Photograph by Dan Westergren, National Geographic
Finding free activities to fill your day in the City That Never Sleeps is easier than you might think. With countless cultural attractions and a large city parks system, there's plenty to do that won't cost you a cent.
Skip the $25 ticket price when the Museum of Modern Art opens its doors, gratis, each Friday between 4 and 8 p.m. Kids 16 and under always get in free. And each morning from 9:30 to 10:15, the museum’s sculpture garden is open for a free peek.
On select Friday and Saturday nights from September to May, the Brooklyn Academy of Music opens up its BAMcafé free to the public. Jazz, world beat, and experimental artists keep the crowd rocking.
Admire the work of self-taught artists from around the country at the American Folk Art Museum. Past exhibitions have focused on quilt masterworks from the museum’s own collection and the lost art of tinsel painting.
Marvel at ancient Egyptian artifacts or Renaissance masterpieces at the highly regarded and diverse Brooklyn Museum, free every first Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. The evenings also feature live music, lectures, and hands-on art activities.
Numerous performing groups of every stripe appear on Central Park's Summer Stage during the warmer months of the year. Almost all of the performances are free and open to the public. Check their website regularly for an updated list of events.
If it's free blues you're after, you can't do any better than the gratis nightly shows at Lucille's, a bar within the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill. The catch? A $10 minimum bar tab. Showtimes vary; get there early for good seats.
Visit the Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City, Queens, where local sculptors present various installations against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. Open every day from 10 a.m. to sunset; always free.
On Saturday evenings from 5:45 to 7:45, the Guggenheim hosts Pay What You Wish, which offers admission by donation. Arrive a little early so you can admire the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.
Admission is free at the Studio Museum of Harlem on the first Sunday of each month. Programming includes gallery tours and hands-on art inspired by the current exhibition.
When walking around the city, don't miss the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, classic examples of art deco architecture. The hustle and bustle of Grand Central is worth seeing, as are the skaters at Rockefeller Center in winter.
New York has its fair share of impressive churches. Admire the 16th-century Flemish windows at Riverside Church, which is modeled after the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, France. Tour the gardens of uptown's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, or enjoy the Gothic architecture of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
Get lost in a high-tech wonderland when you visit the Sony Wonder Technology Lab. Talk to robots, watch movies on massive HD displays, or challenge the latest PlayStation games. Admission is free but reservations are a must. Book at least seven days in advance.
Watch lions in their habitat or meet a western gorilla when you visit the Bronx Zoo, free to the public—or pay what you wish—every Wednesday.
Enjoy a relaxing break among the orchids at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This greenhouse is free all day on Tuesdays, from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, and weekdays from November to February. Or explore the 250-acre grounds at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. It's free on Wednesdays and from 9 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays.
At Federal Hall, stand on the spot where George Washington was sworn in as the United States' first President. Explore numerous exhibits tracing New York's role as America's capital, always free at this national park.
Remember that favorite TV show from your childhood? Well, you can probably find an episode at the Museum of the Moving Image, which offers free admission to its galleries from 4 to 8 p.m. on Fridays.
Admire indigenous art from across the Americas at the National Museum of the American Indian, a branch of the Smithsonian. Tapestries, cave paintings, and artifacts, all thousands of years old, make up some of the displays at this free museum.
Explore New York's unique neighborhoods with a Big Apple Greeter. These cheerful and informed locals offer free tours of their neighborhoods for visitors. Be sure to schedule early, as they stay busy.
Books and beaux-arts architecture aren't the only things you can find at the New York Public Library. Regular events, including visual arts exhibits and music and dance performances, at the different branch locations are always free.
The Hispanic Society of America museum displays art and artifacts from Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, including fragments from a tunic worn by Prince Philip of Castile circa 1274 and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s celebrated 1908 oil painting “After the Bath.”
Check out photography, ancient artifacts, and modern artwork produced by Jewish artists from across the globe at the Jewish Museum, free on Saturdays and Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. The permanent exhibition features 800 works—from archaeological objects to interactive media—that trace the Jewish journey over 4,000 years.
Filled with exhibits showcasing African-American art, literature, and achievement, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture hosts many free music performances, lectures, and conversations (such as between funk musician George Clinton and Roots drummer Questlove). Reservations are usually required.
Several groups offer neighborhood tours at no cost. The Union Square Partnership every Saturday at 2 p.m. (meet at the Abraham Lincoln statue) and the Village Alliance offer a variety of themed self-guided tours, like traveling in the footsteps of the Beat Generation.
The Queens Library regularly hosts free cultural events open to the public. Check their website for listings of poetry readings, concerts, and performances.
Recently renovated, Wave Hill is known as one of New York's premier gardens and cultural centers. Weekly poetry performances and notable author readings are set among the scenic botanical gardens. Admission is free Tuesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum offers free admission on Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m. and every third Thursday from 3 to 7 p.m. Exhibits let children don wizard costumes, observe residents of the Animal Outpost, or examine insects from the wildlife collection. Very young visitors will enjoy the Totally Tots area. Enjoy a free concert during the series in June and July.
Free your children's inner Picasso when you bring them to the Children's Museum of the Arts, where they can learn how to paint, sculpt, or appreciate all different kinds of art. Entrance is by donation only on Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
The Staten Island Children's Museum offers daily free programs (admission to the museum is $6, except for Cool School Holidays, when it’s free. Grandparents get in free on Wednesdays). Kids can learn how to be a chef at Kidz Cook, or create collages at Crafty Kids.
Wine connoisseurs will enjoy free wine tastings at any number of wine shops in the city, including Big Nose Full Body in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The store offers free tastings on Saturdays from 4 to 6 p.m., with a different theme each week.
Sunbathe, rock climb, or drop your fishing line in Harlem Meer Pond in Central Park. This vast urban green space offers almost every outdoor amenity. Keep an eye out for one of the many free concerts or plays performed primarily during the warmer months.
Enjoy a breath of fresh air by the shore at Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve, located on the edge of Staten Island. Explore artifacts left by the Leni Lenape Indians, or learn about local ecology on a nature walk.
Enjoy some sandy fun just outside the city at Jones Beach State Park. Bring your rod for some surf fishing, or head inside the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center ($4 admission) to learn about the challenges facing the local environment. The free park is open during daylight hours.
For a scenic maritime tour of the New York Bay, hop aboard the free Staten Island Ferry. The ship's route offers views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline.
Stroll along the Hudson in Riverside Park, which stretches for four miles between 72nd and 158th streets. Summer programming includes free kayak paddling instruction, yoga, and Pilates.
Admire the Statue of Liberty from the scenic vistas inside of Castle Clinton National Monument, or learn about the park's important military history from costumed park rangers.
From June to August, check out Bryant Park for a free outdoor movie screening. Movies are shown weekly on Mondays between 8 and 9 p.m. The movies are generally old classics, but the genres ranges weekly. Be sure to get there early, as the park fills up quickly with avid moviegoers.
Theater buffs start lining up at 6 a.m. for tickets to Free Shakespeare in the Park, presented free each summer. Tickets are distributed at 1 p.m. the day of the show at either the Delacorte Theater in Central Park or the Public Theater in the East Village. There are two productions each summer, five weeks per year.
Free Events Information
2015 Traveler Photo Contest
Explore the submissions, share your favorites, and check back for the winning images.