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A view of the west side of Manhattan with Little Island in the foreground.
Photograph: By Max Touhey / Courtesy of West Side Fest

Best free things to do in NYC

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

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan
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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. Luckily for us, the city also offers a prime list of free museum days, walking tours, exhibits, comedy shows and more. Read on for our list of NYC's best gratis activities.

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

Best free things to do in NYC

  • Museums

Free and cheap tickets to NYC's best museums? It's possible! One of the benefits of living in or visiting New York City is all the incredible cultural institutions and museums are at your beck-and-call like The Metropolitan Museum Of ArtMoMA or the Guggenheim.

Luckily, most museums offer free hours or days and pay-what-you-wish admission. You just have to know where and when they are. We’ve got the info you need in our guide to all the free museum days and cheap admission in NYC you should know about.

  • Art
  • Contemporary art

New York City is full of free outdoor art that you don't even have to go to a museum to see. Sculptures, murals and photographs can be found in its parks, sidewalks and on its buildings!

Locations such as the High Line, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum Of Art, Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn and Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens and other NYC locales all have a wide variety of pieces awaiting you, from massive sculptures to eye-popping murals and graffiti. Best of all, it costs you nothing to pay a visit.

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  • Art
  • Art

The Harlem Renaissance changed the trajectory of American culture, and no other artist encapsulates the spirit of that era better than poet Langston Hughes. He wrote unapologetically about Black life at a time when segregation was law and few Black artists were allowed into the American cultural zeitgeist.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is honoring Hughes and his friendship with photographer, filmmaker, and U.S. Foreign Service Officer Griffith J. Davis in its exhibit "The Ways of Langston Hughes." The free exhibit at the Schomburg Center's Latimer Gallery in Harlem will include photographs of Hughes and Davis, who met in Atlanta, as well as more of Hughes' friendships through letters, artwork and other memorabilia.

It's on view through July 8, 2024.

  • Art
  • Art

There are usually a few rules at art museums: No yelling, no loud music and certainly no touching the displays! But at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new 81st Street Studio, these rules don’t apply. 

This art and science play space designed for kids ages 3-11 and their families welcomes visitors to use their senses for exploration. Kids can smell different types of wood, look through a microscope, play oversized musical instruments, and try digital activities to learn about different materials. Best of all, this newly designed drop-in space on the Met’s ground level is completely free for kids and their caregivers.

Within its 3,500-square-foot area, 81st Street Studio features both digital and analog experiences designed to encourage making, investigation, critical thinking, problem-solving and appreciation for materials and their properties. Drop-in activities and self-directed art- and science-making activities will be available during museum hours. 

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  • 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.

Every Sunday at 11 am, rain or shine, expert guides are ready and waiting to offer you a historical tour of the Flatiron-Nomad neighborhoods. On these fascinating walking tours, take a stroll through this iconic area while taking in the architectural gems and even learning some scandalous tidbits.

It's totally free; no need to RSVP. Just meet your guide at the tip of the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street just east of 5th Avenue.

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  • Things to do
  • City Life

It's one thing to read about Brooklyn and yet another thing to visit the landmarks that have turned it into the stuff of literary legend.

An audio tour by the Brooklyn Public Library explores the lives of the characters and authors that call the borough home in fiction and in real life. From Patti Smith to Biggie Smalls, Howard Zinn to Tanwi Nandini Islam, the guide covers a total of 16 writers over eight miles of Brooklyn. You can also expect to stop at important public libraries the likes of Washington Irving and Clinton Hill, which played an important role in the lives of the featured authors.

Expect the entire tour, which can virtually start off from anywhere in Brooklyn, to take at least two hours to complete, depending on how many stops you wish to make along the way.

  • Attractions
  • West Village

One of New York City’s hottest attractions, Little Island greets visitors and locals who flock to see Manhattan’s gorgeous “floating” greenspace. The park is filled with open lawns, colorful foliage, cool installations and even a secret garden.

The park opens at 6am daily (closing times differ throughout the year), and it's totally free to enter. 

Plus, there are plenty of free performances this summer to check out; here's the full list.

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  • Things to do

If you crave an escape from the city that won’t land you in debt, head to the ever-changing urban oasis of Governors Island, NY which combines park, adult playground and outdoor art space into a single lovely haven for adventure. Governors Island has officially become a year-round destination for the public to roam. Yes, even in the winter.

Heads up that getting there will cost you a few bucks. It costs $4 to cruise to the car-free paradise on a ferry, but there are a few opportunities to get a free ride, like taking an early ferry or if you qualify for special discounts. 

  • 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 clamor 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.

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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.

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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  • Things to do
  • Events & Festivals

Find your latest read at The Free Black Women’s Library, a new free library in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, which also serves as a social art project, a reading room, a co-working space and a community gathering center. The library "celebrates the brilliance, diversity and imagination of Black women and Black non-binary authors." All 5,000 books in the library's collection are written by Black women and non-binary authors.

Here's how it works: Anybody can visit the space to read, work or hang out. If you want to take a book home, simply bring a book written by a Black woman or Black non-binary author, and you can trade. Whether you decide to bring the book back after you're done reading or keep it for your collection is up to you.

The library is currently open four days per week (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) at 226 Marcus Garvey Boulevard. In addition to offering a space to read or work, the library has also hosts a book club, art shows and workshops on topics like writing, drawing, poetry, painting and sewing. All are welcome. 

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  • Art
  • Contemporary art

In the westernmost stretches of Chelsea, dozens of free-admission galleries showcase 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.

  • Things to do
  • Events & Festivals

Explore "The End of Fossil Fuel," the latest pop-up from the NYC Climate Museum. It's free to visit in Soho and offers a bevy of eye-opening activities for all ages.

Inside the gallery, a collection of maps will put climate change issues into perspective, alongside text panels about the history of the fossil fuel industry. The exhibits trace the origins of the climate and inequality crises and how we got to where we are today. Other activations include a sticker wall where visitors commit to specific climate actions and a kids' corner with books and drawing materials.

Find the pop-up at 105 Wooster Street in Soho through April 30. The museum is free to visit and open to all. It's open Wednesdays-Sundays from 1-6pm. 

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  • Art
  • Art

With 750,000 objects, The Hispanic Society Museum & Library boasts the largest assemblage of Spanish art and manuscripts outside Spain. The collection includes many religious artifacts, including 16th-century tombs from the monastery of San Francisco in Cuéllar, Spain. After a six-year, $10-million renovation, the museum's main building reopened in May 2023. Additional renovation work is planned for the museum's East Building. 

The museum features a variety of exhibitions each year; keep an eye on their website to see what's on view. A permanent fixture of the museum, however, is Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida’s Vision of Spain, comprising 14 monumetal oil paintings commissioned by the Society in 1911. Each massive panel reflects a different region of Spain in vivid colors, featuring tuna fishing, bull fighting and an Easter parade, along with objects including oranges and flowers. The canvases are arranged around the room, making it feel truly immersive.

The museum, founded by the son of a railroad magnate in the early 1900s, is free to visit. It's located in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood.

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 offers 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. 

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

The Jewish Museum, housed in the 1908 Warburg Mansion, showcases temporary exhibitions of contemporary and modern art and also maintains 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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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. Here's the full list of special exhibitions coming to The Morgan in 2023.  

The museum is free to visit on Fridays, 5-7pm. Reservations are required available one week in advance.

  • Things to do
  • City Life

New York City has an official retirement home for worn-out playground animals, you know, the ones we used to climb on as kids. 

Flushing Meadows Corona Park now has a section set aside for these beloved concrete animals that have seen better days. Called the “Home for Retired Playground Animals,” this space is next to the giant Unisphere and it’s meant to be a contemplative area with plantings where you can see these animals and sit on benches near them.

There are two dolphins, one aardvark, one elephant, one camel and one frog from various NYC parks that children have played and climbed on since the 1980s and ’90s. Until now, these animals were just thrown out, but starting now, they'll be added to the "retirement home" at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park where you can visit them.

 

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  • Things to do

No matter the season, there’s always an excuse to visit Central Park. From leaf peeping to learning local history to strolling amongst the flowers, Manhattan’s iconic green space dazzles every day. We've broken down our list of best things to do by season, so you won't miss a thing.

  • Comedy

You don't have to shell out cash or order two drinks at these free comedy shows in NYC. The city has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to comedy—on any given night, you can hit up some of NYC’s best comedy clubs to see sets from the city’s best-rising comedians, along with well-established names—but you can also find hella funny sets around the city for nothing!

Check out our rundown of free shows in town, which will satisfy die-hard fans of comedy podcasts and even clue you in budding comics in on the best open-mic nights in town.

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