21 best free things to do in New York City

New York City evokes both high-rise luxury and savvy deals. But the best offer in town? The number of free attractions the Big Apple has to enjoy.

You could spend a lifetime here ticking off the best things to do – but have you seen the rental prices? It’s better to squeeze in a concert, museum or tour that’s absolutely free.

Want to make the most of your dollars? Save our guide to visiting New York City on a budget.

1. See one of the world’s loveliest final-resting places at Green-Wood Cemetery

Once the nation’s most visited tourist attraction outside Niagara Falls, the gorgeous Green-Wood Cemetery was built in 1838 and today is the eternal home to some 600,000 souls. The 478-acre cemetery is leafy and lovely and features Brooklyn’s highest point, Battle Hill – named after a skirmish during the Revolutionary War and now marked with a seven-foot statue of the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva.

Planning tip: Watch for the squawking green parakeets at the cemetery’s Gothic-style entrance pavilion; according to local legend, these non-native birds arrived after a mishap at JFK Airport in the 1980s and have called the cemetery home ever since.

2. Visit the moving African Burial Ground National Monument

In 1991, construction workers uncovered a burial ground filled with more than 400 caskets containing the bodies of enslaved Africans from the 17th and 18th centuries – an age when New York had more people in bondage than any American city outside Charleston, South Carolina. Today, tucked among downtown skyscrapers, the African Burial Ground National Monument offers a space for visitors to contemplate the past and learn about the history of the African American community in early New York City.

3. Discover unsung talent at the American Folk Art Museum

With objects ranging from photographs and quilts to weather vanes in its collection, the American Folk Art Museum is devoted to the appreciation and expressions of self-taught artists, spanning all eras. And perhaps appropriately for an institution devoted to the work of creators from outside the canon, admission is always free.

Keep museum-hopping at these institutions and galleries in NYC.

A jazz band playing on stage at St Nick’s Jazz Pub, a former jazz club in New York.
Seeing live jazz is an essential New York experience for music lovers © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

4. Hear sizzling live jazz at Barbès

Having helped to launch the careers of legendary jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, New York City’s club scene is enshrined into the pages of jazz history, and seeing a live show here is an essential NYC experience for music lovers. Iconic venues like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note may be way out of your price range, but head across the bridge to Barbès in Brooklyn, and you can enjoy stellar nightly performances for free (tips for the band are always greatly appreciated).

5. Pay your respects at Grant’s Tomb

This imposing granite structure holds the remains of the Civil War hero and 18th president and his wife, Julia. Built after a major fundraising campaign in the late 19th century, the General Ulysses S Grant National Memorial is the largest mausoleum in the USA and was inspired by Mausolus’ tomb at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

 Internal view of the "Impact: Fifty Years of CFDA" Exhibition Press Preview at The Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology
The Museum at FIT is free, but it’s closed on Monday and Tuesday © Fernando Leon / Getty Images

6. See haute stuff at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum

It’s always Fashion Week at the FIT Museum, which features rotating exhibits by students and engaging exhibitions that draw on a collection of 50,000 garments dating from the 18th century to the present.

7. Admire the Bushwick Collective’s curated street art in Brooklyn

Curated by Bushwick native Joe Ficalora, the Bushwick Collective is an unofficial graffiti museum that brings together top street artists from all around the world. Spanning multiple buildings over several blocks, the art you’ll see is all temporary, legal and a worthy rival to anything you’ll see in a museum with four walls.

Planning tip: The Bushwick Collective organizes a free block party every June that brings the whole community together to dance and listen to an incredible lineup of artists. Definitely worth a visit if you’re spending a summer in the city.

8. Get a culture fix in the Boogie Down at the Bronx Museum of the Arts 

A scrappy and vibrant institution on the historic Grand Concourse, the Bronx Museum of the Arts’ mission is to promote cross-cultural dialogue and make art accessible for diverse urban audiences. Founded in 1971 in New York’s northernmost borough, the museum collects and exhibits pieces of contemporary and 20th-century art spanning all mediums. The museum became free in 2012.

Two plus size women jogging in Central Park on a sunny day past a bridge
It won’t cost you a dime to see Central Park, one of NYC’s best sights © LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

9. Savor each of Central Park’s 843 acres

Even though the real estate surrounding this famous urban oasis is some of the most expensive in the world, access to Central Park is gloriously free for New Yorkers and visitors of all means. Since Frederick Law Olmsted’s layout of the park was intended to be pleasantly disorienting, we recommend spending a few hours wandering aimlessly through its alluring paths, lush groves and delightful water features.

You probably won’t want to miss the Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields, just steps in from where John Lennon was shot in 1980. You can also retrace the steps of The Catcher in the Rye protagonist Holden Caulfield by checking out the ducks in the Pond at the park’s southeastern corner.

Explore Central Park’s best hidden corners on one of these detours.

10. Gallery-hop in West Chelsea

New York’s most concentrated area for a gallery crawl is in Chelsea, in the West 20s between 10th and 11th Avenues. From small start-ups to established institutions like Pace and David Zwirner, all galleries are free to enter, with no pressure to buy. Check out the Art Dealers Association of America’s gallery guide, which has a comprehensive list of current shows, and create your own arty adventure.

Planning tip: Plan your tour for a Thursday evening, when most wine-and-cheese openings take place.

11. Hop on a boat to bike around Governors Island

The ferry to Governors Island is free on Saturdays and Sundays before noon (usually a $3 round trip). Entry to the 172-acre island, now open year-round, costs nothing either. An eclectic range of attractions includes a 2.2-mile bike path, artificial hills offering splendid harbor views, a program of live events and rotating art installations, plus former military sites such as the Admiral’s House and Fort Jay.

Planning tip: Frequent (and free) guided tours depart from the Soissons Landing Welcome Center.

An orange boat of the Staten Island Ferry in New York Harbor against Lower Manhattan skyscrapers, New York City, New York, USA
The views of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty from the (always free) Staten Island Ferry never get old © Drop of Light / Shutterstock

12. Admire Lady Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry

The Statue of Liberty is a must-see, but ferry tours to Liberty Island start at $18 for adults. Enter the Staten Island Ferry, which plies New York Harbor 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering a stellar view of this iconic monument at no cost at all. Having been in service since 1905, the ferry shuttles some 19 million visitors and commuters back and forth across the harbor each year. 

13. See how the magic happens during a Brooklyn Brewery tour

Free tours of Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Brewery run Saturday and Sunday every half hour starting at 1pm, with the last tour offered at 6pm. Linger a while after in the tasting room.

14. Catch a cool show at BRIC House and Celebrate Brooklyn!

In a part of Brooklyn humming with cultural activity, BRIC House is a leading presenter of no-cost multimedia programming, with free admission to two performance spaces and a gallery. In the summer, the organization curates the Celebrate Brooklyn! series in Prospect Park, with a majority of the concerts and performances – which in the past have sets from Chaka Khan, Janelle Monáe, the dancers of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and many others – free of charge, with no ticket necessary.

Visitors stroll along the High Line Park in Manhattan
Get a new perspective on a stroll above the New York City streets on the High Line © Oliver Foerstner / Shutterstock

15. Promenade on the High Line

Technically a public park, the High Line has the feel of a runway, where New Yorkers and tourists (sometimes a lot of them) sashay for a stroll. Part of the slow, ongoing re-green-ification of Manhattan, this 1.5-mile-long elevated park, standing some 30 feet in the air, was created from an abandoned stretch of elevated railroad track.

Connecting the Meatpacking District with Chelsea’s galleries before ending at gleaming Hudson Yards, it costs nothing to take a wander up here. En route, wonderful views open up of the Hudson River to the west and of pedestrians on the sidewalks below. 

Planning tip: Hudson Yards has free movie screenings every Friday night in the public square.

16. Explore Native American culture at the National Museum of the American Indian

Situated in the spectacular Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House (1907), the National Museum of the American Indian, a branch of the Smithsonian, offers one of the country’s finest arrays of Native American art. The focus of its million-item-strong collection, as well as its programs, is on culture rather than history – prepare for a visual feast.

Interior shot of the expansive Rose Main Reading room at the New York Public Library. There are multiple wooden tables and a very ornate ceiling with large chandeliers.
The expansive and ornate Rose Main Reading Room in the New York Public Library will stop you in your tracks © Jiawangkun / Shutterstock

17. Get inspired at the New York Public Library

New York’s most famous library (today known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building) is situated in a grand, world-famous Beaux-Arts icon east of Times Square. Guarded by marble lions named Patience and Fortitude, it’s a jaw-dropper to walk through – particularly the Rose Main Reading Room, with space for 500 patrons to pore over tomes under the library’s original Carrère and Hastings-designed lamps.

Exhibitions showcase the institution’s astonishing holdings, which include a copy of the original Declaration of Independence, a Gutenberg Bible and some 431,000 old maps. Free tours of the building and the Rose Main Reading Room take place throughout the week.

18. Attend a Shakespeare play

You can try your luck to win free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, presented each summer in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater by the Public Theater, via the digital lottery and standby lines. You can also get your fix of the Bard – with some awfully romantic lighting – at Shakespeare at Sunset, produced by New York Classical Theatre at non-traditional public venues across the city, including Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

19. See a work of art made from 140 tons of dirt

No frame would be big enough for this. The Earth Room, Walter De Maria’s 1977 installation, is a single room in a nondescript SoHo building filled with 280,000 pounds of dirt, combining the familiar confines of an urban space with the scent of a wet forest. Strange? A little. Memorable? Definitely.

A couple views a contemporary art installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, New York City, New York, USA
You never know what you’re going to see among the frequently changed installations at Socrates Sculpture Park © LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / Shutterstock

20. Interact with the art at Socrates Sculpture Park

Overlooking Roosevelt Island and the Upper East Side on the East River, the site of a former landfill now hosts Socrates Sculpture Park, a playful and free outdoor museum and public park with large-scale interactive sculptures and multimedia art installations. On Wednesdays in the summer, free movie screenings take place, with an emphasis on foreign films, preceded by corresponding music and cultural performances.

21. Admire the world’s first LGBTIQ+ dedicated art space, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art

Featuring works by US and international artists, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art is the first museum in the world dedicated to LGBTIQ+ themes. As well as rotating exhibitions and regular retrospectives, most of the art on show is from the gallery’s vast collection. Lectures, performances and film screenings are also held here regularly. It’s free, but donations are welcome.

Save our ultimate guide to LGBTIQ+ travel in NYC.

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