These Are the Best Things to Do in NYC for Free
There's no shortage of cool things to do in New York City, from visiting historic sites to trying some of the best food in the world to filling your camera with amazing photos of the city's magnificent skyline.
Unfortunately, a lot of the best things to do in the Big Apple also happen to cost a big chunk of change. Heading to the top of the Empire State Building, for example, will produce amazing views of the city, but it will also cost a pretty penny. Meanwhile, a visit to Times Square to enjoy a Broadway show may be on most visitors' lists, but tickets for the most popular plays aren't exactly cheap.
Don't fear, as there are plenty of things to do in New York City that don't cost a dime, but still take advantage of its history and culture. These are the best free things to do in NYC.
Related: More city vacation ideas
Ride the Staten Island Ferry.
The Staten Island Ferry is a great way to get close to the Statue of Liberty without the pricey ticket, making it one of the best free things to do in NYC. Grab a good viewing spot and take in the skyline from the water as the boat heads away from Battery Park. Once in Staten Island, check out the Empire Outlets.
Relax in the sand at the city's public beaches.
You don't need to go all the way to the Hamptons to find a good beach near the city. Head to Coney Island to combine the beach with a trip to the amusement park (the Coney Island Cyclone has been around since 1927). Or, travel further down to Brighton Beach, where you can also find some great Russian restaurants. Hop on the ferry for the cost of a MetroCard ticket and make your way to Rockaway Beach, where you can combine a day of sand and surf with good food (like fish tacos from the Rockaway Beach Surf Club).
Go bird-watching in Central Park.
There are about 210 different species of birds found in Central Park, with many paying a visit to the Big Apple to rest and feed during the spring and fall migrations. Bird-watching novices can get more information from the Central Park Conservancy.
Pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial.
The 9/11 Memorial is made up of two reflecting pools, each marking the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. It honors the lives lost during the terrorist attacks on the site in 1993 and 2001. The names of every person who died in those attacks are inscribed onto the edge of the memorial pools. The memorial is always free to visit, and the museum is free on Mondays from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic attractions in New York City, and walking across it is one of the best ways to take it all in. When the bridge was finished in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Now, the Brooklyn Bridge has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service, and it happens to be one of the best places to view the downtown skyline. Pro tip: Go early as the bridge tends to get very crowded during the day.
Take a free walking tour.
There is so much history to discover in the city, and a walking tour is one of the best ways to see it up close and personal. Sandemans New Europe offers free two-and-a-half-hour tours of downtown Manhattan, covering some of the most historic sites in the city, including the Charging Bull, Wall Street, and 9/11 Memorial. While the tours are technically free, they do encourage tips for the guides, so bring some cash.
Let the kids loose in one of the city's inventive playgrounds.
New York City has no shortage of playgrounds for kids to burn off extra energy, but some are simply cooler than others. At Ancient Playground, next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, kids can explore pyramid-shaped climbers and check out the obelisk and sundial, both inspired by the Met's collection of Egyptian art. The Imagination Playground at Burling Slip, designed by architect David Rockwell, encourages kids to use their imagination with giant foam blocks, fabric, and crates. Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park features playgrounds like the Sandbox Village, where kids can play in little wooden houses in the sand, and the Water Lab, guaranteed to leave them soaking wet and cool on hot summer days.
Hang with farm animals at the Queens County Farm Museum.
Find cows, sheep, pigs, and more at the Queens County Farm Museum, which dates back to 1697 and is the longest continuously farmed site in New York state. Spread out over 47 acres, the museum is free to enter (except on certain event days), and it allows people to learn all about what the area was like before a bustling city sprung up around it.
See Shakespeare in the Park.
You don't have to fork over a ton of money to see a great theater performance. Each year, the Public Theater hosts Shakespeare in the Park, a summer series at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The series draws celebrity names and offers the chance to score free tickets for each day's performance through a lottery system.
Tour an ice cream museum.
At Ample Hills' interactive ice cream museum, located in their 15,000-square-foot Red Hook factory, you can watch ice cream being made and even make flavor suggestions on their "every flavor tells a story" board. If you get hungry after (and we'd be shocked if you didn't), try The Hook, a flavor unique to the factory made of burnt sugar ice cream mixed with salty fudge bites and Dutch stroopwafels.
Tour the Brooklyn Brewery.
Learn the art of making beer during one of Brooklyn Brewery's free tours, offered every hour from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. While you wait, you can sample the beers in the Williamsburg tasting room.
Kayak at Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Get out on the water and try your hand at kayaking every Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the summer from Brooklyn Bridge Park. Even kayaking novices can join in the fun because the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse will teach you all you need to know before you get out on the water.
Take a tour of the New York Public Library.
The New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in Manhattan has a storied past, touching on some of the most important moments in world history. During World War II, Allied military intelligence used the library's Map Division for research, and the library collected materials "from the left and the right" during the McCarthyism era, despite objections. Sex and the City fans may remember it as the setting where Carrie wanted to marry Big. Now, you can visit the iconic institution with a free one-hour tour.
Tour the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Gold Vault.
Set in the basement of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York is the Gold Vault, which holds around 497,000 gold bars weighing a total of about 6,190 tons. Much of the gold arrived during and after WWII, when countries wanted to store their gold in a safe place. The vault remains the world's largest known depository of monetary gold, and you can visit during a free hour-long tour Monday through Friday. Tours fill up quickly, so reserve your spot on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's website in advance.
See Alexander Hamilton's Harlem estate.
Step back in time at Hamilton Grange National Memorial, which features the preserved historic home of Alexander Hamilton. It was completed in 1802, and Hamilton lived there for two years before he was fatally wounded in a duel with his rival, then vice president Aaron Burr. While it is free to tour "the room where it happens," we suggest getting there early because the number of people who are allowed to walk on the upstairs period-furnished floor at one time is limited.
Channel your inner flower child at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Spend your morning surrounded by roses and water lilies at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Located on the northeastern edge of Prospect Park, the garden sits on 52 acres of land. Admission is "pay what you can" Tuesday through Friday from December through February.
Tour the High Line.
The famous High Line is always free to visit, but you can learn more about the popular park on a free, docent-led tour about its history, design, and landscape. Tour dates and times vary by season.
Take a fun (and educational) trip to the Brooklyn Children's Museum.
If you have kids between the ages of six months and 10 years, head to the Brooklyn Children's Museum for an afternoon of hands-on educational and engaging exhibits. The museum is free to visit on Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., thanks to Amazon.
Step inside one of the world's most beautiful libraries.
The Morgan Library & Museum is home to J.P. Morgan's beautiful private library-turned-museum, a must-visit space for bibliophiles. It's free to visit on Fridays between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., but you'll want to make reservations in advance.
Watch a movie in Bryant Park.
Rounding out this list of free things to do in NYC is a summertime favorite. During the summer, lay down a blanket and bring some popcorn and candy (or buy some beer and wine) and settle in for an open-air movie in Bryant Park. Arrive early as it gets crowded — the lawn opens at 5 p.m. for blankets and picnicking, and the movie starts at sunset.