Free activities in New York City
Are there free things to do in New York City? YES, there are and it does not involve watching TV in your room! After Michel and I spent three days in the Big Apple I wondered if there were any free activities available. The flight and hotel were already quite expensive and eating out nearly three times a day did no good to our budget.
Dutchies (like myself – people born in The Netherlands) are sometimes being perceived as penny-pinchers by other cultures. Apparently, we are very careful when it comes to spending our money. So I might just take this cool gift to my advantage. On the fourth day, I used my special (Dutch) eyes on and went on the hunt looking for free activities. I have listed my 9 favorite free activities for you below!
1. Create your own street art tour
Street art in New York City is pretty much everywhere you go and not only hidden in dark alleys or subway stations. It doesn’t matter in which part of town you end up, a cool mural can pop up ANYTIME. So why not create your very own New York City street art tour?
Among the many options I would definitely recommend visiting:
- The Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn offers their own self-guided tours (how easy is that!)
- The 100 Gates Project provides free maps to check out street art in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island
- The art of Banksy can be found at many different locations such as Brooklyn, Manhattan, and The Bronx
- The LISA Project NYC in Little Italy brings various street artists together
- The Audubon Mural Project in Manhattan creates murals of climate-threatened birds
- The East Village Walls project aims to make all streets in this area a little nicer
2. Watch a sports game
I have to admit I am not exactly a sports fan. I’m one of those people that, when The Netherlands has to play an important soccer game, yells at the TV and tells them they can do better. Do I watch their games the rest of the year? Nope! I am a bad supporter…So why do you bring up sports you might think? Well, in New York City sports are really fun to watch! The many open sports fields give you a chance to be in the middle of all the excitement and you don’t need to buy an expensive ticket.
Michel and I watched several softball, soccer and tennis games at different locations like Riverbank State Park, Pier 5, East River Park, Chelsea Piers and Riverside Park. Our favorite place to check out any sport (amateur or more professional) has to be Central Park.
All sports fields are mostly open and you can sit down wherever you want, even next to the players. We could hear teams discussing their strategy, motivating each other, and cheering whenever a point was scored. The feeling of being part of the game is awesome even if you are a non-sports fan like me.
Bring your own food, pick a spot close to the action, and have a picnic while looking at a game.
3. Music and performances
You might have heard about musicians playing in and at the subway stations of New York City? Of course it can be amusing when bumping into one of the many of the NY subway performers (or even Christina Aguilera), but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about performances on nice (not smelly) locations!
One of the things we noticed after a couple of days, after we beat the jet lag and managed to stay up after 8 pm, were all the jazz signs outside of bars/cafes. By accident we ended up on a rooftop bar while listening to a band playing Jazz for two hours. And by no means were we obliged to order an expensive drink. Check out the NYC Jazz Events calendar for all upcoming performances (pay attention, because not all of them are free).
Bryant Park is another great place to watch a performance in-between huge skyscrapers. Whether it’s live music, contemporary dance or Broadway performances – the organization covers a wide variety of acts. Check the program to see what you can expect during each season. Around Bryant Park there are lots of food options, there’s even a Whole Foods. Here you can pick up almost any meal you want which you can enjoy in the park. Bryant Park also offers free chairs and tables (be on time when there’s a performance to make sure you get a spot) or just bring your own picnic blanket.
At Central Park you can find musicians on pretty much every corner. Go see Strawberry Fields where you can find a guitarist (or two) playing a tribute to John Lennon. Or visit the Bethesda Fountain where all kinds of artists try to attract as much audience as they can by singing, playing an instrument or dancing. What stood out the most to me was a performance by the Peace Industry Music Group at the Bethesda Terrace. Live band, excellent voices, and familiar songs made me taking a peak at their performance. They sure know how to put on a show and get everyone singing along. I managed to record a short clip in case you’re interested!
I hope you don’t go to New York City without a camera (I assume at least your mobile phone has one), because this city has it all when it comes to photography. Explore the city by foot or by bike to make sure you can see as much as you can.
When you find yourself in a city with so many tall buildings make sure to point your camera up every once in a while. Look for leading lines, structures, textures in the city’s versatile architecture. Water puddles can be your best friends when it comes to capturing an awesome reflection. Not to mention the many glass windows (lots of those in NY) can create a really cool mirror effect as well.
Take photos of famous landmarks (Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, Chrysler Building, Flatiron Building, St. Patrick’s Cathedral or the Oculus) or museums (The Met, the Guggenheim Museum or MoMa). And don’t forget to go inside! Most of the time you don’t need a ticket to see the beautiful entree halls (not your average income hall, trust me) either. Those alone can be very inspiring!
New York City is also a great place when it comes to street and people photography! Spend some time in each neighborhood. How do the locals live? What does their daily life look like (local markets, shops, sports)?
Go to Chinatown and capture local food shops, photograph a basketball game in Harlem or get a shot in one of the pretty SoHo streets. Remember to always be respectful when it comes to photographing people, their homes, stores etc. If you feel unsure, just ask if it’s okay for you to take a photo. If not, just move on. And not mention: you can’t leave New York City without capturing that amazing skyline of course!
5. Explore different neighborhoods
New York City has SO many cool neighborhoods. We walked and cycled (this post is about free tips, but I just wanted to point out that renting a city bike in New York City is quite cheap) the entire trip. Discovering new parts of the city can be very refreshing and inspiring. Soak up the vibes and observe the New York City way of living. How do people dress? How do they behave? What are their favorite places to go? Stroll around in different neighborhoods and pay attention to details. Do you notice any differences between them? Or see similarities?
I loved walking around through each neighborhood. They really felt like each one was a town on its own. These are my favorite neighborhoods in New York City:
- Greenwich Village: relaxing vibes, cozy cafes and gorgeous housing
- Meatpacking District: cool galleries, interesting shops and fun for a night out
- West Village: charming part of town with lots of charming coffee bars and shops
- Upper East Side: beautiful refined architecture and close to Central Park (my favorite park in NY)
- Battery Park City: spacious green area close to the water where you have a view on the Statue of Liberty
6. Visit Brooklyn
Are you interested in seeing something else other than Manhattan during your visit to New York City? Or looking for a break away from the busy city life? Then Brooklyn is the perfect place to go to! You can easily spend a day (or two) in trendy Brooklyn. Depending on where you find yourself in Manhattan choose one of the three bridges (the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge or the Willamsburg Bridge) to pass the East River to get to this hip area.
Make sure to visit the Brooklyn Bridge Park for an amazing view of the Manhattan skyline. That itself alone is worth a trip to Brooklyn if you’d ask me! Can you already name all the huge buildings you see from the other side? Other cool parts of Brooklyn are DUMBO (hip lunch rooms and don’t forget to check out the famous Insta spot – the photo below), Bushwick (interesting galleries and street art) and visit Williamsburg (trendy coffee bars, music, transformed warehouses).
Of course any activities (like shopping at one of the cool vintage shops) are at your own cost, but I believe you can still have an awesome time in Brooklyn just by walking around. This part of NY is really different from Manhattan. To me everything in Brooklyn felt way more relaxed and I felt a deeper cultural connection because overall it’s not as touristy as Manhattan.
For this to-do you need an (e)book, magazine or newspaper, but I assume you have at least one book you didn’t manage to read yet? We all have a book (I at least got three, oops) that’s collecting dust at the back of your book shelf. Why don’t you bring that book with you and read it in New York City? Or borrow a book from a friend or family member? New York City has some of the BEST reading spots. Did I say reading? What about studying? I know that’s probably the last thing on your mind while going on vacation, but I’m just saying it’s possible (please don’t get mad at me).
These are some of my favorite places to read a book:
- The New York Public Library has free entrance and is absolutely gorgeous! The historical building alone is worth a visit. And you can enjoy your favorite book in silence or pick one from their extended collection.
- In the many NYC parks I’m positive you’re able to find the perfect spot for you. Enjoy your book watching rowing boats in Central Park, go to the Riverside Park to overlook the Hudson River once in while or pick a bench at The High Line and read in-between skyscrapers.
- Enjoy your book in a cozy coffee bar like Bean & Bean Organic Coffee, Think Coffee or Gotan. I also noticed nearly every trendy coffee bar offers free WiFi.
8. Staten Island Ferry
Would you like to see the Statue of Liberty? Or visit Staten Island (the first option sounds more appealing I admit)? Then go on a free boat ride with the Staten Island Ferry! It’s a 25-minute ride, which provides a majestic view of New York City and you will pass the lady herself.
When deciding on your departure time, and eager to shoot the statue along the way, make sure you arrive in time because the ferry can be very busy. The Statue of Liberty to Staten Island will be on your right (on the left when you head back). And you may want to bring a zoom lens, because you’re not getting super close (my photo below right was shot with a 18-55 mm lens).
Personally, we only took the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty but we did walk around for a bit when we arrived at the other side. From Staten Island you get a cool view of Manhattan. It’s funny how small it looked from a distance. It also felt quite relaxing being away from the hectic and noisy New York City traffic (it’s crazy how quick you get used to it after a couple of days). Heading back to Manhattan with the ferry is free as well.
9. Watch a sunset
Sunsets are always free, BUT in New York City I found them just incredible! That’s why they deserve a special place in my list. There’s something magical about seeing the sun disappear behind the tall buildings of Manhattan. Go to Brooklyn for the best sunsets of the Manhattan skyline. I loved watching the sun go down from there. Especially, because of all the lights that slowly turned on. The skyline looks absolutely spectacular in the dark.
Sorry, I just HAVE to mention this place because it’s cheap and delicious. Go to the Anable Basin Sailing Bar and Grill (in Brooklyn) to have a meal and watch the sunset from there. The food options are simple (I had grilled chicken, corn, and a salad on the side) and everything comes straight off the grill. If you don’t feel like eating you can get free water (or paid options) and only have a drink instead. This place is very informal and the staff is super friendly. For us this was one of the best evenings we had during our two week trip in New York City.
Psssst, can’t get enough of NYC?
Check out my Instagram New York story for more behind-the-scenes videos, our favorite food/drinks spots and more!