The Best Free Things to Do in NYC

Whether you live here or you are just traveling through, you’ve probably heard that NYC has a reputation of eating up your money. But as a certified cheapskate who is certainly not swimming in a stream of dollar bills, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way! It’s more than possible to have fun in every corner of NYC without shelling out a single dollar. The total list of all the free things to do in NYC is way more than the mere 15 things I’ve listed below, but I figured that I’d start off with the top three free things to do in each NYC borough which also give you the best overview of each borough’s vibe.

BROOKLYN

Brooklyn Bridge Park Winter free things to do nyc

Green-Wood Cemetery: I know, at first glance hanging out in a cemetery sounds like the creepiest thing ever, but trust me, this cemetery is different. Green-Wood is not only the final resting place of many famous New Yorkers, but it’s also a Revolutionary War site, full of gorgeous architecture, and one of the best green spaces in New York City. And as a bonus, it has some of the most breathtaking views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Bushwick Collective: Bushwick is a haven for artists (for now, until gentrification saps its spirit), and nothing shows off the artistic talent of the neighborhood better than Bushwick Collective, an incredible collection of street art and graffiti that brightens the walls of several buildings in the area. You can easily spend a day wandering through the neighborhood, admiring all the artwork that goes on for blocks and blocks.

Brooklyn Bridge Park: Brooklyn Bridge Park isn’t remotely off the beaten path but there’s a good reason why tons of locals and tourists flock there daily. There’s truly something here for everyone: various sports courts and workout equipment for the active types, two dog runs and an environmental center for animal lovers, a nearly-hundred-year-old carousel, open space for picnicking, bike paths, adjacent eateries and a museum, not to mention the waterfront and bridge views. My favorite Brooklyn Bridge Park activity is to watch happy couples pose for their wedding photos, because in addition to being one of the most iconic spots in Brooklyn, Brooklyn Bridge Park is also one of the most romantic.

THE BRONX

Graffiti_in_the_Bronx_3 (1)
Photo via Wikimedia

City Island: If you think New York City is all looming skyscrapers and racing taxis, City Island is going to blow your mind. This 1.5-mile-long island just off the coast of Pelham Bay Park is a quintessential New England fishing village transported within the city’s borders. You can spend the day here perusing through antique shops, marveling at charming houses, and, of course, being in awe of the blue waters of the Long Island Sound.

Pelham Bay Park: Just north of City Island is the massive mother of NYC parks, the only park in the city that could swallow Central Park three times over and still have room to spare. As you’d expect from NYC’s biggest park, there’s room for nearly every kind of activity. You’ll find hiking trails, golf courses, a historic house, and the Bronx’s only public beach. See how many tiny islands you can spot from the shore.

Gallery hop through Melrose: Want to really get to know the Bronx? View it through the eyes of the artists who call it home. The Bronx Documentary Center, BronxArtSpace, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and WallWorks New York are all within walking distance of each other and are all places where you’ll find moving, stereotype-challenging local art.

MANHATTAN

Roosevelt Island Tram

Washington Square Park: Sure, Central Park is the more beautiful of the two, but Washington Square Park is the more exciting park. It’s the perfect park for people watching because there you’ll find some bona fide NYC weirdos, as opposed to the attention-seekers in Central Park who mostly just want tourists’ money. Washington Square Park is also a great place to find fashion inspiration, and who can resist taking photos with the fountain and the Washington Square arch.

Roosevelt Island Tram: Technically, this isn’t truly free because it warrants you using your MetroCard; but getting this unique view of the city from high above the East River is worth the swipe. And once you get to Roosevelt Island there’s plenty of free fun, from making friends with the geese that roam the lawns of the Cornell Tech campus to contemplating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy at Four Freedoms Park.

Grand Central Terminal: Grand Central Terminal is like a microcosm of Manhattan: beautiful architecture, rushing people, interesting stores you can’t afford, a variety of tempting food, and a visible police presence there to remind you of the ever-present threat of an attack. If you want to see Grand Central at the height of its hecticness, be there during the morning or evening rush hours. But if you want to stare up at the iconic blue ceiling without getting in twenty other people’s way, visit the terminal between 10 a.m. and noon, or if you really want the place to yourself, visit 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. (keep in mind that most, if not all, stores will be closed at that time).

QUEENS

Rockaway Beach free things to do nyc
Photo by Shinya Suzuki

Socrates Sculpture Park: One of the things I love about New York is our ability to turn former landfills into parks, with one of the best examples being Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. But before you roll your eyes at me for putting yet another park on this list (Can you really blame me? NYC has a lot of great parks), let me tell you about what makes this park unique: it’s an outdoor sculpture garden! Artists from all over put up large-scale installations that the public is then welcomed to admire and interact with. The installations change periodically, so visiting once is never enough.

Queens County Farm Museum: Believe it or not, there are actual farms within NYC’s city limits. Even more shocking is that Queens County Farm has a history that dates all the way back to 1697. During your visit you’ll see historic farmhouses, acres of fields and gardens, and, of course, live farm animals.

Rockaway Beach: In regards to beaches, Rockaway Beach is one of NYC’s best-kept secrets. Tourists can have Coney Island but Rockaway Beach is the real local hangout. There, you’ll get insight into NYC’s surfing culture and see the place that inspired the eponymous Ramones song. Just make sure you get on the correct A train when traveling there.

STATEN ISLAND

Spirit_of_America_-_Staten_Island_Ferry
Photo via Wikimedia

Staten Island Ferry: The Staten Island Ferry is often touted as the budget-conscious person’s way to see the lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty, and rightfully so. It’s a pretty sweet ride. But the experience doesn’t end once you get off the ferry. Once you arrive at St. George Terminal, be sure to check out the adjacent National Lighthouse Museum or venture out into the St. George neighborhood and admire the Queen Anne-styled houses.

Fort Wadsworth: If military history is your thing, then Fort Wadsworth is the ideal place for you with its exhibits on the fort’s war experiences and its nineteenth century officer’s house, still decked out with furniture from that time period. But even if you’re not a military history buff, don’t pass up on a chance to see a beautiful abandoned fort with equally beautiful views of the Verrazzano Bridge and southern Brooklyn.

(Parts of) Snug Harbor: If you want the full Snug Harbor experience with admission to the New York Chinese Scholar, the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art, and the Connie Gretz Secret Garden, you’ll have to pay for tickets at each(!) attraction. But if seeing the informative Snug Harbor Cultural Center and the lovely Botanical Garden is good enough for you, then you and your wallet will leave Staten Island unscathed.

Which free thing to do in NYC would you try? Let me know in the comments!

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22 thoughts on “The Best Free Things to Do in NYC

  1. Oooh yay I love this kind of post! London has a similar pricey reputation, but like NYC there are bunches of fun things to do for free. I love that lots of the options you listed are near water or out in the fresh air.

    p.s. I love that you included a cemetery. I think you can learn a lot about a culture by the way they treat their deceased – and cemeteries often have fantastic views.

    1. I agree! Last year I read “From Here to Eternity” by Caitlin Doughty and it opened my eyes to how different and beautiful the rituals for the dead are around the world. It actually inspired my trip to Green-Wood Cemetery.

      1. Yay! Glad I’m not alone. 🙂

        If you ever visit London, you will probably love the cemetery in Highgate. I really like the pretty cemeteries in Japan too (I love the way people water each grave and leave sake for their ancestors.)

  2. I love that you broke this guide down by borough! NYC can be so expensive if you’re not careful, so I always liked to plan my weekend visits around maybe one or two splurges and filling the rest of my trip with free activities or simply exploring on foot. The Staten Island Ferry was definitely a fun one and I even enjoyed exploring St. George. It’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan!

  3. For me, just walking around in Manhattan and taking in how busy and diverse this city is, is a favorite. I especially love walking through Chinatown and eating there.

  4. Great tips! I have been to NYC many times, but have yet to do some of these. I will have to add them to the list for my next trip-and the best thing, they are free. Thanks for sharing.

  5. A great list of inexpensive things to do in the city. I have done the Staten Island and Brooklyn Bridge and loved the DUMBO area. I will use this list next time I go to NYC.

  6. This is a great article on the New York City I have not really seen. It goes deeper into the neighborhoods and not just into the central city around Times Square. Tells me more about Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island. How about Long Island?

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