Free Things to Do in New York City

New Yorks best regeneration project, the High Line gives an elevated view of the city
New York's best regeneration project, the High Line gives an elevated view of the city | © Edward Westmacott / Alamy
Julia Goicochea

New York is one of the most expensive cities to live or visit in the United States – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of fun things to do on the cheap. Yoga in Prospect Park, open-air movies in Bryant Park, strolling along the High Line and even a trip to Rockaway Beach, anyone? In between visiting the landmarks, that is.

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Stroll through Central Park

Possibly the most famous park in the world, 25m visitors per year flock to Central Park at the heart of Manhattan. Covering 843 acres (341ha), it’s beautiful for a stroll in every season: from the spring cherry blossoms to fall colors and the romance of winter snow. See fountains, bridges, a boat pond and carousel, then rest on a bench at Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial, to listen to buskers play Beatles songs.

Grab a book in the Rose Main Reading Room

Granted, you don’t come to New York to stay indoors and read – but the grandeur of the Rose Main Reading Room, in the main New York Public Library, might well make you want to grab a book and linger. The room is lined with huge windows and 18 tiered chandeliers, while painted onto its 52ft (16m) ceiling are whimsical clouds. Countless Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and academics have treaded its football pitch-length aisle between the booths.

Venture along the High Line

One of New York’s best regeneration projects, the High Line, has turned an elevated freight train line on Manhattan’s West Side into a park in the sky. The walkway stretches for 1.45mi (2.33km) from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street and is open year-round. It provides a unique perspective on the Chelsea streets and the Hudson River, as you explore the seasonally shifting works of art, food vendors, gardens and performances.

Tour the Brooklyn Brewery

The beer that comes out of Brooklyn Brewery, in Williamsburg, is a hit across the globe – but a can of the cold stuff somehow tastes even better when you sip it in the building where the brand took off back in 1990. Affordable tokens can be swapped for drinks in the taproom – and free tours run every half hour from 1pm to 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays (but beware, the lines to get in can be long).

Join the audience of Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live (SNL) is synonymous with NYC television, so it’s no surprise that tickets to its tapings are coveted. If you don’t know, SNL is a live comedy and entertainment show that airs Saturdays at 11.30pm, so if you’re looking for laughs, there’s no better option. Because of its popularity, tickets are dished out once per year via lottery. You can also try getting a standby ticket by waiting outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza before 7am.

Cruise on the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry plows New York Harbor between the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan and the St George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island. Hop aboard for free and enjoy those skyline views, plus a killer look at the Statue of Liberty. The ferry operates 24/7, and snacks and beer are available on each boat.

Ring in the New Year in Times Square

If you’re brave enough to stand out in the elements to watch the ball drop on December 31 in Times Square, it doesn’t cost a penny. Space is first-come, first-served, for the annual New Year’s Eve celebration that dates back to 1907 – just come wrapped up warm for a long (chilly) night and know there are no public restrooms. The upside, of course, is an electric atmosphere and being part of an American tradition that’s broadcast around the world.

Do outdoor yoga in Prospect Park

If you’re looking for a moment of calm in the city, head to the cloistered escape of Prospect Park. Free yoga takes place every Thursday at 7pm, from the beginning of June until the end of August on Long Meadow – you just have to fill out an online waiver before your first class. Take a moment before or after yoga to wander around Brooklyn’s main green space with its peaceful trails, splash pad and lakeside skating rink.

Sunbathe at Rockaway Beach

NYC Parks maintains 14mi (23km) of beaches, with lifeguards on duty all summer from 10am to 6pm. For the price of the NYC Beach Bus from Union Square or Brooklyn, you can enjoy a day at the excellent Rockaway Beach in Queens. It’s the biggest urban beach in the United States, stretching from Beach 3rd to Beach 153rd Streets. Take a picnic – or let yourself be tempted by the affordable food trucks, especially if you’re craving tacos.

Watch movies under the stars in Bryant Park

Pack a blanket and venture to one of NYC’s parks or star-scraping rooftops to watch an outdoor movie. Open-air screens have been a constant fixture of New York summer entertainment since 1992, when HBO began showing films in Bryant Park. The Our Wicked Lady bar in Brooklyn runs its Rooftop Movie Mondays on a donations basis, starting at around 8pm – spaces are first-come first-served, so rock up with your picnic rug in plenty of time.

Get cultural at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Many of New York’s major museums and galleries offer free general admission, either full time or on select days and hours. One of the best permanently free cultural institutions is the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo – the only accredited LGBTQ art museum in the world. Its 30,000-strong archive features painting, sculpture and photography by artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring, with around eight special exhibitions per year.

Listen to live music at SummerStage

A linchpin of summer in New York, the SummerStage concerts (between June and September) are almost always free. The stage popping up in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield marks the beginning of show season, which includes performances by jazz, funk, indie, reggae and afrobeat bands. The festival has also branched out to several other city venues, including the Coney Island Amphitheater and Marcus Garvey Park.

Watch tennis matches at the US Open

For two weeks each summer, the world’s best tennis players descend upon New York City for the US Open. While tickets to the men’s and women’s finals cost a pretty penny, there is a way to see live quality tennis for free. Head to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, to watch around 250 competitors vie for 20 coveted spots in the men’s and women’s draws, in Fan Week of the US Open Qualifying Tournament.

Walk across the city’s bridges

Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge – traversing New York’s renowned bridges is a fantastic way to see the skyline form a different perspective. At 1.1mi (1.8km) long, the most popular pilgrimage is to Brooklyn Bridge, which opened across the East River in 1883. Pedestrians and cyclists share an elevated pathway, which delivers views of both Brooklyn’s and Manhattan’s skylines, as well as the Statue of Liberty.

See Shakespeare in the park at the Delacorte Theater

Watch a play for free at the 1,800-seat open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The summer Shakespeare in the Park shows are full-scale productions of the English playwright’s works. James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep and Al Pacino have all “treaded the boards” in these annual performances. Getting your hands on tickers involves a bit of luck and patience, whether you go through the TodayTix digital lottery or wait in line (you’ll need to get to Central Park at the crack of dawn).

Get festive at the Rockefeller Center Tree lighting

The world’s most famous Christmas tree towers over Rockefeller Plaza each holiday season. The tree-lighting ceremony, typically held the week following Thanksgiving, is free to attend and you don’t need tickets. Ice skating performances and live music – recently from the likes of Dolly Parton, Gwen Stefani and Earth, Wind & Fire – get the festive spirit in motion, before around 50,000 LED lights illuminate the enormous Norway spruce.

Peace out at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden operates on a “pay what you can” basis between Tuesday and Friday, December to February. This 52 acre (21ha) landscaped grounds feature pavilions, conservatories and themed gardens connected by a looped path. Escape the city bustle by walking among the tranquil Japanese lily pond, quaint English flowerbeds and dainty collections of bonsais and orchids. Check out the Plants in Bloom section of the website to see what flowers will be out during your visit.

Visit film and TV locations

It doesn’t cost a penny to tick off seeing famous locations from movies and TV shows filmed in New York City. Check out Free Tours By Foot for a self-guided route, which begins at the Plaza Hotel. You’ll recognize this 21-story, French Renaissance-style building from multiple films such as The Great Gatsby (2013) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992) – in which Donald Trump, who owned the hotel at the time, made a cameo appearance.

Step inside St Patrick’s Cathedral

This neogothic masterpiece is located between 50th and 51st streets directly across from the Rockefeller Center. Learn about the cathedral’s history via a free tour ($5 donation is suggested), or pop your ear buds in and download the self-guided audio tour app. One of the most visible symbols of Roman Catholicism in the United States, the cathedral opened in 1879 with 330ft (101m) spires, a 7,855-pipe organ and seating capacity of 2,400.

See outdoor art at Socrates Sculpture Park

In true New York-regeneration style, a former landfill has been reborn as this 4.5-acre (1.8ha) city park. Known for its large-scale sculpture shows, its hosts four major visual arts festivals per year: the Spring/Summer Exhibition, the Socrates Annual Fellowship & Exhibition, the Folly/Function Architectural & Design Competition and the Broadway Billboard Series. Admission to the grounds, exhibitions and programs is free 365 days per year, from 9am to sundown.

Explore the Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal, which opened in 1913 in Midtown Manhattan, is more than just a place to catch your train – it’s one of the country’s best architectural achievements and a historic landmark. There are 60 shops to browse under the celestial artwork painted on the ceiling – but the best thing about it is the Whispering Gallery: two people can stand at diagonal ends and whisper messages to one another amid the hustle and bustle that exists around them.

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