If you think you have to be paisans with a Corleone or Soprano to get something for nothing in New York City, then fuhgedaboudit! It doesn't take a made man to see the best of Gotham without it costing a dime, and you won't even have to whack anybody to do it.
Real wiseguys know the secret to saving big dough in the Big Apple is to seek out all the free walking tours to some of the city's most famous attractions. So grab a seat on a stoop and take a look at these free tours that are fun for the whole,er, "family."
Federal Reserve Bank of New York 33 Liberty St., Phone: 212/720-6130, newyorkfed.org
Instead of spending money, why don't you spend 60 minutes looking at it--a lot of it. Located in the Financial District, the Fed's tour includes a look at the Gold Vault--five stories underground-- where $60 billion is held. Other exhibits? Officially, the Fed's role includes "formulating and executing monetary policy," but what that really means is they raise and lower interest rates and they act as the government's personal banker. By toying with the exhibit "Fed Works," tourists will get to take over for Mr. Greenspan and see if they could do his job better. Also tour guides take tourists through the five-year exhibit, "Drachmas, Dubloons and Dollars: The History of Money." Hosted by the Fed, "Drachmas" includes over 800 examples of the American Numismatic Society's collection of currency. At the end of the tour, you'll even get to pocket some cash-- too bad it's been shredded!
The hour-long tours are held Mon-Fri, between 9:30 AM and 2:30 PM. Because the Fed hosts up to 30 thousand tourists a year, reservations are required for the tour.
Central Park Central Park Conservancy, 14 E. 60th St., Tour hotline: 212/360-2726, centralparknyc.org
If you hear anyone tell you to "get lost" or "take a hike" while in New York City, then this is the place to go. Central Park has been around for 150 years and is 843-acres (about six percent of Manhattan's total acreage) of escape from the big city. Before Central Park was designed as the first park entirely for the public, New Yorkers' only refuge from the city was in less-than-cheery cemeteries. To celebrate the park with something for everyone, the Central Park Conservancy, in partnership with the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, hosts six different volunteer-guided tours of the park on Wednesdays and weekends at various times. Browse the website and, depending on which tour you choose, you will get a chance to see the Sheep Meadow, which was originally intended as a military parade ground; Tavern on the Green (the restaurant) which was once home to Central Park's shepherd and sheep; or you can opt to spend time with geniuses William Shakespeare and Beethoven--or their famous sculptures anyways. Most tours last one hour and the guides have been trained by the Conservancy's resident historian, so you will be guaranteed to learn a few things on your stroll through Manhattan's urban oasis.
Grand Central Station grandcentralterminal.com
Opened it 1913, Grand Central is actually a terminal and not a station since trains terminate and originate from here. The newly-restored building is a magnificent nod to old New York while also playing host to over 150 thousand commuters every day. Whether it's due to Grand Central's grandiosity or because it's the site of so much activity, this site has several groups clamoring to give tours.
Municipal Arts Society Phone: 212/935-3960, mas.org
The Municipal Arts Society's tour of Grand Central has been running for 25 years, so it's a pretty good bet they won't get lost in this labyrinthine building. The tour is on every Wednesday at 12:30 PM, and lasts an hour. It's run by various local historians, and focuses especially on architectural design and details. Be prepared to crane your neck at the constellations on the terminal's ceiling. Tours meet at the Grand Central info booth.
Grand Central Partnership
Phone: 212/883-2420, grandcentralpartnership.org/
Billing itself as "The Grand Tour," the Grand Central Partnership branches out from the famous terminal to the neighborhood surrounding it. The anecdotal tour is guided by "urban explorer, historian, and storyteller" Justin Ferate and touches on the Chrysler Building, the Daily News Building, and the original Lincoln Memorial. The 90-minute tour is every Friday at 12:30 PM, and meets across the street from the terminal in the Sculpture Court of the Whitney Museum on the corner of 42nd St. and Park Ave.
Times Square Times Square Visitor's Center, 1560 Broadway, Phone: 212/869-1890, timessquarebid.org/
Even when Dick Clark's not presiding over New Year's Eve, Times Square is teeming with people. With two police precincts, 40 theaters, 12.5 thousand hotel rooms, and almost two million passer-bys each day, it is the overtaxed heart of Manhattan. With all this to cover, The Times Square Business Improvement District's tour picks its targets carefully--it's more of a walk an inch-stop-walk an inch-stop tour instead of a walking tour. The tour can last up to two hours and focuses on the old vs. new: from the history of landmark theaters where vaudevillians performed to the spectacle of massive Trinitron video screens. Its guides lead the way through the human traffic every Friday at noon at the Times Square Visitor's Center.
Lower East Side Talking Street tours, 800/644-3545, talkingstreet.com/
If you were hoping to tour New York while taking part in a new use of technology and hobnobbing with celebrities, this definitely the walking tour for you--sort of. Talking Street's tour "The Lower East Side: Birthplace of Dreams," is the first-ever call-in cell phone tour, and is guided by LES native Jerry Stiller (George's dad on "Seinfeld," and real-life dad to Ben) with music by Irving Berlin and Eddie Cantor. Stiller takes you through the neighborhood where Easter European Jews immigrated, gangsters organized, and actors and artists strived. The tour works by having you call the 800-number above when you are at a selected stop. Then Stiller gives information about the site and directions to the next of 13 stops. The entire tour takes about an hour if you go from the first to last stop, and Stiller's audio segments are each under three minutes. The fun of the tour, however, is picking and choosing which sites appeal to you the most, and with a downloadable map from the website, it's easy to do. While the tour is free, it's important to note that regular cell phone charges do apply, so call when you have extra minutes to spend.
Big Apple Greeters 1 Centre Street, Suite 2035, 212/669-8159, bigapplegreeter.org/
You want see New York like a real New Yorker would? You want to eat soul food in Harlem, see the Statue of Liberty for free, and maybe even explore those other boroughs outside of Manhattan? If yes, then Big Apple Greeters is the volunteer group for you. BAG's mission is to show that New York is a friendly city, and her denizens aren't so bad either. By contacting them in advance, BAG will pair you with a knowledgeable "greeter" that suits the kind of experience you want to have in the city. In addition, these ambassadors of goodwill give you a free one-day subway pass and show you how to navigate the city's public transportation system. Your visit with BAG can be as long or as short as you wish, and the only requirement is that you have two or more in your group.
A few more
If you STILL haven't gotten the compulsion to tour New York for free out of your system, here are a few more worth considering.