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America’s Best Low-Cost Cities to Visit

  • Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis (National Gallery of Art)

    Washington, D.C.

    The capital’s first-rate lineup of free attractions exemplifies American democracy, and much of the city is free to visit. It costs nothing to visit National Mall landmarks, including the Jefferson, Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials. (Note that the Washington Monument, although free, is temporarily closed while recent earthquake damage is repaired.) All of the Smithsonian museums offer free admission, including the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the American History Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Zoo. Tours of Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot? The Library of Congress? The Bureau of Engraving? Free, free and free. Save money on lodging by staying in a reliable chain hotel outside the Capital Beltway and close to a Metro stop.

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    Branson, Missouri

    This mecca of mainstream entertainment in the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks packs ’em in with good-value Grand Ole Opry-style venues, family-friendly revues, amusement parks, miniature golf courses and wax museums. Midrange hotel chains and reasonably priced family-run resorts rule the day, and a new airport, combined with the expansion of the existing airport, has ushered in low-cost airlines and competitive fares. More good news: Most businesses are up and running again after recent tornado damage. Look for ongoing packages, deals and coupons on the websites of the Branson Tourism Center or the Branson Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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    Charlotte, North Carolina

    A shining New South city and site of the 2012 National Democratic Convention, Charlotte is busting its buttons these days. It has popular NFL and NBA teams, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, a sleek downtown, excellent museums, and one of the South’s top amusement parks, Carowinds. The nonprofit U.S. National Whitewater Center — where you can work on your rafting, kayaking, rock-climbing and other outdoor-activity skills — is just 15 minutes from downtown. Thanks to the city’s low cost of living, hotel rates and restaurant bills aren’t astronomical, and museum admission doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. What’s more, North Carolina is prime barbecue country, where a hickory-smoked pulled-pork sandwich is utterly cheap and lip-smackingly delicious. Try the award-winning creations at Bubba’s Barbecue, smoky and peppery in the eastern North Carolina style.

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    Columbus, Indiana

    You might not know it, but this small Midwestern city has big-time architecture designed by such masters as I.M. Pei, Eero Saarinen and Robert Stern. It all started back in the 1940s, when a local business paid for celebrated architects to design public buildings. Today the “Athens of the Prairie” showcases nearly 70 fine examples of 20th-century architecture, a handful of them National Historic Landmarks. You can arrange a guided tour ($20 per person) or take a self-guided walk with free maps from the Columbus Area Visitors Center. It costs nothing to follow the sinuous curve of the White River on a stroll in Mill Race Park. Its remarkable design by renowned landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh enables it to withstand spring floods. Savor the city’s genial small-town vibe — and small-town prices — at ongoing free festivals and family-friendly places such as Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor, a beloved Victorian-era landmark. Across the street is The Commons, a steel-and-glass entertainment complex with a fantastic free indoor playground.

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    Orlando, Florida

    What do 115,000 hotel rooms mean to the budget-minded consumer? Competition and hotly competitive rates. America’s theme park capital has many enticing ways to separate you from your money — first and foremost Disney World. And although the land of Mickey isn’t a bargain, there are plenty of other places to play, stay and eat that don’t necessarily cost a fortune. Package deals are the smart way to save money on airfare, hotel and the sights. Once you’ve hit town, arm yourself with Visit Orlando’s free Orlando Magicard, which gets you discounts at restaurants, shops and attractions.

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