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11 free things to do in New York City

Times are tough for travelers. But with the world preparing to reopen in 2021, we're here to keep you dreaming and planning for your next adventure - whether that's a staycation or flying off to parts unknown. Until then, we've got the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates to keep you up to date and ready to go.

There’s clearly plenty to do in The Big Apple, but are there any free things to do in New York City? The amount of sights to see, foods to nosh and experiences to have in this metropolis are seemingly endless. There is truly something for everyone, whether you prefer to museum-hop, shop local boutiques or bar crawl infamous speakeasies.

However, between visiting the Top of the Rock, checking out a play on Broadway and venturing to the Statue of Liberty, your travel budget will be feeling the strain. Luckily, the list of free activities in New York is equally as diverse as the more pricey must-see and must-do highlights.

So while you’re waiting to travel internationally and enjoy the best free things to do in Bogota, Paris, Barcelona or London, enjoy these money-saving activities in the Big Apple.

Enjoy these 11 free activities in New York City:

  1. The High Line
  2. Wander Chelsea
  3. Enjoy the parks
  4. Washington Square Park and the West Village
  5. 9/11 Memorial, The Battery and Wall Street
  6. South Street Seaport
  7. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
  8. Free movies and more in DUMBO
  9. The public libraries
  10. Coney Island
  11. Green-Wood Cemetery

Please always remember to check and follow local government guidelines and respect any COVID-related rules that may be in place for the following activities. Any specific information in this article is accurate as of May 17, 2021.

1. Walk the High Line

Long-since-abandoned, the High Line once operated as a raised railway platform running between Chelsea and the Meatpacking District in Manhattan. The first train ran back in 1933! It operated for a few decades, but then usage dwindled and eventually stopped. The city has since turned it into an elevated park, with grass covering the tracks and lounge chairs built along the sides. In addition, there are rotating art installations and well-cultivated gardens.

Hop on at a number of locations along 10th Avenue and enjoy a lovely stroll above the hustle and bustle of the streets below.

free things to do in New York City, The Highline, grassy railroad tracks and seating areas

2. Wander Chelsea

Make sure to either start or end your High Line jaunt at Chelsea Market on 19th and 10th. Chelsea Market was a massive abandoned warehouse, which has since been converted into a food-hall-meets-shopping-mall.

The rest of Chelsea’s charming neighborhood streets also make for great exploring. If you wander the streets from West 20th to West 30th between 10th and 11th Avenues, you’ll find art galleries that are free to enter and look around. There’s no pressure on you to buy anything. In fact, if you go in the evening, you’ll likely be able to catch exhibit openings offering free bubbly or wine and cheese.

pink and brown brick buildings side-by-side with ornate fire escapes in Chelsea

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3. Enjoy the parks

New York’s public parks are the pulse of the city, and each one has its own special vibe. Admire the Flatiron Building from Madison Square Park before having a wander through the Eataly marketplace (make sure to try some free samples of pasta). At Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, you can do everything from horseback riding to tennis to fishing in the lake.

Obviously you can’t talk about New York City parks without mentioning Central Park, one of the most iconic symbols of Manhattan. Central Park’s beauty is in its sheer size and options for endless exploration. Walk, bike, skateboard, picnic at Sheep’s Meadow, bring the kids to the playground and explore Strawberry Fields or the Reservoir.

Beyond New York, places like Bogota and Barcelona also have expansive parks that locals and visitors can enjoy for free!

Overhead view of Manhattan focused on Central Park as one of the top free things to do in New York City

4. Washington Square Park (and East/West Villages)

The iconic fountain in the center of Washington Square Park is instantly recognizable to visitors thanks to TV shows (Friends opening credits, anyone?) and movies. But the park also plays host to the center of the New York University campus and is a lively spot for enjoying a snack on the fountain ledge, people watching from the benches or challenging the regulars to a game of chess. On hot summer days, you’ll frequently find kids (and sometimes adults) splashing in the fountain’s water.

From here, you can either head to the East Village’s quirky shops and dive bars or to the West Village’s posh boutiques and quaint cafes. Otherwise, turn south and wander down through SoHo, Nolita and Little Italy. Aimlessly exploring is one of the best free things to do in New York City.

View of the arch and fountain in Washington Square park with people sitting on the steps and walking behind
 © NYC & Company/Brittany Petronella

5. 9/11 Memorial, The Battery and Wall Street

The reflecting pools of the 9/11 Memorial are free to visit, and those looking to pay their respects will find a beautiful tribute to the victims of the September 11th attacks at the base of the new One World Trade building.

Nearby, you can see the Charging Bull statue on Wall Street and views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from The Battery. Make sure to wander through The Gardens of The Battery, the largest perennial gardens on the continent.

If you’re willing to spend money on lunch or a beer, head to the pedestrian-only Stone Street and its centuries-old pubs. Here, you can sit outside at picnic tables on the cobblestone roads and feel like you’re in a hidden oasis, teleported back in time to 19th-century Manhattan.

Insider tip: The Staten Island Ferry is free to ride and a great way to see the Statue of Liberty up close!

Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry is one of the best free things to do in New York City

6. South Street Seaport 

The original commercial hub of downtown Manhattan, South Street Seaport has evolved into a uniquely historic-meets-modern center for food, culture, shopping and more. Wander through the Fulton Market building and drool over the delicious variety of food options. If traveling with little ones, be sure to spend some time at the Imagination Playground. Plenty of the activities in this area are among the top free things to do in New York City.

View of South Street Seaport with Brooklyn Bridge in the background
 © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer

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7. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge 

Starting on Manhattan, once you finish exploring the South Street Seaport, head on over to the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge by walking the mile or so across the iconic structure. This is one of our favorite free things to do in New York City, partially because of the views and partially from the experience itself. Don’t forget to peek over your shoulder every so often, because the views looking back over lower Manhattan really are stunning from the bridge’s vantage point.

People walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the best free things to do in NYC

8. Free movies and more in DUMBO

Once across the Brooklyn Bridge, you’ll be in the heart of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Explore the waterfront here and check out Jane’s Carousel (free to admire, only $2 to ride!) and Pier 1. There’s plenty to see and do for free along the waterfront here.

On Thursday evenings during July and August, Movies With a View hosts free movie screenings on the lawn at Pier 1. Due to COVID, the summer 2021 schedule has yet to be announced.

DUMBO, NYC view of the Manhattan Bridge between buildings on car-lined street--one of the fantastic free things to do in New York City

9. Visit the public libraries 

Book lovers have their fair share of options when it comes to indulging in all things literary in NYC. The New York Public Library—the second-largest public library in the States—and the Brooklyn Public Library will leave visitors awestruck with their stunning architecture, cozy reading rooms and vast collections of books of all kinds. And they’re both completely free to visit. There are also free one-hour tours of the New York Public Library at 11am and 2pm from Monday through Saturday (although tours have been temporarily suspended due to COVID).

The Strand, The Center for Fiction, The Jefferson Market Library, McNally Jackson, Books are Magic and The Morgan Library and Museum are just a few more of the totally free things to do in New York City for the book worms of the world.

girl smiling, sitting with library book open in lap beside bookshelves

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10. Enjoy Coney Island

Coney Island is perhaps one of the most well-known free things to do in New York. While a lot of the “add-ons” to a day in Coney Island are going to cost you money (think: chowing down on Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and riding the roller coaster and playing carnival games at Luna Park), there are still plenty of reasons to head to the island if you’re just looking for a low-budget day. Bring your beach gear and enjoy the sandy beaches or simply stroll the boardwalk.

view of Coney Island from the end of the pier

11. Green-Wood Cemetery 

While visiting a cemetery may not be your first choice of activity normally, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn is the exception to the rule. The massive, 478-acre cemetery is a local favorite for calming walks through the tranquil grounds, where you can admire the magnificent beauty of the mausoleums and statuary. Notable residents include Jean-Michel Basquiat and Leonard Bernstein, among others.

Did you know Paris also has a free cemetery that’s a top attraction (Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde are buried there!)? Europe may have a reputation for being expensive, but you can find free things to do in many of the continent’s other popular destinations, like London and Barcelona!

Discover where you can go

Making plans to get back out there? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.

discover where you can travel during coronavirus map

FAQ

What day is the New York Aquarium free?

Entrance to the New York Aquarium is free after 3 p.m. on Wednesdays with advance reservation.

Is the Staten Island Ferry free?

Yes! The Staten Island Ferry is completely free to ride and brings you past the Statue of Liberty. Travel time is approximately 25 minutes between Whitehall and St. George.

Is the High Line NYC free?

Yes, the High Line in NYC is completely free. You can use any of a number of stairs or elevator entrances along 10th Avenue to access the High Line.

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