This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read full disclosure for more information.
New York is one of the magical cities in our world, that every person must visit at least once in their life. There might be something a bit overwhelming when you arrive in New York for the first time. The huge skyscrapers touching the sky, the mass of people walking in the streets, and the super busy subway system are like no other place. Plus, there are so many free things to do in New York City.
New York has some other sides, with more relaxed neighborhoods, parks to chill out in, and quiet boardwalks with amazing views. The super-busy vibes on one side and the easygoing parts on the other, both make the city as amazing as it is.
A visit to New York can be pretty expensive if you want to do everything the city has to offer, like dining in its world-famous restaurants, shopping in fancy department stores or designers’ boutiques, grabbing a drink with a view in the amazing rooftop bars and watching one or more Broadway shows (which is one of the best paid things to do in NYC).
However, you might be surprised to know that the main attractions and landmarks of the city are available at no cost. So, even if you come to New York on a budget, you can still enjoy its charm.
Best Free Things to do in New York City
Get excited in Times Square
One of the most famous places in the world, Times Square of New York City is a really special place. The area called Times Square is between 42nd and 47th streets, along Broadway and 7th avenues (they cross each other here).
It is surrounded by the flashing screens above you, and the lights from the stores all around you. In the middle of the square – the famous stairs, which are perfect for taking pictures from or just to sit on and watch this wonder, called Times Square.
See the world’s flags in Rockefeller Center
The Rockefeller Center is a complex of buildings between 5th to 6th avenues, and 48th to 51st streets, with the beautiful Rockefeller plaza in its center. The plaza itself is an open seating area in the summer and an ice-skating rink (not free) in the winter.
This is one of my favorite places in the city. It is surrounded by the flags of all the countries of our world and I just love looking at them and seeing if I know them all by heart (my tip: they are placed in alphabetical order, so it helps to guess those you don’t really know).
The area around the plaza is decorated in the holiday seasons, with the famous huge tree and the and angels for Christmas. Two more spots not to miss here are the Lego store and NBC store.
Relax and explore at Central Park
The green lung of NYC is a place you can spend your whole day in. Central Park is 843 acres in size, which is almost 650 American Football fields (crazy!), and it is the perfect place for taking a break from the hectic vibes of the city. The best way to start the day here is to buy some groceries and have a brunch picnic in the park.
Sheep Meadow is a popular wide-open area on west 66th street, but I prefer to enter the park on 81st street and find a seating place under the trees. After some relaxation on the grass, it is time to start exploring the park – the famous Bethesda fountain and the lake; The iconic Mall with the famous statues and vendors selling art and souvenirs; John Lennon’s memorial “Strawberry fields” on west 72nd; the Alice in Wonderland statue and the pool next to it on, on east 74th; The Hamilton and the Obelisk behind the Met Museum; The Belvedere castle and Shakespeare Garden; and more.
Walk along the High Line
What used to be an elevated railroad but was no longer in use, turned into a famous tourist attraction of New York City in 2009. The High Line is a city park along that railroad that goes from 14th street to 35th street on the west side of Manhattan. It has a unique viewing point on the city’s streets and skyline, and New Jersey on the other side of the Hudson River.
The buildings around the High Line are architecturally interesting and you can try to peak in some of the windows facing it.
Climb on The Vessel
The Vessel is one of the newest attractions of New York, located in Hudson Yards. The Vessel is a unique structure made of multiple staircases going up 16 stories high (150 ft). Climbing up is free most of the time, but you need to reserve your entry in advance.
This is one of the best free things to do in New York City if you plan ahead!
While watching the view of the city from above is always beautiful, it is more interesting to look down into the structure and see how unique it is.
Visit the 9/11 Memorial
After the destruction of the Twin Towers in the 9/11 terror attack, the City of New York built a powerful memorial in the same place. The memorial is made of 2 huge pools with man-made waterfalls descending 30 ft down, and another hole in the center of them.
Around the pools, there are boards with the name of all the people who died in the attack. Next to the memorial stands the new Freedom Tower, which is the tallest building in the US and the Western Hemisphere and is the main building the was built here after the 9/11 terror attack.
Watch the Statue of Liberty
The rides to the Statue of Liberty are very touristic, which means crowded, requires a long waiting time in lines, and not cheap. However, if you want to see the statue from close and for free, you can take the ferry to Staten Island from South Ferry in downtown Manhattan.
This is a 30-minutes ride that passes close to the statue, and it is a great way to be impressed by it and take a good picture. The ferry has open decks so you will see some people rushing in to catch a good seat. You should do the same. As soon as you reach Staten Island, make a U-turn inside the terminal, and take the ferry that goes back to the city.
For a more unusual thing to do in NYC, consider glamping on Governor Island which offers great views of the Statue of Liberty. This is a paid experience.
Cross the Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge is another landmark of New York that you can enjoy for free. It’s truly one of the best free things to do in New York City. Opened in 1883, it was the longest suspension bridge at that time, with a span of almost 1600 feet. The best way to cross the bridge is from Brooklyn to Manhattan and enjoy the beautiful skyline of downtown Manhattan in front of you.
Visit the Public Library
The main branch of the Public Library of New York is located on 5th Avenue, between 40th and 42nd streets. This beautiful building with the two lion statues at its entrance was declared a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can walk into the impressive library building and explore it for free. While the main reading rooms are closed to the public, it is allowed to take a quick and quiet peek into one of them.
Take a walk on Coney Island’s boardwalk
Coney Island is one of the fun places in New York, but many people miss it because of its location in south Brooklyn, which is about a one-hour subway ride from Times Square.
However, once you are there, it feels like you are in NYC 30 years ago, with the old-style Luna Park, the wooden roller coaster Cyclone, and the big ferry wheel on the beach.
The rides are not free, but you can walk in between them, enjoy the atmosphere, and pay only for the rides you want to take. In between Luna Park and the beach, walk along the boardwalk, eat at one of the restaurants, watch street performers, look at the ocean, and enjoy the moment in this fun place.
Visit Grand Central
Grand Central on 42nd Street and Park Ave is the main central station for trains to and from upstate NY and other destinations north of the city. Even if you are not interested in traveling outside of the city, the Grand Central Terminal is an iconic building you want to visit.
The distinctive architecture and design have made it famous to be a National Historic Landmark and also to appear on many TV shows and movies, such as The Avengers, Armageddon, Men in Black II, and more.
Watch Shakespeare in the Park
One of the coolest free summer attractions of New York is watching a free Shakespeare play in Central Park. Shakespeare in the Park is a production of NYC and local theater groups at the Delacorte Theater (entrance on 81st street), with tickets distributed free of charge at the theater on the same day of the show.
Plan to be there early because they run out quickly. Watching a show in the open air is an exciting experience, especially when you support local artists and other groups of the community like kids and elderly people. This is one of the most fun outdoor free things to do in New York City!
Explore Brooklyn’s Street Art
Graffiti tagging and protest art started in the 60s and 70s of the last century in a few places in the US and New York was one of them. In the past, it was associated with poor communities and crime, but with time, the street art movement has gained recognition.
Nowadays the streets of the industrial neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn are full of amazing murals covering entire blocks, made by famous artists, and legally allowed by the city. In between, you can still find illegal tagging, stickers, and other protest art, which all together give this neighborhood its colorful, beautiful, and interesting look.
The main area to explore is between Morgan and Jefferson stops of the L line – just stroll in the streets and enjoy the view.
Final Thoughts: Free Things to do in NYC
New York is a very tourist-friendly city, and many of the landmarks are available for free. One of the best ways to explore the city is by strolling in the streets, going from one site to the next one, absorbing city life, and enjoying the vibes of the different neighborhoods.
While accommodation might not be cheap, there are many free things to do in New York City while balancing your budget.
Meet the Guest Author: Moshe
Want to keep reading? Check out this post next: