When I moved to NYC, I was a poor grad student, but I still wanted to get out and see the city. Since it’s so expensive here and I had a limited budget, you’d think this meant that I needed to be super creative, but there is actually a lot you can do for free in NYC. Here are some of my favorite things to do in the city that won’t even cost a penny.
- Ride the Staten Island Ferry: I lived on Staten Island for eleven years and taking the ferry was a way life. Now that I don’t live there anymore, it’s still fun to take a free ride every now and then. If you’re new to the city or just here for a visit, ride the ferry the departs Manhattan right before sunset. You’ll get amazing sunset views behind the Statue of Liberty, and you’ll get to see the city all lit up on your ride back to Manhattan. (They sell cheap beer on the ferry, too!)
- Go to Coney Island: I try to visit Coney Island at least once a year, and since Hurricane Sandy, it’s actually been freshened up quite a bit. If you plan to eat anything or ride the classic roller coaster, the Cyclone, you will have to pay something. But you can still enjoy a mostly free day of fun here. If you go on a Friday in the summer, you can swim in the ocean, walk along the boardwalk, do some excellent people-watching, and see a free fireworks show on the beach around 9:00 pm. And if you’ve never been, you should probably also consider at least getting a hot dog from Nathan’s (but I’d splurge and add the cheese fries, too).
- Bike the Hudson River Greenway: I bought a bike several years ago so that I could get out and explore more. I would take the ferry over to Manhattan from Staten Island, bike through Battery Park, and then zip up the Hudson River bike path. It can be a bit crowded in places and you’ll need to watch for pedestrians, but it’s a beautiful ride along the water with plenty to stop and look at on your journey. Usually, I’d ride up to 125th St. before turning around and heading back home. Occasionally, I’d stop for a drink at the Pier 84 park where you can sit outside and enjoy a view of the Intrepid.
- Relax in a park: Most NYC parks have various events and activities throughout the year, so there is always something you can see and do when you visit a park. When I lived on Staten Island, I enjoyed taking a blanket and relaxing on the grounds at Snug Harbor Cultural Center. If you’re willing to spend a little money, the Chinese Scholars Garden on-site is beautiful and well worth a visit. Now that I live in Brooklyn, I enjoy summertime visits to Prospect Park, which hosts free concerts and Brooklyn Bridge Park, which hosts free movie screenings. And you can never go wrong with a day in Central Park, especially if you venture up to the hillier, less-traveled, northern section of the park.
- See what’s new on Governor’s Island: In the mid-2000s, Governor’s Island reopened to the public. In that first year I went on the National Park Service’s tour of the grounds and learned about the fascinating history of the island from a woman who actually grew up on the island. At the time, only the top half of the island was open (and only as part of the park tour) but since then, the place has completely transformed. I’ve gone to concerts, art shows, the playground with my niece, a polo match (in which Prince Harry was playing!), and more! It’s car free and a great place to bike, and every year there is something new to see and do. (2018’s new thing is “glamping” and definitely NOT free.)
- Take out-of-town guests to the New York Public Library’s main branch: It took me a long time to finally make it here, but the main branch of the library is absolutely gorgeous, even more so if you can visit during the holidays. The lobby level has rotating exhibits that are free to the public, and it’s otherwise just a cool place to wander around, take a tour, listen to a book talk, or sit and enjoy the beautiful architecture and design.
- Take a dip in the ocean at the Rockaways: It gets pretty hot here in the summer, and by August, you’re going to want a way to cool off. Though you will need to pay something to get out there (the Rockaways are a ferry or A train ride away), but you can access the beach for free! There are several places to buy food and drinks, but if you’re being thrifty, just bring something with you and enjoy the icy cold Atlantic.
- Wander around a new neighborhood: When all else fails and I can’t think of anything specific to do, it’s always fun to just visit a new neighborhood, wander around, and see what I can find. It doesn’t matter where you go, hop on a subway or the bus, pick a random stop, and get out and walk. You never know what that neighborhood will have in store for you, and you may just find your next favorite bar/restaurant/store.