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 is plenty to do that won't cost you a cent.
Every Friday and Saturday night 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 contemporary artists from around the country at the American Folk Art Museum, free Friday nights from 5:30 to 7:30.
Marvel at ancient Egyptian artifacts or Renaissance masterpieces at the highly regarded and diverse Brooklyn Museum, free every first Saturday after 5 p.m. Numerous performing groups of every stripe appear on Central Park 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.
See major attractions in New York at about half the price with our partner, CityPass, which includes Traveler's picks for bars, restaurants, shopping, and neighborhoods.
If it's free blues you're after, you can't do any better than the gratis shows every Friday and Saturday night at the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. Shows start at 9 p.m.; get there early for good seats.
For a slightly less formatted approach to art, visit the Socrates Sculpture Park where local sculptors present various installations. Enjoy a panoramic view of Manhattan from this park, which is always free.
On Saturday evenings beginning at 5:45, the Guggenheim hosts Pay What You Wish, where admission is by donation. Live music often accompanies the Friday night special. Arrive a little early so you can admire the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.
Visit the Studio Museum of Harlem and watch contemporary artists hard at work on their newest masterpieces. Plan your visit well, though: It's only free the first Saturday of every month.
View works of international artists, or stick around for a film screening, all on Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. when the Museum of Modern Art opens to the public.
Explore the ever changing world of American art for free on Friday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. when the Whitney Museum waives its typically steep admission fee in lieu of donations.
Try out your basketball moves on the half-court at the NBA Store where you might be lucky enough to encounter one of the NBA or WNBA players who frequently make appearances. Shop among the world's most comprehensive assortment of NBA and WNBA merchandise or hang out during one of the many free basketball clinics or other special events that occur throughout the year.
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, 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 hi-def movies on massive HD displays, or challenge the latest Playstation games.
Watch lions in their habitat or meet a western gorilla when you visit the Bronx Zoo, free to the public every Wednesday.
Enjoy a relaxing break among the orchids at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This greenhouse is free all day on Tuesdays, and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Or, head over to the Bronx and the New York Botanical Garden for a break at one of the 50 gardens inside. It's free on Wednesdays and from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. There is plenty to pay for at Chelsea Piers, like bowling, swimming, and workout areas, but you can walk around and enjoy the fresh air and a view of the Hudson River free of charge.
See the Statue of Liberty up close or stare off across the New York Harbor at the Ellis Island National Monument. Also located on Ellis Island is the American Family Immigration History Center which contains searchable records of 25 million immigrants, passengers, and crew members who entered the U.S. through New York Harbor between 1892 and 1924.
At Federal Hall, stand on the spot where George Washington was sworn in as America's first President. Explore numerous exhibits tracing New York's role as America's capital, always free at this national park.
Maritime adventure awaits you at the South Street Seaport Museum. Board the historic schooner Pioneer or watch artisans at the Maritime Crafts Center. The museum is free only on the third Friday of each month. Remember that favorite TV show from your childhood? Well you can probably find an episode at the Museum of the Moving Image. Free admission to the galleries is from Friday evenings from 4 to 8. 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, 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.
Check out photography, ancient artifacts, and modern artwork produced by Jewish artists from across the globe at the Jewish Museum, free on Saturdays after 5 p.m.
Filled with exhibits showcasing African-American art, literature, and achievement, the Schomburg Center also hosts many free music performances by local artists.
Several groups offer neighborhood tours at no cost. The Union Square Partnership provides guided tours of Union Square Park. The Village Alliance offers walks through St. Marks Place, and the Times Square Business Improvement District will lead you through this famous city block.
The Queens Library regularly hosts free cultural events open to the public. Check their website for listings of poetry readings, concerts, and performances. Wave Hill is known as one of New York's premier cultural centers. Weekly poetry performances and notable author readings are set among the scenic botanical gardens. Catch one on Tuesday when admission is free all day long.
Drag the kids out of bed early on weekends for free admission before noon to the Brooklyn Children's Museum. 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 child's inner Picasso when you bring him 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 $5). Kids can learn how to be a chef at Kidz Cook, or create collages at Crafty Kids.
If you’re looking for some free food in New York, head to Brooklyn’s own Mark Bar any day after 6 p.m. Mark Bar serves customers complimentary pizza and cold cuts every day of the week. On Sundays at noon, after a long week, the bar also gives customers free coffee and bagels.
Wine connoisseurs will enjoy free wine tastings hosted by Big Nose Full Body in Brooklyn. They offer free tastings on Saturdays and carry more than 300 different wines in stock. Each Saturday is a different theme for tasting, so check out the website to see the theme of the week. They also offer discounts when you purchase an entire case of wine.
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.
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 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 to learn about the challenges facing the local environment. The free park is open during daylight hours. Bryant Park is one of the city's premier outdoor cultural locations. Free concerts are performed during the summer, and feature-length movies are often projected on large screens.
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.
Join a free yoga class beside the Hudson or relax at the scenic gardens, all inside Riverside Park. A limited number of kayaks can be borrowed for free.
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.
The annual Broadway on Broadway show offers skits and musical numbers from every major show playing. Admission is free, but highly coveted, so book early.
From June to August, check out Bryant Park for a free outdoor movie screening. Movies are shown weekly on Monday evenings between 8 and 9. The movies are generally old classics, but the genre 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 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. There are two productions each summer, five weeks per year.
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