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Governors Island
Photograph: Trey Pentecost

Free things to do in NYC

Live your best life without breaking the bank at NYC's best free events, shows and exhibits

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver
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Finding free things to do in New York City is like striking gold! NYC is one of the greatest cities in the world, but holy cow, is it pricey. Seeing Broadway shows or dining at one of the city’s most buzzed about restaurants will cost you a pretty penny. Lucky for us, the city also offers a prime list of free art exhibitions, free museum days and more. Read on for our list of NYC's best gratis activities.


RECOMMENDED: Full guide to our best things to do in NYC

Free things to do in NYC

  • Things to do
  • Midtown West

Hundreds of items have been pulled from the New York Public Library's expansive and centuries-spanning archive to be put on display—many of them for the first time—in a permanent exhibition called "The Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures." Inside the NYPL's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and its beautiful Gottesman Hall, are more than 250 unique and rare items culled from its research centers including the only surviving letter from Christoper Columbus announcing his "discovery" of the Americas to King Ferdinand’s court and the first Gutenberg Bible brought over to the Americas.

  • Art
  • Art

A new eye-catching outdoor, interactive art installation has just taken over midtown Manhattan. "Passage," created by Serge Maheu, is a glowing pedestrian tunnel made of 20 circles of light that emit different sounds and shift in color as folks walk through it. Set up in the Garment District, on Broadway between 39th and 40th Streets, the exhibit is completely free to visit and will be on premise through February 13.

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  • Art
  • Midtown West

Award-winning graphic novelist Peter Kuper's intricate drawings of insects—bees, ants, cicadas, butterflies, silkworms, beetles, dragonflies, and more—show them "flying, crawling, and interacting with the various rooms of the Library’s 42nd Street building, where they will be showcased. "This bug’s-eye view of the building’s Beaux-Arts architectural details illuminates the iconic spaces in a completely original way." Viewers of his work can access commentary by experts online and via QR codes, such as Jessica Ware on dragonflies, Gene Kritsky on cicadas, Michael Engel on bees, Barrett Klein on scarab beetles, and Mark W. Moffett on ants with Mexico’s leading poet/novelist, Homero Aridjis, reading his poem "A Una Mariposa Monarcha."  The audio talks are accompanied by the insect-inspired music of David Rothenberg. All of this plus downloadable coloring book art will be available on January 7 at nypl.org/intersects.

  • Things to do
  • City Life

Governors Island, which recently announced that it will be open to the public year-round for the first time in its history, is opening its first-ever winter village with glittering lights, a 5,000-square-foot ice rink, sled rentals, warm drinks near fire pits and winter programming as well. The massive ice rink will be open Fridays, weekends and on New York City public school holidays from noon to 5pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 5pm, with extended hours available for youth, adult and nonprofit sports leagues and associations. There will be themed events as well as Free Admission Fridays! Sleds will be available to rent alongside bikes from Blazing Saddles NYC. Governors Island will also have winter activities including cornhole, can jam and giant Jenga as well as winter arts and cultural programming and a dazzling display of holiday lights throughout Colonels Row. There will also be a fun and historic photo opp with a Coast Guard-era fire truck at the Winter Village.

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  • Museums
  • Special interest
  • Queens

This Queens County treasure is well worth the bus trek or car ride. As the city’s longest continually farmed site in the city (it’s been in operation since 1697), the 47 acres feels like an entirely different world compared to Manhattan. Feed and pet the barnyard animals, including sheep, ponies and goats, hop aboard a hayride and come back during the fall harvest season when you can go pumpkin picking and attempt to find your way through the Amazing Maize Maze (yes, that’s a corn maze). Admission is free except on special ticketed event days. Don’t miss the store on your way out for fresh fruits and veggies grown on the premises!

 

  • Museums
  • History
  • Central Park
  • price 1 of 4

The Jewish Museum, housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, mounts temporary exhibitions of contemporary and modern art and also has a substantial collection of artworks of art and Judaica. The Jewish Museum is free on Shabbat during regular hours! There is a permanent exhibit specifically for children, as well as a restaurant that includes an Uptown outpost of Russ & Daughters, the iconic Lower East Side purveyors of Kosher delicacies like lox, sable and whitefish.

 

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Green-Wood Cemetery
  • Things to do
  • Walks and tours
  • Greenwood

Filled with Victorian mausoleums, cherubs and gargoyles, Green-Wood is the resting place of some half-million New Yorkers, among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein and Boss Tweed. There’s more to do here than grave-spot: Check out the massive Gothic arch at the main entrance or climb to the top of Battle Hill, one of the highest points in Kings County and a pivotal spot during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776.

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  • Art
  • Contemporary art

In the westernmost stretches of Chelsea, there are dozens of free-admission galleries showcasing groundbreaking paintings, prints, installations and sculptures. It's a great way to get an introduction to the city's gallery hopping scene. Pro tip: while the shows frequently change, we recommend starting out with Gagosian Gallery, David Zwirner and Pace Gallery.

The Morgan Library & Museum
  • Museums
  • History
  • Murray Hill

This Madison Avenue institution began as the private library of financier J. Pierpont Morgan and is his artistic gift to the city. Building on the collection Morgan amassed in his lifetime, the museum houses first-rate works on paper, including drawings by Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Picasso; three Gutenberg Bibles; a copy of Frankenstein annotated by Mary Shelley; manuscripts by Dickens, Poe, Twain, Steinbeck and Wilde; sheet music handwritten by Beethoven and Mozart; and an original edition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol that’s displayed every yuletide. It's free on Friday, 2-5 pm, to explore this gorgeous space.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Chelsea

The 1.45 mile-long park, which first opened in 2009, was originally created entirely on an abandoned elevated train track, snaking above the otherwise industrial West Side neighborhoods. Today millions clamour for the dazzling views of the Hudson River and the downtown skyline. The park hosts free star-gazing events, lively cultural happenings like latin dance nights and rotating works of sculpture and art throughout the year.

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.

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The Museum at FIT
  • Museums
  • Fashion and costume
  • Chelsea

Overseen by fashion historian Valerie Steele, the Museum at FIT showcases selections from the institute's permanent collection, as well as temporary exhibitions focusing on individual designers and fashion's role in society. FIT owns one of the largest and most impressive collections of clothing, textiles and accessories in the world, including some 50,000 costumes and fabrics dating from the 5th century to the present. 

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