Many Pennsylvania visitors add destinations in Erie to their itinerary because they can enjoy doing many things for free there.
This city is the seat of its namesake Erie County and ranks as Pennsylvania’s fifth largest.
Though a big city, Erie has retained a laid-back vibe and small-town feel reflected in a cost of living that’s 11% lower than state and national levels.
First settled in 1753, Erie was founded in 1795 and incorporated in 1851, thus creating a colorful historical tapestry within its borders.
The city’s location on the southeastern shore of Lake Erie is a natural asset that has spawned various fun activities for locals and visitors to share.
Three campuses of major schools—the Behrend College of Penn State U, Gannon University, and Mercyhurst College—generate interest in Erie.
For an inexpensive trip to the Keystone State, consider this list of free things to do in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Enjoy the Waterfront at Dobbins Landing
Dobbins Landing is the best spot to enjoy the views of the Presque Isle Bay of Lake Erie.
Pedestrian-friendly and with ample parking, Erie’s bayfront has significantly benefited from a $30 million revitalization project launched in 2019.
This area is only a few blocks from Erie’s downtown and draws locals and visitors alike for its spectacular views of sunsets and boats crossing the bay.
On the first Tuesday of each month, you can access the 187-foot Bicentennial Tower, the most prominent landmark at Dobbins Landing.
From its observation deck, you’ll have a 360-degree view encompassing the Erie skyline and Presque Bay.
Immerse in Nature at Leo’s Landing
Leo’s Landing is a former boat livery located off Peninsula Drive in the 3,200-acre Presque Isle State Park.
This site is a small sand spit covering 18 acres of wetlands, with its ecological diversity serving as a magnet for visitors.
Cataloged as an Environmentally Sensitive Area, Leo’s Landing provides a habitat for migrant birds like purple martins and marsh wrens.
Plants in this area, like river bulrush and silverweed, are also species of particular concern.
You can comfortably immerse in nature at Leo’s Landing with a stroll across “The Feather” on the edge of the sand spit.
This endearing installation is an environmental sculpture inviting visitors to its 120-foot deck overlooking the marshland on Presque Isle Bay.
Follow the Gull Point Trail
The out-and-back, 1.5-mile Gull Point Trail is the most challenging trail at Presque Isle and is also suitable for cross-country skiing in winter.
Check the park’s trail conditions with the Tom Ridge Environmental Center staff on Peninsula Drive.
Seasonal flooding is expected on the park’s trails, making them impassable if you’re not wearing the proper footwear.
The amenities available at the park’s trailheads include potable water, restrooms, and picnic tables.
Work up a sweat along the Gull Point Trail.
Go Fishing in Lake Erie
Anglers visiting Erie need not rent a boat to fish at the city’s namesake lake, as onshore fishing sites abound in Lake Erie.
Some of these fishing spots are near the downtown area, with Dobbins Landing Public Dock among them.
This dock is on the western terminus of State Street and near other points of interest in the city, such as the Bayfront Convention Center and the expERIEnce Children’s Museum.
At Erie’s Presque Isle State Park, there are onsite fishing spots at the East Pier and West Pier, as well as at Big Pond and Niagara Pond.
Notably, the Field and Stream outdoor magazine has ranked Lake Erie among the top 20 family-fishing spots in the country.
Lake Erie yields a bountiful catch of smallmouth bass, steelhead, lake trout, and walleye.
Check Out the Erie Bird Observatory
The non-profit Erie Bird Observatory is one of the points of interest at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center on Peninsula Drive.
Check out this group for expert-guided birding tours at the Presque Isle State Park.
The Observatory hosts tours either on foot along the park’s trails or by kayak at the marshes of Presque Isle.
Visitors enjoy complimentary access to the Erie Bird Observatory year-round and its host environmental center.
While visiting the center, you can view its interactive exhibits or drop by its prominent glass-enclosed, 75-foot tower offering superb views of Presque Isle and Lake Erie.
The center’s grounds feature a kids’ area with unique playthings like a pipe tunnel and wood obstacle.
Go Swimming at Kohler Beach
The Presque Isle State Park offers 13 beaches mainly designated for surf swimming, with Beach #11 or Kohler Beach as one of the favorites among visitors.
Though the farthest from the park entrance, Kohler Beach is famous as its near-shore waters are shallow and calmer.
Gull Point protects it from the waves of Lake Erie, making this beach safer for kids who want to wade in the water.
This beach is also large and sandy, and restrooms and changing areas are provided in its beach house.
It’s also near a pavilion, a playground, picnic shelters, and food and beverage concessions.
Go Bird Watching at Gull Point
Presque Isle State Park, which Birdwatching magazine rates as one of the top U.S. birding destinations, offers several birdwatching zones.
One of the best spots for birdwatchers is Gull Point jutting out into Lake Erie and accessible via Peninsula Drive.
Gull Point’s easternmost side has been designated a State Park Natural Area for rare and migratory shorebirds.
Gull Point provides a platform where visitors can observe birds resting, feeding, and nesting in this area.
Other popular birdwatching zones in Presque Isle include Leo’s Landing, Fry’s Landing, Niagara Boat Ramp, and Sunset Point.
Catch a Free Pontoon Boat Tour
Summer visitors of the Presque Isle State Park have a chance to join its free Pontoon Boat Tours exploring the park’s interior lagoons.
These are one-hour tours available Saturdays and Sundays from early July to mid-September.
The lagoon trips start from the boat launch on Graveyard Pond off Thompson Drive, traversing miles of scenic wetlands and thriving wildlife habitat.
The tours, which volunteers run with the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are open to all ages.
Each pontoon trip is just for ten passengers accommodated on a first come, first serve basis.
Children under 12 must wear a life vest, which you can get at the park.
See the Amazing Sunsets at Chautauqua Park
Erie boasts several small, quiet parks where you can enjoy watching sunsets in solitude or with a romantic partner.
One of these lakefront attractions is Chautauqua Park at the corner of Lakeside Drive and Chautauqua Boulevard.
The park has a picnic pavilion, tables, and benches for its visitors.
To the west, along Lakeside Drive, you will also find Cranch Park.
It has a vantage point on the lakeshore.
In addition, the grounds of Lighthouse Park on Lighthouse Road further westward are open to the public.
Enjoy picturesque sunsets on Lake Erie from this park.
Enjoy the view at Chautauqua Park and other parks in Erie!
Enjoy a Picnic at the Presque Isle Waterworks
Find several free picnic facilities at the Presque Isle Waterworks Recreation Area.
Choose from three day-use covered picnic shelters in this area, near the park’s Niagara Boat Launch.
These shelters are available via an advanced reservation and are furnished with fireplaces, tables, water, and electricity.
Besides the nearby boat launch, the other park amenities in this Waterworks Area include a fishing pier on Niagara Pond and volleyball courts.
This area also has one of the park’s three large pavilions that visitors can use for free on a first-come, first-served basis if it wasn’t reserved beforehand.
Take a Joy Ride on the Great Lakes Seaway Trail
The Great Lakes Seaway Trail stretches over 64 miles, covering an extensive portion of the picturesque roadways in Perique Isle State Park.
From the city proper of Erie, you can start a joy ride on this trail at Frontier Park on West 6th Street.
This park offers side attractions along the trail, such as the Lake Erie Arboretum and one of Erie’s examples of public art, “The Labyrinth of LEAF.”
Driving the entire 64-mile Great Lakes Seaway Trail takes about two hours.
A joy ride here can extend to 14 hours if you drop by the numerous points of interest along the shores of Lake Erie.
Take an Art Tour with the Downtown Erie Sculpture Walk
Launched in 2021, the Downtown Erie Sculpture Walk features 15 artworks installed in various public places at the city’s center and bayfront.
This year-round public outdoor art exhibition presents the work of 13 artists from across the U.S.
One of the most striking pieces, the “Phoenix,” is located on the south side of Erie City Hall off State Street.
This sculpture was fashioned out of discarded fabricated steel to demonstrate rebirth.
Another thought-provoking piece is “Depth of Form,” located west of the main entrance of the Bayfront Convention Center on Sassafras Pier.
This sculpture celebrates the human body’s fluid dynamics, rendered as an abstract of creases and undulating edges.
Check out these great public art pieces along the Downtown Erie Sculpture Walk!
Paddle the Lagoons of Presque Isle State Park
Boating at Presque Isle State Park helps attract plenty of Erie visitors, particularly paddlers drawn to the park’s interior lagoons.
Motorized boats are not allowed on these waters; the park allows only non-motorized watercraft, like kayaks and canoes.
Paddlers bringing their boats will enjoy free exclusive access to the park’s lagoons between Marina Lake and Misery Bay.
Four boat launches are available in the park; the Vista Launch site is convenient for paddlers hauling in their boats.
The boat launch here is near the park entrance on Peninsula Drive and close to several parking lots.
It’s recommended only for small boats and personal watercraft, like jet skis.
Watch Free Summer Concerts at ErieBank 8 Great Tuesdays
Visit Erie in the summer to catch its music festivals, offering free admission to all, courtesy of various sponsors.
The centerpiece of these events is the ErieBank 8 Great Tuesdays that the Erie-Western PA Port Authority presents in July and August.
This event occurs Tuesday nights at Liberty Park and Highmark Amphitheater off West Bayfront Parkway.
This music fest venue can accommodate 5,000 people, with a shuttle also provided.
Music lovers have another destination in the three-day Erie’s Blues and Jazz Fest, typically held in early August.
Frontier Park on West 6th Street hosts this event featuring an eclectic mix of blues and jazz musicians, which include local, regional, and national performers.
See an Outdoor Movie on Downtown Movie Mondays
Check the schedule of Downtown Movie Mondays held during the summer in Erie.
These evening movie showings happen on the last Monday of each month at Perry Square Park at the junction of State Street and Erie Insurance Place.
The Erie Downtown Partnership presents these free movies, with a trivia side event also held before each screening.
Perry Square Park is also home to Erie’s World War II Memorial and the Korean War Memorial.
Other points of interest in this area include the McConnell Family Stadium on West 5th Street and the Firefighters Historical Museum on Chestnut Street.
This city is a prime destination in Pennsylvania.
A visit to the Presque Isle State Park on the city’s west side can already result in exciting leisure activities without making you spend a dime.
Plan your budget-friendly trip today and discover the free things to do in Erie, Pennsylvania!