I remember over 40 years ago, as a kid, taking a bus from my hometown in central Pennsylvania to New York City. It was dirty. Filled with porno shops everywhere. And exciting as hell. Especially for a 15 year old from a rural area. We would see Broadway plays like Evita, Dancing, and A Chorus Line. We would eat street food. And as any 15 year old would do, would try to get into the porno shops. New York was big, busy and loud. Compared to the world where I grew up, the exact opposite.
Few cities in the world are as recognizable and iconic as New York City. It’s been featured in countless movies, TV shows, books, and everything else in between. So much so that even if you’ve never been there you can probably name a few of the monuments and buildings that are known in the city.
New York is one of the world’s most visited cities with people coming in from all over the world to take in its sights and do some quintessentially “New York” things. And with its already sizable population of over 8 million people, it is the largest city in America. New York is divided into 5 boroughs and each one has its own culture. Within the boroughs are neighborhoods some of which vary in size from a few miles to a couple of blocks giving certain parts of the city a distinct micro-culture and oftentimes where you live and where you work tells people about who you are as a person. New York City is vast which can make it a little intimidating and it can also get pretty pricey depending on what you want to do. So whether you’re a tourist on a budget or a local looking for something cheap to do, check out some of these free (or almost free) things to do in New York City.
Go for a stroll on The High Line
New York City might be known as a sort of concrete jungle with a few green spaces (outside of Central Park) but the relatively new High Line park serves as a good example of a city that can adapt and reuse old structures for new and modern purposes. Located perched up on top of an almost 2 mile stretch of abandoned rail track, the space is now a park complete with flowers, planted trees, and wooden benches. Although located in a more industrial part of the West Side the park still brings in tons of people who are clamoring for views of the Hudson River and the dazzling sunsets.
The best time to go is in the summer months when the local flowers and plants are in bloom and the people are out. The park is filled with sculptures and art from local artists and you can often find things to do like dancing lessons, stargazing and just do some people watching.
Saturdays at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
Located in Brooklyn (obviously) the Brooklyn Museum of Art always operates on an admission-by-donation basis so it is already a pretty affordable option but on the first Saturday of every month, admission to the museum is free and they often have special exhibits to check out at that time as well. Take in workshops or gallery tours or simply just wander through the halls at your own pace. The Brooklyn Museum of Art is one of New York’s premier art institutions and has collections of Egyptian, African, and Oceanic artifacts as well as works from local artists and an entire section devoted to feminist art.
Tour the Brooklyn Brewery
While you’re in Brooklyn check out the Brooklyn Brewery. Offering free tours every half hour on the weekends you can see where Brooklyn Beer gets made from hops to subs. The brewery is in every hip Williamsburg area of Brooklyn and while the tour is the beer unfortunately is not. If you wish to sample some of the ware, you need to purchase little tokens, which are pretty affordable so you’re not going to be breaking the bank anyway. The tours are limited to 40 people per tour and lineups start pretty early and can get long, especially on nice days.
Check out the African Burial Ground
While a little more on the esoteric side of things to see, the African Burial is an important part of the history of the United States that shouldn’t be overlooked. Being described as “the most important historic urban archaeological project in the United States” the site was discovered in 1991 when construction workers began digging in the ground at the Ted Weiss Federal Building.
Slavery was introduced in the New York area in 1625 when it was under the control of the Dutch West India Trading Company. In 1664 when the English took over and New Amsterdam became New York, the burial of the city’s dead fell under the jurisdiction of Trinity Church but African slaves couldn’t be buried within the city limits so many were buried here in the 1600s and 1700s. An estimated area of six acres and 20,000 bodies are said to be buried here. Today the site is a National Historic Landmark and National Monument sitting at 290 Broadway between Duane & Elk Street.
Watch Performances of Shakespeare at Shakespeare in the Park
The acclaimed tradition of bringing the works of William Shakespeare to life happens on a yearly basis in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. Free tickets to the event are given away via lottery or in person if you manage to get in life early enough. Whether or not you’re familiar with Shakespeare the tickets to Shakespeare in the Park plays are pretty coveted as there are always pretty famous celebrities reprising the roles of various Shakespeare characters. Notable names include Al Pacino as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, John Lithgow as King Lear, and Meryl Streep in The Taming of the Shrew.
Explore the world of Street Art with Bushwick Collective
Rivaling anything you might see in a museum the Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn aims to bring the wild and amazingly colorful world of street art to the people. The Bushwick Collective operates as a sort of unofficial graffiti museum that is so popular it brings in artists and professional graffiti masters from around the world to paint. The art spans several city blocks and is all temporary so catch a glimpse of it while you can. The idea operates similar to a museum but instead of walking through halls you will walk through the streets, and the art might be gone forever the next day.
Do some Yoga at Prospect Park
New York City is a sprawling urban jungle that is at a constant hustle and bustle at any moment’s notice. So why not unwind with the ancient ritual of yoga to clear your mind a little. Nestled in the city is the cloistered and green Prospect Park. While the park hosts a wide variety of fun activities, the evening yoga ritual during the summer months is a great way to do some yoga with other New Yorkers and maybe even make a few new friends along the way. You don’t really need any experience but you will have to fill out a waiver beforehand. The free prospect park yoga runs every Thursday evening from 7 pm starting in June until the end of August on Long Meadow.
Catch a live taping of Saturday Night Live
Among many iconic New York shows like Seinfeld and Friends, Saturday Night Live is a staple in the world of television and has won over 71 Emmys, 2 Peabody Awards, and is number 10 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Running strong at just under 1000 episodes Saturday Night Live has been at home at studio 8H at NBC studios at Rockefeller Plaza since 1975.
In case anyone has been living under a rock, SNL is a live sketch show often parodying pop-culture and is hosted by a new celebrity host every week. Because of its enormous popularity, getting tickets is pretty hard and coveted and given out via an online lottery that is hosted only once a year. There are standby tickets available but you’ll have to wait outside 30 Rockefeller Plaza well before 7 am if you want a shot at those. So it’s not a guarantee that you will be able to get tickets, but they are free.
Take a Tour of Colonial America at Federal Hall
For the history lovers and colonial-era America enthusiasts, head to Federal Hall for a taste of old America right in the heart of the city. The Federal Hall historic building has been sitting at 26 Wall Street since 1703 with its current Greek-Revival style iteration being there since 1842. Despite not being a park it is operated by the National Park Service and is a national memorial. So you might be asking why is it important? Well, it was here that the Stamp Act Congress drafted its letter to King George III asking for Americans to have the same right as the British giving way to the infamous protest slogan of “no taxation without representation”. After the Revolutionary War, it was on the balcony here in 1789 that George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States.
Today guests can take a tour of the building and learn all about New York’s colonial-era history as well as even see the bible that Washington swore on as he took the oath of office.
Spend the day at Central Park
This might not be the brilliant travel tip that people would expect to see as it is a pretty obvious thing to check out while you’re in New York City but the thing about Central Park is that it is so massive and eclectic that there is almost always a myriad of things to do here. The park is recognized as a national historic landmark and is the most visited park in the country with over 38 million visitors coming here annually. The park was completed in 1876 though construction began in 1857 and a majority-Black settlement named Seneca Village was razed to make room for the park’s construction.
The park has a host of cool things to do and check out like the Ramble and Lake, the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, or paid attractions like the Central Park Zoo and Wollman Rink. You can also find the spots filmed in your favorite movies or TV shows or check out the popular “Imagine” mosaic in Strawberry Fields, located in the park and nearby where John Lennon was shot.
Watch Movies Under the Stars
A popular summer pastime that just so happens to be free, the free movies in the park phenomenon is happening all around the world and New York is no exception. The tradition started in 1992 when HBO started showing films in Bryant Park and now over 20 years later the summertime tradition continues in parks all across the city. Take in recent Blockbuster, action flicks, indie movies, classic cinema, and foreign favorites all for the low, low price of free. Just pack a blanket, some snacks and you’re ready for a movie night under the stars. Bryant Park, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 63, and Coney Island are popular summertime movie destinations.
Say goodbye to $20 cocktails and overpriced nonsense from stores and attractions geared towards tourists. Though New York may be a little bit on the expensive side at times there is also a multitude of things visitors and even locals can do for free or at the very least, very cheaply. Experience New York things that will make you feel more at home and understanding about the city that you can’t experience by spending all your time at Times Square. So get out there, experience the art and culture and landmarks that make New York City the iconic destination that it truly is.
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