Today I’ve got a guest post from Matt Kepnes of Nomadic Matt—my former boss! Matt’s take on budget travel is always awesome, and he knows New York City like the back of his hand. And yes, these are all budget-friendly options even on a Canadian dime.
After having traveled the world for over a decade, there are few places that captivate me as much as New York City.
There are lots of things to do in NYC: it’s bursting with world-class restaurants, bars, speakeasies, and museums; eclectic people; and an endless stream of events and activities.
It would take many lifetimes to see it all.
It’s impossible to be bored in New York, which is precisely why I moved there when I stopped traveling continuously in 2013. There are tons of cheap flights to and from there as well, making it a good base for nomads like me.
However, as amazing as it is, too many people get caught up in the expensive “touristy” NYC that locals never see. So here are my favorite budget-friendly activities in the city:
1. Take a free walking tour
One of the first things I do when I visit a new city is take a free walking tour. They’re the best way to see the main sights and learn a little history. Plus, you’ll get to interact with a local guide and ask them questions, likely earning you some insider tips you won’t find in the guidebooks.
Free Tours by Foot and Big Apple Greeter both offer insightful free walking tours around town. Just make sure to tip your guide at the end!
2. Relax in Central Park
Central Park encompasses a whopping 150 square blocks (that’s over 840 acres). It’s easy to spend hours wandering around, relaxing, reading, and watching life go by.
While I love the hustle and bustle of NYC, the park is the perfect place to escape it. It’s free, there are lots of paths to walk (or run), bike lanes, lakes to row in, and a zoo. Bring a book, pack a picnic, and lounge the day away like locals do.
During the summer, there are free concerts and theater productions too (you’ll need to line up early for tickets though).
From the late spring to the early fall, you can take a free guided tour run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11am. It’s a fun way to learn more about the park and its history.
3. Visit the MoMA and other museums — for free
While I’m not a big modern art fan, there are lots of amazing works at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), including Van Gogh’s Starry Night (it’s worth a visit for the Van Gogh, alone if you ask me!).
MoMA is free on Friday evenings after 5:30pm. Admission is usually $25 USD per person, so scheduling your visit for Friday evening (while not super convenient) will save you a good chunk of money.
There are also several other museums that offer free visits on certain days (or every day):
- The Whitney Museum of American Art (Fridays)
- The Solomon R. Guggenheim (suggested donations after 5pm on Fridays)
- The Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design (Tuesday evenings)
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (aka The Met) (suggested donation is $20 USD)
- The Museum of American Folk Art is free
- The Steuben Gallery is free
4. See the Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty, built in 1875 on Ellis Island, is the most iconic symbol of New York. However, visiting Ellis Island to learn about the immigrant experience — while super informative — isn’t cheap. There are long lines, and tickets to the statue cost $22 USD (including the ferry).
If you’re on a tight budget, walk a few blocks to the free Staten Island Ferry instead. It takes you across the harbor and offers a good view of both the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. The ride takes about 20 minutes each way and is the cheapest way to snap some photos of the famous statue.
5. Walk the High Line
The High Line is a former elevated train track that has been converted into an urban walking park. It stretches almost 1.5 miles and is lined with gardens, public art, and food stalls. It’s one of the best things to do in town — especially in the summer. Bring a book or just spend a couple hours wandering and people-watching. You won’t be disappointed.
6. See the 9/11 Memorial
September 11, 2001, was one of the most formative events in New York’s turbulent history. Almost 3,000 people perished that day, and the 9/11 Memorial was built to commemorate their deaths. The memorial was built at Ground Zero and comprises a massive reflecting pool where you can read the names of everyone who was killed in the attack. It’s a somber place but worth visiting at least once.
If you’re not on a super tight budget and want a deeper understanding of 9/11 and the events that unfolded, visit the museum next door. Its exhibits contain all kinds of personal stories and artifacts and illuminate exactly what happened both during and after the attacks. It’s sobering but informative. Admission is $26 USD.
7. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Like the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic sight. Built in 1863, it stretches over 6,000 feet (1,834m). It’s just 25 minutes to walk across, though you’ll want to stop to snap photos of the Insta-worthy Manhattan skyline along the way. Personally, I like doing this walk at night when city is lit up and there are fewer crowds.
8. See a Broadway show
While Broadway productions are currently on hold due to COVID, normally you can’t visit NYC without seeing a show — it’s the theater capital of the world!
You can find discounted same-day theater tickets at the TKTS offices around town (including Times Square). They also have an app where you can see what’s on offer too. Expect to spend at least $100 USD, however. While that may not seem “budget friendly,” it’s a far cry from what regular ticketholders will pay (Hamilton tickets were upwards of $1,000 USD!)
9. Visit Trinity Church
Trinity Church is one of the oldest in the country. Built in 1698, the original Trinity was a small parish building constructed by the Church of England. When the British seized New York after George Washington’s retreat, it was used as a British base of operations.
The original building was lost in the Great Fire of 1776, which wiped out a quarter of the city. The new building was consecrated in 1790 and was where both George Washington and Alexander Hamilton worshipped. The church’s graveyard is the final resting place of many a famous Americans, including Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth.
10. See Grand Central Terminal
This is NYC’s historic train station. Opened in 1871, it was actually slated to be demolished and replaced in 1975, but it was saved by Jackie Kennedy and today is one of the world’s most-visited sites (over 21 million people every year).
I love going to the main concourse and watching people race by. While you can wander the station yourself, there are free historical tours on Wednesdays (paid tours are available other days).
11. Wander Battery Park
Named after the old batteries (cannons) that defended the city, Battery Park is a lively place in the summer, with music and street performers and plenty of space to lounge with a book and people-watch.
Located at the southern tip of Manhattan, the park is where the Dutch built Fort Amsterdam in 1625 to defend their settlement. The British seized the area in 1664 and eventually renamed it Fort George. While the fort was mostly destroyed during the Revolution, the battery was expanded after the war’s end.
You can explore the ruins of the old fort that kept watch over New York City, and there are over 20 monuments and plaques in the park, covering everything from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 to immigration and more.
Other Ways to Save Money in NYC
Here are some helpful tips to ensure you make the most of your visit to NYC without going broke:
- Get a MetroCard – A seven-day pass is $33 USD. With fares costing $2.75 USD, you just need to use public transportation 12 times to get your money’s worth. You can easily do that in just a couple days of exploring, so get a weeklong pass to save money.
- Binge at the $1 oyster happy hours – Most happy hours start around 4pm and go until 6-7pm. They’re a cheap way to eat oysters and drink on a budget. Here are some of my favorites.
- Embrace bottomless brunch – On the weekend, there are a handful of restaurants that offer unlimited drinks with your order. Prices start at $14 USD, making this a super affordable way to enjoy New York’s bottomless pastime.
- Use Citi Bike – You can bike just about anywhere in New York City. Citi Bike is a bike-sharing system that offers rides from $3 USD per 30-minute ride, or $12 USD for the full day. There are bikes all over town, making this a super cheap way to take in the sights.
New York is an amazing city, and with the right tips, it doesn’t need to break the bank. Fortunately, there are lots of cheap and free things to do in New York City to help you keep your budget intact. By incorporating the above suggestions, you can save a ton of money on your visit to the Big Apple while still seeing some of the best things the city has to offer.
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 and the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured on CNN and the BBC and in the New York Times, The Guardian, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, Time, and countless other publications. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt. When he’s not on the road, he lives in Austin.