Updated March 5, 2020
Looking for free things to do in Erie, PA?
Whether you’re planning a vacation or staycation, a visit to Erie, PA can be fun and easy on the budget. Learn my insider scoop about the free activities around the Erie area. Be sure to read the details. Some of the free activities such as the Erie Zoo and Bicentennial Tower are offered on limited days.
Most of these free activities are either educational or nature-themed, but also fun. Perhaps best of all, when you spend some time unplugged and enjoying the outdoors — you’ll not only feel better mentally and physically, but your pocketbook will benefit too!
1. Presque Isle State Park
Pennsylvania’s most popular state park is a 7 mile long peninsula connected to Erie. It’s a year round outdoor-lover’s paradise that can be enjoyed simply as a scenic drive or actively with a day full of activities. While this state park is best known for it’s miles of sandy beaches (rated #1 in a USA Today poll for “best freshwater beaches“), there is so much more to do than “beaching.”
Before we go any further, you may be wondering how to pronounce Presque Isle. It’s actually a lot easier than it looks. Presque is pronounced “presk” (rhymes with “desk”). Isle rhymes with “pile.”
Trails Of Presque Isle
Miles of paved trails create a flat pathway with beautiful scenery for walking, jogging, rollerblading, cycling, or skateboarding. If you like to bike, rollerblade, or skateboard, bring your equipment. (While you can rent bicycles and surreys inside the Park, that obviously would not be free.)
Interior woodland trails offer interesting hikes, nature walks, bird watching, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
Kayaking at Presque Isle
A calm, man-made, interior waterway called “the Lagoons” is popular with locals for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Most visitors to Presque Isle State Park never even hear about this area of the Park. You’ll find “The Lagoons” entrance just beyond the Perry Monument where you will see signs for canoe and kayak rentals. If you have a kayak, the Lagoons is an amazing place to use it because of the flat water and the variety of plants and wildlife you can see.
My first kayaking experience was here in the Lagoons. I rented a kayak just to make sure I loved kayaking enough to purchase a kayak. Afterward, I was hooked and I bought a kayak. Some kayaks are specially equipped for fishing. The Lagoons is also a great place to fish from a non-motorized smallcraft.
Driving Around Presque Isle
A drive around is the Park is a beautiful way to experience it in all four seasons. Note to drivers: the 25 miles per hour speed limit is strictly enforced. It’s easy to get distracted by the stunning sights and lose track of your speed. A few of my favorite scenes are: the house boats at Horseshoe Pond, the Perry Monument landmark, the lighthouses, and marinas.
If you enjoy history, read up on how this area was involved in the War of 1812 and find out who the Perry Monument is named after. Also, learn how Misery Bay earned its name. These are all good questions for schoolchildren if you want to throw in a little education during your drive here.
You will see many beautiful views of Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie. If you want to see wildlife, a drive through the Park at dawn or dusk is the best time to see wildlife. Watching the sun set over Lake Erie is another amazing experience that can be enjoyed from your car or from the beach. Note: you will want to be on the lake side (not the bay side) to watch the sun set.
Packing For A Presque Isle Beach Visit
To visit Presque Isle State Park beaches, a little pre-planning can make your day significantly more enjoyable.
Here are a few suggestions for what to pack:
Cooler, ice, and food. Picnic tables and grills are abundantly placed throughout the Park. If you are enjoying a day at the beach, chances are there will be a picnic table and a grill nearby. Eating at the beach can be a fun and memorable part of your day and will cost less than eating out. Your family will be having so much fun that you will not want to leave in search of food or drinks. A meal can be as simple as sandwiches, chips, and drinks. Or, try my family’s favorite beach meal of hamburgers and Smith’s hot dogs cooked on a charcoal grill. Grills are easy to find throughout the Park. When you arrive at the beach, just pick a location near a grill and picnic table to make cooking and eating convenient.
To cook at the beach you will need:
- self-lighting charcoal
- matches or a lighting stick
- a metal spatula
- aluminum foil for the grill
- burgers and hot dogs, buns, condiments, a favorite side dish or two, chips
- paper plates, eating utensils, paper towels, and a garbage bag to collect your trash
- If you don’t have time to shop and pack before your visit, two convenient shops are located just prior to the entrance of the Park: Sheetz (750 Peninsula Drive, Erie, PA) and Bello’s Market (a small grocery store in the Colony Plaza on West 8th Street).
- Beach umbrella (if you plan to use one). To my knowledge, there is no place to rent a beach umbrella at the park.
- Towels. You’ll want towels both for drying off after a swim and for brushing off sand before you get back into your car.
- Beach chairs, camp chairs, or a beach blanket
- Sand or beach toys for the kiddos — and kids at heart. Are you ever too old to build a sand castle complete with a moat? I see plenty of adults enjoying this.
- Tip: Watch a few Youtube videos to sharpen your sand castle building techniques. Presque Isle beaches have ample amounts of sand for castle making. Older kids and adults may enjoy water floats, boogie boards, frisbees, a football, soccer ball, volleyball, Kan Jam or other yard games. My teen boys LOVE Spike Ball at the beach.
- Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat for sun protection
Finding Your Way Around Presque Isle State Park
This map of Presque Isle State Park can help you find the various landmarks, activities, and beaches.
Admission to Presque Isle State Park is free.
2. Lagoon by Pontoon Ride
Discover the natural history and beauty of the Lagoons at Presque Isle State Park by pontoon. These free rides run daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Sign-ups are 30 minutes prior to the ride time at the Pontoon Station (next to Lagoon boat launch) on a first-come, first serve basis. This program is subject to modification or cancellation, and sign-up procedures may change so be sure to call ahead and verify any details through the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, (814) 833-7424. Verify all information about the Lagoon by Pontoon Ride.
3. Bicentennial Tower
The best view of Erie is from the top of Erie’s iconic Bicentennial Tower at Dobbin’s Landing in the city of Erie. At the top of the lookout tower — 137 feet high — you can view the city of Erie, Erie’s bayfront, and Presque Isle State Park.
On most days, the cost to ride an elevator to the top of the Tower is $5. Free dates for 2019 were offered on the first Tuesday of each month from April through September. Check for free dates and hours of operation for 2020. Coin-operated Tower viewers are available at the top of the Tower. If you want a telescopic view, bring a few quarters with you for the viewers.
Tip: You will be outdoors at the top of the Tower. It can be windier at the top of the Tower than at the bottom. So dress appropriately.
4. Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC)
TREC is fun and educational museum-like center, with both indoor exhibits and events and outdoor events. Outdoor events vary by season and can include ice fishing or cast iron cooking. Examples of indoor events include a Great Lakes Shipwreck exhibit or a fireside chat about local critters of Presque Isle State Park.
Visitors can climb the stairs to the top of the Tower for a stunning 360 degree view that includes Lake Erie and Waldameer Amusement Park & Water World.
Parking and admission are free. Plan to spend about one hour at TREC (not including a movie). TREC is a great rainy day back-up plan.
Movies on the green screen are not included in the free general admission. The movies shown at TREC are many of the same titles shown at IMAX movie theaters and are educational, interesting and reasonably priced (but not free).
5. Live Outdoor Concerts
Free outdoor concerts are offered several days per week in the Erie area in the summer.
The UPMC Sunset Music Series at Presque Isle State Park is on Mondays at Beach 1.
“8 Great Tuesdays” features live music at the Amphitheater at Liberty Park along downtown Erie’s bayfront for eight Tuesday evenings during the summer.
Traffic can be quite congested during the above events. Plan accordingly. Shuttles are available. Bring a blanket to sit on and a picnic basket with snacks and drinks, if desired.
In North East, PA, Erie’s Wine Country, three wineries host free outdoor concerts in the summer. Lakeview Wine Cellars offers outdoor concerts in May and June on Saturday evenings. Penn Shore Winery follows with a free outdoor concert series in July and August on Saturday evenings. Arundel Cellars has live music events in the summer and throughout the year.
Parking and congestion are not a problem for the North East concerts.
North East, PA is about 18 miles east of downtown Erie, PA. It’s the heart of Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Wine Country.
6. Erie Zoo Free Hours On Sunday 3-5pm
The Erie Zoo offers free admission for 2 hours each Sunday from 3-5pm during the Zoo’s open season. Note, the Erie Zoo closes for the winter months.
7. Liberty Park Playground
If you are enjoying a day in downtown Erie, the Liberty Park Playground is a great way to allow the kids to expend some energy. The address is 200 Lawrence Pier, Erie, PA 16507.
Asbury Woods offers a small indoor nature center, an outdoor play area for young children, and a system of outdoor trails for enjoying the nature. Whether you prefer scenic a wooded walk, or a 1/3 mile boardwalk, a GPS/Orienteering course, a 5K cross-country course or a ski and snowshoe trail, at Asbury Woods, nature can be enjoyed year round.
9. Picnic In The Park, Gibson Park, Thursdays
In the summer on Thursdays, the popular Picnic in the Park event is offered by the North East, PA Chamber of Commerce from 11:30am – 1pm from mid-June through mid-August (except July 4). Each event includes free live family entertainment, a food vendor, and a farmer’s market.
Pack a lunch, bring a picnic blanket, and enjoy a fun family event beneath the beautiful shade trees of Gibson Park in the heart of North East, PA.
10. Lake Erie Beach Glass and Treasure Hunting
Treasure hunting along the Lake Erie shoreline is fun for school ages and up. Lake Erie is known for its beautiful beach glass. Some people enjoy finding colorful beach pebbles, driftwood, or even the lucky stones (otoliths) that come from freshwater fish.
11. Fishing Lake Erie
Lake Erie is a year round world class fishing destination for many anglers. You can cast a line in many places from one end of the Pennsylvania coast near Ohio to the New York border. While fishing is free for those under age 16, all persons age 16 and older are required to have a fishing license. Pennsylvania fishing licenses can be purchased through the mobile app or at a fishing license agent such as the North East Marina.
Tourists may be interested in a 1, 3, or 7 day license. More information about fishing license costs and regulations can be found here.
12. Lake Shore Railway Museum Free Admission
Train lovers will enjoy a visit to the Lake Shore Railway Museum in North East, PA. While admission is free, donations are appreciated.
13. Free Doggie Ice Cream Treat Everyday
The Straw Hat Sundae Shop in North East, PA offers free ice cream treats for dogs everyday, year round. The Straw Hat serves Penn State Creamery Ice Cream, Perry’s ice cream, soft serve, root beer floats, banana splits, and much more! Discover more dog-friendly places.
14. Shades Beach
Shades Beach is a public Lake Erie beach located in Harborcreek, just east of Erie, where you can enjoy a shaded children’s playground, beach area, picnic grounds, and a boat launch.
15. Freeport Beach
Freeport Beach is a public Lake Erie beach located east of Erie in North
East, PA. Teens and adults can have fun on the sand volleyball court while children can use the beach playground. In addition, public restrooms and lifeguards are provided during the summer months. Freeport Beach typically gets sand replenishment and tends to be a sandy beach.
16. Fisherman’s Beach/Barber Beach/20 Mile Beach
Also in North East, PA, Fisherman’s Beach is a public beach where dogs are permitted on leash. This beach is not well marked on maps. The entrance is off of north side of Route 5 at Conservation Park, which is also the access for fishing 20 Mile Creek. The parking lot is just west of 20 Mile Creek. The lot leads to a trail that you have to walk on foot, along 20 Mile Creek north to the beach. Good mobility is necessary to walk on the trail to the beach. Your dog will love it!
17. Grape Discovery Center, Westfield, NY
The Grape Discovery Center is a perfect place for families to visit. Learn about more than 150 years of grape growing history through stories and interactive displays. You can also taste local wines and grape juice and shop in the gift shop.
Do you know of other free things to do around the Erie, PA area? Please tell us by email at LakeErieCottages@gmail.com!