104 Best Things to Do in New York City: A Local’s Guide
Check out my ultimate local's guide to the best things to do in New York City. Including non-touristy things to do, it'll be a trip you won't soon forget.
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After living in New York for over a decade, I can verify that New York is an extremely expensive city to live in or even just visit, and it’s getting more expensive each year.
As someone who was living on minimum wage, I had to get creative when finding things to do in NYC, especially after rent was due.
Over the years, my friends and I discovered lots of cool free things to do in NYC, including my all-time favorite activity, Shakespeare in the Park.
It still astounds me that I’ve gotten to see performances from Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams, and even Al Pacino, all for free!
Don’t let the priciness of the city keep you away. The city has tons of free activities for those days when you’re feeling broke.
Just check out this list of the best free things to do in NYC and get started planning your next New York adventure!
If you’re visiting NYC during the summer (typically July-August), you’ll find that the Public Theater likely has a show running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.
I’ve gone almost every year for the last decade and I can tell you this is world class theater.
The tricky thing is scoring tickets.
You’ve got a few different ways to score them, including the online ticket lottery, in person at the theater (get there a few hours early to wait in line), or via an in-person lottery downtown at The Public.
If you win, you’ll get two totally free tickets.
Fair warning, the theater is outside, which is an incredible experience unless the weather isn’t ideal.
If it’s scheduled to rain or be chilly, come prepared because they normally perform rain or shine.
For a free view of downtown Manhattan, Lady Liberty, Ellis Island, and Governors Island, head downtown and hop on the Staten Island Ferry.
The ride over to Staten Island is about 25 minutes. From there you can either hop off and explore Staten Island, or just stay on and ride back to Manhattan.
For the best experience, avoid riding the ferry at rush hour (6am-9am and between 5pm-7pm).
Local’s Tip: If you find yourself over in Staten Island around dinner time, check out Enoteca Maria.
It’s a little Italian joint where they invite a different grandmother to cook her family recipes each night.
I haven’t been yet, but have heard excellent things about it from friends.
This stunning library gives me major Beauty and the Beast vibes.
Trust me, your inner Belle will be in heaven when you get here.
You’ll see artwork, rare books, manuscripts, ancient artifacts, and drawings. Plus, get a killer Instagram photo if you’re into that sort of thing.
The best part is that the Morgan Library & Museum is totally free to visit on Fridays between 5pm-7pm, as long as you make a reservation in advance.
They open reservations
If you’re not in town on a Friday, don’t fret. You can still check out the library. You’ll just have to pay their admission fee.
When the weather is nice, there’s nothing better than grabbing an iced coffee and taking a long walk on The High Line.
If you’re new to the city, and not sure what The High Line is, here’s the low-down.
It’s an almost two-mile long stretch of flowers, art, and greenery.
Not to mention, a fantastic spot for some quality people watching.
If you’ve seen the first Sex and the City movie, you’ll recognize this as the gorgeous library where Big left Carrie waiting on their wedding day.
You likely won’t witness any jilted brides, but you can check out this stunning historic library for free by signing up for one of their tours.
Tours run Monday to Saturday at 11am and 2pm if you want to do the hour-long tour of the building.
Or sign up for a half-hour visit to see just the Rose Main Reading Room at either 10:30 am or 1:30 pm from Monday to Saturday, or 1:30pm and 3pm on Sundays.
Just head to the information desk at Astor Hall, which you’ll find just beyond the library’s 5th Ave. entrance.
Fair warning, the tours are limited to 15 people, so sign up early!
Local’s Tip: If you miss signing up for the tour, you can still go inside to check out the public library portion of the building.
How many of you have dreams of being on TV one day?
Well, now’s your chance to make that dream a reality by heading to The Today Show Plaza.
Just arrive early (around 6:15 am) to get a spot near the front and ideally with a corny sign if you want to catch the camera operator’s attention.
I’d check their performance schedule ahead of time, and plan on going whichever morning has the best show going on in the plaza.
Hanging out in Central Park will forever be one of my favorite free things to do in NYC.
It’s also really nice to grab an iced coffee and walk around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir, especially around sunset.
If you visit during the winter, don’t stress. Just put on your walking shoes, grab a hot beverage, and do a bit of exploring.
Either way, no trip to NYC is complete without a visit to this historic park.
If you’re looking for a killer view of the Manhattan skyline, and the Brooklyn Bridge, just head the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
This pedestrian walkway is built over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway near the East River shoreline.
It’s seriously stunning, especially in the summer with all the flowers in full bloom.
My favorite thing to do is go a bit
Local’s Tip: Take either the 2 or 3 train to Clark Street, then walk a short distance west. You’ll find entrances on Clark, Orange, Montague, Pineapple, and Remsen Streets.
Anyone who visits NYC and doesn’t check out Grand Central Terminal is nuts.
I still will occasionally detour through here just to gaze up at its historic starry ceiling.
The turn of the century architecture in this place is seriously magnificent!
After you check out the ceiling, head over to the Whispering Gallery for a bit of fun.
If you’re wondering what a Whispering Gallery is, here’s the lowdown.
The way some of the arches near the Oyster Bar were built lets sound travel clearly from one side to the other.
Try it, while you’re there, even the quietest whisper will be heard by the person on the other end, even over the loud sound of commuters.
I’m pretty sure every first-time tourist comes to New York dreaming of seeing the lights of Times Square, while every local or seasoned tourist does everything they can to avoid this chaotic tourist trap.
If you fall into the first category, you should absolutely take some time to stroll around Times Square at night.
You’ll be treated to some world-class people watching, not to mention the excitement of seeing a ton of flashing billboards.
If you fall into the second category, or happen to be claustrophobic, head to Times Square around midnight. It’s always less packed, plus you’ll get to have a bit of a special treat, known as the “Midnight Moment”.
The “Midnight Moment” is a cool lesser known daily event in the city, when from 11:57 until midnight, you’ll see all the billboards flashing digital artwork from around the world.
If you’re visiting during the summer, head down to Coney Island’s boardwalk for a day of people watching and beach time.
I try to visit this area at least once a summer with a big group of friends.
We normally all meet on the boardwalk, then head down to the beach to claim our spot for the afternoon.
Everyone brings drinks and snacks to keep it affordable, since the convenience stores around here are more expensive than most.
Once evening is rolling around, we head up to the amusement park to ride some rides and
In fact, I think it might be a crime to go and not at least enjoy an order of fries or an elephant ear.
You may not get to see the hit musical Hamilton for free, but you can check out his house without spending money on admission.
Just head uptown to Hamilton Grange National Memorial.
You’ll be able to check out the last home of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza, plus a stunning rose garden and the surrounding grounds.
Unfortunately, thanks to COVID, only the gardens are currently open to visitors. But keep an eye out for changes, as hopefully the free interior tours will open up again soon.
If you’re looking for a unique way to see the skyline, just head to Hudson River Park’s pier 26 for a free kayak rental.
Obviously, they’re only open when the weather is warm enough, so they are operational May through October.
They limit you to only 20 minutes out on the water, require you to wear a life vest, and to sign a waiver.
The program supplies a locker and a lock to store anything you don’t wish to take out on the water, as well as sunscreen, changing rooms, and first aid equipment.
Just wear (or bring) clothes you don’t mind getting wet in.
I have a big sweet tooth, so the second I heard Ample Hills was offering a free ice cream museum I had to go check it out.
Fair warning though, once you’ve checked it out, you’re absolutely going to want to splurge a bit and buy yourself a scoop or two of their ice cream.
They have 24 flavors and almost all their mix-ins are homemade!
When I was there, I was able to try a bunch of samples (free ice cream anyone?), but thanks to COVID, they aren’t currently offering any free samples.
If you’re on the fence about which flavor to buy, may I suggest my go-to order, “The Munchies”. It’s a pretzel infused ice cream that’s blended with M&M’s, potato chips, and Ritz crackers.
I know it sounds weird, but trust me, it’s out of this world!
The African Burial Ground National Monument may not be the most popular NYC museum, but it’s one everyone should check out at some point.
Even though it’s a fairly small museum, this place blew me away with its beautiful design and the amount of history.
It’s eye-opening to hear the stories of slavery and about what slaves in New York went through in the city’s early days.
Local’s Tip: Don’t forget to stop and pay your respects outside the museum. The burial ground, which is now listed as a National Historic Monument, was discovered in the early 1990s.
South Street Seaport is one of the oldest and most historical neighborhoods in Manhattan.
It’s a really cool place to walk around window shopping, and the perfect spot to catch the July 4th fireworks during the years they launch them from the East River.
You should also plan on swinging by the South Street Seaport Museum for free access to indoor galleries and outdoor historic ships.
When I was working downtown, one of my favorite spots to go relax was Washington Square Park.
There’s fantastic people watching since NYU is nearby, plus a ton of affordable food options nearby on MacDougal Street.
You’ll also likely recognize the iconic arch that sits on the corner of the park. They built it for the centennial of Washington’s inauguration.
Local’s Tip: If you’re hungry, head to Mamoun’s for some delicious falafel sandwiches. It’s cash only, but you’ll get a ton of food super cheap!
Chances are you’ve probably see The Oculus while scrolling through Instagram.
Its unique architecture makes it a favorite spot for tourists and photographers.
The mezzanine level also has tons of cool shops to check out if you want to indulge in a bit of shopping.
Since it’s also a major transportation hub, it’s a simple spot to get to and explore before hitting up other hotspots downtown.
While you’re downtown, don’t forget to pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial.
The two waterfalls are exactly where the Twin Towers stood, and around the edges you’ll see the names of all the people who lost their lives during the 1993 and 2001 attacks.
It’s a beautiful and somber spot to walk around, but an absolute must for everyone to experience.
If you’re wanting to explore more of its history, you can pay to visit the museum.
It’s absolutely worth the visit, but you’ll likely leave feeling pretty down.
Local’s Tip: If you’re there on 9/11, you’ll see two spotlights aimed into the air, giving the appearance of the two ghost towers.
When you think of New York City, you don’t really jump straight to thinking about the beach.
But you should, especially since there are a bunch of really nice beaches just a quick train ride away.
These are some spots my friends and I try to hit over the summer:
If you’re really into farming, or just want a break from the city, head to the Queens County Farm Museum.
It’s set on a historic farm that’s one of the oldest continually farmed spots in NY State.
You’ll see lots of cute animals, experience classes for children and adults, and even get the chance to take a hayride.
It’s free admission, except on special admission days, so just double check their events calendar before you head over.
Stop by the Brooklyn Brewery every Sunday between 1pm- 6pm to catch a free tour, leaving at the top of every hour.
You’ll learn all about how beer is made, plus a bit of beer history, and even hear a bit about the backstory of the brewery
If you’re really into beer and not around on a Sunday, you can opt to book a paid tour of their facilities. The other bonus is that you’ll score a tasting along with admission.
Want to check out a ton of gold for free?
Just head to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Gold Vault.
All the gold you’ll see there is stored on behalf of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and official international organizations.
They will typically offer tours during the weekday afternoons, unless it’s a bank holiday.
The tour is totally free, you just have to sign up ahead of time.
Also heads up, they require you to print out your tickets and bring a valid form of ID.
If you want to check out some legit NYC street art, head to The Bushwick Collective.
There are a few streets that make up the space, and they all showcase really impressive art from some of the most talented local and international street artists.
It’s also a fabulous spot to shoot some cool photos for Instagram.
Just take the L train to Jefferson St., then when you reach the intersection of Troutman St. and St. Nicholas Ave. you’ll see the murals. Just follow them whichever way your soul takes you.
Looking for something cool and free to do with kids?
Head over to Brooklyn’s Children’s Museum Thursdays between 2pm and 5pm to take advantage of Amazon Free Hours.
Your kids will love the live music, interactive play areas, and even rooftop skating on the “glice” (synthetic ice).
Fun Fact: The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is the first children’s museum to be established in the United States. It was founded in 1899!
Another one of my favorite summer activities is watching movies under the stars in Bryant Park.
My friends and I always try to catch at least one film there each summer. Though there was one year when I lived down the block that I caught almost every free movie that summer.
The only downside is that because it’s popular, the lawn gets crowded quickly.
I always aim to arrive at least an hour or more prior to the start of the movie and bring a blanket and picnic to enjoy before the film begins.
Each spot has its own day of the week that they always show them, so if one place doesn’t work for your schedule, check the others.
This one’s a bit unusual, but consider taking yourself on a subway art tour.
The city’s subway stations have some really cool artwork, especially the new Second Avenue Line.
It’s also especially outstanding for a rainy day in NYC since it’s mostly underground.
Below are some of my favorite stations with artwork:
Local’s Tip: Bring a camera and shoot some cute Instagram photos while you check out the art!
This little park at the edge of Manhattan is known for its views of Lady Liberty and Ellis Island.
Head downtown to take a walk with a view or chill out on a bench with a good book.
Fair warning if you have kids, the park also is home to its fairly famous Sea Glass Carousel.
It’s not free, and I can guarantee they’ll want to ride it. So plan to have a bit of cash on hand just in case.
Fun Fact: The park was recently renamed “The Battery”, but locals still default to calling it Battery Park.
NYC has no shortage of spectacular architecture to gaze at. So why not take yourself on a walking tour to check out all the iconic spots in the city.
Obviously, you won’t be able to get inside of every spot, but take a peek inside the places open to the public.
Check out the list below for some buildings you cannot miss.
Ever wonder what it would be like to be a part of a live studio audience?
Well, now’s your chance to find out.
A bunch of major shows film in New York City, and most offer free tickets via a lottery system to be a part of their studio audience.
Over my years in NYC I’ve been lucky enough to catch a few tapings, including SNL, The Late Show, and The Tonight Show. I can honestly say every experience has been really cool!
Just check the official web pages of these shows to find out how to enter:
Visiting NYC in the summer can be super hot and uncomfortable, but it’s also fabulous because that’s when you can catch a lot of the free outdoor events that happen around the city.
Multiple parks offer pretty epic concerts around this time, some of them are free, others charge.
But to be honest, if you really want to hear a park show, but can’t afford to pay, you can just sit outside the park’s theater to hear the show for free.
Thankfully, many parks have plenty of fantastic free line-ups over the summer, these are some of my favorite park schedules to keep an eye on:
After growing up attending Catholic school, I’ve had my fill of churches. At most, I can see one or maybe two an entire trip and be done.
But, if you’re really into churches or architecture, spending the day checking out NYC’s famous churches will be a blast.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to all the major ones around the city. These are the ones I was most impressed with:
General Grant’s Tomb is a seriously impressive and free historical spot to check out.
In fact, it’s one of the biggest mausoleums in North America.
This grand tomb holds both Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife Julia, and is open to the public for tours.
Don’t forget to check out the beautiful views of the Hudson River from nearby Riverside Park while you’re there.
Local’s Tip: Keep an eye on their events calendar during the summer for some free concerts and events.
Fashion lovers, get ready to be excited, because The Museum at FIT has free admission!
They have a permanent collection of over 50,000 garments, so you know any exhibit you see here will probably be cool.
My favorite part is that they always make sure each special exhibit covers 250 years of fashion history. I always learn at least a couple of new facts every time I swing by this place.
The only downside is, if you’re like me, you’re going to get a powerful impulse to shop after seeing all this fashion inspiration.
Everyone should walk the Brooklyn Bridge at least once, because it truly is an extraordinary experience.
I try to walk across it at least once or twice a year with a coffee in hand.
The views are absolutely stunning, not to mention all the history.
Keep an eye out for Lady Liberty in the distance!
Fun Fact: Did you know it was the first bridge to use steel for wire cables?
Full disclosure: this one is still on my to-do list, but I’ve heard great things from friends.
To be fair, The National Museum of the American Indian’s NY branch is downtown inside the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, so it’s kind of easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there.
You’ll be able to check out a range of special exhibits, plus dance and music performances, and even films that showcase the diversity of the Native Americans’ history and influence in the U.S.
Fun Fact: The main branch of The National Museum of the American Indian is in D.C.
Okay, this is a bit of a weird one, but it’s definitely something most of your friends, and most local NYers probably haven’t seen yet.
In fact, I hadn’t even heard of this place until I was researching cool, free things around the city for this post.
The New York Earth Room is an interior sculpture by Walter De Maria that’s been around since 1977.
Here’s where it really stands out. It basically is a loft filled with dirt.
It’s got fantastic Google Reviews, with one person saying it was actually relaxing being able to smell the soil.
It’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly a quirky option for those who like to do non-touristy things in NYC.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many museums in the city that are free for visitors, so when you find one,you better take advantage of it.
I’m embarrassed to admit, The Bronx Museum of the Arts is another spot I have yet to visit.
One of my friends used to live just around the corner from it and would be here at least once a month. She said she found it relaxing walking around looking at all the art.
It’s a smaller museum compared to some of the giant ones in the city, but it more than makes up for it if you’re into modern art.
You could easily spend at least an hour or two checking out all this place offers.
When I was in acting school on the UWS, one of my favorite things to do was to walk home past the AMC theater hoping to spy someone passing out flyers for a free movie screening.
I bet I’ve seen over 20 movies for free and before the public, and all I had to do was agree to not talk about the film before it was released and to occasionally fill out a questionnaire.
These days, everything is digital, so if you’re into free movies, check out Gofobo to find out more.
Just because NYC is a super expensive city, it doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune visiting.
I hope this guide helps you find the perfect activities to enjoy while in town.
Let me know in the comments below which activity you’re most looking forward to!
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