9 Free (or Cheap) Things to Do in NYC

New York City is a town of endless possibilities. You could spend days, weeks, or even months exploring all of the things NYC has to do.

But…New York City can be quite expensive. Trips to the top of the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, or one of the many world-renowned museums all add to the price tag of an already expensive city to visit.

So when we planned our trip to New York City, splurging big on Broadway tickets to Hamilton, I knew we’d have to make up for it with some more budget-friendly things to do in our itinerary. Instead of going all out, I decided we’d go cheap. And I mean, really cheap.

Lucky for us, there’s a plethora of free things to do in New York City! Read on for our top 9 favorite free (or incredibly cheap) things to do in NYC!

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Where to Stay in NYC for Cheap (or Free!)

There’s no getting around it, New York City is an expensive city. Finding a respectable hotel that sleeps 4 under $250/night is most definitely a challenge. Expect to spend a decent chunk of your budget on accommodations if you want to be right in the action of Manhattan.

“Affordable” Hotels in Manhattan

Freehand New York ($$, Gramercy) | Being in Gramercy puts you central to all of the major sites in Midtown New York, while still feeling a bit quieter and more local. And Freehand’s stylish digs will put you even more at ease. Families, however, should prepare to get cozy for the affordable price tag. Rooms that sleep 4 offer side-by-side twin bunks (par for the course in central New York City).

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Hotel 50 Bowery ($$$, The Bowery) | If you’re looking to stay downtown, Hotel 50 Bowery is your best bet. While it’s the most expensive on this list, it pales in comparison to more expensive hotel options in Soho or Tribeca. Hotel 50 offers an on-site restaurant with daily breakfast (with surcharge), a rooftop bar, and free crib rentals for families.

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Shelburne Hotel & Suites ($$, Murray Hill) | Located in Murray Hill, the Shelburne is the most affordable on this list for a family of 4, but you’ll find the neighborhood to be lacking some character. That said, you’ll be in walking distance to most of Midtown’s major sites, with quick subway access to wherever else you want to go.

Compare Prices at: Hotels.com | Agoda | Booking.com

Laura’s Tip: In addition to the nightly rate, most New York City hotels also charge a resort fee, ranging anywhere from $10-50 per night. This most definitely will wreak havoc on your budget if not noticed, so be sure to include this cost when comparing hotel pricing.

Budget-Friendly Alternatives to NYC

If you’re flexible on where you’re staying and willing to travel a bit each day, Jersey City, New Jersey is a great budget alternative to staying in Manhattan. Unlike NYC, Airbnbs are legal in New Jersey, so you’ll have plenty of cheaper options for your stay. Plus, it’s a short ride into Manhattan on the PATH train each day to get right into the action.

Looking for Even Cheaper?

Trusted Housesitters is the top website for connecting pet owners with housesitters while they’re away. If you’re willing to take care of someone’s furry friends during your vacation, you could have yourself an (almost) free stay in New York City!

The Best Cheap and Free Things to Do in New York City

Alright, let’s get to the good stuff: free things to do in NYC!

One of my favorite things about New York City is the unique energy the place gives off. And guess what? It costs zero dollars to experience the atmosphere, the people, and culture of NYC!

So take your time, relax, and wander NYC slowly. And while you do, take in these 9 free (or nearly free) activities:

1 | Take in the Views at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Sure, standing beneath the skyscrapers of Manhattan feels awesome, but seeing them all from afar? Now that’s even more mind blowing.

Take the A or C train over to Brooklyn and get off at High Street (a one-way ticket on New York’s subway costs $3 per rider, with kids shorter than 44 inches tall riding free). From High Street, it’s a quick jaunt to explore the tiny DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn (that stands for, Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). If you want that epic shot above of the Manhattan Bridge sandwiched between buildings, head to the intersection of Washington and Water Streets.

Next head to Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park itself stretches 85 acres along the East River. We chose to take in the Main Street area, with a stop at Main Street Playground and Pebble Beach (some of the most epic, and free, views of NYC). Evelyn enjoyed skipping rocks while I snapped about 678 pictures.

You could also head to the Brooklyn Heights side of the park, where green spaces, a roller rink, and Pier 1 Playground flank the waterfront.

After, make your way to Jane’s Carousel. This antique carousel built in 1922 was painstakingly restored to its former glory for its new home here in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Tickets are cheap at just $2.

If you need a bite to eat, stop at New York’s very own Time Out Market, located right in here DUMBO. We couldn’t help but try Ess-A-Bagel (when in Rome!), but affordable meal options abound in this inside/outside food hall.

2 | Walk the High Line

Opened in 2009, the High Line is a free public park built out of an abandoned elevated rail line. Spanning 1.45 miles along Manhattan’s west side, the High Line connects the neighborhoods of the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, and Hudson Yards in one continuous walkway filled with wild plants and original works of art.

Start your walk on the south end of the High Line at Gansevoort Street. As you make your way north, stop by Chelsea Market for a snack or sweet treat (the High Line runs right through the building)! Carry on until you reach Hudson Yards, one of New York’s newest developments.

Laura’s Tip: The High Line is very accessible too! Elevators are available at Gansevoort Street, 14th Street, 23rd Street, and 30th Street. (An elevator at 16th Street was also under construction at the time of our visit.)

At the end of the High Line, you’ll get a bonus freebie, The Vessel! This spiral staircase stands out among the landscape with it’s bright copper walkways. While it does cost money to enter, viewing this masterpiece from the ground is completely free! (PS. The Vessel was still temporarily closed during our visit, but you can check the latest opening information here.)

3 | Visit the 9/11 Memorial

Next up, head downtown for a sobering experience that everyone should nonetheless experience in New York City: the 9/11 Memorial.

It’s hard to explain the gravity this place holds, but when you’re there, you feel it’s heaviness. Standing under the shadow of One World Trade, the memorial pools that now take the place of the north and south World Trade towers are inscribed with the names of the nearly 3000 people that died on September 11, 2001.

It’s worth purchasing the 9/11 Memorial Audio Guide which takes visitors on a 40-minute tour of the events of 9/11, the victims of that day, and the design of the Memorial. As of our visit, the app was just $2 to download; well worth it, in my opinion.

If you want to dive deeper, consider adding on a visit to the 9/11 Museum. Advanced tickets and timed entry are required (pre-book your tickets here).

Before you leave the World Trade Center, stop at Oculus next door. This new transportation hub is also an architectural gem, said to symbolize a dove leaving a child’s hands. Inside, Oculus is light and bright, housing 12 subway lines, a PATH station, and numerous retail shops.

4 | Take in the Lights of Times Square

Times Square, where diagonal running Broadway crosses 7th Avenue, is arguably one of the most iconic places in New York City. And even though it can be loud, a bit smelly and filled with tourists, it’s a place every person should experience at least once for themselves.

While you’re there, head down any of the streets adjacent to Broadway to see some of the world’s most renowned theaters; 41 of them, to be exact.

Or, indulge the kids with a visit to Hershey’s Chocolate World or M&M’s World, two stores dedicated to all things sweet. Both are free to enter (though you’ll be lucky to get in and out without buying something)!

5 | Spend the Day in Central Park

Central Park is so huge, you could probably dedicate an entire trip to New York City visiting it alone!

But even if you’re short on time, you can easily hit all of Central Park‘s highlights in one budget-friendly day.

Start at Columbus Circle and make your way down to Heckscher Playground. Central Park’s largest and oldest playground, you’ll find typical playground entertainment, as well as a large water feature kids can explore. Just behind the playground, climb Umpire Rock for an even better view of Central Park South.

Next meander across the park to The Pond and the famous Gapstow Bridge, a rustic stone bridge that stands in stark contrast to the towering modern buildings behind it.

Next, head north to Wollman Rink, home to the iconic New York City ice skating rink in winter, and Victorian Gardens, a small family amusement park, in summer. Neither experience is free, but something to consider paying extra for.

Important Note: At the time of our visit, Victorian Gardens was still temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. See the latest opening information here.

By this time you’re probably hungry for lunch. Two grab-and-go picnic options are conveniently located near Sheep Meadow, the perfect picnic spot. Tavern on the Green and Le Pain Quotidien both offer online ordering for quick and easy pick up of affordable offerings (by New York City standards).

After your picnic, you can head to Adventure Playground near West 67th Street, or make your way to Bethesda Terrace where you’ll likely find live musicians playing. Further explore The Lake by renting a rowboat from Loeb Boathouse. It costs $20/hour, but I consider that relatively cheap since it was the highlight of our Central Park day!

Continue north to explore The Ramble, a 36-acre forest full of winding paths and more of Central Park’s dramatic rock formations, leading up to Belvedere Castle, the second highest point in Central Park.

The best thing about Central Park is that you could literally explore it for days and always find something new. So take your time and enjoy the scenery, and if you’re interested in learning more about the park, take in a free audio guide while you explore.

6 | Cross the Brooklyn Bridge on Foot

One of the most iconic free things that I insisted we include in our NYC itinerary was a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. And I’m so glad we did! It’s a unique experience not to be missed.

You could surely walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back, making it a round trip. But if you’re short for time (or little legs don’t allow it), do a one-way trip by taking the A or C train over to Brooklyn and getting off at High Street. Cut through Cadman Plaza Park and then turn left along the street heading under the overpass. There you’ll find a narrow set of stairs that leads you up to the Brooklyn Bridge walkway (you really can’t miss it as you’ll find plenty of street vendors set up around it).

As you walk the Brooklyn Bridge back into Manhattan, take in full 180 degree skyline views!

7 | Explore Little Island

Located at Pier 54 on the Hudson River, Little Island is one of New York’s newest public parks. And as with all NYC parks it’s, you guessed it, free! The space aims to create an experience that blends art and nature, set atop a whimsical collection of concrete piles.

Little Island offers several scenic viewpoints, an amphitheater, a handful of art installations and a quiet place to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

Entry is generally pretty open, however, if you plan to visit on Saturday, Sunday or holidays after 12 PM, you’ll be required to have a free timed-entry reservation. If you can, try to plan your visit during one of the free artist workshops!

8 | Ride the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry carries 75,000 passengers a day between Manhattan and Staten Island. But I’m not just recommending it for the free boat ride.

Instead, hitch on ride on the Ferry for the up close views of the Statue of Liberty!

The ferry departs every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour, except rush hour when trips are more frequent (not to mention packed with commuters, so best to avoid this time). The ride from Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Lower Manhattan to St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island takes about 25 minutes to complete.

While in Staten Island, visit the Staten Island Children’s Museum, one of the many New York City Children’s Museums that offer free admission on select days.

Once you’re back in Manhattan, this is the perfect time to take in a few more free sights within walking distance of the South Ferry. Relax in Battery Park, stop by Wall Street and the Charging Bull, or find Alexander Hamilton’s gravesite outside Trinity Church.

Important Note: Trinity Church and churchyard are currently closed to the public except for Sunday worship. A security and safety check is required for entry. However, you can still see Hamilton’s gravesite from outside the iron fence.

9 | Wander through the Village

For a truly New York experience (and one that’s absolutely free), you can’t go wrong spending time wandering around Greenwich Village. Here you’ll trade the skyscrapers of Midtown for historic brownstones. The massive department stores of 5th Avenue for quaint shops on Bleecker Street.

And the West Village is a family-friendly neighborhood. Don’t miss a chance to unwind at Washington Square Park or Bleecker Playground.

This favorite neighborhood of mine also just so happens to be home to some of the best food we ate in New York City as well! From a massive New York slice at Bleecker Street Pizza, and banana pudding and cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery, to refined, yet unstuffy, dishes at Dante West Village, you really can’t go wrong no matter what you choose for dinner.

Have you been to New York City? What are your favorite places to explore?

xo laura

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