While I was a college student I perfected the art of seeing New York on a budget. This includes free and pay what you wish days days at museums, botanical gardens, and zoos, free out door events, and lots of sight seeing.
Stay in New Jersey
If you’ve watched How I Met Your Mother you know that New Jersey is often made fun of by New York. However, if you’re visiting New York on a budget, this is the state for you.
Ideally, find something that has easy access to the PATH train which is the only subway that connects New Jersey (or any state) to New York.
Unlimited Metro Card
Generally, I recommend walking everywhere if you can because it will let you see more. It is also more cost effective if most of what you expect to see is in one place, such as Midtown, where you can see Central Park, Penn Station, The Met, The Natural History Museum, Rockafeller Center, 5th Ave, Times Square, and Grand Central Station.
However, if you’re in a hurry or plan to be all over the place and plan, you should consider an unlimited 7 day pass. You have to do the math and see if it comes out cost effective given your personal itinerary. If it does this can potentially save you a lot of money.
If you want to see a Broadway show, the American Ballet Theater, or the Metropolitan Opera rush tickets are how you can do it for much cheaper. It used to be that you had to stand in line and hope you were one of the lucky ones. Today you can often do it online.
Whatever you’re interested in doing likely has a website with instructions for how to get rush tickets.
The ballet and the opera have a first come first serve beginning at a set time the day of the show. However, they play in the same theater at opposite seasons so keep that in mind.
Central Park is not only one of the places I like to bring tourists, but as a local it has been one of my favorite places to spend time. It is iconic but peaceful.
There are also many famous parts and statues that are a thrill to see and completely free, which is perfect if you’re visiting New York on a budget!
I especially like visiting Cleopatra’s needle which you can see from one of the Met galleries. This is an ancient Egyptian bobolink that was moved to Central Park in 1881.
Free and Pay What You Wish Museum Days
If your visiting New York one of the must do things is going to one of New York’s incredible museums. That can seem hard to do when visiting New York on a budget…
However, most museums in New York have a day that is pay what you wish or a day with set hours that is free, or like the Met, will charge you full price but then you get access to all three museums under their umbrella.
Most museums also are free to children (each museum sets their age limit), military personal, and disabled as well as their caregivers. Click here to see my complete list of free and pay what you wish days for NYC Museums.
Also, many museums have free apps for audio tours along with free wifi to listen to them in the museum. Some museums even offer free guided tours at set times. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Check out my list of free NYC museum days.
Free Botanical Gardens and Zoo Days
Like Museums, New York botanical gardens and zoos also have free and pay what you wish days.
The Bronx Zoo is packed on this day but the botanical gardens and other zoos are not nearly as full. See my complete list of free and pay what you wish days for NYC zoos and botanical gardens.
Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is another iconic park. I recognized the arch right away in When Harry Met Sally and countless other movies and shows.
Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station, whose actual name is Grand Central Terminal, is not only iconic with it’s clock and zodiac ceiling, it also has dinning hall with many eateries and lots of stores you can window shop.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been to Rockafeller Center. Mostly because it was the closest top to work when I was working in Midtown.
Still, I can’t get enough of it. I love looking through the shops when I have the time to stroll and ice skating in it’s winter rink is still on my New York Bucket List.
If you like art and history ask the front desk to see the original fresco Man at the Crossroads painted by Diego Rivera who was a famed artist in his time but is today best known as being the husband of his third wife Frida Kahlo.
When visiting New York on a budget it may seem counter intuitive to go what is probably the worlds most expensive toy store. However, while FAO Schwatz may be a high end toy store but it is free to enter and look around which is an experience in and of itself.
Dancing on the keyboard at FAO Schwartz was on my New York bucket list until I did it when a friend of mine used to use FAO Shwartz as a fun (cheap) date and he knew it so well that when he took me there (as friends) he was able to give me a personalized tour. I loved every bit of it including your build your own Muppet section.
It’s flagship the store in Union Square closed right after I moved from New York in 2015. However, in 2018 it was brought back now in Rockafeller Center.
As far as I’m concerned Times Square must be seen at night when it is truly magical. However, I do not recommend doing this the same night you land (which I have done…) because it can lead to major sensory overload.
If you want to watch the ball drop in Times Square dress warmly and feel free to order pizza. Doing this is one of my favorite memories however I can’t say it would have been as good had I not made some random friends that made passing the hours fun. I still text one of them every year wishing him a happy friendaversary.
The most notable store in Times Square is probably the M&M store. I’ve also been to the Disney Store and the Hershey’s but I think the M&M store is the most fun. I can’t even put it in to words, just make sure to go see it.
Movie in the Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Flushing Meadows Park, and more have free movie screenings at least one day a week in the summer. These can be a little crowded but fun and are often children friendly though it depends on the move.
Shakespeare in The Park
In the summer you can see Shakespeare in The Park. I’ve seen free plays in Central Park and Bryant Park though I’m sure there are more parks that do this.
For Central Park you have to wait in line in the morning to get one of the limited tickets. The earlier you get there the more likely you are to get a ticket. For Bryant Park it’s just a matter of plunking down during the play.
Don’t expect authentic time period clothing, all the big productions like to change the time period.
Govenor’s Island is a favorite for locals though to be honest locals see their own city so little I was dubbed the honorary tourist by my friends. The ferry to the Island leave from both Manhattan and Brooklyn and is either free or cheap.
You can get a free ride on Saturdays and Sundays before noon, active and veteran military personnel, IDNYC holders, and children under the age of 12. Otherwise the cost is only a few dollars per person which is perfect if you’re visiting New York on a budget.
Staten Island Frey
Staten Island Ferry is always free and gives you a beautiful view of the river and a free view of the Statue of Liberty. Be aware of scammers trying to sell tickets.
Statue of Liberty and Elise Island
This is probably the most expensive item on the list but it is still quite cheap and a good thing to do when you’re visiting New York on a budget.
The ferry to The Statue of Liberty and Elise Island is really cheap and gives you access to both. If you want to go to the crown make sure to book your ticket online well in advance.
China Town is a fun place to walk around. If you’re looking for cheap gifts then the knockoffs can be a fun way – just be sure to tell whoever you’re bringing it to that they aren’t real.
Also, if you are an artist you can find art supplies reasonably priced at Pearl Paints.
Little Italy is another wonderful place to walk around. It has been gentrified so it’s not as culturally fascinating as it once was but it is still beautiful and an experience to see.
I’ve tried in vain to find kosher pastries. If you keep kosher and are craving Italian after this trip go to https://eatabaita.com/. Though, like any non-street food in New York it is not cheap.
Walking along the beach at Coney Island is another fun thing to do. The rides aren’t dirt cheap but for the experience of saying you did it they aren’t too bad either.
If you like baseball you can watch the Mets minor league the Brooklyn Cyclones for really cheap. I’m nowhere near a sports enthusiast but I enjoy watching games in person and I had a great time!
Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge
This is not only a must do on any real New York bucket list but it’s also totally free. You can start at either end but I recommend starting in Manhattan and ending in Brooklyn so you can spend some time in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
I’ve walked the bridge a couple times and I think it was nicest when I walked across at sunset and stayed to see the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Bridge Park at night.
Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park has one of the most beautiful views in New York City. It also has DUMBO’s famed carousel.
New York Public Library
This library was on my New York Bucket List for years! Every time I tried to visit it was closed, of course I tried to visit after work. I highly recommend seeing this library if you have the time.
Don’t forget to see the original dolls which inspired the Winnie the Pooh dolls that inspired the stories that are on display.
Foley square park
Union Square Green Market
South Street Sea Port