Free Things to Do in NYC

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See the Best of the Big Apple Even on a Shoestring Budget

New York City is an expensive place to visit, but it's actually possible to see many of its most famous sights without spending a penny. Sure, the hotel may cost more than you'd like to spend, and eating out can be pricey, unless one sticks to take-out food and street vendors, but here are some famous attractions and activities you can do with the kids for free.

Staten Island Ferry

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but in NYC you can take a free boat ride. The Staten Island Ferry (4 South St., New York, NY) has been ferrying generations of New Yorkers between the southern tip of Lower Manhattan and Staten Island on their daily commutes. The good news: Tourists can ride it, too. The better news: They can see great views of the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline along the way. The best news: it costs nothing! The ferry is a tourist's secret hidden in plain sight. The journey across the harbor and back takes about 90 minutes. Even though you'll notice all the commuters exiting hastily to Staten Island, stay on the ferry for the return trip. Kids will delight at all the big-boat action and jaw-dropping views along the way.

Pro tip: Stand on the open-air fore and aft decks of the ferry for the best views. A concession stand is on board if the kids need a snack.

Brooklyn Bridge

With Gothic stone archways rising high above the East River that frame the city skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of New York's most iconic sights. It's also one of the world's more famous passageways, connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. There's a pedestrian walkway that rises above the vehicular traffic, making for a pleasant and scenic stroll. The 1.1-mile promenade provides splendid views of the river and the city along the way. If the 2.2-mile round trip is too far to walk with the young ones, head out to the halfway point of the bridge for the best view, then turn around. Make sure to point out the tallest building in sight, One World Trade Center, and perhaps use the opportunity as a teaching moment about 9/11. Enter the bridge promenade across from City Hall Park on the Manhattan side.

Central Park

For first-timers, Central Park is a must-do NYC attraction no matter what time of year. Visitors always seem to return to the city's front lawn and green lung because they know the endearing allure of this oasis in the heart of the city. Roam through the woodsy Ramble, gawk at the awesome view from Sheep Meadow, take a lap around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir—the list of free things to do goes on and on in New York's favorite playground. And, yes, there are actual playgrounds for the kids scattered throughout the park.

World-Class Museums

New York is home to world-class museums, most of which charge admission, but sometimes those museums have free days or hours. On the first Friday of every month, the Frick Collection (1 E. 70th St., New York, NY) charges no admission in the evening hours. The Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA (11 W. 53rd St., New York, NY), also has free hours on Fridays. When trying to convince the children to go to an art museum, tell them that MoMA features The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, perhaps one of the few masterpiece paintings kids often recognize and relate to. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Ave., New York, NY) is arguably one of the greatest art museums in the world. It has a pay-what-you-wish admission policy—not technically free, but worth noting nonetheless. The Met has special guides and maps for kids; families could easily spend an entire afternoon inside the giant museum.

Grand Central Walking Tour

Each Friday afternoon, the Grand Central Partnership offers something special: a free guided walking tour of Grand Central Terminal (89 E. 42nd St., New York, NY) and the surrounding neighborhood. Called The Grand Tour, AAA has rated it the best walking tour in the city. The tour includes a stop at the Chrysler Building, the art deco masterpiece of a skyscraper one block from Grand Central. This may be the one building in NYC, besides the Empire State Building, that kids will recognize from looking at pictures of the city before the trip.