New York City, New York
New York is an amazing city to visit as a tourist. I’ve been a handful of times now, and always look forward to it. There’s so much to do! But it’s also expensive.
Today, my friend & travel author Matt Kepnes shares tips for things to do in New York City on a budget after living there for many years. Tips are his, photos are mine. Here’s Matt:
New York is one of my favorite cities. In fact, I love it so much I lived there for close to five years. I can never get enough of it!
To me, NYC is the center of the world, with people, foods, and cultures from everywhere. It has a wild nightlife scene, and there’s a never-ending list of things to see, do, and experience.
You can never be bored in NYC.
But, as awesome as it is, it can easily break the most hardened of budgets without proper planning.
Tourists often decry New York’s cost, but this is also place of starving artists and underpaid interns. To be a local is to know where the deals are.
Despite what most people think, it’s actually possible to have a fun, budget-friendly trip to the Big Apple without breaking the bank — if you know where to look.
So, if you want to take it in without spending a fortune, here are the best things to do in New York on a budget:
- 1: Take A Free Walking Tour
- 2: Wander Central Park
- 3: Walk The High Line
- 4: See The Statue Of Liberty
- 5: Visit Trinity Church
- 6: See The 9/11 Memorial
- 7: Attend A Broadway Show For Cheap
- 8: Wander Times Square
- 9: Visit The Museum Of Modern Art
- 10: Relax In Battery Park
- 11: Visit The Bronx Zoo
- 12: Attend A TV Show Taping
- 13: See Federal Hall
- 14: Walk The Brooklyn Bridge
- 15: Explore Grand Central Terminal
- Extra Money-Saving Tips For NYC
1: Take A Free Walking Tour
The first thing I do in a new destination is take a walking tour. They’re the best way to orient yourself, see the main sights, and interact with an expert local guide who can answer all your questions.
If you’re on a tight budget, I recommend Free Tours by Foot. Just make sure to tip your guide at the end!
For paid tours, go with Take Walks, which has specific ones that focus on art, food, and history; they are pretty affordable too (starting at $60 USD).
2: Wander Central Park
The heart of New York City, Central Park spans over 150 square blocks (840 acres). You can easily spend all day relaxing and wandering around. During the summer, there are often free concerts and theater productions (arrive early for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park).
From the late spring to the early fall, there also are free guided walks organized by the parks service on Saturdays. Central Park is the best place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Bring a book, pack a lunch, and come lounge the day away.
3: Walk The High Line
This is one of my favorite things to do in New York. Made from a converted elevated train track, the High Line is an urban walking park on the west side of town. The path stretches over twenty blocks (1.45 miles) and is extremely popular in the summer.
Lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, and food stalls, this linear park is one of the best things to do on a nice day. Just avoid the weekends, when it gets extra busy!
4: See The Statue Of Liberty
Visiting the Statue of Liberty up close will cost over $20 USD and involve waiting in a long line. If that doesn’t sound appealing, simply hop on the free Staten Island Ferry. It crosses the harbor and provides a decent view of both the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. The ride takes about 25 minutes.
5: Visit Trinity Church
Built in 1698, Trinity was originally a small parish chapel constructed by the Church of England. When the British seized New York after George Washington’s retreat during the Revolutionary War, it was used as a British base of operations. In 1776, a massive fire swept through New York and consumed the original church (as well as 25% of the entire city). The new building was consecrated in 1790 and was regularly attended by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.
The graveyard has many a famous American buried in it, such as Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth, Francis Lewis (a signatory of the Declaration of Independence), John Alsop (a Continental Congress delegate), Horatio Gates (a Continental Army general), and Lord Stirling (also a Continental Army general).
6: See The 9/11 Memorial
The 9/11 Memorial was built to commemorate the nearly 3,000 people who died in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. There are two massive reflecting pools where the Twin Towers once stood, along with the names of all the victims.
There is a museum as well, with all kinds of multimedia exhibits about the attacks, including survivor stories and artifacts. While the memorial is free, admission to the museum is $26 USD.
7: Attend A Broadway Show For Cheap
You can’t go to Manhattan and not see a Broadway show, of which there is a wide variety, from modern musicals to Shakespeare to quirky, offbeat plays. There’s nothing better than live theater, as it’s such an integral part of life in New York.
If you’re on a budget, don’t settle for full-priced tickets. Instead, visit the TKTS booth in Times Square to get half-price tickets. You’ll need to wait in line, but you’ll save a ton!
8: Wander Times Square
As touristy as it is, no visit to NYC is complete without a stop at Times Square. No matter when you go, it will be packed with people (usually other tourists). If you aren’t shopping or eating or seeing a show, there isn’t much to do in the area (and no locals hang out there), but it’s still a neat place to people-watch and get a feel for just how vast and bustling the Big Apple is.
9: Visit The Museum Of Modern Art
The Museum of Modern Art is home to some beautiful (and weird) modern art. Personally, I dislike that style (call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t get it), but the MoMA also has Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as well as other impressionist and post-impressionist art. So, even if you’re not a modern-art fan, it’s still worth a visit.
And if you do love contemporary and modern art, this is (apparently) one of the best places in the world to experience it. To keep your budget afloat, on Fridays after 4pm, the museum is free!
More Free Museums In NYC
New York City is full of some of the best museums in the world. In addition to MoMA, many offer pay-what-you-wish entry on certain days of the week.
- Whitney Museum of American Art (Thursdays)
- The Guggenheim (Saturday Afternoons)
- Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design (Saturday Nights)
10: Relax In Battery Park
Battery Park is where the Dutch built Fort Amsterdam in 1625 to defend their settlement. Located on the southern tip of Manhattan, the fort’s cannon battery (hence the name) wasn’t used until 1776, when American forces seized it after declaring independence.
The fort was destroyed during the Revolutionary War; however, the battery was expanded afterward. Today, there are over 20 monuments and plaques in the park, covering everything from the War of 1812 to the War of Independence to immigration and much more.
11: Visit The Bronx Zoo
Admission to the Bronx Zoo is free on Wednesdays at one of the oldest and biggest zoos in the United States. Opened in 1899 and now welcoming over 2 million visitors each year, it encompasses almost 300 acres and is home to over 650 different species, including gorillas, birds of prey, tigers, elephants, anacondas, bison, and much more! It’s a great place to visit, especially with kids.
12: Attend A TV Show Taping
If you’re planning your trip in advance, try getting tickets to a TV taping. Shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon all offer free tickets.
But they need to be reserved in advance, as there is a limited number, so be sure to submit requests for multiple shows to increase your chances of securing one or more. See each show’s website for details and to make reservations.
13: See Federal Hall
Federal Hall is one of the most overlooked museums in town. Originally built in 1700, it is where George Washington took his oath of office (you can see the Bible he was sworn in on). It was also the site of the US Customs House in the late 1700s and was the first capitol building of the United States.
The original building was demolished in 1812; the current one dates to 1842. I especially love the old vaults. Best of all, admission is free!
14: Walk The Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the world’s most iconic sights. It offers an easy 25-minute stroll into (or out of) Brooklyn, though expect to spend closer to 40 minutes if you stop to snap photos. You’ll get a wonderful panorama of Manhattan as you make your way across — especially if you go at night when the skyline is all lit up. (There are fewer crowds then too.)
15: Explore Grand Central Terminal
Aside from being a transit hub, Grand Central is also a landmark and an attraction unto itself. The main concourse is 88,000 square feet, which on sunny days is bathed in sunlight from its giant arching windows.
The terminal’s 12-story-high ceiling is painted with stars and gilded zodiac constellations. This station also has incredible food and drink options, including its famous oyster bar and The Campbell Bar (a cocktail bar).
Extra Money-Saving Tips For NYC
To help you save a few extra bucks during your visit to New York City, here are some money-saving tips to keep your budget under control:
- Get a MetroCard -You’ll be taking the subway a lot in New York, and fares can add up. Get an unlimited MetroCard and save yourself a bundle. A week’s pass pays for itself after 11 trips, which you can easily make, even if you are only visiting for a few days.
- Hit happy hours -NYC is awash in $1-2 oyster happy hours, $4 drink specials, bottomless brunches, and much, much more. Some of my favorite spots include: The Mermaid Inn, Jeffery’s Grocery, Carroll Place, Ofrenda, and The Frying Pan.
- Eat cheap – Between the food carts, dollar-a-slice pizza shops (literally $1 for a cheese slice), kebab joints, and ethnic eateries, you can eat really affordably in New York. Some of my favorites are The Dead Rabbit (cheap oyster happy hours), Percy’s Pizza ($1 slices), Noodle Q (Chinese food in big portions), and Gray’s Papaya (cheap hotdogs).
- Get a discount pass -If you’re planning on seeing a lot of the main attractions, get a discount pass. The CityPASS, the Explorer Pass, and the New York Pass all offer discounts to the main sights, such as the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock (the observatory at Rockefeller Center), the 9/11 Museum, the Met, and more. Passes start around $100 USD, so you’ll need to make sure you’re going to see a lot to get your money’s worth.
- Embrace the sharing economy -NYC has a huge Couchsurfing community. As long as you send your request well in advance, you shouldn’t have a problem finding someone to host you for a couple of days. This will drastically cut down on your accommodation costs. If staying with a stranger isn’t your cup of tea, there are also plenty of fun, cheap hostels too.
While it’s an expensive destination, there are tons of free and cheap things to do in New York that won’t blow your budget.
Follow the list of above, fill your days (and nights) with fun, and leave with memories…and not an empty wallet. ★
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I hope you enjoyed this guide on the best things to do in New York City! Hopefully you found it useful. Here are a few more wanderlust-inducing articles that I recommend you read next:
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