New York City is among the most expensive places in the world to live or to visit, but it’s also among the richest in free or inexpensive things to do and cheap places to eat. If you’re planning a visit to the Big Apple this year, look past the city’s skyscrapers and try some of these down-to-earth diversions. Don’t worry; you’ll still get to take in some of the city’s most iconic sites while discovering some hidden gems only the locals know.
Note: Be sure to check COVID-19 rules and restrictions in advance before visiting any destinations.
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Sure, you could drop $20 or more at some fancy pizza joint like Roberta’s in Bushwick (and it’s worth it). But no visit to New York is complete without a classic New York slice for a buck from one of the many 2 Bros. Pizza locations and other independent joints. Just look for the long lines at lunchtime.
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An elevated rail line turned pedestrian walkway, the High Line is a green oasis in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood worth a stroll. But it also hosts meditation practices, tai chi, stargazing, garden tours, movies, and more throughout the year, all free. The park runs down the West Side from 34th Street to Gansevoort Street and is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Note that weekend visits require reserving time in advance online.
One of the most famous museums in the world, the Met has a suggested ticket price of $25, but residents of New York state, as well as students from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, can pay what they want. And anyone from anywhere can get in for free at (or next to nothing) at museums including the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Rubin Museum of Art, and the New Museum during limited hours.
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Locals and tourists alike walk, jog, run, and bike across this New York icon day and night, 365 days a year. It’s best on a warm day, but you can make the 1.1-mile trip throughout the year.
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Ask New Yorkers the cheapest way to see the Statue of Liberty and they are likely to point you to the Whitehall Terminal at the tip of Manhattan. A free ride on the Staten Island Ferry takes passengers right by the statue on a 25-minute trip, which is one of the most scenic ferry rides in the U.S.
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Wander through hundreds of booths selling vintage clothing, antiques, jewelry, furniture, artisanal foods, and more. Visit the Brooklyn Flea year-round on Saturdays in Williamsburg or the Lower East Side, in DUMBO on Sundays, and both weekend days in Chelsea. and Williamsburg on Saturdays from April through October.
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It’s hard to believe that this magnificent structure was once threatened with demolition in the 1970s. Meet in front of the information booth in the magnificent Main Concourse and gaze up at the restored Zodiac Ceiling or sip cocktails at the Campbell Bar, once the opulent offices of financier John W. Campbell, then head to the lower level of the station to the Whispering Gallery to share a secret.
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Manhattan boasts several well-known dumpling shops that are especially cheap. Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry Street and Vanessa’s Dumpling House on Eldridge Street serve up dumplings for less than 50 cents each. There are also several cheap and well-known dumpling houses in Flushing, Queens.
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The cathedral underwent restoration in 2016 and shines with a freshly cleaned exterior, repaired stained glass, and a painted ceiling, but the inside remains largely untouched. Regardless of your religious affiliation, St. Patrick’s is worth visiting, and it’s right across from another NYC landmark worth visiting: Rockefeller Center.
Billed as the “largest weekly open-air food market in America,” Smorgasburg operates Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at three locations — though only the Jersey City spot is planning to open this spring (tentatively set for May 29). It’s free to attend and, with more than 100 local food vendors, fair to say there’s an option for every taste and budget.
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In the summer, take a minute to sit in this popular park and enjoy the city’s energy. There’s a greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays throughout the year, and a holiday market opens in November and runs through Christmas Eve. The park has some of the best people watching in the city and is conveniently atop the equally busy Union Square subway station.
It is a tourist trap, but this landmark is known around the world. Standing in the lights of Times Square can be magical, especially for those who have not visited before. Be sure to check out the TKTS booth, where you can sit on the red step that creep up one side of the structure and watch the world go by. (Sorry, Broadway fans; the TKTS booth itself is closed until September, when theaters are planning to reopen.)
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The Juilliard School hosts numerous music, dance, and drama performances each year that feature talented students as well as special guests. Many are free, and even the ticketed events are usually offered at a reasonable price. Free tickets are available at the Juilliard box office, and standby tickets are sometimes available the day of a performance.
From May through October, the Downtown Boathouse, a volunteer-run nonprofit on Pier 26, offers kayaks, bike locks, lockers, and sunscreen to the public free of charge — but use of kayaks is limited to 20 minutes at a time.
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Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan hosts free classes, including tai chi, ribbon dancing, and juggling. Other events, including musical performances, chess matches, and pop-up markets are also scheduled throughout the summer.
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The Covid-19 pandemic has forced New York City to pare back its normally robust summer outdoor movie series, but film fans can still enjoy classic and recent hits at Astoria Park Lawn in Queens. Films on tap for this summer include “A Star is Born” and “Back to the Future.”
Coney Island’s historic rides and boardwalk are at their best during the summer, when the amusement park is bustling and there’s a long line for hot dogs at Nathan’s Famous. But even when it’s cooler out, a walk along the boardwalk is pleasant. If sea creatures are you thing, be sure to spend a few hours at the nearby New York City Aquarium. Admission isn’t cheap ($25 to $30) but it’s worth it.
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The park has served as a backdrop to many movies and books and hosts events throughout the year. The Central Park Conservancy offers tours of different areas within the park, or you can enjoy a self-guided virtual tour. Of course, the best way to experience Central Park may be to simply wander about.
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The Bronx Museum of the Arts is a contemporary art museum that is always free to visit. The museum’s permanent collection has more than 1,000 pieces, plus rotating exhibits and educational programs.
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More than a century old, the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is a landmark in Midtown. The Rose Main Reading Room, which underwent a restoration in 2016, is a highlight. Fans of art deco architecture should head to Brooklyn to see the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library near Grand Army Plaza.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park’s six piers offer panoramic views of downtown Manhattan and New York Harbor, along with free movies and concerts during the summer, a playground for children, a roller rink, bocce, handball, and more. A Waterfront Walks tour series offers hour-long, docent-led talks and walks that are free with an RSVP.
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Washington Square Park is often packed with NYU students during the school year but can be a nice place to sit down and take in the city. If you’re feeling lucky, challenge one of the many chess hustlers to a game (expect to pay $10 or $20); or, grab a bite from one of the many food trucks that line the park perimeter. When you’re ready to move on, the West Village beckons.
The attached museum costs $15 to $26 to visit, but the 9/11 Memorial is free and open to all. Two large reflecting pools mark the footprints of the Twin Towers and honor the lives lost.
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The iconic triangular Flatiron Building is a landmark on Fifth Avenue. After snapping a picture, enjoy a burger and shake at the nearby Shake Shack in Madison Square Park or from one of the food trucks. Dog lovers will want to take a few minutes to watch the canines frolick in the park’s doggie area.
Families with little ones can take advantage of the pay-what-you-wish admission at Brooklyn Children’s Museum from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursdays. The museum is in the Crown Heights neighborhood, a few subway stops east of Prospect Park.
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Free Tours by Foot offers some 30 pay-what-you-want tours of the city. Reservations are required, and there is often a minimum group size. Foodies can sign up for one of the food-focused tours, and bike tours traverse Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge and Lower Manhattan.
New York City is home to several palatial mansions that the robber barons of the Gilded Age called home. The private collection of J.P. Morgan, one of New York’s most well-known financiers, the Morgan Library and Museum is free from 2-5 p.m. on Fridays. Online reservations are required.
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Brooklyn’s Prospect Park shares the same designers as Central Park. It hosts free shows at the bandshell in the summer, and there’s a greenmarket at the north end of the park open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays year-round. The Prospect Park Zoo houses animals from around the world and tickets are just $9.95 for adults, $7.95 for seniors, and $6.95 for children.
The Lower East Side’s Economy Candy is not the largest candy store around, but the selection is vast and prices are low. Many candies are sold in bulk, and customers rave about finding treats that make them nostalgic for childhood. Once you’ve gorged yourself, spend some time wandering the neighborhood and explore the many boutiques, restaurants, and bars this hipster enclave holds.
Bookstores, universities, and libraries often host free book or poetry readings. Some days there are three or four starting at the same time, and choosing one can be hard. Club Free Time keeps an up-to-date list.
At the lower tip of Manhattan, the Battery doesn’t have the same profile as famed Central Park. But the 25-acre park at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers is the largest public open space downtown. It features gardens, an urban farm, a waterfront promenade, and a “labyrinth” path created to mark the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. Don’t miss the whimsical SeaGlass Carousel at the park’s southern end.
Open May 1 to Oct. 31, Governors Island has a food court, bicycles for rent (including tandem bikes and quadricycles), a farm, a beach, and historic houses. Hour-long bike rentals are free from 10 a.m. to noon on weekdays. The ferry ride — usually $3 round trip — is free weekend mornings from Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The painstakingly restored Jane’s Carousel is a whirl of lights and color in Brooklyn Bridge Park. The 48-horse carousel was originally built in 1922 for an Ohio amusement park and debuted in the Big Apple in 2011. You want cheap fun? Rides are only $2.
The Stonewall Inn bar in lower Manhattan was the site of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, considered a transformative event for the gay liberation movement, when members of the LGBTQ community demonstrated against one of the police department’s regular raids. The building has been occupied by many other businesses over the years, but the Stonewall Inn returned for good in 2007 and has remained a popular nightlife spot for its live music, trivia nights, drag and cabaret shows, as well as historical significance. It is now a federally recognized national landmark.
The largest mausoleum in the United States is located in Harlem. The Gen. Ulysses S. Grant National Memorial houses the remains of our 18th president and his wife, Julia. Admission is free, and that includes entrance to the memorial and the visitor center, and to all ranger-led programs. While there, take time to reflect on the memorial’s simple quote: Let us have peace.
Astor Wines and Spirits in Greenwich Village hosts occasional free wine and spirit tastings, although these events have been limited by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Those who like something they taste can get discounts on wine or spirits the day of their visit.
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The 18-hole miniature golf course at Pier 25 in Hudson River Park features waterfalls, sand traps, and a cave. Hours are officially 10 a.m.-9 p.m., daily. It’s recommended that golfers keep an eye on the Twitter feed for updates. Games are $5 for children and $10 for adults.
Starting at 6 p.m. on Thursdays, Chelsea’s art galleries open their new exhibits. Spend an evening hopping from one to the next while sipping on the wine or beer that’s often provided.
Autumn is one of the city’s most popular tourist seasons, and NYC offers plenty of opportunities to gaze at some stunning fall foliage. Central Park is an obvious choice, but quieter locales like Fort Tryon Park’s Linden Terrace, one of Manhattan’s highest points, offers gorgeous fall vistas. And Brooklyn’s Prospect Park’s 585 acres contain 30,000 trees of more than 175 species.
The American Museum of Natural History has a suggested ticket price of $23 but allows visitors who live in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut to pay what they want at the ticket counters. Permanent exhibits at the family-friendly spot include giant dinosaur skeletons and the Hall of Biodiversity. Don’t miss the planetarium!
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