The best free things to do in Adelaide

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Found yourself in Adelaide with limited funds? Not to worry – there’s plenty to see and do here that won’t cost you a cent. In fact, the city’s gratis offerings make a terrific introduction to local life and the surrounding scenery. Not to mention the fantastic climate – which the locals love to call ‘Mediterranean’ – well, that comes for free too.

From beautiful views and beach days, to guided walking tours and incredible art collections, the city has an abundance to offer in exchange for just your time and energy!

Adelaide’s ‘Mediterranean’ climate occasionally provides its own visual entertainment free of charge © Sebastian Riebolge / Lonely Planet

Free-wheeling ain’t stealing

First thing’s first, the best way to get the lay of the land is to hop on the bus. Adelaide has two free ‘city loop’ bus services, in effect providing a scenic tour of the city centre and surroundings for diddly-squat! The buses weave through the city in opposite directions and are as frequent as every 30 minutes. Get on board!

Another option for getting around town is the ‘Adelaide Free Bikes’ system run by Bicycle SA. Just bring a form of photo ID as your deposit in exchange for a rental bike – complete with helmet, lock and maps – and pedal around this big, smooth city. There are several pick-up hubs around town, the only catch being you must return the bike to the same location you borrowed it from. But hey, it’s free!

Freedom on foot

For a more tailored tour experience, check out the Adelaide City Council’s free downloadable Adelaide City Explorer self-guided walking tours. There are 19 themed trails available, zeroing-in on subjects like historic pubs, flora and fauna, art-deco architecture and public art.

For a loftier perspective of the Adelaide landscape – a vast urban plain hugged by the croissant-shaped Adelaide Hills – take a drive (or catch the bus) up to Mt Lofty Summit. The highest point in the hills that guard the city, this is a top spot to pick out Adelaide’s landmarks and gaze wistfully towards the horizon at Gulf St Vincent.

Waterfall Gully is a lovely serene ramble and a great place to get snap happy © Lev Kropotov / Shutterstock

A fabulous walking trail kicks off from the lookout, tracking 3.9km downhill to the aptly named Waterfall Gully. It’s a steep but very well maintained bush track. There are a series of waterfalls along the route, but the biggest and best is First Falls at the bottom of the trail, which is extremely photogenic post rain shower.

Art and historical offerings

North Terrace, the broad avenue running across the northern edge of Adelaide’s CBD, plays host to two of the city’s estimable cultural bastions: the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Special and touring exhibitions incur admission fees, but unless you stop for coffee or lunch at one of the cafés (highly recommended), your visit will be free. Spending a few hours in each is the perfect way to beat the heat of the city streets.

South Australian Museum highlights include the mesmerising Australian Aboriginal Cultures galleries, which give focus to South Australian indigenous artefacts and heritage. Don’t miss the incredible archival film footage showcased throughout the exhibitions. There’s also the eye-popping Pacific Cultures Gallery, with its dazzling collection of masks, weapons, and traditional costumes from tribal groups across the region. Kids gravitate towards the impressive World Mammals display, with all and sundry hairy beasts safely imprisoned behind glass.

The Art Gallery of South Australia offers respite from the heat and treats for your eyes © Charles Rawlings-Way / Lonely Planet

Right next door, the Art Gallery of South Australia has recently been transformed from a somewhat staid, old operator into something far more edgy. It’s a long way from matching Hobart’s MONA in the shock-and-awe stakes, but the vibe here these days is progressive and hip. The Australian Collection lures art buffs, with plenty of famous names – like Smart, McCubbin, Nolan, Whiteley and Tucker – to ogle in hushed parquetry-floored spaces.

Urban green space

An anomaly of Australian urban development, Adelaide was a planned city, laid out in a sensible, organised fashion in the 1830s by master planner, Colonel William Light. Part of Light’s grand scheme was a band of green belts encircling the centre – think New York’s Central Park, only in reverse. The park lands have survived the decades, offering space to enjoy the summer heat and more playgrounds, sports ovals and picnic spots than you could possibly investigate in one visit.

The statue of Colonel William Light proudly directs attention to what a good planning job he did back in the 1830s © Charles Rawlings-Way / Lonely Planet

One park land gem is the free Adelaide Botanic Gardens – check out the giant waterlily pavilion and the seed-filled Museum of Economic Botany. Roam a little further and you’ll find the spooky-but-fascinating West Terrace Cemetery, the final resting place for more than a few nefarious types. Or, just pull up a sunny patch of grass by the River Torrens near the Adelaide Festival Centre. Try to score a spot alongside the statue of Colonel William Light himself on Montefiore Hill, enjoy a picnic and count the ducks/joggers.

The Botanic Gardens provide hours of fascination and aweThe Botanic Gardens provide hours of fascination and awe © Sean Heatley / Shutterstock

Life’s a beach

For a fun, laidback budget experience, ride the tram to Glenelg – home to Adelaide’s most popular beach, aka ‘the Bay’ – and splash around in the sea. In fact, Adelaide has a superb string of golden-sand beaches fronting onto Gulf St Vincent that manage to fly under the radar because, unlike those in Sydney, Byron Bay and the Gold Coast, there’s no surf. Appealingly though, the west-facing coast snares the afternoon sun, setting the scene for refreshing evening drinks and fish and chips on the sand. Glenelg also has a lengthy pier – perfect for an evening promenade before or after the aforementioned drink.

Glenelg is the epitome of beach town goodness and just a short hop from Adelaide’s city centre © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Before the sun sets, check out the free displays at the Bay Discovery Centre, including some amazing bits and pieces dredged up from the sea bed when the new pier replaced the old one (seemingly a handy spot to dispose of suspicious pistols).

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