Start spreading the news … New York City was recently named the best city in the world! This comes as no surprise to those of us who have lived or spent much of our time here. However, it is a well-known fact that the greatest city in the world is also THE MOST EXPENSIVE.
While many of us who have called this city home have become immune to paying $15 for a salad or $20 for a drink (not even kidding, guys), the over 5 million visitors who make their way to New York City on vacation each month are not.
Fortunately, there are so many things visitors can see and do that won’t break the bank and many of them are FREE.
Psst – to those of you New Yorkers (or tri-state area neighbors) reading this list, let me know how many of these freebies you knew about in the comments below. There were definitely some I had no clue about and ended up trying while doing research for this post!
GRAND CENTRAL STATION
A list of incredible things to see in New York City would not be complete without this historical landmark. The station is a hub to millions of commuters and is free to walk through any time of the week.
My absolute favorite part of this station and one of its most striking features is the massive celestial ceiling of the main concourse. When you look up, you get a glimpse of the Mediterranean sky during the October to March zodiac with 2,500 stars. It’s truly incredible to see in person!
However, one of the station’s most well-kept secrets is the Whispering Gallery near the Oyster Bar. When two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper into the wall at each other, their voices can be heard as clearly as if they were standing right next to each other!
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
The NY Public Library, whose main building is named the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, first opened its doors in 1911 and is a national landmark that welcomes millions of visitors each year. Some of the craziest facts I learned while taking the branch tour:
» The NYPL holds locks of hair from the heads of Charlotte Bronte, Walt Whitman, among others.
» The original Winnie the Pooh and his friends, Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga and Tigger have been kept here since 1987.
» At the time of its opening in 1911, the NYPL was the largest marble building ever built in the United States.
Free guided tours of the Main Branch Building (5th Avenue/42nd Street) are available Monday-Saturday at 11am and 2pm, and Sundays at 2pm only.
EXPLORE THE HIGHLINE
Built on an abandoned elevated railroad, The High Line is a public park on Manhattan’s West Side and a can’t-miss attraction when visiting New York City. The park runs from Gansevoort Street – three blocks below 14th Street in the Meatpacking District, through Chelsea into the northern edge of the West Side Yard on 34th Street near the Javits Center.
It provides some of the best views of the city (including of Lady Liberty), is home to more than 100,000 different plants and is perfect for a romantic stroll or to get that perfect Instagram pic.
Fun fact: On Tuesday nights, the Amateur Astronomers Association sets up telescopes along W15th and W16th streets for visitors to look up at the stars. Talk about a perfect date!
KAYAK ON THE HUDSON RIVER
Get some exercise while taking in some of the city’s best views kayaking through the Hudson River. Free lessons are offered from May until October at Pier 26 in Tribeca, or the Manhattan Community Boathouse locations at Pier 96 in Midtown and in Riverside Park at 72nd Street.
Free 20 minute kayak rentals are available at Pier 26, Pier 96 and Governors Island. Keep in mind that availability is on a first-come, first-served basis.
WALK ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
The Brooklyn Bridge is a spectacular landmark that connects the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn and can be crossed by car, bike or on foot. Whether you decide to venture over it or admire it from the various viewpoints around the surrounding area, it is definitely something you need to add to your list whenever you visit New York City.
The entire length of the bridge is about a mile long and if you’re walking, you’ll need about 30 minutes (more if you’re strolling, taking pictures or simply taking it all in). There are various ways of accessing the bridge, though my personal favorite is from the Brooklyn side – the views are better!
Entrance to the bridge begins at the northeast corner City Hall Park along Centre Street. The closest subway stops are via the 4, 5 and 6 trains at Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall station, the J or Z trains at the Chambers Street station, or the R train at City Hall.
There are actually 2 entrances that lead to the bridge on the Brooklyn side. The first is through the official pedestrian walkway which begins at Tillary Street and Boerum Place (This is the entrance you have views from when driving through the bridge.) The second is via the underpass on Washington Street. The underpass leads you up a stairway and then through a ramp which puts you directly onto the walkway.
ROLLER SKATE TO MUSIC IN CENTRAL PARK
Each year, the Central Park Dance Skaters Association (CPDSA) gives visitors an opportunity to join them skating in the park with live DJ tunes.
Starting in April, this tradition brings people of all ages together for a day of family fun. The event takes place in the part of the park aptly named “Skater’s Circle” and is open to the public from 2pm-6pm on most Saturdays and Sundays.
Be sure to bring your own skates! Find additional information, including the association’s full calendar here.
ENJOY THE BRONX ZOO
Home to over 6,000 animals, the Bronx Zoo is a cultural landmark and a must-see attraction while visiting New York City, especially if you are traveling with little ones.
While general admission is $22.95 for adults, it is free to the public on Wednesdays. It is highly recommended that you make a donation, if possible, to help support the zoo’s operating costs.
Getting to the Bronx Zoo is easy. For a full list of instructions and transportation methods to and from the zoo, click here.
BONUS: Be sure to check out the new dinosaur experience! It is being advertised as the “biggest, most realistic dinosaur ride in America”.
NY SIGHTSEEING PASS
The Bronx Zoo is included for FREE in the NY Sightseeing Pass. Other free attractions included in this pass: One World Observatory, Top of the Rock, Statue of Liberty, various tours and museum entrances and unlimited access to Gray Line CitySightseeing Hop-on, Hop-off buses for the entire duration of your pass.
STATEN ISLAND FERRY
The Staten Island Ferry connects Manhattan and Staten Island, making the one-way trip in about 25 minutes. It is also one of the best ways to see sites like the Statue of Liberty for FREE. The amazing and extremely convenient thing about this ferry is that it runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week!
SOME THINGS TO NOTE BEFORE BOARDING:
» The Staten Island Ferry travels between the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island and the Whitehall Ferry Terminal (also known as South Ferry) in Manhattan.
» The ferry runs every half hour. More frequent service is provided during rush hours on weekdays (6am-9:30am and 3:30pm-8pm). However, it is not advisable to travel during these times. You will see rush hour times highlighted in yellow on the ferry schedule.
» Passengers must debark from the ferry after each trip and re-board the boat through the waiting room. No one can stay on once it has arrived at its destination. If you do, you will only delay the next trip.
For additional information, including schedules and FAQs, click here.
GOVERNORS ISLAND FERRY
Governor’s Island is a 172 acre island in the heart of the New York harbor that was once used for military training purposes. Today, it offers countless activities for visitors to enjoy, including miles of biking and walking opportunities, an urban farm, art installations and so much more.
You can take a ferry to the island from Manhattan or Brooklyn; both trips are only about 10 minutes long one-way.
Ferries run daily during the open season every hour between 10am and 6pm and every 30 minutes on the weekends between 10am and 7pm.
Ferries run daily from 11am to 5pm every hour, with the last ferry returning to Brooklyn around 7pm.
Please note, round trip ferry service to Governors Island costs $2 for adults and $1 for seniors (children under 12 are free at all times) EXCEPT weekend mornings. All ferries running before noon are FREE.
For more information, including schedules and FAQs, click here.
9/11 MUSEUM & MEMORIAL
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum was created to commemorate the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.
As someone who has lived in the NY/NJ area her entire life, this museum was very difficult to walk through as there are powerful scenes, images and exhibits that are open to the public. However, it is an important part of the city’s history and something everyone should learn about.
The museum is complimentary for 9/11 survivors and their families, but the outdoor memorial is always free.
Additionally, the museum is FREE to the public on Tuesday evenings starting at 5pm. Closing times vary according to the season. You can find more information including schedules here.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is an art museum located in Midtown Manhattan, on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The MoMA plays a major role in developing and collecting modernist art and is often identified as one of the largest and most influential museums of modern art in the world.
Admission is $25 for adults, however the museum has FREE admission on Fridays starting at 4pm until close.
Keep in mind that there are no advanced tickets and lines get extremely crowded. Arrive early and plan accordingly!
Additionally, the museum features a sculpture garden that is FREE to the public during regular museum hours every. single. day. This is part of the “New MoMa” initiative and will feature even more sculptures and works of art in a peaceful green space. Note, there is a separate line to enter.
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The American Museum of Natural History, located on the Upper West Side, is one of the largest natural history museums in the world.
It features everything from dinosaurs to outer space and focuses on the world’s greatest natural wonders.
While technically admission to the museum is not free, it is on a Pay-What-You-Want basis. Meaning, the suggested donation is $25, but you can give any amount of money that fits your budget.
Important information to note:
» If you purchase advance tickets online, you will pay the full price of $25.
» Not paying the full amount (in person) will limit your access to the main exhibitions but not into the IMAX Theater or Planetarium Show.
MUSEUM AT FASHION INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
My alma mater! I obviously have a biased opinion about this fantastic museum.
Those of you interested in fashion can’t miss out on visiting the museum at FIT, the only museum in New York City dedicated solely to the art of fashion. It features innovative and award-winning exhibitions that rotate each season with specific themes.
Most people can walk through the museum in about 30-45 minutes. Those of us fashion obsessed will take a bit longer.
The museum is always free to the public and not as crowded as other museums in the city, which is perfect to truly enjoy and take in all the exhibits.
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
One of my favorite museums in the city, The MET, always has incredible works of art on display and, you guessed it, the amazing Costume Institute exhibitions spearheaded by the incomparable Anna Wintour.
Unfortunately, it is only on this list to give everyone a heads-up on their updated changes to admission fees.
Until recently, the museum’s admission policy was a Pay-What-You-Want basis for all. However, as of March 2018, the $25 admission fee is no longer a suggested donation, but instead the set entry fee price.
The suggested/pay-what-you-want policy now only applies to NY state residents and NY/NJ/CT students.
Total bummer, I know.
ACCOMMODATIONS IN NYC CAN BE VERY EXPENSIVE
AirBnB can be a great option for finding economical accommodations while visiting expensive cities like New York City, especially if you are traveling as a couple, family or group.
BROOKLYN BRIDGE PARK
The Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of those iconic landmarks that doesn’t get enough attention. Perhaps that is for the best? Typically, it’s not as crowded as some of the other major parks in the city, but offers incredible views of the Brooklyn Bridge in all of its glory.
One of the best spots for breathtaking skyline views is right by Jane’s Carousel, where the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges meet.
Brooklyn Bridge Park fun facts:
» The entire park is made up of recycled materials. The Granite Prospect, a set of steps along the western edge of the pier, was constructed out of 300 pieces of granite taken from the reconstructed Roosevelt Island Bridge.
» The park is designed to attenuate sound. In order to address the loud noise from the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), the park has 20-to-30 foot high hills in the uplands which allows noise levels to be reduced by almost 10 decibels. Crazy, right??
Perhaps one of the most iconic landmarks in New York City and arguably one of the most famous parks in the world, Central Park is a one of a kind wonder. It covers roughly 3.5 square miles, stretches across 843 acres of land and is said to be larger than some countries in the world (it’s larger than Vatican City and SIX times larger than Monaco).
The list of activities available is endless – so much so that an app was created by the Central Park Conservancy with the sole purpose of helping visitors find their way around the enormous space while learning about all of the daily activities available.
On any given day, you could take a boat ride, roller skate, hike, play in various and unique playgrounds, feed animals, ride on a carousel or simply lay a blanket under your favorite tree and read a good book for hours.
It is one of the only parks in the world that has been featured in over 400 movies and TV shows, including Home Alone 2, Elf and Sex and the City.
The beauty of Central Park is that no matter the season, it is a truly magical place. If you visit during the spring, you will see all the flowers in bloom as well as the gorgeous cherry blossoms.
Bryant Park holds a special place in my heart. It is where I first started working as a volunteer for Fashion Week back when the park was home to the shows each season.
Since then, Bryant Park offers visitors a long list of interesting things to do on almost a daily basis and is proud to call itself a cultural hub. Activities include dancing lessons, yoga instruction, Broadway performances in the Park and film screenings that see over 10,000 people in attendance at a time. It is an incredible oasis in the middle of all the big city noise.
Located right in the center of Midtown, it is the perfect location to visit while making your way through the city as it sits conveniently next to the NY Public Library and mere blocks from Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, the Garment District and the Empire State Building.
There are various eateries within the park and small chairs and tables to enjoy lunch outdoors. As the weather gets nicer, you will see people out on the green playing, sunbathing and even taking naps.
NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN
Located in the Bronx, a mere 20 minute Metro North train ride or 45 minute bus ride from Midtown Manhattan, the NY Botanical Garden is a must-see for nature and plant lovers.
With over 50 gardens, 30,000 trees, more than one million plants across 250 acres and a landmark glasshouse with rain forest and cactus displays, it is spectacular to see in person and in full bloom.
The gardens hold various events throughout the year, including the famous Orchid Show. This year, the theme and inspiration is a tribute to Singapore, where the orchid is the national flower.
Regular admission is $28 for adults on weekends and $23 on weekdays. However, admission to the grounds is FREE to the public every Wednesday and on Saturday mornings from 9am-10am.
BROOKLYN BOTANICAL GARDEN
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden is a breathtaking urban botanic garden located in the heart of Brooklyn.
It is known for its cherry trees, which are featured in the annual Sakura Matsuri Festival, its rose garden, Shakespeare garden and for housing one of the oldest collections of bonsai plants in the United States.
Regular admission is $30 for adults, however admission to the garden is FREE on Friday mornings 8am-12pm, March-November. During the winter months (December-February), admission to the garden is free on weekdays, Tuesday-Friday.
More information on the gardens, including event schedule and pricing can be found here.
Attend A Live Show Taping
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE
A show that requires no introduction, SNL embodies the very essence of New York City with its hysterical characters, ridiculous – sometimes controversial skits and always the most popular musical performances.
Due to its popularity, tickets are very hard to come by, especially because they are selected at random via an email lottery. However, don’t lose hope! You can email your ticket requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Important notes to keep in mind:
» SNL only accepts requests in the month of August. At the end of the month, tickets are allotted randomly for the entire season.
» YOU CANNOT SELECT THE DATE YOU WANT TO ATTEND. if you are chosen, you will be given a date and that’s it – take it or leave it. This is especially important to keep in mind when planning a trip to New York City.
» Only ONE entry is allowed per household. Chances are they will not select your household twice, even if selected, as this breaks the rules. If selected, you will receive only 2 tickets. So plan accordingly.
SNL airs live on Saturdays at 11:30 pm EST on NBC.
GOOD MORNING AMERICA
GMA airs live Monday-Friday from 8am-10:30am. What this means if you want to attend as an audience member? You have to get there EARLY. Like, we’re talking 7am, maybe earlier depending on the day’s guests.
Tickets are free and can be requested up to 25 days in advance. Click here to request yours.
The studio is located in Times Square, which is actually a nice time to visit the popular area before it starts to fill up with the insane number of visitors it sees daily.
Important to keep in mind: check-in ends at 7:15am so be sure to get there before to claim a good spot.
PRO TIP: bring banners or large poster boards with dark colors that will show up on live TV. It’s always fun to read visitors’ posters while they excitedly scream on TV.
If visiting in the summertime, be sure to check out their Summer Concert Series which features free concerts in Central Park by some of the world’s biggest music stars!
THE TODAY SHOW
Another superstar morning show, The Today Show is watched and loved by millions around the world. While the show does not have a studio audience, everyone is invited to be part of the show outside their studios at Rockefeller Center.
Though it is not required, the studio recommends that you RSVP. This will ensure you have a smoother check-in process upon arrival. You can RSVP here.
Gather outside Studio 1A on 48th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. You can enter the plaza at 48th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. Once here, you will need to pass through a security check.
The Today Show is filmed outdoors from 7am until 9am and airs live. Fridays are their busiests days, so plan accordingly. Additionally, Sundays the show airs at 8am so plan to be there at least 45 minutes earlier.
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is taped at 30 Rockefeller Plaza inside the GE Building. Entrance to the show, as well as the standby ticket line, is at the 49th Street side of the building.
To request tickets, you will need to sign up here first.
You will then be asked to choose the dates that you would like to book and will be placed in a waitlist queue. Tickets are generally processed a week or two before the show.
Rules of attendance per the show’s site:
» Dress code is “smart casual”. What this means: dress nice, you’ll be on TV!
» No cameras, phones or electronics of ANY kind will be allowed during taping.
» Small bags only. Large purses or backpacks will not be allowed inside.
» The person that reserved the tickets must be present. If they are not present, no one will be let in.
ATTEND A REHEARSAL
The Tonight Show also gives a small number of audience members the opportunity to attend show/monologue rehearsals.
The reaction of the rehearsal audience actually determines what makes it into the show! This is a cool opportunity to be a part of the process and of the show itself.
BEST TRAVEL INSURANCE FOR NEW YORK CITY
No matter where I am in the world, I always make sure to be covered with travel insurance for any unforeseen things that can occur. Whether my flight is canceled, luggage is lost or delayed or even if I suffer an accident –World Nomads is my go-to travel insurance company. They have incredible rates, vast amounts of coverage and their claim process is ridiculously simple.
An awesome space in Williamsburg that is currently undergoing massive reconstruction. For the time being, the space next door is being used for tours which continue to run every weekend, require no reservation and are completely FREE.
The tours run every Saturday and Sunday beginning at 1pm every hour on the hour until 5pm.
They tend to fill up quickly, so get there early to get a spot. There are some light bites available, but you can order outside food and have it delivered to the brewery while you enjoy your beverages and/or the tour.
Children are allowed to be accompanied by an adult, however the tour does not promise it will not have swear words. While you wait, you can sample the beers in the tasting room for a discounted price.
NY DISTILLING COMPANY
One of Brooklyn’s best craft distilleries opens its doors to the public for FREE tours and tastings on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tours run at 2:30pm, 3:30pm, and 5pm every Saturday and Sunday. No reservation is required.
After learning all about the history of gin, whiskey and the distilling process, sample their famous Dorothy Parker American gin. It’s absolutely delicious and dangerous because it goes down WAY too smooth!
Food is not available so be sure to grab a bite before making your way in or check out BECO, next door.
The distillery also offers private VIP “Behind the Scenes” Tours at 1:30pm on Saturdays. Reservations are required.
NYC Free Walking Tours
There is absolutely nothing better to do in New York City than walk the streets while taking it all in – the sights, the sounds, even the smells!
I love finding Sandeman New Europe walking tours in any city I visit, mainly because their guides are always fantastic, super knowledgeable and so entertaining!
What better way is there to see a city?
The New York City tour generally last 2-3 hours and is completely free – you just have to give your guide a tip at the end.
OTHER AVAILABLE TOURS (additional cost) :
» Downtown Tour – Broadway, Wall Street, the 9/11 Memorial and Battery Park, with views to the Statue of Liberty
» Midtown Tour – takes you to some of New York’s best landmarks, such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue
» Central Park Tour – takes you to must-see famous sites like the John Lennon tribute Strawberry Fields, as well as some hidden gems you won’t find yourself
The New Kid on the Block
HUDSON YARDS/THE VESSEL
Donned “The Playground for the Rich”, Hudson Yards is a brand new incredible space on the West Side Highway that was once an empty space at the entrance of the High Line and turned into a beautiful addition to the New York skyline.
Phase 1 of the plan was recently opened to the public on March 15th and includes a 1,000,000 square ft. retail center with over 100 shops and features New York City’s first ever Neiman Marcus store. Additional features include a series of impressive residences, a luxury hotel, office buildings and restaurants.
The second phase of the development will include additional residential buildings, further green space and a public school.
Hudson Yards currently holds a few impressive titles:
» The largest private real estate development in the history of the United States
» The largest development in New York City since Rockefeller Center
» The record for highest outdoor observation deck in the western hemisphere, at 1,296 ft.
The Vessel is a unique installation and centerpiece of the outdoor pubic garden area at Hudson Yards. It is comprised of 154 interconnecting flights of stairs, 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings.
In total, the design offers a mile’s worth of pathway above a sprawling public garden.
Admission to The Vessel is free, however you need to reserve a spot in advance.
Currently, tickets are fully booked for the next 2 weeks, but a limited amount are made available daily at 8am for same-day reservations.
Do you have anything to add to the list of best FREE things to do in NYC?
Add them in the comments below!