Free attractions in New York: Save money while sightseeing in NYC

You don’t have to spend a lot to have a great time in New York City. Save money and check out these free attractions that are guaranteed to impress.

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  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    Brooklyn Bridge

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    Brooklyn Heights Promenade

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    Brooklyn Flea

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Chrysler Building

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Flatiron Building

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Jeffrey Gurwin

    Grand Central Terminal

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photographer: Filip Wolak

    Little Italy

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Jessica Lin

    Macy's Herald Square

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Moira Brazier

    New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Jay Muhlin

    Rockefeller Center

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Filip Wolak

    Roosevelt Island

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    St. Patrick's Cathedral

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Michael Kirby

    South Street Seaport

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Photograph: Alys Tomlinson

    Staten Island Ferry

    Free attractions in New York
  • Free attractions in New York

    Times Square

    Free attractions in New York

Free attractions in New York

Photograph: Michael Kirby

Brooklyn Bridge

Yes, itis possible to have fun in New York without spending a bundle. These free attractions are among the most impressive sights in New York City—and best of all, you’ll save money by avoiding ridiculously high ticket fees.


RECOMMENDED: The 50 best New York attractions you have to see


Brooklyn Heights and Brooklyn Promenade

It’s easy to forget that you’re standing atop the hectic Brooklyn-Queens Expressway while strolling along this esplanade, which opened in 1950. But the thoroughfare is inextricably linked to the Promenade’s existence: Community opposition to the BQE—which was originally intended to cut through Brooklyn Heights—led city planner Robert Moses to reroute the highway along the waterfront. He also proposed building a park atop the road to block noise. Stroll, run or make out along its ⅓-mile length, pausing to appreciate postcard-ready views of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty; then check out some of the 19th-century row houses down Brooklyn Heights’ tree-lined side streets, or head down to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brooklyn Bridge

No mere river crossing, this span is an elegant reminder of New York’s history of architectural innovation. When it opened in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was a feat of engineering: It was the first structure to cross the East River and, at the time, the longest suspension bridge in the world. (It also made use of steel-wire cables, invented by the bridge’s original designer, John A. Roebling.) Now it attracts thousands of tourists and locals, who enjoy spectacular views of lower Manhattan and other city landmarks (such as the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island) as they stroll its more-than-mile-long expanse. Heads up, though: You may run into the occasional cyclist trying to navigate through the crowds on the pedestrian walkway.

Brooklyn Flea

In the nearly five years since its debut, this market has elevated the vintage-shopping experience, setting a new standard for both goods and food vendors, and emphasizing local purveyors where possible. Its mini empire now includes markets in Fort Greene and Williamsburg, as well as two food-focused Smorgasburg outposts, and forthcoming locations in Manhattan and Philadelphia. When temperatures plunge, the fest moves to the handsome, cavernous lobby at Brooklyn’s landmark Skylight One Hanson (through March). It’s as good a people-watching spot as you’ll find—plenty of established and wanna-be designers mill about—and the eats alone are worth the trip. Vendors change each weekend, so check the website the Friday before doors open to see who’s selling.

Chrysler Building

We won’t argue if you want to call this glimmering pinnacle of Art Deco architecture NYC’s most eye-popping skyscraper. Triangle-shaped windows in its crown are lined with lights, creating a beautiful effect come nighttime. Oozing a moneyed sophistication oft identified with old New York, the structure pays homage to its namesake with giant eagles (replicas of ones added to Chrysler automobiles in the 1920s) in lieu of traditional gargoyles and a brickwork relief sculpture of racing cars, complete with chrome hubcaps. During the famed three-way race to construct Manhattan’s tallest building, the Chrysler added a needle-sharp stainless-steel spire to best 40 Wall Street—but was outdone shortly after its completion in 1930 by the Empire State Building.

5Pointz Aerosol Art Center

This Long Island City warehouse, treated as a 200,000-square-foot canvas, is one of the world’s best places to see the full spectrum of spray-paint art. Ride a Queens-bound 7 train past the Hunters Point Ave stop for an elevated, panoramic view of the names of NYC’s graffiti forebears—like Iz the Wiz—scrawled on 5Pointz’s walls. New pieces appear regularly during the painting season, with concrete surfaces assigned by founder and curator Meres One. Go while you can: The property owner is securing permission to replace the warehouse with condos. Take advantage of the biweekly behind-the-scenes tours (Sun 2–3:30pm; $35; visit sidetour.com for details), led by Meres One, to watch a painting demonstration.

Flatiron Building

This 21-story Beaux Arts edifice once dominated midtown. Although it’s now dwarfed by other structures, when it debuted in 1902, the triangle-shaped monolith represented the threat and the thrill of modernity: Naysayers claimed it would never withstand the high winds plaguing 23rd Street, while revered photographer Alfred Stieglitz—who captured it in an iconic shot in 1903—wrote that it was “a picture of a new America still in the making.” Today, it’s possibly the least tourist-friendly New York landmark. The space above the ground-floor shops, occupied by publishing house Macmillan, is inaccessible to the public, but during office hours you can admire black-and-white photos and read a few panels on the history of the tower in its lobby. If you want to see the “point” offices (just over six feet wide at their narrowest), we suggest getting to work on the Great American Novel.

Grand Central Terminal

The 100-year-old transit hub funnels thousands of commuters each day, but it’s a destination in its own right: The majestic Beaux Arts framework is a spectacle of both form and function. Familiar features include the vaulted, constellation-adorned ceiling and the four-faced opal clock topping the main information booth, both located in the Grand Concourse. Meanwhile, ornamentation above the 42nd Street entrance includes a likeness of Mercury, the god of travel (naturally), and an ornate Tiffany-glass timepiece.

Little Italy

The 2010 census didn’t find a single Italian-born resident on or around Mulberry Street, but pasta-and-Parmesan purveyors still line the narrow lanes of Little Italy, and the recently restored Most Precious Blood Church (113 Baxter St between Canal and Hester Sts, 212-226-6427) holds fast. Old-world flavors abound at joints like the 120-year-old Ferrara Bakery and Cafe (195 Grand St between Mott and Mulberry Sts; 212-226-6150, ferraracafe.com), and every September, the deep-fried-zeppole carts mark the start of the Feast of San Gennaro. But modern joints are moving in too: Hidden under a souvenir shop, the speakeasy Mulberry Project (149 Mulberry St between Grand and Hester Sts; 646-448-4536, mulberryproject.com) mixes bespoke cocktails in a den dark enough for a mafia don.

Macy's Herald Square

It may not be as glamorous as New York’s other famous stores, but for sheer breadth of stock, the 34th Street behemoth is hard to beat. You won’t find exalted labels here, though—midpriced fashion and designers’ diffusion lines for all ages are its bread and butter, along with all the big beauty names. A new $400 million renovation will upgrade the entire edifice by 2015, but the store has already debuted a “world’s largest” shoe floor, home to 280,000 pairs. Thankfully, not everything will be brand-new: The project will restore the original 34th Street entrance, and some of the rickety wooden escalators—installed when this branch opened in 1902—will remain intact.

New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

The century-old main branch of the NYPL is about as regal a setting for reading—either on your laptop or those old dusty things called books—as you’ll find in the city. Two massive Tennessee-marble lions, dubbed Patience and Fortitude, flank the main portal and have become the institution’s mascots. Once inside, check out the cavernous Rose Main Reading Room, spanning almost 300 feet and outfitted with chandeliers and stunning ceiling murals. Though it’s a classy setting in most instances, it’s also where Bill Murray uttered, “Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?” and “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” in Ghostbusters.

Rockefeller Center

You’ll find plenty of iconic New York sites in this multiblock complex: The ground level alone is home to the tourist-packed ice-skating rink, the bronze Atlas statue and the Today show plaza. Higher up, Top of the Rock rivals the Empire State Building in panoramic city views. You may not be able to access the five private rooftop gardens if you’re not a Saturday Night Live cast member, but you can still peek at the spaces from Saks Fifth Avenue’s eighth-floor shoe department if you’re curious. Special credentials are not required, however, to inspect the Art Deco murals that appear in several buildings. Don’t miss the triptych above the outdoor entrance to 5 Rockefeller Center or the rinkside Prometheus statue; both purportedly contain secret Freemason symbols.

Roosevelt Island

This mostly residential isle (technically part of Manhattan) is full of quirks; for example, the preferred method of getting there involves a four-minute trip on the city’s only commuter tram. There’s plenty to draw in visitors, notably the fancy new Four Freedoms Park (named for the principles outlined in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address), which opened in 2012. A Gothic lighthouse stands at the island’s northern tip, and the creepy ruins of the Smallpox Hospital (which operated from the mid–19th century until the 1950s) at the southern end are a part of Southpoint Park.

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Even though it faces off against the imposing Art Deco Rockefeller Center, architect James Renwick's Gothic Revival building holds it own with intricate marble towers, a cavernous ribbed vault, pointed arches and buttresses. But the real treasures are inside this active house of worship, which is bursting with awe-inspiring works. While the stained glass, along with much of the exterior, is currently covered in scaffolding for an ongoing $175-million restoration project, due for completion in 2015, the cathedral is still worth a visit. More than 200 saints are represented throughout the church, with many alters helpfully explaining their stories for those who cut Bible studies class. Seek out the alter of Saint Louis, just north of the Lady's Chapel, designed by the Tiffany workshop and donated by Jackie O's father Michael Bouvier. To the south of Saint Louis is an oversized copy of Michelangelo's Pieta, made by the same sculptor who fashioned the lions outside the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.

South Street Seaport

One problem with being an active sightseeing draw right on the water: When a big storm rolls into town, you’ll almost certainly sustain some damage. Hurricane Sandy temporarily closed many of the attractions at the waterfront hub, including the Seaport Museum (currently under the management of the Museum of the City of New York), which charts the former wharf’s history. But many of these institutions are back up and running, and the Seaport will even welcome an outpost of the Brooklyn Flea this summer.

Staten Island Ferry

The price of a harbor crossing between Staten Island and lower Manhattan may be the only activity in New York City that’s cheaper today than it was in 1817. Back then, it was 25 cents; today, it’s free. This 24-hour ferry is a lifeline for commuters making their way from NYC’s southernmost borough, but it’s also a boat trip affording some of the finest views in the world. Keep your eyes peeled for Governors Island to the east and Ellis Island and Lady Liberty to the west as the Manhattan skyline recedes in the vessel’s wake.

Times Square

  • Free

Manhattan’s heart was once a hub for vice, teeming with sex shops and drug dealers. Over time that notorious reputation has eroded, and now the area can feel like a tourist-clogged shopping mall. Still, changes such as the stairs above the TKTS booth and a pedestrian plaza along Broadway have improved the sightseeing experience…sort of. If the thought of attending the annual glitzy New Year’s Eve celebration gives you hives, you can see the midnight countdown re-created on a smaller scale at the Times Square Visitor Center, thanks to one of the Waterford crystal balls used in years past.

  1. Broadway, (between 42nd and 47th Sts)
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