I lived in New York City for almost 5 years, and had vacationed or day-tripped to NYC many many times before I was lucky enough to move there. By the time I moved to NYC, I had done many tourist must-dos and walked the city from river to river to river. But living in NYC, I discovered so many new and interesting and exciting things about my new hometown, and I loved to share them with my guests. Yes, NYC can be expensive: but there are lots of things to do in NYC that are free – or nearly-free.
These are my top 25 free and almost-free things to do when visiting NYC:
On the upper upper West Side near the Hudson River Grant’s Tomb sits on a hill with beautiful views of the river. Staffed by very knowledgeable National Park Service rangers, a visit to Grant’s Tomb is a historical field trip for children and a visit to lesser-known parts of NYC. Completely Free.
The orange Staten Island Ferry boats connect lower Manhattan to the borough of Staten Island. This 24 hour free ferry system is the only non-car route for islanders to get into Manhattan. The ferries pass by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and offer spectacular views of lower Manhattan.
All bus routes in NYC offer an opportunity to become familiar with the city and catch a glimpse of life for every-day New Yorkers. I’m partial to the scenic #11 and #4 routes, as they take you from the northern part of Manhattan south through several diverse neighborhoods. Grab a seat by the window! Single tickets are $2.50.
NYC is home to some of the best museums in the world. A museum visit should be a must for every NYC visitor, but sometimes the expense and time constraints make it difficult. Most NYC museums offer a weekly or monthly free museum day. Some of my favorites are:
Museum of Modern Art: Free 4-8pm on Friday
American Museum of Natural History: Free last hour daily: 4:45-5:45pm
New York Historical Society: Free 6-8pm Friday
South Street Seaport Museum: Free the third Friday of every month
New York Botanical Garden: Free Wednesdays; Saturdays 10 a.m. to noon
5. Central Park Boat Basin on the Weekend
A walk through Central Park is memorable – and free – every day of the year. Picnics, baseball games, ice skating, the zoo: this is NYC’s backyard. But I find it especially entertaining on weekends near the Boat Basin. Street performers, concerts, tourists, carriage rides, roller bladers: its much busier on the weekend, which means there’s alot more to look at!
Central Park offers free walking tours several days per week. Most of us travel with our smart phone. And as you walk through Central Park, you’ll see little signs that look like phone keypads with a number: this is Central Park’s free dial-in celebrity audio tour. Alex Baldwin, Candace Bergen, Whoopi Goldberg: just a few of the proud New Yorkers who want to share they city they love.
New York is made for walking, whatever the weather. I love exploring neighborhoods on my own: but sometimes I’d like a bit of history on the neighborhood, without the inconvenience of hauling a heavy guidebook. Many tourist attractions, neighborhoods and cultural locations offer free, downloadable walking tours. I’m partial to the iTunes podcasts, but Frommers, the New York City Tourist Office and others also offer free downloadable walking tours.
8. Hotdog at Gray’s Papaya
You have to eat when you’re visiting NYC, and eating in can get expensive. I’m a huge fan of eating from the foodcarts: if there’s a long line, it must be good! Hotdogs in Washington Square. Hot nuts in Central Park. Ice Cream cones in Chelsea. Cupcakes in SoHo. But every New Yorker – even if you’re just visiting for the day – has to try a hotdog at Gray’s Papaya. I’ve never had the papaya juice, but at $1.50. a basic hotdog is a deal!
9. Slice at Ray’s
And what’s a trip to NYC without sampling a slice of the best thin crust you’ll ever taste. The story is that in NYC the price of a slice of cheese should equal the price of a Metro ticket, so plan to spend $2.50 for plain cheese. Ray’s has seats, but most New Yorkers fold it in half the long way, and eat their slice on the street. There are lots of “famous” and “original” Ray’s throughout the city, but the “real” Ray’s in Little Italy closed a few years ago when the owner died, if you can’t grab a slice in Little Italy, any Ray’s will do.
10. Cop a Squat in Times Square
Being a tourist in NYC can be tiring, and sometimes you just need to rest. With the recent makeover of Times Square, its not difficult to find a seat in the middle of all the action and just watch it all go down. In the summer, cafe tables and chairs are set out : first come, first serve. Year-round there are stadium-style seats behind the newly refurbished 1/2 price ticket booth TKTS.
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Movies and TV shows are filming in NYC year-round, and it can be alot of fun – or a little boring – to watch your favorite show or actor. To find out where filming is taking place while you’re in NYC check OnLocationVacations for updated filming information. Always free!
New York is an incredibly scenic city to visit, but it can also be a crowded city. Many visitors get their exercise simply by walking city streets, or running through the park. For something a little different rent a bike and ride north along the Hudson River Park Bikeway.
Yes, it’s true: people really do walk across the Brooklyn Bridge! It’s one of the most scenic views of the lower East Side of NYC, and great exercise. And completely free! There’s a pedestrian walkway, so it’s very safe. And if you’re tired when you get to Brooklyn, there are restaurants to get a meal and take a break, or you can take the subway back to Manhattan!
Everyone should visit Macy’s at Herald Square, but not just to shop. It’s one of the last grande dame department stores in the US, and it’s full of interesting bits of history like the wooden escalators (still working!) and is home of the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The windows at Christmas time are legendary. Completely free… unless you decide to shop.
New Yorkers love their green space, and where ever there’s green space, a farmer’s market sprouts. The largest and most famous greenmarket in NYC is at Union Square. It’s a beautiful spot for learning about seasonal produce, buying some tasty souvenirs or enjoying lunch. And if you go early you might even see a famous chef buying for their restaurant!
Your parents know Hoboken as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. Your grandparents might have come to the Hoboken train station directly from Ellis Island, on their way west. But you (and your kids) know Hoboken as the home of Buddy The Cake Boss. For $2.25 take the PATH under the Hudson from Manhattan to Hoboken, NJ, and just a 5 minute walk away you can visit Carlo’s Bakery where The Cake Boss sells cannoli and cupcakes and cookies.
From roughly May through September NYC neighborhood streets host a wide range of street fairs, selling everything from fresh-grilled corn on the cob and gyros to artisan jewelry to socks and sheets: a little bit of everything, always worth a look. Free.
From Thanksgiving until Christmas neighborhood Christmas markets are a fun place to buy gifts, souvenirs, or just a mug of hot spiced cider. I always visit the indoor market at Union Station and the outdoor market at Bryant Park, but there are dozens more in many neighborhoods that offer a wide variety of special-interest themes and activities. Free.
Everyone comes to NYC for a free brewery tour. Or, they should! The Brooklyn Brewery offer free public tours Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Beer and food are available for purchase.
New Yorkers have to constantly re-think their land usage: the island is not getting any bigger. A few years ago a committee of concerned neighbors banded together with the city to create The High Line: an above ground park and walking path constructed from an abandoned elevated freight train line running through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea. With unique views of the city and the shore line, The High Line is a new favorite of New Yorkers. Free. Grab a quick lunch or snack in the nearby historic Chelsea Market.
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The lions outside of The New York Public Library are familiar to generations of movie and TV fans, and the interior was recently re-introduced to fans by the Sex and the City movie. The historic main branch on 5th Avenue is a beautifully maintained building with art, architecture and special exhibits to explore, and a unique gift shop. Free entry, and free tours Tuesday through Saturday.
21. Sidewalk Cafe
Visiting NYC can be both physically and mentally exhausting, especially to visitors not used to the crowds and fast pace. For an hour’s relaxation, find an outdoor cafe and order a coffee or a cold drink, and catch your breath while observing the city in full-speed. Many sidewalk cafes are open in all but the very worst weather.
Many NYC visitors don’t know about the islands surrounding Manhattan, other than possibly Staten Island. Roosevelt Island is located in the East River and home to about 10,000 New Yorkers. For a unique visit and the cost of a Metro ticket – $2.50 – take the 64th Street tram to Roosevelt Island. Although cars are now permitted, Roosevelt Island remains a very special community.
Governor’s Island only became readily available to the public in the past few years, once the Coast Guard moved out and the island became a historic monument and park. The park is only open a few months of the year, Spring and Summer, but free ferry’s transport the public to the Governor’s Island park.
Sightseeing and walking the streets are a great way to learn NYC, and one of the most unique and creative neighborhoods of New York is Chelsea, due to the many art galleries that now populate the neighborhood. Galleries are free to the public, and many host special events in the evening.
Monday through Friday tourists love to line-up in Rockefeller Center Plaza to get close-up views of The Today Show team filming live on the Plaza. Concerts, cooking segments, the weather: everyone is waving, many carry a sign and silly hats: all want to meet the team and celebrities… and maybe get on TV! For front row viewing, be sure to come early: on nice days the crowds are deep. And if you’re there in December, be sure to walk over to see the famous Rockefeller Christmas tree! It’s free to go watch The Today Show on the Plaza.
tip: If you’re waving at family back home, remember that The Today Show is live in the East, but delayed in the Midwest and Western US: so you have plenty of time to wake everyone up to set the DVR!
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New York City offers endless entertainment from culture to scenery to plain-old people watching. Before you visit any site or entertainment venue before to verify times and openings: things change quickly in The Big Apple!