Photograph by Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images
Pike Place Market
This Seattle landmark may be one of the city's biggest tourist attractions, but don't be fooled. It's a serious, working market—the best place in the city for fresh fish, produce, and artisanal foods. Come early to avoid the sightseers.
This seasonal market in the heart of wine country runs Thursday nights from May to August in downtown Napa. The streets come alive with music, and top chefs demonstrate cooking with fresh local ingredients plucked from the adjacent farmers market. Free food and wine tastings are on offer.
Apple Harvest Festival
Each October, this northern California festival offers a chance to sample different varieties of apples and savor some free cider. Ride for free by hay wagon to the festival's host venues, one of which is a cider works and apple orchard that's been in continuous production since 1869.
Maple Syrup Producers Open House Weekend
When the sap runs, sugarhouses all over the state will be welcoming visitors to celebrate the magic that turns 40 gallons of sap into a single gallon of maple syrup—and offer samples of the final product in all its glorious forms.
Rockland is a classic Maine coastal town, and its August festival is a classic celebration of the state's legendary lobster. Best of all, the first day each year is absolutely free. The festival features music, crafts, and contests like a sea-soaked run across a string of half-submerged traps.
Taste of Chicago
This epicurean extravaganza is one of America's top outdoor food festivals, set in the spectacular lakeside setting of Grant Park. World-class musical acts, cooking demonstrations, and many other events are free. Sampling fare from the city's diverse roster of restaurants costs extra—but you won't be able to resist.
Movies and Wine at the Top of the Mark
San Francisco, California
This summer, movie fans may flock to the Top of the Mark, atop the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins on San Francisco's Nob Hill, for free films and wine tastings every Tuesday night. Classics like Vertigo, The Maltese Falcon, and Escape from Alcatraz will be perfectly paired with fine California vintages.
Dane County, Wisconsin
This market has been a Madison institution since 1972 and sets up near the Capitol building and the college town's bustling State Street. (It moves indoors during winter.) It's a producer-only market, the nation's largest in fact, which means that whatever you buy, you're buying it from the person who grew it or made it. As befits Wisconsin, tasty cheeses are found here in infinite variety.
The Kentucky Bourbon Festival
This September celebration of America's iconic brown liquor features a full slate of free activities, including music, barrelmaking and rolling, Kentucky arts and crafts, horseshoe pitching, and a museum of whiskey history.
Oregon Brewers Festival
Free beer? Well, not exactly. But unlike many of America's top beer festivals, admission to this annual July event is free—and the craft beer here on the banks of the Willamette River is some of the finest from around the country. Home brewing demonstrations and music are also free and so is root beer for your designated drivers.
St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, is a land of bayous, shrimp boats, and the legendary mudbugs that inspire this and other celebratory “boils.” Crawfish and other Cajun dishes are available for purchase, but music, the carnival midway, and Cajun Country arts-and-crafts exhibits are all free. Stick around to cheer the crowning of Louisiana's Crawfish Queen.
Uptown Lexington, North Carolina
This barbeque blowout is so momentous that Amtrak trains make special once-a-year stops here in October to unite hungry passengers with some 15,000 pounds of chopped pork barbeque. The adventurous may want to try their hands in the annual hog-calling contest.
Your Local Williams-Sonoma
This famed purveyor of culinary merchandise probably has a location near you—and each Williams-Sonoma store offers free, hour-long cooking technique classes. Classes focus on a wide range of tasty topics, from making your own ice cream to constructing super salads. Spaces are limited so contact your local store to find out what's on offer and reserve a space.
Union Square Greenmarket
New York, New York
It isn't easy to find free activities in New York, but no less than 44 greenmarkets welcome browsers at no charge, and the Union Square location may be the best—or so say the 60,000 or so shoppers you'll find here in peak season. The market features food from nearby New Jersey and is a great place to stock up on that state's famous corn and tomatoes.
South Carolina Peach Festival
Gaffney, South Carolina
Gaffney, South Carolina, is the place to be for peach lovers anxious to see who takes home top honors in the prestigious Peach Dessert Contest. While you're here, catch the peach parade and cheer the winners of the Peach Festival Pageant. It's all free—if you can resist buying some peach ice cream or cobbler. Good luck.
Put your salsa savvy to the test at Safford’s annual SalsaFest, which offers the chance to taste and rate top salsas and, for the iron-stomached, compete in the jalapeno-eating competition. The September event is a stop on the Salsa Trail, a stretch of scenic Southwest highway linking Mexican restaurants, a family-owned tortilla factory, and a chili farm sprinkled throughout several southern Arizona communities.
Hope Watermelon Festival
This Arkansas town is known as the birthplace of President Bill Clinton but it's also made a major name for itself among watermelon lovers. Each summer the Hope Watermelon Festival celebrates the delicious melons with a three-day fete. Watermelon Olympics events include seed-spitting, melon-tossing, and melon-eating contests. Behemoth melons of world-record size are on display and, of course, ice-cold melon is available by the slice.
St. Paul Farmers Market
St. Paul, Minnesota
When fresh local berries and veggies are at their best you'll find them at the St. Paul Farmers Market, which operates year-round even when the Minnesota snow flies. This and other Twin Cities markets are partially fueled by Hmong farmers, who produce half or more of the market's produce and flowers and offer once-exotic Asian greens as standard fare.
Celestial Seasonings Tours
Tea lovers take note: Celestial Seasonings offers free tours of their Boulder-based production plant every day (except holidays). See how natural botanicals from 35 countries are turned into a high-quality cuppa—and unwind afterward with free samples of any tea in the Celestial Seasonings lineup.
Montana’s Lewis and Clark Park is home to this new annual celebration of some very important insects and the glorious nectar they create. Each September, during national honey month, the festival puts on honey tastings, cooking and beekeeping demonstrations, and samplings of honey products, including mead and honey beer.
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