Explore New York City

Best Free Things to do in New York City Right Now

You don’t need a trust fund to enjoy what New York City has to offer. From museums to parks and attractions, this city guide has it all.

It’s been a long quiet year and we’re all so ready to emerge. New York City is waiting and the good news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy it. In fact, there are so many things to do that won’t cost you anything, there’s no reason to stay home.

Parks in Your Backyard

New York is a city of parks. From Central Park in Manhattan to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, from The High Line on Manhattan’s West Side to Carl Schurz Park along the East River, you can clock many steps while you breathe fresh air, commune with nature, and enjoy the people watching that’s about as good as any movie you might see elsewhere.

Walk to the water at beautiful Carl Schurz Park l Where Traveler
Carl Schurz Park (©Meryl Pearlstein)

Central Park

Of these, I highly recommend Central Park. It’s New York City’s lungs, the green area where everyone congregates to play ball, schmooze, picnic, run, cycle and tour. There are plenty of landmarks to explore like the city’s notable folly, Belvedere Castle, where the official temperature for NYC is recorded daily. Or The Ramble, a tangle of paths and trees that is a sanctuary for migrating birds. Bring your binoculars and be on the watch for the park’s newest occupant, the snowy owl. Rumor has it he likes to hang out by the garbage bins. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir is where runners and walkers spend their time, circling the beautiful body of water with its fountains and itinerant ducks. Bring the kids to the Ancient Playground or let them climb on the Alice in Wonderland Statue by Conservatory Water, where kids of all ages love to sail their toy motorboats.

A great family area is Conservatory Water l Where Traveler
Conservatory Garden (©Meryl Pearlstein)

Conservatory Garden

Conservatory Garden is one of Manhattan’s hidden gems. In plain view on Fifth Avenue (but behind the ornate Vanderbilt Gate), three immaculately designed gardens, one English, one Italian, and one French in style, are seasonally planted to provide a quiet oasis with benches, fountains, and a wisteria-covered pergola for mid-afternoon shade.

Three shady gardens at Conservatory Garden in NYC l Where Traveler
Conservatory Garden (©Meryl Pearlstein)

The High Line

The High Line is a popular attraction, so busy now that it requires a timed entry. The 1.45-mile park is a prime example of urban ingenuity and renewal, taking a decaying elevated railroad structure and converting it into walks, plantings, seats and relaxation areas. Along the route, artists show their innovative works and food vendors offer NYC-centric treats like Brooklyn brisket or frozen pops.

Sit a while and watch the world go by on the High Line l Meryl Pearlstein
The High Line (©Meryl Pearlstein)

Culture at No Cost

Museums

Culture doesn’t have to be expensive in New York City. Many museums have days or evenings where admission is free. The Jewish Museum is free on Saturday, the Bronx and Brooklyn botanic gardens each have free days, and quite a few museums are free to the public on the First Friday of every month. Other museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have pay-as-you-wish entry or are always free like the National Museum of the American Indian.

Oversized art is found throughout NYC l Where Traveler
Jim Rennert's "Listen" (courtesy Cavalier Gallery)

Outdoor Art

Outdoor art is always free and New York City is a showplace for works all over the city. The mall on Park Avenue has frequent exhibits of a single artist. Other pieces such as the sculptures by Jim Rennert beg you to take your picture aside their oversized presence. In Times Square, the city’s distinctive video and art screens blaze with color. For a small fee, you can enter the subway and explore the underground artwork that decorates stations like the brilliant mosaics of the Q train stops and the quirky “Life Underground” by sculptor Tom Otterness at Eighth Avenue at 14th Street. Take the L train to Jefferson Street to visit The Bushwick Collective, NYC’s epicenter of street art and graffiti.

Street art turns up everywhere in NYC but especially in Bushwick l Where Traveler
Street art and murals (©Meryl Pearlstein)

It’s All About the Views

Views of the city are free for the taking. Two of the best no-charge sightseeing experiences leave from downtown Manhattan and show off New York Harbor, Manhattan and Brooklyn,  and neighboring Randall’s, Governors and Ellis Islands. 

There's nothing like the view of Manhattan l Where Traveler
Manhattan skyline (©Meryl Pearlstein)

Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, heading towards Brooklyn. At the midpoint, where you can read about the building of the bridge and John Roebling, the engineer who died during its construction, stop and look in all directions. To the left, you’ll see the outline of the city towards the Triboro Bridge, Queens and the Bronx. Look right and it’s a downtown view with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance. Ahead of you lies the beginning of DUMBO and Brooklyn Heights, two of Brooklyn’s most fashionable neighborhoods. You can stop off for a taste of Old New York with DUMBO’s cobblestoned streets and iconic view of the Manhattan Bridge. From Brooklyn Bridge Park, you’ll have a camera-perfect view of Manhattan. Then return to the bridge and walk back to Manhattan, this time taking note of the city skyline looming ahead and becoming more into focus at every step. And a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry roundtrip offers jaw-dropping views of the island.

Iconic views from DUMBO l Where Traveler
DUMBO's iconic view (©Meryl Pearlstein)

Buildings and Architecture

The city is a mélange of styles, from the newest skinny towers hovering over 57th Street, to tiny mews and alleys hidden away or sandwiched between streets. Plan a trip to connect the dots of history strolling by Strivers' Row, Henderson Place, Patchin Place and Jumel Terrace to enhance your tour of landmarks like Lever House, the Seagram Building and City Hall. Grab a map and be adventurous — a personal walking tour is always free.

Henderson Place is a tiny alley of rowhouses l Where Traveler
Henderson Place (©Meryl Pearlstein)