Although seeing New York for free might sound like an oxymoron, there are actually hundreds of free and nearly-free ways of experiencing the Big Apple. The best, of course, is to simply spend as much of your time as possible walking the streets above ground, remembering to look up as often as you can. Absorbing New York’s singular streetlife and architecture is the surest way of getting to grips with the place, and if you combine this with a thorough exploration of Central Park and a meander along the sensational High Line, you’ll soon feel like an almost-local.
For even more ways to keep your holiday budget under control, we’ve put together a handful of our favourite things to do in New York that won’t cost a dime…
Meet a Big Apple Greeter
There’s nothing better than a personal welcome, and if you request the services of one of New York’s 350-strong crowd of friendly and knowledgeable Big Apple Greeters, you’ll get a truly unique take on the city that never sleeps. This non-profit organisation matches visitors with enthusiastic New Yorkers who want nothing more than to share the city they love with families, couples, groups of friends or people travelling solo. A personalised visit around a particular NYC neighbourhood with a Greeter will leave you with local insights and a lasting impression that’d be hard to gain any other way, and not only is the service completely free, there’s even a no tipping policy.
Ride the Staten Island Ferry
The free Staten Island Ferry from lower Manhattan to Staten Island is a classic NYC experience, not to mention an excellent way to view the working waterfront of New York Harbour, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis and Governor’s Islands, Brooklyn Bridge and, of course, the famous skyline of Manhattan’s financial district. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every 30 minutes on the hour and half hour (less frequently between midnight and 6am). If you want to really experience the journey like a true New Yorker, hop on the ferry at rush hour for excellent people-watching and eavesdropping opportunities. It gets very chilly on deck (and even inside) so don’t forget to take some extra layers.
Staten Island Ferry, Whitehall Terminal, Whitehall and Water St, New York
Lucille’s Grill at the B.B. King Blues Club
Right in the heart of Times Square, the B.B. King Blues Club is a full service venue and restaurant playing host to some of the biggest names in blues, R&B, rock and soul, along with plenty of top quality tribute bands, open daily from 11am – 1am. If your budget can’t quite stretch to some of the big ticket artists then make a beeline for Lucille’s Grill, a separate bar and restaurant located inside B.B. King’s, named after B.B’s guitar. With no cover charge, you can listen to free live music from New York’s local jazz, blues and rock scene every day of the week – the show starts at 8pm every night.
Lucille’s Grill, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill, 237 West 42 Street, New York (Times Square)
Crawl the Chelsea Art Galleries
Loosely scattered throughout the West 20s streets, and roughly bordered by 10th and 11th avenues, Chelsea’s many art galleries make for an engrossing wander. This is a thoroughly walkable district of converted warehouses and lofts, renovated old stores and industrial workshops, brimming with pieces of contemporary art both beautiful and baffling. Cast aside any fears of being talked into buying a multi-thousand dollar masterpiece; viewings are all free and the pressure is off. Check out this handy map and guide for exact locations and specific upcoming exhibitions.
Chelsea art galleries, West 20th to 29th streets, between 10th and 11th Avenues – approximately.
Explore Grand Central Terminal
An exceptional example of Beaux-Arts architecture, a major NYC transportation hub, the best-known railway station in the United States, and tourist attraction par excellence: New York’s Grand Central Terminal is beloved by locals and visitors alike. To stand on the steps at either end of the cavernous main concourse, watching hundreds of individual stories play out below, is to witness New York in microcosm. Lift your head skywards to view the constellations of the extravagant gold and turquoise astronomical ceiling, restored to its original patina after a 12-year renovation. If you can find it, a single patch of grime was left behind to remind visitors of the state it was once in – just above the Michael Jordan Steakhouse. The official Grand Central self-guided walking tour will help you discover more of the famous building’s history.
Grand Central Terminal, 87 E 42nd Street, New York
The Mark Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Is it possible to eat for free in New York? Yes it is. Over the river in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Mark Bar is neither formal nor fancy, but a proper New York neighbourhood dive bar with a juke box, pinball machine, pool table and pac-man, along with its fair share of oddball characters, friendly locals and their dogs. Serving up plenty of speciality beers, ales and house cocktails at extremely reasonable prices during its day-long ‘happy hour’, the Mark Bar also serves free pizza every day after 6pm, and free filled bagels and coffee from noon on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Mark Bar, 1025 Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (Nearest subway: Greenpoint Ave)
Header photo © Sergey Rogovets | Dreamstime.com, and thanks to the following Flickr photographers – Staten Island Ferry © Bob Jagendorf, Chelsea art © tofer618, Grand Central © Nan Palermo, Lucille’s Grill © Chris Breeze.