The best free and almost free things to do in New York City

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The best free and almost free things to do in New York City
Image Credit: Dreamstime

It’s no secret that New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world, often landing in the top 10 priciest places on the planet. A three-night trip for two can easily top $2,000 once you factor in food, drinks, lodging, sightseeing and maybe a show or two.

Luckily, there are plenty of free things to do in the city. Based on my experiences as both a travel agent and a many-time visitor to Manhattan, here are the best can’t-miss things to do that won’t cost you a dime, in most cases.

Our picks for the top free things to do in NYC

Hit the streets

There’s no better way to experience the sights and sounds of one of the world’s best cities than on foot. Take a guided tour, a self-guided tour or an audio walking tour in one of the many unique neighborhoods. TripSavvy suggests the best hoods to explore.

Consider transporting yourself halfway around the world with a stroll through one of the oldest and most authentic Chinatowns in America. You can take a DIY tour or one that’s guided in locations across the city — and choose from a variety of special interests. Find one at Free Tours By Foot.

Chinatown
Image credit: Free Tours By Foot

Explore from above

We love to ride the Roosevelt Island aerial tramway that spans the East River and connects Roosevelt Island to the Upper East Side. If you’re going via the tramway to the island or just want to get a bird’s eye view, the best time to go is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or after 7 p.m. and until 2 a.m. It’s a fun thing to do at night!

Roosevelt Island tramway
Image credit: New York State

Trams operate every 7 to 15 minutes from 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan to Tramway Plaza on Roosevelt Island. The fare for the 4-minute ride is $2.25 each way ($4 round-trip). This is a great way to escape the hustle bustle of Manhattan to a quiet and beautiful residential Island (it’s two miles long and about 800 feet wide), with its five spacious parks, a lighthouse, and historic landmarks dating from 1796. A red minibus meets the tram and takes visitors throughout the island for 25 cents a ride.

Take to the water

Kayaking at the Pier 26 Boathouse
Image credit: The Downtown Boathouse

Through mid-October, enjoy free kayaking from the Hudson River Park on weekends, holidays, and Tuesday-Thursday evenings from the Pier 26 Boathouse. The Tribeca location is the first pier south of the Holland Tunnel Vent Towers and is the second pier north of Battery Park City. Kayaks are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Quench your thirst

Learn about beer-making at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg with free tours offered every half hour on the weekends. Arrive early to get a tour ticket and while you wait, sample beers in the tasting room at discounted prices.

Brooklyn Brewery
Image credit: Brooklyn Brewery

Another Brooklyn craft distillery opens for free gin and whiskey history tours and tastings on Saturdays and Sundays (2:30, 3:30 and 5:00 p.m.). The New York Distilling Co. also offers upgraded tours with drinking involved.

Get cultured

The annual Summerstage series features top musical acts and big names in jazz, indie, rock, hip-hop and more to city parks located in the five boroughs. Bring a picnic and arrive early!

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Summerstage
Image credit: City Parks Foundation

Cast members from leading Broadway productions take to the stage each week in Bryant Park. The concert series features song, dance and performance highlights from popular musicals.

Find hundreds of free musical events at Club Free Time and at NYC Free Concerts. Find year-round listings for genres like classical, jazz, pop, rock, opera, soul, and more.

Find your view

Take a ride on the free Staten Island Ferry, a 5.2 mile trip across New York Harbor! By day or night, you’ll see the best of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. Operating since 1905, the ferry carries about 22 million people each year.

For the most incredible skyline views (and to enjoy one of New York’s most iconic walks), walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on a 1.13-mile elevated pathway just for pedestrians and cyclists. You’ll have fab skyline views of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Lady Liberty.

The best time to go for lighter crowds is at sunrise! Once on the Brooklyn side, walk a few blocks further to Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a revitalized neighborhood with trendy cafes, restaurants, galleries and a waterfront park with gardens and rolling hills.

Brooklyn Bridge view
Image credit: Free Tours By Foot

Take to the High Line in the city’s Meatpacking District. Opened in 2009, the 1.45 mile-long park (with 10 entrance points) was created on an abandoned elevated train above West Side neighborhoods. Millions walk through the park for the views of the Hudson River and the downtown skyline.

At dusk every Tuesday, the Amateur Astronomers Association sets up telescopes on the section between West 15th and West 16th Streets for stargazing. Other special events include Latin dance nights and art performances. A warning: Some sections have a 30-feet drop on either side.

For the kids

Located in Prospect Park, the 52-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to frolic. Go on free Friday mornings (8 a.m.–noon) from March to November. Free admission is also offered on weekdays from December through February. Closed Mondays.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Image credit: Brooklyn Botanic Garden

The impressive 265-acre Bronx Zoo is home to more than 6,000 animals. Every Wednesday, admission is pay-what-you-wish.

Urban Park Rangers in Central Park offer ranger-led events for families year-round. Programs touch on history, astronomy, animals, plants, and more.

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Visit New York City’s official visitors bureau — NYC & Company offers numerous other things to do with the kids.

Get your art on

The Museum of Modern Art offers free admission (regularly $25) every Friday evening from 4-8 p.m. The museums’ sculpture garden is also free to visit every morning from 9:30-10 a.m.

Museum of Modern Art
Image credit: Museum of Modern Art

On Thursday evenings, stroll the galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood, located in the 20s streets between 10th and 11th Avenues. Galleries are free to enter (no pressure to buy) and many offer complimentary wine and cheese Thursday nights.

As you head toward the Statue of Liberty, don’t miss the often overlooked National Museum of the American Indian, located in the spectacular former U.S. Customs House (1907) in Lower Manhattan. It has one of the country’s finest collections of Native American art and over a million items. In addition to free admission, public tours for families are given daily.

NYC-Arts offers a full listing of free museums and pay-what-you-wish locations.

For the book lovers

New York Public Library
Image credit: New York Public Library

Two marble lions, Patience and Fortitude grace the entrance to the famous Beaux-Arts style New York Public Library. Take a walk through the reading room (which sits 500) to see patrons viewing their selections under original Carrère and Hastings lamps. Join a free tour Mondays-Saturdays from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. or 2 p.m. Sundays (closed Sundays in the summer). The library offers over 100,000 free programs, serving everyone from toddlers to teens to seniors.

Get a history lesson (with shopping & dining)

South Street Seaport
Image credit: Christie’s Real Estate

Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the South Street Seaport has seen a massive reconstruction and revitalization effort. Now called the Seaport District NYC, the area neighboring the Financial District, is an ideal spot to stroll and shop in a cluster of restored wharfside buildings, many from the early 1800s.

Get free food

Ryan Maguire's Restaurant
Image credit: Ryan Maguire’s Restaurant

Ryan Maguire’s Restaurant & Bar, a classic Irish pub, offers a free buffet from 5-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. Offerings can vary from penne pasta, beef stew, sausages. All day happy hour: $4 drafts, $5 bottled beer, $6 well drinks and $7 house wines. The food menu offers comfort food at affordable prices.

More free tours

Learn about the role of the New York Fed and the Federal Reserve System in setting monetary policy, and money creation and destruction at the Federal Reserve Bank (tour registration opens 30 days prior to the requested date); Mondays-Fridays, 1:00 pm and 2:00 pm, except bank holidays. Tours include a trip to the gold vault. Tip: reservations for the free tour are booked out in just a minute or less!

Take a free 90-minute tour of Grand Central Terminal at 12:30 pm every Friday. Discover the architecture and social history of Midtown East. Meet directly across from the station at 12:30 pm in the atrium at 120 Park Avenue (southwest corner of East 42nd Street and Park Avenue). No reservations are necessary.

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Final thought

Just because New York City is generally expensive doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a great trip and not go broke! Check out the suggestions above and you may find that your trip to The Big Apple is way less stressful on your wallet than you might have expected.

For more of the best free things to do in New York City, visit the Official Guide to NYC at NYC & Company.

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