The best free things to do in New York

Central Park  - best free things to do in New York
Central Park has many elements: to explore, from ponds and orchards to rock formations and meadows. - Copyright 2020 Michael Lee/Michael Lee

New York City is not cheap. That’s a well-known fact. It’s even more expensive these days, thanks to post-pandemic inflation. But don’t let that stop you form enjoying this metropolis of nearly nine million denizens. That said, there are a legion of fun, free things to do too. Here are the best free things to do for solo travelers, children, couples, and families, from free ferry trips to Staten Island (where views over Manhattan are glorious), and wandering through Central Park, to watching the street artists at Washington Square, and soaking up the atmosphere at South Street Seaport.

Below our expert shares his pick of the best things to do for free in New York. For more inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotels, restaurants, nightlife, bars, shopping and attractions, plus how to spend a weekend in New York.

Ellis Island

Search for a lost ancestor at Ellis Island

For more than 60 years from 1892, Ellis Island served as one of the main immigration processing centres in the United States. It's estimated that 40 per cent of living Americans today can trace at least one ancestor whose gateway to America was through this island just off the coast of Manhattan, many escaping war and famine. Today the place is a fascinating monument to human immigration. Visit the restored Main Arrivals Hall and the museum which is a self-guided tour through the complex's history. At the American Family Immigration History Center, visitors can do multimedia searches through the archives. Who knows? You might just find a lost ancestor.

Nearest metro: Ferry terminal from Battery Park

Ellis Island, New York
Eliis Island is a fascinating monument to human immigration

Governors Island

Explore a lesser known corner of New York City

This 172-acre island south of the Brooklyn Bridge off the southern tip of Manhattan is one of the city's most beloved green spaces. Between May and October, you can access it by ferry from the Battery Maritime Building (10 South Street) in Manhattan or from Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO. With bikes for hire, a beach, acres of lawns, and a promenade around the perimetre, it's perfect for a stroll, or an afternoon picnic taking in views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. There are a number of food trucks and vendors operating on the island, and a line-up of summer-long events from the Jazz Age Lawn Party to pop-up dinners.

Nearest metro: Ferry from Battery Maritime Building

Governors Island, New York
Governors Island is one of the city's most beloved green spaces - ©2014 Gustavo Muniz/ElOjoTorpe

Financial District

Visit the 9/11 Memorial Monument

There are few places in New York City as emotionally, politically and patriotically loaded as this spot in lower Manhattan. The memorial consists of the footprints of the two towers, today, two giant reflecting pools with the names of the victims inscribed along the periphery. Another powerful monument to the victims who lost their lives on 11 September, 2001 is inside St. Paul's Chapel, the diminutive church from 1766 across the street from the reflecting pools, houses photos, fliers, and mementos related to the attacks. Fans of contemporary architecture should take a look at the new Santiago Calatrava-designed subway station that looks like the skeleton of a stegosaurus. 

Nearest metro: World Trade Center; Chambers St; Wall St; Fulton St

9/11 National Memorial, New York
The 9/11 National Memorial is a powerful monument to the victims who lost their lives on 11 September, 2001

Take it to the bridge… the Brooklyn Bridge

Arguably the most famous bridge in the world, the Brooklyn Bridge is not only aesthetically pleasing, it makes for a great walk. The 271-foot-tall neo-gothic arches are certainly the bridge's trademark, but strolling along the elevated pedestrian walkway (starting in Brooklyn and walking toward Manhattan) is a must for any visitor. When it was completed in 1883, it not only united the two, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at almost 7,000 feet. The bridge's construction was overseen first by John Augustus Roebling and then his son, Washington. But after Washington suddenly died, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, took over and finished the job, a fact that has been largely lost to history.

Nearest metro: Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall (Manhattan); York St, High St (Brooklyn)

Brooklyn Bridge, New York
Brooklyn Bridge is arguably the most famous bridge in the world - This content is subject to copyright./Serena Rossi / EyeEm

South Street Seaport

Explore an historic port

Most New Yorkers have known the 400-year-old South Street Seaport as the home of the massive fish market. It moved to the Bronx in 2005 and now locals and visitors flock here to meander the cobblestoned streets flanked by the largest concentration of 19th-century buildings in New York. Big efforts have gone into reviving the neighbourhood, whose roots can be traced back to the 17th century, with the development of wide spaces, social dining and drinking scene, shops and a market. It's entertaining enough to stroll the streets, window shopping, checking out the historic ships docked on the East River, and taking in the views of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge.

Nearest metro: Wall St

Little Italy

Sip an espresso in Little Italy

Benvenuto al'Italia Piccola. Also known as Little Italy, this swathe of all things Italian isn't what it used to be. For decades the area has been losing its Italianness to encroaching Chinatown. But that hasn't stopped the masses of tourists from descending upon what's left, Mulberry Street. Little Italy today is a collection of shops peddling in Italian food products and mediocre restaurants (complete with aggressive barkers trying to lure every passerby inside). Nurse a cappuccino at an outdoor café if you must, but don't waste time and money eating at any of these restaurants. Still, Little Italy is an amusing quick diversion on your way to Chinatown or elsewhere.

Nearest metro: Canal St

Little Italy, New York
Little Italy is filled with shops and restaurants peddling Italian food - Matteo Colombo/Matteo Colombo


Head to the markets of Chinatown

Sprawling and dense at the same time, New York's Chinatown isn't just the chief neighbourhood in which to pick up super cheap 'I Love NY' t-shirts and gadgets. Chinese began settling in the area in the 1850s and it has grown and expanded since. It's not the biggest Chinatown outside of the motherland – that distinction would go to the Chinese-area in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – but estimates suggest there are about 100,000 Chinese living in this Manhattan enclave. There aren't many Chinese landmarks here, so put away the map and wander the streets where markets brim with live seafood and restaurants buzz with atmosphere.

Nearest metro: Canal St

Chinatown, New York
Chinatown is home to about 100,000 Chinese people - Alexander Spatari/Alexander Spatari

Lower East Side

Feel like a movie star as you explore Lower East Side

Sometimes this neighbourhood feels like a movie set, with five-floor tenement buildings, their façades partly masked by snaking fire escapes; narrow streets; and subterranean shops. It all makes for one of the city's most atmospheric neighbourhoods. A century ago, the Lower East Side was a bastion of new immigrants – mostly Central and Eastern European – and due to high crime rates it became known as the place not to go (lest you wanted to leave without your wallet). Today, though, the Lower East Side has become synonymous with one thing: partying. Its streets are overflowing with bars but there are also some great restaurants. And don't miss the very intriguing Tenement Museum.

Nearest metro: Delancey St

Lower East Side, New York
Lower East Side is one of New York's most atmospheric neighbourhoods - Alexandr Spatari/Alexander Spatari

Greenwich Village

Live like the locals in Greenwich Village

Say you live in 'the Village' and locals who know their New York neighbourhoods will swoon. This leafy area, filled with historic brownstones, stretches from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River, W. 14th to Houston Streets. There are actually two neighbourhoods that make up the Village. The names 'Greenwich Village' and 'West Village' are generally interchangeable, but locals use West Village to demarcate the more tranquil section between Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River, while Greenwich Village is generally referred to as the area centred around Washington Square and the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets. The latter area might interest fans of the 1960s, as it was here where young, struggling artists named Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, got their start.

Nearest metro: W. 4th St

Greenwich Village, New York
Greenwich Village is a leafy area filled with historic brownstones - This content is subject to copyright./ML Harris

Enjoy the street performers at Washington Square

It might be hard to envision it today, but this well-manicured swath of land in the centre of downtown Manhattan was once murky marshland, a cemetery, and then a military parade ground. Of the city's 1,900 or so parks, Washington Square is one of the most memorable. Not only because of the giant arch that stands where Fifth Avenue begins; nor for the recently revamped and re-manicured landscape of the place, but because of the people who frequent the park. Bohemians and beatniks, street performers and students from nearby New York University give the place a groovy and fun vibe. On hot days, children play in the fountain and jazz musicians thump out tunes.

Nearest metro: W. 4th St

Washing Square, New York
Washington Square is one of the city's most memorable parks - CLAUDIO CAPUCHO/CLAUDIO CAPUCHO

Meatpacking District

Admire the High Line Park's glorious gardens

It all began with a long stretch of abandoned elevated railroad track. Built in the 1930s, the track was used to transport cargo from the piers along the Westside at 34th Street to downtown Manhattan until 1980. But the track fell into disarray and a movement to turn it into a park picked up steam, aided by the support of celebrities. And finally in June 2009, the High Line Park officially opened, becoming only the second elevated park in the world (after Promenade Plantée in Paris).  Since opening, the High Line has become an instant Big Apple classic site, wowing visitors and locals with its cool design (it goes right under the Standard Hotel) and incorporating much of the natural surrounding.

Nearest metro: W. 14th St./Eighth Ae

High Line Park, New York
High Line Park was the second elevated park in the world - Francesco Riccardo Iacomino

Explore a ‘Little Island’ in the middle of the Hudson River

While it was being built in 2020, many passersby stopped to marvel at this odd structure in the Hudson River with its massive stone tulip-shaped columns emerging from the water to support a lush landscape of verdant, path-carved hills. Little Island put down its drawbridge to Manhattan in May 2021 and it’s been a hit ever since. Funded mostly by a foundation run by  businessman Barry Diller and his fashion designer wife Diane von Furstenberg and designed by London-based Thomas Heatherwick, the one-hectare artificial island boasts food kiosks and an amphitheatre where regular free concerts take place in the warm-weather months. Spend an hour or so traversing the trails and taking in the splendid views of Manhattan. 

Nearest metro: W. 14th St./Eighth Ave

Flatiron and NoMad

Take a Walking Tour of the Flatiron District

Every Sunday at 11am, rain or sunshine, a professional tour guide is waiting at the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street and Fifth Avenue, in order to give a walking tour of the Flatiron District and the NoMad neighborhood. And it’s entirely free. The 90-minute stroll takes you past some of the neighborhoods’ most iconic landmarks while the guide puts everything into a historical context.


Nearest metro: 23rd St

Midtown West

Pull up a chair at Times Square

This 'square' (which is really just the convergence of Seventh Avenue and Broadway) flashes and pops with enough lights to make your head spin. But the square wasn't always so bright. After the Depression, the area was the most dangerous part of town. And in the 1980s, the strip clubs and peeps show houses became infamous. All that's gone now in the new Disney-fied version of the space, where mega-stores compete with fast-moving news tickers and flickering billboards for your attention. The latest development, though, is a good one: tables and chairs have replaced part of the street, making Times Square a much more comfortable place to spend a couple hours.

Nearest metro: Times Square

Times Square, New York
Times Square is one of brightest and most recognisable sights in Manhattan - © AmalgamaPhoto 2008/Victor Cardoner

Look studious at the New York Public Library

Perhaps one of the most iconic libraries in the world—its two stone lions acting as sentries that bookend the steps leading up to the entrance—the main branch of the New York Public Library is a fun (and free) place to wander around. Head up to the famed first-floor Main Reading Room and marvel at a two-block-long space,  52-foot-high ceilings, bathed in natural light, where scholars and the intellectually curious comb over documents from the cellar archive where over four million books are stored.

Nearest metro: 42nd St./Bryant Park

Midtown East

Marvel at Grand Central station's architectural elegance

What is this, Grand Central Station? We've all asked this question when we're in a suddenly and unexpectedly busy place. Now go see where it originated and you'll catch the true meaning of this bustling transportation hub, as a whopping 750,000 people pass through the station every day. Yes, you say, it's only a train station. But quite a majestic one indeed. Roman-style vaults may impress, but visitors are awed by the starry sky of an arched ceiling in the main ticket hall. Built in 1913, Grand Central is the dream of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unlike once-glorious, now decrepit Penn Station, Grand Central is still shining like the day Vanderbilt conceived it.

Nearest metro: Grand Central/42nd St

Grand Central Station, New York
Grand Central Station is one of the most majestic train stations in the country - This content is subject to copyright./Tetra Images

Take a closer look at the Chrysler Building

The 86-storey Empire State Building may get all the oohs and aahs from out-of-towners, but the 'little' Chrysler building (at 77 floors) is a stunner. Look closely enough and you'll notice the grills of automobiles at the top (the name of the building should be a clue as to why it's car themed). But there are more than just car parts going on here: gargoyles jut out at floor 59 and eagles two floors above that. Made with stainless steel, this striking skyscraper gleams in the sunlight during the day and reflects the city lights at night. Most of the exterior of the building is off limits, but pop into the lobby, open to the public during the day, to get a taste of the marble-clad Art Deco interiors.

Nearest metro: Grand Central/42nd St

The Chrysler Building, New York
The Chrysler Building is a strong rival to the Empire State Building - Ozgur Donmaz/Ozgur Donmaz

Visit St. Patrick's Cathedral

It's not New York's biggest cathedral (that honour would go to St. John the Divine), but St. Patrick's is the city's most famous and arguably most beautiful. This bewitching neo-gothic structure makes for a nice architectural contrast with the Art Deco-clad Rockefeller Center across the street. Completed in 1878, the cathedral is one of the country's most identifiable churches. Up to 2,200 people can fit inside and the interior has been packed to take part in requiem masses for notables such as Babe Ruth, Celia Cruz, Robert F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, and Andy Warhol. Be sure to check out the Pieta, three times larger than Michelangelo's version in the Vatican, and sculpted by Araldo Perugi.

Nearest metro: 5th Ave./53rd St

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York
St. Patrick's Cathedral is arguably the city's most beautiful chathedral - This content is subject to copyright./GabrielPevide

Central Park

Explore Central Park and enjoy its many elements

Central Park is the work of genius landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also helped create Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco). Olmsted's objective was to give city dwellers a reprieve from the blights of urban life, to make them forget – if only for a couple hours – that they were in one of the most bustling cities on the planet. It worked. Even today, one finds New Yorkers and New York visitors taking advantage of the park's many elements: from ponds and orchards to rock formations and meadows. A whopping 25 million people visit the park each year and it still does a fine job of absorbing urban dwellers.

Nearest metro: 59th St./Columbus Circle

Central Park, New York
The expansive Central Park is filled with ponds, orchards and meadows - Alexander Spatari/Alexander Spatari

Upper West Side

Take a stroll around Columbia University

Sedate and tranquil compared to the rest of Manhattan, the Upper West Side is for many a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Midtown or lower Manhattan. Largely residential with quiet tree-lined streets, the neighbourhood has a few attractions that may inspire a visit: the American Museum of Natural History, for example. Fans of Seinfeld should most certainly wander up: the coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and W. 112th St. may look very familiar, but Columbia University is a lovely stroll, as it exudes a classic university campus with its monumental neo-classical buildings, sculpture-studded plazas, and students buzzing around.

Nearest metro: 116th St./Columbia University

Columbia University, New York
Columbia University is home to monumental neo-classical buildings and sculpture-studded plazas - Terraxplorer/Terraxplorer

Washington Heights

View Spanish art at the Hispanic Society Museum

Hop on the A or C subway trains to 155th Street to the Hispanic Society Museum, a free museum that owns the the largest collection of Spanish art and manuscripts outside of Spain. The collection includes religious artifacts, furniture, textiles, ceramics and art by some of Spain’s most famous artists, including Velazquez, El Greco, Goya, and Joaquin Sorolla, whose monumental 14-panel painting called “Visions of Spain” is worth the trip to the museum in and of itself.


Nearest metro: 155th St


Watch fireworks at Coney Island

It's one of the longer journeys you'll take on the subway – about an hour – but it's a pleasant one, as part of the way is elevated. Coney Island has long been a summer escape for urbanites. Stroll the historic boardwalk, take a dip in the Atlantic, or take in a baseball game, as the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team play at the charming MCU Park just off the Boardwalk with free fireworks every Friday night through summer. If you're there for lunch, Nathan's Famous on Surf Avenue is, indeed, world famous, hosting their Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest since 1916, but for a better calibre of food try Totonno's (1524 Neptune Ave) offering some of New York's finest pizza.

Nearest metro: Coney Island/Stillwell Ave

Coney Island, New York
Coney Island is a summer escape for urbanites - Alexander Spatari/Alexander Spatari

Take a peaceful walk through Green Wood Cemetery

When it was founded in 1838, this vast and bewitching cemetery was actually a rural spot in Brooklyn. Today it sits smack in the centre of an urban landscape. And provides for an enchanting, peaceful stroll. The 478-acre city of the dead is actually the highest elevation in the borough, making for some lovely views, as you stroll along ornate gravestones and neo-Gothic chapels. In the 19th century before Prospect Park was constructed, Green Wood was Brooklyn's unofficial city park. If you’re looking for the graves of famous people, seek out the burial spots for conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Nearest metro: 25th St

Green Wood Cemetery, New York
Dating back to 1838, Green Wood Cemetery is a bewitching spot in Brooklyn - This content is subject to copyright./Halfdark

Staten Island

Board the Staten Island Ferry for great views of Manhattan

Sad as it is to say, there are few obvious sightseeing opportunities in the borough of Staten Island. One of them, though, is to take the free ferry from Manhattan. It provides a great view of the lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. And the Staten Island neighbourhood at the ferry dock, St. George, boasts cafés and restaurants. Over 70,000 people per day take the five-mile, 25-minute scenic ferry ride. You should too. Ferries leave every 30 minutes. 

Nearest metro: Whitehall St./South Ferry

Staten Island Ferry, New York
Boarding the Staten Island Ferry is a great way to get panoramic views of Manhattan - Copyright 2016 Michael Lee/Michael Lee

How we choose

Every attraction and activity in this curated list has been tried and tested by our destination expert, to provide you with their insider perspective. We cover a range of budgets and styles, from world-class museums to family-friendly theme parks – to best suit every type of traveller. We update this list regularly to keep up with the latest openings and provide up to date recommendations.