Whether you are a NYC native like me, moved here recently, or a visitor experiencing the greatest city on the planet, these are the best FREE things to do in New York City.
This list offers something for everybody, including FREE museums and sightseeing, FREE guided tours, FREE tickets to late night TV shows, FREE concerts, even a FREE rooftop garden.
Everything is easily accessible by NYC’s famous and efficient public transportation system, and no more than a five-minute walk from the nearest subway stop.
Full fare is $2.75, and $33 for an unlimited weekly subway/bus pass, and both entitle you to one free transfer between subway and bus, or even two buses. See the official MTA site for additional fare information.
Some links are to the archives of my former website,
NYC on the Cheap
now rebranded as NYC Travel Guru.
Best Free Things to do in Manhattan
Staten Island Ferry
Get a close up look at the Statue of Liberty and picture postcard views of the Manhattan skyline – for FREE, since it is free to ride the Staten Island Ferry.
Please avoid morning and afternoon rush hour, when the ferry is crowded with commuters traveling to and from work between Staten Island and Manhattan.
70,000 passengers a day take the ferry to commute between Staten Island and Lower Manhattan. You might remember one of them was character Melanie Griffith portrayed in the 1988 film Working Girl, and the 1986 video for Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach. Both were filmed on the ferry itself.
The ride is about 25 minutes each way.
Note that while the ferry gives you a close-up picture postcard view of Lady Liberty, the Staten Island Ferry does not dock at Liberty Island or Ellis Island.
The only way to visit Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty is to purchase a ticket on Statue Cruises, which also stops at Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants arrived on these shores in the last century – including my own grandparents.
Board the Staten Island Ferry in Lower Manhattan at South Ferry. You must get off the ferry at St. George Terminal in Staten Island, and you can take the next ferry back to Manhattan, or spend some time first in Staten Island.
SCAM ALERT –
- Beware of hustlers selling tickets to “see” the Statue of Liberty.
- You could wind up on a bus to New Jersey, where you’ll get a long distance view – of her backside.
ecoXplorer & NYC Travel Guru tips –
- At the Staten Island side – leave some time to browse the discount shopping at Empire Outlets, the shopping mall attached to the St. George Terminal. There are restaurants and cafes, too.
- At the Manhattan side – Check out the National Museum of the American Indian adjoining Battery Park, with FREE admission – more about that below in the FREE museums section. Also in Battery Park you’ll find the Sea Glass Carousel, which features sea creatures instead of the usual carousel animals (pay per ride).
50+ Things to See and Do in Staten Island
New York Public Library
You’ve seen the soaring, two-block long Main Reading Room in countless Hollywood films and TV shows.
See it for yourself, along with FREE exhibits focusing on books or New York City or both.
There are also FREE docent tours of this historic Beaux Arts building with the world-famous stone lions out front.
Some fabulous facts about the main branch of the NYPL system –
- It has 125 miles of bookshelves, many of which are under Bryant Park
- It contains more than 4 million books and periodicals, one of the world’s largest collections
- The famous Rose Reading Room (pictured here) stretches the length of nearly two city blocks.
- It is one of the largest marble buildings ever built in the USA
- The two famous stone lions guarding the front entrance are named Patience and Fortitude
The Main Branch of the New York Public Library is at Fifth Ave., between 42nd and 40th Streets.
ecoXplorer and NYC Travel Guru tips:
- Across the street is another NYPL Branch, a sparkling new facility re-opened recently after a gut-renovation.
- Now called the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL), it features special areas for children and teens.
- There’s also a FREE rooftop garden with wonderful views of the main library building across the street, and the Empire State Building a few blocks away.
Where to Eat in Times Square/Theater District
at Local Restaurants Not National Chains
Getting Around: NYC Airport Transportation
Tickets to Late Night TV Shows
If you are a fan of Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah or Saturday Night Live, here’s how to get free tickets to be in the audience for one of their live tapings.
How to Get Ticket to
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
The Daily Show with Rotating Guest Hosts
Tickets to Saturday Night Live are available only during the month of August, by lottery. We’ll have an update closer to August 2023 with details.
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
All summer long, New York City’s premier cultural center has free outdoor music and dance festivals, including Midsummer Night Swing, the Metropolitan Opera HD Festival, and the world-famous New York Philharmonic plays free concerts in NYC Parks.
With the multi-year renovation of David Geffen Hall, home of the “Phil” there’s a new opportunity to watch performances live for free.
Hang out at the 55-foot video wall in the lobby. Grab a drink and enjoy.
Absolutely one of the best NEW and FREE things to do in NYC.
Apple Retail Stores
Take a test drive of the latest gadgets and gear, check your email, or troubleshoot a problem with one of the Genius Bar gurus.
There also are free classes to help you improve how you use anything Apple, from making videos to using the cloud.
There are Apple stores in Soho, Lincoln Center and Grand Central Terminal, downtown Brooklyn and elsewhere, but the only one open 24/7 is at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.
There is also a Microsoft store on Fifth Avenue, close to Rockefeller Center, where you can check your email and test drive new products.
9/11 Memorial Plaza
The site of the original World Trade Center Twin Towers is a memorial to the victims of that terrible day.
Their names are engraved in the marble that surrounds the original footprints of the two towers and their sunken waterfalls.
Docents will help you find a particular name, hometown or country of a 9/11 victim, or the unit of a First Responder.
Visiting the 9/11 Memorial Plaza continues to be free.
ecoXplorer and NYC Travel Guru tips:
- There is a fee to enter the excellent National September 11 Museum, generally called the 9/11 Museum, which adjoins the Memorial, and another separate fee to visit the One World Observatory.
- The 9/11 Memorial Plaza and the 9/11 Museum are closed to the public until around 2pm every 9/11, for memorial services.
Federal Hall National Monument
George Washington took the oath of office here as the first US President, when New York City was the first capital of the new United States of America.
His larger-than-life statue is out front, and there’s a small US history museum inside.
Take a FREE tour with one of the National Park Rangers, every hour on the hour.
- On Wall Street, directly across from the New York Stock Exchange.
New York City Parks
Where to start? NYC has some of the best parks in the world. These are just the ones in Manhattan worth a visit:
Take a walk on the High Line
- Stroll above the traffic on an old, abandoned railroad spur that was slated for demolition, but a 20-year fight by forward-thinking community activists turned into a magical park, with sustainable gardens, fountains, art installations and marvelous views across the Hudson River, especially at sunset. Open 7am to 10pm daily.
Attend free concerts at Little Island, on a pier jutting into the Hudson River.
Enjoy jousting at the annual Medieval Fair in Fort Tryon Park (I grew up in Inwood, so this was my backyard), or just the picture postcard views of the George Washington Bridge and Hudson River.
Watch free outdoor movies all summer in Bryant Park, free ice skating in the winter, and free guided birding tours in spring and fall when thousands of birds visit on their way south or north – New York City is on the Atlantic Flyover route, and is a popular visiting spot for tourist with wings instead of feet..
Watch glorious memorable sunsets from Riverside Park, which stretches along the Hudson River from Midtown to Harlem, and the Lower Manhattan version known as Hudson River Park.
Explore NYC parks and gardens named for NYC women, including two First Ladies, an Olympic medalist and the Bronx-born mother of Winston Churchill.
ecoXplorer & NYC Travel Guru tip
- NYC is on the Atlantic Flyover route, and millions of birds stop over every year on the way North or South, to rest and to get a bite to eat.
Enjoy free Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park, the view from the endlessly romantic Bow Bridge (pictured here), or the Shakespeare Garden, where every flower and plant is one mentioned in one of The Bard’s sonnets or plays.
Best Picnic Spots in Central Park
3 FREE Museums in Manhattan
National Museum of the American Indian
This outpost of the Smithsonian houses one of the world’s best collections of Native American art and artifacts, from tribes throughout the Americas, from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia.
Plus, there are free film screenings, cultural performances and workshops for kids.
Be sure to look up at the Rotunda, which reminds me of the U. S. Capitol.
- NMAI is in Lower Manhattan, at the edge of Battery Park – a two-minute walk from the Staten Island Ferry
- A few blocks away are the Museum of Jewish Heritage and The Skyscraper Museum
Hispanic Society of America
This little-known museum in Upper Manhattan contains one of the largest collections of Velasquez and Goya paintings outside Spain, plus other Hispanic treasures dating from the Bronze Age from Spain, Portugal and Latin America, including intricate tiles from Moorish Spain.
There are free docent tours on weekends.
- Located 155th St. and Broadway in Washington Heights.
- A few blocks away is the Trinity Church Cemetery (there’s another one downtown, near the 9/11 Plaza). Look for the graves of Clement Moore, who wrote Visit from St. Nicholas, which many of us call “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, and beloved Broadway and TV star Jerry Orbach.
The Museum at FIT
Sorry Paris and Milan, but New York City is the fashion capital of the world, also home of the internationally-recognized Fashion Institute of Technology, a college-level institution providing courses on everything from fabric design to creating the world-famous NYC holiday store windows.
The free museum has rotating exhibits that focus either on a designer, such as Halston, a theme, such as shoes, fashion history, such as the fashion and fabrics of the 1890s, or a color, such as rose (the featured image here is from that exhibition, in 2021)
There’s also an extensive fashion library of fabrics, fashion magazines and more.
FREE Things to Do in Brooklyn
Designed as a park in the 1800s for the residents of the independent City of Brooklyn, before it became part of New York City, it also happens to contain 500,000 of what the cemetery describes as “permanent residents”.
They reside in a variety of spaces from simple headstones to those marked with grand sculptures, to impressive mausoleums.
Permanent residents include stained glass king Louis Comfort Tiffany, Broadway musical legend Leonard Bernstein, inventor Samuel B. Morse, and Charles Ebbets, owner of the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, who played in Ebbets Field.
There’s also a section of Civil War soldiers.
There are both FREE self-guided and docent tours, and a trolley tour (there’s a fee for that). There also are special events, such as concerts.
Green-Wood was designed originally as a park, so there are lovely walking paths lined with mature trees, and plenty of benches for sitting.
Atlantic Ocean Beaches
New York City is the only place in the world I know of where you can take the subway to miles of white sand ocean beaches, including some stretches dedicated to surfing real ocean waves.
Coney Island and Brighton Beach are in Brooklyn, including the world-famous Cyclone roller coaster and the original Nathan’s Hot Dogs stand, still serving after 100+ years. And the famous Boardwalk, too.
There are additional stretches of Atlantic Ocean beach in Rockaway, Queens, and in Staten Island.
In the Bronx, Orchard Beach is on Long Island Sound.
All have boardwalks, lifeguards between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and plenty of room to spread out a blanket.
Free Guided Walking Tours
Big Apple Greeter
Tour guides are mostly Native New Yorkers who lead folks around their favorite neighborhoods and parks. It’s a volunteer-driven and donor-supported organization, so while the tours are free, donations are gratefully accepted.
Contact them to be matched with one of the 300-ish greeters – nearly all are natives or long-time residents – who offer their services.
It’s almost like visiting with a good friend who is showing you around his or her favorite things.
This was published originally on my NYC on the Cheap website, which I began publishing in 2008.
It was a victim of ransomeware in February 2022, and has been rebranded as NYC Travel Guru.
Some of the links in this article are to the web archive pages and the original postings, which also are (C) Copyright Evelyn Kanter.
Some of this information also is in my recent NYC guidebook, 100 Things to Do in NYC Before You Die. Available online and in bookstores.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Or at email@example.com, an email address I continue to keep and use.
Renee S. Gordon says
Great and informative read.