After budget guides to London and Paris, I’m back with one for another of my favourite cities – New York. I first visited the Big Apple nearly 20 years ago and it made a big impression. It was my first trip outside Europe and felt a million miles away from my normal life in small-town Herefordshire. But although it was so different it felt familiar from films and TV – yellow cabs, steam coming up through subway grilles, hotdog stalls, neon lights in Times Square, towering skyscrapers. I couldn’t get enough of it, and still can’t – I’ve been back four times since and will need another New York fix soon. But like many world-class cities it can be expensive to visit. So here are my tips on visiting New York without blowing the budget.
More budget city guides: London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna, Copenhagen, Madrid, Las Vegas, Cape Town
Things to see and do
A big part of what makes New York so great is its atmosphere, and you can soak it up for free just walking the city streets. The changing feel as you move through the city’s neighborhoods – from the Upper East Side and Soho to Chinatown and the Meatpacking District – makes it almost like visiting lots of different cities. And that’s before you get out of Manhattan into the city’s other boroughs.
There are plenty of places you can visit for free, like Times Square, the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station and St Patrick’s Cathedral. There are also the parks – as well as huge Central Park there’s the High Line on a old elevated railway track, Brooklyn Bridge Park and lots of smaller neighbourhood parks. NYC Parks hold free or low-cost events in the parks throughout the year, like concerts, exhibitions, film screenings and tours. Friends of the High Line also run free guided walking tours where you can learn about the park’s history, design and horticulture – check their calendar for details.
For other New York tours, Free Tours by Foot run a variety of walking and cycling tours. They cover lots of different neighbourhoods as well as themed tours like a Greenwich Village food tour, a subway art tour and city ghost tours. Tours are free but you tip your guide what you think it’s worth. Grand Central Partnership also run a 90-minute free walking tour of area around Grand Central Station at 12:30pm every Friday. Or you can get your own private guide through the Big Apple Greeter scheme, which matches tourists with local volunteers who show you around their personal New York (book 3–4 weeks in advance).
If you want to visit big-name attractions like the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, then it might be worth investing in a New York City Pass. They cost $122 per adult ($98 aged 6–17) and cover six different museums and attractions – if you plan to visit them all you can save $83 on entrance fees.
Museums and culture
Entrance fees to New York’s big museums are normally at least $20 per person, but there are ways to save. Some museums have certain times when you can pay what you wish – like the Guggenheim (5.45pm–7.45pm on Saturdays) and the Frick Collection (11am–1pm on Sundays). There’s also free entry to the 9/11 Memorial Museum after 5pm on Tuesdays, the Museum of Modern Art and Museum of the Moving Image from 4pm–8pm on Fridays, and the New York Botanical Gardens every Wednesday and from 9am–10am on Saturdays. Many smaller museums are free all or part of the time too – find a full list here.
A couple of other museums have a suggested donation rather than a fixed entry price. So if you’re happy to brazen it out and offer less, you can save on the usual $25 entry cost to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the $22 they suggest for the American Museum of Natural History. You can also see art for free by browsing the galleries that fill converted lofts and warehouses in Chelsea.
For Broadway on a budget, you can pick up discounted theatre tickets at TKTS booths which sell same-day seats for up to 50% off. Their Times Square booth usually has big queues, but there are quieter branches at South Street Seaport and Downtown Brooklyn. Or check out the next generation of actors, dancers and musicians at a free performance by students from the Juilliard performing arts school.
Top city views
The top of the Empire State Building might be New York’s most iconic viewpoint, but it’s pricey at $54 to go right up to the 102nd floor. The Top of the Rock viewpoint at the Rockerfeller Centre is cheaper at $34 and you also get the bonus of a great view of the Empire State Building.
Or why not get a drink to go with your view at one of the city’s rooftop bars. Many are attached to fancy hotels, so you have to fork out for a room or run the gauntlet of bouncers and cover charges to get in. But 230 Fifth has a big roof terrace bar on Fifth Avenue that’s open to anyone. It overlooks the Empire State Building and has patio heaters and blankets so you can still sit out when it gets chilly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a roof terrace sculpture garden and café with great views over Central Park that doubles as a martini bar from Thursdays to Sundays between May and October.
Nearer to the ground there are spectacular views across the water to lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge and the park at the end of it. Or you can look out over the Statue of Liberty from the esplanade at Battery Park City down at the tip of Manhattan. If you want to get a closer view of Liberty you need to get out on the water, but you can have a free harbour boat trip by taking the Staten Island Ferry. The service shuttles between Manhattan and Staten Island 24 hours a day, taking 25 minutes each way.
Eating and drinking
If you’re looking to eat out on a budget, there’s a whole website dedicated to cheap eats across New York, where every dish costs $10 or less. You can also save by getting food to go – from breakfast bagels to pizza slices or deli sandwiches. The food truck scene is also really big in the city, with food stalls serving food from around the word. They often move around so the best way to track them down is on using this site.
If you like beer, you can take a free tour at the Brooklyn Brewery. Tours run at 7pm and 8pm on Fridays, and every half hour from 1pm–5pm on Saturdays and 1pm–4pm on Sundays. They also have a bar where beer tokens are $5 each or five for $20, and you can bring your own food. Or on Monday to Thursday they run more in-depth small-group tours at 5pm for $15, including four tasting samples and souvenir glass.
New York is a great city to walk around, but it’s big, so if you’re covering lots of ground the best way to get around is on the subway. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and costs $2.75 for a single journey or $31 for a seven-day MetroCard, which gives you unlimited subway and bus journeys. You can also use it on the Roosevelt Island Tram – a cable car with fantastic views across East Manhattan and the East River. It leaves from the station at 59th Street and Second Avenue.
Travel to and from the airport can be expensive, but there are lots of public transport options. You can get to JFK using a MetroCard – take the A train to Far Rockaway to the Howard Beach/JFK Airport stop (about an hour) then the AirTrain to the airport (15 minutes). You can get to Newark and La Guardia airports using various subway, bus and train combinations – see this comprehensive guide for details.
A more energetic way to see the city is with the Citi Bike scheme. You can borrow bikes from docking stations south of 79th street in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. They cost $12 to access the bikes for 24 hours or $24 for a three days, then you can make as many journeys under 30 minutes as you like for free.
So those are my tips for seeing New York on a budget – do you know of any more New York bargains or have any money-saving tips?