We’ve had the opportunity to visit New York City many, many times over the years — for work, for fun, for a stopover on the way to another destination. Since it’s only a short train ride away from Boston, it’s not difficult to plan a quick trip for the weekend or a few days. That said, between transit, hotels, food, and attractions, the cost of even a short visit to NYC can really start to add up. That’s we’re always looking for new free things to do in NYC — and we’ve compiled a list of our favorite attractions to share.
All the sights are listed from North to South between Central Park and the ferry terminals in Lower Manhattan. So, you can plan your itinerary based on where your hotel is and what direction you’re heading for the day.
1. Central Park
Central Park is America’s first public park and one of the most filmed locations in the world. The park spans over 50 city blocks and is home to several lakes, monuments, statues, fountains, and bridges, not to mention sports fields, playgrounds, and several miles of roads and trails. In addition, Central Park is home to a zoo and even a castle, Belvedere Castle, a weather station and visitor’s center. Taking a long walk is definitely one of our favorite free things to do in NYC, which is why Central Park is at the top of our list.
2. Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center Plaza is a bustling area with statues of Prometheus and Atlas During Christmas time, the main attraction is the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and an ice-skating rink.
3. Times Square
Times Square is impressive, touristy, and very crowded every day and night. It really comes to life, though, when the sun sets and all the various screens light up the square. Here you will find all sorts of stores and restaurants. There are also many theaters located in the streets surrounding Times Square, especially on Broadway.
4. Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal, New York City’s former main train station, first opened in 1913. Long distance trains arrive and depart from Penn Station now, but Grand Central is still a station for several subway and Metro-North lines. This historic landmark in Midtown Manhattan is not just a transportation hub—it’s also known for shopping and dining. The main hall is one of New York City’s great architectural achievements and is worth stopping by to look around and grab a photo. Grand Central Terminal is open daily from 5:30 AM to 2:00 AM.
5. The Vessel
The Vessel is a new landmark in New York City and the centerpiece of the newly redeveloped Hudson Yards district. The structure, which looks similar to a beehive, is comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs — almost 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings. The vertical climb offers remarkable views of the city, Hudson river and beyond. Tickets are free, but quantities are limited and should be reserved in advance. You can grab tickets online up to 14 days before your visit.
6. The High Line
The High Line is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets of Manhattan. The High Line runs from West 34th Street, right next to the Vessel, south to Gansevoort Street with multiple entrances in between that 1.45-mile-long (2.33 km) stretch. Although it can get crowded at times, the park is still a nice respite from the bustling city streets. The High Line is open daily, and hours vary by season.
7. Flatiron Building
The Flatiron building was built on a triangular plot of land in 1902 and is one of the city’s most unique historic skyscrapers. The area around the building is called Flatiron district. Opposite the Flatiron building is Eataly, a large indoor mall with a gourmet supermarket and several restaurants, all with an Italian theme.
8. The Brooklyn Bridge
The iconic Brooklyn Bridge, New York’s most famous bridge, spans 1,595.5 feet (486.3 m) across the East River and connects Manhattan with Brooklyn. We recommend taking the subway to the Brooklyn side and then walking back across to Manhattan, so that you are facing the Manhattan skyline. Pedestrians and cyclists each have a lane divided by a white line so that traffic can move easily across the bridge.
9. The National September 11 Memorial
The National September 11 Memorial is located at the site of the former World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan. The Memorial takes up about 8 acres of the original 16-acre site, with twin reflecting pools–each nearly an acre in size–that feature the largest man-made waterfalls in North America.
According to the Memorial website:
The 9/11 Memorial is a tribute of remembrance, honoring the 2,977 people who were killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center site, near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing on February 26, 1993.
Right next to the memorial is also the National 9/11 Museum for people seeking more information about the terror attacks, as well as One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower), the tallest building in the United States and the Western Hemisphere since 2014.
10. Wall Street
Wall Street in the Financial district is the heart of the financial markets in the United States and home to the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, the world’s two largest stock exchanges by total market capitalization.
11. Federal Hall
Located diagonally from the New York Stock Exchange is Federal Hall, where George Washington took his oath of office as the first US President. Federal Hall was also home to the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices. Admission is free and it is open to the public Monday through Friday.
12. Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island Ferry is a great way to get a good view of the Statue of Liberty for Free. The ferry’s single route runs 5.2 miles (8.4 km) through New York Harbor between the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Staten Island. The trip takes approximately 25 minutes, one way. The orange ferry boats leave from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal (also known as South Ferry) in Lower Manhattan. The Ferry runs 24 hours a day/7 days a week. When leaving from Manhattan, we recommend sitting on the starboard side to take pictures of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
13. Governor’s Island
Govenor’s Island sits in New York harbor and is a 10 minute ferry ride away from Lower Manhattan. The island was a U.S. Army installation from 1794 until 1966 and is now open to the public every day from May 1st through October 31st.
Govenor’s Island with its two forts is operated by the National Park Service and ferry service to Govenor’s Island runs hourly from Monday through Friday, with more frequent service on the weekend. All weekend ferries before noon are free, otherwise round trip ferry service to Governors Island costs $3 for adults. From the island’s north shore you will have excellent views of the Lower Manhattan skyline and from the west side you will have a good view of the Statue of Liberty.
14. A Bird’s Eye View of NYC
An iconic bird’s eye view picture of New York City is easy to capture from the top of several land landmark skyscrapers–such as the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center–but the view comes with a steep price tag. A great alternative to this is to visit a rooftop bar, which are numerous throughout the city. We have stayed at many hotels as well that offer a rooftop bar with a view, so that’s something to consider when booking accommodations.
Have you visited NYC? If so, what are your favorite free things to do in NYC? Leave your answers in the comments.
Looking for other budget-friendly trip ideas? Check out these other blog posts: