It comes as a surprise to no one that New York City is one of the most expensive places in America. In a city where there is so much to do and see prices are ever on the rise. The most prominent attractions around NYC come with a sizeable price tag, and it isn’t hard to blow your budget sightseeing. However, if you know where to look, you can easily have fun in NYC without putting yourself in debt.
In true New York fashion, people are often skeptical of anything advertised as free, but there are plenty of free activities offered all over the city. Whether you’re interested in concerts, museums, educational tours, chances are you can find it for free or cheap in NYC. To help you make your trip planning a little bit easier, I rounded up some of my favorite free activities around the city. The trick to enjoying some free fun around here is preplanning since a few of these things are seasonal or only offered at certain times.
Take a tour of Central Park
It goes without saying that Central Park is free to visit, as are almost all parks in the US. What most people don’t realize, though, is that they offer guided tours as well. The majority of these tours are free. However, if you want a something more unique, specialized experiences are available for mere $15 a ticket.
Tour a Brewery or Distillery
If small local suppliers of alcohol interest you, then head over to Brooklyn for a world-class brewery tour. Brooklyn Brewery has carved out quite a name for itself among small batch beer lovers. They offer free tours Friday through Sunday but arrive early since it’s first come first serve for tickets. If you want to actually drink the beers while you’re there (because why else would you come to a brewery?), you will have to purchase tokens, which are $5 each.
Perhaps you fancy hard cocktails over a beer but would love the whole brewery experience. Fear not, Don Draper, because Brooklyn has got you covered as well. New York Distilling Co. is a small batch gin & rye distillery on a mission to bring the ethereal art back to Brooklyn. The company offers complimentary tours on Saturdays and Sundays, as well as VIP tours that you need to book in advance. After your visit stick around The Shanty for a few cocktails and an atmosphere reminiscent of a bygone era.
Take in the events & exhibits at the New York Public Library
Everyone is familiar with the iconic 5th Avenue library, and it’s world-famous Rose Room. This alone is indeed something to behold, and I recommend a stop to the NYPL even if it’s just for a picture with Patience & Fortitude. However, like all libraries, the Schwarzman Building is an information center dying to tell you it’s secrets. On any given day the library hosts many exhibits & events that will teach you something new for free. Many exhibitions, such as Remembering The 60’s, explore cultural shifts and impacts the city has been a part of. The Library also hosts a series of Author Talks and intellectual lectures which you must register for but are free of charge.
Stop by and pay reverence at the massive Memorial Plaza which honors victims of the terrorist attacks of 1993 & 2001. While the museum is free only to survivors and family members of those lost, the memorial is open to the public daily. Despite the hustle and bustle of this Downtown area expect to feel some very raw emotions as you see the nearly 3,000 names etched into a memorial that marks a hole left in the heart of NYC.
Treat yourself to a gallery crawl
NYC has no shortage of museums, and while many have suggested donations and free days, you can see free art every day in Chelsea. There is a high concentration of galleries in the 20’s mostly on 10th & 11th Avenues. They are all free to enter with no pressure or obligation to buy. Thursday evenings are usually the best time to plan your gallery crawl since there are often openings offering complimentary wine & cheese. If you want to prepare in advance check out Gallery Guide, which will provide info on upcoming openings.
Step back into history at the Hamilton Grange
With the hit Broadway musical came a rise in interest surrounding Alexander Hamilton, America’s very first Secretary of the Treasury. This founding father was one of George Washington’s right-hand men and called New York his home. Hamilton played an incredibly important role in shaping American history before dying in an 1804 duel with his political rival Aaron Burr.
Hamilton owned a vast 32 acres in Harlem, which, at the time, was very much considered the countryside. You can visit his Federal-style estate home, which is now managed by the National Park Service, free of charge Wednesday through Sunday. While at The Grange you can learn more about this magnanimous founding father.
Learn more about the Federal Reserve
Anyone with a general interest in gold & the economy will get a kick out of touring the Federal Reserve. They offer free tours of the gold vault and their museum to visitors. I’m no economist, but I recall actually being astounded by the awesome things I learned. While well worth a visit, it is essential that you plan ahead for your trip. Due to the sensitive nature of the Federal Reserve, you must book your free tour at least one month in advance. Be prepared for heightened security and a ban on cameras and phones when entering the vault as well.
Visit a national monument within burial ground
The story of the African Burial Ground Monument is both captivating and controversial. The discovery of a 17th-century burial ground happened in the 1990’s during construction in lower Manhattan. Crews recovered the remains of over 400 men, women, and children. Extensive scientific testing determined these were people of African descent who lived as slaves during the early development of New Amsterdam (New York). Their remains have provided incredible insight into early life for slaves in America. The Monument serves to recognize the contribution these people played in the development of NYC. It also celebrates African and honors their African heritage.
Study Fashion at FIT
While you won’t get a degree or start trading in textiles, you’ll undoubtedly learn a great deal at the Museum at FIT. The museum’s permanent collection celebrates fashion through the ages with over 50,000 pieces dating from the 18th century to present. Detailed and compelling rotating exhibits by students are also on display. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday and admission is always free.
Discover the birthplace of American Government at Federal Hall
Did you know that New York City was the first capital of the United States? A statue of George Washington, our first president, stands at Federal Hall commemorating the place where he took his oath of office in 1789. Completed in 1703 Federal Hall initially served as City Hall, the second of three to house the city’s government. Inside the impressive Greek Revival building, you can find a small museum. The museum is dedicated to postcolonial life in NYC and is open to the public Monday through Saturday.
Explore the diversity of America’s Native People
One of the city’s lesser-known museums is the National Museum of the American Indian. This Smithsonian outpost is a treasure trove of cultural education. With over a million items on display, as well as a handful of programs this museum focuses on cultural awareness through native art. Often overlooked, as people pass it on their way to work, dinner, or better-known attractions, this museum is well worth a visit.
Take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island Ferry is a remnant of a time before bridges connected the island of Manhattan to the outer boroughs. While ferry service is available from Manhattan to Brooklyn & Queens, you will have to pay. The SI Ferry, on the other hand, is entirely free. If you want to see Lady Liberty up close, but prefer not to pay the $25 for a partial tour, this is your best bet. A ride on the ferry offers breathtaking views of NY Harbor and The Statue of Liberty to commuters. If you’re taking the boat just for the sights, be sure to choose a day with beautiful weather. Onboard the ferry you can even swing by the concessions and grab a snack and a beer for your ride.
Skip Broadway in favor of a free classical performance
The New York Classical Theatre presents free productions of classical plays in non-conventional settings around NYC. You need to make a plan ahead of time to catch one of their shows, though. Once you learn the what and where for the show you’d like to see, you will have to arrive early. For the summer season, there are no tickets available, and the show tends to become mobile, so be prepared to move. Winter shows occasionally pop up in smaller venues, and free tickets are distributed 3 hours before start time. You will have to arrive early since they operate on a first come basis. In an age where arts & cultural experiences are becoming increasingly expensive, this company is a shining light making theatre available for all.
Put your maps away and get lost
Honestly, this is the best advice I have for discovering NYC. The city is incredibly old and yet always on the cutting edge. There is no shortage of fabulous finds while you are wandering the streets and alleys. Put your maps and apps away and take in the world around you. In this way, you are bound to discover some of the city’s best-kept secrets. Stumble upon a hidden garden, find the next trendy dessert before it’s viral, have lunch in a bar brimming with local history. Despite what many tourists think, NYC is actually incredibly safe & the locals will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. So, take yourself on a walking tour of the town and soak it all in.
Have you been to NYC? What are some of your all-time favorite free things to do there? This list is far from all-encompassing, so tell me what I missed!