In order to avoid letting the Big Apple take a bite out of your wallet this winter, look at all the free things to do in New York City. From holiday window shopping to browsing markets, taking in free music–there are ample things to do that will cost you little to nothing. Take advantage of the sights and people-watching. Breathe in the fir-ladden air. And make the most of all the free things to do in NYC in the wintertime.

People watching at New York's Rockefeller Center is one of the best free things to do in NYC in the winter.

People watching at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery Travelingmom

Free things to do in New York City

If you’re headed to the northeast this winter, be a tourist “in the know” and check out the free things to do in NYC. Sure, there are plenty of touristy things to do—but many will set you back dollars. However, amid the well-traveled (and lesser known) destinations are seasonal things to see and do that won’t cost a dime.

Hit the Rock

The Radio City Music Hall show and the dancing Rockettes are a popular treat but they’re hardly free things to do in NYC. Heading up to the “Top of the Rock,” allows for some amazing city views, but it will lighten your wallet considerably. So, if you’re in the area of Rockefeller Center and want to make keep your money in reserve, here are sites that are free in New York City or low-cost enough to keep you in the dough.

Rockefeller Center is home to world-famous fountains and the skating rink. If skating is your thing, it will cost you to skate at Rock Center, but there’s no cost to watch. (And it’s a fun way to pass the time). While you’re there, it’s nearly impossible to miss the giant Rockefeller Christmas Tree. It glitters with thousands and thousands of lights and makes for a spectacle in its own right. It’s lit up from early November through until early January. Many people, in their haste to see Rock Center outside, forget to go inside the building to enjoy its beautiful art deco columns and lights.

Kids building with Lego is one of the great free things to do in NYC.

Kids building with Lego is one of the great free things to do in NYC. Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery Travelingmom.

While you’re there, the LEGO Store is a great stop for kids with LEGO building block activities galore. There’s also some impressive New York-centric LEGO artwork that’s built throughout the store.

For free skating, head further downtown to the Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park. (Take note, the skating there is free, but the skates are not. Bring your own or it will cost to rent.) If you need a break from the skating, there are more than 125 holiday shops and places to eat.  They offer food styles from around the world and are open through January. The skating rink is up and running through early March.

A Moment at the Cathedral

You don’t have to be Catholic to want to check out St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It first opened in 1879 after 20 years of construction. It’s the largest decorated Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral in the United States—seating 2,200 people. Free tours to the public are offered on select days. Check the website for timing. I find it to be especially beautiful to visit when the weather outside is less than forgiving.

Step Into the Palace

If you walk around the back of the Cathedral, you’ll come upon the Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Madison between 50th and 51st. Take a moment to check out the courtyard. Warm up in the lobby and check out holiday displays. Then turn around to see the back side of St. Pats with a lot fewer tourists!

Music

If you don’t want to spend your dollars on Jazz at Lincoln Center, consider The Bloomingdale School of Music. It’s a non-profit community music school offering more than 80 free concerts a year. That includes plenty during the winter season. Check out the schedule ahead of time.

Winter and Holiday Markets

Holiday markets are one of the best free things to do in NYC in the winter.

Holiday markets are fun to explore and are great places for low cost gifts and free samples! Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery Travelingmom

The Union Square Holiday Market has been around for more than two decades. It’s established itself as a key European-style market offering more than 150 kiosks. Columbus Circle has its own holiday bazaar—also from the folks behind the Union Square Market. Here you can find crafts and handmade gifts to see. (It’s free in New York to look, but if you’re wanting to own, yes, you’ll have to buy. That said, there are quite a few options for $10 or under.) While you’re there, try samples of the many foods created at the food kiosks. Need help? Ask the market “concierge” to direct you.

The Chelsea Market is a wonderful place to visit anytime of year, but it truly is a wonder to see in the wintertime. Light displays enhance historic architecture and food displays entice. Browse the market for interesting and unusual finds from spices to local artwork.

It’s in the Stars

If it’s cold and you want to step inside for a bit, the nearby Time Warner Center is a good pit stop. There are clean public bathrooms, high end shops and live entertainment, depending on the day. At the Holiday Under the Stars display you gaze at stars that are 14-feet tall  hanging from the 150-foot ceiling in the Great Room overlooking Central Park. The stars are part of a light and music show performing every half hour (on the hour) between 5pm and midnight.

Holiday in Lights show at the Time Warner Center is one of the best free things to do in NYC.

Holiday in Lights show at the Time Warner Center. Photo credit: Eden Pontz / Discovery Travelingmom

Ringing in the New Year(s)

Will you be in the city during the New Year? If so, head to New York’s Time’s Square and watch the ball drop. You’ll need to get there plenty early to get a good spot. Dress warmly as you’ll be standing in throngs of tourists for hours. From live concerts to confetti, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Perhaps fireworks are more your preference. You’ll have a chance to see the bright lights in Times Square (depending on where you’re standing). You’ll have a view from Central Park (following the Midnight Run), Brooklyn’s Prospect Park or the Brooklyn Bridge. Locations may vary slightly from year to year, so check with local Parks Departments to find the best viewpoints.

If you’re visiting later in January, head to Chinatown for the New Year’s Day Firecracker Ceremony. Learn about Chinese culture as you line Chinatown’s streets. You’ll watch as 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!

Traveling to New York City on a budget? It's not as challenging as it sounds. Just check out these free things to do in New York City in the winter. There are outdoors wonders and some indoor spots to warm up as well.

Get Out of the Cold

If the weather outside is frightful, there are plenty of free museums throughout the city to see and get out of the cold. The American Folk Art Museum and The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology are two fun ones. Plenty of other popular museums, including the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and the Museum of Arts and Design allow you to pay what you will or have specific times when they’re free during the week. For example, the Museum of Modern Art is free from 4 to 8pm on Fridays. (It’s also free for kids 16 and under and select college students.)

Don’t forget the oft-forgotten public atriums of New York City. Many have amenities such as reasonably-priced hot chocolate drinks. Consider the garden lobby in the Ford Foundation on East 43rd Street. You will feel like you’re sitting inside a greenhouse.  Indoor waterfalls at the Park Avenue Plaza on East 52nd feel like a refuge from the crowds outside.

These of course, are just the tip of the winter iceberg of free things to do in NYC! From walking the High Line (fewer crowds!) to visiting sites where your favorite movies or TV shows have been filmed, the list goes on. So forget any winter hibernation as this is the city that never sleeps and you’ve got things to do that are free in New York!

What are your favorite free things to do in NYC?