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New York City on a Budget: Free or cheap things to do

A lot of sights and activities are expensive in New York City. Nevertheless, you can entertain yourself well on very little money if you know where to go. Here are some tips for seeing New York City on a budget. (Note: I thoroughly fact-checked and updated this post on November 16, 2019.)

A disclosure: this post contains affiliate links. If you buy through one of the links I will get a small percentage of what you spend.

A cluster of skyscrapers with one pier of the Brooklyn bridge in the foreground.
New York City, as seen from the Manhattan Bridge. The bridge in the foreground is the Brooklyn Bridge and the tallest building is the Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center.

Some general tips for seeing New York City on a budget

If you want to see a Broadway or Off-Broadway show, and are willing to be flexible about which one, the best place to go is the TKTS booth in the middle of Times Square to buy half-price or reduced-price theater tickets on the day of the show. Often, more seats are available for matinees, so you’re more likely to get one of the newer, more popular shows if you consider attending the matinee. There are also TKTS booths at the South Street Seaport and in Brooklyn, and at those you can buy matinee tickets for the next day as well. 

TKTS Times Square at Broadway and 47th. No bank cards are accepted: only credit cards, cash or traveler’s checks. Get there when they open or even earlier for the best selection. (TKTS website)

The Staten Island Ferry is a must-do! And it’s free! You’ll have to get off and re-board at each terminal, but the views of the city, the harbor, and the Statue of Liberty are amazing! 

The Staten Island crossing dark blue water. The ship is a dirty orange color with a black hull. The sides are lined with square windows and at the end are some open spaces on each floor with railings at their edges. Behind the ship is part of the Manhattan skyline: a cluster of tall buildings. The Staten Island Ferry is a great way to see New York City on a budget.
The Staten Island Ferry, as it passes Governor’s Island

Staten Island Ferry: East end of Battery Park, Lower Manhattan. Daily, with departures every 15-30 minutes. (Staten Island Ferry website)

Cheap food: Street food is cheap (hot dogs, pretzels, etc.), and the more “hole-in-the-wall” a place is, the cheaper it’s likely to be, especially in the less-touristy neighborhoods. Take-out food like burgers, falafel, burritos, deli sandwiches or bagels will be cheaper than food that is served to you at a table—and you don’t have to leave a tip if you’re not served at a table. The bagels you find in New York, by the way, are the best in the US—it has something to do with the water they’re boiled in.

A bagel, sliced in half so the cream cheese and lox slices are visible. A great way to eat in New York City on a budget.
A bagel with lox (smoked salmon) like the one shown in the picture will cost you a lot. If you want the salmon taste with a lower price, ask for “lox shmear”. You can also get lots of other (cheaper) kinds of “shmear”: plain cream cheese or cream cheese and chives, for example.

If you want Chinese food, try Chinatown, but stick to the little places on the side streets: the more hole-in-the-wall, the more authentic the food is likely to be, as well as cheaper.

Wherever you eat, if you are served at a table, you are expected to leave a tip, usually about 15% of the bill. Don’t skimp if the service is good; waiters are paid very poorly in general.

Turn off data roaming on your phone, or you’ll be in for a nasty surprise when you get home. Starbucks is everywhere, and they have free Wi-Fi. So do lots of other places—it’s more common in the US than in Europe. In most of them you can just step in the door, stand along the wall away from the counter, download your messages and get out again without spending anything!

Shopping: If you’re not from the US, you might expect the price marked on an item to be the actual price. It’s not! Sales taxes of 8.875% (as of this writing) are added at the register, so don’t take the marked price as the final price!

The subway is the fastest and easiest way to get around the city. When you travel on the subway, make sure of which train you’re getting onto. Some are locals, which stop at every station, and some are express trains, which only stop at major stations. They’re usually on the same track so check before you board. A single ride costs $2.75, but you’re better off, if you’re going to be using it a lot, to buy an unlimited pass MetroCard, which costs $33 for 7 days or $127 for 30 days. If you’re going to be out late clubbing, though, you’ll have to add some cash to the card as well, because the “unlimited” part doesn’t cover travel after midnight.

2. Walking is free (or nearly so) in New York City

I never get tired of walking in New York City or, rather, I get tired, but not bored. There’s something new around every corner! Here are some ideas of great places to walk in the city:

Places to stroll: Central Park, of course! Walk around the Battery in Lower Manhattan, or South Street Seaport or the Hudson River Greenway (a strip of park along the river) or across the Brooklyn Bridge or the Manhattan Bridge (great views of the city!).

view of the Manhattan Bridge from underneath: It extends from the bottom middle of the photo to the top right-hand corner. On the left a bit of a row of buildings is visible. New York City on a Budget
view of the Manhattan Bridge from underneath in a neighborhood called DUMBO: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass

If you’re in NYC in November or December, make sure to walk along Fifth Avenue to admire the ornate windows of the high-end shops. When I was a kid, a trip to the city to see the windows was a yearly ritual.

Rockefeller Center: Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s and is certainly worth a look, especially if you’re interested in the art (sculptures and murals) and buildings of that period. Great people-watching too, especially at Christmastime. Between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, around 49th and 50th St, Midtown (Rockefeller Center’s website).

The figure of a god leans over the entrance. Underneath it is the text "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times."
Figure above the entrance to Rockefeller Center

Art Deco: And speaking of Art Deco, even if you can’t afford to take the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building (350 Fifth Avenue), the art deco style of the lobby is definitely worth seeing, if you can talk the guards into letting you in. (If you decide you do want to go up, click here for fast-track access tickets.)

Also check out Radio City Music Hall (1260 6th Avenue between W. 50th and W. 51st St.) and the Fred F. French Building‘s lobby too (45th St. and Fifth Avenue) for great decorative style. The same goes for the Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Avenue) and Grand Central Station (which was built earlier in Beaux Arts style, but is worth seeing inside: make sure to look up!). If you want to learn more about Grand Central, take the audio tour).

The photo is taken at an angle to allow the whole Empire State building to fit in. It extends diagonally across the picture against a blue sky.
the Empire State Building

High Line: This part of the elevated railway network was abandoned years ago and stood derelict until it was recently reshaped into an elevated park. Some spots have great views of this gritty part of the city (though that’s changing with the creation of this park), and the Hudson River as well. Outdoor art exhibits and other events are on offer all year. Great people-watching here too! (Read my post about the High Line and/or visit The High Line’s website)

High Line: Gansevoort Street to West 34th between 10th and 12th Avenues, Chelsea. 

Governors Island: This former military base in New York Harbor is now a National Monument converted into public space. You can visit a former prison and a former fortress, as well as see some breathtaking views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. An artificial hill rises in the southern part of the island with long slides snaking down its side.

Seen across an expanse of water, the skyscrapers cluster on the horizon against a blue sky with fluffy clouds.
The Manhattan skyline as seen from Governors Island.

Governors Island: Open May 1 – October 31, Monday-Friday 10:00-18:00, Saturday-Sunday 10:00-19:00. Leave from the Battery Maritime Building (very near the Staten Island Ferry), 10 South Street, Lower Manhattan. The ferry costs $3 round-trip. (Governor’s Island website)

Roosevelt Island: This sliver of land in the middle of the East River is a pleasant place to walk. At the southern end of the island you’ll find the spooky Gothic Revival ruin of a smallpox hospital. Next to that is Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt and to his ideas about human rights. At the northern end is another little park with a lighthouse.

The ruin has an intact front facade but the sky is visible through the windows. Vines grow on the side and small shrubs grow here and there from the stone.
Smallpox Hospital, opened in 1856 on Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island can be reached by subway or cable tramway. By subway take the F train to the Roosevelt Island stop. The scenic route is to take the tramway from 59th and 2nd Avenue. The ride only takes a few minutes and offers great views of the city. It costs $2.25 one way, but you can use your MetroCard if you have one. Open all year every day into the wee hours of the morning.

Walking Tours: Various groups offer “free” walking tours in various parts of the city. I put “free” in quotation marks because the expectation is that you will tip the tour guide based on how good you think the tour was. Rather than trying to write a comprehensive list, I’ll just refer you to tripsavvy’s list.

You might also like my post New York City: A photo essay or Trip of a Lifetime: Bloggers pick their must-see destinations.

3. Free museums in NYC

While Washington, D.C. is best known for free national museums, New York City has some too, which is great if you’re on a tight budget. Many museums run by the US government offer free admission. Here are some national museums and historic places, plus a few others that are also free:

While you’re in Lower Manhattan to take the Staten Island Ferry and stroll around the Battery, check out the National Museum of the American Indian, very nearby the Staten Island Ferry terminal. It displays artifacts from its permanent collection but also rotates some fascinating temporary exhibitions about Native American culture.

A very grand front to the building: granite, with corinthian columns and ornate sculptures on either side of the entrance stairway. A banner hangs above the entranceway reading "Day of the Dead. Dia de los muertos"
The National Museum of the American Indian is housed in the imposing Customs House.

National Museum of the American Indian: Open 10:00-17:00 daily, Thursdays until 20:00. Admission: free. One Bowling Green, on the NE corner of Battery Park. (NMAI’s website)

African Burial Ground: This burial ground was the final resting place for thousands of free blacks as well as slaves. It was discovered in the 1990s during construction of the Federal Building, and this small national monument was incorporated into the building. A visitor’s center teaches about Africans in 17th and 18th century New York, and a memorial stands outdoors.

African Burial Ground: Open Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-16:00, outdoor memorial open until 17:00. Closed Christmas and Thanksgiving weeks. Admission: free. Ted Weiss Federal Building, 290 Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets, Lower Manhattan. (Read my post about this museum and/or visit the ABG’s website)

Looking straight up inside the Ancestral Libation Chamber at the African Burial Ground National Monument. The walls are black and shiny and the opening to the sky is triangular.
Looking straight up inside the Ancestral Libation Chamber at the African Burial Ground

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace: As the name suggests, this 1848 brownstone is where Teddy Roosevelt was born and he lived here until he was 14. Five of the rooms have been restored to what they looked like when the Roosevelts lived here in 1865.

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace: Open Wednesday-Sunday 9:00-17:00. Admission: free. 28 East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway.  (Read my post on this museum and/or the museum’s website)

the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum exterior: a brownstone with an American flag fluttering in the breeze
The front of the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum

Hamilton Grange was the home of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers and a signer of the Constitution. There are exhibits about Hamilton’s life, as well as period rooms.

Hamilton Grange: Open Wednesday-Sunday 9:00-17:00. Admission: free. Guided tours are at 10:00, 11:00 and 14:00. You can only go self-guided between 12:00-13:00 and 15:00-16:00. 414 West 141st Street, between Convent Avenue and St. Nicholas Avenue  (Hamilton Grange website).

If money interests you, visit the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. You need to reserve ahead to visit here and see the high-security vault, safeguarding the gold well below street level, as well as exhibits about money. Taking the tour is required, and it would be wise to book it ahead.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York: Tours offered Monday-Friday at 13:00 and 14:00. Admission: free. 33 Liberty St, Lower Manhattan. Enter at 44 Maiden Lane (FRB website).

Chelsea galleries: The galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood are the place to see all of the up-and-coming artists, and it’s perfectly acceptable to visit without intending to buy.  On Thursday evenings some will be holding openings, which means free wine and cheese. Most are in the 20s between 10th and 11th Avenues.  (Listing)

As seen from High Line Park, looking down a side street. Traffic crosses the picture right to left, and a line of traffic extends up a side street up the middle of the photo. The street is lined with buildings into the distance, but mostly obscured by trees along the street.
New York City traffic in the springtime, as seen from High Line Park

If you’re an artsy person, it’s worth venturing out of Manhattan to visit the Bronx Museum of the Arts.  Its specialty is contemporary and multi-ethnic art.

Bronx Museum of the Arts: Open Wednesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00; until 20:00 on Friday. Admission: free. 1040 Grand Concourse at 165th Street, The Bronx. D or B subway to 167 Street Station. (museum’s website)

Fashionistas should certainly visit the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). They have lots of special exhibitions on various aspects of fashion and couture, as well as a large permanent collection. They also have a gallery of current students’ and faculty’s creations.

Museum at FIT: Open Tuesday-Friday 12:00-20:00; Saturday 10:00-17:00. Admission: free. Seventh Avenue at 27th Street. (their website)

4. Sometimes free (or cheap) museums in NYC

Museums in New York City can be extremely expensive, but many offer occasional free afternoons or evenings or pay-what-you-want times: much better for your budget, but you’ll be dealing with more of a crowd than normal.

Museum of Modern Art: This is my absolute favorite modern art museum, with art from the post-war period until today. It owns the true icons of each movement.

MoMA: Open daily 10:30-17:30, until 20:00 on Fridays. Normally, admission is $25, but every Friday night, admission is free from 17:30 to 21:00. 11 West 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. (MOMA) If you decide to go when it’s not free, get this skip-the-line ticket.)

A depiction of an American flag, but painted and seeming smudged.
Jasper Johns’ “Flag” from 1954-55 at MoMA in New York City

Museum of Chinese in America: If you’re curious about immigrant history, this museum in Chinatown is a good place to visit, along with the Tenement Museum. It’s in an impressive building, designed by Maya Lin.

MOCA: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00 and until 21:00 on Thursdays. Admission normally $12, but admission is free on the first Thursday of the month. 215 Center Street, between Howard and Grand and one block north of Canal Street. (Read my review of the museum or the museum’s website at MOCANYC)  

On top of the pistol's barrel, a man holds a Chinese man by the ponytail and kicks him.
A cap pistol inscribed with “Chinese must go,” on display at the Museum of Chinese in America.

Museum of Arts and Design: This used to be a crafts museum, but it now covers all sorts of design objects, such as architecture and textiles.

MAD: Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-18:00 and on Thursdays until 21:00. Admission is $18, but on Thursdays from 18:00 to 21:00, you can pay what you want. It’s not really free, but you can be cheap and just give a few dollars. 2 Columbus Circle. (MAD

The Museum of Jewish Heritage: Permanent as well as temporary exhibitions are designed to honor Jews who died in the Holocaust by presenting and celebrating modern Jewish culture, history and traditions.

Museum of Jewish Heritage: Open Sunday, Monday,Tuesday and Thursday 10:00-18:00, Wednesday 10:00-21:00 and Friday 10:00-15:00 (until 17:00 from March 10-November 10). Admission normally $16, but free on Wednesdays 16:00-21:00. Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, Lower Manhattan.  (MJHNYC

The New Museum is all cutting-edge contemporary art, even the building itself.

The New Museum: Open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-18:00 and until 21:00 on Thursdays. Admission normally $18, but on Thursdays from 19:00 to 21:00, you can pay what you want, with a suggested minimum of $2. 235 Bowery near Prince Street. (New Museum’s website

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum: It may seem morbid, but this museum and the memorial are impressive and moving.

9/11 Memorial and Museum: The memorial is free and open daily 7:30-21:00. The Memorial museum is open daily 9:00-20:00 and until 21:00 on Friday and Saturday (last entry two hours earlier). Admission normally $26 (Skip-the-line admission here), but on Tuesday evenings tickets are given out free – first come, first served – starting at 16:00. Entrances at Liberty Street and Greenwich Street, Liberty Street and West Street, or West Street and Fulton Street. (9/11 Memorial and Museum) (Here’s my post about the memorial from a visit a couple of years ago, before the Freedom Tower was completed.)

a detail of the 9/11 memorial in New York City: a dark shiny marble wall with raised letters spelling out the victims' names and their affiliations.
a detail of the 9/11 memorial

5. Sleeping in New York City

I’ll be honest here. Accommodations are expensive in New York! It’s hard to sleep in New York City and keep to a budget. I’d suggest spending some time on booking.com. Make sure to use map view to make your choice, so you can be sure that wherever you stay is near to a subway station.

Don’t assume you have to stay in Manhattan; it’s the most expensive part of the city for accommodations. If you are determined to stay in Manhattan, don’t assume Harlem is unsafe. It isn’t any less safe than the rest of the city, and accommodations there are often cheaper than other parts of Manhattan. Consider Brooklyn as well, or across the river in New Jersey. They’re cheaper, and as long as a subway or train station is nearby, you can make it work.

The only two hotels I’ve stayed in at all recently were both pricey: Jane Hotel (lower Manhattan) cost less than the TWA Hotel (JFK Airport). If you can afford them, I recommend them both! I also booked Club Quarters, Midtown through Hotwire, but it still cost over $200 a night. Nevertheless, it was a good hotel. Pod51 is more bare bones, yet manages to seem chic. I stayed there in a bunkbed room with my sister for a bit under $200.

I’m sure I’ve missed some key points here, so please feel free to add any further suggestions below! What would you recommend that’s free or cheap to do in New York City on a budget?

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Pinnable image Text: New York City on a Budget 3 images: On top, a view of the NYC skyline over the water: a cluster of skyscrapers. Below left: the Brooklyn Bridge, looking up at one of the support towers with its two arches, cables extending downwards, and a flag on top of its midpoint. Below right: the front of the American Indian museum: a huge arched entry in the middle, up a set of stairs, columns on both sides as a decorative element up the facade, ornate pediment with various statues.

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