50 Awesome Free Things to Do in NYC

The results are in:

New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. It is also one of the best. (Source: Business Insider here and here)

It costs an average of $1,030 per night for a group of 2 tourists.

But, your trip there doesn’t have to be that expensive.

There are tons of free things to do in NYC. And this lists outlines the best ones to add to your NYC bucket list.

I lived in New York City for over a year. My favorite thing to do as a local: walk around and take in the sights and action of the greatest city in the world. Which are free.

Keep reading to learn about what to do in New York City for free so you can add these to your NYC trip itinerary!

Free Things to Do in NYC by Category

Click on the category to jump to its free things to do.

The Ultimate List of Free Things to Do in NYC

History and Sightseeing

Grand Central Terminal in NYC
Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.

1. Visit Grand Central Terminal

The awe inspiring national landmark is one of the world’s top ten most visited tourist destinations for good reason. Luckily, the terminal is large enough to handle the crowd. It is completely free to enter and a true architectural gem.

2. Tour the building where George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. President

Federal Hall is a historic building on Wall Street that served as a key location in the early days of the United States.. The building is where George Washington was sworn into office as the first President of the U.S. They even have the Bible that was used during his inauguration on display!

Federal Hall was also the first capitol building of the U.S. It housed the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices. (Source: National Park Services)

Admission to Federal Hall is free. 30 minute self guided and guided tours are available at no cost.

Federal Hall Tour Information

3. Look up at some of the most famous skyscrapers in the world

The New York City skyline is majestic and unforgettable. Although it costs money to get to the top of most of the buildings, they are still a sight to see from below.

Some skyscrapers not to miss:

  • Empire State Building – This massive Art Deco skyscraper that towers over Midtown was the tallest building in the world for 40 years. (Source: Wikipedia)

  • One World Trade Center – Tallest building in North America, #6 tallest in the world.(Source: the Skyscraper Center)

  • Chrysler Building – Tallest brick building in the world with a steel framework. (Source: Wikipedia)

  • 30 Rockefeller Plaza (“30 Rock”) – The landmark where some of your favorite TV shows are taped.

  • Woolworth Building – Tallest building in the world from 1913-1930. (Source: Wikipedia)

4. Admire Neo-Gothic architecture at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

You may think you are in a European city built in the Middle Ages when entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was opened in 1878 and still holds masses today.

The Neo-Gothic designed cathedral is free to enter. It is open daily from 6:30 AM to 8:45 PM.

5. See the lights of Times Square

I have to be honest:

When I lived in New York City, I stayed away from Times Square at all costs.

But, if you’ve never been to the city before, it is worth a stroll through the bustle to get a look at one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world.

6. Visit the financial capital of America on Wall Street

Wall Street in the Financial District is one of the centers of international business. Stroll down the famous street to see the New York Stock Exchange building, Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues, 40 Wall Street (aka Trump Building) skyscraper, and Trinity Church.

7. Read some books at New York Public Library

Visit the main branch of the 2nd largest library system in the country (behind the Library of Congress) for its books and architecture. Each room is the library is meticulously organized and beautifully decorated. The building feels more like a museum than a library.

8. Walk across a bridge(s)

Brooklyn Bridge is by far the most famous bridge in New York City. Opened in 1883, it is an engineering landmark of the 19th century.

For a less crowded option, check out the Williamsburg or Manhattan bridge. These both span the East River like the Brooklyn Bridge.

Better yet, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, then walk a few blocks to the Manhattan Bridge to walk back across the river to your starting point.

9. Visit the largest mausoleum in North America

The General Grant National Memorial is the burial ground for Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia.

He was the commanding general of Union Army when the Civil War ended. And he was the 18th president of the U.S. No wonder why his mausoleum is the biggest on the continent.

More info on the General Grant National Monument

10. See buildings from your favorite TV shows and movies in person

New York City is the backdrop for some of our most popular TV shows and movies. Seinfeld, Avengers, Friends, When Harry Met Sally, and Sex & the City to name a few.

Check out this list from On Location Tours

11. Take an audio tour

Want a little more guidance on your walks around the city? Download the Urban Wonderer app and choose one of their many free audio tours.

Just go to the starting point of your tour in the app, put in your ear buds, play the tour, and start following the route. You will gain a wealth of information about the surrounding sights.

Urban Wonderer Audio Tours

12. Pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial

The 9/11 memorial is located at the site where the World Trade Center complex once was. The grounds commemorate the individuals killed during the 9/11/2001 terror attacks and 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The twin reflecting pools contain the largest man-made waterfall in North America.

13. Walk some stairs at the Vessel in Hudson Yards

The Hudson Yards building complex of shops, restaurants, and residences opened in March 2019. The centerpiece of the complex is the Vessel art piece. With a mile of stairs, you can climb it for amazing views of the city.

Tickets to explore and climb the stairs of the vessel are available same-day starting at 9:30 AM on a first come first serve basis. Click the link below for more information on the Vessel and tickets.

Click here for Vessel info and tickets

City Parks

Brooklyn Bridge in NYC
Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park.

14. Get a different view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge Park

At the base of the Brooklyn Bridge is Brooklyn Bridge Park. The green space is an escape from the bustle of Manhattan. It offers awesome views of the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan.

15. Tour Central Park

A visit to NYC must include a walk around Central Park. The green oasis in the middle of the city is beautiful and serene.

Check out Belvedere’s Castle, stroll around (and over) the Lake, and make a wish in Bethesda Fountain before relaxing on the Great Lawn. Print out this park map before your visit.

Paid option: Rent a bike from BikeRentNYC here to see more of the 843 acres of the park.

16. People watch in Thompkin’s Square Park

I could have filled in the blank “people watch in [enter park name here]” with just about any park or square in Manhattan. If you ask me, NYC has some of the most interesting and inspiring people in the world. And I think the mix of people passing through Thompkin’s Square Park in East Village represent the mix of NYC residents best.

17. Take a break in Bryant Park

Bryant Park is the backyard of the New York Public Library. It is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing since it is near many Midtown attractions like the library, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Plaza, and Times Square. Grab a seat and enjoy the view of surrounding gardens, skyscrapers, and bustling people.

18. Walk the High Line

The High Line is a park on a decommissioned elevated rail line. The park offers a unique perspective of the surrounding city-scape and is lined with landscaped gardens.

Walk the 1.5 mile length to bypass the streets of the Chelsea neighborhood and work off a meal. This attraction is such a hit that you are now seeing similar concepts in other U.S. cities.

19. See the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park

Don’t want to hit the high seas to see the Statue of Liberty up close? Battery Park at the southern tip of Lower Manhattan is the closest you will get from land.

20. Stroll through Green-Wood Cemetery

Yes, this one should be under “City Parks”. Green-wood cemetery is a 478 acre rural cemetery in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Think of it as a beautiful, well maintained park with historic tombstones and mausoleums. Tours are offered, but you can explore the cemetery on your own.

More info on Green-Wood Cemetery here

Art and Music

Piano Guy Washington Square NYC
A solo piano concert in Washington Square Park.

21. Listen to the “Piano Guy” in Washington Square Park

Every Saturday and Sunday, contingent on the weather, pianist Colin Huggins wheels his baby grand piano 1/2 mile to Washington Square Park. Enjoy a listen to the “Piano Guy” throughout the day. There may even be an opera singer, interpretive dancer, or ballerina joining in.

22. Go art gallery hopping in Chelsea

The Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan is packed with art galleries that are free to enter. Generally, the galleries focus on contemporary art. You will find all different kinds of art forms (paintings, sculptures, video, etc.) so there is something for everyone.

The main cluster of galleries are on streets 19th-26th between 10th and 11th avenues.

Use this interactive map of Chelsea galleries and go for a walk.

23. Lounge and listen to the New York Philharmonic in a city park

The New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks series offers free concerts in several NYC parks during the summer. You can find more information and the concert schedule on the New York Philharmonic website below:

New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks

24. Enjoy art outdoors at Socrates Sculpture Park

There are plenty of indoor art galleries and museums in this list, but what about outdoor art? Well, check out Socrates Sculpture Park In Long Island City. The greenspace is home to various art exhibitions throughout the year.

More info on Socrates Sculpture Park here

25. Listen to up and coming musicians at Rockwood Music Hall

Stage 1 at Rockwood Music Hall in Lower East Side is a tiny venue for up and coming musicians with no cover. Shows start at 6 PM during the week and 3 PM on weekends with a new artist every hour. This is my favorite place in NYC to check out new artists.

Note: the music is free, but there is a 1 drink minimum.

Rockwood Music Hall Calendar

26. Listen to jazz and blues at Arthur’s Tavern

Another no cover live music venue is the historic Arthur’s Tavern in West Village. Listen to live blues and jazz every night of the week at the oldest jazz club in NYC.

Note: the music is free, but there is a 2 drink minimum.

Arthur’s Tavern Performance Calendar

Food and Shopping

Chinatown NYC
Chinatown, New York City.

27. Explore unique ingredients in Chinatown

NYC’s Chinatown is packed with Asian markets and restaurants that have unique, hard to find items. Live frogs, rare seafood, and labels that are not in English can all be found at one of its many markets.

Roast ducks and chickens hanging in the window of a market can be thought of as “Enter Here” signs. Deluxe at 79 Elizabeth St. and Hong Kong Supermarket at 68 Elizabeth street are two of the best markets to visit. Most likely, they will be jam packed.

28. See what’s cooking at Chelsea Market

Conveniently connected to the High Line, Chelsea Market is a bustling food and shopping hall that covers an entire city block. You will find various high-quality meat, cheese, baked goods, and other prepared food vendors. Take a walk through the market to see the sights, but don’t go hungry if you want to make this a free activity.

Fun fact: The building used to be a Nabisco factory that made Oreo cookies.

29. Find rare books at Strand Book Store

Strand Book Store is a huge independent bookshop near Union Square Park. You could spend a whole day browsing through its 18 miles of new and used books.

30. Take a brewery tour at Brooklyn Brewery

If there is one brewery in NYC you can name, it is probably Brooklyn Brewery. The brewery seems to love beer education just as much as they love beer making. They offer free tours of their brewery in Williamsburg from 1 pm – 5 pm(starting on the hour) on Saturdays.

31. Inspect local vegetables next to world class chefs at the Union Square Greenmarket

The Union Square Greenmarket is widely considered the best farmer’s market in the city. The year round market is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 8 AM to 6 PM. But, get there early before farmer’s sell out.

Products include seasonal vegetables and fruits, cheeses, breads, jams, pickles, cider, cheeses, and much more!

32. Check out the latest fashion trends in SoHo

You can check out the latest fashion trends by people watching in the SoHo neighborhood – the best shopping area in the city. A better way to explore is by visiting one of the many boutiques or flagship designer stores in the neighborhood.

33. Go antiquing at the Brooklyn Flea

Hundreds of vendors set up shop to sell new and used vintage furniture, clothing, collectibles, jewelry, and other re-purposed treasures. Food is also available. You never know what you may find at one of its two locations in Brooklyn below.

  • Williamsburg – Saturdays 10 am – 5 pm, April through October

  • Dumbo – Sundays 10 am – 5 pm, April through October

  • Winter Market – Williamsburg – Saturdays and Sundays 10 am – 6 pm, November through March

Museums and Attractions

Cherry trees at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.
Cherry trees at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

34. Walk through cherry trees and zen Japanese gardens at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens is one of the best greenspaces in the city to experience nature. Admission is free to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens at the following times.

  • Fridays, 8 am to 12 pm, March – November

  • Wednesday to Friday, all day, December- February

35. Take a historic look at fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

The Fashion Institute of Technology is one of the most prestigious fashion schools in the U.S. Along with great fashion, the school offers a museum. Admission is, you guessed it, free.

Museum Info and Hours

36. Examine the history of World Trade Center attacks at the 9/11 Museum

The 9/11 Memorial Museum houses exhibitions that explore the history and significance of the 9/11 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Admission is free from 5 pm – close on Tuesdays.

9/11 Memorial Museum Info

37. Check out the largest gardens in the city at New York Botanical Gardens

The New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx is the largest botanical garden in the city. It houses a huge variety of native, non-native, and weird plants to explore. Admission is free at the following times.

  • Wednesday, all day

  • Saturday, 9 – 10 am

39. Get wild at the Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo is the largest urban zoo in the U.S. Chances are your favorite animal is living at the zoo. It houses everything from bears, bald-eagles, and anacondas.

The zoo is free on Wednesdays 10 am to 5 pm.

40. Learn about folk art at the American Folk Art Museum

Free museums are awesome. They nudge you to explore topics that would typically be passed by if there was a cost to do so. The American Folk Art Museum is a perfect example of this.

I wouldn’t necessarily seek out folk art, but an expertly curated museum dedicated to it exists. And it’s free.

More info on American Folk Art Museum

41. Analyze modern art masterpieces at MoMa

Yup, another free admission opportunity to an amazing museum. This time, it is the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa). Admission is free on Fridays, 4 pm to 8 pm.

Other Activities

Free Kayaking in NYC
Kayaking along the Hudson River.

42. Kayak on the Hudson River

Several organizations offer free kayaking along the NYC waterways. Grab a paddle!

Downtown Boathouse – Free kayaking on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays from 9 AM – 5 PM at Pier 26, late-May to mid-October. Click the link below for exact schedule and location.

Downtown Boathouse

Manhattan Community Boathouse – Free kayaking on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 AM – 6 PM, Mondays-Wednesdays 5:30 – 7:30 PM at Pier 96, late-May to mid-October. Click the link below for exact schedule and location.

Manhattan Community Boathouse

43. Find hidden treasure by geocaching

Never heard of geocaching? Think of it as a high tech scavenger hunt using your cell phones.

And get this: There are over 7 million hidden treasures (or “caches”) waiting to be found in NYC alone!

Find the hidden caches in NYC here

44. Run along a river

Surrounded by water, one of your best bets for an uninterrupted run in Manhattan is along a river.

Hudson River Park, runs 6 miles along the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan. Along the East River, a waterfront path runs over 4 miles from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan to East River Park.

45. Visit indoor gardens at the Ford Foundation office building

The Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice is located in Midtown among skyscrapers, concrete, and office buildings. Not exactly the place you would think to house a lush greenspace.

Inside the office building is an atrium that doubles as a botanical garden. A free art gallery is also open to the public. You can visit the gardens for free Monday – Friday, 8 am to 6 pm and Saturday 11 am to 6 pm.

Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice visitor info

46. Hit the beach

Yes, that is right, go to the beach. New York City has several public beaches located at the ocean edges of Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens. Check out the list from amNewYork below for the best beach options and how to get there.

8 of the best NYC beaches and how to get there

47. Explore Lower Manhattan on foot

If you have read other walktoeat travel blog posts, you know that exploring a destination by walking between food and drink establishments is a favorite. This Siena, Itay Itinerary is a perfect example of the walktoeat playbook.

New York City is amazing for walking. Most residents don’t have cars. The thought of owning a car when I lived there was plain crazy.

Lower Manhattan has some of the coolest neighborhoods in the world. Go for a walk through East Village, Lower East Side, Alphabet City, West Village, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Nolita, and/or SoHo neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.

These neighborhoods are clustered together. They are home to enough shops, food and drink establishments, people watching worthy spots, galleries, and museums to keep you busy for a lifetime.

48. Go for a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty

The Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours a day 7 days a week every 30 minutes (15-20 minutes during rush hours) between the southern tip of Manhattan and Staten Island. Each trip is about 25 minutes. Service is free.

Why should you go for a ferry ride?

Because you will get unique views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty!

Check out this complete guide by Free Tours by Foot on the ferry ride and a free guided audio tour to accompany you during your ride.

49. Attend a TV show taping

Did you know it is free to sit in the audience at many live TV show tapings? Or that some shows even pay you to be in the audience? Some tapings can be long and boring so do your research before choosing to attend one of the ones below.

NYC TV Show Tapings

50. Enjoy urban greenery at a community garden

There are private and community gardens hidden throughout the urban landscape of New York City. You never know when you will stumble upon a greenspace. Here are a few to get you started. Click on the name of the garden for more information.

Start checking some of these free things to do in NYC off of your bucket list

If you have more free things to do in NYC, I would love to know! Leave a comment with your ideas. New York City is great to visit in all seasons of the year.

The city is a bit less crowded during the summer because locals vacation and spend weekends away. I love spring because city dwellers are eager to spend time and energy outdoors. Fall is cozy and relaxed. Even though the weather may not be great in winter, the city is very charming during the holiday season.

So, read this post to start planning your trip to NYC: How to Plan Your Trip in 6 Steps.

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