Free things to do in New York City

New York City skyline Empire State Building View of New York City skyline from Empire State Building | Roshni Karthikeyan
New York City skyline Empire State Building
View of New York City skyline from Empire State Building | Roshni Karthikeyan

New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the US. The Empire State Observatory Deck at $38 and the One World Observatory a whopping $45 could cost you an arm and a leg. So, here’s a list of all the free / dirt cheap things for you to experience this bustling city!

Take a pay-what-you-can guided tour

The New York Stock Exchange
The New York Stock Exchange, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

This is one of the best ways to experience the city without spending hours planning and plotting subway stops. I took the New York in One day tour by Free Tours by Foot which is a 6-hour long tour taking you through Lower Manhattan, Financial District, World Trade Center, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and High Line Park. If you enjoy long walks and historic buildings, this tour is definitely for you! They also have a host of other tours, pick your choice from food tours to vintage shopping.

It is a pay-what-you-can tour, so please go prepared with some cash and pay your guides what you feel they deserve. My guide gave his heart and soul to the tour, speaking above the crazy traffic and crowds. From my experience, the guides definitely don’t do a sub-par job just because it’s not a fully paid tour.

Central Park

Bethesda Fountain Central Park New York City
Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

You don’t need me to tell you that a park is free to visit! But I just have to make a mention of this iconic park that offers a slice of nature and peace bang in the middle of this city that never sleeps. It’s filled with statues, quiet benches, free events, people-watching, ponds, and fountains.

Take a book and find yourself a shaded spot overlooking the Bethesda Fountain to enjoy your day. You might be witness to a small, cozy wedding ceremony like I was, have a few sparrows perch right next to you on the bench, and watch the summer rain clouds pass above the charming fountain.


Take a walk through the historic Chinatown of NYC and you might feel like you’ve been transported to another continent! From exotic foods like live eels and rambutans and some of the best dim sum, pork buns, and bubble tea in the city to ceramics and tea shops, this place has all the elements to astound anybody. Most items are inexpensive but you can always just walk around taking in all the sights and smells without having to spend a penny.

If you decide to take your wallet out for a treat or two, I recommend the Moon Cake from Lung Moon’s bakery. Moon Cakes are the Chinese version of a holiday fruitcake, but this little hole in the wall bakery serves them all-year round. They’re fresh, tasty, about $5 apiece, and if you aren’t much of a sweet-tooth, there’s enough in one cake to split between two people.

The next place, aka heaven to me, is Sun’s Organic Garden. With a wide array of teas in glass jars stocking the ceiling-high shelves, this small loose-leaf tea shop is a love at first sight for anyone who enjoys the drink. Get your tea nerd on with the knowledgeable staff, sniff some bottles of the finest teas you like, and buy the quantity of your choice as this place sells by the ounce.

Federal Hall

George Washington Federal Hall New York City
Statue of George Washington outside Federal Hall, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

Take home a piece of historic memory with your visit to the Federal Hall. Two presidents of the United States of America were inaugurated in this historic landmark on Wall St. This place is easy to spot with a life-size statue of George Washington overlooking the New York Stock Exchange across the street. There’s a small museum inside with artifacts including the slab on which George Washington stood while taking his oath.

9/11 Memorial

We all know the tragedy that struck the World Trade Center but what first time visitors don’t know is the beautiful memorial that has been created to pay respect to those who lost their lives there. A quick walk around the place is enough to bring back vivid flashbacks of watching this over the news in 2001. Listen to the water flowing through peacefully, take in all the emotions, and pay your respect to all those lives lost. If you see a white rose on a name, it’s the victim’s birthday.

PS: Do not do anything insensitive (such as talk loudly or take photos), as families come here to remember their loved ones.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge New York City
Brooklyn Bridge, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

This icon of New York City is free for everyone to visit. The Brooklyn Bridge, originally called the New York and Brooklyn Bridge is a major tourist attraction. You can walk or bike on the bridge and spend as much time as you want to see the New York skyline and the East River during day or night. This suspension bridge is also a National Historic Landmark.

Staten Island Ferry

Ferry tours to the Statue of Liberty usually cost about $18 for adults, but this Staten Island ferry is absolutely free! This 25-minute ferry ride provides a majestic view of the New York skyline and Lady Liberty. Check out their timings, pack your lunch, and make the most of your day with this free ferry ride.

High Line Park

View of New York City from High Line Park
View of New York City from High Line Park, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

Built on what used to be an old railway line, the park that is suspended 30 feet above the roads, is a bustling tourist attraction. Connecting the Meatpacking District with the galleries of Chelsea, the High Line Park is an urban renewal of an abandoned railroad that was once a dingy freight line connecting slaughterhouses. Now the park is one of the most celebrated green spaces in the city offering stunning views of the Hudson river. Bring a book to read and some tea to sip on, and walk over to the Chelsea market for some treats if you’re hungry.

Times Square

Times Square, New York City
Times Square, NYC | Roshni Karthikeyan

Last but definitely the best free spot to visit in NYC is Times Square. Walk along the busy lanes catching glimpses of the sunset through the skyscraper-lined New York streets to get to the Crossroads of the World. Illuminated by neon signs, dotted with fascinating people and gatherings, this is truly a sight to behold. The digital hoardings come to life as the sun sets and the skies darken. Remembering every song or movie that etched this iconic place in your mind, take a seat on the red stairs and watch the tourists, the colorful lights, the stock listings on Nasdaq, and many other interesting events, public art and much more.