Nw York City is notoriously expensive but in winter, there are many free things to do in New York City. Window shopping, browsing outdoor markets and free music are some of the things to do that will cost nothing. For many locals, like lifelong New Yorker Judy Antell, TravelingMom with Pets, this is the best time of year. At holiday time, a festive feeling pervades the city. In January, crowds thin, but bargains abound. And there are still more fun free things to do in NYC in the wintertime.
Free things to do in New York City
Christmastime in New York City brings good cheer, along with mostly high prices for travelers. But January through March, there are many free things to do in NYC. And if you are planning ahead for next year, there are free seasonal things to see in December, too. So you can save a splurge for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular or the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center. And don’t confine your free NYC search to Manhattan. Brooklyn has plenty of free things to do in winter as well.
Rock Solid at 30 Rock
Don’t want to pay to skate at the Rock Center ice rink? It’s still fun to watch the skaters. You can listen to music and watch the music from outside. or go into 30 Rock and see the skaters through plate glass windows. This is also a nice place to warm up inside. Don’t miss the gorgeous Art Deco columns in 30 Rock.
You can’t see Radio City Music Hall or the views from the Top of the Rock for free. But the best thing to see is the giant Christmas tree in front of the skating rink. The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lights up the area from late November until early January.
The LEGO Store has cool NYC landmarks built from plastic bricks. And the store has free activities, like scavenger hunts where you can win a free LEGO figure. You can build with LEGOs in hands-on areas throughout the store. At the Nintendo NY store, you can try out new video games for free.
For free ice skating, head a bit downtown to the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park. While skating is free, rental skates are not. Bring your own and hit the ice for free. When you need a break from the skating, there are more than 125 holiday shops and food stands surround the rink. Shops are open through January. The skating rink is open October through early March.
A Moment at the Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral welcomes visitors of any religion. St Pat’s, the largest Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral in the United States, opened in 1879. Free tours to the public are offered on select days.
Just as you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate St. Pat’s, you don’t have to be Jewish to attend a menorah lighting. Every night of Hanukkah, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn has a menorah lighting open to all. There is music and free latkes. Kids get bags of chocolate gelt. Gelt looks like gold coins, with chocolate inside. Near Central Park, Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan has nightly lighting of a 32 foot tall menorah, billed as “the world’s largest menorah.”
The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine has an annual free New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace. Line up on the day of for free tickets.
Winter and Holiday Markets
The Union Square Holiday Market, the granddaddy of NYC winter markets, started over two decades ago. Columbus Circle has a sister holiday bazaar, from the same group that runs the Union Square Market. The Columbus Circle market also has a large Christmas tree. Both markets offer crafts and handmade gifts. And, you can try samples of the many foods sold at the food kiosks.
If you have a Citibank credit or debit card, each market has a special lounge (even if you don’t have the right card, you can still likely use the area. No one checked mine). The lounges offer free hot drinks, phone charging and free photo booths. There are also heat lamps so you can warm up.
The indoor Chelsea Market is a cool place to visit anytime of year, but it truly is a wonder to see in the wintertime. Light displays enhance historic architecture and food shops entice. Browse the market for interesting and unusual finds from spices to local artwork.
Downtown, the World Trade Center’s Holiday Market at the Oculus has climate controlled holiday shopping. Live music and dance performances make the Oculus even more festive.
It’s in the Stars
The Time Warner Center is an upscale and upright urban mall. There are clean public bathrooms, high end shops and live entertainment, depending on the day. At the Holiday Under the Stars display, 14-feet tall stars hang from the 150-foot ceiling. Go up a level or two and you can see Central Park. The stars are part of a light and music show every half hour (on the hour) between 5 p.m. and midnight. Special performances include music from current Broadway shows, sung by the actual performers.
Ringing in the New Year(s)
If you’ve ever watched TV on New Year Eve’s, you’ve probably seen the ball drop in Times Square. You can be part of the fun, for free. Just brining plenty of warm clothing and a strong bladder.You will be standing in crowds for hours and bathroom access is limited. This is one of those love it or hate it experiences.
If you prefer fireworks, see them in Central Park, before the Midnight Run. There is a free party in the park, with music, before the fireworks. There are also fireworks and a party in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
In late January or February the Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festiva, head to Chinatown for the New Year’s Day Firecracker Ceremony. Learn about Chinese culture as you line Chinatown’s streets. Thousands of firecrackers are set off to keep the bad spirits away in the New Year. Chinatown also celebrates a Lunar New Year parade in early February with plenty of costumes, floats and dancing!
Head to Brooklyn
The Dyker Heights light displays are free. It will just cost you a Metrocard swipe to get there. These are private homes that have lavish, often professional, Christmas light displays. Some homeowners even hand out candy canes or hot drinks. And if you are traveling with your dog, he is welcome to stroll with you.
The Brooklyn Museum hosts Winterfest, an outdoor holiday market with gifts and food for sale. It is free to wander through, and live music and showings of Christmas movies like Polar Express are great for kids. There are indoor places to warm up. Some activities, like the chocolate experience, require paid admission.
Winter Jam: Embrace the Snow
This annual one day event brings winter sports to Central Park. Strap on a pair of cross country skis, borrow a sled and admire the ice sculptures. If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate, snow blowers provide the wintry stuff. Winter Jam is on January 26, 2019.
Warm Up Inside
The Museum of Modern Art is free from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays. (It’s always free for kids 16 and under and local college students.) The American Museum of Natural History is pay what you wish, at any time, for the regular exhibits only. The Guggenheim Museum is pay what you wish, Saturdays, from 5–8 p.m. Whitney Museum of American Art has “pay what you wish,” Saturdays, from 7–10 pm. Sadly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art now limits its suggested admission to locals, so if you aren’t a New Yorker, you have to pay full freight.
Sit inside: NYC has great public space, open to all Consider the newly reopened garden lobby in the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice on East 43rd Street. You will feel like you’re sitting inside a greenhouse. Brookfield Place, downtown, has palm trees, lots of places to sit, and great water views.
Winter is also the time to get bargains. Restaurants have special low priced menus during a 3 week long Restaurant Week. Many Broadway shows offer two for one tickets. Lines at the TKTS booth are shorter, and you can get half priced tickets here. And stores clear out last year’s merch at a steep discount.