While New York gets a bad reputation for being expensive, the truth is that, while it can be, there are tons of free and cheap things to do in NYC. As a local with an intense curiosity, I’m constantly stumbling upon new budget-friendly discoveries, which I share below with all of you.
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1. Subscribe To Newsletters
There are tons of free parties and events — that many times also include free food and drinks — going on in NYC at any given moment. You just need to know where to find them. Luckily, there are a slew of email newsletters you can subscribe to to be in the loop. Some of my favorites include The Skint, Nonsense NYC, The PrintUp List and Nifty NYC.
2. Visit Museums On Free Nights
Certain museums are always free to visit, such as the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Goethe House German Cultural Center and Guggenheim Museum Soho. Others NYC museums are free at certain times like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Saturdays 10am to noon) and the New Museum of Contemporary Art (Thursdays from 6pm to 8pm). Keep in mind, going at free times often means bigger crowds.
There are also museums that are pay-what-you-wish, like the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or very inexpensive like the City Reliquary ($5). The latter is quirky as hell, with rotating exhibits on local culture, show and tell events, and permanent artifacts ranging from rotting birthday cakes to old rat bones.
3. Let Your Camera Guide You
A fun and free way to explore NYC is through the lens of your camera. One of my favorite things to do is choose a random neighborhood, DSLR in hand, and wander without a plan. I always make awesome organic discoveries along the way.
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4. Know Where To Get Buzzed
Of course, the best time to go out for drinks is during happy hour, though it helps to also know of a few bars that are cheap to begin with. A few of my favorites:
- The Library (East Village): This dive bar near Upright Citizen’s Brigade (budget-friendly comedy club) features a punk rock-focused jukebox and dusty books as well as uber cheap drinks, especially from 4-8pm Monday through Friday when it’s buy-one-get-one-free. You’ll pay ~$6 for two drinks.
- The Late Late (East Village): They offer a $10 beer and burger special daily. Also their cocktails are phenomenal.
- Boobie Trap (Bushwick, Brooklyn): This boob-themed bar features board games, dangling roller skates, F*ck Yelp t-shirts for sale, shelves of dolls and other kitsch knick knacks. Food on the menu ranges from $2 to $7, plus there’s free candy. From noon to 8pm it’s happy hour with $4 beer, wines and well drinks.
- Pearl’s Social & Billy Club (Bushwick, Brooklyn): This chill bar is where jobless Bushwickians come to drink all day for cheap, with $6 beer and shot specials (all the time) and a happy hour from 2-8pm with $2 off drinks (so you’ll pay around $5).
- At The Wallace (Harlem): This place is tons of fun with arcade games, shuffle board, and giant Jenga and Connect 4, as well as tasty grilled cheeses, waffle fries and hot dogs. All food on the menu is $8 or less, and beer and wine starts at $4!
- Otto’s Tacos: Cheap tacos (~$3 each) and $2 beers.
- The Wayland (East Village): Monday through Friday from 4pm-7pm they serve really tasty $7 classic cocktails, $1 oysters and $4 beers.
- Dutch Kills (Long Island City, Queens): Sunday through Friday from 5pm to 7pm they offer $8 craft cocktails. While that might not seem uber cheap, this bar is affiliated with Milk + Honey staff, so you’re having what should really be a $16 cocktail for $8.
This list is in no way exhaustive. Head to any neighborhood and just wander to find your own delicious budget-friendly discoveries.
5. Know Where To Go For Architecture
For those wanting cheap things to do in NYC you can simply stroll great New York streets and photograph or admire their beauty, which costs nothing. A few recommendations for architecture nerds:
- The SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District (Manhattan)
- The Cobble Hill Historic District (Brooklyn)
- The West Village (Manhattan). Click here for a scenic walk itinerary.
- Ridgewood (Queens) is home to the Onderdonk House, touted as NYC’s oldest Dutch Colonial stone home, dating back to 1661. You can simply look at it from the outside for free, or visit on a Saturday from 1-5pm or Wednesday from 3-7pm to go inside ($3 suggested donation).
6. Enjoy Free/CheapSamples On Bleeker Street
In the West Village you’ll find Bleeker Street, a heaven for budget travelers, free sample lovers and those interested in budget-friendly bites. My recommendations:
- $1 arancini (rice balls) at Faicco’s Pork Store
- $5 or less pastries and hot beverages at Rocco’s
- Free tea samples at DAVIDsTEA
- Free chocolate samples at Royce Chocolate
- Free hand scrub treatment samples at Arianna Skincare
- Free cheese (and sometimes meat!) samples at Murray’s Cheese
- Free olive oil and balsamic samples at O&Co
- $1.50 bagel balls at Bantam Bagels
7. Download TodayTix (Or Go Beyond Broadway)
TodayTix is a must-download app if you’re interested in Broadway theater. The app lets you buy uber discounted tickets on last-minute unsold seats. For example, looking at the app as I write this I’m seeing shows for up to 50% off, with sample prices including $37 for Les Miserables, $25 for Bye Bye Birdie, $20 for Privacy, $35 for Fiddler on the Roof, $45 for Kinky Boots and $59 for The Color Purple.
There are also a ton of free and cheap theaters in NYC if you don’t mind skipping Broadway itself. A few suggestions:
- The Peoples Improv Theater (PIT): Comedy tickets are typically $0-$10. Plus they offer $20 drop-in improv classes!
- Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB): Comedy tickets are typically $0-$10.
- Theatre 80: Off-broadway tickets range, but I regularly see tickets for $10-$45.
- Cherry Lane Theatre: This historic off-Broadway theater regularly has shows for under $40.
- Bizarre Bar Bushwick: Typically you’ll give a $5 donation for their freak/bizarre shows and parties.
8. Ride The Subway
It may sound obvious, but there are many visitors who get freaked out by the subway (to the point where they’ll blow their vacation money on cabs instead of experiences!). The cost of a subway ride is $2.75 to go anywhere — New York City doesn’t charge based on zones. You can also purchase a weekly unlimited pass ($31) or monthly unlimited pass ($116.50). If you need help navigating the subway download CityMapper, an app that tells you exactly how to get from Point A to Point B, as well as which train cars and station exits will most efficiently get you where you need to go.
9. Check Park Calendars
Year-long our many parks offer free things to do in NYC, especially when it comes to events. For instance, Central Park hosts a slew of themed walking tours for $15, yoga classes with free mat rental for $15 and free concerts. For 100% free things to do I love Bryant Park, home to complimentary juggling lessons, open air films, book club meetings and literary lectures, table games and more. They try to cover a variety of cultures with their events, from games of petanque (French) to Tai Chi and Maj Jong (Chinese).
From June through August you’ll constantly find me at the Prospect Park Bandshell for Celebrate Brooklyn!, an annual summer festival with free performances of all kinds. For ticketed events my friends and I often have a picnic outside the fence of the concert so we can still enjoy the sounds and each others’ company for free.
Tip: If you can’t find any park events that interest you, there’s always a bottle of Prosecco and a picnic blanket with your name on it. For the cheapest deals head to Astor Wine & Spirits, where $6 bottles of wine are prevalent and actually tasty!Check out these local #secrets for exploring #NYC on the super #cheap! Click To Tweet
10. Drink All Night With First Call
First Call is a must-download app for anyone who enjoys a nice adult beverage. The app allows you to get your first drink free at 80+ bars around NYC. And you don’t even have to order a second. My friends and I all have the app and basically let it guide us for cheap nights out. It’s a subscription-based app that costs $25/month; however, you can use this link to get your first month for $5. Moreover, when you refer someone they get a month for $5 and so do you, so if each month you refer someone you can continue to use the app for $5.
11. Sleep Outside Manhattan
You don’t need to stay in Manhattan to enjoy the best of NYC! Brooklyn and Queens offer amazing experiences too, not to mention the subway costs just $2.75 per ride (or $31 per week unlimited) and runs all night, so you can easily get into Manhattan at any time. For example, I offer an AirBnB room in Brooklyn for less than $60 per night (and I offer a discount on my NYC tours to guests!).
CouchSurfing is another option, offering free accommodation no matter where you want to stay. Note though that you’ll likely be sleeping on someone’s couch, and they may want to spend time with you for a cultural exchange (sometimes this is the form of “payment” instead of cash).
12. Experience The Parks
I use the word “experience” for a very specific reason. Our major parks don’t just offer scenic greenspace and events like those mentioned above, but things to do like hiking, climbing, bird watching, museum visits, viewing al fresco exhibits, wandering gardens, rowing, riding carousels and more. A few to check out include Central Park, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Van Cortlandt Park. I also love Washington Square Park for watching buskers.
13. Know Where To Catch Great Views
I once wrote a guide to beautiful views beyond the Empire State Building, which mentions places like the Staten Island Ferry (free to ride and you get a view of the Statue of Liberty), Upstairs at the Kimberly (the Chrysler Building feels close enough to touch) and the Roosevelt Island Tram (simply swipe your MetroCard for a panoramic gondola ride over the sparkling East River). Another to note is Pod 39 Hotel, a budget-friendly pod hotel that features a 17th-story rooftop. Here you’ll be transported to Europe with terra cotta columns, sprawling ivy over brick walls, and brick arched widows and doorways. Moreover, you’ll take in views of the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, the Chrysler building and the East River.
14. Cruise The Waters, Complimentary
You don’t need to buy pricey tickets for a scenic sunset cruise. Instead, hop on the free-to-enjoy North River Lobster Co boat and simply pay for what you eat and drink. Sit on the top deck if the weather is warm. It’s open and you’ll be able to feel the breeze and work on your tan. Plus, the atmosphere on this level is very lively and social. The second level is also nice, with window-side tables and a raw bar.
15. Attend Events & Excursions At A Discount
Download the Goldstar app or visit the website to purchase last-minute unsold event tickets at a deep discount. Some discounted events I’m seeing on the site right now include a graffiti workshop for $35 (originally $70), a Bear Mountain cruise for $32.50 (originally $65) and a speakeasy Halloween cruise for $12.50 (originally $25).
16. Get Glam For Free
No need to pay outrageous prices for hair and beauty appointments in New York. Just go to SalonApprentice.com. How it works is licensed cosmetologists apprentice at local salons to gain hours and experience, allowing them to earn a beauty education beyond their Beauty School certification. This means you can experience highly-rated New York salons, get a professional haircut or treatment, and save a ton of money. Once in awhile I also see postings that give the “models” — that would be you — a small stipend for their time. These slots fill up quick but are worth a shot if you see them.
New York City also has a number of budget-friendly beauty bars to check out. One I love is Dermalogica, an affordable SoHo spot offering free face mapping at their Skin Bar as well as a range of $10 15-minute “touch therapies” like a firming contour masque and skin extractions.
What are your favorite cheap things to do in NYC? Please share in the comments below!
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