I love New York. I visited the city several times growing up, but it wasn’t until my first solo adventure there, in 2013, that I realised just how expensive it can be. I visited in June, and the city was the last stop on my round-the-world backpacking trip. I had spent six months on the road and barely had a penny to my name. What little I did have paid for my accommodation and left barely enough to eat, let alone enjoy the sights. As we crossed over the bridge into Manhattan, I remember feeling torn between feelings of excitement and anxiety –of course, I was dying to get out and explore, but I was also worried about how on Earth I was going to make my budget stretch five days.
As it turns out, I was in for a surprise. New York has loads to offer budget conscious travellers, and with a few clever tricks up your sleeve, it’s amazing how much can be done without spending a penny at all. Yep, not even a dime. Here’s my round-up of the best things to do for free, some of which I discovered by chance, others which were recommended by friends!
Explore the city by foot
New York is one of my favourite cities for walking, and not just because it’s flat! With amazing architecture, imposing skyscrapers and a buzz that’s too infectious for words, it’s the sort of place where you can be guaranteed that there will be something to see around every corner, and the people-watching opportunities are plentiful! Fancy taking part in a guided tour? Then check out Freetoursbyfoot’s website; operating simply on a ‘donations welcome’ basis, these guys offer free walking trips to suit just about every taste, so whether it’s the history of Broadway you’re after, or learning more about the city’s haunted past, you’re sure to find something to keep you entertained!
Get lost in Central Park
At nearly 850 acres, Manhattan’s Central Park has firmly established itself as the King of urban parks. With so much space to cover, you won’t be short on things to see and do! Watch as baseball games unfold, explore hidden castles, experience the serenity of Strawberry Fields…and keep your eyes peeled for celebrities – I once had a near encounter with a very sweaty Al Pacino as he went past on a late afternoon jog!
Visit the Bronx Museum of the Arts
Birthplace of Hip Hop, home ground for the Yankees, and a reputation which precedes it…the Bronx is definitely one of the city’s more colourful neighbours, and yet it’s also home to one of its best galleries! The Bronx Museum of the Arts, or BMA, holds events and exhibitions throughout the year, and specialises in contemporary work by New Yorkers of Latin, Asian and African-American descent. It’s a fantastic celebration of the multicultural spirit of the city, and because there are no entrance charges, has achieved its goal of truly making art accessible to all. What’s not to love about that?
Support the street entertainers
Ah, New York…concrete jungle where dreams are made of, or dashed, depending on your success. For generations, the city has been seen by many as a hub for the performing arts, and a gateway to fame and fortune. Of course, not everyone is lucky enough to see their name up in lights, but nevertheless, the city is brimming with talented performers of all varieties. Many take their acts to the street, and it’s not uncommon to stumble upon impromptu concerts and dance acts gathering crowds. You’ll always find performers in popular areas such as Times Square and the Bethesda Fountain at Central Park, but also worth checking out are the subway stations (for example at Union Square/14th Street) or Battery Park, if you’re in the downtown area.
Take the ferry to Staten Island
Don’t fancy paying to see the Statue of Liberty? Want unrivalled views of the city’s skyline? Then hop on board the commuter ferry to Staten Island. It’s completely free, and an excellent way to see the city from a different perspective. Many take the ferry simply to return again, but I’d recommend taking a little time to walk along the island’s promenade and visit the memorial to those lost in the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Walk the Coney Island Boardwalk
Ok, so you will have to buy a train ticket to get there…but there’s something undeniably charming and nostalgic about walking the Coney Island Boardwalk, with its long sandy beaches and traditional fairground rides. Have a corn dog, sunbathe, or just chill and watch the world go by…
Enjoy free Fridays at the Museum of Modern Art
Yep, you heard me! You can get free entry to the fantastic Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), any Friday, as long as it’s after 4pm. The queue can be quite daunting, so I’d recommend coming along after 5pm, which will still give you plenty of time to explore the exhibits before the museum closes at 8.
Visit the site of the World Trade Centres
It’s hard to believe that it’s been over fourteen years since the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001. A lot has changed in that time, not least the site of the towers themselves. Where once these giants of glass and metal once stood, now there are two vast fountains disappearing into the ground below, the name of every person who died in the attacks inscribed into their bronze panels. There’s something equally beautiful and haunting about the memorial park which now exists; even though it is visited by thousands of people a day, and even though it is in the heart of an urban metropolis, there’s a quietness and sadness which gets beneath the skin…this is a must do, no matter how short your time in the city.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Once the longest suspension bridge in the world, there’s something incredibly characterful and iconic about the Brooklyn Bridge. Completed in 1883, it’s one of the oldest bridges in the States, and is as much emblematic of the city as the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty. The bridge is free to walk, and offers some of the best views of Manhattan and its distinctive skyline. If you want to face the city, you might want to consider taking the A or C line out to the Brooklyn High Street – Brooklyn Bridge subway station and start from there; otherwise you can access the bridge from downtown Manhattan, walk half way and then turn back.
Marvel over Grand Central Station
Who’d have thought that the largest train station in the world could also be one of the most beautiful? Many enter the station simply to catch a connecting train – most leave in awe, bowled over by its vastness, its glittering façade and ornate design. Pop in for a look and you’ll soon find yourself exploring a hidden temple of surprises, from world class restaraunts to gourmet culinary markets, from mural ceilings to mysterious Whispering Galleries…For the best view of the concourse, head to one of the ‘secret’ elevated passageways – if you can find them, that is!
Catch some comedy
With so many budding comedians in the city, you can be guaranteed that there will be at least one show every night of the week to suit your budget – even if that budget is non-existent! There are plenty of great open mic nights where you can catch some free comedy, and if you’re struggling to know where to begin then check out http://www.freemicsnyc.com/ for daily listings. If you don’t mind paying a small entrance fee, then head to The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where prices are incredibly low (never more than $5), but the quality is high!
Walk through the New York Public Library
Love literature? Then don’t forget to visit the New York Public Library. The Stephen A. Schwarzman building (5th Avenue/42nd Street) is the second largest library in the States, the fourth largest in the world, and has over 15 million items in its collection! The building itself is stunning, built in Beaux Arts fashion, and is guarded over by two magnificent stone lions who are almost as famous now as the books within! It’s a beautiful place just to visit, and the steps outside are a great place for people watching, but there are also great guided tours available at 11am and 2pm every day…better still, they won’t cost you a penny!
Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is one of New York’s best known galleries, and with good cause! You could easily spend days exploring its collections – not least because entrance is free! There is a little confusion about this, however…The museum operates on a Pay What you Wish policy, which means that although you do not have to pay, a donation is expected – and often suggested. If you come through any of the main entrances, you might find it difficult to enter without feeling guilty – and in all honesty, after seeing the collections, you will almost definitely want to leave a donation. But ultimately, it is free, and you should only donate what you feel comfortable donating. A good tip if you don’t want to feel pressured into parting with your cash is to enter the museum through the gift shop!
Take a stroll through the High Line
Fancy seeing the city from above? Visit the High Line, the city’s only elevated urban park. Built along a disused railway line, this 1.5 walkway is part of a beautifully maintained community project, and offers fantastic views out over the Lower West Side of Manhattan. Native plants have been allowed to grow again, and there are beautiful art installations to admire along the way, such as Spencer Finch’s The River That Flows Both Ways, where disused windows have been transformed to mirror the shape and colours of the nearby Hudson River.
Visit the American Museum of Natural History
Like the Met, the American Museum of Natural History operates on a Pay What you Wish policy, which is quite astounding when you consider its sheer size and the impressiveness of its collections! It can be quite hard to know where to begin, but if you’re short on time, then I’d recommend visiting the famous dioramas, the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, and the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, where a 94 foot model blue whale will leave you lost for words! And of course, Friends fans will want to check out the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs and pay homage to our favourite palaeontologist…
Catch some music in Prospect Park
Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is a great place to hang out, particularly during the summer months where every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the band shell is home to the Celebrate Brooklyn! Concerts. You can sit on the grass for free, or rent a chair for $3, but I’d recommend getting there in good time, as the events are growing in popularity!
Take a brewery tour
Craft beers have been growing in popularity in recent years, and New York is no exception to this trend! If you’re interested in learning more about the process of brewing then don’t forget to check out some of the city’s breweries, many of which offer tours to the public! If you’re visiting over the weekend, then head to Singlecut Beersmiths on 19-33 37th St, who offer free tours every Saturday and Sunday at 3pm – just remember to book online in advance!