What to do for free in NYC

By Zach Udko

Photography by Toshi Sasaki/Getty Images

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September 2016

Who says you have to be a big spender to fully embrace the Big Apple? You can step into an Empire state of mind without ever opening your wallet. Local writer Zach Udko picks 26 free things to do if you’re on a budget in New York City.

Best for… foodies

1. Graze your way through Union Square Greenmarket (open every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), where local farmers will greet you with free samples of lavender honey goats’ cheese, wild blueberry jam, and bison jerky.

2. The vendors at Chelsea Market, New York’s largest indoor food hall, are always eager to offer you bites of brownies, cupcakes, and homemade pasta – not to mention the generous pours at Chelsea Wine Vault’s tasting room.

3. For a taste of old New York, visit the iconic Upper West Side gourmet epicurean emporium Zabar’s, complete with a display of 600 cheeses to sample.

4. The Aperitivo Hour at Ovest (next to the High Line) features a buffet of complimentary Italian appetizers and live music to accompany happy hour cocktails, weekdays between 17:00 and 20:00.

5. Free meals are nearly impossible to find in the Big Apple, but if you crawl over to the East Village hipster hangout Crocodile Lounge (or its Brooklyn sister, Alligator Lounge, you can chomp on a free individual Margherita pizza with every drink you buy, every night of the week.

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  • Tuck into free food samples at Union Square Greenmarket ©Michael Grimm/Getty Images

    Top tip…

    Locals will tell you that early morning – ideally when the market opens at 08:00 – on a Wednesday or Friday is the best time to visit Union Square Greenmarket and beat the crowds.

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  • Birdwatching: Spot a male painted bunting in Prospect Park © Howard Cheek Photography / Getty

    Picnic perfection

    Make Prospect Park your destination for a lazy picnic lunch. The Long Meadow is the most pleasant spot. If you crave the shade, head for the southern end near the ball fields. Fly from London to New York.

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  • Iconic A field of bluebells in Brooklyn Botanic Gardens © Getty Images

    Plan your visit

    The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens are open 8:00 to 18:00 Tuesday to Friday and 10:00 to 18:00 Saturday and Sunday. The gardens are closed on Mondays, but open for public holidays including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Columbus Day.

    Things to do in NYC

Best for… party animals

6. If you can make it past the discretionary door at Le Bain, the impossibly cool club located on top of the Standard High Line, you won’t pay a cover charge for one of the city’s best rooftop parties.

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7. For the warehouse club experience without the attitude (and free cover most Sundays through Wednesdays), head to Williamsburg’s Output Club – you might catch a guest DJ set by Hot Chip or Erykah Badu.

8. Want a more intimate (yet equally wild) night out? Visit two of Brooklyn’s trendiest alternative dance clubs: the tropical-themed Bossa Nova Civic Club in Bushwick and Black Flamingo in Williamsburg; both offer free admission before midnight.

in Bushwick and Black Flamingoin Bushwick and Black Flamingoin Bushwick and Black Flamingo
  • Warm up your singing voice for an evening at Sid Gold’s Request Room

    Party planner

    Grab a seat at the bar at Sid Gold’s Request room to watch the friendly bartenders mix classic cocktails. After 21:00, go through the curtains to discover a karaoke lounge complete with a baby grand and pianist who takes requests.

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9. Call the tune and take centre stage at the swanky Sid Gold’s Request Room in Chelsea, where the live piano karaoke is free Mondays through Saturdays, starting at 21:00.

10. Join New York’s reigning drag superstars Pixie Aventura and Monet X Change for an unapologetically irreverent revue every Wednesday at Therapy; or watch Broadway talent tear down the house on Mondays at Industry – both events start at 23:00.

Best for… culture lovers

11. Most museums offer free admission on select weekdays, including MoMA on (Fridays, 16:00-20:00), The Whitney (Fridays, 19:00-21:30), and the 9/11 Memorial Museum (Tuesdays, 17:00-20:00).

12. New York’s most cutting-edge art can be experienced without a ticket at dozens of Chelsea gallery spaces (located between 10th and 11th Avenues, from 18th Street to 28th Street). For a glimpse at some rising and established superstars, check out David ZwirnerTaglialatella, and the Gagosian.

  • Discover Greenwich Village and its iconic townhouses on a walking tour © Robert Harding

    They’ll be there for you

    One of the most popular stops on the Greenwich Walking Tour is the apartment building used in the hit TV show <Friends>. Look out for it when you reach the corner of Grove and Bedford Streets.

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  • Get into the 9/11 Memorial Museum for free on Tuesdays from 17:00-20:00 © Toshi Sasaki / Getty Images

    Did you know?

    As well as holding almost 10,000 artefacts from the day of the tragic attacks – including emergency vehicles that attended the scene and recordings of 911 phone calls – the museum also incorporates some of the original building’s structures.

    Things to do in NYC
  • Check out some of New York’s most cutting-edge art at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art © Ben Gancsos

    A work of art

    The gallery houses work by more than 3,000 US artists, including Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Fancy free lifetime membership? The museum grants it to every artist featured in its permanent collection – so grab your paintbrush!

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13. AsssCat 3000 at the Upright Citizens Brigade is arguably the city’s best long-form improv show, and its Sunday performance at 21:30 – often featuring television stars – is completely free for those willing to stand in line for a few hours.

New York’s most cutting-edge art can be experienced without a ticket at dozens of Chelsea gallery spaces

14. Meet Whoopi Goldberg at a live taping of The View, or see your favourite celeb guests on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Plan ahead by submitting an audience request form, as spots do fill up weeks in advance.

15. Cake Shop hosts a free stand-up comedy night every Tuesday at 20:30, often hosted by the hilarious John Early, where past guests have included Aziz Ansari.

Best for… urban adventurers

16. Explore Williamsburg’s street art scene, the history of Lower Manhattan, or the fabled haunted houses of Greenwich Village with Free Tours By Foot, where you can tip the experts whatever you wish.

17. For natural beauty that rivals the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, stroll through the Instagrammable Conservatory Garden in Central Park, located near the 5th Avenue and 105th Street entrance.

  • Unwind with a free tai chi class on The High Line © Rowa Lee/Friends of The High Line

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18. Rise above the hustle and bustle of midtown at one of the High Line’s many free activities, including tai chi classes, stargazing, or wildlife tours.

19. Join The Rise collective for one of their early morning site-specific high-intensity workouts, including Flatiron Form and Flow (a fusion of yoga, ballet and calisthenics) and the Brooklyn Body Circuit.

20. Throw yourself into a free juggling lesson in Bryant Park.

21. Go fishing in Prospect Park or spot a migrating songbird at the park’s Pop-Up Audobon.

Best for… the seasons

22. Hop on the ferry to Governors Island and ride a bike around its perimeter every summer weekday between 10:00 and 12:00, courtesy of Blazing Saddles.

23. Enter the online lottery or stand in line to guarantee a seat at the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in Central Park, where Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and Anne Hathaway have made it worth the wait in past summers.

24. Bryant Park hosts free ice-skating in the winter (skate rentals are available for a small fee) and a summer film festival under the stars.

25. Paddle up the Hudson River in a free kayak, available from May until October at The Downtown Boathouse.

26. Attend a concert at Summerstage, New York’s largest free performing arts festival in all five boroughs. Recent headliners have included Beck, DJ Kool Herc, The Roots, and Common.

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