New York is one of my favorite cities in the world. I lived there for six years, have run NYC tours, written a guidebook about New York, and I return often. To me, it is ‘the Capital of the World’.
Practically every culture and nationality is represented here: it’s home to almost 10 million people who collectively speak over 800 languages. It’s also famous for its top-notch fashion, crazy nightlife, incredible art scene, world-class museums, diverse restaurants, and innovative theater productions.
It’s sprawling, busy, and exciting. There’s a reason people call it the city that never sleeps.
There’s no way to “see New York” in one visit. There are thousands of restaurants; hundreds of museums, attractions, and plays; and countless other hidden gems to discover. You could spend a lifetime exploring and never really see it all — trust me, I’ve been trying!
Yet while there’s a never-ending list of things to see and do, visiting can be tough as a budget traveler. Luckily, there are plenty of things to fill your New York City itinerary that won’t cost you an arm and a leg — if you know where to look!
Here’s how to explore New York City on a budget:
1. Take the subway
New York and its boroughs (and parts of New Jersey) are well connected by subway, which will take you wherever you need to go, or close to it. (And riding it is an experience in and of itself.)
Bopping around town means taking the train a lot. Fares add up if you pay $2.75 for each ride. However, a seven-day unlimited MetroCard is $33. You only need to use the subway 12 times to get your money’s worth.
2. Relax in Central Park
Designed by famed and prolific landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Central Park became the first landscaped park in the US in 1857. It’s the perfect (and free!) spot to relax, away from the hustle and bustle.
Central Park has lots of meandering paths, bike lanes, and lakes in which you can row, as well as a small zoo and more than 26,000 trees! You can easily spend hours wandering around, as the park covers over 843 acres. Even though it receives 42 million visitors annually, it’s so big that you can easily carve out your own space.
During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions (line up early for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park). From the late spring to the early fall, there are also free guided walks run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11:00 AM.
3. Attend a taping
Speaking of TV shows, favorites like Saturday Night Live, The View, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Seth Meyers all offer free tickets to their tapings.
They are in high demand and must be reserved well in advance, but it’s a fun free activity if you can plan ahead. See each show’s website for details and to make reservations.
4. Go on a free walking tour
Simply walking around is the best way to see the city, but taking a guided walking tour expands your knowledge of this metropolis that much more.
There are dozens of walking tours in New York to choose from (including many free ones), in seemingly every niche possible, from history to Jewish history tours to ghost tours to Mafia tours to food tours to pub crawls.
Free Tours by Foot offers over 18 different options, focusing on different neighborhoods. For something a little different, use Big Apple Greeter. This program pairs you New Yorkers who volunteer to show visitors around for a day. It’s the best way to connect with a local who can answer all your questions.
5. Wander Rockefeller Center
Wander around the bustling Rockefeller Center to see where many TV shows have been (and continue to be) filmed, including Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, The Today Show, and many more. The complex of 19 buildings covers more than 22 acres and features countless shops and eateries.
If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a celebrity or two.
You can also take the elevator to “the Top of the Rock” for a bird’s-eye view of New York. I personally think that it’s better than the one from the top of the Empire State Building, since here you can get that iconic edifice in your picture too. (At $40 USD, tickets to the Top of the Rock are not budget friendly though).
If you’re here in the winter, the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is on display from around Thanksgiving to early January. Stop by to see this magnificent tree all dressed up in lights — just be aware that it’s especially crowded during this time.
6. Play tourist in Times Square
Regardless of when you visit Times Square, it’s always jam-packed (usually with other tourists). If you aren’t shopping, eating, or seeing a show, there’s not much to do in the area (and no New Yorker hangs out there).
Still, it’s a must-do on any New York City itinerary, and it’s a fabulous place to people-watch while sitting in one of the pedestrian areas. The best vantage point is from the top of the red steps of the TKTS kiosk. To see Times Square at its best, go at night when it’s all lit up.
7. Eat on the cheap
Aside from cooking your own food (which is your most affordable option in NYC), you can eat surprisingly cheaply here, thanks to all the food carts, dollar-slice shops, kebab places, bagel spots, and inexpensive Asian eateries (especially Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai).
8. Go to a show
New York City is one of the major theater centers in the world, and you simply can’t leave without seeing a Broadway show. From classic musicals to traditional Shakespeare to offbeat productions, some of the world’s best and biggest plays and musicals are put on here.
To see what shows are playing during your visit, check out broadway.com.
However, tickets can easily run hundreds of dollars, especially for the new and popular shows. Luckily, there are ways to get them at much cheaper prices. The TKTS stands in Times Square or Lincoln Center offer 40–50% off same-day tickets to select shows — just be prepared to wait in line for about an hour.
9. Explore Trinity Church
The original Trinity Church, built in 1698, was a small parish chapel constructed by the Church of England. The British used it as a base of operations when they seized New York after George Washington’s retreat during the Revolutionary War.
After the war, Washington and Alexander Hamilton regularly attended church services here. The current building is the third Trinity Church iteration and was finished in 1846. It was also the tallest building in New York until 1890!
The 18th-century graveyard contains the resting places of many famous Americans, including Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth, Francis Lewis (a signatory on the Declaration of Independence), and Horatio Gates (a Continental Army general).
10. Get free museum admission
NYC is home to some of the best museums in the world. Many offer free entry (usually a “pay-what-you-wish” policy) on certain days of the week. Some that offer discounted entry or free admission are:
- Whitney Museum of American Art
- Solomon R. Guggenheim
- Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design
- 9/11 Memorial Museum
The days and discounts vary, so be sure to check the museum’s website for more information. Most require you to book your visit in advance.
11. See the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry
The Statue of Liberty is spectacular to see up close (it’s as big as you imagine), but if the line’s too long or you don’t want to pay $30, take the free Staten Island ferry for photos of the statue and the city skyline instead. It’s a faster, cheaper, and a more local experience, as commuters use this ferry to travel between Staten Island and Manhattan.
The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes each way.
12. Visit the 9/11 Memorial
The 9/11 Memorial Park, dedicated on the tenth anniversary of that horrific day, honors the lives lost on September 11, 2001. It consists of two gigantic, square-shaped waterfalls marking where the towers once stood; the outline of the buildings is inscribed with the names of those who died that day.
The 9/11 memorial is free to visit.
To get a deeper understanding of the events that unfolded that day, visit the museum, located next to the park. It opened in May 2014 and is home to moving exhibits that illuminate the scope and significance of the tragedy and rescue effort. Admission costs $26.
13. Wander in Battery Park
This park on the southern tip of Manhattan is where the Dutch built Fort Amsterdam in 1625. When the British took control of the area in 1664, they renamed it Fort George. While the fort was mostly destroyed during the American War of Independence, the battery was expanded after the war’s end.
Today, there are dozens of historic monuments and plaques in the park. They cover everything from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to immigration to honoring the Coast Guard and much more.
It’s a nice place to stroll and settle down with a book or picnic.
14. Walk the High Line
Made from a converted elevated train track, the High Line is an extremely popular urban walking park on the west side of NYC. It runs for 1.45 miles and is lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, food stalls, and greenery. Having opened in 2009, the park now receives over 8 million visitors each year.
Go for a walk, sit with a book, people-watch — the High Line is one of the best things in town to do, especially on a nice day. (The new Whitney Museum of American Art is located near the southern
terminus of the park. It’s worth visiting too, or at least admiring the incredible architecture from the outside!)
15. Stroll along the Brooklyn Bridge
Located near City Hall, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1883. Today, it’s a major tourist attraction and local icon.
Walking the 1.6 miles across the bridge into Brooklyn takes about 25 minutes. Stopping to take photos and meandering extends the walk to about 40 minutes. I suggest going in the evening so you can see the lights of the city skyline.
16. Visit Bryant Park and the New York Public Library
Bryant Park is one of the best parks in the Big Apple (as NYC is nicknamed). It’s the site of winter ice skating, free summer movies, festivals, and fairs, as well as endless meals and meetings at its tables. I love this park, especially when there’s a special event.
An added perk of visiting is that the best (and free!) public restrooms in the whole city are located here (on the northeast side of the park). They’re fancy, with fresh flowers, art, and a classical music soundtrack.
Located next to the park is the main branch of the New York Public Library, the second largest library system in the US after the Library of Congress, with more than 50 million books and other items.
You may recognize the iconic library lions out front, but you can also go inside and view the beautiful interior, take a free tour, and visit the rotating exhibitions. This is also one of my favorite places in New York to write!
17. Walk around Prospect Park
Once you get out of Manhattan, spend time exploring Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s version of Central Park (it was designed by the same architect, Frederick Law Olmsted). The park opened in 1867 and spans 600 acres. It offers winding woodland paths, a lake for boating, an ice rink in winter, a zoo, a carousel, and more.
Many events take place here in the summer, including concerts (free and paid), festivals, and the famed Smorgasburg food festival.
While New York City can certainly be pricey, it doesn’t have to be astronomically expensive to visit. True, it’s never going to be cheap, but it doesn’t have to break the bank either. By enjoying the abundance of free parks, museums, and attractions, you can explore this amazing city without missing out.
Author Bio: Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. He also wrote the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and countless other publications.
You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Austin.