21 Free Things to Do in NYC
New York consistently ranks among the most expensive cities in the U.S., and while many of us who call the city home have become blasé about shelling out $10 for a coffee and a muffin, we realize that visitors may suffer from sticker shock. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to take advantage of free tours, outdoor activities, and cultural attractions. Here are 21 fun things you can do in NYC without spending a dime.
Friday Evenings at the MoMA
So you want to see the Picassos in the Museum of Modern Art, but don’t want to commit to the $25 admission fee? Lucky for you, the museum offers free admission every Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 pm. You can also visit the sculpture garden for free every morning from 9:30 to 10 am.
Tour the Federal Bank of New York’s Gold Vault
A little-known but fascinating attraction lies in the Financial District’s Federal Bank of New York: more than 6,500 tons of gold. The building dates back to the 1920s and much of the gold arrived after WWII. Anyone can sign up for a free tour of the gold vault on weekday afternoons.
Frolic in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city streets with a visit to the bucolic Brooklyn Botanic Garden (pictured). Located on the northeastern edge of Prospect Park, the garden’s admission fee is waived on Tuesdays. Take your time exploring the park, which also contains the zoo, the Lefferts Historic House, and the LeFrak Center by the lake.
See Alexander Hamilton’s Harlem Estate
For a peek inside a preserved historic home, head to Hamilton Grange in Harlem. This is believed to be the only house that founding father Alexander Hamilton ever owned. Back then, the entire area would have been countryside, and wandering the grounds, you can imagine just how that would look.
The New York Earth Room & the Broken Kilometer
The Dia Foundation has several art installations in New York City, but the most impressive are the New York Earth Room and the Broken Kilometer. Created in the 1970s by artist Walter De Maria, they are both in Soho and free to visit. The former displays 280,000 pounds of soil in an otherwise pristine Soho loft, while the latter features 500 brass rods lined up on the floor of a Soho loft. Though closed for the summer, they will reopen in September.
Go Stargazing on the High Line
You knew you could stroll on New York’s famous elevated park for free, but did you know you can also go stargazing on the High Line? Every Tuesday starting at dusk, the Amateur Astronomers Association sets up telescopes on the section between West 15th and West 16th Streets. It’s the perfect time to visit the park, as evenings tend to be less crowded than during the day.
Do Yoga at Bryant Park
Bryant Park is one of the city’s liveliest spots during the summer, with lots of free activities throughout the day. Yoga fans should head there on Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m., or Thursday evenings at 6 p.m., for free classes alternately held on the lawn or upper terrace.
Watch Outdoor Movies at Two Major Parks
A handful of NYC parks offer free outdoor movies during the summer. There’s still time to catch the end of the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival and Syfy Movies with a View at Brooklyn Bridge Park. Movies begin when the sun sets, but head to the park early to save a spot on the lawn.
Ride the Staten Island Ferry
During the summer, there are few things more pleasurable than taking a ride on a boat in the Hudson or the East River. The East River Ferry—which, by the way, is a great way to travel between Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn—costs $4 on weekdays and $6 on weekends, but the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free.
Get an Art Fix at Chelsea Galleries
There are hundreds of art galleries in Chelsea, mostly located between W. 14th Street and W. 29th Street around 10th and 11th Avenues. They’re always free to visit during opening hours, and many put on museum-quality exhibits. Some of the best are Gagosian, David Zwirner, Milk Gallery, and Pace. Bonus: during opening nights, galleries often serve complimentary wine or beer.
Soak up Some Sun at Public Beaches
During the summer, people often head to Coney Island to get in some beach time, but New York has plenty of other public beaches that are free to visit. Brighton Beach, is near Coney Island, but is more under-the-radar and full of Russian restaurants. The Rockaways draw surfers to Queens, and Fort Tilden is a favorite among hipsters.
Attend a Cultural Event at the New York Public Library
It’s easy to overlook the public library, but the Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and 5th Avenue is one of the city’s architectural gems. The stately marble building is not only free to visit, it also hosts exhibits of archival photographs, docent-led tours, and the Books at Noon series of talks with acclaimed authors.
Find the Whispering Gallery in Grand Central
Grand Central Terminal is worth visiting even if you’re not catching a train there. The 102-year-old train station glows with the grandeur of Old New York. One of its most alluring secrets is the Whispering Gallery under the Guastavino-tiled arches near the Oyster Bar. When two people stand at diagonal arches and whisper to each other, their voices ring through like an old game of telephone.
Take a Tour of Central Park
Obviously, Central Park is free and open to the public, but not many people know that the Central Park Conservancy offers free guided tours of Manhattan’s largest park. Themes range from an introductory tour to a hike around the North Woods, where you’ll see waterfalls, rustic bridges, and pools near the Harlem entrance.
Hear Live Music at the Harlem Meer Performance Festival
SummerStage concerts in the city’s parks are ending soon, but the Harlem Meer Performance Festival will continue into September. The concert series features artists playing jazz, Latin, world, and gospel music on an outdoor stage at Harlem Meer in Central Park.
Pay Your Respects at the 9/11 Memorial
Occupying 8 out of 16 acres where the World Trade Center once stood, the 9/11 Memorial honors the lives of those lost during the terrorist attacks on the site in 1993 and 2001. While the museum is complimentary only for 9/11 survivors and their families, the outdoor memorial is always free.
Take in the Views from Brooklyn Bridge Park
A favorite among locals and visitors alike, Brooklyn Bridge Park curves around the waterfront in DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights. The park is chock full of activities, from basketball to bocce, and a pop-up pool made of recycled shipping containers. One of the most beautiful spots for skyline views is right by Jane’s Carousel, where the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges meet.
Tour the Brooklyn Brewery
Stop by the pioneering Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg to learn about the fine art and science of beer making. There are free tours every half hour on the weekends, though they tend to fill up quickly, so get there early to snag a ticket. While you wait, you can sample the beers in the tasting room for a discounted price.
New York Distilling Company Tour and Tasting
One of Brooklyn’s best craft distilleries opens its doors to the public for free tours and tastings on Saturdays and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. After learning all about the history of gin and whiskey and the distilling process, sample their potent Dorothy Parker American gin and the recently released Mr. Katz’s Rock & Rye.
Watch a Taping of the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Fans of the Tonight Show can watch a taping with Jimmy Fallon at NBC’s studios in Rockefeller Center with a bit of advanced planning. Free tickets are released a month in advance, though if you’re lucky you can get standby tickets the night of the event.
Kayak the Hudson River
Until mid-October, you can take a kayak out on the Hudson River at Pier 26 in Tribeca, or the Manhattan Community Boathouse locations at Pier 96 in Midtown and in Riverside Park at 72nd Street. Availability is on a first-come, first-served basis.
Laura Itzkowitz is a Research Assistant at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lauraitzkowitz.