Free (or Nearly Free) Things to Do in the City

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It’s been an expensive year, and I’m not making a ton of money at present. Sucks to suck. But New York is as amazing as ever, so as of late I’ve been taking advantage of a lot of the City’s low-priced attractions—and there are many, contrary to the ridiculous cost of living. From dollar pizza to free museums, here are my favorite things to do in New York for under $10–

Hang around Tribeca and Dumbo, with a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.

This would probably be my number one recommendation for people visiting New York for a short time, as well as locals and those on longer trips (IMO, a perfect day out in the City). In Tribeca, you can hit a number of free or cheap tourist destinations, but also get a taste of “real” New York––that is, it’s not Midtown. You get some of Manhattan, some of Brooklyn, and can easily do it for next to no cost. Start at the World Trade Center (the 123 train line is most convenient to it, at the Chambers Street stop); while it is $32 to go up to the top of the Freedom Tower, the 9/11 Memorial is breathtaking and incredibly moving, and is absolutely a standalone attraction that costs nothing. It’s built around the original imprints of both towers at Ground Zero, featuring the names of all victims engraved around the massive reservoir in the middle. Absolutely beautiful.

Nearby is the Oculus––there are a bunch of shops and counter service restaurants, but even without spending money, the awe-inspiring and incredibly Instagrammable building itself is well worth a visit. Nearby Battery Park is perfect for picnicking and people watching. Definitely one of my favorite places to sit and write on nice days. South Street Seaport is also in the area, and usually my last stop in Manhattan before heading towards the Brooklyn Bridge on a day from Tribeca to Dumbo. It feels a little like Boston to me––historical, seafaring, and perpetually summery. There are a ton of shops and restaurants here, as well as landscaped waterside areas perfect for sunbathing and taking in the sights, including the old fashioned ships permanently docked at the Seaport. They also offer free tours of the ships on weekends too. From there, make your way to the bridge––there are signs everywhere.

The Oculus
Brooklyn Bridge

Walking the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the first things I did after moving to New York, and it’s become kind of a tradition with myself to mark the start of summer. Note that this entire “day plan” involves what amounts to a good few miles of walking. Obviously you can pick and choose and don’t have to do the whole thing, but if you’re going the whole route, there is a bit of distance between the various attractions even though they are in the same area, and it can easily be a full day plan––it cannot easily be done before lunchtime. After crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, you’ll end up in Dumbo, by the Brooklyn Waterfront, which offers one of the most beautiful views of Manhattan you’ll find. Great sunsets, and plenty of affordable dining to end the day (sometimes I’ll just go with ice cream for dinner at Oddfellows).

Oddfellows Ice Cream
(Tons of weird flavors, like olive oil, most of which are surprisingly very good.)
Washington Street Dumbo bridge
Very popular spot for Instagrammers, located along Washington Street in Dumbo.

Visit Governors Island.

Another great downtown option. You might consider spending the morning in Tribeca and take the afternoon on the island. Ferry is $3 round trip, free on weekends. It’s essentially a massive green space, only a few hundred meters off Manhattan but at the same time, another world. If it weren’t for the absolutely gorgeous view of the skyline, you’d think you were nowhere near the City. I’ve written a detailed guide, but in quick summary––there are play areas for kids, go-carts, food trucks, art installations, and frequent events held on the island. It’s very easy to spend an entire day here for $15 or less––ferry ride, picnic lunch, and something cheap from one of the many food carts for dinner. Perfect spring day kinda in the City.

Governors Island

Rent a kayak for free at the Downtown Boathouse.

This one isn’t coming back until May, as it’s a seasonal thing, but a great option for summer. Last one in the vicinity of FiDi and Tribeca, promise. There’s just a lot of good low-cost stuff to do down there. Great add-on to a day in Lower Manhattan. You do have to come back in twenty minutes, so you won’t be out on the water for hours or anything. But kayaking in the Hudson is an amazing way to spend a little time, especially on a sunny day. Located on Pier 26.

Downtown Boathouse free kayaking

Go to a pay-as-you-wish museum or take advantage of special hours.

There are so many options here. Many museums in the city have “suggested donations”––essentially, free museums if you’re ballsy enough (as I am) to make a counter-offer of zero dollars (or a couple bucks if you want to make it less awkward…they don’t make a big thing of it either way). The Museum of Natural History is like this, as is the Met if you live in the tri-state area. Other museums have special times that offer free admission. The Museum of Modern Art has first Fridays of the month free, 4-8PM. The Brooklyn Museum is pay-as-you-wish and also has free hours, first Saturdays from 5-11PM certain months of the year. I’ll be going sometime soon, because there’s currently an exhibit on Andy Warhol, who I find absolutely fascinating—the exhibit focuses on his Catholic upbringing with regard to his art and personal identity. Sounds super cool. Also check out the new (free!) rare artifacts exhibit at the main Fifth Ave New York Public Library.

Take a day trip to Brighton Beach or Coney Island.

My old neighborhood! Lived here in my early twenties and hated it…but that was because I was a stupid complainy *youngster* and the commute was realllllly long to Manhattan, which in no way makes it a less viable day trip destination. The whole area is actually pretty awesome, and pretty quirky in various ways. Bottom line, you have free access to an awesome beach, boardwalk with a ton of delicious and cheap food, including the classic Nathan’s Hot Dogs, with Luna Park nearby should you decide you want to spend a little more. But you can do Coney Island and only spend the $5.50 round trip subway fare (or gas money if you’re driving). There are fireworks in the summer on Friday nights, and a pier jutting out into the water that’s perfect for sitting and talking. Very romantic, in a kinda wild, summer in New York way. As far as well-priced food on the Riegelmann Boardwalk, I recommend Ruby’s––low-key bar and grill with classic beach eats and carnival food. Brighton Beach is another entity if not entirely; it’s just down the boardwalk from Coney Island, and the neighborhood is home to a huge number of Russian immigrants, especially of the older generations, earning it the nickname “Little Odessa”. Living there felt like living in another country––from the fish markets to signage in Cyrillic lettering, and old men covered in oil, sunbathing in speedos. It’s an incredibly unique environment, and an attraction in itself as far as being a cultural enclave. But it also offers the same beach as Coney Island with half the crowds. If you’re not going to Luna Park (the primary amusement park in Coney, home of the Cyclone), it might be best to spend the day in Brighton Beach instead.

Coney Island pier
The Coney Island pier

Go on a self-guided affordable food tour.

This is a pretty limitless option. There are literally thousands of cheap places to eat in the City, so take your pick. You might want to plot out a handful of spots in a given area then get something little at each one. Being a big fan of good food who’s bad with money and often short on cash, I have a long list of favorite affordable meals in NYC––and I mean really affordable. Here’s two posts I’ve done on cheap food in New York, all under $10, and mostly under $5. I recommend the East Village and Lower East Side for cheap food tours. There are so many classics to be found.

Scarr’s Pizza Lower East Side New York
Scarr’s Pizza on the LES—one of the best!

Get a small plate at Smorgasburg and eat on the Williamsburg waterfront.

If you don’t feel like going to the trouble of making a list of cheap restaurants and scouting them all out, the famous Smorgasburg food fair near McCarren Park could be a good option. They’ve recently reopened after closure during COVID, and are quickly getting back into the swing of things. Vendors change constantly, and run the gamut from savory to sweet to boozy. There are a ton of options for well-priced, small plates. To be totally honest, while you can easily go here and get a single item for $5 and call it a day, that doesn’t usually happen. It’s more likely you’ll spend $15-20 trying different things, because the cheaper items usually aren’t large, and everything is so visibly delicious. If you are trying to stay super frugal, eat before you go, get something small, then go sit by the waterfront with it. For more ideas as to what to do in Williamsburg, check out this post.

Smorgasburg Williamsburg
Holy shit. 🫢

Head to Washington Square Park for a true *experience*.

Every major New York park has its own energy and set of activities. Washington Square Park is, in my opinion, the only other than Central Park that’s truly its own world. And I like it much better than “The” Park. Always gonna be a downtown girl. Also I went to NYU so it was basically my quad. So many memories. From swimming in the fountain while covered in color powder after a Holi festival to spending like $40 on special brownies with almost no marijuana in them (thank God for quality controlled legal weed), to studying to the soundtrack of the rain-or-shine street musicians who have graced the park for the past several decades. Washington Square Park is just so incredibly alive, and light…which is funny because there are thousands of bodies buried beneath it. I’ve been on many a New York ghost tour, and they always come through WSP. But it’s not creepy in the least. There’s the massive central fountain, which to my knowledge people do still swim in whether or not you’re technically allowed post-COVID, and a few solid playgrounds. Plenty of picnic space. But these things aren’t what make Washington Square Park a must-do. It’s the people––vendors of all kinds selling homemade this and that, fortune tellers, protesters, people playing weird instruments you’ve never seen before, food carts, living statues, poets who will write a poem for you on the spot, pigeons and people who have tamed them, NYU dudebros playing frisbee (lots of NYU students in general), genuine actual uncategorizable weirdos…you’ll not only find every kind of person here, but a wide variety of things to do that changes by the day. Rain or shine, New Yorkers do their thing, and many of them choose to do it here. Went to Washington Square the day after Trump lost, and it was beautiful––an all-out party, showcasing everything wonderful about New York. If you’re still feeling energetic when night falls and want to keep the day going without breaking the bank, I recommend heading to one of the relatively few true dives left in Manhattan, many of them in the East Village (I’m partial to the Double Down Saloon).

Washington Square Park arch New York

Gallery hop on Thursday nights.

Well known in some circles, but not something many automatically think to do when in New York. But this is one of the best “cheap night out” options because of what comes with the art. Art galleries, particularly in Chelsea on Thursday nights, often hold openings that are not only free to the public, but offer free wine and snack food. If you go to a few, you can do your eating and drinking for the night without spending any money. It’s definitely possible to find exhibitions with a Google search, but I recommend the See Saw app. Makes it a lot simpler to plan your Thursday night route.

Even in the most expensive city in the world, it is possible to have fun without spending a ton. Personally, my favorite cheap activity is just walking around on a nice day. Stop in at a cafe for a snack and coffee, then more exploration. Seven years in this city and I discover more of it every day.