The Top Free Things To Do in New York City

Culture Trip
9 min readJun 11, 2021
© Stephen H / Unsplash

New York City is one of the most expensive cities to live in or visit in the United States, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of cheap or no-cost ways to have a good time in the Big Apple. Here are the best free things to do in New York City.

Stroll through Central Park

Central Park spans 863 acres (349 hectares) and approximately 3.5 square kilometers (1,34 square miles) in the middle of Manhattan. The park is free for all to enjoy, so pop in and explore all of its lush nooks and crannies. Stroll across the romantic Bow Bridge, a picturesque cast-iron bridge that serves as the setting for unforgettable TV and film scenes as well as wedding and engagement photos. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is an ideal background for a run as the trees and flowers blossom in the spring and change colors in the fall with the skyline serving as a backdrop.

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Grab a book in the Rose Main Reading Room

Visit the main branch of the New York Public Library next to Bryant Park to take in the majestic Rose Main Reading Room. This famed room, located on the third floor, is the main feature of the Beaux-Arts-style library, which opened in 1911. Boasting 52-foot-tall (16-meter) ceilings, the Rose Main Reading Room has undergone facelifts and renovations in 1998–99 and 2014–16. With paintings of clouds and skyscapes high above and windows galore, visitors can request reading materials from the library’s Milstein Stacks collection and sit in the same room as countless Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, historians and scholars have done in the past.

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Venture along the High Line

Situated high above the city’s west side is the High Line. Built on an old freight line and opened in 2009, this public space stretching 1.45 miles (2.33 kilometers) features seasonally shifting works of art, food vendors, gardens and performances. The High Line stretches from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street, and it’s open year round, making it an excellent way to head uptown and get a unique perspective on the Chelsea streets and the Hudson River beyond.

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Tour the Brooklyn Brewery

Taste the local suds at the Brooklyn Brewery taproom in Williamsburg. You can purchase affordable tokens to sample the wares or take a tour to find out how the hops come to be. Free tours (limited to 40 people) run every half hour from 1pm to 6pm on Saturday and Sunday, but beware, there are long lines to get in on nice days.

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Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live (SNL) is almost synonymous with NYC television, so it’s no surprise that tickets to its tapings are coveted. If you don’t know, SNL is a live comedy and entertainment show that airs Saturdays at 11.30pm, so if you’re looking for laughs, there’s no better option. Because of its popularity, tickets are given out once per year via lottery. Of course, you can always try getting a standby ticket — as long as you’re willing to wait outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza before 7am.

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Cruise on the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry plows New York Harbor between the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan and the St George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island. Hop aboard for free and enjoy scenic views of the city plus a killer look at the Statue of Liberty, no matter what time of day or year — the ferry operates 24 hours a day, seven days per week. Food and beer concessions are available on each boat.

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Ring in the New Year in Times Square

If you’re brave enough to stand outside all night (and most of the day) to watch the ball drop on December 31 in Times Square, it doesn’t cost a penny. Space is first-come, first-served, and no tickets are needed for the annual New Year’s Eve celebration that dates back to 1907 — just come prepared for a long (chilly) night and know there are no public restrooms available.

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Free outdoor yoga in Prospect Park

Finding a moment of calm amid the hectic urban scene is crucial (just ask the locals) — and there’s no better place to do it than in the cloistered escape of Prospect Park, with sprawling green grass below your downward dog and clouds floating above your mountain pose. Free yoga happens every Thursday at 7pm from the beginning of June until the end of August on Long Meadow, and you just have to fill out the online waiver before your first class. Take a moment before or after yoga to wander Brooklyn’s main green space with its wild trails, fishing clinics, splash pad, lakeside skating rink, Smorgasburg on Sundays, or the Brooklyn Roots Festival.

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Sunbathe at the beach

While it might cost a subway fare or the price of a rental car and about an hour of your time to get there, visiting New York City’s beaches — including those at Rockaway, Brighton and Coney Island — is free. Relax on the beaches, take a dip in the water or wander up and down the boardwalk to sightsee, people-watch or grab a bite to eat. NYC Parks maintains 14 miles (23 kilometers) of beaches with lifeguards on duty daily during the summer from 10am to 6pm.

Watch movies under the stars

No one wants to be indoors when the weather is nice — unless you’re in dire need of air conditioning — so pack a blanket and venture to a park or rooftop to enjoy an outdoor movie. Since 1992, when HBO began showing films in Bryant Park, outdoor movies have become a summer pastime in New York City. Take in recent blockbusters, indie films or classics all summer long at spots all over the city like Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 63, Bryant Park, Prospect Park, Hotel Hugo or Coney Island — just check each location’s website for specific films and times.

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Get cultural at museums

Many museums and cultural institutions throughout the city offer free general admission, either full time or on select days and hours. Museums including the American Folk Art Museum, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and the National Museum of the American Indian are always free, while the Museum of Modern Art (4pm-8pm Fridays), the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (5pm to close Tuesdays) and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum (2pm-6pm Thursdays) are free during specific times.

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See live music at SummerStage or Celebrate Brooklyn

Every summer, free concerts in Central Park, Prospect Park, and 15 to 18 neighborhood parks take place all over the city as part of New York City’s SummerStage and Celebrate Brooklyn. Running from June to September, the festivals present approximately [100] performances, the majority of which are free. The concerts stretch across genres from EDM to reggae and feature big-name performers, including Elvis Costello, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, and Beck in recent years. The main stage in Central Park and Prospect Park both received redevelopments and a new sound system in 2019.

Walk across the city’s bridges

Take in a different perspective on the city while walking, running or biking across one of the bridges including the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge and Manhattan Bridge. Each bridge offers its own experience. The ever-popular Brooklyn Bridge is 1.13 miles (1.82 kilometers), but pedestrians and cyclists share an elevated pathway, plus you get a nice view of both Brooklyn and Manhattan’s skylines and the Statue of Liberty. Time your walk with the sunrise for an unforgettable experience with far fewer tourists sharing the path.

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See Shakespeare in the park

Watch the Public Theater perform William Shakespeare’s plays at the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. All tickets are free, but as with TV-show tapings, obtaining them involves a bit of luck and patience whether through a digital lottery or waiting in line each morning. Hopefuls line up in Central Park at the crack of dawn — remember the park doesn’t officially open until 6am — in the hopes of receiving a pair of tickets during distribution at noon for the day’s show.

Get lit at the Rockefeller Center Tree Lighting

The world’s most iconic Christmas tree towers over Rockefeller Plaza each holiday season. The free tree-lighting ceremony, typically held the week following Thanksgiving, is open to the public and usually features musical and ice-skating performances.

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Get in touch with nature at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

This stunning 52-acre (21-hectare) garden is located next to the Brooklyn Museum and very close to Prospect Park. The garden offers free admission on certain days depending on the season. Visit for free on winter weekdays from December through February. Be sure to check out what’s in bloom before visiting or while planning your visit. An annual highlight, which is free for BBG members and $30 for non-members, is the Sakura Matsuri cherry-blossom festival each spring.

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Visit film and TV locations

Check out some of the famous locations seen in movies and TV shows featuring New York City. It doesn’t cost a penny to pose for a photo or selfie outside Hook & Ladder 8 (14 N. Moore Street), which was home to the comedic parapsychologist trio in Ghostbusters (1984) or to see Holly Golightly’s brownstone apartment (169 E. 71st Street) from Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

Step inside St Patrick’s Cathedral

One of the most visible symbols of Roman Catholicism in the United States, St Patrick’s Cathedral opened in 1879. This Neo-Gothic masterpiece is located between 50th and 51st streets directly across from Rockefeller Center. Learn about the cathedral’s history via a free tour, though a $5 donation is suggested.

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See outdoor art at Socrates Sculpture Park

Located one block from the Noguchi Museum in Astoria, Queens, Socrates Sculpture Park is an outdoor museum and public park with towering sculptures and multimedia installations. Founded in 1986 by sculptor Mark di Suvero, the park hosts four major visual-arts initiatives each year: The Spring/Summer Exhibition, The Socrates Annual Fellowship & Exhibition, The Folly/Function Architectural & Design Competition and The Broadway Billboard Series. Admission to the park’s grounds, exhibitions and programs is free 365 days per year from 9am to sundown.

Explore Grand Central Station

If you don’t mind crowds and people running to and from train platforms, visit Grand Central Station for a look at New York City history, amazing architecture and incredible people-watching. Stare up at the celestial artwork painted on the ceiling — though make sure you don’t get trampled by someone rushing to catch a train. At the Whispering Gallery — located beneath the arches near the Oyster Bar & Restaurant — two people can stand at diagonal ends and whisper messages to one another amid the hustle and bustle that exists around them.

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