While New York City tends to live up to its pricey reputation, things vary drastically outside the five boroughs. There are plenty of lesser-known places to visit, from the upstate regions of Niagara to the Adirondacks and Long Island. The best part? Many activities in the region are free.
Here’s our guide to the best free things to do in New York State.
Get unparalleled views at the Walkway Over the Hudson
This may be as close as it comes to walking on water. Spanning the Hudson River from Highland on the west to Poughkeepsie on the east, the 1.28-mile Walkway Over the Hudson is the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world.
Towering 212ft above the river with entrances on other side, the walk across provides an unparalleled vantage point of the Hudson Valley, with views stretching from the Hudson Highlands to the Catskills.
Though special events like the Walkway Marathon, Starry Starry Night Gala and July 4th Spectacular will impact hours, the walkway, which is ADA handicapped accessible, is free from 7am to sunset year round.
Originally built as a railroad bridge to transport freight and passenger trains, the walkway was the world’s longest bridge when it first opened in 1889. It was a popular route—carrying as many as 3500 rail cars each day— until a fire destroyed the tracks in 1974.
In 2009, the bridge reopened and found a second life as a pathway for walkers, runners and bikers.
Hike the Empire State Trail
With so many hidden sights to explore in New York State, there's no better way to stumble upon them than by foot.
In 2017, New York State launched the Empire State Trail, creating a 750-mile cohesive network that creates a perpendicular pathway and made up of three sections – the Hudson Valley Greenway (New York City to Albany), the Erie Canalway Trail (Buffalo to Watervliet) and the Champlain Valley Trail (Albany to Rouses Point).
There are access points to hundreds of cultural and historic sites and attractions like the Lockport New York Mural, Fort Herkimer Church one of the state’s oldest churches and the colonial “fort that never surrendered” at Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome.
Enjoy art and gardens in Roslyn Harbor
The 145 acres of the William Cullen Bryant Preserve surrounding the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, Long Island offers three distinct experiences.
Start your visit by exploring the 40 sculptures from 1913 to 2018 in the Sculpture Garden. A few favorites include Marco Remec’s spherical wonders or Tom Otterness’ whimsical chapters.
Then, get transported to the high life of the Roaring 20s with a stroll along the brick path through the immaculately manicured Formal Garden. The garden was a popular entertainment spot for Frances and Childs Frick (owners of the estate) during the 1920s and 30s.
Round out your visit with a stop at the Arboretum and Trails (the actual preserve portion). The six miles of trails showcase the beautiful diversity of the region. Keep an eye out for horned owls, fox, deer, hawks and other wildlife that call the preserve home.
All outdoor activities are free, while visits inside the mansion that houses a museum is USD$15 for adults and $5 for children ages 4 to 12.
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Reach new heights at the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness Complex
At 275,460 acres, the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness Complex is the largest wilderness space in New York State. It’s also home to the state’s two highest peaks – Mount Marcy (5344ft) and Algonquin Peak (5114ft). Both have plenty of trails suitable for all levels.
And on those hot days, cool off at any of the area's waterfalls, natural pools or clearwater brooks (watch out for trout). The Lake Tear of the Clouds is the highest elevation water body in the Hudson River watershed at 4300ft.
Go for a swim at Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca
Go sunbathing and swimming at Buttermilk Falls State Park, which has a life guard at the natural pool. Located about 2.5 miles away from downtown Ithaca, Buttermilk Falls also offers about eight miles of trails which connect to nearby Treman State Park and Lick Brook Gorge.
Thanks to glaciers that carved out gorges millions of years ago, there are now more than 150 waterfalls within 10 miles of the Ithaca area – some suitable for swimming.
Feed chickadees among the fairies at Mendon Ponds Park
Mendon Ponds Park in Honeoye Falls may seem like an unassuming 2500-acre preserve, but there's magic all around if you know where to look.
The groundwork set millions of years ago from the unusual geological formations known as kames, eskers and kettles. The park is also home to a flock of chickadees that you can feed sunflowers to right out of your hand during the winter months.
Visitors can also stop at Sharon’s Sensory Garden, which caters to those with physical and visual disabilities by cultivating flowers that can be smelled, torn and touched. There are raised flowerbeds pathways for those in wheelchairs and plant signs written in braille.
Most recently, a population of about 40 fairy houses once part of Henrietta's Tinker Nature Park was moved to Mendon Ponds and is now along its Birdsong Fairy Trail.
The elaborate miniature homes line the pathway and feature intricate bridges, swings, and colorful doors. One sign reads: “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”
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Tour the New York State Capitol building
Albany might be right when it proclaims its New York State Capitol building one of the nation’s most beautiful. The 19th-century building sits at the top of a hill on State Street. The Capitol is the work of five architects spanning 32 years and is a symbol of grandeur – especially the 444-step Million Dollar Staircase with 77 famous faces like Susan B. Anthony and Geroge Washington carved into it.
The state offers free 45-minute NYS Capitol Guided Tours on weekdays at 10am, noon and 2pm. Though there’s no cost, online reservations are recommended since space is limited.
Dive into the spooky lore of Sleepy Hollow
The spooky reputation of Sleepy Hollow is anchored in the Washington Irving 1820 short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Irving himself is one of the town’s most famous legends, buried at the 90-acre Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
The cemetery offers free maps near the 540 North Broadway entrance to guide visitors to the final resting spots of famous names like cosmetics entrepreneur Elizabeth Arden, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and Standard Oil Company co-founder William Rockefeller.
Visits to the operating cemetery are free, though be respectful of those mourning.
Irving’s work has turned Halloween into a year-round business in Sleepy Hollow. Among the other odes to the tale free to visit are the Headless Horseman Bridge, the Headless Horseman Sculpture and the Old Dutch Church – better known as the stomping grounds of the fictional horseman.
Attend a free concert on the Thousand Islands
Every seat is the best seat in the house when the stage is set at the water’s edge of Alexandria Bay’s Scenic View Park Pavilion. Overlooking the Thousand Islands’ St. Lawrence Seaway, the Fuller Street location hosts a wide range of musical acts during its Summer Concert Series in the Park. This year’s program features free shows every Wednesday from 7 to 8:30pm, running from June 29 through September 7.
Before the show, visitors can stroll the Alexandria Bay Riverwalk or head over to nearby Otter Creek Preserve with nearly two miles of trails, a suspension bridge and a wildlife observation tower.
Top things to do in New York State
Witness the power of Niagara Falls
This just might be the state’s most powerful secret. One of the world’s most stunning waterfalls is absolutely free to see every day of the year.
Founded in 1885, Niagara Falls State Park is the nation's oldest state park. The 400-acre area around the national wonder was designed by the same architect behind Manhattan's Central Park, Frederick Law Olmstead.
While the roar of 3160 tons of water flowing over the falls every second draws the crowds, the park is filled with gardens, trails, and of course, tons of viewpoints of the falls.
For a bit of a lift, the Niagara Falls Observation Tower gives an unobstructed view of all three sections of Niagara Falls — American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls, for just $1.25 fee per person every day from 10am to 4:30pm.
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