The New York Stock Exchange

The top free things to do in New York City

The Empire State Building
The Empire State Building, or as I affectionately call him, “Empy”

Looking to visit New York City, but worried it’s too expensive?

Yes a lot of attractions cost money, accommodation is very pricey AND you can spend $5 on a stale pretzel in Central Park, there are plenty of sites to keep even the most discerning tourist busy for a week (or more) that are absolutely free. If you’re like me, part of the allure of New York City is the aimless wandering along its busy streets, marvelling at its world famous skyscrapers, eating a cannoli and pizza in Little Italy and people watching in the city that never sleeps.

With some strategic planning, a cost-efficient transit pass, and a comfortable pair of shoes, you can easily ‘do’ New York on a budget.

First things, first

To make the most of your time in the Big Apple, make sure you have the following:

  • A map of NYC downloaded on your smart phone. If you use google maps with a city map downloaded, you’ll always know where you are, because GPS (the little blue dot) doesn’t need wifi or data to work. Though it might not be able to tell you how to get to your destination, you’ll be able to see if you’re heading in the right direction. Having maps pre-loaded on my phone has saved me in many, many occasions.
  • If you want to use the subway, buy a transit pass as soon as you arrive. With a 7-day pass costing $32, you’ll save money if you use it 10 times in a week. With many of city’s sites spread out, you’ll most likely hit that number after a couple of days. For up-to-date information, see the NYC transit site (here).
  • A pair of comfortable shoes! You’ll be walking a lot during your trip and you want to be comfortable. Save stylish for the evenings.
  •  A plan, even if it’s a fairly loose one. Group the sites you want to see into areas and tackle an area (or two) each day. This eliminates backtracking and keeps transportation costs down. A little bit of pre-planning will help save you from way too many hours sitting on the subway, bus or in a taxi.

Ok let’s get started. For planning purposes, the list of attractions flow from north to the south.

Central Park and Other Open Spaces

Bryant Park
Bryant Park

With over 40 million visitors a year, a trip to NYC isn’t complete without stepping inside Central Park, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. Set on over 300 acres, you can easily spend an entire day wandering through the park. Within the sprawling park you’ll find lawns full of picnickers, joggers, cyclists, inline skaters, paths through wooded areas, concerts, rock climbing, 21 playgrounds, amateur photographers, a carousel, kayaking, a zoo, baseball, gardens, sculptures, lawn bowling, horse carriage tours and more people watching than you could ever think possible. Just try and visit Central Park and not find something to do! Click here for a link to the official website.

Nearby – While visiting the southern end of Central Park the world famous window shopping starts along Fifth Avenue. While the uber serious security guards probably won’t let you in unless you look like you’re going to drop some serious coin, window shopping is always free.

Besides Central Park you’ll find several parks dotted throughout Manhattan. One of the more notable parks is Bryant Park (next to the New York Public Library), almost 10 acres in area, with plenty of seating, cafes and a huge, 100 year old water fountain.

Madison Square Park
Madison Square Park

Further south and across from the Flatiron Building, you’ll find Madison Square Park. Matched with a gelato and picnic goodies from the adjacent Eataly, you can’t go wrong.

Continuing south in Greenwich Village (home of lots of cheap eats) you’ll find Washington Square Park, bordered by many of the buildings of New York University. The square, named after George Washington, has long been the home of students, poets, performers and activists. With several chess tables, you may even spot the next Bobby Fischer in action.

Even further south and near the Staten Island ferry terminal is Battery Park, the site of the city’s original defences (hence the name Battery), home of many sculptures and memorials and as a bonus, views of the Statue of Liberty.

Architecture in Mid Town

Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal

Mid town has a treasure trove of free sites all within a short walking distance. Start with Grand Central Station, with its magnificent main concourse and historic four-faced brass clock and a 4m tall clock on the building’s facade.

Across the road you’ll find the Chrysler Building, which had the title of tallest building for less than a year when it was surpassed by the Empire State Building in 1931. The Art Deco skyscraper is immediately recognisable for its seven terraced arches on its top.

Also in the area, you’ll find the New York

New york public library
New York Public Library

Public Library, guarded by two large stone lions.

The library is free to enter and a free video outlining the history of the library is available in the theatre. As you would expect, the library makes for a quiet break from the busy streets outside and also includes some very unique rooms including the famous Rose Main Reading Room (Room 315).

Also nearby you’ll find Rockefeller Centre (the home of NBC studios and the flag ringer Rockefeller skating ring) and Bryant Park.

Times Square

Times Square
Times Square at 3am – the most quiet you will find this area all day.

Being a main intersection in midtown, it’s likely that you’ll pass through Times Square at least once. Located next to the Theatre District, it’s packed full of tourists day and night. With a large grandstand offering excellent people watching, it’s a good place to have a seat, rest your legs and take in the craziness around you.

While manic with tourists most of the day and night, with the lights flashing 24/7, it’s eerily quiet in the middle of the night.

While in the area, wander through the world-famous Theatre District. If you’re interested in seeing a broadway show, check here to see how you can try for same day tickets at significantly discounted prices. Most of the shows participate in a lottery system where same-day tickets are sold at substantially discounted prices

 Chelsea Markets

Sign at LOS TACOS No.1

Located in the Meatpacking District and filling the full block between 9th and 10th avenues and 15th and 16th streets, the Chelsea Market makes for a cheap meal option. Depending on your tastes, you’re sure to find something that will keep you happy.

Kiosks on the High Line
Kiosks on the High Line

If you’re after some Mexican, you can’t go past LOS TACOS No.1 for their tacos and quesadillas (see menu).

While there is limited seating in the markets, get your food ‘to-go’ and find a spot on the adjacent High Line walkway (more below). If you’re not in the mood for some food, there are lots of shops to wander through. For a full up to date list of shops and restaurants, check out the Chelsea Market’s website here.

The High Line

The High Line in NYC

This very unique, 2.3km above ground walkway is a site that shouldn’t be missed. Built on an abandoned rail line, it’s a peaceful escape from the crazy and busy city below. Meandering along 10th Avenue, the walkway includes over 200 species of plants, a small theatre, seating areas and views of the Hudson River. It passes alongside the Chelsea Markets, with a few kiosks outside selling to High Line walkers (including Blue Bottle – a highly recommended cafe for your barista style coffee fix). With limited shade, the walk is best done early morning or late afternoon in summer. On a hot day, look out for the water covered walkway makes an added bonus for overheated feet on a hot summer day! Click here for the High Line’s official site.





 Walking the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge
Only by walking the bridge can you see the intricate engineering up close

I must mention that I didn’t walk the Brooklyn Bridge until my 5th trip to NYC. I wasn’t convinced that it was worth going out to the way to see ‘just another bridge’. On my last trip I decided to see it in person and I’m so glad I did!

While you can walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back, another option is to take the subway (High Street – Brooklyn Bridge Station) to Brooklyn and then walk back. While on the Brooklyn side, take in the views of the Manhattan skyline with a stop at the Brooklyn Bridge Park  (can you tell I really like parks?!).

Costing the price of a subway ticket (or free if you walk both ways), you’ll be rewarded with upclose views of the intricate and Neo-Goetic 135 year old bridge, the longest suspension bridge at the time by over 50%. The bridge spans almost 500m.

Besides amazing views of the Manhattan skyline, you’ll also see
buskers, entrepreneurial vendors selling soft drink, water and NYC themed knick knacks and of course lots and lots of tourists.

The Financial District

One World Observatory
One World Observatory building

Home of the most significant stock exchange in the world, you’ll find many of the world’s largest banks headquartered in the Financial District. While it’s mostly business in this area, there are also several sites for tourists, including Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. president, and the very photogenic and popular Raging Bull. On the west side of the district, you’ll find the former site of the World Trade Centre Twin Towers, the 9/11 Memorial and the One World Observatory. The memorial, encompassing the former footprints of the two towers, is an emotional reminder of the tragic 9/11 events. The memorial site includes a museum (click here for information and to book in advance) and the survival tree which was discovered at Ground Zero, removed from the site, rehabilitated and replanted to stand “as a living reminder of resilience, survival and rebirth”. While the mueseum requires a ticket for entry, the memorial can be visited free of charge.

Nearby – While visiting the financial district, check out the Staten Island Ferry (more details below).

The Staten Island FerryStatue_of_liberty

If you want to see the statue
of Liberty (from a distance I must add), and the city from the water, hop on board the free Staten Island Ferry for a round trip between Manhattan and Staten Island.

The ferry leaves from Whitehall Terminal in the Financial district (closest subway stop – South Ferry). The ferry is about a five minute walk from the Charging Bull.

A few things to note:

  • The ferry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, take approximately 25 minutes and is free!
  • To have a more relaxing trip, avoid rush hour when the ferry is packed full of commuters
  • Click here to see the schedule on the official website.
  • You must leave the ferry when arriving at Staten Island and change onto another ferry heading back to Manhattan.
New York Skyline
New York Skyline taken aboard the Staten Island Ferry

Grab a spot outside to see views like this one.

 Cheap Eats

While not free, I recommend the following cheap-ish spots around NYC:

  • You’ll find pizza by the slice all around the city, which you can’t beat for the price. But if you want to go a bit more upmarket, and eating a pizza the size of a small table sounds appealing, head to the Nolita district and Lombardi’s Pizza. Lombardi’s has the claim as the first pizzeria in the US, and has been cranking out pizzas since 1905! I can vouch that one pizza is more than enough for two people. Go hungry.
  • In the Hell’s Kitchen district, you’ll find lots of cheap eat options, including a half dozen ramen places. For local-recommended options, try Totto Ramen or Ippudo.
  • While not a meal in itself, if you’re after a sweet treat, try Magnolia Bakery for their yummy cupcakes.
  • If you’re exploring around the High Line and Chelsea Markets and don’t mind walking eight or so blocks for a cookie, there’s a cute little bakery on 535 Hudson St called Sweet Corner Bakeshop. I’m a huge fan of desserts and they do the best cookies and the surrounding neighbourhood is very much “real” NYC.


Have I missed any of your favourite spots? Leave me a comment below 🙂


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