We wish we could find you a free plane ticket to New York City—and a complimentary hotel room when you get here!—but once you're in town, NYC rolls out a never-ending supply of amazing activities that most travelers would be more than happy to pay for, but don't have to. Whether it's world-class Shakespeare, a refreshing boat ride, an unforgettable evening at a museum, or just stretching out on the lawn at a relaxing Midtown oasis, summer in the city has never been more affordable!
Shakespeare in the Park
The Bard's Comedy of Errors and a new musical adaptation of his Love's Labour's Lost give audiences the opportunity to hear Elizabethan drama presented in the open air, as it was in Shakespeare's day, at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. All tickets are free and are distributed in a number of ways, including a line at the theater and online ticketing. To find out how to nab your tickets, visit shakespeareinthepark.org.
Staten Island Ferry
Did you know that you can get a boat tour of New York Bay, complete with views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and cool off in the salty breezes? Stop—there's no need to reach for your wallet. New York's iconic Staten Island Ferry makes regular trips between lower Manhattan and the borough of Staten Island free of charge. For schedules, visit siferry.com.
New York Philharmonic
During the New York Philharmonic's regular concert season, you've got to pony up some bucks to dress up, sit quietly, and savor this major league orchestra in its home at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. But in summer, the band loosens its bowtie a bit, offering free concerts in some of the city's most beautiful parks. You should feel free to loosen up, too, with a blanket, a picnic basket, and music-loving friends. This year, "the Phil" will be playing Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in Manhattan's Central Park, Brooklyn's Prospect Park, the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, and Queens's Cunningham Park. For locations and times, check out the orchestra's summer schedule.
The High Line
Psst! Lately when you mention how much you love, say, Central Park or Bryant Park to a New Yorker, they may reply, with just a touch of smug, "Well, have you been to the High Line?" This former elevated freight rail line has been converted into a unique public park that runs down the West Side of Manhattan from 30th Street to the West Village, with multiple access points, including wheelchair accessibility, along the way. Although you may not find free Shakespeare or a carousel up there, the chance to see the city from a different angle—included guided walking tours and Tuesday-night stargazing—is priceless. And free. Visit thehighline.org to learn more.
Big Apple Greeters
What if I told you that you could get your own personal friendly New Yorker to show you around town and share insider secrets? If I told you the service would be free, you might think my next offer would be a certain bridge to Brooklyn, right? Well, Big Apple Greeters have been delivering free personalized tours of the city for more than 20 years. You can expect a greeter to show you and your family (or small group of friends) around a neighborhood of the city, demystify New York's public transportation system for you, and maybe even divulge locals-only intel like where the find the best cannoli or matzo-ball soup in town. Request your own greeter at bigapplesgreeter.org.
New York Botanical Garden
All day each Wednesday, and from 10 to 11 a.m. each Saturday, the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, opens its grounds to visitors free of charge. You can hop a subway train or Metro North's Harlem line from Grand Central Terminal to get there, and walk the winding paths among the trees and flowering plants. You'll have to pay to get into the greenhouses or special events—but on a lovely summer's day, the grounds will likely offer more than enough flora to keep you satisfied. Learn more about the botanical garden's summer programs at nybg.org.
Children's Museum of the Arts
With a funky address in downtown Manhattan, the Children's Museum of the Arts keeps kids—and parents!—inspired and focused with hands-on activities and educational presentations by talented and kid-friendly staffers. Not sure if arts and crafts will be your little one's cup of tea? On Thursday afternoons from 4 to 6, you can pay whatever you like to gain admission. Learn more at cmany.org.
Every single day of the summer, Central Park's calendar is packed with activities like catch-and-release fishing, guided tours of gardens and wild spaces, concerts, theater, and more—not to mention the fact that the park also hosts the charmingly manageable Central Park Zoo, a carousel, puppet theater, and, oh yeah, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (whose admission is always a suggested donation that you can tailor to your budget). But, honestly, the best way to enjoy Central Park is to wander its paths with someone you love, discovering its ponds, bridges, and public sculptures as you go. If you're the type who must plan ahead, you'll find maps and a somewhat overwhelming schedule of events, visit the park's official site at centralparknyc.org.
Museum of Modern Art
On Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m., admission to MoMA is free, including all galleries, films, and exhibitions. With a collection that includes some of the best-known works by Van Gogh, Mondrian, Picasso, Chagall, and other 19th- and 20th-century artists, MoMA is a bargain at any admission price. To see it free of charge at the end of a long week is a special treat. Insider tip (well, it's my opinion): Leave time for a visit to the outdoor sculpture garden on a balmy night. To learn more about MoMA's programs, visit moma.org.
Got a little time on your hands? How about a free concert? Or dance recital? Or how about 100 free performances in 17 public parks in all five of New York City's boroughs? Summerstage arranges an incredible array of free entertainment each year, including music, dance, and comedy. Find a few—or a few dozen!—that sound good to you at cityparksfoundation.org/summerstage.
Grand Central Terminal
At the corner of 42nd Strett and Vanderbilt Avenue in Midtown, you'll find an architectural treasure that's worth a visit even if you're not planning on hopping on a train. Grand Central Terminal's main hall has the open, uplifting feeling of a cathedral interior, and if you're lucky enough to visit on a sunny, day, you'll see the classic image of sunlight pouring in the building's iconic windows, illuminating the bustle below. For a schedule of the building's award-winning, absolutely free walking tours, visit grandcentralpartnership.org.
New York Public Library
Not just a collection of books—though what a collection it is!—the New York Public Library's main building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue also hosts numerous free art and history exhibits with materials from its extensive collection of drawings, paintings, maps, manuscripts, and bound books. If you're a fan of the film Ghostbusters, the building will feel eerily, and comically, familiar. And don't forget to pay the sculpted lions outside a visit! Visit nypl.org for a schedule of exhibits and special events.
Right behind the main library, Bryant Park is an oasis of green—and blood-pressure-lowering serenity—in the midst of Midtown. A children's carousel imported from France plays Edith Piaf recordings as the kids whirl around on beautifully carved and painted horses, bunnies, and cats (it'll set you back a whopping $2 per ride), and there are a few spots to buy lunch or dinner in the park. But a seat by the fountain on a hot summer day is just about all it takes to relax and recharge—as many New Yorkers do on their lunch hours. The park's summer film festival presents a free movie every Monday night—bring a blanket and a picnic dinner, and get there early to nab a spot on the lawn where you can enjoy a classic like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Norma Rae, or E.T. the Extraterrestrial. To find out what's going on at the park, visit bryantpark.org.
St. Patrick's Cathedral
As long as you remember that you're stepping into a house of worship (hats off, voices low), a stop at St. Patrick's is a lovely way to escape the summer heat and hoards of shoppers on Fifth Avenue. Religious sculptures, stained glass windows, and soaring architecture can almost convince you that you've stepped into a time machine—or been transported to a European capital. Visit saintpatrickscathedral.org for a schedule of events, including masses and concerts.
National Museum of the American Indian
New Yorkers who envy Washingtonians for their free access to the Smithsonian museums are forgetting that Manhattan has a Smithsonian museum of its own: the National Museum of the American Indian. Located downtown at the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, the museum is devoted to the history and culture of America's native peoples and in addition to permanent exhibits also offers regular music and dance presentations. Visit nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork to learn more.