Francisco Andrade—Flickr/Getty Images
By Kathryn O'Shea-Evans
June 29, 2016

No one likes to waste money, least of all on a vacation. Nothing kills the buzz of a dream trip faster than standing on line for that top tourist attraction, handing over your hard-earned cash, and discovering that it was all a bunch of hyped holiday hooey.

To save you money and time, we’ve compiled a list of 20 sights that are, in fact, worth every dollar. Some are on the expensive side, such as the $50 ticket to the country’s best aquarium. Some aren’t that pricey at all. (Guess where you can take any streetcar you desire for only $1.25?) And how much would you pay for an underground cave that doubles as a bluegrass concert hall? How does $45 sound?

In addition to these worth-it wonders, we’ve added a few that you might call meh. They’re the kind of places you should avoid, either because they cost too much for what you get or they just cost too much, period. You might well disagree—and if you do, please tell us why. Even better, send us a postcard. Just remember to have fun wherever you roam.

P.S.: We’ve organized this photo tour by cost, starting with the cheapest, going forward to the most expensive, and ending with the stuff that’s not worth your money. (Though do check them out here, to save you the trouble on the road.)

Louisiana: Streetcar Ride

Maremagnum—Getty Images

Cost: $1.25

Why It’s Worth It: For about half the price of a small cup of chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde, you can ride the oldest working streetcars in the world. They run in a 13-mile loop around the city, though they are transporting in ways that can’t be measured in mere distance traveled. Fiery red on the outside, dimly lit mahogany and brass on the inside, they’re both totally brazen and hopelessly romantic, just like their hometown (not to mention that great Tennessee Williams heroine, Blanche DuBois).

Oklahoma: Woody Guthrie Center

courtesy of the Woody Guthrie Archives

Cost: $8

Why It’s Worth It: When it comes to the folks who helped make America great, Woody Guthrie (born Woodrow Wilson Guthrie) is at the top of the list. If you’re not familiar with the folk music icon, there’s no better place to get started than at the Woody Guthrie Center. It’s home to his guitars and banjos, his decorated notebooks, and, in a glass case all its own, his handwritten original lyrics to “This Land is Your Land.” Try reading it and not getting chills.

Washington: Ferry to the San Juan Islands

Jim Maya

Cost: From $13.25

Why It’s Worth It: You can believe it when the San Juan Island ferry service claims that “getting there is half the fun.” If you’re lucky you might spot orcas, bald eagles, and the occasional humpback whale on your 45- to 90-minute ride from Anacortes to the San Juans, but the eye-popping scenery is guaranteed.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the departure point for the ferry; it leaves from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle.

Texas: Jacob's Well

Rodolfo Gonzalez—Austin American-Statesman/AP

Cost: $9

Why It’s Worth It: Just 36 miles southwest of Austin’s famous Barton Springs pool, you’ll feel like you discovered an insiders-only swimming hole at the spring-fed Jacob’s Well. The water shimmers like green quartz and bubbles up from a 12-foot-wide cylindrical-shaped opening in the limestone creek bed. Good, clean fun for the whole family.

Oregon: Portland Japanese Garden

Danita Delimont—Getty Images/Gallo Images

Cost: $9.50

Why It’s Worth It: Old World Japan is nearly 5,000 miles away from Oregon, but you wouldn’t think so when you step into this leafy wonderland, with its koi-filled ponds and carefully raked sand and stone karesansui (dry landscape) gardens. It’s so beloved by locals that Japanese starchitect Kengo Kuma is currently working on an expansion.

Georgia: Wormsloe Historic Site

Sean Pavone—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cost: $10

Why It’s Worth It: The most Instagrammable place in Georgia just might be the allée of Spanish-moss-dripping live oaks that lead to the tabby ruin at Wormsloe Historic Site. Unlike the similar rows of trees at Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation, this drive goes on for a whopping 1.5 miles.

Delaware: Fort Delaware

courtesy Fort Delaware

Cost: $12

Why It’s Worth It: If you’re a fan of Colonial Williamsburg, grab your best tricorn hat and board the ferry to the 1859 Fort Delaware, a Union stronghold that once housed Confederate prisoners. The guides, decked out in Civil War-era costumes, are happy to let you try your hand at ye olde lifestyle: You can wash laundry using a scrub board and even help load and fire a 32-pounder gun under the watchful eye of a soldier.

Pennsylvania: Eastern State Penitentiary

courtesy Eastern State Penitenti

Cost: $14

Why It’s Worth It: Most people would pay to get out of prison. Here you pay to get in. The Eastern State Penitentiary is the Gothic, wagon wheel-shaped slammer where Al Capone was held. It ceased operation in 1971 and is now one of the most bone-chilling excursions in the country, with an audio tour by Steve Buscemi and, every autumn, a Halloween haunted house, Terror Behind the Walls, where “ghosts” attempt to pull you into hidden passageways.

New York: Frick Collection

Michael Bodycomb—Michael Bodycomb

Cost: $20

Why It’s Worth It: In the city of MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum, why head to the Frick Collection? Because exploring the opulent mansion of steel magnate (and union-buster) Henry Clay Frick means you get a taste of the 1914 high life and an eyeful of the masters he collected—including Degas, Renoir, and Vermeer, to name just a few—all in the kind of gilded, private setting where they would have resided in the owner’s time.

New York: National Baseball Hall of Fame

courtesy National Baseball Hall

Cost: $23

Why It’s Worth It: If Cooperstown is synonymous with baseball, this museum is a major reason why. Babe Ruth (a.k.a. the Sultan of Swat) has his own exhibit filled with his jerseys and signed bats; Hank Aaron’s blingy championship jewelry is on display; and you can even see Ty Cobb’s well-worn glove, added to the trove back in 1936. If you really want to spend quality time with these heroes of the diamond, there’s also a program that allows you and your kids (ages 7-12) to spend the night in the museum. It costs $50 per person.

Virginia: Monticello

Jack Looney—Thomas Jefferson Foundation at M

Cost: $25

Why It’s Worth It: For history buffs, there’s no such thing as a ho-hum presidential home. What makes Monticello special is that you’ll learn about more than just Thomas Jefferson. The house’s ingenious design—including its pre-electricity system of air conditioning—is still an architectural model, 244 years after it was built, and the grounds are stunning. Why did our third POTUS paint his dining room school-bus yellow? Buy your ticket and find out.

Nevada: Neon Museum

courtesy Neon Museum

Cost: $25

Why It’s Worth It: Las Vegas is a gas, and nowhere is that more true than at The Neon Museum. You’ll find 200 of the brightest stars on the Strip, including ones from the Lucky Cuss Motel and the Bow & Arrow. Go at night to see the seven restored signs dazzle, and book early: tours sell out far in advance.

California: Hearst Castle

Vickie Garagliano—Hearst Castle/CA State Parks

Cost: $25

Why It’s Worth It: Arguably the West Coast’s grandest home (sorry, Bill Gates!), Hearst Castle is every bit worthy of its royal moniker. The 165-room estate holds a gold mosaic-lined pool inspired by Roman baths, a billiard room with a circa-1500 Flemish tapestry, and a Prohibition-era wine cellar behind locked iron doors. That this all sits on a terraced hill with a birds-eye view of San Simeon and the Pacific coast is just a bonus.

Pennsylvania: Fallingwater

Robert P. Ruschak—courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy

Cost: $25

Why It’s Worth It: The American Institute of Architects voted the weekend home that Frank Lloyd Wright designed the “best all-time work of American architecture.” Spectacularly cantilevered over the Bear Run waterfall, the sandstone and steel residence is as stunning inside as out, with waxed flagstone floors, stone walls, and built-in black walnut wood furniture.

Utah: Grand Canyon Mule Rides

Pascale Beroujon—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

Cost: $45

Why It’s Worth It: The Grand Canyon is practically a bucket list requirement, but it’s all the more authentic when viewed from the back of a gentle mule. There are guided mule rides that cost hundreds of dollars, last a day or more, and test the resilience of your backside. These Grand Canyon Mule Rides last only an hour and are a lot easier on your wallet. Plus, the mule’s ears will also make your #GrandCanyon Instagram post that much more like-able.

Tennessee: Cumberland Caverns

Mark Humphrey—AP

Cost: $45

Why It’s Worth It: Let’s face it, a 333-foot-deep cave filled with stalagmites is a must-see all on its own. But the fact that this particular cave has 32 miles of underground passageways—and hosts Emmy Award-winning Bluegrass Underground concerts featuring bands like The Boxcars and The Hillbenders—makes it a crime to miss.

California: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Randy Wilder—Monterey Bay Aquarium

Cost: $50

Why It’s Worth It: There are aquariums, and then there’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium, among the best in the world. Watch rescued sea otters and African penguins feed and see leopard sharks and red octopus circle a 28-foot-tall kelp forest, purportedly the biggest aquarium exhibit in the world. Go on a weekday afternoon to avoid crowds.

Florida: Kennedy Space Center

courtesy Kennedy Space Center

Cost: $50

Why It’s Worth It: Only about 14 of the more than 18,000 people who applied to be NASA astronauts this year will make the cut. For the rest of us, there’s Kennedy Space Center, where you can see a rocket launch (check the calendar for dates), ride in a rocket-launch simulator at simulated speed of 17,500 miles an hour, and meet veteran astronauts like Fred Gregory, who’s spent more than 455 hours in space.

North Carolina: Biltmore House

John Warner—Biltmore

Cost: $50

Why It’s Worth It: The largest house in the United States, the 250-room, 175,000-square-foot Biltmore House is a turreted Disney castle sprung to opulent life. It’s still owned by the Vanderbilt family, and they’ll happily let you explore the playland as if you were Anderson Cooper. It was his great-great-uncle George who built the Biltmore and opened it in 1895. Though no Vanderbilts still live there, it remains home to a 10,000-volume library, paintings by John Singer Sargent, and 65 fireplaces.

California: Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Mike Windle—Getty Images for Warner Bros. Studio Tour

Cost: $62

Why It’s Worth It: Movie buffs—and anyone who’s streamed every episode of Friends or Gilmore Girls—will geek out over this backstage pass to the Warner Bros. Studio, one of the most in-depth visits to a Hollywood film lot that you’ll find in a city that likes to keep its secrets. Often included in the three-hour tour: a look at props from Casablanca, costumes from Harry Potter, and every single Batmobile; stopping by the Ellen set; and taking your photo on the couch in Central Perk.

Massachusetts: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Cecil Stoughton—John F. Kennedy Presidential Lib

Cost: $14

Why It’s NOT Worth It: If you’re looking for in-depth information on JFK’s colorful personal life or his assassination, you won’t find it here. In its place: tons and tons of campaign buttons and decent if unremarkable photographs. Save the $14 and head to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, the house in Brookline where he was born. Admission there is free.

California: Old Faithful

Old Faithful geyser in Napa Valley
Maisna—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cost: $15

Why It’s NOT Worth It: Do not be confused. The original Old Faithful does its thing—and on schedule—in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. The California Old Faithful Geyser resides about 1,000 miles to the west and bursts somewhat less enthusiastically. To its credit, the Cali geyser also features a petting zoo and ample picnic tables. But at $15 per adult and $9-$13 for children, it’s more expensive for a family of four than Yellowstone proper, which costs $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.

Florida: Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archeological Park

Diane Macdonald—Getty Images

Cost: $15

Why It’s NOT Worth It: Nobody really knows if this is what Ponce de Leon thought was the fountain of youth, although there are plenty of people who’ll pay to believe it—and drink a cup of the local spring water and hope for the best. The park’s downright campy offerings—replica cannon firings set in a replica Franciscan mission—are reason for you to save your genuine greenbacks.

Nevada: Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay

LHB Photo—Alamy

Cost: $20

Why It’s NOT Worth It: There are card sharks in every casino, of course, but only Mandalay Bay features the kind that can cost you a real arm and a leg. Staring at marine life is a nice, Zen-like way to step away from the tables. But if you want to feed the sea turtles? Touch the stingrays? Swim with the sharks? That’ll be extra. This is Vegas, baby.

New York: The Statue of Liberty Crown

Zarnell—Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cost: $28

Why It’s NOT Worth It: It’s practically un-American to say anything bad about Lady Liberty, but even freedom has some limits. So be warned: The hike to her crown is 377 steps up a narrow, cramped, and un-air-conditioned spiral staircase, which also means it’s 377 steps down to the closest bathroom. If you want to see her majesty for less, hop on the Staten Island ferry. You’ll get plenty of selfie-worthy shots from there. And it’s free.


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