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New York is a lot of things, expensive being one of them. Sometimes, you just don’t feel like spending more money. Especially when many of the iconic landmarks around the City require some kind of entrance fee, it’s nice to find opportunities that are only as expensive as it takes you to get there.
And, if you’re using the New York City subway, it’s only $2.75 per ride. If you need a refresher, I wrote a complete how-to guide on navigating NYC’s subway system.
Preferably, it’s smart to space out your itinerary with free things to do in NYC. Planning even one or two of these sites will help you stick to your budget while not sacrificing your experiences.
Yes, believe it, there are free landmarks and activities around. You just have to know where to find them – and you did, because you found this post! These are my top choices for the best free things to do in New York City.
Many of these free things to do in NYC are great for following social distancing guidelines, as they are at outside spaces where you can maintain 6-feet apart.
- Map for this guide:
- Explore the parks
- Wander through the neighborhoods
- Take the Staten Island Ferry
- Take advantage of New York City museums free hours
- Free tours
- Go kayaking
- Shakespeare in the Park and Broadway in Bryant Park
- Wander through Chelsea art galleries
- Live studio audience
- Lounge on the beach
Map for this guide:
For your convenience, I made a color-coded map for this guide! You can find all of the locations and businesses listed here.
- Green: Parks
- Blue: Beaches
- Yellow: Activities
- Purple: Landmarks
- Red: Neighborhoods
Explore the parks
New York City has many different parks. New Yorkers sit outside in the parks on lovely days, and there are always free activities for all ages. That includes festivals, concerts, recreational sports, and walking and biking trails.
Take a peek at a map and see which parks are closest to where you’re staying. Central Park almost always has a free event going on, but there are many more parks around with free events all the time! I have a custom Google Map linked here with all of the free things to do in New York City mapped out.
Favorite Parks: Battery Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park, Union Square Park, Washington Square Park, Fort Tryon Park, Van Cortlandt Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Gantry State Plaza Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, Four Freedoms State Park, Prospect Park
Wander through the neighborhoods
Some of the best free things to do in New York City? Exploring the neighborhoods! Each of New York City’s neighborhoods is distinct, with features that are not present in any other part of the City. Hop off the subway and start walking!
- SoHo is famous for its cast-iron buildings, boasting the highest concentration of cast-iron buildings in the world
- Lower East Side has a great nightlife scene
- Chinatown is filled with exciting architecture, authentic culture, and cuisine
- The Meatpacking District is only a few blocks, but it has a storied, tumultuous history. Now, it’s known for its high fashion presence.
- In the Financial District in Lower Manhattan, Stone Street brings you back to Colonial-era New York, then walk two-tenths of a mile over to Wall Street and Broad Street for more historic streets in the City
- Greenwich Village is home to tons of historical events and buildings, as well as cute shops and boutiques
- Williamsburg has a fun vibe with beautiful street art
Take the Staten Island Ferry
An often overlooked mode of transportation, the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free to take back and forth from Battery Park in Manhattan to St. George, Staten Island. The ride takes about 40 minutes one way and offers a great view of the Statue of Liberty without going out to Liberty Island.
Once you arrive on Staten Island, you can turn around and take the ferry right back. Or, you can walk just outside the ferry terminal into the Empire Outlets, New York City’s only outdoor outlet shopping mall.
Take advantage of New York City museums free hours
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Museum of Natural History. The Museum of Modern Art. The Whitney. The Guggenheim. The 9/11 Memorial Museum. And many, many, more.
New York City has remarkable arts and culture in its museums. Numerous museums in the City offer hours where entry is free or pay-what-you-wish! Check out this guide I created for you to help plan your schedule around which museums to visit during their free hours.
As a New York City tour guide, I can tell you over and over again how important it is to take a guided tour. It’s an opportunity to ask a local for their opinions and develop a background on a city’s history.
- While most walking tours aren’t free, Free Tours By Foot offers a few different free and pay-what-you-wish walking tours of New York. You can find their daily offerings and sign up for tours on their website.
- The Brooklyn Brewery offers free tours of its facilities on the weekends between 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Learn about the brewing process for free before spending a little money to grab yourself a beer. I mean, you can’t go to a brewery without trying a pint.
- The Federal Reserve Bank of New York gives free tours of its facilities Monday through Friday, at 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.
- Most of Central Park Conservatory’s tours are paid; however, they do offer three free tours! Discovery Walk for Families: Conservatory Garden and The Ramble, as well as their Memorial Walk tours, are free of charge. Check their website for up to date times, and make sure to reserve your spot in advance.
Remember – tip your tour guides!
Yes. Really. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse offers free kayaking every Thursday evening from 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., and Saturdays and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June through August. If you’ve never kayaked before, they’ll teach you everything you need to know.
While you don’t need to sign up in advance, it is first-come-first-serve, and they try to limit each kayaker to 20 minutes out on the water to make sure everyone has the opportunity to paddle around.
Shakespeare in the Park and Broadway in Bryant Park
When summer arrives in New York City, there are many more free things to do in NYC! Specifically, the theater community comes out all over the City in the summer. Shakespeare in the Park is a free performance series by the Public Theatre. Each year, they produce Shakespeare plays to be performed in an outdoor theatre space in Central Park.
Although tickets are free, people wake up very early to stand in line to secure their tickets. I mean, very early – make sure you’re in line by 10 a.m. at the absolute latest. During the height of a show’s run, people camp outside Central Park to make sure they nab a ticket. If you want to test your luck, you can also register for each performance’s mobile lottery through the TodayTix app.
Broadway in Bryant Park is another free summer series from the Broadway community. Every Thursday starting at 12:30 p.m., the casts from a select number of Broadway musicals will perform two or three musical numbers from their shows. This is a great way to sample shows without spending money on tickets and see some high-level talent on a Thursday afternoon.
Wander through Chelsea art galleries
There’s an art scene thriving in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. Known as the Chelsea art galleries, the consortium consists of almost 100 galleries within a few blocks of each other. These galleries are open free to the public for you to wander through.
Live studio audience
Fallon. Myers. Oliver. Noah. Colbert. Even SNL. Many of the shows that film in front of a live studio audience in New York City have free ticketing policies in place to fill their theaters. But, tickets usually get released and snatched up months in advance.
If you’re planning your New York City trip months before, you can definitely try to secure tickets to your favorite show taping. You can find free tickets to many of the shows in New York City looking for live studio audience members on 1iota or TVTaping. Or, if you’re willing to get up and stand outside starting in the early hours until late afternoon, you can try stand-by.
Lounge on the beach
Again, with just the price of your Metrocard, you can arrive at any of New York City’s beaches. NYC has beautiful coastlines that New Yorkers flock to on warm days. As long as you get off at the right subway stop, access to the beach is one of the best free things to do in NYC. You’re welcome to spend all day lounging in the sun on the beach!
If you choose to go to Coney Island for your beach day, you’ll also get to freely walk through the famous Coney Island Boardwalk.
Favorite Beaches: Orchard Beach, Brighton Beach, Rockaway Beach and Boardwalk, Manhattan Beach, Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk, Jacob Riis Park Beach
It costs nothing to stand underneath the bright lights of Times Square and marvel at your surroundings. While there are many stores you can spend money, you’re welcome to wander through and window shop as well.
- Look up at the old New York Times building and see where the ball drops each year on New Year’s Eve
- Stand underneath the ABC News window during a broadcast
- Walk through Shubert Alley and see more than 10 different Broadway theaters in the span of two blocks
- Take a picture in Duffy Square with the George M. Cohen statue. He’s considered a Father of Broadway
- Sit on the red stairs and catch a view of Time Square
- Pop into the M&M store, then head across the street for Hershey’s Chocolate World
High Line, Starbucks Reserve Roastery, and Chelsea Market
Walking the High Line is one of my favorite free activities in New York City during the spring and summer months. Formerly known as the West Side Elevated Line, the High Line is a raised park built on what was once functional, raised subway track. The line discontinued in the 1980s and sat unused for 20 years. Until the City decided to convert the space into a park. Today, the walkway is just under 1.5 miles, and stretches from Gansevoort Street up to West 30th Street, along 10th Avenue.
Depending on where you start or end your walk on the High Line, make time to pop into the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, one of only six in the world, and Chelsea Market. Both are located near the southern-most part of the walkway.
Situated in the original factory for Nabisco, Chelsea Market is home to many local New York City restaurants, food stalls, and artisan shops. If you decide to take some time walking through the ground floor and explore the options, make sure you arrive hungry!
The newest private development in New York City, Hudson Yards, is located on 11th Avenue, between West 28th and West 38th streets. It’s considered the northern-most part of the High Line and offers unique views of the Hudson River and Jersey City.
Head inside the Shops at Hudson Yards for their interactive shopping experience. Or, take in the architecture outside, like The Shed, a new performing arts space, and The Vessel, a climbing adventure.
One of the newest free things to do in NYC is The Vessel. Tickets to climb the stairways to nowhere can be acquired the morning you want to head up or in advance, for no charge.
Originally, Fifth Avenue was where the wealthiest New Yorkers built their mansions. But today, Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue is packed with some of the most upscale shops. Starting at 59th Street, you’ll find The Plaza Hotel, Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury department store, and the brand-new Apple Store.
As you walk downtown on Fifth, you’ll come across magnificent window displays, gorgeous clothing, and other famous storefronts. Like Tiffany & Co, Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Prada, Cartier, Harry Winston, Chanel, and Bvlgari. Eventually, you’ll even come across Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the New York Public Library and Bryant Park.
Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Right in the middle of Manhattan, you’ll find Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Rockefeller Center, built by John D. Rockefeller Jr. during the Great Depression, is a genuine city within the City. The 22-acre site was supposed to be a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, but once the Depression hit, the original plans were scrapped.
Today, Rockefeller Center is probably best known for its prominence in pop culture. Many movies and TV shows have filmed in and around Rockefeller Center. 30 Rockefeller Plaza even holds the headquarters of NBC in New York City. If you head over early in the morning, you can be part of the Today Show’s outdoor audience. In the winter, you can view the iconic Christmas tree. You can also walk under the famous marquee for Radio City Music Hall.
Just across the street from Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the largest churches in all of New York City. Completed in 1879 in the Neo-Gothic architectural style, it is home to the Archbishop of New York and considered a parish church. They offer mass daily, or you can head inside and explore for free.
New York Public Library and Bryant Park
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the main branch of the New York Public Library located on the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, is a unique place to go when you’re looking for free things to do in New York City. Aside from marveling at the architecture of the building, the library offers free one-hour guided tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Once you’ve thoroughly explored the library, head outside to the adjacent Bryant Park. Depending on the time of year, you might find a grassy expanse with tables to sit at, and a carousel. Or in the wintertime, you can find more free things to do in NYC here, like ice skating on their rink if you bring your own ice skates, and a winter village. Check out Bryant Park’s website daily for a list of their various free activities.
Grand Central Terminal
Just one Avenue over from Fifth, Grand Central Terminal is one of those New York City landmarks you need to see at least once. Opened in 1913, it’s one of the two major train stations in Manhattan, servicing upstate New York and Connecticut. The Beaux-Arts style building has a network of shops and a stunning Grand Concourse. The central information booth with its ornate clock, the departure boards, and the ceiling are all significant features not to be missed. Freely walk through the space at your leisure, and make sure you look upward!
In addition to the trains, it also has a dining concourse and a few famous restaurants, like the Oyster Bar, and The Campbell, a bar located in what was once a hidden office used by financier and railroad executive John W. Campbell in the 1920s.
Stretching from Lower Manhattan, across the East River and over into Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge was officially opened in 1883. It was designed by John A. Roebling, but after falling ill, his wife Emily Warren Roebling actively oversaw the completion of the project.
The walk is just over a mile, and you can bring a stroller or ride a bike across. On the Manhattan side, you’ll be able to explore City Hall Park, and you’re only half a mile from the 9/11 Memorial. On the Brooklyn side, you can explore Brooklyn Bridge Park and the surrounding neighborhood.
The 9/11 Memorial is one of those totally free things to do in New York City. It was designed without gates or ticketing. It’s a place for anyone to come and pay their respects. On the Memorial Grounds, you’ll find two reflecting pools – one for the North Tower and one for the South Tower. You can also observe the 9/11 Memorial Museum, which does have an entrance fee. However, it offers free entry every Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Adjacent to the 9/11 Memorial is the Oculus. A huge transportation center and shopping mall underneath the World Trade Center offers unique architecture and great window shopping. You can also walk underground through the Oculus to Brookfield Place, another shopping mall, where you can sit outside on the Harbor facing Jersey City and enjoy the views.
South Street Seaport
On the opposite side of Manhattan island from the 9/11 Memorial, facing Brooklyn, you’ll find South Street Seaport Historic District. Boasting the biggest collection of preserved early 19th-century commercial buildings, today the district has the South Street Seaport Museum with five historic boats docked in the Harbor to view.
This is another excellent destination for window shopping and sitting outside on the Harbor in a space meant to transport you back to a bustling, 19th-century maritime pier.
Imagine flying high above the East River. For just one swipe of your MetroCard, you can take the tram from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. This is an experience all on its own – the view is absolutely incredible. Once you arrive on Roosevelt Island, there are many exciting, free activities.
Roosevelt Island feels like a separate place, far removed from the busyness of New York City. You can bike or walk the length of the island in either direction. On the north end is Lighthouse Park, named after an 1872 stone lighthouse in the park. On the south end of Roosevelt Island are the ruins of Smallpox Memorial Hospital and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park. Since you’re technically in the middle of the East River, you have views of the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan and Long Island City in Queens.
Once a military base, Governor’s Island has served as a base camp and fort as far back as the Revolutionary War. When the United States Coast Guard closed its work on the island, sections were designated as Historic Districts, and the island became a park.
Wednesdays through Sundays, free guided tours are available to explore the preserved military homes and Castle Williams, a 200-year-old fort. Unwind on the many developed green spaces. There’s even a hammock park. You can truly relax and spend a whole day on Governor’s Island.
If you take the ferry to Governor’s Island from Brooklyn before 11:30 a.m. on weekends, it’s free. Otherwise, an adult round trip ferry ticket from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn will cost you the grand total of $2.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase – the best things in life are free. Why not begin your adventures with any of the incredible free things to do in New York City!
What are your favorite free activities in New York City?