When you imagine the Big Apple, you may not think that there are many free things to do in NYC. Well, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that there are lots of free attractions in New York, so you can experience this city without breaking the bank.
But, before delving into the best free activities in New York City, I’d like to point out that there are many NYC attraction passes that may help you save money. If it’s your first time here, we recommend the New York Pass, which includes the Big Bus Tour and over 100 NYC attractions.
That said, whether you prefer public parks and green spaces or museums and cultural institutions, you’ll find plenty of cheap, fun things to do in NYC!
1. Take a free walking tour of New York City
If it’s your first time visiting the city, this no-cost tour is one of the best free things to do in NYC. While you can find lots of great walking tours of New York City, this free guided tour is a nice primer to the Big Apple.
During the tour, you’ll spend two and a half hours with a knowledgeable guide, who will take you to some famous city landmarks. You’ll walk through the Financial District, one of the best neighborhoods in Manhattan, and see the Charging Bull on Wall Street, then see the beautiful green space at Battery Park. This lovely park is on the edge of New York Harbor, and you can see the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
Then, you’ll make your way to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, a touching tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Throughout the tour, your guide will share interesting tidbits and trivia, so I recommend this tour if you’re looking for a free activity in New York City.
You can check other options in our guide to free walking tours in NYC.
2. Visit Central Park, one of the best things to do in New York City
Central Park is one of the largest free parks in New York City, and an excellent thing to do in NYC with kids. There are lots of other parks you can visit for free, like Battery Park, Prospect Park, and Domino Park, although Central Park is the most famous.
Moreover, there are so many free things to do in Central Park, so you can easily spend hours here. Some popular hangout areas are the Sheep Meadow and The Lake, where you can rent a rowboat. You can admire the fountain at Bethesda Terrace, see Shakespeare in the Park at Delacorte Theater in the summer, or ice skate at Wollman Rink in winter.
Walking through Central Park and admiring the sculptures, structures, and natural areas is a great way to escape the city noise, so whenever you need a break, remember that there are plenty of things to do here for free!
3. The High Line, another free place to visit in NYC
Another cool park in NYC is the High Line, which extends from Chelsea’s Meatpacking District to Harlem. What makes the High Line stand out is that it’s an elevated park that sits on former train tracks. Today, it’s a rail trail and greenway, and one of the best free things to do in NYC.
As you walk along the High Line, you can admire the well-thought-out landscaping and public art, take a rest on one of the benches, and do some free sightseeing. The trail goes past Chelsea Market, Hudson Yards, and The Vessel, an intricate avant-garde structure that resembles a beehive. It’s an impressive sight from the outside, and the views are spectacular from the top. It’s free to go inside the Vessel, but you must reserve a ticket here.
4. Brooklyn Bridge, one of the most famous lookouts in NYC
One of the best things to do in NYC will also give you the best free views of NYC. The Brooklyn Bridge is a city landmark, and no visit to the Big Apple is complete without seeing this beauty up close.
The Brooklyn Bridge extends about 6,000 ft across the East River and has a pedestrian walkway, bike path, and traffic lanes for vehicles. So, however you cross the bridge, be sure to admire the views of Lower Manhattan and the harbor from the Brooklyn side.
While you’re in the area, you can also visit Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of the best places to visit in Brooklyn. The park has plenty of sports fields, as well as areas for fishing, kayaking, and bouldering. There are also lots of green spaces and gardens where you can relax, and beautiful public art, making it one of the top free things to do in NYC for tourists and locals.
5. Ride the Staten Island Ferry, another cheap, fun thing to do in NYC
I mentioned that you can see the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, but if you want another viewpoint, take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. While you can book a Statue of Liberty tour, the ferry lets you sightsee in NYC for free, so it’s something to consider.
The ferry typically operates 24/7 and departs every 20 minutes or so from the Whitehall Terminal near Battery Park. During the 25-minute boat ride, you’ll travel about five miles along the New York Harbor, passing one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Statue of Liberty. You’ll also be able to see the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Governors Island, Ellis Island, and the Lower Manhattan skyline.
Once you get to Staten Island, you can visit the parks and museums, such as the Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden, and other places to visit on Staten Island.
6. Grand Central Terminal & the Chrysler Building, two free NYC attractions you must see
Grand Central Terminal is another must-see in the Big Apple, plus it’s totally free to visit. In fact, a sizable portion of the people who go to the train terminal each day are simply visitors, rather than commuters.
Going to a train station might not seem exciting, but Grand Central is one of the best free places to go in NYC, thanks to its over 100-year-old history, Beaux-Arts architecture, celestial ceiling, and the vast array of markets and restaurants.
Plus, just steps away from the terminal, you’ll find the Chrysler Building, one of New York’s tallest skyscrapers. While you can only see it from the outside, the Art Deco-style building is an impressive sight and was originally supposed to be the structure that King Kong climbed in the movie. I recommend viewing the Chrysler Building from the intersection of 44th Street and Third Avenue or from the Tudor City Bridge (especially if you visit during the Manhattanhenge – May 28th or July 12th).
7. Bryant Park & New York Public Library, two free places to visit in NYC
While it’s much smaller than Central Park, Bryant Park is a wonderful place to go in NYC for free, and it’s close to all kinds of tourist attractions. The eastern side of the park is shaded by the New York Public Library’s main branch, while the western side offers sculptures, memorials, and Le Carrousel Magique.
If you visit during the summer, you can take advantage of Bryant Park’s Movie Nights, a fun and free outdoor activity in NYC. During Christmastime, the park becomes a Winter Village with an ice rink.
Before or after visiting the park, check out the New York Public Library, which has an impressive collection of over 50 million items. You can’t take out any books if you’re not a member, but you can still peruse the rooms for free. Among them are an elaborate study with a marble fireplace and the McGraw Rotunda.
Without a doubt, these two attractions are some of the best things to do in Manhattan, and you won’t have to spend a penny.
8. The Rockefeller Center, a free place in NYC with more things to do
No matter the time of year, the Rockefeller Center is a must-see in the Big Apple. It’s famous for its Christmas tree and ice skating rink, although this massive complex and plaza is just as beautiful in the summertime, too.
The Rockefeller Center is one of the best places to visit in Manhattan for free, and it’s worth visiting for its Art Deco design, an array of underground shops and cafes, and a beautiful plaza. The energy surrounding the Rockefeller Center is electric, thanks to Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studios, which are part of the complex. Fortunately, there are also lovely gardens where you can take a seat and relax.
If you don’t mind spending some money, I highly recommend visiting the Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock, one of the best observation decks in NYC. With multi-level viewing platforms offering 360° views of the city, it’s well worth the money (and it’s included in the New York Pass.)
9. Times Square, a spectacular free place to visit in NYC
Times Square is one of the most exciting places to visit, and while it’s buzzing 24/7, it’s an ideal place to go in NYC at night. Located between 7th Avenue and Broadway, Times Square is a feast for the eyes. The bright lights, costumed street performers, and glittery billboards are something you have to see for yourself!
Plus, there are all kinds of things to do in Times Square. The Red Stairs are an iconic landmark, as well as home to the TKTS Pavilion, which sells discounted seats to Broadway shows. You can also check out M&Ms World, MTV Studios, and famous electric and neon lights like the Coca-Cola sign.
10. Chelsea Market, a popular place to go in NYC for free
If you take the High Line, which I mentioned earlier, you’ll pass by Chelsea Market, another place to go in NYC for free. This huge market is actually a remodeled Nabisco factory, and today it includes all kinds of food stalls, markets, shops, a TV production studio, and corporate offices.
As you walk through Chelsea Market, you’ll find a variety of foods and products, ranging from ethnic dishes and artisan cheeses to fresh produce and specialty items and crafts. It’s quite an experience to browse through all these products, not to mention a fun, free thing to do in NYC on a rainy day!
Moreover, surrounding the market you’ll find public art and interesting galleries, so it’s worth exploring the area.
11. Visit the best free museums in NYC
Given New York’s swanky reputation, it may surprise you to learn that there are some free museums in NYC. Some of these museums have free admission every day, while others are pay-what-you-can or have specific free days.
First, the American Museum of Natural History it’s one of the top museums in Manhattan and offers pay-what-you-wish admission if you’re a resident of New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. This massive museum has a planetarium, gem hall, over 40 exhibition rooms, and the world’s largest collection of dinosaur fossils, so it’s well worth a visit.
The Bronx Museum of the Arts displays contemporary American art, including paintings, sculptures, photography, and installations, and admission is always free. Moreover, the National Museum of the American Indian is free to all and has historical and artistic exhibits about the Native American communities in the U.S.
It’s also free to visit the Socrates Sculpture Park one of the best museums in Queens, and a beautiful garden landscape with installations by global artists and horticulturalists. If you have a passion for fashion, check out the Museum at FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology), which offers free admission to its clothing exhibits. The Queens County Farm Museum is a family-friendly attraction and something different to do in the city.
If you’re interested in visiting other NYC museums, there are a few that offer free admission days. For example, MoMA is free on Fridays, the 9/11 Memorial Museum is free on Mondays, and the Guggenheim is free on Saturdays.
12. Little Island, a calm place to visit in NYC for free
Without a doubt, one of the best free things to do in New York City with family is visiting Little Island. Located at Pier 55 in Manhattan’s Hudson River Park, Little Island is a small public park with gardens, green spaces, food stalls, and scenic lookouts.
Little Island’s design is unique, as it was built on 32 tulip-shaped support structures that vary in height, creating an undulating landscape similar to rolling hillsides. The park is open nearly all day and night, so it’s one of the best free NYC attractions that you can visit at your leisure. Spend some time admiring the gardens, doing arts and crafts with the kids, indulging in a snack, or enjoying the views.
13. Fifth Avenue, a popular free place to go in New York City
Another popular area of Manhattan is Fifth Avenue, one of the most famous streets in New York, that stretches from Greenwich Village to Harlem. Fifth Avenue is best known for its luxury boutiques and shops, but you can also find historic mansions, swanky apartments, and other free New York attractions along this street.
For example, Trump Tower is between 56th and 57th Streets and serves as the home and former home for several Trump relatives. Along with penthouse residences, the 58-story tower contains business offices and shops.
Nearby are the Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building, which I already mentioned, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, another free New York attraction I recommend, even if you aren’t religious. The church, which is dedicated to St. Patrick of Ireland, is almost 330 feet tall and can accommodate 3,000 parishioners. It has several beautiful elements, including stained-glass windows, relief sculptures, dedicated altars, and a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà sculpture.
Further down Fifth Avenue, you’ll find the Flatiron Building, one of the most famous buildings in NYC for its dizzying angles. At its narrowest corner, the structure is 285 feet tall and just 6.5 feet wide, creating a 25° angle that might give you vertigo. You can’t go inside the Flatiron Building since there are offices inside, but it’s worth seeing the exterior!
14. Visit a New York rooftop, a free thing to do in NYC as a couple
If you’re going to be in the Big Apple with your significant other, then consider visiting one of NYC’s best rooftops. You can go to lots of rooftop bars for free, but my favorite is the one at 230 Fifth, which overlooks Madison Square Park and offers stunning city views. While you can get some of the best free views over NYC here, it’s polite to order a cocktail!
Not only is a rooftop lounge one of the best cheap things to do at night in NYC, but it’s also a great couples thing to do in NYC. Besides 230 Fifth, you can check out Mr. Purple, and The Crown.
15. Kayak down the Hudson River, a free thing to do in NYC with kids
For something adventurous to do in the city, check out the Manhattan Community Boathouse at Pier 96, which offers free kayaking lessons. No experience is necessary, so if you’re up for this free outdoor activity in NYC, you should try it!
The Manhattan Community Boathouse is a volunteer-run non-profit, so its free kayaking sessions are funded by donations. The boathouse is open seasonally from spring to October, and you should reserve a spot on the official website.
During your kayaking adventure, you’ll be led along the Hudson River, where you can enjoy the breeze and watch the boat traffic. There are also changing rooms and lockers, so all your belongings will be safe. It’s definitely one of the best free things to do in NYC in the summer!
Cheap hotels to stay in NYC
We have a complete guide on where to stay in NYC, but if you’re looking for the best cheap hotels in the city, these are our top recommendations:
- Pod 51 – A nice Midtown Manhattan accommodation with a refreshing rooftop garden. It’s one of the cheapest hotels in Manhattan.
- Artel Hotel Times Square – This budget-friendly hotel is close to several main attractions
- The Jane Hotel – Located in Greenwich Village, this is an affordable way to stay in one of New York’s most popular neighborhoods
- West Side YMCA – This is another cheap hotel in NYC with a good location near Central Park
As you can see, no matter when you visit or who you’re with, there are plenty of cheap, fun things to do in NYC! To help you plan your trip, here is a map with all the free places to go in NYC that I mentioned. You can download this map of NYC so you can easily locate all the things you want to do during your visit!
Also, if you have any questions or other free things to do in NYC that you’d like to recommend, leave me a comment below. Have a safe trip!