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14 Best Free Things to Do in New York City

Written by Meagan Drillinger
Jul 28, 2022

New York City is one of the most dynamic cities in the entire world. From its iconic skyline to its world-renowned restaurants, A-list hotels, and millions of interesting people, no city on the planet is quite like New York.

That said, it also happens to be one of the most expensive cities in the world, which can be a deterrent to many travelers. Fortunately, you can find many free things to do in NYC if you know where to look.

From scenic boat rides to an abundance of parks, a bevy of art galleries, and DIY walking tours, here are the best free things to do in New York City.

1. Ride the Staten Island Ferry

Staten Island Ferry and Lower Manhattan
Staten Island Ferry and Lower Manhattan

Ask any New Yorker about Staten Island, and you'll get a universal response – Staten Island is not the favorite borough of New Yorkers. Even Staten Island natives will get in on the joke about their island, which is technically closer to New Jersey than it is to the rest of the state.

Still, no matter what you say about Staten Island, it can be agreed that it has some of the best pieces of real estate of all the five boroughs, and one of the best ways to drink in epic views is from the Staten Island Ferry.

The iconic public transit ferry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the St. George Ferry Terminal in Staten Island and the Whitehall Ferry Terminal (or South Ferry) in Manhattan. The free ferry service runs every 15 to 20 minutes.

Typically used for commuters, tourists have come to love the Staten Island Ferry because it is a fast, efficient, and free way to have one of the best views of the Statue of Liberty in the city. Short of actually visiting the statue on a pricey tour, the Staten Island Ferry is a welcome, budget-friendly alternative that provides perfect views. It's particularly cost effective for families looking for free things to do in New York City.

Once over on the island, you can explore some of the restaurants near the ferry terminal, visit some of Staten Island's tourist attractions, or simply wait for the return ferry back over to Manhattan. It's a stress-free, simple way to have some of the best sightseeing in New York City without ever having to dip into your wallet.

2. Picnic in Central Park

Aerial view of Central Park in New York City
Aerial view of Central Park in New York City

Recognized all over the world, Central Park is one of the most iconic attractions in New York City.

The sprawling urban park covers 843 acres and is the most-visited city park in the entire United States. The best part? Entrance to the best park in NYC is entirely free.

Tourists and locals alike use Central Park like their big city backyard, exploring the miles of walking paths, picturesque lakes, babbling fountains, ice skating rinks, and even a zoo.

More often than not, you'll find visitors to the park sprawled out on picnic blankets in one of the many meadows or secluded glens, feasting on picnics or simply laying out under the sun.

Central Park is one of the best places in New York City to catch the wide array of characters, from street performers and musicians, to the general hodgepodge of quirky creatives who live in the city.

Read More: Best Parks in New York City

3. Browse the Art Galleries

Art exhibition in New York City
Art exhibition in New York City

New York City has dozens of museums that are famous around the world. However the majority of the museums are not free to enter. Art-lovers can get their fix, though, while still remaining on a budget by visiting the hundreds (or maybe thousands) of art galleries that are scattered across the city.

Art galleries offer a more intimate experience than NYC's larger museums and offer exquisite art from local and international artists across all mediums. The majority of the art galleries in New York City can be found in Chelsea or SoHo, but you'll find art galleries across all five boroughs, too.

The Gagosian Gallery is one of the most famous, with 15 locations around the world. Larry Gagosian's Chelsea location is 20,000 square feet and opened in 1999. Other galleries to visit in Chelsea include David Zwirner, Greene Naftali, and Hauser & Wirth New York.

4. Hit NYC's Public Beaches

Beach at Jacob Riis Park
Beach at Jacob Riis Park

New York City may be one of the largest cities in the world, but it also has a thriving coastal vibe. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, NYC's public beaches give a completely different atmosphere to the traditional rattle-and-hum of the city.

They may not be the easiest to get to – they will certainly require a long subway ride – but getting out to the beaches of Brooklyn or Queens is a unique NYC experience you won't want to miss. Plus, access to this beach is completely free.

The most popular beaches in New York City are found in the borough of Queens, particularly Rockaway or Jacob Riis Park. Perched at the very southern point of Queens, these beaches jut out like a skinny arm into the Atlantic and separate the ocean from Jamaica Bay.

This is one of the best spots in New York City for surfing, and you'll find a beautiful boardwalk that is lined with concessions, as well.

Brooklyn has some beautiful beaches, too, particularly the world-famous Coney Island, as well as the historic Brighton Beach. Coney Island is also famous for its iconic boardwalk, home to attractions, rides, restaurants, and shopping.

5. Discover the Socrates Sculpture Park

Socrates Sculpture Park
Socrates Sculpture Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Astoria is a beloved neighborhood in the borough of Queens, directly across the East River from Manhattan.

The residential neighborhood has come alive in recent years with restaurants and museums, but one of the main attractions in Queens is the waterfront Socrates Sculpture Park.

The park was founded in 1986 by sculptor Mark du Suvero and has become a neighborhood institution for residents who frequent the park for picnics, free art exhibits, yoga in the park, and views of the Manhattan skyline.

The best feature of the park, in addition to its beautiful views, is the rotating collection of art and artwork.

All sculptures are exhibited on a temporary basis, and the park features four major initiatives each year, including the Spring/Summer Exhibition, the "Socrates Annual" fellowship, the Folly/Function competition, and the Broadway Billboard series.

One of the best ways to get to the park is to take the New York City ferry service that runs up and down the East River. The Astoria ferry pier is within walking distance to the park.

6. Wander Little Island Park

Little Island Park
Little Island Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Little Island has to be seen to be believed. One of the newest parks to open in New York City, the entire green space is built atop futuristic-style white pillars that rise out of the Hudson River.

Boasting some of the best waterfront and downtown views in New York City, Little Island is a special urban oasis veined with walking paths and peppered with panoramic perches that gaze out in every direction.

Not only is it a space for relaxing and walking, it also exists as an event space, with an amphitheater used for concerts, performances, poetry, comedy, and arts workshops.

The park was built as part of the repair of Pier 54, which was one of the hardest hit spots by Hurricane Sandy.

7. Explore Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York
Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York

Visiting a cemetery may not be everyone's top vacation activity, but an exception ought to be made for Green-Wood Cemetery. A National Historic Landmark, this historic cemetery is one of the most popular places to visit in Brooklyn, and one of the most fascinating.

Open seven days a week, the cemetery is 478 acres of art, history, and beautiful nature. It was founded in 1838 as one of the first rural cemeteries in the United States. Today it attracts 500,000 visitors a year, which is second only to Niagara Falls.

Green-Wood is actually a Revolutionary War historic site where the Battle of Long Island was fought in 1776. Today it is the final resting place of many world-famous creators, from Leonard Bernstein and Jean-Michel Basquiet to Horace Greeley.

More than a cemetery, Green-Wood also features visual and performing arts, from sculpture and photography to dance and music.

Address: 500 25th Street, Brooklyn, New York

8. Stroll the West Side Highway

Hudson River Greenway
Hudson River Greenway | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Also known as the Hudson River Greenway, this 11.5-mile walking/running path has some of the best views in the city and is always packed with residents and visitors who are out enjoying the day.

The Hudson River Greenway runs all the way from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan to the George Washington Bridge up in Washington Heights.

The paved path is a prime place to visit for runners, rollerbladers, cyclists, and everyone in between. Green space along the path makes perfect outcrops for sitting back to enjoy the views up and down the island and across the Hudson River.

The pathway is also one of the best ways to get some sightseeing in for free, with points of interest like the Statue of Liberty, Freedom Tower, Chelsea Piers, and the intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

As you head north, things tend to get quieter and more park opportunities open up, including Hudson River Park and Riverside Park.

You'll even pass some notable waterfront restaurants along the way; should the mood strike you, grab something delicious and enjoy it with a view.

9. Catch a Movie in Bryant Park

Bryant Park at dusk
Bryant Park at dusk

Summer in New York City is a magical time because of all the wonderful things people can do outdoors. You can add "watch a movie" to that list thanks to the Movie Nights series held in Bryant Park.

For three decades, this famous midtown park has hosted outdoor movie nights during the warm months – all for free.

As part of the series, the lawn opens at 5pm for spectators to set up for picnicking. Food and drinks are available for purchase, or you can bring your own. The films start at 8pm.

The outdoor films are hosted Monday nights for a total of 10 screenings throughout the summer. It's a wonderful way to spend beautiful summer nights, with the backdrop of the New York Public Library and the historic buildings in the area.

10. Visit the 9/11 Memorial

9/11 Memorial
9/11 Memorial | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

September 11, 2001 is a day that is remembered around the world. But for New Yorkers, the devastating day quite literally feels a lot closer to home.

Today, the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center are remembered at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, right on the site of where the original towers stood.

While the museum is not free to enter, anyone can visit the memorial – two deep, square pools that sit in the footprints of the once-iconic towers. Engraved along the edges of the pools are the names of both those who lost their lives in the attacks and first responders.

It's a somber and poignant experience to visit the memorial, but one that will give travelers a deeper connection to the city that they are visiting, as well as the event that changed so many lives forever.

Address: 180 Greenwich Street, New York, New York

11. Stroll the High Line

High Line in NYC
High Line in NYC

One of the most unique tourist attractions in New York City is its beloved High Line. Now an institution for residents and tourists alike, the High Line was constructed on the skeleton of a former elevated subway track.

Today the raised green space has unique views over Manhattan's West Side, as well as walking paths, viewpoints, and kiosks for food and drink.

The High Line runs for nearly a mile and a half from West 34th Street down to Gansevoort Street. There are stair entrances at various points along the track.

Along the walking route, visitors will pass various works of contemporary art including everything from murals to sculpture.

Gardens are a big part of the High Line experience, too, inspired by the wildflowers that grew along the rail tracks for the 25 years since the train stopped running. They are a tribute to New York City's past – something that New Yorkers are very proud of.

12. Cross the Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Built in 1869, the Brooklyn Bridge is both a feat of engineering and one of the icons of the New York City skyline.

It connects downtown Manhattan with downtown Brooklyn and can be crossed by car, bike, and also on foot. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic way to see New York City, and one of the best things to do for free in NYC.

The Brooklyn Bridge sees thousands of pedestrians every day, and even more passengers via its six lanes of traffic.

The entire length of the bridge is a little bit more than a mile, with the pedestrian path above the car lanes below. It takes approximately a half hour to walk across the bridge if you aren't stopping for photos, which, of course, you will definitely be stopping for. You can walk across the bridge in either direction, too.

13. Browse the New York Public Library

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

One of the finest libraries in the world, the New York Public Library is both a feat of architecture and a temple of the written word.

Opened to the public in 1911, the iconic building is a beautiful example of Beaux-Arts architecture and welcomes millions of visitors every year.

Located near Bryant Park, the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is free to enter. Inside are free exhibitions, programs, art, and much more to discover. You'll recognize the building by the giant lion structures that guard its entrance.

The library is home to a permanent exhibition, the Polonsky Exhibition, which shows off items from its collection of 56 million, including the real "Winnie the Pooh" and the handwritten letters of James Baldwin; rotating exhibitions are also on display.

Address: 476 5th Ave, New York, New York

14. Take a DIY Walking Tour

Manhattan Bridge as seen from Brooklyn
Manhattan Bridge as seen from Brooklyn

New York City has so many different personalities. It is a haven for every type of traveler. No matter your interest, you can find it on New York City's streets. Foodies, history buffs, architecture lovers, art mavens, movie aficionados – you name the interest, New York City has something for you.

One of the best ways to tap into your interests in NYC for free is to take a self-guided walking tour.

Explore the cobblestone streets of the Financial District, the galleries of SoHo, the back alleys of Chinatown, or the history of the former Five Points – you can discover so much of New York City on foot.

Discover destinations, find outdoor adventures, follow the journeys of our travel writers around the world, and be inspired.

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