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I’m born and raised in NYC. This post is for anyone who wants to visit New York on a budget ($10 or less) with insider tips by a native New Yorker. Some things on here are meant to be crowd-pleasers, but this is meant to show you off the beaten path New York.
I’ll cover getting to NYC on a budget, public transit in NYC, where to stay in NYC on a budget, and CHEAP things to do in NYC. Find out the best things to do in New York City on a budget like a local.
If you’re planning a trip to New York City on a budget, I promise that it’s possible as there are many things to do in NYC on a budget.
This is a list of the best cheap things to do in New York City, including some of the other boroughs (Brooklyn/Queens). Everything is under $10 with tips for saving money in New York.
How to get around NYC on a Budget: Use the subway in New York City
The most essential item is a Metrocard, which is New York’s transit pass for New York City’s extensive public transportation system.
A single ride on a bus or train is $2.75 + $1 one time fee for the Metrocard, however it’s worth getting the 7-day unlimited pass ($31) if you’re in NYC for 4+ days. If you’re in NYC for 3 days or less, put $19.05 on your Metrocard. Click here for more info about mastering the NYC subway and subway budget hacks. For directions, use Google Maps.
Cheap Accomodation in NYC
If you’re wondering where to stay in NYC on a budget, hotels will cost you at $100-150 at the low end in Manhattan although you can find a room in a motel in Queens or a hostel for about $100. Renting an entire apartment on Airbnb is now illegal in NYC unless the host is staying with you OR the rental is for more than thirty days.
Simply, don’t rent a full apartment on Airbnb on NYC without checking the legalities first. There are a number of hostels (94 last time I searched!) available all over NYC where you can rent a bed or a private room.
Where to stay in New York on a budget
Important to where to stay in New York on a budget: Get the out of Manhattan. If this is something that you don’t want to do, you’re limited to Hell’s Kitchen (10th Avenue close to great food!), Alphabet City, Morningside Heights (close to Columbia University), and maybe some parts of the Lower East Side. You might also want to look into the Pod hotel chain for affordable rooms in central locations.
For the same price, you can get your choice of more affordable accommodation in Astoria (Queens), Williamsburg (Brooklyn), Carroll Gardens (Brooklyn), and St. George (Staten Island). All of these locations will give you access to Manhattan as well as some great neighborhoods. If you’re on a really tight budget, consider Jersey City or going deeper into Queens and Brooklyn.
The best cheap things to do in Manhattan
When you think of New York, you’re probably of Manhattan: skyscrapers, taxis,incredible views from up above, Times Square, etc. Even I can’t resist the pull of Manhattan, however it’s possible to visit Manhattan on a budget. (If you’re visiting for the holidays, read my insider’s guide for the holiday season, New Year’s Eve, Christmas, and Thanksgiving in NYC.)
1. Best Museums in New York City On a Budget: $5 and under!
It saddens me to edit this, but after March 2018, only New York State residents with valid ID will get into the Met with suggested admission to the Met. Everyone else will be paying full-price.
You can visit the Museum of Natural History with suggested admission to learn about anthropology, science, and history. (This may not include special exhibitions) Otherwise, save Friday night for free admission to the MoMa (for modern art) (4-8pm) and the beautiful Morgan Library (7-9pm).
2. The Highline: New York City’s Park with the best most instagrammable views in NYC
The Highline is a park built on old elevated train tracks used for moving meat and coal. It was an eyesore although it’s been reimagined it as a lush modern park above the streets. It has an amazing view of the architecture surrounding the park.
3. New York City’s Best Bookstore & The Village
The Strand is New York’s BIGGEST bookstore with 18 miles of books. You can get used books for as little as $1 outside and admire rare books on the top floor.
I love wandering around both sides of the village, eating takoyaki, sitting in Washington Square Park, ducking into student bars, and sniffing the fresh coffee beans at Porto Rico Importing Company.
4. New York’s Most Beautiful Library: New York Public Library Main Branch
The main branch of the New York Public Library building was constructed in 1911 at an enormous expense. However, now you can enjoy its beautiful decorations, historic collections (including a Gutenberg Bible), and quiet reading rooms for free.
5. Central Park
New York’s most famous park. An insider tip: You can watch Shakespeare being performed for free here in the summers and listen to free music by top artists in summer.
You can enjoy picnicking in Sheep Meadow (where sheep used to graze until 1934!), take a run around the reservoir, and admire Cleopatra’s needle (carved in 1450 B.C.).
6. People Watching: one of the best free activities to do in NYC!
I love people watching. (Just don’t do this on the subway!) I like to sit in one of New York’s many 24 hour diners or watch the chess masters duel in Washington Square Park/Union Square Park. My tip: bring a magazine, book, or the New York Times. My favorite game: make up a story.
7. How to see the Statue of Liberty for FREE
If you want to see the Statue of Liberty for free, don’t pay for a cruise and take the Staten Island Ferry instead. It’s free. You can take the ferry as many times as you want until you get the perfect shot.
8. Best Rooftop Bars in NYC: Sky-high views on a budget
The best way to get an amazing view of New York from above is to go to a rooftop bar.
Save yourself the $32 for the Top of the Rock or the Empire State building and instead get a drink (or two) instead. You’ll need to dress chic (no sneakers, no jeans for men) and be over 21.
The best part? The only cost is the price of your food/drinks. Check the happy hour specials beforehand to save even more.
9. Go underground
If you take the 6 train south towards the Brooklyn Bridge, take it until the last stop and stay on the train! After it turns around, you’ll pass through the abandoned City Hall Station, a beautiful remnant of New York’s first Subway line in the early 1900s. You might not be fast enough to get a photo AND the lights might be off.
10. Shopping Vintage-Style
If you’re broke or a lover of vintage fashion, New York is a great place to shop. For surprises at very low prices, you’re best off at the Salvation Army or Goodwill.
For better curated finds and designer brands, your best bet is Beacon’s Closet, Buffalo Exchange, or Housing Works.
Before you wear your new fashionable find, throw it in the dryer at high heat at a local laundromat for 20 minutes to ensure you don’t have any new blood-sucking friends coming along for the ride back home!
11. Harlem/Columbia Heights
You’ll be fine above 110th street! For the Ivy League lover, you can get a free tour of the beautiful Columbia University although architecture lovers will love Harlem with its beautiful row houses.
You can learn a lot about the history of Harlem as a mecca for African Americans and its role in black history at one of Harlem’s many institutions.
12. See the architectural landmarks and pay your respects at the 9/11 memorial
Don’t miss the whispering gallery in Grand Central Station, the Flatiron Building, or walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Something free can still be so magical–and so quintessentially New York.
Some lesser known landmarks: the Chrysler building for its Art Deco architecture and the New Yorker building for its sign.
Be sure to also visit the 9/11 memorial (free with $2 reservation fee; does not include museum) to pay your respects to those who died on 9/11.
(As a New Yorker, I kindly ask you not to take smiling selfies or remove the flowers out of respect.)
Free things to do in Brooklyn!
12. Brooklyn Heights/Promenade: Brooklyn’s Most Romantic Walk
After you walk over the famous Brooklyn Bridge, find the Brooklyn Promenade close to Pierrepont Street. Fans of Annie Hall will recognize this location although it can be quite romantic at night with a great view of Manhattan.
Be sure to see the famous brownstones dating back to the turn of the century. Click for a complete guide to downtown Brooklyn.
If you want to a glimpse of the hipster utopia, browse the Brooklyn Flea Market or sip a beer at Brooklyn Brewery before browsing the shops. I’ll admit a weakness for playing skeeball and drinking cheap beer on the patio of Union Pool. (Subway: Metropolitan Ave (G) / Bedford Avenue (L))
14. Coney Island & Brighton Beach
Most tourists don’t get this far out of Manhattan, but it’s worth it for the boardwalk and experiencing “Little Odessa.” You can enjoy the historic Coney Island Cyclone wooden roller coaster (built in 1927!) before strolling along the boardwalk.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, you can try lots of Russian/Ukrainian/Uzbek sweets, sample fresh caviar, and even have some vodka with the locals!
In early June, there’s the annual Mermaid’s Parade, a parade where everyone dresses up as mermaids. (Subway: Last stop on the F to Brooklyn: Coney Island)
Best things to do in Queens on a budget
My favorite part of New York and my home turf. If you’re looking for the best food in New York, different neighborhoods, and culture without the crowds, Queens is where to come. It was named Lonely Planet’s #1 place to visit in 2015.
Flushing is the real Chinatown. You can find fantastic food from all over Asia, bubble tea, Chinese medicine shops, and karaoke. Unlike American-style Karaoke, you’ll have a private room to embarrass yourself in front of three friends with karaoke (KTV). (Subway: Main St (7)).
16. Jackson Heights: Off the Beaten Path Neighborhood in Queens
It’s a mix of people from all over the world with the best/cheapest food in New York. You can find everything from custom-made saris to Colombian sweets. It’s incredible to stroll down the streets and find a block dedicated to EACH country in Latin America.
Subway stop: Jackson Heights(7 Train) For Little India, head to 74th Street and for Latin American areas, walk east along Roosevelt Avenue.
17. Astoria: New York’s Most Famous Greek Neighborhood
Astoria is rapidly changing as more millennials are unable to find affordable housing in Manhattan. However, you can still experience old Astoria with lots of Greek diners and pastry shops if you stroll down 31st Avenue/30th Avenue.
Socrates Sculpture Park.
A free open-air sculpture park on the edge of the water with rotating exhibitions. It’s a great place to spend a nice afternoon or Saturday as you laugh (or ponder) upon the many sculptures
Museum of Moving Image
Free entry 4-8pm on Friday nights. This museum is one of New York’s hidden gems as it houses so much film and movie history. You can walk onto the famous diner from Seinfeld and see original masks from Star Wars.
Astoria Bohemian Hall
Eat, drink and be merry here. It was first built in 1910 for the many Czech people to preserve their traditions, one of many in New York, although it’s one of the few remaining ones. (Subway: Broadway N/Q Subway Lines)
18. Flushing Meadow Park
US Open for Tennis
If you’re a tennis fan, you can watch the pros practice for free and even get tennis balls signed by your favorites during the Kids’ day during the U.S. Open. I’ve met a lot of major tennis stars while they were walking around by themselves; don’t try to kiss Roger Federer. Click for more insider tips for the US Open!
Queens Museum of Art
Worth seeing is the Queens Museum of Art, a fantastic NYC art museum that has suggested admission with a hidden secret: the Panorama. It’s a built to scale version of New York (1:1200) as of 1964.
Every single building is carefully replicated. You’ll feel like a giant as you walk over it, realize how HUGE New York is, and appreciate its history.
The museum is great for up-and-coming artists with innovative art exhibitions. Outside is the famous Unisphere.
Corona has been an Italian neighborhood (in more recent history), however it’s rapidly becoming Hispanic.
If you’re close to Flushing Meadow Park, you must visit the Lemon Ice King of Corona ($2 for a large cup) for the most famous New York ices.
They’re made from water and lots of sugar although be sure to get it in a CUP, not paper. Ices are the perfect remedy for the sweaty hot mess that is summer in New York.
Across the street are the bocce ball courts where you can watch elderly Italian-American men play bocce (typically on weekends) while enjoying your ices. Just don’t pick a side when someone says the other cheats!
20. Forest Hills Gardens
My favorite pizza place in NYC (Dee’s) is only 1 bus ride away from Forest Hills (Metropolitan Avenue) with high quality brick oven pizza and incredible salads. If you find Dee’s, stop into Eddie’s Sweet Shop for some old-timey ice cream and glass figurines.
Not too far away, you’ll find Forest Hills Gardens, a historic neighborhood full of HUGE English-style Tudors built in the early 1900s in the “Garden City” style.
This was one of the earliest planned communities intended to surround its residents with as much nature as possible despite living in the “city.” Ascan Avenue is where to walk to feel worlds away from Manhattan.
How to get to NYC on a budget
If you’re coming from the East Coast, bus is your best bet, in particular the Chinese buses that run out of Chinatown. There’s also commercial bus lines such as Megabus, BoltBus, and Greyhound that go between major US cities. You can read more tips for taking buses in the US here.
You can also take Amtrak to Penn Station although it’s often more expensive than the bus. Otherwise, you’ll be flying via JFK, LGA, or Newark.
How to get to Manhattan from Airport
Getting to Manhattan from JFK and how to get from Manhattan to JFK:
From JFK, buy a ticket in the machine for AirTrain + Metrocard (single-use) then take the A train towards Inwood to go towards Brooklyn/Manhattan. It’s a LONG ride, but it’s only $2.75.
To get to JFK from Manhattan/Brooklyn, reverse the directions above and take the A train towards Rockaway Beach before getting off at Jamaica Station to take the AirTrain.
Getting from LaGuardia Airport to Manhattan
Take the bus Q70 and transfer at Jackson Heights for the E, F, M, R, or 7 subway depending on your final destination. (Cost: $2.75)
How to get from Newark to Manhattan: Take the Newark Airport Express.
There are faster public transit options for JFK/Newark, such as the LIRR ticket to Penn Station (Manhattan) from Jamaica Station to JFK and the AirTrain/Amtrak options, which will run you around $15.
Another good option are the private shuttle buses that you’ll find directly outside the airport that go direct to/from Manhattan that cost around $15-20. Even more pricey is a cab or Uber, which will run you a lot of money. Click here for more tips about the NYC subway with subway budget hacks.