Although the Big Apple is known for being rather pricey, there are plenty of free things to do in New York City. Even if you are a luxury traveler, you have no excuses to enjoy some of these free attractions. With as large and diverse as NYC is, there are some really fun and engaging things to see and do that do not cost a dime. Instead of shelling out the big bucks for a view from the Empire State Building or a cruise on one of the city’s rivers, you can find alternatives that not only are free but sometimes can be far less crowded. I have put together a list of my favorite free things to do in NYC! You’ll have such a good time that you’ll forget you are not even spending any money with these free things to do in New York City.
Explore Museums — The Right Ones on the Right Days
As you may have heard, as of March 1, 2018, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pay-what-you-wish policy will be ending. Admission will now be required for all out of town adult visitors to the museum. But that doesn’t mean you can’t soak in arts and culture.
New York City has a museum for everyone. Whether you like art, history, food or fashion. And while you might assume that these museums do charge admission, not all of them do!
In addition to museums that are always free, most of the big museums generally have one evening a month where admission is free or discounted. The Frick Collection, for example, is not only one of the best museums on the Upper East Side. It is also free on the first Friday of every month and pay what you wish Wednesday afternoons. Plan ahead and schedule your visit around those free days.
Enjoy Public Art
While museums are probably the first place you think for art, the Public Art Fund is changing that thinking. The organization has partnered with artists to add art installations around the city and its boroughs. Famed artist Ai Weiwei has an installation on display through mid-February 2018. With many of these outdoor installations not only can you enjoy them, but you can be a part of them. There’s a definite interactive, engaging experience between you and the art. It’s a whole new take on things, not to mention how the weather and the surrounding environment play a role.
Stroll the High Line
NYC is a walker’s paradise, not least because of the High Line. The near mile and a half long walking path runs up and downtown just a couple of blocks from the Hudson River. The trail is built on former New York Central Railroad tracks.
But the High Line isn’t a boring walking trail. It’s a heavily curated experience with seasonal gardens, rotating art pieces and even special spots to sit and unwind. The trail is even elevated at some places so you are actually walking over traffic.
Climb The Vessel
For a few years now the Hudson Yards neighborhood of NYC has been undergoing a renovation and redevelopment. The project really caught everyone’s attention in the spring of 2019, however, with the opening of the Vessel. The copper-clad structure by British designer Thomas Heatherwick consists of 16 stories with 154 flights of steps. That’s 2500 steps! While I was initially skeptical of The Vessel, it only took a single visit to change my mind. It is pretty fun walking the steps and examining the building up close. But even better are the views onto the nearby neighborhood as well as the Hudson River.
Somewhat surprisingly, admission to The Vessel does not cost you anything. It is one of the newest free things to do in New York City. In fact, you can walk right up, scan a QR code and register on the spot. Within minutes you can be climbing the stairs to the top!
Explore Central Park
There is a reason that Central Park is so iconic. The more than 800-acre park bridging the Upper West and East Sides is a tourist hot spot, a gym, a place to meet friends, people watch, animal watch — the list just goes on.
Because of its size, the park has many microcosms. Strawberry Fields holds a memorial to John Lennon and is a favorite spot of visitors. There are also the huge boulders protruding from the meadows. Or you can enjoy a walk around a lake. There’s a spot in Central Park for everyone and every season it holds something very different. Because I love exploring the city on foot, walking through Central Park is one of my favorite free things to do in New York City.
Cruise on the Staten Island Ferry
With NYC being an island, there is no shortage of cruises around the city. Many of these cruises target tourists and are not inexpensive. But cruising on the Staten Island Ferry is one of the great free things to do in New York City! The Staten Island Ferry is a 5-mile cruise that operates between the tip of Manhattan near Battery Park to Staten Island. The cruise goes right past the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island and Brooklyn. The views are simply fantastic and unbeatable.
Because the ferry is how locals commute and also free, you’ll mix with people of all types on board. At peak times the ferry can be quite crowded and, admittedly, a little pushy. My suggestion is to go off-peak and leave plenty of time. But boat tours tend to be expensive, if you ask me, a trip on the Staten Island Ferry one of the best free things to do in New York City.
Attend a TV Show Taping
Maybe you like morning, daytime, or late night talk shows? Or perhaps sitcoms are more your speed? Regardless of which type of show you like, in NYC you have a chance to be a part of the live studio audience. Although tickets can be difficult to get and require thorough planning ahead of time, you could find yourself in the audience for a taping of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The View, or LIVE with Kelly & Ryan.
If you don’t manage to snag tickets for a taping, you can still go stand outside of the Today Show at Rockefeller Center or in Times Square for Good Morning America. No tickets are required but keep your eyes to the sky and dress weather appropriate. And you can always bring a sign. “Hi Mom!” is always a favorite.
Take in the Views with a Bridge Walk
The Brooklyn Bridge is a romanticized icon. But it also offers great views! While a visit to the Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building can be pricey, try a walk on one of the city’s many bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and others are walkable with dedicated space for pedestrians. As you cross the bridge you can stop for a few photo opportunities to capture the river or that incomparable skyline.
Go for an Architecture Walking Tour
From the gigantic and futuristic Oculus of the World Trade Center train station to the spectacular Beaux-Arts style of Grand Central Terminal, there are countless architectural gems in New York City. With only your two feet and perhaps, if you want, a smartphone with access to Wikipedia you can enjoy countless buildings up close. You can even venture inside of public buildings, like the train stations, to take in all the small details.
Alternatively, you can focus on a specific neighborhood. The Upper East Side is always a favorite and with good reason. China Town is also always fun to explore.
People Watch in Times Square
In my experience, Times Square isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s crowded, it’s full of tourists and it’s full of people trying to make a buck off of tourists. But, it continues to be a cultural landmark. Whether you’re looking to gaze upon the digital billboards that soar into the sky, read the news ticker on the ABC News Building or just sit and absorb your surroundings on the stepped seating that’s actually the roof of the TKTS Discount Booth, there’s no shortage of action in Times Square.
Tour the New York Public Library
There’s a building a stone’s throw from Bryant Park with sky-high ceilings, chandeliers, marble details. But this isn’t a mansion I’m talking about. It’s the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of New York Public Library. If you’re looking for a quiet place to get away from the rush of New York City, this is the place for you. Or, you can take a free tour of the library. There are twice-daily tours of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building every day of the week except Sunday.
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