, with historical exhibits.
Florence H. Speare Memorial Museum, Nashua
Part of the Nashua Historical Society, the museum explores the city’s transformation from a mill town to a tourist destination. Artifacts from the Industrial Age include costumes and furnishings. The museum is open Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-3pm and on Saturdays by appointment. It is closed if the Nashua Public Schools are on vacation or closed for inclement weather.
Other Museums that are Free in New Hampshire
Old Man of the Mountain Museum, in Franconia State Park, Franconia
The Old Man of the Mountain Museum celebrates New Hampshire’s official symbol. The museum, at the Cannon Mountain aerial tramway base station, displays photos and artifacts, along with the story of how the state tried to keep the rock formation from crumbling.
The American Classic Arcade Museum, Laconia
More 250 arcade games. Admission is free, though you have to pay to play the games. Hours are limited to Saturdays from Labor Day to mid-June; the rest of the year, you can play the classic and antique games Thursdays to Sundays.
Tuck Museum of Hampton, Hampton
The museum, part of the Hampton Historical Society, has much that appeals to children. It is in a park that also includes a 19th century schoolhouse and an 18th century barn. See a Viking’s Stone, a fire station museum and other historical artifacts. Closed in winter; open Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.
Horatio Colony Museum and Nature Preserve, Keene
Get here early in fall; the museum is open May 1 through October 15, Wednesdays to Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The 1806 Federal house is filled with original family furnishings. The nature preserve trails are short enough for little kids. Trails are open daily, dawn to dusk.
Hike the Appalachian Trail
The 2,184 mile trail runs from Georgia to Maine, spending 161 miles in New Hampshire. The trail is open free year round, with some rigorous trails through the White Mountains. In fall, you don’t have to worry about bugs. But bring plenty of water, sturdy hiking shoes and sunscreen. If you are bringing your dog, make sure to check for ticks after.
Echo Lake State Park, near Bretton Woods and Mount Washington
There’s a fee of $4 per adult and $2 per child (ages 6-11) from late May till mid October. The rest of the year, you can use the hiking trials free of charge. Dogs are allowed on some of the trails.
Just for Little Kids
The American Independence Museum, Exeter
Normally, the museum charges admission, but it hosts a free Revolutionary Story Time for toddlers on First Thursdays, March through December. The two-hour afternoon story time, at Folsom Tavern, includes music, crafts, imaginary play, colonial games, and period dress-up.
Free Seasonal Events in New Hampshire
Fall Foliage in Warner
Warner’s 72nd annual Fall Foliage Festival includes a huge street festival and grand parade. The three day event, October 11-13, 2019, also has a children’s fun run and a woodsman competition. The road race is now a 5K, but you have to pay to enter. There is also a farmers market, a crafts fair, and plenty of local food vendors.
Apple Harvest Day, Dover
You may think of New York and Massachusetts as big New England apple growers, but New Hampshire also has apple orchards. This day-long festival devoted to the yearly harvest, has live music and kid-friendly entertainment. It’s on October 5, 2019.
The Milford Pumpkin Festival, Milford
Paid activities include scarecrow making, pumpkin painting, face painting and a haunted walk. But stick to pumpkin-related activities like a great pumpkin weigh in and pumpkin catapult and pumpkin lighting and spend nothing. October 11 and 12.
Riverfire in Northern Forest Heritage Park, Berlin
This northern New Hampshire Halloween-themed event includes hayrides, a children’s costume parade, and live music. At dusk, pumpkins are lit along the park’s walking bridge on the Androscoggin River. There is also a haunted village, and food for sale. The free Riverfire is on October 19, 2019.
Late Fall in New Hampshire
November brings Oktoberfest to Henniker (yes, Oktoberbest is in November). This kick-off to the winter season at Pat’s Peak ski resort includes a Bavarian Band, German Beer Garden and German food fest. There are plenty of free kids’ activities, including spin art, sing-alongs, pumpkin painting, “Doughnut Dangle,” and a face painting clown. The Octoberfest is November 3, from 11am – 5pm.
MMK Brewery, in Merrimack, is part of the Anheuser-Busch family. The free Brewery Lights extravaganza dazzles the night sky with more than a million twinkling lights. The family-friendly light show runs November 15 – December 30, 2019, except Christmas Day. The lights are Thursdays and Sundays, 5 pm – 9pm and Friday and Saturdays, 5 pm – 10 pm.
Winter in New Hampshire
Keene Ice and Snow Festival
This free family friendly festival is the way to shake off winter doldrums. The February winter carnival, in downtown Keene, features snowball fights and ice sculpture competitions.
Newport Winter Carnival
This has been a cold weather staple for more than a century. The February festival includes a fishing derby, ice hockey games, skijoring(being pulled on skis by a dog) and fireworks.
The Dartmouth College Winter Carnival, Hanover
This one is for college students and anyone hearty enough to visit. There is a snow sculpture contest, snow golf, a polar bear plunge and dogsled racing. Held in February.
Spring in New Hampshire
Sheep and Wool Festival, Deerfield
This annual event is a time to see baby farm animals and celebrate the end of winter. Held at the Deerfield Fairgrounds.
Celebration of Lupines
The early June celebration of colorful wildflowers is held annually in Franconia. There is a free “Inspirational Walk” on a specially mowed path through the Sugar Hill fields, an open air market with artisan demonstrations, story telling and concerts.
The Blue Ocean Discovery Center, Hampton
The hands-on center has a large touch tank, displays with local tide pool animals and plants and a self-guided Hampton Beach cleanup activity. Exhibits include information on climate change, whales and other marine animals and maritime life. Open seasonally, with a suggested donation of $1 per person for anyone age 2 and older.
Vaughn Cottage Museum & Library, Star Island, Isles of Shoals.
This summer-only museum requires a ferry ride from Portsmouth to Star Island, which is not free. But that’s half the fun. The museum displays pottery, historical maps and photographs of the island.
Summer in the Street, Portsmouth
Downtown Portsmouth is turned into a pedestrian zone where musicians, theater and dance companies entertain visitors. Bring a chair and food – there are no vendors, just free entertainment on Saturdays in the summer. Performances are from 5:30 – 9:30 p.m.
Market Days Festival, Concord
This 3-day festival in downtown Concord offers music on three stages, family-friendly games and activities throughout the streets. Held in June, this kicks off summer.
Lincoln Summer Craft Festival, Lincoln
An opportunity to meet local artisans and sample specialty foods. The weekend festival, on the town green, is dog friendly. Held in August.
Hampton Beach Children’s Festival, Hampton Beach
A week-long family friendly event in August filled with face painting, story telling, entertainment and mini golf, all free. Even better, there is free ice cream. All summer, Hampton Beach also has free movies on the sand after sunset.
Free Fishing Days
Normally, fishing in New Hampshire requires a paid license. But twice a year, there are Free Fishing Days for all. These are held annually, on the first Saturday in June, and the third Saturday in January. The winter date is for hearty types – it is ice fishing.
NH Open Doors
The NH Open Doors event showcases the entire state. Artists, craftsmen, and businesses literally open their doors, offering special activities and promotions. Many of the events are free or low cost. Inns and bed and breakfasts also offer special rates for the weekend. This year, NH Open Doors is November 2 and 3. Check the website for driving itineraries that focus on different regions of the state.
Free for NH Residents Only
Manchester, New Hampshire, has The Currier Museum of Art. It offers tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman House and the Millyard Museum, which explores the development of Manchester, from native Americans to farmers to textile manufacturing. But both museums charge admission. But New Hampshire residents get in free on the second Saturday of each month.
There are free events like the yearly Manchester Trolley Nights where you can ride a historic trolley around downtown and visit the interactive SEE Science Center , the Millyard Museum and the NH Institute of Art for free.
For more information on things to do and where to stay in New Hampshire, go to VisitHN.