The Best Free Things to Do in New York City

People-watching and wandering New York’s distinct neighborhoods are two of the city’s greatest—and cheapest—thrills. You may also be pleasantly surprised by how many historic sites, cultural venues, and green spaces are free day in and day out. We’ve included 20 here. But there are many more like MoMA and the Bronx Zoo that have select free entry times, so be sure to do your research before you pay up.

Randall Manor, Staten Island, NY, USA
The price of everything is always going up, up, up in New York City . . . with one exception. The Staten Island Ferry, which started operating in 1905, remains the best deal in the Big Apple: it’s free. The 25-minute ride between Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan and St. George Terminal on Staten Island gives you THE best view of the Statue of Liberty, 24 hours a day. And unlike the paid forms of transportation in the city (we’re looking at YOU, subways and buses!), the Staten Island Ferry has the best on-time record of all forms of city transit, so you won’t miss out on other sights and activities.
32-01 Vernon Blvd, Long Island City, NY 11106, USA
Years—no, decades—before Long Island City became a happening neighborhood, Socrates Sculpture Park was there, staking a claim on a patch of land that had been abandoned and turned into an illegal landfill. Since then, the park has become a cultural hub of the neighborhood, hosting year-round outdoor exhibits of contemporary sculpture. During warmer months, it also has a full calendar of events, most of which are free, including yoga and capoeira classes, international movie screenings, and art-making workshops. The park is also a launch point for kayaking (also free!) during the summer. Note that the Noguchi Museum is right across the street; along with Socrates, it makes for a inspiring art-centered outing in this increasingly popular Queens neighborhood.
476 5th Ave, New York, NY 10018, USA
The main branch of the New York Public Library is one of the country’s grandest Beaux Arts buildings, a temple to learning on Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd streets. At the end of the 19th century, John Bigelow, who oversaw the Tilden Trust, decided that as New York was becoming a global financial capital, it required a grand public library. When the Astor and Lenox libraries faced financial difficulties, he convinced them to merge and, with the Tilden Trust, underwrite the library that now stands next to Bryant Park. The firm of Carrère and Hastings was entrusted with the design, and construction began in 1902 on the building that would be the largest marble structure built up to that time in the United States. The elegant main reading room with its soaring carved-wood ceilings is the highlight of its interiors. The library hosts temporary exhibitions related to literary and cultural topics that draw on its extensive collection of books and other printed materials. The two beloved lions in Tennessee marble—Patience and Fortitude—have stood at the entrance to the library since it opened in 1911 and were created by sculptor Edward Clark Potter.
1000 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224, USA
First, Brooklyn’s Coney Island is not, in fact, an island, having been attached to the rest of the borough by landfill since the 1920s. What the area is best known for, however, is its heyday from around the 1880s through World War II when it began as a posh seaside resort area and gradually became a beloved beach destination, thanks to a number of amusement parks. The appeals of Coney Island declined after the war (historians attribute this to the proliferation of both air-conditioning, which made escaping to the shore less important, and the automobile, which made it easier to reach nicer sandy stretches on Long Island). In recent decades it has increased in popularity again. Brooklyn residents, and visitors to New York, have embraced anew the retro charms of the boardwalk and the rides that are still operating, like the Cyclone roller coaster and the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel. The towering Parachute Jump has been abandoned, but it still stands as an impossible-to-miss landmark. Brighton Beach sits next to Coney Island and is a largely Russian neighborhood where restaurants are happy to serve any diners who appreciate copious amounts of vodka and Russian specialties.
210 10th Ave, New York, NY 10011, USA
For much of its history, the western edges of Manhattan neighborhoods like the West Village and Chelsea consisted of small manufacturing buildings and warehouses that served the piers on the Hudson River. Over time, those factories were replaced with residential developments, and shipping largely moved out to Brooklyn and New Jersey. What remained, however, was an abandoned light-rail line, located above street level. After 10 years of lobbying the city, state, and federal governments, the first section of the High Line park opened in 2009. It now extends for 1.45 miles, from Gansevoort Street in the south to 34th Street at its other end. An innovative design by James Corner Field Operations uses native species to preserve some of the feeling the old rail line had when it was overgrown with weeds. It has quickly become one of New York’s most popular attractions, both with residents and visitors who stroll the length of it, as well as a model for other cities attempting to find new uses for old infrastructure.
414 W 141st St, New York, NY 10031, USA
“It’s quiet uptown.” So sings founding father Alexander Hamilton in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical. While those ticket prices are still astronomical, it’s free to visit and tour Hamilton’s uptown home in Harlem—named the Grange after his grandfather’s Scotland estate and now a National Historic Landmark. Rather like Hamilton, the two-story Federal home has had a turbulent history, including a few moves, most recently in 2008 to St. Nicholas Park, within the boundaries of Hamilton’s original 32-acre estate. The period rooms were renovated in 2011, and 13 sweet gum trees planted outside, just as Hamilton had done in honor of the original colonies.
45 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10111, USA
Rockefeller Center was one of the great construction projects of the Great Depression, a complex of 14 buildings between Fifth and Sixth avenues and 48th and 51st streets built over the 1930s. It’s also one of America’s grandest examples of Art Deco design, from the Indiana-limestone-clad buildings themselves to its interior murals and allegorical figures in panels above the entries to the various buildings. (Daniel Okrent recounts the fascinating history of the complex in detail in his acclaimed Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center.) For many travelers to New York, the center is a favorite destination even if they aren’t students of architecture or urban planning. It’s the home of Radio City Music Hall, where the Rockettes perform; its 70th-floor observation deck offers sweeping views of the city; and every morning tourists gather outside the windows of the NBC studios during the broadcast of The Today Show.

The center also hosts temporary large-scale art installations, like Jeff Koons’s enormous dancer and flower puppy in recent years, and the lighting of its Christmas tree marks the unofficial start of the holiday season. Another bucket-list experience here is taking a turn on the small sunken ice rink under the golden statue of Prometheus. Just across Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center is another New York landmark, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, looking better than ever after a multiyear renovation that included a thorough cleaning of the Gothic building’s facade.
334 Furman St, Brooklyn, NY 11201, USA
Completed in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is an engineering wonder and an architectural one as well, a masterpiece of design that has inspired acclaimed poets (Hart Crane, Marianne Moore), writers (Jack Kerouac), and painters (Joseph Stella). While Walt Whitman was left in awe by the bridge, his famous poem, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” was actually written during its construction. The bridge connected what were then two different cities—the five boroughs of New York would not be united into one city until 15 years later, in 1898. A stroll across the 6,016-foot-long bridge is a quintessential New York experience, taking you from near City Hall on the Manhattan side to Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood of tree-lined streets and elegant, 19th-century town houses that have been lovingly preserved and restored. Come fall, the bridge promenade will be pedestrian-only so you won’t need to worry about cyclists ringing their bells furiously at you, thanks to a new dedicated bike lane on the Manhattan-bound side.
Governors Island, New York, NY 11231, USA
Located in the middle of New York harbor, less than half a mile from Manhattan (and even closer to Brooklyn), 172-acre Governors Island feels like a world unto itself, far from the bustling city. It has played a key role in the defense of New York at various points and two fortifications here, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, reflect that history. From 1966 to 1996, the island was a Coast Guard station; since it closed, the city, state, and federal governments have discussed various plans for the island’s development. In the meantime, it is open to the public for six months each year, from May 1 to October 31, when it is possible to wander among the Coast Guard barracks, visit the commander’s house, and bike around the mostly car-free island. Ferries depart from both Manhattan and Brooklyn starting at 10 a.m. and running until 6:15 p.m. on weekdays and 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. During many weekends in the summer, art fairs, food festivals, and other events help draw visitors to the island, but even if you go on a day without anything special scheduled, a journey here provides a refreshingly different perspective on New York.
New York, NY 10012, USA
Washington Square Park is only a fraction of the size of Central Park, but it is as almost as much of an icon of New York as its much larger counterpart uptown. It’s likely because it sits in the heart of Greenwich Village, and has thus served as a backdrop for many events in the city’s history. In the late 19th century, it was one of New York’s most fashionable addresses (that period was captured by Henry James in his 1880 novella Washington Square, later the basis for The Heiress, a play that was also adapted into a movie). The arch along its northern side dates to 1892 and was designed by Stanford White to replace an earlier one, in wood and plaster, erected in 1889 to mark the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. When Greenwich Village became the haunt of artists and writers, the park was a green space for the city’s counterculture; folk singers and street performers are still a common sight, and the park is also frequently used for political protests and rallies. On sunny days, especially during the academic year, the park is filled with NYU students, neighborhood residents, and tourists taking in the scene.
89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, USA
Stepping into the enormous main concourse of this landmarked architectural jewel—with its sweeping granite staircases, hulking columns and 38-meter (125-foot) ceilings painted with night-sky constellations—can be a jaw-dropping experience. What’s even more incredible, though, is the sheer number of people who use it as a commuter hub day in and day out (more than 750,000 train and subway passengers every weekday). Wander around the shops, head down to the basement food court for a bite and to marvel at the crowds hurrying by—and if you get jostled, don’t take it personally.
290 Broadway
In 1991, exploratory work on a new federal building in Lower Manhattan uncovered more than 400 caskets in an unmarked cemetery. It turned out to be a former six-acre burial ground dating back to the mid-1630s—the oldest and largest of its kind in North America for both enslaved and free Africans. (An estimated 15,000 people were buried here.) The site now features a memorial, public art, and a visitor’s center that delves into the history of slavery and role of Africans in early New York.
New York, NY, USA
Manhattan can, famously, feel like endless rows of apartment blocks and office towers for most of its length. At least above 14th Street, a regular grid of streets and avenues, bisected only by Broadway, has transformed the city into a dream for real estate developers. The green spaces interrupting the pattern—Union Square, Gramercy Park, Madison Square Park—are few and far between, with one enormous exception: Central Park. Running from 59th Street to 110th Street, and between Central Park West (Eighth Avenue) and Fifth Avenue, it is one of the world’s largest urban parks, measuring some 843 acres. It is the masterpiece of the 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted working in collaboration with Calvert Vaux. Inside its borders are stately allées and naturalistic scenes, ice-skating rinks (in the winter), an enormous reservoir, and a faux castle. The park is hugely popular, and so to call it an escape from the bustle of the city is often not accurate, especially on mild summer days and the first warm ones in the spring when thousands of residents head to its playing fields, bike and run along the road that loops the park, and enjoy picnics on the Sheep Meadow or one of its other lawns.
New York, NY 10018, USA
A few green acres of valuable Midtown Manhattan real estate affords office workers and visitors with valuable peace and space, two things that are hard to find in the surrounding streets. Bryant Park shares the block between Fifth and Sixth avenues and 41st and 42nd street with the main branch of the New York City Library (also worth a visit). The library runs an al fresco reading room along the north end of the park, and occasionally hosts readings and author events. In summer, a stage at the western edge of the vast green lawn runs a busy schedule of performances and films. In winter, the lawn becomes an ice skating rink and the site of a busy holiday market. All year round, the park is a popular destination for the bocce ball courts, ping pong tables, small carousel, food kiosks, open lawns, gravel paths, seasonal plantings, and a graceful fountain. It may be a challenge to find a seat at lunchtime, but it’s worth the wait. Take a break from your walk and enjoy some great people-watching, as well as shade and a measure of serenity in a green space bound on all sides by tall buildings.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Food + Drink
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East