Free and Dirt-Cheap Things to Do in New York City

Ice skating in New York City's Central Park Tomás Fano / Flickr

Seeing the sights in New York is often just a matter of turning the corner. Brass bands wailing at Chinatown street funerals, the latest fashions parading down the catwalk that is Bleecker Street, the animated holiday window displays at department stores—you won’t pay a penny for any of it. Some museums don't charge admission, either. Here are some of the best free—or nearly free—ways to savor the Big Apple.

Pictured: Ice skating in Central Park is free—but you have to bring your own skates.

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View of the Roosevelt Island Tram Jay s Park/Flickr Photographer/Flickr

Roosevelt Island residents who ride the tram to and from Manhattan every day are privy to one of NYC’s best-kept secrets: The view from the tram is awe-inspiring. Look down the East River during the 4-minute ride, and you’ll see four bridges (Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn). On Roosevelt Island, explore serene Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Designed by acclaimed architect Louis Kahn, the park was commissioned in 1973 by then-mayor John Lindsay. Soon after the announcement, Kahn died unexpectedly, New York went bankrupt, and the park became a pipe dream. But the dream became a reality 39 years later, when the memorial finally opened in October 2012. It features a 1,050-pound bronze bust of Roosevelt by sculptor Jo Davidson.

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Smorgasburg food fest in Brooklyn Steven Pisano / Flickr

The city is blessed with hundreds of these each year, from the Dance Parade (pictured) in May—when thousands of people boogie through the streets—to weekend food fests such as Smorgasburg, happening in the warm weather months in Brooklyn. Arguably the most iconic summer events are Shakespeare in the Park in Central Park and New York Philharmonic's evening concerts in parks around the city.

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Main reading room at the New York Public Library Shayna Marchese

This magnificent Beaux Arts building (476 5th Ave.) has permanent and temporary exhibitions, an excellent free film about the storied collection, plus a nice gift shop in the lobby.

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Shoes on display at the Paris, Capital of Fashion exhibition at Museum at FIT Museum at FIT

That would be the Fashion Institute of Technology (you’ve seen it on Project Runway). This surprisingly erudite museum (227 W. 27th St.) never charges an entrance fee and covers topics that merge sociology and fashion—like uniforms through the ages or how denim went from workmen’s wear to high fashion.

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Exterior of Mmuseumm Alexkalman [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Take one abandoned elevator shaft, four documentary filmmakers/curators, and lots of dinner-plate-sized (or smaller) contemporary artifacts from around the world, and you get a fascinating, quirky mini museum that explores what it means to be human today. Located at 4 Cortlandt Alley in Lower Manhattan, the place is only open when the weather is warm, as there’s no way to keep out the elements.

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Corner exterior of Federal Reserve Bank epicharmus

Given that this urban fortress (33 Liberty St.) has $90 billion stored inside, you’d think it would be closed to the public. But no, there are compelling free tours, covering the history of the Fed and its security measures. The highlight: a visit to the gold vault, 50 feet below ground. Advance reservations required.

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Staten Island Ferry in front of the cityscape Henning Klokkeråsen / Flickr

This free, 25-minute ride provides an up-close look at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island as you drift past those monuments in New York Harbor.

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Dinosaur exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History Marley White/NYC & Company

Though contemporary visitors may know it best from the Night at the Museum movies, this iconic institution (Central Park West and 79th St.) has been at the forefront of science, anthropology, and paleontology since it debuted in 1869. It’s one of the largest museums on the planet, housing a world-class dinosaur collection and interactive exhibits that kids will love. Best of all: Admission is “pay what you will,” meaning you could get in for as little as a penny.

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View of the African Burial Ground National Monument Alden Gewirtz

Discovered by accident during the construction of a skyscraper, this is the largest and oldest known graveyard for African Americans in the United States. A superb small museum at 290 Broadway reveals what’s known about the men and women interred here and the horrific conditions they endured under slavery. Admission to both the memorial and museum is free.

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Welcome to the largest Catholic cathedral in America. A free app you can download online will introduce you to the church’s history and architecture, including tidbits like this one: When the spires were added in 1888, St. Pat’s (located on 5th Ave. between 50th and 51st Sts.) became the tallest building in New York City and the second tallest in the United States.

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Vessel at Hudson Yards Stefan Kemmerling [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Instagram heaven. It’s impossible to take a bad photo when you climb this 10-story basket-shaped folly, the centerpiece of the Hudson Yards megadevelopment on the west side of Manhattan. Every image you snap will be framed by the geometric web of the building. There’s no charge for entry, but you will need tickets. Some are given out on site, but to avoid disappointment, head to the website to get a timed ticket in advance.

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Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City Ben Duchac on Unsplash

New York has 28,000 acres of public parks. Not only are they green and lovely, but many were innovative when they debuted. Central Park’s famed architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted crafted varied landscapes to address social issues of the day (hence the Dairy building, with actual cows to provide milk to poor children, and the Mall, meant as a place where people of all social classes could promenade together). The High Line—another wildly popular Manhattan green space—was created as a way to reclaim long-unused elevated railway tracks. Also worth visiting: Prospect Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park (pictured), Washington Square Park, Domino Park, and Hudson River Park.

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"Saturday Night Live" cast photo Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC

It’s free—but not easy—to attend the tapings of New York–based shows such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Myers, Saturday Night Live (pictured), Live with Kelly and Ryan, and The View. The catch is ordering tickets well in advance. Check the “ticket request” section on each show’s website. For a full list of shows taping in the city, go to NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism agency.

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