Seeing New York City's biggest attractions can mean spending a hefty chunk of your trip budget on tickets. Empire State Building? $36. The Guggenheim and the Whitney both go for $25. Even the Frick is $22. But there's a lifetime of fun to be had without ever handing over a cent, and not just by taking on park trails, bike paths or window-shopping. (Plus, some ticket-admission spots have free entry times, too.)
Thrifty New York travelers, get busy!
African Burial Ground
One of Lower Manhattan's most fascinating, and controversial, stories of recent years circulates around the new African Burial Ground National Monument site. It began when a construction project in 1991 uncovered a burial ground of slaves – more than 400 caskets were found – from an age when New York had more slaves than any American city outside Charleston, South Carolina. Outside you can see part of the site now enveloped by buildings, and the compact visitors center does a masterful job at retelling African-American history in the city. 290 Broadway between Duane & Elk Sts, Lower Manhattan.
Jazz at Barbès
If the Village Vanguard and Smalls are way out of your price range, head across the bridge to Barbès in Brooklyn to enjoy stellar jazz for free, every night of the week. 376 9th St at 6th Ave, Brooklyn.
Brooklyn Brewery tours
Free tours of Williamsburg's Brooklyn Brewery run on the hour from 1-5pm Saturday, 1-4pm Sunday. 79 N 11th St, Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
The 'Imagine' mosaic commemorates the life and death of former Beatle John lennon © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
It doesn't take brilliant travel minds to tell you that a park is free to visit – most parks are. But most parks aren't Central Park, Manhattan's famed claim to thinking ahead (even if it was designed in the 1860s to boost real-estate value uptown). It's filled with free events, statues, people-watching and sites like Strawberry Fields, an 'Imagine' mosaic near the Dakota, where John Lennon was killed in 1980. Another site is 'the Pond,' at the southeastern corner, where Holden Caulfield kept turning to in 'The Catcher in the Rye,' wondering where those ducks go when it's cold.
New York's most concentrated area for a gallery crawl is in Chelsea, mostly in the 20s streets between 10th and 11th Avenues. Check Gallery Guide for listings. All galleries are free entry, with no pressure to buy. And try timing your visit for wine-and-cheese openings on Thursday evenings.
Home to New York City's government since 1812, City Hall is the oldest city hall in the USA that is still used for its original purpose. Tours take in its cupola-topped marble hall, the governor's room as well as the spot where Abraham Lincoln's coffin lay in state briefly in 1865 – make sure you reserve your spot in advance. City Hall Park, facing the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan.
Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Museum
It's always Fashion Week in the FIT Museum, which features rotating exhibits by students and a surprisingly interesting and detailed collection of the country's first gallery of fashion, picked from a collection of 50,000 garments dating from the 18th century to present. Seventh Ave & 27th St, Garment District, Midtown West.
Two presidents were inaugurated in New York City, beginning with the first 'Dubya' – George Washington – who took the oath in Federal Hall in 1789, back when New York was the first capital. (Chester A. Arthur was the second.) There's a nice statue outside, overlooking the New York Stock Exchange across Wall Street, and a small museum on post-colonial New York inside. 26 Wall St, Lower Manhattan.
General Ulysses S Grant National Memorial (aka 'Grant's Tomb')
Also called 'Grant's Tomb', the $600,000 granite structure that holds the remains of the Civil War hero and 18th president (and his wife Julia) is the largest mausoleum in the US, and is patterned after Mausolus' tomb at Halicarnassus, making it a plagiarized version of one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Riverside Dr at 122nd St, Morningside Heights.
The ferry to Governors Island is $2 round trip, but access to the 172-acre island – which is open May through September – is free. There's a 2.2-mile bike path, mini golf, a picnic area, plus military sites such as Admiral's House and a 'ghost town' of sorts at Nolan Park. Ferries leave from Battery Maritime Bldg, Slip 7, Lower Manhattan.
The sleek, art-deco Chrysler building is one of the stops on the free walking tours by Grand Central Partnership © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
Grand Central Partnership Walking Tours
Two historians lead free 90-minute walking tours at 12:30pm every Friday, hitting places like Grand Central Terminal's 'whispering gallery' and the Chrysler Building. 120 Park Ave, at 42nd St, Midtown East.
Once the nation's most visited tourist attraction outside Niagara Falls, the gorgeous Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 and is the eternal home to some 600,000 people (or about 530 miles of bodies, head to toe). It's leafy and lovely, features Brooklyn's highest point at Battle Hill – a site from the Revolutionary War now marked with a seven-foot statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva. Watch for the squawking green parakeets at the cemetery's Gothic entry – these are runaways from a JFK mishap in 1980 and have lived here since. 500 25th St, Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
You know you've made it when you get a grange (the next level unlocks when a hit Broadway musical is written about your life). Hamilton Grange reopened in 2011 after renovation and is the Federal-style country retreat where Alexander Hamilton spent quieter, pre-death-by-duel New York days. St Nicholas Park at 141st St, Hamilton Heights.
It may technically be a public park, but the expanding High Line project has the impact and feel of a real-life tourist attraction, complete with its own opening hours. Created from an abandoned stretch of elevated railroad track, the landscaping of this park (which stands 30 feet in the air) connects the Meatpacking District with Chelsea's galleries, ending at the Javits Center on the south side of Hell's Kitchen. There are wonderful views of the Hudson River and of pedestrians on the sidewalks below. Watch for public-art installations and events. Gansevoort Street to 34th St, between 9th & 11th Aves, Chelsea.
The films and lectures usually involve a ticket, but the gallery exhibits at the Japan Society (focusing on Japanese art) are free 6-9pm Fridays. 333 E 47 St, between First & Second Aves, Midtown East.
National Museum of the American Indian
This Smithsonian expat, just off historic Bowling Green and Battery Park, is neighbor to frenetic commuters and tourists heading to the Statue of Liberty but often gets overlooked. Situated in the spectacular former U.S. Customs House (1907), the National Museum of the American Indian is one of the country's finest collections of Native American art. The focus of its million-plus items, as well as its programs, is on culture rather than history. 1 Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan.
New York Earth Room
Now for something completely different: the Earth Room, Walter De Maria's 1977 art installation, a single room filled with 280,000 pounds of dirt, combines the framework of an ordinary office with the scent of a wet forest. 141 Wooster St, SoHo
New York Public Library
Remember the Dewey Decimal System? The New York Public Library, New York's most famous library (aka the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) is situated in a grand Beaux-Arts icon east of Times Square. It's fronted by marble lions named 'Patience' and 'Fortitude,' and is a jaw-dropper to walk through – particularly the reading room fit for 500 patrons poring over tomes under the library's original Carrère and Hastings lamps. There are exhibits too, including a copy of the original Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible, plus 431,000 old maps. Free tours take place at 11am and 2pm Monday to Saturday, 2pm Sunday (closed Sunday in summer). Fifth Ave at 42nd St, Midtown East.
Shakespeare at Sunset
You can try your luck (along with everyone else in New York) to win free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park via the digital lottery, but just in case you don’t win, you can also get your fix of the Bard at Shakespeare at Sunset, hosted by New York Classical Theatre at nontraditional public venues across the city.
Old Stone House
A Breuckelen legacy from Brooklyn's Dutch origins, and a survivor of the ill-fated Battle of Brooklyn, this Old Stone House features a small exhibit on the battle. (Its upstairs is also sometimes rented out for the likes of sample sales.) Entry is by 'suggested donation' of $3 (so will depend on how open to suggestion you are). Fifth Ave, btwn 3th & 4th Sts, Park Slope, Brooklyn.
Public boathouse kayaking
Rockefeller Center Public Art
Built in the 1930s Great Depression, the 22-acre Rockefeller Center is more than the setting for NBC's Today Show (lines often appear by 6am) and a giant Christmas tree in December (not to mention to $33 NBC tours or $37 trips to the observatory deck). Pop by to see the slew of art commissioned under the theme of 'Man at the Crossroads Looks Uncertainly but Hopefully at the Future.' A bit wordy, but the pieces pack a big punch, and include the statue of Prometheus overlooking the skating rink, and Atlas holding the world at 630 Fifth Ave. Between Fifth & Sixth Aves, around 49th & 50th Sts, Midtown.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Part of the city's library system, the Schomburg Center is the country's largest collection of documents, books, recordings and photographs related to the African-American experience. It hosts free exhibits and tours – although its guided tours must be booked at least one month in advance. 515 Malcolm X Blvd at 135th St, Harlem.
Socrates Sculpture Park
On the East River, overlooking Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side, the Socrates Sculpture Park (a former dump site) now has interesting art installations, light shows and movies on Wednesdays in summer. Broadway at Vernon Blvd, Astoria, Queens.
Staten Island Ferry
Everyone wants to see the Statue of Liberty, but the ferry tours there start at $18.50 for adults. Fortunately, the Staten Island Ferry, which cuts across the New York Harbor and offers a great view of Lady Liberty, is absolutely free. Having been in service since 1905, the ferry carries 19 million people across the harbor each year. East end of Battery Park, Lower Manhattan.
Article originally published in 2011 and updated in 2017 by Mikki Brammer. Updated again, May 2019.
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