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Photograph: Julienne Schaer

The best free cultural experiences in NYC

The best free cultural experiences in NYC let you visit the city’s top attractions without spending any dough

Written by
Tolly Wright

Considering New York is the biggest city in America—and the greatest city in the world—it’s not a surprise that we’re home to some of the most amazing cultural experiences in NYC. But while everyone knows about fabulous Broadway shows and the fantastic music scene in Williamsburg, not everyone realizes just how many of these experiences are actually free things to do. Yes, you really can get into the city’s top venues—along with the best lesser known NYC attractions—without paying a cent.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to free things to do in NYC

Best free cultural experiences in NYC

Chelsea art galleries
  • Art
  • Contemporary art

Big museums may get all the glory, but you can see some of the best contemporary art for free. In the westernmost stretches of Chelsea are dozens of galleries showcasing groundbreaking paintings, prints, installations and sculptures. While the shows frequently change, Gagosian Gallery, David Zwirner and Pace Gallery are solid introductions to the gallery-hopping scene.

  • Music

Warmer weather in New York means red-hot concerts featuring top musical acts. But you don’t have to lay down money on high ticket prices for an amazing spot in the audience during SummerStage. This special programming brings big names in rock, indie, hip-hop, jazz and more to stages in parks across the five boroughs. Get there early to claim a free spot close to the artists.

  • Theater

This internationally acclaimed annual tradition puts on superb productions of the bard’s classic plays at Central Park’s alfresco Delacorte Theater. Comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Comedy of Errors are uproarious affairs, while tragedies like King Lear might leave watchers emotionally wrecked. A certain amount of free tickets are offered each afternoon to those that arrive early enough for the line in the morning or are lucky to win the online lottery or a spot on the standby line.

  • Music

During the summer, Prospect Park Bandshell becomes one of the best concert venues in the city with this annual series. Legendary soul groups, all-star hip-hop artists and indie bands on the cusp of major mainstream success can all be found at the large amphitheater. While there’s always a few ticketed benefit concerts, nearly all the shows are open to anybody on a first-come basis.

  • Movies
  • Movies

Though there’s no shortage of free outdoor movie screenings in Gotham, there are few that can boast as good a line-up—or as gorgeous a backdrop—as Movies with a View. Bring a picnic blanket and snacks to this riverside park every Thursday night in July and August for screenings of an eclectic mix of Hollywood golden age classics, action blockbusters, cult-favorite comedies and family-fun animated features.

Socrates Sculpture Park
  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Astoria

Take in the great outdoors while appreciating awe-inspiring large-scale sculptures and installations at this 4.5-acre public space. Built over an old landfill, today the park has beautiful, lush green lawns overlooking the East River and boasts a reputation as a premiere outdoor location for artists to create site-specific wonders that use the landscape to inform their work.

Bryant Park Presents

All summer long, New York’s urban oasis hosts an onslaught of free performances and events. Check out hour-long live previews of shows like La fanciulla del West and Viva Verdifrom the New York Opera, or see staged productions of Shakespeare plays like The Tempest and Twelfth Night. Tap your toes to local up-and-coming bands before they get famous at the Emerging Music Festival or hear sophisticated jazz music at the two-day Intersect festival. Also, don’t miss the contemporary dance performances showcasing groundbreaking choreography.

  • Things to do

As the city’s longest-running free public dance festival, Battery Dance has brought amazing companies from New York and around the world to downtown every August since 1982. Choreographers specializing in international dance traditions from the Caribbean, South Asia, Africa and beyond create breathtaking performances staged in front of New York’s harbor.

  • Art

Governors Island with a full weekend of participatory art. Visitors become part of the creations, as artists encourage the watchers to engage in the work either by contributing to a large piece or by interacting with the process. After the festival ends, island hoppers can still enjoy the annual artist-designed mini golf course and the City of Dreams Pavilion, an annual competition that requires architects to create an environmentally friendly and evocative installation.

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