Updated October 6, 2023
Published May 14, 2019
By Joey Tyson
Iconic skyscrapers, contemporary jazz, Chandler Bing… New York City is famous for a lot of things, but being cheap isn’t one of them.
Luckily, the ‘city that never sleeps’ is packed full of exciting free things to do. From marvellous art museums and stunning outdoor attractions to beautiful public buildings and instantly recognisable landmarks, New York City has plenty going on for the budget-conscious traveller.
So, take a bite out of the Big Apple without it taking one out of your bank balance with our round-up of free things to do in New York.
A hotbed of culture and art, New York has some of the best museums in the world at its fingertips. While many of its most famous (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History) have scrapped their pay-what-you-wish schemes for visitors, there are still tons of free options.
For free art, trendy Chelsea has a high concentration of independent galleries. To find your way around, the handy Chelsea Gallery map shows you where the best ones are located. Alternatively, the Jewish Museum, which explores Jewish art and culture across some 4,000 years, is free every Saturday in observance of the Sabbath. At the Brooklyn Museum, entry is free every first Saturday of the month between 5pm and 11pm and you can pay what you like between 5pm and 8pm on Saturdays at the Guggenheim.
In any densely populated city, green spaces are crucial, as much for the sanity of its inhabitants as for anything else. New York gets this and, with some of the best urban outdoor spaces in the world, it doesn’t disappoint.
The High Line, loved by locals and tourists alike, is one of the city’s greatest free attractions. An old, disused rail line turned gallery, park and creative space, it stretches 2.3km (1.45 miles) along Manhattan’s west side, offering a unique perspective of New York.
Of course, no trip to New York is complete without a visit to the iconic Central Park, the city’s sprawling green lung. Much more than a tourist attraction, the park is heavily used by New Yorkers desperate to escape the city. It’s so vast (the whole park covers a whopping 843 acres), you could easily spend a whole day strolling around and still not even see half of it. Central Park attractions include Cleopatra’s Needle, Strawberry Fields and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir and during summer, there’s even free theatre with Shakespeare in the Park. Local ball games take place regularly at the communal baseball fields too.
Another iconic New York attraction, the Brooklyn Bridge is a three-fold treat for thrifty New York tourists. Not only do you get a cracking view of the Manhattan skyline, but the bridge also itself – a marvel of engineering and one of the oldest roadway bridges in America – is a worthy spectacle in its own right. Finally, by walking from Manhattan to Brooklyn, you’ll end up at the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a quiet urban stretch of green that offers yet more stunning views of the Big Apple.
The city also has a number of botanical gardens to choose from, with free admission at different times of the year. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden lets you pay what you wish on winter weekdays (December to February) and is always free for kids. A grounds-only pass to the New York Botanical Garden is free every Wednesday between 10am and 11am. Finally, Queens Botanical Gardens is free to enter from December to March.
Another outdoor gem, the Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, is always free. Once an abandoned riverside landfill, the park was transformed into one of NYC’s best free art attractions by a dedicated community group. If you’re lucky, you can even get tours of the park from local artists on some days.
The Staten Island Ferry has been transporting New Yorkers to work and back for more than a hundred years. So, what’s so special about this commuter ferry? Well, it just so happens to go straight past the Statue of Liberty, giving passengers an incredible view of Lady Liberty for the princely sum of absolutely nothing. The view departing and coming back into New York isn’t bad, either. The journey takes 25 minutes and leaves every half an hour – but avoid rush hour.
Walls and walls of leather-bound books, huge stone lions guarding the entrance and a dazzling series of rooftop murals depicting a heaven-like sky – the New York Public Library is not your average library. Only a few rooms are open to the public, so it doesn’t take long to look around. One thing you’ll notice is that the library is incredibly well used so be careful not to disturb those using its facilities when you visit.
A sombre reminder of a terrible atrocity, the Ground Zero 9/11 Memorial is at once powerful and moving. The names of the fallen trace the edges of the Twin Towers’ original foundations, while a never-ending fountain flows at the centre of each site. You might notice a red rose placed in some of the names – in an act of touching remembrance, this marks the victim’s birthday. Be respectful, this is still very much a place of mourning for many.
Grandiose and elaborate, the zodiac ceiling of Grand Central Terminal’s cavernous main concourse has been welcoming travellers to NYC for over 100 years. It depicts 12 constellations, painted in gold leaf and lit by LEDs and, along with the famed opal clock and the Information Booth, it’s the centrepiece of this magnificent station – well worth a visit even if you’re not catching the train!
A vibrant community and foodie hotspot, Chinatown is a fascinating place to spend the afternoon. Every inch authentic, it’s also home to the largest native Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere. And, in a city where steep eats often outnumber cheap ones, it’s also an excellent place to get some grub on a budget.
While you can’t go into the Flatiron Building, its bizarre design has made it one of New York’s most popular buildings. Its triangular design was considered a ground-breaking feat at the time of its construction in 1902.
Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture geek or a bit of both, New York’s City Hall makes for an interesting way to spend the morning. A lot of great names, from Einstein to Lincoln, have graced these halls with their presence, and you can add yourself to that list for free.
Times Square, New York’s neon mass of advertising, is free to visit. It’s worth a quick look just to see how many people converge in a place where there is actually very little to do.
A great one for the little ones, Staten Island Zoo, is free from 2pm on Wednesdays. Take the ferry over and see Lady Liberty while you’re at it.
Not so good for little ones (unless they really appreciate the finer points of beer making), Brooklyn Brewery runs free tours of the brewery every hour between 1pm and 6pm on Sundays – although you’ll have to pay a little if you want to taste the beer.
Fancy some urban kayaking? Well, you’ve come to the right city! Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse runs free kayaking sessions in full view of the Brooklyn Bridge, while the Downtown Boathouse offers the use of free kayaks in the protected Hudson River embayments. Both are summer activities though – falling in the Hudson isn’t too pleasant in the dead of winter.
Coney Island is New York’s answer to Brighton. Every summer, New Yorkers flock here to escape the heat, have a go on the rollercoasters and sample its famous hot dogs. Sure, the theme parks and rides cost, but strolling along the boardwalk is completely free.
Please note: All information was correct as of the time of writing. Always check with the attraction regarding terms of admission.