Despite it continually making the list of most expensive cities in the world, you don’t need to have much money to have a good time exploring NYC. Case in point: The other day, I left my apartment in Inwood determined to spend the whole day exploring Lower Manhattan without spending more than 20 dollars on food, transportation, and activities. My breakdown of that day below will show you that with a little planning and research —and a lot of impulse control— spending a cheap day in Lower Manhattan is certainly doable.
But before we go into the specifics of how you can spend a day exploring Lower Manhattan on a $20 budget, let me answer a few questions you might have going into this.
A Few Questions About How to Spend a Day in Lower Manhattan on a $20 Budget
Why spend the day only in Lower Manhattan? Why not create an itinerary on how to spend a cheap day exploring the entirety of Manhattan?
Initially, that was the plan, but when I started to plan the day out I realized that there was no way that I could craft a day that both stayed within the $20 budget and did justice to exploring the whole island of Manhattan. As a proponent of slow travel, I felt that it would be a more enjoyable and more meaningful day to stick to exploring the area of Manhattan below 14th Street; however, I’ll admit that this was also a lot of land to cover and there was so much of Lower Manhattan that I didn’t get a chance to fit in, especially towards the east side. After you read this itinerary, let me know if you want a part two that focuses more on the Lower East Side.
Did you bring anything with you to cut costs?
Yes! I brought a water bottle and a couple of snacks, so I wouldn’t have to buy them while I was out. When I ran out of water, I refilled the bottle at a nearby park. Don’t worry, our city punch is one of the cleanest in the country.
How much time does it take to do all the activities on this itinerary?
Of course it depends on how fast you’re traveling, but I would set aside the majority of the day to really take it all in. Personally, I arrived in Lower Manhattan around 10:30 am and didn’t leave until 4:30 pm, but I also got sidetracked frequently and did a lot of meandering. So it’s definitely possible to see all these sites in one day while taking your time. Just note that whether you speed through this or take your time, you’re going to crush that 10,000 step count by the end of the day.
How to Spend a Day in Lower Manhattan on a $20 Budget: The Itinerary
1. Take the subway to 14th Street—Union Square.
Just like that, we’ve already spent $2.75, and don’t forget to budget another $2.75 for the return trip! Now we’re left with $14.50 for the rest of the day. I know it sounds tight, but I’ll show you how to make it work. But don’t put your money out of reach yet; we’re about to drop some more coins at our first stop.
2. Fuel up at Matto Espresso (293 Mercer Street).
Believe it or not, there are still cafes in New York where you can get a latte for well under five bucks. I present to you Matto, a relatively new coffee chain in NYC, where everything —the coffee and the pastries— costs $3.27, or $2.50 if you download the app.
You’re probably wondering what the catch is. Three dollar coffee in this day and age sounds crazy. (Fun fact: “matto” is Italian for “crazy.”) But so far, I haven’t been able to figure it out. The coffee and pastries are surprisingly decent and the staff is Trader Joe’s-level friendly. Maybe you’ll figure out the catch on the way over to our next location.
3. Walk over to Washington Square Park to drink your coffee and people watch.
Washington Square Park is the perfect place for people-watching because it has a history of attracting bona fide NYC weirdos. Are they artists or just attention-seeking? You be the judge. While you’re there, don’t forget to snap some photos of the park’s famous fountain and arch.
4. Explore SoHo (Starting point: 599 Broadway).
But remember, no shopping! Although, I doubt the day’s remaining budget of $11.23 could even buy you a button from one of these luxury brand stores. If you want more structure to your exploring, allow yourself to be guided through the neighborhood by Yukie Ohta, a lifelong SoHo resident and the founder of the SoHo Memory Project. Ohta explains the history of SoHo and what it was like growing up there in the 1970s through an audio tour that can be found for free on the Gesso app.* On this 50-minute tour, you’ll learn that there is so much more to SoHo than its pretty cast iron architecture and its pricey stores, and you’ll end the tour feeling personally connected to the neighborhood.
Tip: If you have a crappy cell phone data plan like I do (shoutout to Metro by T-Mobile), be sure to download the SoHo tour beforehand. Nothing is more irritating than having the best parts of the tour interrupted by buffering.
5. Have lunch in Chinatown.
For a tasty yet budget-friendly meal after your tour, take a short walk south to Chinatown for lunch. Vanessa’s Dumpling House, North Dumpling, and Tonii’s Fresh Rice Noodle are all solid options.
Full disclosure: I got the beef rice noodles from Tonii’s for $5.50. It was filling, but if I could get a redo, I’d order something else off the menu instead.
6. Then walk through the Civic Center and head to the African Burial Ground National Monument (290 Broadway).
Can you believe that the site of New York’s oldest known African cemetery was almost the foundation for an office building? Saved from that fate, today it’s an emotional memorial and museum. The museum, which is around the corner from the monument, gives insight into what life would have been like for New York’s enslaved population over the course of two centuries, while the monument is a beautiful and contemplative piece, honoring those who were laid to rest there.
Note: This small museum takes about 40 minutes to get through if you stay for the 20-minute movie explaining the history of the site.
7. Stop at Matto Espresso (299 Broadway) to get a snack for later.
After you leave the museum, cross the street to stop at another Matto location for a $3.27 pick-me-up. I don’t want to tell you what to do with your food, but instead of eating it now, it might be a good idea to hold on to it for the last leg of our Lower Manhattan tour.
8. Make your way to the World Trade Center.
Sure, posing for selfies is a little superficial, but the colorful, art-filled plaza around the Oculus is perfect for photo-ops. Don’t forget to venture inside the Oculus for the most prized photo-op of all. Do you think designer Santiago Calatrava’s creation resembles a dove taking flight or a whale’s ribcage? Calatrava says it represents how “light continues to shine through after the darkness of the tragedy.” Speaking of which…
9. Pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial Pools, then cross the highway to get to Brookfield Place’s Winter Garden.
Brookfield Place’s Winter Garden might be the closest you’ll get to taking a tropical vacation without leaving the city. The ironically named atrium is full of live palm trees and sand-colored tiles as well as a glass ceiling that streams in the maximum amount of sunlight without baking you alive. When you’re done basking on the fake beach, let’s go back in time to 1989 Berlin.
10. Take the exit that leads to the waterfront and navigate to the Berlin Wall at Kowsky Plaza (393 South End Avenue).
Although there is no marker around to tell you, you are now face to face with an actual piece of the Berlin Wall that separated communist East Berlin from the US-allied West Berlin during the Cold War. According to 6sqft, this section of the wall was donated to NYC by the German Consulate in 2004 “in recognization of their commitment to education through public art.” Read more about NYC’s four Berlin Wall sections here.
11. Finally, stroll along the Battery Park City Esplanade.
Head back toward the Battery Park City Esplanade where you can stroll along the waterfront or just sit on a bench, watching boats zip up and down the Hudson. Start to familiarize yourself with the New Jersey skyline. With the way things are going in New York, you might have no choice but to live in New York’s second-tier sibling someday soon. At least for now be comforted by that fact that (including the price of the train ride home), you’ve only spent $17.54. You’ve proved that you can have a full, adventurous day of exploring Lower Manhattan for cheap.
If you liked this guide on How to Spend a Day in Lower Manhattan on a $20 Budget and you want more guides like this, let me know. I also have a free downloadable e-book on How to Explore the Five Boroughs for Free.
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