There’s no city in the world like New York — and not many in the U.S. that can be as expensive to visit! In several visits there, I’ve figured out a few tactics and resources that can help to have a good time in the Big Apple on the cheap. One of the main ways I’ve saved is by trading places — staying in someone else’s home while they stay in mine, also known as home exchange. This means TOTALLY FREE accommodations, which is huge in a city like New York with sky-high hotel prices. I have used HomeExchange.com for this for more than 10 years, and have done over two dozen house swaps all over the world.
I have exchanged in Manhattan 3 times, and through that was able to learn about a ton of my host’s favorite local things to do — many of which don’t cost too much. There are also quite a few free or discounted things to do in the city, from free live music shows to deeply discounted ticket sources and free times at museums, etc.
Here I share some of my favorite things to do for free/cheap — and since the Big Apple is, well, big, I’ve divided it up into itineraries in different parts of the boroughs; with a few resource links city-wide at the end. Enjoy!
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is one of my favorite museums in the world. There is always something new and exciting to see, and the cafe and terrace are wonderful places to hang out. It’s free every Friday from 4-8 pm.
Bryant Park is a lovely place and a fantastic venue for free fun. Bryant Park annually hosts over 1,000 free activities, classes, events and more.
Central Park/Upper East & West Sides
Of course, the best free thing in this area is one of the city’s absolute greatest treasures: Central Park. There are so many things to do here — simply strolling through the park is amazing, and you can also take in Belvedere Castle, Strawberry Fields for the famous John Lennon “Imagine” memorial, Bethesda Fountain & Terrace (check out the tile ceiling!), statues, ponds, trails and more. Kerbs Boathouse is really picturesque (you can eat at the restaurant there if you want to treat yourself), and other paid activities in the park that are worthwhile are the carousel and the zoo.
The Guggenheim has an awesome Pay What You Wish program on Saturdays evenings. Every Saturday, from 5:45–7:45 pm, visitors can pay what they wish for admission. Suggested admission is $10 and the last ticket is issued at 7:15 pm. A line forms at 5:15 pm.
The Frick Collection is free the first Friday of every month from 6-9 pm.
The incredible Metropolitan Museum of Art is donation based if you buy your tickets at the walk-up counter (you can also buy online, at the suggested $25/adult entry price).
The American Museum of Natural History likewise has a Pay-what-you-wish admission (available only at ticket counters), where the amount you pay is up to you!
Lincoln Center has a huge calendar of various performing arts, and on any given week there are generally a number of free events, and many others that are pretty low-cost or have student tickets.
I adore the Brooklyn Flea Market (free), even though it’s moved out from its previous location in a gorgeous building. Open 10-5 Sat/Sun in a couple different locations (Dumbo and Industry City), the market is HUGE, with a very eclectic collection.
Brooklyn Art Museum is a fantastic museum, and the first Saturday of every month is free Target Night. On these nights from 5-11 pm they have live music, entertainment, talks, art tours and more; with drinks and food (for purchase, but there’s a happy hour!)
The Brooklyn Academy of Music has a full calendar of film, theatre, dance and of course music, with much of it low cost or even free. And the fantastic BAM Cafe has free live music on many Friday and Saturday nights.
Brooklyn is known for its many fantastic micro-brewpubs. The Brooklyn Brewery offers free tours on Saturdays and Sundays.
Battery Park is compact but quite lovely, and there are often public exhibits there. While this isn’t free (it costs $5), I highly recommend a ride on the Sea Glass Carousel. I guarantee that you have never seen a carousel as magical, lovely and ethereal as this one!
Everyone wants to see the Statue of Liberty — and my best tip for doing so is to take the Staten Island Ferry. It absolutely has the BEST views of the statue, from across the water with the city skyline in the background (it’s hard to get a good picture of Lady Liberty from the island itself). Best of all, it’s free! The Staten Island Ferry leaves every 15-30 minutes every day, and you can just do a round-trip where you hop back on to return. It also takes a lot less time than going to liberty island, so if you’re crunched for time this is a good way to do it. But, if you want to check out the Staten Island Zoo while you’re there, it’s free every Wednesday after 2 pm!
City-Wide Free Things to Do Resources:
One of the first things you should do is subscribe to The Skint, a fantastic resource to all things free in NYC. Sign up via email to get the best free and inexpensive events in new york city delivered to your inbox every day: food + drinks, concerts, movies, comedy, art, sales, exclusive giveaways and more.
Nifty NYC also has a great newsletter you can sign up for, to stay up to date on all free activities and happenings in the city.
amNY always has a fantastic list of current things going on that are free, from theatre performances and music to festivals and exhibits.
Check out Lonely Planet’s Top 45 free things to do in NYC.
Free Tours by Foot has an awesome list of things that are always free or “pay what you wish” — as well as a daily calendar of free things. Oh, and they offer pay what you wish walking tours of the city!
The Hip Hop Theatre Company ALWAYS offers all of their performances for free. They perform around the city, including Manhattan, Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Check out their calendar for events!