New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world and visiting it could cost you a fortune. However, you don’t need the money for everything – there are at least 10 free things to do in The Big Apple that don’t cost a penny!
Unless there’s a way for you to stay in New York for free (more about these possibilities in one of the following posts), the accommodation will be the biggest item in your travel budget. It’s virtually impossible to find a room, let alone an apartment for less than $100 per night (if you have any standards whatsoever!). There are plenty of other costs like food, transportation and all sorts of other stuff you will have not thought of before. Read about unexpected costs that you should plan for to avoid going home penniless.
Museums, whilst mostly not free, are definitely worth visiting – the ticket for the MoMA, as well as the Guggenheim, is $25, whilst he 9/11 Museum costs $24. The ticket for Madame Tussauds is $29 (if you buy online you save $5), the Empire State Building is minimum $34 (VIP pass that allows jumping a long queue is almost double the price and the non-VIP ticket for the main and the top deck is $54). The same minimum price is applicable for the Top of the Rock (the top of the Rockefeller Center) that, if you ask me, offers a much better view than the Empire State Building.
Broadway is definitely on my recommended must-see list. Do keep in mind that tickets for any of the shows are everything but cheap (keep an eye on the following posts – we’ll give you some tips how to enjoy Broadway at low prices).
The point is – you will want to spend time in New York and do things without having to constantly pay for something. Here is where, when and how!
Top 10 free things in New York
1. CENTRAL PARK
This is one of my favorite places on Earth. I can spend hours there, probably even days, without getting bored for a second and I am sure I am not the only one. The thing is – after being in Central Park so many times, I still haven’t seen all of it and even though there is no entrance fee for most of the world’s parks, Central Park is definitely unique and special. In this perfect green oasis that is set in the middle of New York’s “concrete jungle”, you should see the following:
The Pond on the south-east corner of the park that takes you straight from the city crowds to a place of absolute peace and serenity. The famous Gapstow bridge – you might be able to recognise it if you have ever seen any of the movies with scenes shot in Central Park – is located at the north point of the park and you will most certainly be able to recognise the view on the Park Plaza hotel in the background.
The Mall, a promenade surrounded by elms, benches and statues of famous writers. It’s also a place where you can enjoy the work of street artists;
Sheep Meadow, a huge field where you will probably want to spend hours, lying on the grass, having a picnic, play frisbee – just like true New Yorkers;
Bethesda Terrace – one of the most beautiful parts of the park. Its walls and colonnades were decorated by the famous Jacob Wrey Mould with sculptures that represent the four seasons, as well as the time of day;
Conservatory Water (Boat Pond) is another favourite spot of many New Yorkers where a lot of children remote controls little boats – you might remember it from movies such as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Stewart Little”, or TV show “Gossip girl” – one of these boats were used by Jenny and her problematic friend/boyfriend/dealer Damien to deliver drugs. Somewhere around there Carrie Bradshaw fell into the water in Sex and the City.
The Lake, which is the second biggest man-made lake is the actual centre of the park and its two sides are connected with the Bow Bridge – you must have seen it a dozen times on TV (it’s the favourite marriage proposal spot).
Strawberry Fields, small oasis made to honour John Lennon, who used to live (and got killed in the end) across the road, has a mosaic Imagine in its centre, where the fans of the tragically deceased Beatle lay flowers;
The Ramble, hilly area full of trees that are ideal for relaxing walks;
Belvedere, a stone castle on a hill, that offers a spectacular view on the park and the city;
Great Lawn and the Turtle Pond are located right next to Belvedere and there is also the beautiful Shakespeare Garden which is one of the favourite spots for wedding ceremonies;
Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, another place made famous by “Sex and the City” due to the New Yorkers’ favourite jogging track that goes all the way around it (Charlotte used to run around there);
Even though the last on this list, Wagner Cove is my favourite part of the park and I am completely biased – I married my husband right in that spot a few years ago (in one of the following posts you will be able to read about how to organise a wedding in Central Park).
2. HIGH LINE
This is an old, 2.5 km long, section of New York’s railroad that got turned into an elevated park on the west side of Manhattan. Millions of visitors walk along this aerial park, which is hardly a surprise given that High Line represents one of the first undertakings of modern urban construction whilst offering a phenomenal view of Manhattan as it’s located between Gansevoort St (Meat packing District) and 34th Street (so, more than 20 blocks) and goes through several terrific parts of the city.
This park is open every day from 7 am to 7 pm in the winter, to 10 pm during spring and autumn and in the summer even to 11 pm. The favourite activity of the tourists is looking at the sky and stars – every Tuesday in the dusk, the amateur astronomy association sets the telescopes between the 15th and the 16th Street – besides being able to see the stars at this time of day, you’ll also be able to avoid the crowds.
3. BRYANT PARK
Even though I prefer Central Park for the above mentioned reasons, Bryant Park is my favourite spot to have a break during the day after long walks (on foot of course – this is the only way to get to know New York). Even though it is not big and many people visit it every day, you never get the feeling of being crammed. Besides, it has free Wi-Fi, which is always a plus for us, Internet addicts 🙂 You can sit in one of the many well known green chairs that can be found all over the park, lay on the grass or do yoga for free on Tuesdays at 10 am and on Thursdays at 6 pm.
4. NY PUBLIC LIBRARY
Since you are already in Bryant Park, you must see the famous landmark – New York Public Library that is located within the park. This magnificent building has been a symbol of the democratic view that everyone should be able (for free) to access unlimited knowledge since it first opened its doors in 1911.
Everything you are interested in can be found here; you can attend writers’ lectures, workshops, exhibitions and Mondays to Saturdays between 11 am and 2 pm, you can have a free guided tour given by one of the assistant professors.
5. AERIAL TRAMWAY
This is not free per se, but if you have a weekly New York metro card, there aren’t any additional costs for the Aerial Tramway (otherwise, it costs $2 per ride). You are guaranteed an awesome 5-minute ride across The East River from The Upper East Side to the Roosevelt Island and back. The capacity of each cabin is 110 people and it travels from one side to another 115 times every day. There are two cabins (starting from opposite sides) which operate in 15-minute intervals, from 6 am to 2 am (3:30 am at weekends). At its highest point, it takes you to 76 m above the river surface – great view and amazing photos guaranteed.
6. ROOSEVELT ISLAND
I have already mentioned this island in the US road-trip post and I believe this is not the last time. I am sure everyone who ever visited it for at least an afternoon understands my reasons – peace and quiet in the middle of New York craziness that are rarely found in this city.
However, you don’t have to spend your time being still – there are lots of different things to do there. For example, you can go to see the latest New York Park – Southpoint and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Memorial that was finalised between my two visits in 2013 and 2015.
At the entrance to the park you can see a distressed building that hides the not so great part of the island’s history. That actually used to be a hospital that treated people suffering from small pox, a disease that was killing over 400,000 people a year in Europe alone, until the vaccine was developed in the 18th century (it also killed Louis the XV). It is also the only disease that humans managed to eradicate. This gothic-style hospital was keeping about 7,000 patients a year away from the rest of New York between 1856 and 1875. It is now completely deserted, surrounded by tall grass and a fence – the entrance is clearly forbidden. However, it looks very impressive in the photographs. It is also the only ruin in New York that is a building of national significance and as such, protected by law.
Aside from that, I highly recommend the lighthouse located on the opposite side of the island (which is just over 3km long and 250m wide at its widest point) which is also representative of the gothic building style. Its purpose was to shine the light on a nearby psychiatric hospital, which was knocked down. However, the lighthouse is still standing and people love sitting around it and enjoying a unique view. Octagon, that used to be a hospital, is only a block away from the lighthouse and has recently been converted into a high-end apartment building that has swimming pools, a tennis court and a gym.
7. OUTDOOR CINEMA
Two big parks do free movie projections over summer – HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival and SyFy Movies with a View in Brooklyn Park. Films start once the sun goes down but it is a good idea to go there early to secure a place.
8. GRAND CENTRAL
You should go to see the Grand Central Terminal even if you are not planning on catching one of the trains there. This over a hundred year old building represents the spirit of what New York used to be. If you find yourself there, go to the Whispering Gallery, outside the Oyster Bar, under the four arches. If two people stand at opposite ends of the underpass, facing away from each other, standing 10m apart, and one speaks at a normal volume, the other one can clearly hear what is being said.
New York has several beaches for those who enjoy lying in the sunshine. Coney Island beach is my favourite (you can get there by subway F – it takes about an hour to get from Manhattan to the last stop) as it is beautiful and completely calm – before the funfair starts working that is, which is exactly at noon. Except for this one, there is also the Brighton beach that is close to Coney Island but way less popular. Rockaways is the favourite spot for the surfers, whilst hipsters have their favourite – Fort Tilden.
10. FREE MUSEUMS
Yes, they do exist.
The entrance to the following places that live and breathe history and art is always free:
American Folk Art Museum
Brooklyn Academy of Music’s – BAMcafé Live
Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College
International Print Center
Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology
National Museum of the American Indian — Smithsonian
Socrates Sculpture Park
Storefront for Art & Architecture
From November to March you can also visit Queens Botanical Gardens free of charge (which is closed on Mondays), whilst from April to October adult ticket can be purchased for $6.
According to the information found online, the Natural History Museum and Met bot have the policy “pay what you wish”, i.e. pay as much as you can/want (though website of the Natural History Museum states that the price is $22, whilst Met’s website specifies the price of $25). In addition, you can pay what you wish to see Bronx and Brooklyn Museums, The Cloisters, El Museo del Barrio, The New York City Police Museum, Sculpture Center, Staten Island Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem.
On Tuesdays you can enjoy the Brooklyn Botanical Garden for free the entire day (the ticket is otherwise $15), whilst on the same day the entrance is free from 5 pm to 8 pm the entrance to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, from 6 pm to 8 pm to the China Institute, from noon to 2 pm to the Staten Island Museum and from 9 am to noon to the Wave Hill.
Wednesday is a good day for vising New York Botanical Garden since the entrance is free throughout the day, as well as at Van Cortlandt House Museum. You can pay what you wish to enter Bronx Zoo and enter the Museum of Jewish Heritage for free on Wednesdays from 4 pm to 8 pm, as well as Queens Botanical Garden from April to October, on Wednesdays from 3pm to 6pm.
On Thursdays, the entrance is free all day to Museum of Chinese in America, whilst you can visit the International Center of Photography from 6 pm to 9 pm for a price you determine, as well as the Museum of Arts and Design. The free hours for the New Museum are from 7 pm to 9 pm. From September to May, every Thursday you can enjoy free Concerts at One in Trinity Church (from 1 pm to 2 pm).
On Fridays you can go for free to the Japan Society from 6 pm to 9 pm, form 7 pm to 9 pm to Morgan Library & Museum, to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 6 pm to 8 pm, to the Neue Galerie from 6 pm to 8 pm, to the Rubin Museum of Art from 7 pm to 10 pm, to the Whitney Museum of American Art from 7 pm to 9:30 pm and to the New York Hall of Science from 2 pn to 5 om from September to June. Pay what you wish to see the New-York Historical Society from 6 pm to 8 pm on Fridays, as well as to see the New York Aquarium from 3 pm to closing.
Saturday is a “free day” to enter the Jewish Museum, as well as the Botanical gardens – Brooklyn’s and New York’s – both from 10 am to noon. Wave Hill is free from 9 am to noon. Pay what you wish to see Guggenheim from 5:45 pm to 7:45 pm.
On the second weekend of each month, before 11 am you can visit the Brooklyn Children Museum, on the first Friday of every month from 6 pm to 8 pm you don’t have to pay to enter the Neue Gallerie, and all day on the first Friday in a month is a pay what you wish fee to see the Noguchi Museum.
If you have suggestions for additional free activities in New York, please share it with us!