Free Things to Do in New York City

Free things to see and do in NYC.
The New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

When I travel, there’s a four-letter word that begins with the letter F that I love hearing. No, not THAT four-letter F word! I’m talking about the one that gives many of us so much joy and doesn’t require very much from us. If you haven’t figured it out already my friends, I’m talking about the word free. Why, you might ask, do I love hearing this word when I’m traveling? Well, simply put, it means that I can afford to see and do more things. It’s not going to break the bank, and if it turns out to be a bust, well I didn’t lose much except my time.

On my recent trip to New York City, I was traveling on a tight-ish budget. While I knew the majority of my funds would go towards accommodation first and food second, I wanted to find activities that were free yet exciting and enjoyable at the same time. What I found was that you really didn’t need a lot of money to enjoy the city. There’s actually quite a lot of things that required no money at all, just a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

So I present to you below, a list of free things you can do in New York City. Now, this isn’t a comprehensive list, just a compilation of activities I enjoyed on this past trip to the city. Go ahead and add additional free things to do in NYC in the comment section below!

Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

Free things to do in New York City
Walk, run, or cycle from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

I guess I’ll start with my favourite activity I did on this trip. The rest are in no particular order.

One of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States (1883) and an iconic symbol of New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge connects the boroughs of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan across the East River. It spans a total length of 1825m, accommodates 6 lanes of traffic on its lower level, and one pedestrian and bicycle path on its upper level. Walking the length of the bridge gives you panoramic views of the entire eastern length of Manhattan. Cars zip along underfoot and the spider web-like steel wires loom overhead. It provides a lot of great photographic opportunities and can be enjoyed during the day and at night.

I would recommend starting in Brooklyn and walking in to Manhattan. The sun will be behind you and bask the bridge in a beautiful daylight glow (and will provide you with perfect lighting conditions for your photos). To access the pedestrian walkway from Brooklyn, I would recommend the underpass entrance on Washington Street.

Visit Central Park

Free things to see and do in New York City
Looking north towards Bethesda Fountain.

Breaking up the Concrete Jungle that is Manhattan, is the country’s most famous urban park, Central Park. Covering an area of 843 acres, the park is 4km long and 0.8km wide. New Yorkers and tourists come here to escape the crowded sidewalks and streets and relax surrounded by nature. If you’re looking to get in a little exercise, runners, walkers, and cyclist make excellent use of the pathways that twist and turn throughout the grounds. Within the park are a number of things to see and do to keep you busy (though most come attached with a fee), including a zoo, bycicle rentals, rock climbing, boating, a carousel, horse-drawn carriage rides, playgrounds, and Strawberry Fields, a memorial site for John Lennon. Every summer, Central Park turns into an open-air performance mecca with free theatre performances, attracting well-known stage and screen actors, musical concerts with big name performers, such as Elton John and Bon Jovi, and performances by the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera.

Pack a picnic and wear a good pair of shoes, because you’ll likely be doing a lot of walking whether you planned to or not.

The 9/11 Memorial Site

9/11 Memorial Pools
Peering into the North Pool.

September 11, 2001, will forever be remembered by New Yorkers, Americans, and people worldwide as one of worst attacks on innocent civilians. The image of those planes crashing into the Twin Towers will forever be seared into the minds of those who witnessed them first hand and on televised reports that followed the attacks. I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of the first attack and watched in horror as a second plane deliberately crashed into the South Tower.

The 9/11 Memorial opened on the 10th anniversary of the attacks and consists of two pools where the original Twin Towers once stood. Thirty-foot waterfalls cascade into the pools, each descending into a centre void. Surrounding the perimeter of the pools are the names inscribed in bronze of the 2,983 people who lost their lives, including the 6 people who were killed in the 1993 World Trade Centre Bombings. The 9/11 Memorial site is a beautiful tribute to those who are forever gone but will never be forgotten.

Please keep in mind that this is a memorial site. Give it the respect it deserves and act accordingly.

Staten Island Ferry & the Statue of Liberty

Free things to do in New York City
A pretty decent view from the Staten Island Ferry.

Forget the security screenings and the $24 entrance fee. Hop on the Staten Island Ferry and see the Statue of Liberty for free! Operating 24-hours a day, the Staten Island Ferry connects tourists and commuters between Staten Island and Manhattan all for the low-low price of free. The 8km journey takes about 25 minutes one-way and cruises the Upper New York Bay, giving you amazing views of the Lower Manhattan skyline and the famous lady. Granted, the ferry doesn’t get exceptionally close to the Statue of Liberty, but it gets close enough for some decent photo opportunities.

During the day, the ferry runs every 30mins at the top and half of the hour. Click here for a complete timetable. The Staten Island Ferry departs Manhattan from the Whitehall Terminal, accessible from the Whitehall Street subway stop on the R and W lines, next to Battery Park. When departing from Manhattan, stand on the right side of the boat (or starboard side for you boat aficionados) to see the Statue of Liberty. If you don’t plan on spending any time on Staten Island, you will have to disembark from the ferry and re-enter the terminal before heading back to Manhattan. Just follow the crowds, as most people just enjoy the round trip.

The New York City Public Library: Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Free things to see and do in New York City
The Rose Main Reading Room

Opened in 1911, the Schwarzman Building, also known as the “Main Branch” or simply just “the New York City Public Library”, is considered one of the greatest libraries in the world. It’s home to more than 15 million items and is one of four research libraries in the city. Located on the southwest corner of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, the building is an architectural beauty. Built out of marble and brick, with spectacular paintings, sculptures, and intricately carved details throughout, this is not your average looking library. Walking through the cavernous atria, richly decorated halls, and ornately looking chandeliers overhead, you would think this was actually a palace and not a library.

There are free 1-hour building tours offered Mon-Sat at 11am and 2pm and Sun at 2pm. Tours start from Astor Hall, located from the 5th Ave entrance. If a tour isn’t your thing, you can wander through the building on your own, but don’t miss the iconic Rose Main Reading Room. Added bonus: free wifi throughout the building.

Grand Central Station

The main concourse at Grand Central Station.

Another architectural marvel in the city is Grand Central Station, located at 42nd Street and Park Avenue. As the name so aptly states, this place is indeed grand. No matter how many times I visit the station, I’m always in awe of the feelings it can evoke within me. There’s a sense of adventure, possibility, a chance meeting with a stranger, and a bit of hope that a flash mob will start a song and dance routine. As the largest train station in the world, Grand Central is always a flurry of activity. As people rush to catch trains, give tearful goodbyes, or meet under the clock tower in the main concourse, this is the perfect venue for people watching.

Walk the Highline

Green-space in New York City
Walking the Highline gets you up and away from the traffic below.

In what is likely one of the best examples of repurposing old, defunked rail lines into public spaces, the Highline is an elevated green-space on the west side of Manhattan. Spanning 1.6km from W 30th Street (between 10th and 11th Ave) down to Gansevoort Street, the Highline includes a single pathway, multiple access points, seating areas, public art spaces, gardens, and even food vendors. Take a stroll, look out onto the Hudson River as it peaks through the buildings, feel the traffic rumbling below you, pack a lunch, and kick up your feet on the 23rd Street Lawn.

To access the Highline, use one of these 8 entry points west of 10th Avenue: 30th St*, 28th St, 26th St, 23rd St*, 20th St, 18th St, 16th St*, 14th St*, and Gansevoort St (at Washington St). * indicates wheelchair access points

Times Square

Free things to do in New York City
Where Broadway meets 7th Avenue.

Sure, it’s really touristy, but no trip to New York City would be complete without checking out Times Square. At the crossroads of Broadway and 7th Avenue, it’s the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world and is the hub of the entertainment industry in the city and the Broadway theatre district. It’s a sensory overload with flashing ads and towering billboards crammed onto every inch of available building space, all competing for your attention. The likes of Elmo and Dora the Explorer roam the streets, along with various attention-seeking buskers such as The Naked Cowboy (who I first saw working the square back in 2002!). At night, Times Square really shines, literally, and it becomes LED central. Just be sure to keep your valuables close by and be careful of those who approach you and offer to use your camera to take a photo of you.

Have anymore free things to do in New York City to add to the list? Leave them in the comments below!

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  • http://twitter.com/nearafar Natalie T.

    I have not been to the NY Public Library yet. I should be going to a gala there actually, so it’s super exciting! Booze and books – can’t get better than that! I LOVE the High Line and Central Park is really fun too. They’re all good, really, and with most of these sites, even though I’ve been previously I still return to them. I always feel like I have to get a shot in Times Square, even though I have pictures from previous trips.

    • http://www.seeyousoon.ca Arienne

      The NY Public Library is such an amazing building. And getting to experience it in a gala setting will be even better! The free wi-fi isn’t so bad either :)

  • http://www.thetravolution.com/ Cristina

    Woohoo! NYC is on my travel list for ’13 and i’m adding all these free places! Never heard of the highline – it sounds like a serene spot to lose the tourists for a while :)