Blake Walsh

20 Free Things to Do in Bismarck, ND

  • Published 2023/01/23

Bismarck is the capital city of North Dakota, acting as the state’s central business and cultural hub.

As a large and bustling city in Burleigh County, Bismarck is known for its rich heritage preserved through its museums and historic sites.

The city also houses a portion of the Missouri River, giving it riverfront views throughout its many parks.

Many things to do in Bismarck are free, making this one of the best destinations for budget travelers.

Here are 20 free things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota:

Take a Tour of the North Dakota State Capitol

Signage of the North Dakota State Capitol

Joseph Sohm /

The North Dakota State Capitol is a gorgeous architectural marvel best appreciated by the free tours available inside.

Once you go in, be sure to pay close attention to the walls, ceilings, and fixtures throughout the lobby and other floors, as they’re all telling of the city’s rich history.

Another fantastic thing you can do here is reach the top floor for sweeping city views.

Exterior of the North Dakota State Capitol

Joseph Sohm /

You can easily spot the North Dakota State Capitol in the city proper for photos of its exterior.

Visit them along East Boulevard Avenue.

House of representatives chamber in the North Dakota State Capitol

Nagel Photography /

Enjoy Recreational Activities at Sertoma Park

One of the prettiest attractions you can experience for free in Bismarck is the Missouri River, and Sertoma Park is one of the best city parks near it.

Sprawling with walking trails teeming with lush greenery, Sertoma Park is a scenic place to go jogging or for a light stroll.

Picnics are also another favorite activity because it is clean and well-maintained.

If you’re feeling sporty, they have mini golf, basketball, and volleyball courts.

Sertoma Park is accessible along Riverside Park Road.

Take Landscape Photography at Sonali Garden

Sonali Garden is a scenic area near the Missouri River along Burnt Boat Road.

Many locals say the park gives one of the best views of the Missouri River, mainly because of its prairie, flowers, and elevation.

Going there should be on your bucket list, especially if you’re looking for a commemorative photo during your trip.

Besides the photo opportunities, the Sonali Garden is also a fantastic place to kick back and relax.

Plenty of benches and some trails are found here, and it’s generally peaceful throughout the day.

Explore Historic Downtown Bismarck

Buildings at Downtown Bismarck

Bobak Ha’Eri, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bismarck is brimming with culture and history; you can best experience these in Downtown Bismarck.

Located at 1st to 9th Street, you’ll find many art galleries, specialty shops, and restaurants in Downtown Bismarck.

One of the most famous spots you should check out is the Bismarck Art Alley, full of impressive murals.

Shops at Downtown Bismarck

Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’re lucky, you might also stumble upon an occasional street fair in one of the alleys here during your visit.

Because of its heritage dating back to the 19th century, Downtown Bismarck’s vintage aesthetic makes it a fantastic place to stroll around and take city photos.

Cool Down at McDowell Dam Recreation Area

McDowell Dam Recreation Area is another fantastic attraction that doesn’t charge you any admission fees.

Solely dedicated to tourism, McDowell Dam Recreation Area is a popular site for swimming, boating, fishing, and more.

If you don’t mind spending a couple of dollars, there are also paddle boards and boats for rent here.

If you want to maximize your visit, there are also nature trails and biking paths along its shores.

With over 270 acres of land and water, you could easily spend an afternoon at this recreation area, accessible along 93rd Street.

See the Wildlife at Sleepy Hollow Park

Sleepy Hollow Park is one of the more underrated parks in Bismarck, found along East Divide Avenue.

Generally not busy, this park gives you a sense of isolation and serenity as you’ll be close to nature.

You can explore the park whether on a mountain bike or foot.

The park is also home to wildlife species like squirrels, pheasants, and rabbits, making it an excellent place for photographers.

Besides wildlife observation, Sleepy Hollow Park has a great picnic area if you want a respite from the bustling city.

Step Back in Time at Camp Hancock State Historic Site

A house at Camp Hancock State Historic Site

JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just a stone’s throw away from Downtown Bismarck across Main Avenue lies Camp Hancock State Historic Site.

It’s an 1872 military camp now preserved in a museum with artifacts about early Bismarck.

The houses and buildings are beautiful, transporting you back in time with their vintage aesthetic.

You can easily tour the place in around 45 minutes, free of charge.

A Northern Pacific Steam Engine relic headlines many interpretive exhibits.

Catch Fish at Cottonwood Park

While there are numerous areas to fish in Bismarck, thanks to the Missouri River, Cottonwood Park is another highly rated place because of its rich pond area.

Besides its beauty, it’s also quite big and looks like a mini lake, increasing the chances of your haul.

Cottonwood Park also has more for you, such as a softball field and a BMX racing track that many locals use.

You can watch a competitive game at Cottonwood Park if you’re lucky.

This park is an excellent addition as a niche attraction to your itinerary, located along 12 Street Southeast.

Learn the History of Chief Looking’s Village

The grounds of Chief Looking's Village

Magicpiano, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just a stone’s throw away from Sonali Garden lies Chief Looking’s Village, one of the most exciting spots in the city.

Because it’s close to the garden, this riverfront area is also believed to show one of the best vistas of the Missouri River.

However, if you’re an avid learner of history, Chief’s Looking Village is also a historic site that tells the story of the land, which was previously a Mandan Village site.

The Mandan tribe were the Native Americans who pioneered civilization in Bismarck, and the village is dedicated to Chief Looking, their leader.

Many information boards are in the village, so you can easily take a self-guided tour while taking in the breathtaking views.

Trek the Sibley Nature Park

If you plan to head south and experience the wild side of Bismarck, Sibley Nature Park is another attraction you can visit for free.

It’s found along the bend of the Missouri River, home to much wildlife and lush plant life.

There are no picnic or camping grounds here, so your only purpose would be to explore its rugged trails.

It’s an excellent place to observe birds and critters because its large trees are a popular hangout spot.

Since it’s only a mile-long loop, Sibley Nature Park is a terrific leisure addition to your outdoor excursions.

Take a Break at Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library

Bismarck is home to a few libraries, but Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library is probably the best, located along North 5th Street.

It’s a modern public library with one of the best indoor areas for quiet time.

There are many resources here if you’re visiting with the intent of researching, along with convenient facilities like computers.

Plenty of things are geared towards children and teenagers, making this a great stopover for the whole family.

Bismarck Veterans Memorial Library also has a coffee shop if you want to spend some bucks on refreshments.

See the Art at Keelboat Park

Lewis and Clark sculpture at Keelboat Park

Steve Cukrov /

Keelboat Park is a couple of miles north of Sertoma Park and another Bismarck riverfront area.

What makes Keelboat Park special is the numerous art installations that you can find here, which are enormous.

Among all these artworks is the Keelboat replica, a wooden boat with historical significance dating back to 1805.

Thunderbird sculpture at Keelboat Park

Steve Cukrov /

It’s another scenic place to enjoy the river on top of the quirky art found throughout.

Besides the artwork, Keelboat Park is also an excellent place to take a stroll or bike, thanks to its trails.

Keelboat replica at Keelboat Park

Steve Cukrov /

Go Camping at Kimball Bottoms Recreation Area

Found along the Missouri River, Kimball Bottoms Recreation Area is a camping ground you wouldn’t want to miss.

It’s one of the best places to experience the rustic side of Bismarck, as it is far from the city proper and has a lonely feeling.

The recreation area also has a spot called “The Desert” because of its sandy terrain and overgrown vegetation.

Many locals call the area a “primitive” camping site.

As a great place to be one with nature, Kimball Bottoms Recreation Area is in the southern rural areas of Bismarck, along Desert Road.

See the Steamboat Warehouse Historic Site

The Steamboat Warehouse Historic Site is another excellent addition if you’re planning an itinerary dedicated to the history of North Dakota.

Here, you’ll see a monument that commemorates the integral role of the Northern Pacific Railroad Warehouse.

This warehouse was the primary storage facility for the freight trains and steamboats in the 1870s when the Missouri River was crucial to transporting goods.

Another historic site you’ll see here is the railroad bridge across the river, which is another excellent photo opportunity.

Steamboat Warehouse Historic Site is located along River Road, south of Keelboat Park.

Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site

Facade of the Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site

Plazak, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site is another historic area in Bismarck that you can tour without spending a single penny.

Situated in the heart of the city along East Avenue B, this area is managed by a group of volunteers that take care of the house and garden.

As the name suggests, this place was once the residence of North Dakota’s former governors from 1893 to 1960.

Architecture and history buffs will love the Victorian-style house and the extraordinary relics inside.

Plenty of information boards are found throughout the Former Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site, making a self-guided tour here fun and memorable.

Bring Your Dog to Century Recreation Bark Park

Century Recreation Bark Park is a great place to let them loose if you’re traveling with your dog.

Century Recreation Bark Park isn’t your run-on-the-mill dog park because it’s a vast open space with various breeds and sizes sections.

It’s a great place to bring your dog, especially if you want to socialize with them or play fetch.

There are also tons of poop bags and water fill-up stations that make this a convenient place for dog owners.

Besides the vast space, Century Recreation Bark Park is also beautiful, with good greenery for a relaxed time with your dogs.

See the Flora at Bismarck Rotary Arboretum

Another quiet respite within the city is the Bismarck Rotary Arboretum.

It’s a scenic place teeming with flowers, trees, and shrubbery.

There’s also a boardwalk here, which is an intimate spot to spend some time with your loved ones.

Its beauty also changes depending on the season you visit, with the autumn season having tons of beautiful foliage.

You can find the Bismarck Rotary Arboretum along West Divide Avenue by a golf course; this is one of the fastest ways to experience serenity in Bismarck.

Visit the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Exterior of North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Nagel Photography /

One of the best things to do in Bismarck is explore the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.

Within walking distance from North Dakota State Capitol, this museum is another must-visit if you want to maximize your budget-friendly trip to Bismarck.

Some of the highlights of this museum are the gigantic fossil displays of dinosaurs like the T-Rex and Triceratops.

Signage of North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Steve Cukrov /

You’ll also see dioramas and taxidermies of various animals here that depict the natural history of North Dakota.

There are also many interactive areas here for younger children and a gift shop for some of the best souvenirs in the city.

Dinosaur skeleton in North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

State Historical Society of North Dakota, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Final Thoughts

As the capital city of North Dakota, it’s no surprise that Bismarck is a hotbed of tourist attractions.

From scenic outdoor spots to city tours and museums, this beautiful city has many activities, many of which are free.

Enjoy the free things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota!

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