NYC for Free
You’re on your way to visit New York and already wondering how much over your budget you are going to be at the end of the trip. New York is a very expensive city, even for those of us that live here. Here’s my guide to NYC for Free. These are the free things that we like to do as a NYC natives. This is not a Trip Advisor Guide to NYC. It is a New Yorker’s guide to Free NYC for visitors who are interested in going on- and off-the-beaten track and doing it on a budget.
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NYC for Free Parks and Outdoor Activities
For a city of asphalt and skyscrapers, New York has a lot of parks and outdoor activities. Parks are not only great for budget-minded travelers, but also for the locals.
Did you know that there are 1,700 parks in New York City?
Everyone knows about Central Park but every borough and neighborhood has parks. Corona Park in Queens, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Silver Lake Park on Staten Island, Van Cortland Park in the Bronx and many more. Hudson River Park in Manhattan extends from 57th Street all the way down to Battery Park City. You can ride a bike, take a long walk and even kayak for free.
Check Out Bryant Park
Our favorite park in Manhattan is Bryant Park. Located right in the middle of the city between 40th and 42nd Streets and 5th and 6th Avenues, and surrounded by Manhattan office buildings, Bryant Park is full of activities. Play table tennis, take juggling lessons, do yoga or have a picnic. Take a seat for a game of chess. Frequent performances and movies take place during the day and evenings. In the winter, visit the holiday crafts fair. There are plenty of places to eat and tables and chairs for enjoying your food or coffee. If you go for an evening event, you’ll need to arrive early (4:30 or 5 at the latest) to secure a spot on the grass.
Governors Island is another place to put on your list of park and outdoor activities to do in NYC.
If the outdoors are your thing, there are a lot of wonderful hikes in and near NYC for you to explore.
Click here for NYC Parks Department Calendar. You can search for a wide range of activities, events, dates and locations. Go out and enjoy NYC with New Yorkers.
NYC for Free for Theater Lovers
Shakespeare in the Park is an amazing NYC tradition. We have attended almost every year for the past 20 years. One of our favorite memories is seeing Meryl Streep in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. This is delightful experience, BUT you must be willing to get up very early and spend 6+ hours on line to get tickets.
Theater In The Parks
There are, however, many other ways to see free or low cost theater in a NYC Park. Bryant Park does Shakespeare Productions in summer. The Public Theater has a mobile unit that performs around the city. Forest Park in Queens, (Sobelsohn Playground) is another off-the-beaten track place to go for theater. For another venue, try Shakespeare in the Parking Lot which takes place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the parking lot behind Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center (114 Norfolk Street). Another possibility is Shakespeare at Sunset by New York Classical Theater. The NY Classical Theater has open rehearsals in Central Park followed by performances in Rockefeller Park, The Battery, Carl Schurz Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park.
McCarren Park in Brooklyn, on the Queens border has had some marvelous dance and other performances when the pool was empty (it has now been restored to a functioning, water-filled pool). The park now screens movies at night.
You can use the same link as above to search for performances in NYC Parks: Click here for NYC Parks Department Calendar.
Off- and Off-Off-Broadway
Our focus here has been on theater outdoors and we can’t resist a few notes about Broadway, off- and off-off. We love off- and off-off-Broadway. This is not free, but much more budget-friendly (and more cutting-edge) than Broadway.
The Castillo Theater does innovative and provocative political and experimental work. It is also the home of the New Federal Theater, founded by Woodie King, Jr., one of the most important Black Theaters in the country. La Mama ETC, Dixon Place, Magnet Theater—there are so many that deserve mention. Take some time to discover theater off-the-beaten track in NYC. You will not regret it.
One more suggestion, check out the David Rubinstein Atrium. Just a few steps away from Lincoln Center, the atrium has free talks and performances.
Have Some Laughs At A Comedy Club
While we are on this topic—there are tons of comedy clubs in NYC. Many have no admission charge but require you buy 2 drinks. On Thursdays, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater has open mic night. It’s free and you might get to see a future star. Even the shows that aren’t free are very inexpensive.
Coming in the fall? Check out our Fall for Dance post. To get good eats for the festival, you’ll have to book as soon as the tickets open up. Don’t be daunted by being 500 in the online queue. I was number 3000+ and still was able to buy tickets last year.
Museums Beyond Museum Mile
You already know that New York is full of world class museums. MOMA, The Met, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick, the Museum of Natural History and countless others are magnificent. The entrance fees can pile up. Most of these museums had “pay as you wish” policies (some still do) but the current Mayor of New York is changing that policy for out-of-towners and requiring that non-NYC residents pay full price. We love all of these museums. Below we have listed free days and nights for some of them.
Chelsea Art Galleries
There are a lot of other opportunities to see art free in NYC. You may already know about the galleries in west Chelsea. We highly recommend them, and you can combine a visit there with a walk on the High Line. The High Line has gotten very crowded on the weekends so it is better to go during the week. The Chelsea galleries are closed on Sundays. You also should consider taking in some of the galleries on the Lower East Side. These galleries are smaller and have less established artists. We have frequently been able to meet the owner or artists in the gallery for interesting conversations.
Here’s a link to a map of the Lower Eastside Galleries (http://downtowngallerymap.com).
While you are thinking about art, street art is all over New York City and is another way to see amazing art for free–Bushwick Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Harlem, Queens and more.
And, while you’re at it–keep your eyes open for art in the subways. You’ll find pieces by Yoko Ono, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and many others.
Museums Outside Of Midtown Manhattan
Another wonderful place to see art in NYC for free is Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens. You’ll get to check off three things–a trip to one of the boroughs, art and a park. The park is an easy subway ride from NYC and is free and open all year round. The park is a great family adventure.
Admission is free at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture which has an extensive collection of books, documents, photographs and other materials. For a guided tour, you’ll need to book at least a month in advance. The museum will give you an important look at African American history in the midst of Harlem.
Likewise, admission is free at the National Museum of American Indian.
Go To The Brooklyn Museum For The First Saturday
If you happen to be in NYC on the first Saturday of the month, the Brooklyn Museum is free at night. There is a quite a scene with a DJ and a large crowd of regulars. Check the website first to make sure it is happening on the weekend that you are in the city.
While not officially a museum, the New York Public Library on 42nd Street is well worth a visit (and free). Make sure to go up to the 3rd Floor to see the Rose Reading Room. The library is a national historic landmark.
At the end of this post is a list of the current days and times for free admissions at museums and other venues. Doublecheck before you go as days and times can change.
Movies for Free in NYC
It costs $17 for a ticket for a movie in NYC. Add the popcorn and drinks and it can cost upwards of $50 for two people to go to the movies and almost $100 for a family. Seeing a movie outdoors in NYC can be a lot of fun and they are FREE. We once spent a delightful evening on the Bryant Park lawn watching the film Jaws, complete with sound effects from the audience. Bryant Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, McCarren Park, Father Macris Park (Staten Island), Sunset Park (Brooklyn), Randall’s Island, Union Square Park, Riverside Park to name just a few places that you might go see a movie for free.
Once again, the link from above works for searching for movies. Click here for NYC Parks Department Calendar.
Take a Trip Across the River to Jersey City or Hoboken
After having lived in the Village in New York City for decades, we moved across the river to Jersey City five years ago. A short 10 minute subway ride on the PATH train, Jersey City has a lot to offer, including the best views of the Manhattan skyline.
On a clear night, you can see from the Verrazano to the George Washington Bridge from the Pier A in Hoboken. An afternoon in Hoboken or Jersey City can be a nice change of pace. Take a tour of street art in Jersey City, go to Grove Street (Jersey City) or Washington Street (Hoboken) for a street fair, bike to Liberty State Park. The line for the boats to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are often shorter from the Jersey side. For the more exploring, go to Newark to Military Park or the Newark Museum. Or, take in a performance at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). The theater is beautiful, with outstanding acoustics, and less expensive than a theater in NYC.
Hoboken also has movies under the stars. Movies are screened in the open lawn on Pier A just a block from the PATH station (NJ’s subway which runs from 33rd Street or the World Trade Center through Jersey and Hoboken to Newark).
Click here for information on Hoboken events.
Click here for information on Jersey City events.
NYC for Free Big Apple Greeters
Big Apple Greeters is a free program where New Yorkers welcome visitors to the City. New York can be very overwhelming and having a friendly native to answer, take you around on one of your first days can make a big difference. Greeters are volunteers who share their love of the city with visitors, including many who are coming to New York for the first time. They spend a morning or afternoon with you and give you an insider’s view of the city. The demand far outstrips the supply, so sign up far in advance (at least a month) of your trip and keep your fingers crossed.
NYC for Free Admission Times Guide
This list is to the best of my current knowledge. There are many more institutions not listed here. Please check in advance of your visit to any of these places as policies can change.
American Museum of Natural History– every day for last hour (4:45-5:45pm)
Gallery at the Japan Society-Free all day
Fashion Institute of Technologies-Free Every Day
National Museum of Native American-Free Every Day
Statue of Liberty-see it free from the Staten Island Ferry any time
American Folk Art Museum-Free all day
Bronx Museum of the Arts-Free all day
Museum of Jewish Heritage-free during Holocaust Remembrance Day period (2-3 weeks in April)
Museum at Eldridge Street (not free but pay as you wish)
Brooklyn Botanic Gardens-Tuesday before noon
Wave Hill-Tuesday and Saturday 9-12 pm
Bronx Zoo-Free on Wednesdays
New York Botanical Garden Free Wednesday, 9-10am
Museum of Chinese in America-first Thursday of the month
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)-free on Fridays from 408. It gets VERY crowded.
Noguchi Garden Museum-Pay what you wish, first Friday of the month
Museum of the Moving Image Free 4-8pm Friday.
Neue Galerie Free 6-8pm the first Friday of the month.
New York Historical Society Pay what you wish, 6-8pm Friday.
El Museo del Barrio is free on the third Saturday of the month
Studio Museum in Harlem Free on Sunday
Wave Hill-Tuesday and Saturday 9-12 pm
And, too many more to mention.
You might also like to read these Travel Tips from the New York Times Travel show.
There are so many more wonderful things to do and see in in NYC for Free. As we write this, we keep thinking about new places to go. We hope this inspires you to find your own set of things to do. Part of the fun of traveling is discovery—happening upon something and doing it. Happy Discovering NYC for Free.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about? NYC on a Budget Tips for Others? Anything we should add? Leave us a comment.
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Great piece! I’m really enjoying your travel writing…
Thanks Anne. And fixed typo.
They are invaluable suggestions! Now I need to plan a return visit so that I can enjoy them all! I’m truly jealous that you saw Meryl Streep play in Mother Courage it’s one of my favourite Brecht plays.
I love Mother Courage too. Streep was amazing and we were sitting in the 8th row from the stage. So lucky to have seen her. Ping me if you do come back to NYC.
when i lived in manhattan I loved the free movies at bryant park! Every monday night I Believe it was. time out is a great resource for free stuff. I also think the Hall of Science in Queens has some free times – I think Friday afternoons. The bronx zoo also i think its Wednesdays although it get very crowded!
Such a cool list. Thanks! I’ve been dying to visit New York but I acknowledge that my finances are eeeermmm… limited at the moment and hence, probably won’t be visiting it yet. But these tips sure do help =)
Great list! I lived in NYC for 13 years and this is pretty comprehensive. Of course, the number one free thing to do is people watch!
Agree about people watching. And there are soooo many free things to do in NYC.
Great list–even though I’ve lived in New Jersey most of my life, there were many options I did not know about. One suggestion I have is Midsummer Swing at Lincoln Center, from late June to mid-July. There is live music and dancing. You can buy a ticket (not expensive) to enter the dance floor and be closer to the band…or you can stand outside the dance floor and hear the music (and even dance!) for free. http://www.lincolncenter.org/midsummer-night-swing
What wonderful suggestions. I have a friend who adores New York and goes back every year. Hopefully she will see your blog. I love anything for free. One day I will go back to the states and put New York on my list.
I remember a trip to NY about 25 years ago and climbing inside the Statue of Liberty to get to her crown to look out!
Not sure if this is still free but it was a couple years ago and one of my favorite things to do in south Manhatten… the first trip of the day on the Governor’s Island ferry was free so I’d go over and spend the day. You can take free tours of some of the military structures and jail and there are often festivals going on
While I’m bummed I didn’t have this resource when I was in NYC in September, the good news is that I’ve done several of these already. And the better news is that I can share it with my daughter, Charlotte, who is a poor college student heading there in March!
Such a great list! For me, visiting the New York City Library was an absolute highlight, but then I’m a self confessed bookworm! I could have stayed there all day 🙂
Great tips. I especially enjoyed a list of free things by the day of the week. Thanks for sharing!
A great list of choice. My top priority would be to see a Broadway show, everything else would be a bonus.
If Broadway’s your thing, then you’ll likely be in the Times Square Station and there are great mosaics there.