New York City is a city that has no limits, with endless things to experience and places to discover. Most people that visit become hooked on the magic that the city brings. The lights, the buildings, the energy, the people—it leaves everyone that visits wanting more. Saying that, with a city that has so much to offer comes a definite dent in the wallet… but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
There are a ton of free things to do in New York without spending a dime. Foodies of all budgets can find epic food in every type of cuisine, there are always free events happening in the city, a ton of free guided tours, and the major museums are either free or are free during a specific time. Moral of the story: it’s definitely possible to do NYC on a budget. After all, it’s not about the experiences that you do in the city… New York is the experience.
On the other hand, there are certain things that are worth splurging on. After all, you’re only in New York once (but probably not, because you will be tempted to come back). There are certain things that this city does best, like their variety of legendary Broadway shows, stunning 5-star hotels and delicious restaurants, and some of the best coffee in the country (and world). You definitely shouldn’t cheap out on those $5 soy lattes.
If you do it right and play it smart, it is possible to save money while also splurging on things that you really can’t do anywhere else. Don’t throw your budget out the window, but also don’t be penny pinching with absolutely everything. You’re in New York City after all.
20 FREE - Ride the Staten Island Ferry
While a lot of visitors opt for a ferry tour or private boat tour (if you’re extra fancy), the Staten Island Ferry will take you across the New York Harbor and offers a great view of the Statue of Liberty. And the best part is, it’s completely free!
The ferry is quite a popular form of transportation, providing transportation for over 22 million people a year. The tourist-orientated ferry tours start at $18.50 a person, and can skyrocket if you are looking for a more personalised experience. Save your cash and stand on the outside viewing area to catch amazing views of the city skyline from the water.
19 Splurge - Explore NYC from above with a Helicopter tour
What better way to see New York City than from the skies? Helicopter tours range from $199-$355 USD per person, however you may also get lucky and catch deals on TravelZoo (a coupon site). While this is a hefty cost, it is truly the most iconic way to see the concrete jungle, with views of the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, and a million little dots of people strolling through the streets.
The best time to do this tour is at dusk, with the golden hue of the sun setting over the city giving it a magical glow. Make sure you book this excursion in advance, as it’s quite a popular tourist activity.
18 Free - Visit the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens
Sometimes you just want to get away from the hustle and bustle in a city as fast-paced as NYC. Situated in the heart of Brooklyn, the Botanic Garden is an urban, 52-acre garden that is home to a number of specialty flowers and plants, conservatory buildings, and hosts a number of festivals throughout the year.
If you visit on a Tuesday, your admission is free! The garden is also home to a zoo and a number of historic buildings with a ton of history to learn about. Why not stop by this garden nestled in the city on your way through Brooklyn?
17 SPLURGE - Catch an iconic Broadway show
While catching a Broadway show may not be the cheapest thing in the world, with tickets ranging from $100-$1000 USD, when are you ever going to get the chance to see a Broadway in New York City of all places? The city is arguably the best place in the world to catch a show, so if you are going to splurge on anything, this should be it.
From classics like The Disney classics such as The Lion King and Aladdin, to show-stoppers like Wicked and The Phantom of the Opera—there is something for everyone. You'll be sure to spot some Hollywood stars behind the costumes, with vivid sets that will blow your mind. You can also buy tickets for same day shows up to half off!
16 Free - Take a guided tour of Central Park
A trip to New York City just isn’t complete without a stroll through the infamous Central Park. I think what makes this park so special is the fact that it’s smack dab in the middle of the concrete jungle, yet still feels like you’re stepping into a nature oasis. No matter what time of year you visit, from the leaves turning colour in fall to the ponds freezing in the winter months, it will no doubt be magical.
While the infamous park is obviously free to roam through, a lot of people don’t know that the Central Park Conservancy offers free guided tours throughout the day.
15 Splurge - Visit the iconic Metropolitan Museum
While this isn’t exactly a splurge, with admission cost being $25 a person, it is definitely the one museum in the city that you should spend the money on. The MET is home to thousands of historical art pieces and artifacts from all around the globe. There are truly few places in the world that showcase such a unique variety of magnificent artwork.
You could probably spend an entire day getting lost in this museum, so it’s definitely worth the admission price as you will truly get so much out of your visit. It’s quite overwhelming how much this museum has to offer, with a ton of amazing exhibits that are worthy of a wander.
14 Free - Watch a live taping of the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to see one of your favourite late-night TV host in action (and some pretty awesome celebrity guests). Free tickets for the show are released a month in advance, so it will take a bit of advance planning. However, depending on the time of year and week, you may be able to snag some standby tickets the night of the event.
Either way, it’s definitely worth looking into since the tickets are completely free! You can either attend a live taping or one of the monologue rehearsals. You will be sure to have a laugh no matter what you choose to do!
13 Splurge - Check out the amazingly unique shopping
New York City is known as the fashion capital of the world, with people travelling from all over the globe to check out the latest fashion trends. If there is a new fad that everyone is after, chances are NYC has something bigger and better to offer—and you don’t have to shop at Chanel or Tom Ford to get your hands on the best pieces.
NYC has time and time again pushed the boundaries for fashion, with both luxury brands and more affordable fashion. Nothing is off limits in New York—which makes for some pretty epic vintage shopping, sifting through racks of old designer clothing with a bargain price.
12 Free - Visit the 9/11 Memorial
The 9/11 Memorial is a pretty spectacular and humbling thing to witness first hand, with the monument occupying 8 out of the 16 acres where the World Trade Centre once stood. This memorial honours the lives lost during the attacks in 1993 and 2001, with both a museum and an outdoor area to roam in.
While the museum is only complimentary to the 9/11 survivors and their families, admission is free to the public on Tuesdays after 5pm. You will definitely leave this memorial with a new respect for those who lost their lives and a newfound appreciation for life.
11 Splurge - Eat AT one fancy restaurant, minimum!
While you definitely don’t have to be eating out at expensive restaurants every night, as New York offers amazing food at every budget, it’s worth it to splurge on at least one meal while visiting. New York is a dream place for foodies, with every type of cuisine you could possibly imagine.
A lot of the world’s most amazing Chefs also reside in the city, which means there are some pretty epic dining experiences out there. One in particular, Carbone, is a high-end Italian restaurant that fills up months in advance because of its intimate setting. It is arguably the best place to get Italian food in the city, with prices to match.
10 Free - Take a stroll 30ft above the city at the High Line
Created from an abandoned stretch of elevated railroad track, the High Line is a public park that is surrounded by both high-rise buildings and lush vegetation. Situated 30 feet in the air, the park boats amazing views of the Hudson River and the pedestrians flooding the streets on the sidewalks below. It is almost like an escape from the busy streets of the city, while still remaining in the hub of it all.
The High Line connects Chelsea’s galleries (free entry) with the Javits Centre, making it the perfect stroll in-between sightseeing. It’s hard to believe that this spot was once a dingy rail line— now a brilliant urban renewal where individuals can come for a stroll or picnic away from the hustle and bustle.
9 Splurge - Catch a sports game at one of the famous stadiums
If you are a sports enthusiasts, there are a ton of sporting events held in NYC that are worth buying a ticket for. You can catch a baseball game at the famous Yankee Stadium or a hockey game at the iconic Madison Square Garden.
It is possible to snag deals on tickets the day of, but they definitely can get pricey. Try going on a weekday or during the off-season in order to save some money. However, if you are a fan of a New York team or your local team is in town, it might be worth spending the money to catch a game at one of the famous sporting venues.
8 Free - Get lost in a book at the New York Public Library
New York’s most famous library is definitely more than just a place to check out your favourite library book—it’s an architectures dream and an absolute jaw-dropper to walk through. The reading room, fit for 500 people to dive into a novel, boasts walls full of original books, massive windows that brighten up the space, and the original Hastings lamps.
You can roam through the library on your own or take part in one of the free tours that take place at 11am and 2pm, Monday to Saturday.
7 Splurge - Take a private Yacht tour
While I don’t think it’s worth it to take a private yacht tour for a couple of people (unless you are rolling in the dough, of course), it’s a great thing to do if you are travelling with a group. If you have 6 or more people, you can cruise around a state of the art boat for just over $100 per person for 2 hours.
You definitely get your money’s worth with complete meal service and chefs on board, a satellite TV, and all of the cold beverages you could want. Imagine sailing through the harbour with a glass of champagne in one hand and the wind in your hair, taking in the views of the city skyline with all of your friends.
6 Free - Go back in time at the American Museum of Natural History
While there are a million and one museums to check out in NYC, who doesn’t love a good dinosaur exhibit? It was founded in 1869, so you know it’s got all the good stuff. The museum is home to more than 30 million artifacts, making it the perfect place to go back in time and explore the Dino Age. It is also home to exhibits such as the Rose Centre for Earth and Space, as well as the Butterfly Conservatory in the winter months.
The museum is free to visit during its last hour (4:45-5:45pm), and the admission price is ‘suggested’ at all other times. So technically, you don’t really have to pay anything, however most people throw in a few dollars.
5 Splurge - See a concert at Madison Square Garden
Known as ‘The World’s Most Famous Arena’, going to a concert at Madison Square Garden is an experience in itself before the performer even comes on stage. The arena holds a whopping 20,000 people, being a turning point in any artists career if they manage to sell out the space.
The arena is pretty iconic, with seas of people in every crevasse and a dynamic floor to ceiling setup. If you happen to be in town at the same time as your favourite artist, MSG is definitely the place you want to see them live. If tickets aren’t sold out the day of, you can sometimes grab discounted tickets at the box office.
4 Free - Practice your downward dog at Bryant Park
Located right in the hustle and bustle of central Manhattan, Bryant Park is a lively hub full of free activities, especially during the summer months. If you’re a yoga fan, head to the park Tuesday at 10am or Thursday at 6pm for a free class held on the lawn, with mats available on a first come first serve basis.
The park also hosts markets, music events, boot camps, art exhibits, workshops, and much more—making it the perfect spot to hang out pretty much any day of the week. There are also tours of the park every day at 11am.
3 Splurge - Don’t cheap out on the $5 lattes
While a great way to save money while travelling is to cut out expensive coffee beverages, you should definitely consider putting some cash away for some New York coffee. The city is full of amazing coffee spots—from quirky, trendy cafes to glamorous brunch spots. The seas of cafes can definitely be hard to navigate.
You could live in NYC for a lifetime and never visit all of the coffee spots in the city, therefore a weekend away there will be full of hard decisions of where to sip on your morning espresso. After all, in a city as fast-paced as New York, you’ll need a few cups of caffeine to keep up.
2 Free - Watch an outdoor movie at Brooklyn Bridge Park
After you have taken a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in all of the views of Manhattan in the process, you will find yourself at Brooklyn Bridge Park. The park curves around the waterfront and boats amazing views of the concrete jungle, as well as a ton of outdoor activities such as basketball, swimming, boating, and rock climbing.
While there are a ton of things to do throughout this park, one of the best things to do is catch a free outdoor movie during the summer months. The movies begin when the sun sets, which makes for a stunning backdrop while watching your favourite flick. There are also movies held at Bryant Park in the heart of Manhattan.
1 Splurge - Sip afternoon tea at The Plaza
Live out all of your Sex and the City and Gossip Girl dreams and spend an afternoon sipping afternoon tea at The Plaza. This space is truly iconic and will have you feeling spoiled as you snack on high-tea staples such as freshly baked scones and crustless sandwiches.
While the spread of nibbles will cost you a whopping $75/person, it is truly a once and lifetime experience to dine in the luxury that is The Palm Court restaurant. If you aren’t into the whole high-tea extravaganza, you can also sip on a delicious cocktail while admiring the stunning décor and architecture of the building.