A New York City vacation can put a dent in your wallet if you don’t know where to look or when to go.
As a New York City local, I know where to get the local prices. The freshly baked Ukrainian Mantinga bread (1 kg) that I usually buy from NetCost Market costs $2.99, and most of my wine, which I purchase from Trader Joe’s costs under $10.
What applies for grocery shopping also applies for finding tours and activities. Want to do and see more of New York City for less? Use this insider’s guide to the top 15 free things to do and see in New York City.
1. Grand Central Terminal and more
One of the most popular attractions in New York City is Grand Central Terminal. It is free to visit. At the time of its opening in 1913, Grand Central Terminal was one of the most advanced train terminals in the world, with functioning electricity. When visiting, check out the chandeliers with 4,000 bare and exposed light bulbs and the blue ceiling (with constellations) at the main concourse, vaulted ceilings with Guastavino tiles at The Oyster Bar and the sculptures of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva at the top of the 42nd Street façade.
The terminal also houses 60 shops, including a large Apple Store, 35 places to eat, and a gourmet market. I recommend grabbing a coffee from Irving Farm Coffee Roasters if you’re there in the morning, Frankie’s Dog on the Go for a quick bite and beer or wine with oysters (or any snacks) during Happy Hour at The Oyster Bar.
Other iconic places that are free:
• St. Patricks Cathedral
• Flatiron Bldg
• Chrysler Building
• High Line Park
• Brooklyn Bridge
• Chelsea Market
• The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library
2. Central Park
See the monuments and statues scattered through Central Park like Bethesda Fountain, Arches at Bethesda Terrace, Alice in Wonderland, Belvedere Castle, Wollman ice rink, Hans Christian Andersen statue, Delacorte Musical Clock, Strawberry Fields and more.
The park is ideal for a picnic. You may want to buy your picnic food at Whole Foods Market in Columbus Circle (close to Central Park West and 59th Street) or Grace’s Marketplace (close to 72nd Street and 5th Avenue). Or spend $99 for a gourmet lunch for 2 prepared by Pappardella (get this 60% off, so a final price of $39, with this offer from Travelzoo.com).
3. Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Brooklyn Botanic Garden is the best garden for cherry blossoms outside of Washington DC. This 52-acre garden is adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum, and you can potentially combine your visits to both attractions on a Saturday when both offer free admissions.
The Brooklyn Museum is free from 5-11 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month (except September). Brooklyn Botanic Garden is free on Tuesday and Saturday (10 a.m. to noon). For a full list freebies and activities, please check out the garden’s website.
4. NYC Museums
NYCGo.com has a complete list of free NYC museums, and “sometimes free” museums to visit. There are several museums to choose from, but here are five of my recommendations:
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – the Met Museum has a pay-what-you-wish admission fee with a suggested donation of $25. It’s not exactly free, but you could enter the museum if you paid just a penny, though I’d suggest more.
2. The Frick Collection – admission is free on every first Friday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m. (except in September and January) and pay-what-you-wish on Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. (starting Jul 5th)
3. Museum of Modern Art – free on Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
4. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – pay-as-you-wish on Friday from 5:45 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
5. The Morgan Library & Museum – free on Friday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Get to the venues early because the lines are usually long on the free days.
5. Staten Island Ferry
A round trip ride on the Staten Island Ferry will give you spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline and harbor. The 25-minute ride is free.
6. TV Shows Taping
Want to see your favorite morning or late night shows live? Check out the TV Shows taping listings. You must request for tickets in advance or wait in line if there is a standby option.
7. Free concerts
Students between the ages of 13 and 26 can apply for free concert tickets at the New York Philharmonic in Lincoln Center. The NY Philharmonic gives away 100 free tickets every Friday (not in the summer months). You can check out the details on their website.
Julliard School, a prestigious performing art school in NYC, also offers free concert tickets for all student performances.
The Metropolitan Opera has a summer recital series in parks all over the city every year.
For free summer performances go to NYCGo.com for the updated listings.
8. Farmers Markets
Want to know where New Yorkers get their fresh produce? Go to the farmers’ markets. I recommend Union Square’s year-round farmers market. The market is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
GrowNYC.org has a list of farmers’ markets in NYC’s five boroughs. Check it out.
9. Roosevelt tramway for a 360-degree view of the city
Take the Roosevelt tramway by using your Unlimited Ride 7-Day New York City metro card. You’ll save time and money if you buy the 7-day metro card for a stay of over three days with multiple train rides per day.
The tram takes you up as high as 250 feet, and it connects from Manhattan 59th Street and Second Avenue to Roosevelt Island. It’s only a 4-minute ride giving you a different vantage point to view the city.
Navigating the NYC subway system can be daunting for first-time visitors. I recommend reading The Ultimate NYC Subway Guide.
10. Coffee tasting
Coffee lovers may want to attend the weekly free coffee tasting event called Tastings at Ten. This event at Counter Culture Coffee’s New York Learning Center happens every Friday. You get to see how to brew a good cup of coffee and taste coffee with a barista.
11. Exotic neighborhoods
New York City is a melting pot of cultures. You can learn about cultures by visiting the different neighborhoods. Visit Koreatown on West 32nd Street in Manhattan, Chinatown (next to SoHo), Little Italy (next to Chinatown), Little Australia (Corner of Broome and Mulberry in Nolita), and Little Brazil (46th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues). Other neighborhoods outside Manhattan are worth a visit as well like Little India in Jackson Heights, Queens, Little Poland in Greenpoint Brooklyn, and Little Odessa in Brighton Beach Brooklyn.
If you’re lucky, you may find yourself in the middle of a street festival like the La Festa de San Gennaro (September), West Indian Day (Labor Day), Latin American Culture Week (November), Chinese New Year (February) and hundreds more.
12. Free tours
NYC has many free walking tours where you pay the guide as you wish, but here are 3 free tours I recommend:
1. Tours organized by the NYC Parks in Central Park, Union Square Park, and Battery Park
2. Grand Central Partnership – every Friday at 12:30 p.m.
3. Greenwich Village Free Walking Tours, every Saturday from June to September only
13. Times Square
Times Square, also known as “The Great White Way” is filled with bright lights and excitement every day. A stroll along the busy Times Square is a must and while you’re there go to Hard Rock Cafe to see the guitar wall.
14. Bronx Zoo
Bronx Zoo is home to over 6,000 animals. It is the largest wildlife conservation park and the largest urban zoo in the United States. General admission is free all day on Wednesdays.
15. Free summer movies
If you’re visiting in summer, don’t miss the free summer movies in the park. Here is a complete list for Summer 2017:
Photos and article by Claudia Looi