As someone who lived in New York City for 10 years, I can attest that New York City is not cheap. As a tourist, it can be draining on your wallet to visit some of the most iconic spots in the city. The Empire State Building will set you back $54 (that’s just for 1 ticket). Top of the Rock – $37. However, there are a few iconic spots that one can visit in the city that won’t set you back a dime. For those on a budget, here are 10 free things to do in New York City.
Without a doubt, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most photographed spots in all of New York. After seeing it for so many years, I still love the sight of it. And, it’s free to walk across! The bridge can get crowded as you vie for space with other walkers, joggers and cyclists. But the further you go on the bridge, the crowds thin out.
And, you should definitely continue to the end. Leaving the bridge on the Brooklyn side, it’s a short walk to another iconic spot – a view of the Manhattan Bridge. Following the water, you’ll end up at the Brooklyn Bridge Park with its famous views of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York City skyline. It’s as close to perfection as you can get in the city.
Staten Island Ferry
For incredible views of the New York City skyline and a ride past the Statue of Liberty, then hop on the Staten Island Ferry. Departing from Battery Park at the southern tip of the city, it’s a 20-minute ride to Staten Island. You’ll need to depart the ferry and re-board it to return to NYC. Make sure that the ferry is the large triple decker so you can sit/stand outside for the incredible views.
And, after the ride, it’s wonderful to stroll around lower Manhattan walking past the Charging Bull statue, stopping at Trinity Church, taking in Wall Street, and standing where George Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. president at Federal Hall.
An entire day can easily be spent walking around Central Park with its varied sections from the Mall to the Rambles all the way to the Reservoir. Though a visit to the Zoo or a boat rental will cost a few dollars, there are plenty of free activities in the park that will keep you busy for hours:
- Visit all the statues in the park (there’s a lot) including Alice in Wonderland, Balto, Shakespeare, and the Bethesda Fountain.
- Walk down the mall and be entertained by street performers.
- Pause at the Imagine memorial at Strawberry Fields
- Get lost wandering through the Rambles
- Take a jog around the Reservoir
- Walk under the many bridges
- Relax on a boulder and people and/or squirrel watch
And, Central Park is not the only park in town. A stroll on the High Line is one of my favorite NYC experiences. Walking above the traffic on an old train line, there are fabulous views of the Hudson River. The path is lined with art installations as you view life on New York City streets from above.
Or, you can hop on the #7 train into Queens and head to Flushing Meadows, the site of two World’s Fairs where remnants still stand. The undisputed center piece of the park is the Unisphere, from the 1963 fair, which is impressive to walk around.
New York Public Library
Located on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, the main branch of the New York Public Library is not to be missed. Walking up the steps past the lions into the building and up to the main reading room is a wonderful experience. And, if you are a Ghostbusters fan, on your exit, you can run down the steps screaming (confession, I did that on my first visit to NYC).
Behind the library is Bryant Park, which is a great place to rest the feet and watch the bustle of the city.
Grand Central Station
Even if you are not running for the Metro Railroad, Grand Central is a must visit. The architecture is some of the best in the city. Not to mention it’s iconic brass clock in the main concourse and the stunning astronomical ceiling. If you want to compare your normal rush hour commute with that of a New Yorker’s, stop at Zaro’s Bakery in the main concourse, get a muffin (they’re huge and delicious), then take a seat on the steps and be hypnotized by the flurry of New Yorkers.
No visit to New York would be complete without a visit to Times Square. Though I will be the first to admit that Times Square has lost its New York identity with the slew of major retailers that have moved in. Yet, there is still something about walking the crossroads of America. And in warmer weather, be on the lookout for the Naked Cowboy.
Talk about Art Deco heaven. Just to stroll around the buildings and take in the architectural details is amazing. But then you have the lower plaza with the gold, iconic Prometheus statue that draws your attention. My favorite time to visit is in winter, not because of the tree, but because I love to watch the ice skaters. Exiting out of the complex onto 5th Avenue, you can do some window shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
Home to the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, this neo-gothic cathedral is a landmark of the city. Across the street is the famous statue of Atlas.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ok, so this one isn’t exactly free but, with having a pay-what-you-wish policy, this museum is pretty close to being free. I know people who’ve donated a quarter to gain admission. I’m speaking of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, affectionately called the Met. You could spend all day here and still not see everything. But I recommend giving it a good shot. My favorite go-to places are the Impressionist galleries on the 2nd floor, the Temple of Dendur, the Greek and Roman Art, and the American Wing.
Just across the park is The Museum of Natural History, which also had a pay-what-you wish admission. New York has no shortage of museums. Though many of them do have fixed admissions, nearly all of them offer free hours either once a week or once a month. These include the Guggenheim Museum, MoMa, the Frick Collection (my personal favorite), Neue Galerie, and the Cooper Hewitt.
Late Night Comedy
If you have time to book in advance, look into requesting free tickets for the late night shows that tape in the city – The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Late Night with Seth Meyers both in Rockefeller Center and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert at the iconic Ed Sullivan Theater.
New York City was made for walking and it remains the best way to experience the city. The manic hustle of life in a New York minute. The smell of pretzels from the street stand. The honking. The sirens. There are so many neighborhoods to stroll through in the city – Little Italy, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Columbus Circle, Upper West Side….it goes on. Every corner of NYC has its own feel and the way to see the diversity is by walking.
But, if your feet get tired, the cheapest and easiest way to get around town is the subway. The hustle and the bustle of the city continue underground. It’s quintessential New York and shouldn’t be missed.