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15 Free Things to Do in New York City

Heading to the Big Apple on a tiny budget? This guide to the best free things to do in NYC will put you in a New York state of mind.

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New York skyline at sunset, USA.TTstudio/shutterstock

Free things to do in New York City

Sometimes, breathing air seems like the only free activity one can do in the Big Apple—it’s certainly not one of the cheapest destinations south of the border. Luckily, you can now take a bite out of these free things to do in New York City and experience the best the city has to offer (without blowing your budget).

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HDR picture of Japanese Garden in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York City, U.S.A.R.A.R. de Bruijn Holding BV/Shutterstock

Thain Family Forest

Hidden within the reaches of the New York Botanical Garden, this is the largest stretch of uncut, original forest in New York. For free admission, make sure to get there on a Saturday morning or on Wednesday to saunter through the old-growth trees.

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Brooklyn Bridge, New York City, nobodyTTstudio/Shutterstock

Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge

A typical NYC tour, with all of the must-see monuments, entails walking about 22 kilometres, so why not make it a picturesque one? The pedestrian walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge is just over a mile and brings you straight into Dumbo, home of cobblestone streets and astonishing views of the Manhattan skyline.

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High Line Park in New York City.Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Walk the High Line

This was originally an old freight line to deliver food to lower Manhattan, until Friends of the High Line, a non-profit restoration group, transformed the decrepit rusting lines into a 2.3-kilometre greenway. The meandering rows of flowering trees and reclined seats invite you to relax in this unique space. Juxtaposed against one of the 500+ species of plants and trees, you can spot the glimmering New Jersey skyline. For maximum High Line vibes, this hot spot is best to visit at sunset, when the warm hues reflect in the skyscraper windows.

Did you know that Chicago has its own version of the High Line? Cycling the 606 is one of the best things to do in Chicago.

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Grand Central TerminalLuboslav Tiles/shutterstock

Grand Central Terminal

With 750,000 daily visitors, you can feel like a star in your own movie just by walking through the beehive-like transportation hub. In addition to just gawking at the teal constellation ceiling painting, there are plenty of other secrets within Grand Central Terminal to discover. These free things to do in New York include the whispering gallery, where even the faintest of words can be heard in the opposing corner by speaking directly into one of the corners. Hint: You know you’ve found it when you smell oysters.

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Usa Weather Heat WaveAndrew Gombert/EPA/Shutterstock

Swim in Astoria Pool

Directly under the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge is one of the largest pools in the United States. Join hundreds of other visitors and cool off in the sweltering summer heat at Astoria Pool in Queens. Or revel in the fact that you’re swimming in the same structure that housed the 1936 and 1964 Summer Olympic Trials.

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Staten Island FerryChristopher Penler/shutterstock

Staten Island Ferry

Let the wind whip through your hair as you soak up the panoramic view of the best sights the city has to offer on the Staten Island Ferry. In just 25 minutes, you’re guaranteed to see the Lower Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty—for free!

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Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital RuinsEdi Chen/shutterstock

Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital

The 1850s was a time of gothic architecture and degenerating disease. Smallpox-ridden patients were sent to the secluded hospital, accessible by subway, on the tip of Roosevelt Island, far from the rest of the healthy population. It was in use until 1875 and was turned into a city landmark exactly a century later. For optimal spooky sights, visit at dusk.

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People are waiting to see a movie in Union Square in summer, New York City.Massimo Salesi/shutterstock

Outdoor movies

New York City parks bring the screen set-up and you bring the blanket. During the summer, movie genres of any kind, including noir, comedy, action, romance, and sci-fi, are shown at outdoor movie locations across a plethora of parks. After a long day of sightseeing, this free activity is perfect for cozying up with a friend, or bring your family.

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Ice skaters on Citi PondlittlenySTOCK/shutterstock

Ice skating at Bryant Park

The only free ice skating rink in New York City, The Rink at Bryant Park, also boasts views of the dazzling skyline. If you read past the fine print, though, you’ll notice that skate rentals cost $20, something to keep in mind for the frugal traveller. Bryant Park is a quaint alternative to the more televised Rockefeller Center.

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People participating in the free publicPri Ma/shutterstock

Outdoor yoga

Stretch and unleash city stress at Bryant Park or Socrates Sculpture Park at free yoga sessions than run through the warmer summer months. Hop on your own yoga mat or arrive early to reserve one for free to join the rows of down-dogging people.

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Memorial at World Trade Centeranderm/shutterstock

9/11 memorial

If you’re meandering around the Financial District, you’re bound to come across the 9/11 memorial. This design features two acre-sized pools where the towers once stood, and the names of the people who died are engraved into bronze panels along the sides. It’s a somber yet important experience to memorialize.

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Hamilton Grange National Memorialquiggyt4/shutterstock

Alexander Hamilton Harlem Estate

It’s an art gallery of its own: The Hamilton Grange in Harlem catapults you into the past with its elaborate period rooms filled with time-correct furniture. See the pastoral setting that the Founding Father would have created as his gardening hobby.

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Comedian Horatio Sanzstock_photo_world/shutterstock

Comedy shows

If you thought street vendors were bad, try getting past a comedian trying to lure you into their free show. A walk around the East Village during the evening will typically get you invited to a budding comedians show, like at the East Village Comedy Club. Some of these comedians will make you want to stand up and leave, but others will have you out of your seat in a fit of laughter.

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performs1000 Words/shutterstock

People watching

This is a free activity that you can do literally anywhere. But one of the more interesting spots to do so is Washington Square Park. Here’s a breakdown of what to expect: Skateboarders occupy the southern part of the park, kick-flipping over the traffic cones they stack in the middle. Walk straight towards the fountain and you’ll see “the crazy piano guy” passionately playing his grand piano that he transported and assembles daily. Come afternoon time, the park poets come alive with their on-the-spot poems (although there’s typically a suggested donation).

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BTS performs on 'Good Morning America'JStone/shutterstock


NYC is the only place where you’ll be able to see headliner artist after headliner artist—for free. SummerStage, a City Parks Foundation, puts on an outdoor concert every night in parks across the city where 200 artists performed in the summer of 2019. If the crowds in the small venue become too much, there’s a lush lawn right outside of the gates that’s perfect for boogying or laying down to let the sound roll over you.

Next, check out the movie buff’s guide to New York City filming locations.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest