Bite Into the Big Apple With 20 Free Things to Do in NYC
Start spreading the news: New York has plenty of free things to do.
Or course, the city definitely lives up to its reputation of exorbitant prices and excessive wealth. Some restaurants serve $35 chocolate martinis and T-bone steaks upwards of $100. High-end boutiques hang basic black dresses made of cotton on sale racks for $820 and an Uber to the airport can be $135 when demand is high.
But the Big Apple doesn’t have to mean big sticker shock. The city’s culture, history, skyline, parks, people and even businesses offer plenty for a visitor to enjoy at no cost at all.
20 Free Things to Do in New York City
- IKEA ferry past Statue of Liberty
- 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero
- Queens botanical garden
- Brooklyn Bridge
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- Times Square
- Empire State Building
- Wall Street’s Charging Bull
- Grand Central Station
- Central Park
- Trinity Cemetery
- Trinity Church Churchyard
- Birdland Jazz Club
- White Horse Tavern
- General Grant National Memorial
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s
- Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment
- The “Friends” apartment building
A “Stranger Things” virtual reality experience in Brooklyn costs $46 each. Tea at the American Girl Place starts at $40 per person. Numerous other NYC activities and excursions come with big price tags, too. Tastes of the real New York, however, are free and can be just as entertaining as manufactured fun.
Put these ideas on your itinerary:
IKEA’s Ferry Past Statue of Liberty
No need to pay $25 to $50 for a boat tour past the Statue of Liberty. You can see the famous lady from a free NY Waterway Ferry that transports riders to IKEA’s store in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. The ferry leaves from Midtown and Downtown Manhattan piers throughout the day taking potential IKEA shoppers round trip to the 6.5-acre waterfront Brooklyn Erie Basin Park. The park features walking and bike paths, outdoors seating and beautiful green space as well as easy access to the IKEA store, of course.
Ferries leave from Pier 79, 459 12th Ave. and Pier 11 on Wall Street. The ride takes 10 to 25 minutes depending on where you depart.
9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero
Two reflecting pools 32-feet deep are set into the footprints of the original North and South World Trade Center Towers, which were destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001. Each is nearly an acre in size. It’s free to see the outdoor 9/11 memorial and the reflecting pools at 180 Greenwich St., though there’s a charge for the museum.
Queens Botanical Garden
The 39-acre Queens Botanical Garden features rose, bee, herb and perennial gardens along with an art gallery, arboretum and plenty of space to run around.
Admission is free on Wednesdays 3 to 6 p.m. and Sundays 9 to 11 a.m.; 43-50 Main St., Flushing, Queens.
The Brooklyn Bridge Pedestrian Walkway is 1.3 miles long and offers beautiful skyline views going from Brooklyn to Manhattan or in the other direction. Sunset is a particularly popular time.
The eastbound walkway and bicycle lanes start at City Hall Park in Manhattan and if you’re going westbound you can access the walkway at Tillary Street and Adams Street in Brooklyn.
Central Park is the biggest playground in the city and offers dozens of spots to run and relax.
- Kids can climb all over the Allison in Wonderland bronze sculpture of a giant Alice sitting on mushrooms flanked by the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit. 76th Street and Fifth Avenue.
- Visitors can walk the terraces and balconies of Belvedere Castle for great views of Turtle Pond, Great Lawn and the Ramble. Midpark at 79th Street.
- Walk around Turtle Pond to spot turtles, fish, frogs, birds and dragonflies. E. 79th Street and Fifth Avenue.
- The Ramble is 36-acres of woods with winding paths, trails, rustic bridges, a meandering stream and big rocks. Midpark between 73 and 79th streets.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Along with scheduled services, the doors are open for much of the day for quiet reflection The catholic church, which was built from 1958 to 1978, is a beautiful and historical house of worship. Be sure to take note of the altar and rose stained glass window designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets.
This world famous crossroads entertains visitors day and night with enormous billboards, live video feeds on elevated screens, street performers and extreme people watching.
Times Square is at 42nd Street between Sixth and Ninth avenues.
Empire State Building
It costs $44 to go up into the Empire State Building and takes quite a long time. But it’s free to stand on the street and look up one of New York City’s best known landmarks.
The Empire State Building is at 20 W. 34th St.
Wall Street’s Charging Bull
Take a selfie with the 7,100-pound bull that’s a symbol of the Financial District and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. It’s also a testament to the many immigrants who settled in New York and made contributions to the culture and growth of the city. The Charging Bull was created by Italian-American artist Arturo De Modica. Born in Italy in 1941, the artist came to New York in the 1970s.
Charging Bull is in Bowling Green Park on Broadway, just below the intersection with Morris Street.
Grand Central Station
It took 10 years, from 1903 to 1913, to construct this iconic building, always bustling with people from all cultures and walks of life. Children and train buffs love to see the dark maze of tunnels and trains as well as the lofty grandness of the center of the station. Try out the fabled “whispering gallery.” Outside the Oyster Bar on the lower level the domed design of the space amplifies the faintest whisper. If one person stands in the corner facing the wall and speaks, a person standing at the opposite corner can hear the words clearly.
Grand Central Station is at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
The streets of New York’s famed Chinatown — which has been part of NYC since the mid-1800s — are packed with sights, smells and sounds, all free for the experiencing. Part of the district is now overseen by the National Park Service. When you get tired of walking, stop into whichever restaurant looks good to you. There are a lot of them.
The Temple Mahayana, the oldest Chinese temple on the East Coast of the United States, at 133 Canal Street, is a good place to start exploring this lower Manhattan neighborhood.
This acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, an area in Brooklyn known for graffiti and astounding murals. It’s free to walk, photograph and pose Instagram-worthy selfies in front of the many concrete and brick canvases.
DUMBO boundaries are Hudson Avenue to Fulton Street and Prospect Street to John Street on the East River.
Trinity Cemetery is part of the former estate of naturalist John James Audubon, famous for his bird drawings. He is buried in the cemetery along with other notable New Yorkers such as Mayor Ed Koch and 20 members of the affluent Astor family including John Jacob Astor IV who died on the Titanic. Clement Clarke Moore, author of a “Visit from St. Nicholas” — you might know it as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas — is also buried there.
Trinity Cemetery is uptown at 770 Riverside Drive.
Trinity Church Churchyard
At the opposite end of the borough in Lower Manhattan, is Trinity Church Churchyard which is the final resting place for Alexander Hamilton, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, their son Philip Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler Church — names many of us now know because of the hit musical “Hamilton.” The cemetery is open to the public during the day for self-guided tours.
Trinity Church Churchyard is at 74 Broadway at Wall St.
White Horse Tavern
One of the oldest continuously operating taverns in the city opened in 1880. In the 1950s and ‘60s it was frequented by writers including Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Dylan Thomas was a regular because it reminded him of the taverns in his native Wales.
It’s free to look around at White Horse Tavern, 567 Hudson St., but if you want to eat, drink and spend money, it’s best to make a reservation.
Birdland Jazz Club
Jazz fans can take in the scene from the street of Birdland Jazz Club. Charlie Parker was the headliner when the club opened in 1949 and today the venue hosts many acts at the dinner-theater club. Other past performers included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Stan Getz. And it wasn’t unusual for Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner or Sammy Davis Jr. to be in the audience. If you love jazz, you’ll want to check off a visit to Birdland from your bucket list.
Birdland Jazz Club is at 315 W. 44th St. between Eighth and Ninth avenues.
General Grant National Memorial
It’s more commonly known as Grant’s Tomb. General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia are buried in the mausoleum there, which is the largest in North America.
The General Grant National Memorial, which is maintained by the National Park Service, is at W. 122nd St. and Riverside Drive.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Tiffany & Co.’s flagship jewelry store is where Audrey Hepburn gazed into the store window and said, “It calms me down right away,” in the movie “Breakfast at TIffany’s.” Walk in and look at all the jewels, browsing is free.
Tiffany is at 6 E. 57th St.
Carrie Bradshaw’s Apartment
Walk in the footsteps of Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks up the steps of her iconic West Village apartment building made famous in the HBO series “Sex and the City” with the title character played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Carrie smoked cigarettes on the stoop and kissed Big at the doorstep. There are usually a few fans taking photos throughout the day.
Carrie’s apartment is at 64 Perry St.
The ‘Friends’ Apartment Building
They won’t quite be there for you now, but the building where Monica, Rachel, Joey, Chandler and Phoebe lived is easy to find in Greenwich Village. The six-story walkup was built in 1898, a century before these famous friends took up residence.
Take a selfie in front of the “Friends” apartment building at 90 Bedford St.
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance reporter and editor in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.