The Top 35+ Free and Totally Awesome Things to do in NYC from a Local!
As a college kid in NYC, it was my goal to do as much as I could for free. Over 12 years later I can still say many of these free NYC attractions are my favorite places to visit! In this New York guide, I am covering over 30 totally awesome and free things to do NYC, especially for New York first-timers!
First time in NYC? Check out these Travel Tips to Know Before Visiting NYC
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Top 35+ Free and Totally Awesome Things to do in NYC from a Local!
- 1. The Vessel
- 2. The Highline in Chelsea
- 3. Chelsea NYC Art Galleries
- 4. Central Park
- 5. Shakespeare in the Park
- 6. Grand Central Terminal Station
- 7. Times Square
- 8. Washington Square Park
- 9. The Oculus
- 10. The Brooklyn Bridge
- 11. Brooklyn Bridge Park
- 12. The Brooklyn Promanade
- 13. Hang out at Domino Park
- 14. Brooklyn Brewery
- 15. Staten Island Ferry
- 16. The Flatiron Building
- 17. Soho NYC Murals
- 18. Bryant Park
- 19. NYC Public Library
- 20. Chrysler Building
- 21. Rockefeller Center
- 22. NYC Museums
- 23. Little Island NYC
- 24. Gantry Plaza State Park
- 25. Visit Flushing Meadows Corona Park
- 26. Explore the Coney Island Boardwalk
- Seasonal Free Things to do in NYC
- 29. NYC Free Parades
- 30. Roosevelt Island
- 31. Pier 57 Rooftop Park
- 32. Saint Patricks Cathedral
- 33. Attend a Live Taping
- 34. Visit the Green-Wood Cemetery
- 35. NYC Neighborhoods – Bonus
- Free Thing to Do in NYC Review
1. The Vessel
Starting with NYC’s newest attraction, The Vessel! Located in the Hudson Yards, the Vessel is easily one of the best free things to do during your visit to NYC.
Standing at 150 ft high with 154 flights of stairs, make your way to the top around sunset for some epic views! It is located in the Hudson Yards which has a whole upscale shopping mall, food, the famous Edge Sky Deck, and a connection to the Highline.
Update: Unfortunately, you can no longer climb the Vessel, for free, however, you can still enjoy it from the ground for free.
Address: The Shops and Restaurants at Hudson Yards, New York, NY 10001
2. The Highline in Chelsea
From Hudson Yards, make your way to the Chelsea Highline. This iconic railway turned greenway is one of my all-time favorite places to visit, especially on a nice sunny day!
On either side find murals, greenery, and views of NYC through the Chelsea neighborhood (where I used to live)! The Highline is 1.45 miles and ends at Gansevoort St.
FYI: If the weather is nice, be prepared for lots of other visitors unless you go early in the morning. There are also a lot of cute photo spots on the Highline you can take advantage of.
Insider tip: If you’re feeling hungry, you can walk the Highline all the way down to Chelsea Market where you can eat and explore like a local!
3. Chelsea NYC Art Galleries
Speaking of Chelsea, if you happen to be in NYC on a Thursday night and love art, make your way down to the Chelsea Galleries! This was one of my favorite things to do as a broke fashion college student! Enjoy free wine, bites, and awesome art around/after 6:30 PM! You can find the Chelsea Galleries between 10th and 11th Ave from 19th to 26th street. You’re welcome for this very local NY’er gem of a spot!
4. Central Park
Central Park is a staple for NYC and luckily for all of us, it’s among one of the many free things to do!
On top of that, Central Park is great to visit all year round. Whether it’s Spring Cherry Blossom Blooms, Epic Summer picnics, Fall foilage or covered in a blanket of snow, you won’t be disappointed with what Central Park has to offer!
Some of my favorite places to visit in Central Park include Bow Bridge, Bethesda Fountain, The Mall (especially in Fall), The Ramble, Strawberry Fields, Gapstow Bridge, and Belvedere Castle.
The park is located between the Upper West and East Side and covers 843 acres! If your budget is not too tight, I would even consider taking a walking tour through the park! There is a lot of history.
Please do not take a horse and carriage ride. The horses are treated poorly.
5. Shakespeare in the Park
Visiting New York City in the summer? Then you might want to catch the totally free theatre event, Shakespeare in the Park! It will be their 60th anniversary this year in 2022! Also located in Central Park at The Delacorte Theater.
Additionally, they have other shows going on around the city. Check their schedule here!
Address: 81 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024
6. Grand Central Terminal Station
Grand Central Station is probably one of the prettiest subway stations in NYC. Who knew a train station could be NYC must-do on your itinerary?!
Besides being the backdrop of more movies than I can count, the ceiling art is stunning, and it’s a great place to people watch. While inside, you will find restaurants, a farmers market, the whispering walls, and shopping. After hanging out at Grand Central, you can take the S line right into Times Square, win, win!
Did you know Grand Central has around 750,000 visitors a day? Second to Times Square! If you love learning about history, this NYC landmark has a lot of it! You might even want to consider taking a tour.
NYC Insider travel tip: If you plan to shoot with a Tripod, supposedly you are not allowed to use it at Grand Central Station.
7. Times Square
Did you even visit NYC without walking through Times Square? This is easily one of the top things to do in NYC especially for first-timers that of course, is also free.
With huge billboards, the M&M store (yum), the naked cowboy, people doing street performances, it’s definitely an interesting place to experience, to say the least! It is also one of the best free things to do at night in NYC!
While most local New Yorkers avoid Times Square, it’s nice to feel the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps.
NYC Travel Tip: I would recommend heading around here during the day and evening so you can see the city all lit up.
8. Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is another one of my favorite places to hang in the city, especially on a Spring or Summer day.
Head here to hang around the fountain, people watch, eat a snack, and view the Washington Square Arch. During the Summer, they also hold different free activities you can check for!
If you are visiting New York City during the holidays, you have the opportunity to visit their lovely Christmas tree!
Address: Washington Square N, New York, NY 10012
9. The Oculus
The Oculus is a part of the new World Trade Center Transportation hub that acts as both a mall and subway station. This architectural gem was designed by Santiago Calatrava.
Make sure to check out the Oculus from both the inside and outside since both are very picturesque! They often have a farmers market inside the Oculus along with a Christmas Market during the holidays. It is also a part of a larger shopping hub with tons of stores.
Insider tip: While at the Oculus, you can also view the 9/11 memorial for free. If you also plan on visiting the 9/11 museum, it’s free on Tuesdays from 5 PM – 8 PM – UPDATE: This has been paused. Call to confirm.
Address: Church St, New York, NY 10006
10. The Brooklyn Bridge
Make your way to the famous Brooklyn Bridge and cross over to DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), Brooklyn. The bridge spans 1.1 miles and was once the largest suspension bridge.
When the bridge originally opened, it actually wasn’t a free NYC activity to do. It cost a penny to cross by foot, and 5 cents by horse and carriage.
Thankfully, we can add crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to one of the many awesome free things to do in NYC now! When crossing the Bridge, you will also be treated to fantastic views of Manhattan!
Fun NYC Travel fact: After a mass panic happened about safety during the first week of the bridge being open, they ensured safety by letting 21 elephants cross into lower Manhattan.
11. Brooklyn Bridge Park
After crossing the bridge, hang out in Dumbo around Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park/pier is especially nice during the Spring/ Summer where you will find people out picnicking on the lawns, and further down roller skating, enjoying Jane’s Carousel, playing basketball, and more.
From the walkway, you can even see the Statue of Liberty from a “very” far. Additionally, if you are visiting NYC during the Summer, feel like a local New Yorker and watch Movies with a view at Brooklyn Bridge Park! You can find showings here.
Bonus: While in DUMBO, Brooklyn, you might want to check out the iconic photography spot with the Manhattan Bridge nearby. You have likely seen this photo all over Instagram and it is located on Waters Street and Washington Street. Check my NYC Instagram guide for more photo spots!
12. The Brooklyn Promanade
Another epic and free view of New York City is from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (Esplanade). Stretching 1,826 ft long, this pedestrian walkway is a favorite among locals! Even my mom always talks about her days hanging there! From the Dumbo, Brooklyn side facing Manhattan, it is to the left by Pier 4 beach. It is open until 1 AM if you want to see the city all lit up!
Address: Montague St &, Pierrepont Pl, Brooklyn, NY 11201
13. Hang out at Domino Park
Domino Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a great way to have a nice day with great views of Manhattan across the East River. The park offers 5 acres and was designed by James Corner Field Operations who also designed The Highline!
Enjoy an elevated walk, lawn areas, dog run, volleyball, a playground, and more! It is a great non-touristy and free thing to do in NYC! During the summer, you can also head over to Smorgasburg in Williamsburg! Located by Charlotte Beach, you will find dozens of amazing food vendors!
Address: 15 River St, Brooklyn, NY 11249
14. Brooklyn Brewery
Since we are talking about Williamsburg, it would be doing you a disservice to not free tours at the Brooklyn Brewery! Brooklyn Brewery and even tour their distillery! On Sundays from 1 PM – 6 PM, you can tour the microbrewery for free, although I can’t promise you won’t grab yourself a Brooklyn Lager by the time you leave!
Address: 79 N 11th St, Brooklyn, NY 11249
15. Staten Island Ferry
Did you say free transportation in NYC?! I know, shocking right! I guess they had to make it up somewhere for charging us locals over $15 USD to cross into Staten Island over the Verrazano Bridge.
Anyways, so why would you even want to take a ride on this ferry you ask? Well because it’s the closest you will get to the Statue of Liberty for free!
While on the ferry, you can stand in the front and back of the boat while in motion to get a really nice view of the Statue of Liberty and that stunning NYC Skyline.
For epic views of the NYC skyline, head around sunset!
The Staten Island Ferry is located at 4 Whitehall Street New York NY 10004
16. The Flatiron Building
If architecture fascinates you, pay a visit to one of NYC’s most photographed buildings for its unique triangular shape splitting the streets. This 22 story building originally known as the Fuller Building opened in 1902.
While you can’t officially go inside, you can snap a couple of photos, hang out in Madison Square Park, or even hit up Eataly for food heaven!
Update: The Flatiron currently has scaffolding up. It is still a great area to check out.
Address: 175 5th Ave, New York, NY 10010
17. Soho NYC Murals
Soho happens to be one of my top 3 favorite neighborhoods in all of New York City! I worked in Soho for 2 years and the cute cobblestone streets, art, and shopping make it the perfect place to explore.
If you are a Nespresso lover like me, they have a flagship store on Spring and Prince street, which is where I worked during my college days.
While the art is always changing, some noteworthy places to check out are:
- Bowery New York Mural on 76 E Houston St.
- Flowers mural by Jet MartinezAddress: 250 Mulberry St., New York, NY 10012
- Yumi Kim trash can mural 105 Staton St #1, New York, 10002
- Color Factory Wall 251 Spring St 251 Spring St, New York, NY 10013
18. Bryant Park
If you love parks in urban spaces, make sure to add Bryant Park to your list! This green square is 9.6 acres and regularly holds free events during the Summer including movie screenings, exercise classes, and more!
Oh, and during the holidays Bryant Park hosts the Bank of America Winter Village! This Winter Village offers free Ice skating in NYC (bring your own skates), a pop-up Christmas Market, tons of food vendors, and even Cozy Winter Igloos!
Bryant Park is also right next to the iconic New York Public Library.
19. NYC Public Library
I’ve never been inside the NYC Public Library, but as a kid, I did once sit on the lion statues outside….. and then prompted to get down immediately! I do have a library card though!
But if you love books and awesome architecture, the NYC Public Library should definitely be on your list of free things to do in NYC! It is still on my bucket list to visit inside.
Did you know the NYC Public Library is the second-largest library in the United States with 55 million books? The building was also declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and considered a New York Landmark in 1967!
Address: 135 E 46th St, New York, NY 10017
20. Chrysler Building
One of the coolest Sky Scrappers IMO goes to the Chrysler Building. This gem of a building stands at 1,046 ft high from the antenna spire and is the world’s tallest brick building with steelwork! The building was completed in a little less than 2 years opening up in 1930.
The Chrysler Buiding is the 11th tallest skyscraper in NYC and it can be found on lists of favorite architecture due to its unique art deco style. So why should you care? Because besides seeing it in the famous NYC skyline, you can also visit the lobby for free.
It’s open 8 AM – 6 PM Monday – Friday for your viewing pleasure!
Address: 405 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10174
21. Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center is one of my all-time favorite places to visit in NYC during the holidays, but it’s still great all season long. Around the area are tons of food spots, Radio City Music Hall, Saint Patricks Cathedral, and a stroll down 5th Ave to all the high-end designer stores.
If your budget does allow it, I would recommend getting tickets for visiting the Top of the Rock. This is easily one of the best observation decks in NYC and is located at Rockefeller Plaza. If you do plan on doing a lot of paid attractions, your best bet will probably be an NYC Sightseeing Pass – will cover below!
FREE NYC Bonus: Want a free audio tour around Rockefeller Center? Rockefeller Center teamed up with local Gesso to create an immersive free audio walking tour through the Gesso App. Learn more here!
22. NYC Museums
NYC is full of amazing museums and while not all museums are not free every day, they should still be on your list as one of the top things to do during your visit to New York!
- The MoMA: Free for New York Residents on the first Friday of the month from 4 PM – 8 PM.
- American Museum of Natural History: Has suggested prices but is pay what you wish only in person at the ticket counter. (NY, NJ, and CT Residents)
- The Met: If you happen to be a New Jersey, Connecticut or NY State resident, its pay what you wish.
- New Museum of Contemporary Art: Another geat free NYC museum offers “pay what you wish” from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. every Thursday. Timed tickets are required.
- 9/11 Museum: The museum is free every Tuesday from 5 PM – 8 PM – Currently not offering this
- Morgan Library and Museum: On Fridays, it is free to visit from 5 PM until 7 PM – reservation required.
- FIT Museum: Free for all visitors. I think I took this museum for granted since I went to college here at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology).
- Whitney Museum of American Art: On Fridays, it is “pay as you wish” from 7 PM – 10 PM!
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Pay as you wish on Saturdays from 4 pm – 6 pm and select Saturdays (free all day).
- Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Pay as you wish in the winter on weekdays – Call ahead.
- International Museum of Photography Museum: On Thursdays, it is “Pay as you wish” from 6 PM – 9 PM. Timed tickets are required.
- Brooklyn Museum: Starting this spring 2022, they will begin first Saturdays again where the museum will not close until 11 PM and it is free.
First time riding the Subway? Use this guide to learn How to Navigate the NYC Subway
23. Little Island NYC
All the hype has been around the new New York City Public Park, Little Island! This is a really unique and free public park because it is actually built on 132 pillars, making it an artificial island. The park is 2.4 acres and is located at Pier 55 on the Hudson.
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24. Gantry Plaza State Park
Not to be mistaken for Long Island, NY, I feel like Long Island City which is in Queens is often forgotten. Quite frankly, it is a shame because Long Island City (LIC) offers great restaurants, museums, and one of my favorite parks, The Gantry Plaza State Park.
This epic and free NYC park offers 12 acres of riverside views, green spaces, recreational spaces, and an incredible backdrop of Midtown Manhattan! Make sure to see the giant Long Island sign and the Pepsi Cola sign while you are there!
Address: 4-09 47th Rd, Queens, NY 10007
25. Visit Flushing Meadows Corona Park
Another excellent and free park to visit in NYC is the Flushing Medows Park! You might remember this park from the Movie Men and Black with the two observation towers! Located in Flushing, Queens, it is also the 4th largest park in NYC!
The park is also widely known as the home of the 1939 and 1964 Wold Fair! Additionally, if you visit during the spring, you will have the opportunity to see some really beautiful cherry blossoms!
Address: Between Grand Central Pkwy and, Van Wyck Expy, 11354
26. Explore the Coney Island Boardwalk
This can’t be a full list of free things to do in NYC without adding the famed Coney Island Boardwalk. It is especially nice to visit during the spring/summer when the weather is nice. You can enjoy getting some sun at the beach and people watch some really interesting characters! If this is your first time in New York and you are pressed for time, I would leave this one out, however.
If you do make it out this way and you are feeling a bit hungry, check out Nathan’s Hotdogs and get fries with cheese, Pizza at Totonno’s Pizza (famous and usually has a line), and all your candy delights at Williams Candy Shop
Address: 1000 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224
Seasonal Free Things to do in NYC
If you didn’t have enough things to do, here are some additional free seasonal things to do in New York City for free!
27. Go Kayaking
Did you know you could go kayaking down the Hudson River for free with Manhattan Community Boathouse at Pier 96. They are a non-profit, run entirely by volunteers and funded through donations from the public.
Kayaking starts in Spring and closes around October 10th. You can get reservations on the Manhattan Community Boathouse website to hold your spot up to 2 weeks in advance. All skill levels are welcome as long as you know how to swim! Additionally, they offer changing rooms and lockers!
28. See the XO World Project Sculpture
Consider checking out the XO World Project Sculpture located at the World Trade Center Campus. Designed by Daniel Anderson, the sculpture is a part of the “Share Love” movement to activate positivity, hope, and inclusiveness among people. The sculpture is made from 20,000 lbs of stainless steel and stands 12 ft. high by 24 ft. wide! It will be here for 2 years, so enjoy it while you can.
During the Holidays there are a lot of Free Christmas decorations to see all around NYC including the holiday windows, Dyker Heights, and more! You can see a list of the Best NYC Christmas decorations here!
29. NYC Free Parades
Additionally, there are seasonal festivals and Parades in NYC that are free to attend. Some of these free NYC events and Parades include:
- The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade (March)
- Halloween Parade (October)
- Thanksgiving Parade (November)
- Santacon (December) Like Christmas Santa
- Feast of San Gennaro (September) Italian Festival
- New Years’ Eve Ball Drop – personally wouldn’t recommend it – but hey, clearly some people like it lol.
30. Roosevelt Island
Since I am always listening to my readers in the comments, I had to add Roosevelt Island to my list of free things to do in NYC. While taking the tram to Roosevelt Island technically isn’t “free”, the cost is literally the same as your MetroCard, $2.75.
Not only do you get to see some of the best NYC views from the Roosevelt Island Tram, but those views continue once you cross over the East River. This New York island actually has quite a bit of history. This is where they used to keep smallpox patients, had asylums, and prisoners. Now the island is frequented by those looking to relax on the benches along the river and take in the views. The Roosevelt Tramway runs every 7-15 minutes.
31. Pier 57 Rooftop Park
The very brand new Rooftop Park at Pier 57 will surely be all the rage this year. This awesome and free park has been built right next to Little Island and has pretty epic views of the skyline. The space in total is 80,000 square feet, 2 acres of which is a public park from the Google Campus. I am sure you will find tons of locals enjoying this new free park space this year!
Address: 57 Hudson River Greenway, New York, NY 10011
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32. Saint Patricks Cathedral
We kind of brushed by the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral while talking about Rockefeller Center, but I feel like it deserved its own line. This stunning Cathedral is known as one of the largest Gothic Revival Catholic cathedrals in North America! Enjoy a free peek inside the church or even attend a mass.
Address: 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022
33. Attend a Live Taping
One of the most popular free things to do in NYC for first-timers is to attend a live taping. Tons of big shows including Good Morning America, Saturday Night Life, the Daily Show, and more. Most of the shows require you to go to 1iota to get tickets. SNL is based on a lottery that will reopen for 2022/2023 in August. Additionally, you can get more details on getting tickets, check NBC here.
34. Visit the Green-Wood Cemetery
A more unique free thing to do in NYC is to visit the Green-Wood Cemetery. This iconic National Historic Landmark opened in 1838 and is known for its 19th-century architecture, famous residents, and skyline views.
The Cemetery covers 478-acres of winding roads, green spaces, and ponds. Additionally, they often hold additional events and tours. This more off-the-beaten-path free attraction is considered a gem of New York City!
Address: 500 25th St, Brooklyn, NY 11232
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35. NYC Neighborhoods – Bonus
Another free NYC activity that you will enjoy without even realizing it is just walking through the various NYC neighborhoods! Some of my favorite areas to visit include Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, China Town, Battery Park, and the financial district/ Wall Street (Charging Bull).
Additionally, while this guide is full of tons of fun activities you can enjoy for free in NYC, if you do plan on seeing a lot of the top attractions, one of the most affordable ways is through one of the NYC passes. The most popular are NYC Sightseeing Pass (which gives most attractions) or the City Pass (Gives 6)
They include the top NYC attractions at a better rate since it’s all bundled together. I’d highly consider looking into it if you want to do things like the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, and the Ferry to Ellis Island.
Free Thing to Do in NYC Review
This concludes the best things to do in NYC that are all free! I hope you have the most amazing time in the Big Apple and you are able to cross a ton of NYC staples off your bucket list on a budget!
Did I miss any of your favorite free things to do in New York City? Or do you have any NYC questions? Let me know in the comments below!