The Top 18 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 18 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
Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links where at NO additional charge to you I may receive a small commission.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Top 18 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. Grand Central Terminal Station
- 6. Times Square
- 7. Washington Square Park
- 8. The Oculus
- 9. The Brooklyn Bridge
- 10. Brooklyn Bridge Park
- 11. Staten Island Ferry
- 12. The Flatiron Building
- 13. Soho NYC Murals
- 14. Bryant Park
- 15. NYC Public Library
- 16. Chrysler Building
- 17. Rockefeller Center
- 18. NYC Museums
- 19. Little Island NYC
- Seasonal Free Things to do in NYC
- 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 that 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’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), 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. 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, 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.
6. 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!
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.
7. 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
8. 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
Address: Church St, New York, NY 10006
9. 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!
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.
10. 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 and playing basketball.
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!
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!
11. 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
12. 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.
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
13. 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
14. 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 the only free Ice skating in NYC (bring your own skates), a pop-up Christmas Market, tons of food vendors, and event Cozy Winter Igloos!
Bryant Park is also right next to the iconic New York Public Library.
15. 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!
But if you love books and pretty spaces, 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
16. 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 and you can 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
17. 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 Petersburg Cathedral, and a stroll down 5th Ave to all the high-end designer stores.
If your budget does allow, 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!
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!
18. 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!
- The MoMA: Free for all visitors every Friday evening, 5:30–9:00 p.m.
- American Museum of Natural History: Has suggested prices but is pay what you wish only in person at the ticket counter.
- The Met: If you happen to be a New Jersey, Connecticut or NY State resident, its pay what you wish.
- 9/11 Museum: The museum is free every Tuesday from 5 PM – 8 PM
- Morgan Library and Museum: On Fridays from 5 PM-7 PM they hold a happy hour and then its free admission to the galleries from 7 PM – 9 PM
- FIT Museum: Free for all visitors. I think I took this museum for granted since I went to college at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology.
- 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.
First time riding the Subway? Use this guide to learn How to Navigate the NYC Subway
19. 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.
View this post on Instagram
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!
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.
They open in Spring and close around October 10th. They offer 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!
See the XO World Project Sculpture 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 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!
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)
- Feast of San Gennaro (September)
- New Years Eve Ball Drop – personally wouldn’t recommend it – but hey
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, 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!
Did I miss any of your favorite free things to do in New York City? Let me know in the comments below!