New York can be quite expensive. In trying to help friends enjoy the best of New York City on a low budget, I’ve pulled together the best things to do in New York City on a budget. I grew up in New York City and although New York can kill you with its costs, there are definitely things you’ll love that don’t cost a cent. Save your money for great food–and enjoy New York!
First of all, I included activities in New York that are completely free. No hidden $1 costs, simply free. That said, New York isn’t the cheapest city to visit. As long as you’re okay walking around without paying, you’ll have a blast in my opinion. I include some helpful budget tips here for navigating New York on a budget, tips for taking the subway around NYC, and where to stay in New York on a budget. I always love to walk around New York City exploring different neighborhoods, which is always free to do.
Take a long walk through Central Park
There’s nowhere like Central Park. New York’s not-so-secret gem is perfect for a long walk. Put on your most comfortable walking shoes and see how much of Central Park that you can find. For those looking for a bit of wild within Central park, head uptown to the Ravine to discover this pretty waterfall and flowing stream that will make you wonder if you’re still in New York City. Another highlight is the quiet and beautiful Conservatory Garden with its French, English, and Italian styled gardens. You’ll also pass the Onassis Reservoir, a favorite among New York runners.
Stop by the Gothic revival Belvedere Castle for views from the top. If you’re lucky and you’re visiting New York during the summers, Summerstage is one of New York’s best free concert festivals with free concerts from acclaimed artists held in Central Park. In winter, you can enjoy ice skating in the park. (Simply, every season has its charms.)
As you head downtown, it gets more crowded, but it’s hard to resist the appeal of the stunning views of the Great Lawn for an impromptu picnic (or just a spot to enjoy a bagel). Of course, the romanticism of the Loeb Boathouse is not lost on many visiting New York for the first time. (Don’t miss the nearby Bow Bridge!) I always love finding the Alice in Wonderland statue although music lovers may want to stop off at the John Lennon Memorial. Also, don’t miss the very real Egyptian Obelisk in the middle of Central Park close to the Met.
Read a book in New York Central Library
You might walk past New York Central Public Library with its famous lions, Patience and Fortitude, if you’re in midtown. Don’t hesitate to peek inside this stunning library, which is home to thousands of books, quite a few rare books (including a Gutenberg Bible), regularly changing exhibitions and a beautiful reading room. For the insider story behind the scenes and to learn more about this beautiful library, take the free Building Tour by asking at the information desk. (P.S. There are many other libraries, but the main location is at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue)
Attend free concerts
New York is at the cutting edge of arts and culture–and there’s always something on. I love checking Time Out New York for the weekly shows/events, many of which are well-suited to those on a low budget. Beyond the cool once-in-a-lifetime event, New York has some outstanding annual festivals and concert series worth attending.
For classical music, look no further than Juilliard itself for world-class concerts for free. My dad goes every year to the Hudson River Blues BBQ Festival, which is free for blues lovers. *This is not an exhaustive list, so check for free events going on while you’re in NYC.
Two of the best free things to do in New York City in summer both happen in Central Park. They’re Shakespeare in the Park and Summerstage. Shakespeare in the Park is a free annual Shakespeare festival with some of the top actors in the country. Tickets can be a bit hard to get, however you can join the in-person standby lottery at the Delacorte Theatre before each performance to try your luck!
Music lovers will love Summerstage, which features world-music and popular artists performing for free within Central Park and other parks around New York City. If you’ll be visiting New York in the summer, you won’t want to miss this. The music ranges wildly from opera to indie to rap. Check the acts for the upcoming year. Not all performances are free, but most of them are!
Pay tribute to those who died on 9/11
Although the 9/11 memorial itself is not free, the 9/11 memorial surrounding the footprints of the World Trade Center is free for visitors. I recommend taking a few moments to pause here for those who died here. Please don’t take smiling selfies.
Enjoy modern art (and cute dogs) at Socrates Sculpture Park
One of my favorite free parks in New York is Socrates Sculpture Park, which is a free park with cutting-edge modern art displayed outdoors in Long Island City/Astoria. With everchanging exhibitions, this park showcases fun modern pieces. There are also free yoga classes held here. Lots of dog owners come here with their dogs for a walk, so definitely consider coming here to meet cute puppies if you’re a dog lover. The views from Manhattan are decent from here albeit a bit industrial.
Play chess with the locals in Washington Square Park or just people watch
If you’re a chess master, consider taking some time to head to the park to pick up a chess game. Even if you’re not a big player, it’s still always fun to sit next to an exciting game (along with other spectators) to watch what happens. For non-chess geeks, people-watching in New York is a favorite hobby. There’s nothing wrong with taking a New York Times with you to the park on a nice day to read outside as you watch what goes on.
Embrace your inner S., Samantha, or your favorite movie/tv character
If you’re a lover of television and movies, New York is fantastic for retracing the steps of your favorite characters from Ghostbusters to When Harry Met Sally to The Devil Wears Prada. Most of the exterior filming locations are generally places open to the public and a quick google will help you find your favorite spots. For TV shows, you’ll find countless spots from Sex and the City to Gossip Girl to the Sopranos. You certainly don’t need a tour to find these spots, but it can be worth the extra money if you’re a true fan.
View the stunning interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of the most famous churches in New York City. Security can be a bit tight, so it’s best to come here when you don’t have too many bags, but it’s definitely worth a peek inside this church dating back to 1879. You can also take a seat to say a prayer or simply enjoy the surroundings if you’re not Catholic.
Go to a show taping
If you’re looking for a great experience, consider looking up your favorite show filmed in New York before your trip. I’ve been to a number of TV show live tapings, which are generally free to attend. Some require lotteries or for you to do a form online (such as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). Others allow you on as long as you wait ahead of entry. Just do your research ahead and carefully read the rules beforehand as many will not allow large bags or filming inside. I saw Stephen Colbert a while ago and it was a blast.
Tour Columbia University or NYU
Lovers of architecture and academia might enjoy a walk around the grounds of Columbia University or New York University (NYU). I find Columbia’s campus especially beautiful although visitors cannot generally walk into campus buildings. Columbia’s Butler Library is beautiful as is its St. Paul’s Chapel. At Colombia, One of the highlights of NYU definitely has to be the Washington Mews, a picturesque row of houses on a cobblestone street. If you want an insider perspective, consider signing up for a tour of the campus to hear some campus stories.
Enjoy the Christmas windows
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting New York during December, be sure to check out the Christmas windows. I always love to take a stroll past them as they change every year–and you can use up most of a day walking around enjoying the festive atmosphere in New York from Christmas markets to ice skating rinks. Even if you’re not partaking in shopping, it’s still worth soaking up the atmosphere! Click for more Christmas in NYC tips!
Free views of New York and the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry
Looking for epic views of New York City? I actually have a whole post of the best free viewpoints in New York City, however the most classic one has to be the view of Manhattan when taking the Staten Island Ferry. You’ll use up a bit of time while doing this as you will need to wait for the boat to turn around before heading back to Manhattan, but there is a surprising amount to do on Staten Island. I especially like Historic Richmond Town, which is free to walk around although you need to pay admission to get into the buildings.
Enjoy the bright lights of Times Square
The bright lights of Times Square a highlight for many. Whether you’re visiting at night or during the day, you’ll want to be sure to take a moment to pause to take in this quintessential American scene with tourists, live entertainment (tip: many costumed characters want cash for photos), and flashing billboards. You can click here for more information about Times Square, including the history and a favorite coffee shop of mine.
Enjoy the hustle & bustle of Grand Central and find the whispering gallery
There’s something so classic about Grand Central. I love coming here to stop, watch the commuters sprint to their trains, and lovers say goodbye. Despite being in the smartphone age, this is such an analog experience, so don’t be afraid to perch on top of the stairs to enjoy the view. (Just stay out of the way of people trying to pass you!) Within Grand Central, you’ll want to find the Whispering Gallery where you can play fun games with friends.
Enjoy New York’s best museums on free evenings!
New York is full of world-class museums. You can find information about my favorite museums in New York if you’re wondering which ones are worth your while. Many museums have a special where the first Friday of the month is free in the evenings, so take advantage of this night to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMa along 5th Avenue. Other museums have suggested admissions, so please check for information online and still consider making a small donation.
Enjoy Chinatown’s many atmospheric tangle of alleyways
Chinatown is a classic neighborhood to explore in New York. From the supermarkets filled with Asian products to the parks filled with seniors practicing tai chi, Chinatown is filled with charm. I especially find Doyer Street particularly atmospheric to walk down as so much history has happened along this bit of pavement and how many Chinatown institutions still remain here. Click for an insider’s guide to Chinatown by a born-and-raised New Yorker
Go to the beach!
Although many people don’t think of New York for its beaches, there are beaches in virtually every borough of New York (soon Manhattan!). New York in summer can be brutal at times when it comes to humidity, so consider taking a small trip to the beach. Coney Island is a favorite of New Yorkers for reasons that I’ll list below, however, you can enjoy a bit of sun near Hallett’s Cove Beach in Queens, Midland Beach in Staten Island, Greenpoint in Brooklyn, and Orchard Beach in the Bronx.
Walk along the boardwalk on Coney Island
I grew up going to Coney Island to meet a friend and there’s something so magical about this little patch of land. Despite all this time, Coney Island doesn’t feel like it’s changed much from the seaside village that it once was. In summer, do like a New Yorker to walk along the boardwalk people-watching and watching people scream on the rides. It feels like a time-warp due to the flashy and slightly kitschy Americana signs all around. Click for my guide to Coney Island!
Embrace New York’s Dutch history in Flushing
I’m definitely a history geek and Flushing is one of the most interesting spots in New York to learn about English/Dutch history in the United States. You can visit the Quaker Meeting House on Sundays after services for a tour of this historic meeting house dating back to 1694. Although the John Bowne house is more famous, this is one of the oldest continuously used meeting houses in the United States. You can read more about the Dutch history of Flushing here.
Pay respects at the African Burial Ground Cemetery
The African Burial Ground Cemetery is a national monument in the heart of Lower Manhattan where visitors can learn about early African-American history in the United States. This cemetery was one of the earliest colonial-era African-American cemeteries and it’s estimated that 15,000 people (both enslaved and free) are buried here. It’s free to visit and there are often free events.
Enjoy free views of Manhattan’s skyline from Brooklyn’s waterfront
On a nice day, head to Brooklyn Bridge Park for stunning views of Manhattan. I recommend bringing a blanket, some games some snacks, or even a frisbee. There’s nothing like watching the sunset from this gorgeous spot, which is a popular place for free concerts and other events. (NYC Parks typically posts events on their website, including open runs.)
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
It’s hard to imagine the sheer magnitude of the construction for the Brooklyn Bridge. This impressive cable-stayed/suspension bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges in New York City–and a delight to walk on due to the free views of Manhattan and Brooklyn. (The true story behind the husband and wife team responsible for the construction is worth a read!) The Brooklyn Bridge is 1.3 miles long, so at a leisurely pace, it should take about an hour to walk across the bridge. After, consider stopping by Juliana’s pizza for some of New York’s best pizza.
Enjoy street art within New York’s many world-class art museums on free nights!
Most museums in New York have a free night and if you’re lucky, suggested admission although this is becoming less common. A small number of museums, including the FIT museum, are free every day. I’d recommend deciding which museums you want to visit and look into free nights. MoMa, for instance, is free on Friday nights and the Guggenheim is open on Saturday nights for free. (I recommend double-checking these times with the museum hours/fees itself!) I’d recommend checking out the Frick Museum for beautiful portraits, the Whitney for masterpieces, the New York Historical Society if you’re a history geek, and the Guggenheim for modern art.
Walk the Highline
The Highline is one of New York’s best walks for art lovers. Along this elevated former train track, you can enjoy urban views with a bit of green, beautiful artworks, and a relaxing walk above the loud honks of the noisy streets. The park is approximately 1.5 miles and I personally love coming here after dark when it’s a bit quieter. I love seeing Manhattan’s lights twinkling. You can combine this with seeing the Vessel (below).
Cuddle with alpacas and sheep at Queens County Farm Museum
For those looking for a bit of a respite away from the crowds in Queens, consider coming out to Queens County Farm Museum to enjoy this working farm, which is the oldest working farm in New York State (and New York City). It really feels a world apart from Manhattan here, but you can get a bit of peace and quiet as you take in the green surroundings, say hi to their alpacas, and maybe feed some goats. It’s free to visit and there are regular events (not always free although usually less than $5) with different themes, including beer festivals and holiday-related celebrations.
Browse Chelsea’s and Williamsburg’s art galleries
You don’t need to have a trust fund to pop into New York’s many art galleries to admire artwork on sale. (I still recommend dressing sharply and avoiding having any backpacks to ensure that you’re allowed in.) Certain neighborhoods have more art galleries than others, specifically Williamsburg and Chelsea. You might be surprised to find something affordable, however, I still recommend being very careful as not to knock anything over.
Transport yourself back in time in the Bronx
It took me way too long to finally visit Arthur Avenue, a charismatic neighborhood in the Bronx known for its old-school Italian culture and charming shops. Even if you’re on a budget here, it’s fun to walk around the lively market, step into the old school shops to see pasta made by hand, and take a moment to step back in time. Click for my neighborhood guide to Arthur Avenue.
Kayak in the Hudson and East River
You can kayak in New York City for free in several places if you’re looking to experience New York from a different angle and also get a work-out in! My friend loves to go to Long Island City during the LIC Flea market to go kayaking for 20 minutes (or more if you’re willing to wait). The Long Island City Community Boathouse also does free kayaking trips to other places for more experienced kayakers if you check their website. You’ll find other kayaking organizations in Manhattan (Pier 96) as well as in Brooklyn close to the Brooklyn Bridge (BBPB).
Peek into the historic Trinity Church
The Trinity Church is one of New York’s hidden gems! This church in lower Manhattan (close to the 9/11 memorial) is absolutely stunning. It was a favorite among the Founding Fathers and the original wooden interior from Manhattan’s colonial era makes it worth a visit. Be aware that there is tight security, so it’s best to visit here when you have no extra baggage. You can click here to read more about the Trinity Church and other beautiful religious buildings in NYC.
Browse books at the Strand
I love the Strand and I even carry a Strand tote bag most days! The Strand is one of my favorite bookstores in New York City. It’s filled with more than 18 miles of books and it’s a great place to find a new book. You’ll also find used books here, design goodies (such as great t-shirts), and antique books. Even if you’re on a budget, it’s always fun to slump next to the shelf of your choosing as you browse books for days.
Attend a street parade
One of the highlights of visiting (or living in!) New York City has to be the epic parades throughout the year. Whether it’s the festive Halloween parade, the St. Patrick’s Day Prade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, the Puerto Rican Pride Parade, the Mermaid Parade, the Gay Pride Parade, or any of the other parades happening in New York, I recommend seeing if you’ll be in town for at least one of them. I’d definitely rank this as one of New York’s best free activities.
Enjoy free views from the Vessel
Take in views from the top of the Vessel building, one of the newest additions to New York. Tickets are free if you reserve ahead for the same day, so be sure to check the interactive booths at 20 Hudson Yards or within the square as early as possible. The Vessel is a strange yet beautiful piece of architecture that I think is best enjoyed close to sunset as the golden rays filter in! You can still see it and the view from Hudson Yards, even if you don’t’ have tickets.