New York’s long been one of my favourite cities. I first visited 20 years ago and it made a huge impression. It was my first trip outside Europe and felt a million miles away from home. Seeing iconic sights like yellow cabs, steam through subway grilles, towering skyscrapers and Times Square’s neon lights felt like walking onto a film set. I couldn’t get enough of it, and still can’t – its one of the best cities to visit in the USA. I’ve been back five times since and need another New York fix soon. But like many world-class cities it can be expensive. So here are my tips on making the most of New York on a budget.
Things to do in New York on a budget
A big part of what makes New York so great is its atmosphere, and you can soak it up for free by walking the city streets. The changing feel as you move through the city’s neighborhoods – Harlem, the Upper East Side, Soho, Chinatown, Greenwich Village, Little Italy and the Meatpacking District – makes it feel like visiting lots of different cities in one. And that’s before you get out of Manhattan and start exploring the city’s other boroughs.
There are plenty of famous New York sights you can visit for free – Times Square, New York Public Library, Grand Central Station and St Patrick’s Cathedral. There are also the parks. As well as enormous Central Park there’s the High Line on a old elevated railway track, Brooklyn Bridge Park and lots of small neighbourhood parks. NYC Parks hold free or low-cost events throughout the year, like concerts, exhibitions and films. Friends of the High Line also run free guided walks about the park’s history, design and horticulture – check their calendar for dates.
For other New York tours, Free Tours by Foot run a variety of walking and cycling tours. They cover lots of different city neighbourhoods as well as themed tours like a Greenwich Village food tour, a graffiti and street art tour or a Broadway ghost tour. 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 the area surrounding Grand Central Station at 12:30pm every Friday.
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 highlights. It’s free – with a no-tipping policy – but you do need to book around 3–4 weeks in advance.
If you’re planning on visiting a lot of attractions, a discount card can save you money. The Go City New York Pass gives you free entry to famous spots including the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, 9/11 Memorial, One World Observatory and Statue of Liberty, as well as a city cruise, walking, bike and hop-on-hop-off bus tours.
There are a couple of different versions – an All-Inclusive Pass for 1-10 days (which ranges from $159–$544, with discounts for children aged 12 and under). Or an Explorer Pass if you’re only planning on visiting a few places, where you can pick and mix 1–10 attractions of your choice ($89–$404).
Money-saving museums and culture
Entrance fees to New York’s big museums are normally around $20–$25 per person, but there are ways to save. Some museums have certain times when you can pay what you wish – like the Guggenheim (5pm–7.45pm on Saturdays) and the Frick Collection (2pm–6pm on Wednesdays).
There’s also free entry to some museums on certain days of the week. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is free after 5pm on Tuesdays, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the Moving Image are free from 4pm–8pm on Fridays, and the grounds of the New York Botanical Gardens are free to visit on Wednesdays and from 9am–10am on Saturdays. Many smaller museums are free all or part of the time too – you can find a full list here.
Some of New York’s 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 entry cost for the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of the City of New York and the Queens Museum. You can also see art for free by browsing the galleries that fill converted lofts and warehouses in Chelsea and the Lower East Side.
For Broadway on a budget, pick up discounted theatre tickets at TKTS booths which sell same-day seats for up to 50% off. Their Times Square booth has big queues, but there are quieter branches at South Street Seaport and in Brooklyn. Or check out the next generation of actors, dancers and musicians at free performances by students from Juilliard performing arts school.
Top city views
The observation deck of the Empire State Building might be New York’s most iconic viewpoint, but it’s pricey at $68 to go right up to the 102nd floor. The Top of the Rock viewpoint at the Rockerfeller Centre might not be quite as tall but it’s a bit more reasonable at $38 and you get the bonus of a great view of the Empire State Building while you’re up there.
Or 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. But 230 Fifth has a big roof terrace bar on Fifth Avenue that’s open to anyone. It’s the city’s largest rooftop patio, overlooking the Empire State Building with patio heaters and blankets in winter.
There’s also a rooftop terrace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with great views over Central Park. The Cantor Rooftop Garden Bar is open from mid-April until October, 11am–4pm on Sunday to Thursday and until 8.15pm on Fridays and Saturdays, serving cocktails and light food.
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 the bridge. 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 boat trip across the harbour by taking the Staten Island Ferry. This service shuttles between Manhattan and Staten Island 24 hours a day, taking 25 minutes to travel each way.
Budget food and drink
If you’re looking to eat out on a budget, here’s 40 places to get you started, spread across the city. You can also save by getting food to go – from breakfast bagels and pretzels to pizza slices and deli sandwiches. The food truck scene is also really big in New York, serving street food from around the word. They move around but you can track them down is on using this site.
You can also find plenty of food trucks at the city’s food markets. The biggest is Smorgasburg in Brooklyn with over 100 stalls, which takes place between April and October from 11am–6pm at the East River Park in Willamsburg on Saturdays and in Prospect Park on Sunday. There’s also the Hester Street Fair in the Lower East Side, which also takes place on Saturdays from 11am–6pm between April and October, as well as smaller Urbanspace markets around the city.
If you like beer, you can take a free tour at the Brooklyn Brewery. Tours run every half hour from 1pm–6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. You can also buy their draft beers for $6, and can bring your own food or order takeaway in for delivery to the brewery. Or on Monday to Friday there are more in-depth, 45-minute small group tours at 5pm, 5.45pm, 6.30pm and 7.15pm for $18, including four beers and a souvenir glass – make sure to book in advance.
Low-cost New York transport
New York is a great city to walk around, but it’s big, so 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 $33 for a seven-day MetroCard, with unlimited subway and bus journeys. You can also use your Metrocard on the Roosevelt Island Tram – a cable car which has 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 subway, bus and train combinations too.
A more energetic way to see the city is with a Citi Bike. You can borrow bikes from over 750 docking stations around the city. It costs $12 to access the bikes for 24 hours – or $24 for a three-day pass – 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?
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