NYC for free



David Whitley looks at how to tackle the Big Apple without spending a cent.


New York is one of the most expensive cities on the planet, and it’s one where even a short visit can leave you weeping over the impending credit card bill. But play it canny, and you can take advantage of all manner of free stuff whilst in the Big Apple...



There are surprisingly few museums in New York that are permanently free, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. The National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology are arguably the best bets.


However, there are also some museums that work on a suggested donation basis. The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes no bones about the fact that it strongly recommends paying the suggested US$20 fee, but the tight-fisted can shamelessly pay nothing if they wish. The same principle applies at the American Museum of Natural History.


Those with a stouter conscience are advised to do their research and time it right. Almost every museum in New York has a few hours every week where admission is free. These periods tend to be on a Friday or Saturday evening. Of the biggies, the Guggenheim Museum operates on a pay what you wish basis between 5.45pm and 7.15pm on Saturdays, and the International Center of Photography is free between 5pm and 8pm on Fridays.


Tours and Transport

The most famous freebie in New York is the Staten Island ferry. Theoretically designed for commuters, it ploughs the route between St George on Staten Island and the southern tip of Manhattan at least every half hour. Getting on is something of a scrum, but there are excellent views of the city from the deck. You can easily tick off those postcard Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty shots without paying a cent. There’s also a free ferry to Governors Island, a lesser known speck in New York Harbor which is slowly being converted into a parkland escape with a few historic buildings thrown in.


It’s also possible to go on a few guided tours without dipping into your pocket (although expect some disapproving glares if you don’t leave a tip). The Big Apple Greeter programme has been going since 1992, and relies on volunteers giving up their time to show visitors around their neighbourhood. Quality tends to vary, but it’s a good way of dipping into what would otherwise be uncharted waters.


It is, of course, free to make your own way around Central Park but guided walks that concentrate on various areas of the park run in all but the most brutal weather conditions. Other free walking tours include a 90 minute jaunt around Grand Central Station and surrounds every Friday at 12.30pm with the Grand Central Partnership and a flashier alternative in Times Square (Friday at noon).


Activities and entertainment

There’s almost always something going on for free in New York. The NYC and Company website has a good list of upcoming free events ranging from talks to tree planting sessions in the Bronx. Club Free Time, meanwhile, is a brilliant resource for no-charge music concerts, film screenings, theatre productions and gallery exhibitions. It also offers free Off-Broadway show tickets and extra secret free stuff to its members – and the membership costs just $US1.95 for a week.


During the Summer, New York is besieged with free concerts, most of which take place in the city’s parks. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera will seemingly play for free in any patch of grassland across the five boroughs, while the Central Park Summerstage at the Rumsey Playfield draws in big names from across the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, gospel and indie.


Bryant Park is also a great freebie hotspot. During the summer months, it hosts gratis performances from Broadway shows every Thursday at 12.30pm. The idea is clearly to get people to shell out for tickets to said shows, but it’s a gifthorse nonetheless.


Other summer activities available at Bryant Park include free weekday petanque lessons between 12pm and 6pm and ping-pong on one of two publically available tables. The sporty theme continues in winter when ice skating on the pond is available without charge to all (although expect to pay for skate hire).



If you’re being astonishingly cheap, it’s just about possible to survive in New York on free food samples handed out by gourmet food stores. The Upper East Side is a good place to kick off – Agata and Valentina on the corner of 79th Street and 1st Avenue has sample portions of artisan breads, Two Little Hens on 85th and 2nd offers cookies and biscotti, while Eli’s on 80th and 3rd has cheeses and olives. Later on, the O’Reilly’s pub on 35th and 5th offers a free hot food buffet from 5pm as part of its happy hour. You’d be surprised how popular this sample crawling is – a Google search for “free food samples New York” brings up 283 million results. Just think of it being like a multi-venue tapas meal...



Accommodation is the biggest wallet-drainer in New York, and pretty much the only way you’re going to get it for free is by signing up for Couch Surfing ( Essentially, you beg people for a night or two on their settee by promising to return the favour when someone’s in your neck of the woods. Otherwise, change tack and look for the freebies that hotels are prepared to throw in. The Hilton Gardens Staten Island (, for example, offers free shuttle services to Newark airport and the Staten Island ferry terminal – that can amount to a big saving in transport costs. Meanwhile, the Affinia Hotels offer free experience kits that include guide books and iPods with pre-loaded walking tours, while kitting you out with as many travel-sized toiletries as you can cram into a plastic bag. The Kimpton hotels prefer to ply you with booze, hosting a free wine hour every evening.


Disclosure: David was a guest of NYC and Company.