Want to visit The Big Apple without breaking the bank? There are plenty of free things to do in New York City! From museums and gardens to splash pads and parks, there are budget-friendly adventures around every corner.
Last summer, my teenage daughter and I enjoyed our first ever girls’ weekend in New York City. I let her choose three Broadway shows to see, and countless ethnic cuisines to taste. In between shows and meals, we spent hours exploring unique neighborhoods, getting lost, and having a grand time without spending very much at all (mostly because I was broke after all those Broadway tickets). It was wonderful.
If you ask my daughter about our Big Apple escapades, it’s likely the impromptu budget-friendly adventures she’ll tell you about. She still raves about the restaurant in Chinatown that served “the best Chinese food ever,” her first experiences on the subway, window shopping at huge department stores, and spotting The Naked Cowboy in Times Square. We made a lot of memories together during that three-day getaway. (The naked cowboy memory I probably could have lived without.)
If you want to plan a visit to New York City on the cheap, here are a few ways to save on adventure, without scrimping on fun!
10 Free Things to Do in New York City
Times Square – Times Square is the ultimate in sensory overload. There are larger than life flashing billboards, blaring music, honking taxis, and so many people crammed onto the sidewalks and intersections that you can barely move. Stores have their own DJs, M & M’s World beckons with a sweet, chocolatey aroma, and costumed characters from Elsa and Anna to Cookie Monster are photo-ready for tips. In terms of people watching, it doesn’t get much more interesting than Times Square.
Central Park – I’m sure entire books have probably been written about all there is to do in the 843 acres that make up this incredible urban park. There is an awesome playground with splash pad, a zoo, gardens, bike paths, a small carnival, buskers, artists, and even free Shakespeare in the Park. Central Park was my daughter’s favorite destination. She recalls, “It was like being in a movie. There were performers everywhere. There were gymnasts, a dog riding a skateboard, a guy juggling violins, musicians, a puppeteer, a singer/songwriter selling her album cover artwork. The park is beautiful and there is so much to see.” To second my daughter’s movie reference, the whole time we were there I imagined us skipping through the park singing, “How does she know that you love her?” from Disney’s Enchanted. Plus, I saw a rat. The ultimate NYC experience.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Moving right along. Admission to MoMA is free for all visitors during UNIQLO Free Friday Nights, held every Friday evening from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets for UNIQLO Free Friday Nights are not available in advance, so be prepared to wait in line. The line begins at the Museum’s 54 Street entrance. Your UNIQLO Free Friday Night ticket permits entry to all Museum galleries and exhibitions. Film admission is free, but a separate ticket is required. (Admission for children 16 and under is always free.)
The 9/11 Memorial – The National September 11 Memorial is breathtaking. Sitting in the footprint of where the Twin Towers once stood, you can now find two reflecting pools, with the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. The names of every person who perished in the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, as well as those who died in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, are etched into bronze panels which line the pools. The 9/11 Memorial is free of charge and open to the public daily from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Prepare to spend some time here. It had a much bigger impact on me than I was expecting, and I was grateful to share it with my daughter, who was only a baby at the time of the attacks.
Staten Island Ferry – Take a 25-minute ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty. The service is free and a ferry arrives every 15 to 30 minutes. Service runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vehicles are not allowed on the ferries, but during rush hour, the ferries are packed with people, so try to avoid riding during those times. This is a great way to have a tourist experience while resting your weary legs. Plus, you can get a great photo of Lady Liberty as the boat passes her by.
Splash Pad at Pier 84 – This free play area at Pier 84 overlooks the Hudson River. New York City has tons of free splash parks and water playgrounds, and some of them are pretty amazing!
The Bronx Zoo – Wednesday admission is by pay-what-you-wish donation. The Bronx Zoo is the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States and is among the largest in the world. Heads up though, parking is not free, so you may want to take the bus or subway. Transit routes can be viewed on the Zoo website. Children age 2 and under, and members of the military, can receive free admission anytime. Visit the Zoo website for details.
The Guggenheim – Admission is Pay What You Wish on Saturdays from 5:45–7:45 p.m. This is a big deal, since regular adult admission is $25. (Children under age 12 are always free.) Check out the current exhibitions online before you go, to avoid visiting during an exhibition changeover, which can last up to a month. Also, note that the Museum is closed on Thursdays.
New York Aquarium – Friday late afternoon, starting at 3 p.m., admission is by pay-what-you-wish donation. Note, however, that parking is not free. Children age 2 and under, and members of the military, can receive free admission anytime. Visit the Aquarium website for details.
The New York Botanical Garden – Grounds admission is free to everyone all day on Wednesdays and from 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Children under age 2 can always visit for free.