Home to 11 world-class performing-arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center is completing a massive renovation campaign (initially begun in 2009, but construction on Avery Fisher Hall isn’t even scheduled to begin until 2017) that has jolted new energy into the West 60s. Eye-catching architecture and innovative programming have helped break down the walls of this cultural citadel, revealing the dazzling creativity that lies within. You may still get the evil eye from one of the Upper West Side’s graying denizens if you show up in a hoodie, but thanks to tons of free events and options for discount tickets, you’ll at least pay less for the experience.
RECOMMENDED: New York guide: 11 themed itineraries
Before experiencing onstage human talent, spend time with the area’s original divas: the 270 species of birds that inhabit Central Park. Train for a “big year” (what birders call an informal contest to see who can see or hear the most species within a set geographic boundary in one 365-day period) with one of the Central Park Conservancy’s free Discovery Kits, available from the Belvedere Castle Visitor center (midpark, on the 79th St Transverse) between 10am and 3:30pm daily. Kits include binoculars, a field guide, maps and sketching materials. Head to the Ramble during spring and fall for the most variety. Even if you don’t dig ornithology, carrying binoculars through the park has a certain illicit allure of its own. Visit the Conservancy’s website to learn more about free tours. The Ramble, Central Park, midpark from 74th to 79th Sts (centralparknyc.org)
Exit the park at 72nd Street and head down Central Park West to ogle some of New York City’s most famous residences, including the Art Deco Century building (25 Central Park West at 63rd St); the Dakota (1 W 72nd St at Central Park West), a registered national landmark even before it became the site of John Lennon’s assassination in 1980; and 55 Central Park West, known as Spook Central to fans of ’80s cinema classic Ghostbusters. Rising to just 20 floors, the latter building is much smaller than it looked in the movie, in which vintage special effects added a few dozen stories and a portal to another dimension. But if you hear a voice utter “Zuul,” get the hell out of there.
David Rubenstein Atrium, Lincoln Center’s version of TKTS, offers discounted tickets to the day’s shows (Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Sts; 212-875-5350, lincolnncenter.org/atrium; Tue–Fri 2–7:45pm; Sat noon–2pm, 3–7:45pm; Sun tickets sold Sat). Not up for opera or dance? Opt for a movie at the ultramod Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center (save room for some Parmesan-truffle popcorn at the center’s café, Indie Food and Wine) or take in a late-night show at the Kaplan Penthouse, which hosts concerts in a cabaret setting that boasts awe-inspiring city views. If you want advance tickets, almost all of the Lincoln Center resident organizations offer rush seats, plus discounts for students and young professionals. Most Juilliard student concerts are free, but you need to pick up tickets at the school’s box office in advance (155 W 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave). If you want to pay nothing at all, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival floods the campus with free live performances on summer evenings in July and August. Broadway between 62nd and 63rd Sts (lincolncenter.org)
Located across from Lincoln Center next to an enormous, ’70s-style Mormon temple, this storefront museum is dedicated to American self-taught art. In addition to peeking at the permanent collection which occasionally graces the walls, you can easily peruse the well-focused exhibitions, which display work such as Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s strange porno-pinup photos of his wife, or 19th-century portrait entrepreneur William Matthew Prior’s oeuvre, both on view through May 26. Then stop at the fantastic museum boutique to pick up some hand-knit arm warmers or tin-can sculptures. Try out quilting, portraiture and other crafts at Make It Thursdays (6pm, starting April 25), or come by Friday at 5:30pm for free music from underground folk acts, courtesy of Red Hook’s Jalopy Theatre.
If your birding clothes don’t seem appropriate for the evening—and let’s be real, they probably aren’t—make a pit stop at the surprisingly civil outpost of the discount-department-store chain. You’ll find on-trend duds for both men and women from Andrew Marc, Halston and Pierre Cardin, among others.
In a neighborhood where the cost of a mediocre meal for two can easily reach the triple digits, Samuelsson’s global-street-food café in the Alice Tully Hall atrium offers a refreshing preshow option for thrifty foodies. Try the doro wat chilaquiles ($12.50)—Ethiopian chicken stew on crispy corn tortillas—or the roasted chicken on a baguette ($12.50), a satisfying riff on banh mi made with chicken liver pâté and some of the Red Rooster chef’s famed pickles. The booze list is well curated, and the space, situated beneath several stories of glass windows, makes the kitchenless eatery feel downright luxurious.