You really don’t need to take out a mortgage to visit New York City. While Broadway tickets, hotel rooms, and fine dining can max out your budget, there are many wonderful freebies to fill your Big Apple experience. Enjoy these tips for ways to spend your time and get the flavor of the city without taking out your credit card.
1. Soak Up The Views
While you could spring for a ticket to the Top of the Rock, The Edge, or the Empire State Building to see the city’s famed skyline, you really don’t have to.
2. The Brooklyn Bridge And DUMBO
Put on your sneakers, instead, and walk the length of the Brooklyn Bridge for dramatic views of the city. Enter near City Hall in Manhattan and head west to DUMBO, one of Brooklyn’s most fashionable neighborhoods. At the end of the span, walk north to Brooklyn Bridge Park and grab a spot on the lawn. Your reward? A camera-ready view of the water taxis, ferries, tugboats, sightseeing cruises, and recreational vessels plying the East River, all against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
For your Manhattan-bound return, first join the Instagrammers at one of the city’s most photographed spots, the view of the Manhattan Bridge from Washington Street. Then, climb the stairs to the Brooklyn Bridge and reverse direction to Manhattan. Stop and pause as the city unfolds before you. The midpoint of the bridge is the place to fully rotate and look at Brooklyn to the east, downtown Manhattan to the south, Randall’s Island to the north, and Manhattan due west. And you didn’t spend a penny, except maybe for lunch!
3. Staten Island Ferry
For a different perspective on the city, take the free ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan to Staten Island. En route, you’ll pass by the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and Governor’s Island. On your return passage to Battery Park, get your camera ready for an inspiring shot of Manhattan. You’ll also have another chance to see the Statue of Liberty to your left.
Pro Tip: For just $3, you can take the nearby ferry to Governor’s Island, a 172-acre island in New York Harbor, for water-based views that angle towards Brooklyn and Queens as well.
4. Get Street Smart
Take advantage of New York City’s many street fairs, parades, and its popular Open Streets program. Sit (or stand) and watch as entertainers and people of all shapes and sizes drift by. New York City is a veritable melting pot and the best show in town is right on the streets and sidewalks.
5. I Love A Parade
New York City loves to celebrate, and parades and festivals are scheduled throughout the year. Odds are your visit will coincide with one of these special fêtes (a festival or celebration), like the Dominican Day Parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the German-American Steuben Day Parade, the Pride Parade, the Dance Parade, or maybe even the well-known Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The city’s Easter Bonnet extravaganza and the Coney Island Mermaid Parade are one-of-a-kind. Some routes cover multiple avenues and streets; others are only a block or two long, like the Bastille Day celebration.
6. Streets, Seats, And People Watching
New York City’s pioneering Open Streets program has created pedestrian-only areas where you can sit and relax. The red stairs near the TKTS booth in Times Square is a popular hangout. As are the tables and chairs on the adjacent triangular area, as well as around Herald Square and Madison Square Park. Food trucks are often parked nearby for some inexpensive fare as you enjoy the people procession, one of New York City’s greatest free entertainments.
For the ultimate in pedestrian-only strolling and sightseeing, the Coney Island Boardwalk and beach are free at all times.
7. Entertainment Down Under
Some of the city’s most diverse — and free — entertainment sits below the sidewalks in the subways. Through the MTA’s Music Under New York program, buskers must audition to perform in the stations, and the talent you’ll see is quite amazing. For the mere price of a generous tip (suggested) and a metro card swipe (required), you get access to some 350 classical musicians, opera singers, steel bands, and more currently participating in the program.
Pro Tips: According to one of my favorite underground musicians, musical saw-player Natalia Paruz, the best stations for free entertainment are Times Square (42nd Street), Herald Square (34th Street), Union Square (14th Street), and the Q line’s 72nd and 86th Streets in Manhattan. If you’re in Brooklyn, stop at the Bedford Street L station.
8. Get Cultured
Museums encourage entry with free or pay-what-you-want days. The Bronx Museum of the Arts and the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian, are always free. Admission to the Brooklyn Museum is free on the first Saturday of the month, and the Jewish Museum is always free on Saturday. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) asks you to contribute whatever you’d like as does the Whitney Museum on Friday evening and The Guggenheim on Saturday evening. Make a list of these museums and check their websites for special exhibits and programs.
Art In The Subways
For more free art, the subways are a veritable treasure hunt. From glass tiles and mosaics by masters like Chuck Close to whimsical bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness, the MTA Arts & Design-commissioned art program invites you to slow down and look around as you travel. And the price tag? Again, a mere $2.75 subway ride. A list of the stations and their installations is available online thanks to nycsubway.org.
Outdoor art is always free (unless it’s part of a museum) and fills the city with statues, sculptures, street art, and other surprising pieces. The city’s non-profit Public Art Fund program brings free, rotating exhibitions of international scope in all the boroughs. A current installation, Gillian Wearing’s statue of photographer Diane Arbus with her camera, stands at the edge of Central Park.
For a combo art and sightseeing tour, stroll the High Line, Manhattan’s groundbreaking elevated park. Contemporary artworks, videos, and murals line the 1.45-mile walk through an ongoing program called High Line Art. Set against the gorgeous views of the river and skyline, a giant fiberglass drone-like sculpture rotates on a steel pole at 30th Street. Paola Pivi’s comic take on the Statue of Liberty overlooks Hudson Yards.
You can enjoy an unusual immersive experience at the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. The park displays large-scale and multi-media art in a former landfill setting.
Other large pieces currently on view include Jim Rennert’s three life-size tributes to the working man — Timing, Inner Dialogue, and Commute — sitting at 47th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. The beloved 2.5-ton, copper tutu-clad bronze sculpture Hippo Ballerina by Bjørn Okholm Skaarup has returned to the city, now at Pershing Square Plaza West.
While you do your “free” window shopping, you can view two notable pieces from Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero. Adam and Eve, standing in the entrance to the Shops at Columbus Circle, have both been rubbed shiny in spots by the hands of many visitors. Brookfield Place’s free Art Walk showcases works throughout the downtown mall.
Theater fans aren’t left out when it comes to getting something free. The Broadway Grand Gallery exhibit in Times Square showcases 21 playbill covers, each 10 feet, from 21 currently running shows.
Pro Tip: If seeing the giant Hamilton Playbill (and maybe the show itself) has sparked an interest to know more, visit the grounds of Hamilton Grange, the “country” home of Alexander Hamilton. It’s also a designated historic landmark and free public park in Upper Manhattan.
9. Parks And Recreation
A City Of Parks
No visit to New York City is complete without a visit to Manhattan’s giant backyard, Central Park. You can spend days here without spending a penny. Bird watching, catch-and-release fishing, concerts, movies, Shakespeare in the Park, and more are all available to you within the park’s 846 acres. Random entertainers at sites like Bethesda Fountain and The Mall and Literary Walk ask only that you leave a tip if you’ve enjoyed their shows.
If you find yourself in other parts of the city and need a “green” break, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, like Central Park, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and offers extensive spaces for exercise, people watching, and more. Smaller parks like Bryant Park, Union Square Park, and Madison Square Park also offer welcoming areas for respite, outdoor movies, art exhibits, and other seasonal events.
Central Park’s Conservatory Garden rivals any botanical garden. With three formal gardens, fountains, a wisteria-covered pergola, statues, and seasonally-changing floral plantings, it’s an oasis hiding in plain view of the city. Step through the ornate Vanderbilt Gate and smell the flowers — you’ll probably see a wedding or two happening as well (no gifts required). For a more extensive garden experience that’s still free, visit the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx on Wednesday morning.
The city’s newest and, perhaps, quirkiest park, Little Island, is a free manmade “island” that requires reservations. Sitting just off of the Greenway over the Hudson River, the park is built on concrete piles and offers rolling hills, pathways, and entertainment.
10. Free Sports
New York City offers lots of free recreational activities. Walkers and runners gravitate to Central Park’s bridle path and Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir. An expansive route for biking, jogging, and walking, the piers and pathways of Hudson River Park are also where you’ll find free kayaking at Pier 96 — lessons included. If you’re in Brooklyn, you can kayak for free from Pier 2 at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Brookfield Place offers free racquet sports options including badminton, pickleball, and ping pong on the weekends at their West Side and Brooklyn locations.
Pro Tip: Duck into Paley Park, a “pocket park” on East 53rd Street between Madison and 5th Avenues. Enjoy the waterfall and sound-deadening greenery hidden in the middle of the busy shopping area. It’s like having a free massage for your mind.