New York City is one of those places that’s on nearly everyone’s bucket list. It’s known to be crazy expensive, but that doesn’t stop the tourists from coming in ridiculous amounts, year after year. However, there are more free things to do in New York City than you’d think. We’ve listed 27 of them below to help you keep your travel expenses more or less in check when visiting The Big Apple.
Wondering how ridiculous the amount of tourists a year is? Allow me to elaborate. New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States. In 2016 the estimated population was 8.5 million people, living on 302.6 square miles or 784 km2. Now guess how many tourists visited New York City in 2016. A whopping 61 million! Including us. Were you even close?
Now, without further ado, our suggestions on free things to do in New York City.
Visit New York City’s iconic buildings
The New York City skyline is without a doubt one of the most famous skylines in the world. It’s made up of several iconic buildings, all striving to be taller and more impressive than the rest. Watching (and photographing) the New York City skyline as a whole is definitely a bucket list item that can be ticked off from several locations throughout the city. Seeing some of these iconic buildings from up close can be even more impressive though. And it’s one of several free things to do in New York City! Here are the ones we visited in no particular order.
Rockefeller Center, constructed between 1931 and 1939, is one of New York City’s most iconic buildings. It’s actually an entire complex, with 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or 30 Rock for short, as the centerpiece. The view from the observation deck, aptly named Top of the Rock, at the top of this 70 story building is jaw-dropping. It resulted in my favourite photo of New York City. That part is unfortunately not free. You can read more about here.
There’s no entrance fee for Rockefeller Center though, where you can shop and dine. But the most interesting part is Rockefeller Plaza, right in front of 30 Rock. That’s where the huge Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is put up every year in November, decorated with 45,000 LED lights. The spot is marked on the ground if you’d like a selfie with it.
Interesting pieces of art are on display on Rockefeller Plaza throughout the year. During our visit there was a huge upright swimming pool in the shape of an ear.
Prefer Lego art instead of contemporary art? No worries, there’s a big Lego store as well on Rockefeller Plaza. Pop in to admire the giant Lego constructions or give it a try yourself.
New York Public Library
The New York Public Library was founded in 1895. Ever since, it’s been a busy meeting place for people wanting to learn, read, admire the architecture or look at art. Several events and exhibitions fill the library’s calendar and the steps leading up to the entrance are always crowded with people, flanked by 2 stone lions. It’s truly an impressive building. Unfortunately the famous (fancy!) reading room was closed for renovation works at the time of our visit.
Grand Central Terminal
One of my favourite buildings in New York City, and definitely iconic, is Grand Central Terminal. Many movies feature this impressive railroad terminal, some as a backdrop for romance, others as a place of chaos and disorientation. I seem to have remembered it as a happy place though, immediately feeling like I was in a movie when stepping inside. Take a moment to admire the Main Concourse’s beauty and don’t forget to look at the astronomical ceiling!
Empire State Building
The Empire State Building, a 102-story skyscraper completed in 1931, used to be the world’s tallest building. It’s easily recognisable from the Art Deco spire on top. Obviously the Empire State Building has an observation deck as well, which isn’t free either. You can read more about it here.
Since 1976 the top of the tower is being lit at night. Most of the time it’s a signature white, but on certain holidays or during big events it can be any color, befitting the occasion.
Check out the Empire State Building website for the full lighting calendar.
The Flatiron Building, completed in 1902, has a unique shape. This 22-story building reminds of a cast-iron clothes iron, which is where it got its name. At the time of its construction it was nicknamed Burnham’s Folly, because people believed the wind would knock over this triangular shaped building of exceptional height. The architect, named Burnham, did his job well though, and the Flatiron Building withstood the test of time.
New York City Hall
New York City Hall, constructed between 1803 and 1812, is one of the oldest city halls in the United States. We only stopped for a photo while passing it. It’s pretty impressive!
The Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, was the world’s tallest building for 11 months until it was surpassed by the Empire State Building in early 1931. It’s easily recognisable from the metal terraced arches on top.
One World Trade Center
The One World Trade Center, opened in 2014, is already an iconic part of the New York City skyline. This 104-story building (104 standard floors high, but only 94 actual floors) is located on the northwest corner of the World Trade Center Site. Its footprint is identical to the destroyed Twin Towers. Being the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, it has an observation deck as well. Entrance to the One World Observatory obviously isn’t free but definitely worth it. You can read more about it here.
Admire New York City’s impressive landmarks
Apart from these towering skyscrapers defining the New York City skyline, there are a bunch of impressive landmarks that automatically pop up in your head when thinking of New York City. And they are free for you to admire and visit! Here they are, in no particular order.
When thinking of New York City, Times Square is one of the first things that comes to mind. Every day tons of tourists flock to this world famous pedestrian square that’s lit up day and night by the dozens of screens and billboards surrounding it. The busiest moment of the year is New Year’s Eve though, when Times Square is the site of the hyped New Year’s Eve Ball Drop.
Oh, and did you know the square is named after The New York Times? They were one of the first tenants on the new square.
The Brooklyn Bridge, constructed between 1869 and 1883, is one of New York’s most recognisable features. For 20 years it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, stretching across the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge is made up of two Gothic towers with two arches each and a web of steel cables. You can admire this beautiful landmark from different points of view, all giving a unique perspective to this impressive structure.
One (must do) way of experiencing the Brooklyn Bridge is crossing it. Preferably on foot or by bicycle. You can do so in either direction, but we’d suggest walking towards the stunning Manhattan skyline. We clocked at 40 minutes of walking when reaching the souvenir vendors selling photos, paintings and little yellow taxis among others. Mind the other pedestrians and cyclists, but don’t forget to look around and up while walking over the Brooklyn Bridge!
The stairs leading toward the pedestrian walkway over the Brooklyn Bridge on the Brooklyn side are located on Washington Street and Prospect Street, right here.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, check out this famous spot for watching (read: photographing) the Manhattan Bridge. It’s on the intersection of Water Street and Washington Street, right here on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. You’ll get that popular shot of one tower of the Manhattan Bridge flanked by two buildings. Don’t get run over while taking that perfect selfie!
Statue of Liberty
Another landmark that’s unique to New York City is the Statue of Liberty. The United States received this huge copper statue as a gift from France in 1886. Lady Liberty, as she’s referred to as well, has been standing tall and proud on Liberty Island in the New York Harbor ever since. She’s a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. You can pay to visit the pedestal or crown of the Statue of Liberty or watch her from the Staten Island Ferry for free.
We boarded the Staten Island Ferry at the Whitehall Terminal in Manhattan. The ferry transports people, bicycles and cars alike across the Upper Bay to the St. George Terminal in (surprise, surprise) Staten Island. Every 30 minutes a ferry leaves.
This 25 minute boat ride is free and provides a great view on the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Note that the ferry doesn’t turn, so Lady Liberty will be on the right when leaving Manhattan and on the left when heading to Manhattan. On some vessels (there are 9) you can go outside at the back of the ferry as well. On Staten Island we just looked for a geocache and took the next ferry back to Manhattan.
Beware of people trying to trick you in going on a Lady Liberty Boat Tour. When leaving the metro station they tried to convince us by saying we weren’t going to be able to see the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry with the fog and rain. We could already see her from the terminal though. They were right about the weather not being ideal for awesome photos, but our photos wouldn’t have been much better from their boat. And that would have cost us way more money.
Explore the different New York City neighbourhoods
When visiting New York City we’d recommend exploring as many different neighbourhoods as possible. They all have a different vibe and look. You already know we skipped Staten Island, but we did walk through Brooklyn, visiting a flea market and a food market. It seems so much more quiet and relaxed there, totally different from the busy and hurried Manhattan on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn is huge, so you can do a ton of exploring here.
Manhattan is the beating heart of New York City though. We already covered a bunch of its impressive skyscrapers, but there are some neighbourhoods worth mentioning as well. Wall Street for example, the financial center, featured in tons of movies. I expected it to be more like the movies, more people in suits. In reality there are a lot of tourists, especially at the Charging Bull, where people are lining up to take a selfie. Whether it’s at the front or back of this huge beast. This 3.5 ton bronze sculpture is also called the Wall Street Bull and symbolizes Wall Street and the Financial District.
Another area in Manhattan that’s worth wandering through is Chinatown. Little Italy, situated to its north, is unfortunately gradually being taken over by Chinatown, but there are still some cute Italian restaurants to be found. There are no really popular sights, it’s just about soaking up the different kind of vibe that’s in the air here.
Enjoy the lush green parks
New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, filled with skyscrapers and honking cars. That’s pretty accurate. However, there are tons of lush green parks to get away from all that. Even though you sometimes can’t entirely shut out the noise of the bustling city, it’s nice to be surrounded by green for a change.
Enjoying the parks is definitely one of our favourite free things to do in New York City. These are the ones we visited, in no particular order.
Bryant Park is the first park we visited in New York City, and certainly one of our favourites as well. It’s situated right next to the New York Public Library. At the time of our visit, it was filled with people enjoying a book or each other’s company under the spring sun. The lawn was unfortunately closed so no spreading our picnic blanket on the grass. The board game area was open for our entertainment though. What a great idea! There are tons of board games to choose from. We played a game of Set. There are plenty of other free activities in the park as well. You can check the Bryant Park website for more information.
East River Waterfront Esplanade
I already mentioned 2 points of view to admire the Brooklyn Bridge. Pier 15 on the East River Waterfront Esplanade is another. There’s a café, some green, and a bunch of chairs to relax and enjoy the river view with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop.
Had enough of sitting and relaxing? Follow the East River Waterfront Esplanade to the Staten Island Ferry Pier for a nice walk along the water. Or head into the other direction, to Brooklyn Bridge, as the Esplanade continues all the way to Montgomery Street.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
On the other side of the East River is yet another viewpoint to marvel at the Brooklyn Bridge surrounded by the Manhattan skyline: Brooklyn Bridge Park. Apart from the green, the view, and even a beach, tons of events are organised here as well, like plays, workout sessions, and movies with the view. For more information you can check the event calendar on the Brooklyn Bridge Park website.
One particular part of Brooklyn Bridge Park that needs a mention is Empire Fulton Ferry. Situated in between Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge it grants an even nicer view of the bridges, the Manhattan skyline, even Williamsburg Bridge, the One World Trade Center and the New York Harbor. You can even see the Statue of Liberty on the far left. Not to forget Jane’s Carousel, that’s sitting on the lawn beautifully restored.
On to the most famous park in the world: Central Park. If you’ve never heard of this park, you’re probably living on another planet. According to Wikipedia it’s one of the most filmed locations in the world. Oh, and it’s huge. Hard to grasp how huge, but seeing it from the Top of the Rock gives you a vague idea. The fact that you can do a tour by bike taxi or horse and carriage says something as well.
This massive oasis of green in the bustling metropole that’s New York City has something for everyone: runners, art enthusiast, history geeks, nature lovers, and families. It’s a paradise for photographers as well, wether you like to photograph people, nature, or animals (birds and squirrels). At some spots you can see the skyscrapers surrounding the park, making for a nice contrast in your photos.
We got ourselves a picnic from Levain Bakery and ate it somewhere on a bench in Central Park. We geocached our way through the park and visited Shakespeare Garden. Belvedere Castle is pretty impressive as well. When you decide to climb it, you have a nice view over the Turtle Pond, filled with little turtles. While the park itself seems to be overrun with runners, areas like Belvedere Castle are swarmed by tourists. But I’m sure you find the perfect spot for what you came to do here, somewhere in this big green lung of New York City.
For more information on things to do in Central Park, you can check out their website.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is pretty tiny compared to Central Park, but I guess most parks are. It’s still a popular meeting place, known for its arch and fountain. The Washington Square Arch, honoring George Washington, reminds of a smaller Arc de Triomphe. From the park you have a nice view on the One World Trade Center through a street (although I don’t quite remember which one).
If you like to watch a “streetball” amateur basketball game, the West Fourth Street Courts are just a 5 minute walk from Washington Square Park. The court is smaller than regulated, resulting in tough physical play. Apparently a couple of notable basket players started out here, in The Cage.
Union Square Park
Union Square Park opened in 1839 and has hosted countless of events ever since. It’s home to a lot of squirrels as well. You can enjoy a game of chess in the park or admire the statues of men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. During 4 days a week there’s a market on Union Square, but more on that later.
The High Line
The High Line is definitely worth a visit when you’re in New York City. It used to be an elevated railroad, but the growing trucking industry made it redundant. It was last used in 1980 by a train pulling 3 carloads of frozen turkeys. Luckily The High Line was saved from demolition, and in 2009 the first section of The High Line as a greenway opened to the public. I love how they incorporated the plants that grew on the railroad while laying there unused in the park’s landscape.
We climbed the stairs onto The High Line at the Whitney Museum of American Art, stopped at Chelsea Market for lunch, and continued all the way to the end at Jacob Javits Convention. You’ll see lots of green, some art, and a bunch of information signs on The High Line. Tons of events are held here as well, from music performances, to workout sessions and family events. Check out the event calendar on The Highline website for more information.
Discover the free museums in New York City
You wouldn’t have thought, but actually there are tons of museums without entrance fee in New York City. On top of that list of museums that are always free, there are some that are free on certain days. If you plan your museum visits well, you can save a lot of money! Check out the NYC & Company website for the full and up-to-date list.
We only visited one museum for free though: the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMa is one of the largest platforms for contemporary art in the world, displaying works of architecture, paintings, photographs, design, sculptures, film and music. Basically everything that can be considered modern art. Our favourite floor was the one with the architectural models. Be sure to check out floor 5 as well, where the famous paintings from Warhol, Dali, Monet, Picasso, Pollock, Van Gogh, Magritte, and Liechtenstein, among others, are filling the walls.
Wander around New York City’s markets
Wandering around markets is one of my favourite free things to do in New York City, well any city actually. I just love the vibe that comes with markets, that relaxed atmosphere, just strolling along, looking around. I especially love markets with handmade stuff. It’s always a challenge to suppress the need to buy everything I see though.
There are tons of markets held throughout the 5 boroughs of New Yorks City. We were only able to visit a small number of them unfortunately.
Fort Greene Flea Market
Fort Greene Flea Market used to be the flagship location of Brooklyn Flea. You could find vintage furniture, clothing, jewellery, and collectibles there. Perfect for some quirky finds, but a lot of junk as well, if you ask me. When we visited in May 2016 it was still there, but apparently it moved. According to the Brooklyn Flea website, the Saturday flea market is now held in Soho.
Artists & Fleas
Artists & Fleas is a beautiful indoor market bringing together hip merchants selling all kinds of original and unique crafts and designs. From clothes and jewellery to vintage and quirky things you didn’t even knew you needed, this market is right up my alley. Perfect for window shopping, souvenir shopping, or regular “I don’t need anything, but I can always use some cool stuff” shopping. Bonus: you get to meet the people behind the handmade works of art!
Artists & Fleas has 3 locations in New York City and 1 in LA. Or you can shop from your own sofa through their online shop. I’d recommend exploring one of their “real-life” markets though. We even visited 2 of their locations, the one in Williamsburg and at Chelsea Market.
Union Square Greenmarket
Union Square Green Market is an outdoor market in Union Square Park selling fresh produce like vegetables, cheese, fruit, bread, pastries, flowers, you name it! It first started back in 1976 with just a few farmers. Now, it’s held 4 times a week, always busy with New Yorkers and tourists alike.
We didn’t need any fresh produce, as we were leaving later that day, but we did try some spicy horseradish and yummy maple cream. Apart from all that deliciousness there are book signings and cooking demonstrations as well. You can find more information on the Union Square Greenmarket website. Definitely worth a visit!
Other fun and free things to do in New York City
Here are some more fun and free things to do in New York City, that didn’t fit in one of the above categories. You see, plenty of choice!
Discover Dylan’s Candy Bar
Do you have a sweet tooth just like me? Then you should visit the 3 floors of candy paradise that’s called Dylan’s Candy Bar. It’s almost like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, with its jaw-dropping installations and creative candy flavours and shapes. You’ll find 3D printed candy and a Colour your World Wall of jelly beans in tons of tastes and colours (no bacon though). You can even see what’s the favourite candy of several celeberties. It’s definitely worth a visit, even if you don’t plan on buying anything. But you probably will.
Visit Carrie Bradshaw’s Place
If you’re a Sex and the City fan, you must visit Carrie Bradshaw's house. Contrary to what the show has you believe, her front door is not on the Upper East Side, but in West Village. A chain forbids you to climb the famous front steps, but you can take a selfie or pose in your most fabulous outfit in front of it. Lovely neighbourhood to walk through as well btw.
Wander through the Strand Bookstore
For all you book geeks, the Strand Bookstore is the place to be. From “How to wear jewellery” to “Star Wars, a visual dictionary”, the Strand Bookstore sells them all. It grabs your attention even before you’ve entered, with the carts of discounted books, starting from $1 a piece, lining the sidewalk. Apart from all the books, they also sell lots of reading and writing related gadgets and cool gifts.
Geocaching is one of our favourite pastimes when travelling. Whether it’s in the middle of nowhere or in the heart of a bustling metropole, a geocache hunt is bound to take you to some interesting or even secret spots. Being stealthy in a busy place like New York City is just another challenge adding to the fun of geocaching. Enjoy!
As you see, there are lots of free things to do in New York City, a place that’s known to be expensive. Some of our personal favourites are Grand Central Terminal, Brooklyn Bridge, The High Line, (seems like I have a lot of trouble choosing,) Artists & Fleas, Geocaching, and Dylan’s Candy Bar.
That said, there are a bunch of things to do in New York City that aren’t free, but worth paying for. More on that here!
Have you visited New York City already or is it still on your bucket list? Are there any free things to do that we missed? We’d love to read about your experience in the comments!
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