15 Free Things to Do in NYC
Here's the borough breakdown you've been waiting for.
Free things to do in New York
Sometimes, breathing air seems like the only free activity one can do in the Big Apple—it’s certainly not one of the cheap U.S. cities you’ll want to travel to immediately. Luckily, you can now take a bite out of these free things to do in NYC worth doing right now and experience the juiciness the city has to offer.
Thain Family Forest
Hidden within the reaches of the New York Botanical Garden, this is the largest stretch of uncut, original forest in New York. For free admission, make sure to get there on a Saturday morning or on Wednesday to saunter through the old-growth trees. Once you’ve finished with the forest, a skip and a hop away is the nicest place in New York: Harding Park in the Bronx.
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge
A typical NYC tour, with all of the must-see monuments, entails walking about 14 miles, so why not make it a picturesque one? The pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge is just over a mile and brings you straight into Dumbo, home of cobblestone streets and astonishing views of the Manhattan skyline.
Walk the High Line
This was originally an old freight line to deliver food to lower Manhattan, until Friends of the High Line, a non-profit restoration group, transformed the decrepit rusting lines into a 1.45-mile greenway. The meandering rows of flowering trees and reclined seats invite you to relax in this unique space. Juxtaposed against one of the 500+ species of plants and trees, you can spot the glimmering New Jersey skyline. For maximum High Line vibes, this hot spot is best to visit at sunset, when the warm hues reflect in the skyscraper windows.
Grand Central Terminal
With 750,000 daily visitors, you can feel like a star in your own movie just by walking through the beehive-like transportation hub. In addition to just gawking at the teal constellation ceiling painting, there are plenty of other secrets within Grand Central Terminal to discover. These free things to do in New York include the whispering gallery, where even the faintest of words can be heard in the opposing corner by speaking directly into one of the corners. Hint: You know you’ve found it when you smell oysters. Even savvy travelers might not know that these common words and phrases were coined in New York City.
Swim in Astoria Pool
Directly under the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge is one of the largest pools in the country. Join hundreds of other visitors and cool off in the sweltering summer heat at Astoria Pool in Queens. Or revel in the fact that you’re swimming in the same structure that housed the 1936 and 1964 Summer Olympic Trials.
Staten Island Ferry
Let the wind whip through your hair as you soak up the panoramic view of the best sights the city has to offer on the Staten Island Ferry. In just 25 minutes, you’re guaranteed to see the Lower Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty—for free! Spoiler alert: This is on the list of the best free tourist attractions in every state.
Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital
The 1850s was a time of gothic architecture and degenerating disease. Smallpox-ridden patients were sent to the secluded hospital, accessible by subway, on the tip of Roosevelt Island, far from the rest of the healthy population. It was in use until 1875 and was turned into a city landmark exactly a century later. For optimal spooky sights, visit at dusk.
NYC parks bring the screen set-up and you bring the blanket. During the summer, movie genres of any kind, including noir, comedy, action, romance, and sci-fi, are shown at outdoor movie locations across a plethora of parks. After a long day of sightseeing, this free activity is perfect for cozying up with a friend, or bring your family.
Ice skating at Bryant Park
The only free ice skating rink in NYC, The Rink at Bryant Park, also boasts views of the dazzling skyline. If you read past the fine print, though, you’ll notice that skate rentals cost $20, something to keep in mind for the frugal traveler. Bryant Park is a quaint alternative to the more televised Rockefeller Center, like these other less crowded alternatives to the most popular tourist attractions.
If you’re meandering around the Financial District, you’re bound to come across the 9/11 memorial. This design features two acre-sized pools where the towers once stood, and the names of the people who died are engraved into bronze panels along the sides. It’s a somber yet important experience to memorialize.
Alexander Hamilton Harlem Estate
It’s an art gallery of its own: The Hamilton Grange in Harlem catapults you into the past with its elaborate period rooms filled with time-correct furniture. See the pastoral setting that the Founding Father would have created as his gardening hobby. This historical house is a bit hidden, like these 11 NYC hidden gems even New Yorkers don’t know about.
If you thought street vendors were bad, try getting past a comedian trying to lure you into their free show. A walk around the East Village during the evening will typically get you invited to a budding comedians show, like at the East Village Comedy Club. Some of these comedians will make you want to stand up and leave, but others will have you out of your seat in a fit of laughter.
This is a free activity that you can do literally anywhere. But one of the more interesting spots to do so is Washington Square Park. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect: Skateboarders occupy the southern part of the park, kick-flipping over the traffic cones they stack in the middle. Walk straight towards the fountain and you’ll see “the crazy piano guy” passionately playing his grand piano that he transported and assembles daily. Come afternoon time, the park poets come alive with their on-the-spot poems (although there’s typically a suggested donation).
NYC is the only place where you’ll be able to see headliner artist after headliner artist—for free. SummerStage, a City Parks Foundation, puts on an outdoor concert every night in parks across the city where 200 artists performed in the summer of 2019. If the crowds in the small venue become too much, there’s a lush lawn right outside of the gates that’s perfect for boogying or laying down to let the sound roll over you. Taking advantage of all these free things to do in NYC is only scratching the surface of the many ingenious ways to save money while traveling.