The 12 best things to do in New York City for free
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There’s no shortage of ways to spend your money in New York City, from once-in-a-lifetime meals to bougie hotel stays (although we’d recommend saving your pennies and using points instead for the latter).
But the truth is that even the most budget-conscious traveler can still have just as much fun during a trip to the Big Apple. Sure, you can spend upwards of $30 on a single pie but you can also get your pizza fix at the nearest Dollar Slice shop and come away just as happy. Don’t believe us? Just ask one of the locals you’ll find hovered over a wobbly, chairless cocktail table, feverishly shaking (free!) red pepper flakes, Parm and oregano onto one of New York City’s greatest gifts. This real-deal New York City experience will set you back all of $1 — or $1.50 if you want to splurge for pepperoni.
What’s even better than almost-free food are actual free sights, sounds and places you can check out on your next trip to New York City that won’t cost you a thing. Here are 12 of our favorites, from Brooklyn to the Bronx and everywhere in between.
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What are the best free things to do in New York City?
Gallery crawl in Chelsea
New York City is home to some of the greatest art museums in the world: the Guggenheim, the Met, the MoMA, to name a few. But, admission will usually set you back $25 per person. For an equally high-brow experience without the cost, head down to Chelsea for a self-guided tour of the neighborhood’s top art galleries such as David Zwirner and the Gagosian Gallery. Not only will you escape the crowds, but you’ll also have the chance to take in some of the more unique art world offerings, in addition to some of the more unique New Yorkers. Pro tip: On Thursday nights, you’ll often find free wine or beer available. Just remember, if you break it (or spill on it), you buy it.
Union Square Greenmarket
What’s so great about a farmers market, you ask? Head to Union Square one Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday morning and see for yourself. From fresh flowers to baked goods to handmade crafts and artwork, the Union Square Greenmarket has more than 140 stalls with some of our favorite souvenirs. Samples are a-plenty, apple cider doughnuts a must and, if you’re paying attention, you’ll usually catch a celebrity chef or two milling about looking for the perfect heirloom tomato.
You may think of Central Park as one giant forest or field, but the truth is that within its 840 acres, there are many different microcosms of nature, activities and people-watching. From birding in The Ramble to our personal favorite, watching the disco roller dancers on Saturday mornings in the Skater’s Circle, you could spend days getting lost in the cracks and crevices of this giant playground. Keep an eye out for speeding cyclists, marriage proposals and impromptu tributes to The Beatles at Strawberry Fields.
Window shopping is no fun — unless it’s at Brooklyn Flea. The truth is many of the one-of-a-kind items you’ll spot among this mishmash of vintage and handcrafted goods wouldn’t fit in a suitcase anyway. But, inspiration abounds and deals can be had. Like the farmers market, it’s a great place to pick up a souvenir you won’t want to toss in a few years. Starting in April, you can visit the Flea through October in Williamsburg on Saturdays and DUMBO on Sundays.
Related: A love letter to New York City
Prospect Park summer concert series
We know what you’re thinking: Concerts, for free? They must be no-name acts. Wrong. Each year, Prospect Park hosts its free summer concert series at the Bandshell. Past acts have included everyone from The National to Broken Social Scene. Just make sure to reserve your tickets early: This is one event that’s very popular with the locals and will sell out fast. Bring your own picnic or grab a bite and a beer from one of the top-notch food trucks parked in the area.
Bushwick Collective street art tour
If you’re still craving more artwork, look no farther than Bushwick. This do-it-yourself self-guided tour (here’s a handy map for reference) will give you the chance to get up close and personal with some of Brooklyn’s most vibrant street art, whether you’re doing it for the love of the craft or for the ‘gram. Kills two birds with one stone and hit some of the area’s greatest hits along the way: Molasses Books, Kings County Brewers Collective and Roberta’s pizza (not the dollar slice variety, but worth every penny).
Jacob Riis Park
Jacob Riis Park (and beach) is probably one of New York City’s best-kept summer secrets. Less crowded than Coney and closer (and cheaper!) than the Hamptons, Jacob Riis Park is heaven on Earth for people who need a break from the city’s hustle and bustle. Part of the National Park Service, the beach is even easier to access in the summer, when the Q22 and Q35 buses both stop right inside the park.
Queens Night Market
Food halls are a dime a dozen these days in New York (and everywhere, really) but the Night Market in Queens is the greatest hits version, especially for world travelers. This is not your cookie-cutter, fancy mall food court: This is serious international cuisine in the heart of one of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods (Corona). As the name implies, this market is for you night owls, and on Saturday evenings you’ll get to feast on everything from Bengali Street Eats to Dolly’s Norwegian Kitchen.
The Staten Island Ferry
There are some tourist attractions you just can’t miss, and this is one of them. Jockey your way to the right side of the ferry leaving from Manhattan, grab some prime real estate on the rail, and get ready to bask in the shadow of Lady Liberty. If once is enough, grab a seat inside on the return trip, kick your feet up and enjoy a beer as you sail the open waters of New York Harbor. Unlike expensive tourist ferries, the Staten Island Ferry is always free.
History buffs, rejoice: Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth is one of the oldest military installations in the U.S. The British captured the fort during the American Revolution and it served as a “mobilization center” during the Civil War. Spend the day exploring the grounds and taking in one of the best views of the Manhattan city skyline and the Verrazano Bridge. Don’t miss the National Park Service’s tour of the iconic Battery Weed, which takes place from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Bronx Museum of the Arts
Home to artists such as Coreen Simpson and Vito Acconci, the Bronx Museum of the Arts is a must-see for art aficionados — especially if you catch a rainy day during your trip and need a great indoor activity. Here you’ll find more than 2,000 pieces of artwork from artists who “reflect the borough’s dynamic communities.” After you’re done, head south a few blocks and you’ll find yourself at Yankee Stadium (no Mets fans allowed).
A small slice of coastal heaven right in the heart (well, a little to the north, technically) of the Big Apple, City Island is good for beautiful waterfront views and some of the best seafood in town. Order a plate of fried shrimp from Seafood City, then walk it off by wandering through streets lined with Victorian houses in this nautical haven.
Feature photo by Getty Images
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