Start spreading the news; New York may be one of the hottest tourist spots in the United States, but it’s also one of the most expensive. For example, you can search high and low but you’ll never see the words “affordable” and “hotel” side-by-side there. A drink in a trendy bar can cost double or triple what you’re used to paying. And a full evening’s entertainment—dinner for two, a Broadway show, and any cab rides or extras—can easily set you back $300 or more. The bottom line? When you visit the Big Apple, make sure to bring a big wallet.
The good news, though, is that buried beneath all that glitter are dozens of free entertainment opportunities. They may not be well-advertised but they do exist, and taking advantage of one or two each day can give your tired, aching credit cards a well-deserved rest.
Sony Wonder Technology Lab – This mind-boggling collection of interactive exhibits provides hours of fun for the entire family. Is it a museum disguised as an electronic playground, or vice versa? Four stories of hands-on displays allow visitors to create animated characters, perform virtual surgery, program a robot, design a computer game, or just sit back and relax in the high-definition theater.
Big Apple Greeter – This non-profit organization arranges free guided tours of the city for individuals, families, or small groups. The tours last several hours and include both popular tourist spots and favorite local hangouts. Guides can also give first-time visitors valuable tips such as how to navigate the subway system and how to find the best restaurants and most affordable shops.
Central Park – Everybody knows the name, but until you’ve visited in person few people realize just how large and multi-faceted New York’s grande dame of parks truly is. Covering 843 acres of prime Manhattan real estate, Central Park contains 21 playgrounds, 52 assorted fountains, monuments, and sculptures, and enough flowers, ponds, and shady walking paths to occupy an entire afternoon of relaxed meandering. Concerts, fairs, exhibits, and other special events take place throughout the year, so check the current schedule before you visit.
Downtown Boathouse – Run by volunteers and offering all of its services completely free, the Downtown Boathouse gives visitors the chance to kayak in a protected bay or take a guided trip down the Hudson River. Kayaking lessons are also available for first-timers. All equipment is provided, so no one has to worry about being up a creek without a paddle.
Hispanic Society of America – A free museum and reference library dedicated to the arts and cultures of Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. Thousands of paintings and sculptures—including works by masters like Goya and El Greco—share space with pottery, textiles, and a huge collection of photographs dating back to 1850. As an added bonus, the surrounding neighborhood contains a superb assortment of Spanish and Latin American restaurants to keep the theme alive after your visit to the museum is over.
National Museum of the American Indian – Arts, crafts, and music and dance performances are only a few of the attractions at this New York branch of the famous Washington DC museum. Special exhibitions and a film and video center add even more reasons to visit, while the resource center contains thousands of books plus a computer system linked to other branches of the museum in neighboring states.
Queens Botanical Garden – This 39-acre attraction contains a diverse assortment of flora including an herb garden, a rose garden, and a Victorian-style wedding garden complete with gazebo and swing. Relax your mind with a stroll among the greenery or come early in the morning to watch locals performing Tai Chi. Spend enough time tucked among the trees and flowers and you just might forget you’re still in New York City. Admission is free every day from November through March, with free admission on Sunday and Wednesday afternoons the rest of the year. Check the garden’s web site for exact times.
Socrates Sculpture Park – This internationally-renowned outdoor museum gives artists all the space they need to display large-scale creations. Don’t worry about stern-faced guards leaping out at you if you get too close to the displays; interaction with the artwork is actually encouraged here. Nice riverside views make this a perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral – If you thought Europe held the monopoly on grandiose churches, one visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral will change your mind forever. The largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States immediately catches the eye from a distance, with twin spires soaring 330 feet in the air. Many of the decorations inside the white marble building are classified as works of fine art, including the Stations of the Cross and the beautiful stained glass windows. A great place to enjoy a few moments of quiet reflection while escaping the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city.
Staten Island Ferry – A unique and relaxing way to see the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, and the world’s largest harbor all at once. The one-hour round-trip journey treats visitors to an unobstructed view of some of New York’s most famous landmarks, with the ferry’s open-air decks offering the best seats. Since local business commuters tend to stay inside, finding a choice deck seat isn’t too difficult.