We know New York City can be expensive. Between the sky-high rent and high-price groceries, it’s pretty darn costly to live here, but hey, we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
This city has oodles of culture and energy with anything from Broadway shows to the most sought-after art museums. Not to mention, the most incredible food. But you don’t have to pay tons of money to enjoy it all. In some circumstances, you don’t have to pay anything.
We rounded up the best free things to do in New York so you can spend time in your city on the cheap.
Walk the High Line
Stroll above the traffic and take in the sights. Sustainable gardens, fountains, public parks, and art installations are just some of the attractions you’ll find on this free, elevated pedestrian space on the west side of downtown Manhattan.
The award-winning complex opened in 2009 following a public competition for innovative designs. The resulting plan reinvigorates an old, abandoned elevated train line that had been slated for demolition. The High Line is open from 7am – 7pm every day of the year. It’s a great place to watch the sunset.
Take a tour with a Big Apple Greeter
This super cool organization is volunteer-driven and donor-supported. That’s how they can continue to offer tours of New York neighborhoods, led by New York natives, for free.
Simply contact the organization to request a tour, and you’ll be matched with one of 300 greeters who offer their services. It’s kind of like visiting with a good friend who can show you around the neighborhood.
Your guide will take you to their favorite sights, best out-of-the-way spots to eat and drink, and fill you in on the neighborhood history, too.
Visit Grand Central Terminal
Where else in New York can you look up and see stars in the middle of the day? Known as the Celestial Ceiling, the grand vaulted space above the main atrium boasts a meticulous recreation of a map of the constellations in the night sky.
As for the rest of the building, it’s more than just a train station: This gorgeous art nouveau landmark features carved stone, brass ornamentation, herringbone tiles in the passageways, and decorative inscriptions.
You’ll also find over 30 shops and restaurants. And, of course, you can catch the subway and the Metro-North railroad. As a major transportation hub, Grand Central is a perfect place to people watch: around 750,000 people pass through its doors every day.
Check out Central Park
You may not realize how big Central Park is – or how many secrets it holds. Within its 843 acres you can take wildlife walks, go birdwatching, visit a miniature moated castle, take a sculpture tour, and much more.
Designed by renowned landscape artist Frederick Law Olmstead, the park has been giving New Yorkers a little nature-filled respite from the city for over 160 years.
Check the website for daily free tours, activities and events. And think seasonal: Depending on the season, you’ll enjoy cherry blossoms, merry-go-rounds, ice skating, migratory birds, fish ponds, and more.
Ride the Staten Island Ferry
Running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week between South Ferry in Manhattan and the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island, the Staten Island Ferry is absolutely free of charge!
Drink in the New York Harbor atmosphere and enjoy stunning views of the Statue of Liberty.
70,000 passengers a day take the ferry to commute between Staten Island and Lower Manhattan. If you love the 80s, this might be the perfect free New York activity for you: scenes in the 1988 Melanie Griffith-starring film Working Girl and the 1986 video for Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach were filmed on the ferry itself.
The ride is about 25 minutes each way, and you must get off the ferry after it arrives in port. You can get right back in line for the return trip.
Browse art galleries in Chelsea
New York is home to dozens of art museums, but the entrance fees can be pricey. The solution? You can get your art fix for free just walking around the gallery district in Chelsea, where some of the most famous artists in the world show their work.
Pick up a gallery guide to check what’s on offer (most galleries have them on hand for free). And make sure you don’t overlook anything – some buildings have a couple of galleries under one roof.
You may even spot a few celebrities. Stars like Katie Holmes, Alec Baldwin, and Jake Gyllenhall are said to frequent the area. Most galleries are closed Mondays, so plan accordingly.
Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Want to travel back in time? This gorgeous neo-Gothic church will transport you to another era.
Nestled in the heart of the cityscape, on 5th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, St. Patrick’s was built in its present location in 1908, after the previous St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street was destroyed by fire.
Since then, skyscrapers have grown up around the elegant structure, and significant restorations have been made, including the cleaning of the façade and the restoration of the windows in 2009. Step inside for a dose of tranquility and beauty that seems to be a world apart.
Take in an auction house showroom
It’s a little-known fact, but the big art auction houses often have galleries with viewings open to the public ahead of their big sales. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Wright, and Philips all have showrooms in Manhattan.
What’s on display and when depends on upcoming sales; think anything priceless and beautiful, from jeweled Mughal daggers to mid-century Modern furniture designs to contemporary paintings. And, since items at auction are often passing from one private collection to another, you may be getting once-in-a-lifetime glimpses of things that will be locked away, never to be publicly exhibited again!
Visit the New York Public Library
The famous stone lions guarding the massive stone steps up to the doors may look stern and forbidding, but entry into this beautiful, quiet space will cost you nothing. Centrally located near Bryant Park, the main branch of the New York Public Library is a must-visit.
Sit in the beautiful Rose Reading Room under soaring vaulted ceilings and read or study (as long as you’re quiet!). Free, timed reservations are required for the Polonsky Exhibition Space, where some of the treasures of the Library collections are on view.
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge
There are lots of ways to view Manhattan’s famous skyline, but most of them, like the Empire State Building observation deck or the top of Rockefeller Center, cost money. Not so for the Brooklyn Bridge, with enchanting views of Manhattan that can be yours for free.
First opened to traffic in 1863, this bridge is famous for its picturesque stone arches, and has stood the test of time, with recent upgrades including a protected bike lane that was added in September 2021.
Keep the skyline in front of you by taking the subway to the High Street-Brooklyn Bridge stop and crossing the bridge toward Manhattan.
Get tickets to a morning show or daytime talk show
You’ve heard the phrase “Taped before a live studio audience,” right? Many of the most popular morning shows and daytime shows are taped in Manhattan studios, with an audience of people just like you.
In fact, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Live! With Kelly and Ryan, and the Rachael Ray Show all rely on a live audience to give the show energy and fun. You’ll need to call ahead or click through a few links online to reserve a free ticket. Audience members can receive gifts or other perks, depending on the show. And of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll end up on camera!
One caveat: You’ll need to get up pretty early. Most morning and daytime shows begin taping by 8 am, meaning you’ll probably need to check in by 7:15 am.