10 Cheap Things to do in New York City


“Cheap” and “New York City” may sound like a contradiction so jarring as to make Stephen Hawking embrace the Virgin birth. But after living here for six months, I’ve stumbled over some sweet deals, and I’m sure there are many more–so don’t be shy. Share the love!

Without doubt, it’s painfully expensive to live in this town, and I’ve often wondered how ordinary people, like those in my Dominican neighborhood, for example, can afford it. Some people solve the problem by living in their car as the large man and his wife on the corner do. They move the car when the streets are cleaned; otherwise, they are neighborhood fixtures. People stop by to chat and to leave them stuff. Yet, even with this mild winter, I don’t know how they manage to survive in a four-door Saturn. But they do, and with considerable good cheer, promising to see me again in heaven when I tell them I am leaving the city soon. I hope I do.

Even though New York is a city of the ridiculously rich and fabulously famous, I think that at heart it’s a city of common people. There’s an egalitarian spirit; a sense that the neighborhood boy from Queens is every bit as authentic and colorful and deserving as the broker from the Financial District. Maybe moreso, because a lot of those boys have done their old home town proud.

There’s a sense that the city’s treasures ought to be accessible to everyone. And I was surprised at how many were. Here’s my short list of cheap New York.


The Metropolitan Museum on the right–in Central Park

Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is a classic and sprawling gracious lady. This was one of my favorite places. I only got there twice—not nearly enough to get my bearings or to scratch the surface. I never even sampled the pretzels from the cart that’s always in front and which are supposed to be some of the best in the city. (That’s what people say about all kinds of stuff here, but…who could possibly know?)

The “suggested” entry fee for an adult is $25. And that’s certainly fair, but not particularly affordable if you want to visit more than once. But really—and here’s the secret—the entry is a donation, so you can get in for a dollar, if you have the hutzpah to look the ticket person in the eye and hand over a measly buck. I coughed up $5, and I was incredibly grateful that I could enjoy this treasure at leisure and as often as I wanted..

Don’t forget that the Cloisters is part of the Met even though it’s located on a hill in Ft. Tryon Park in northern Manhattan. This collection of medieval tapestries, armor, garden courtyards (the cloisters”), all displayed in authentic building(s) moved from Europe, is worth a visit.

American Museum of Natural History. The deal is the same here. Admission to a world-renowned museum for a donation. You won’t get into the special exhibits and programs—the Imax theater, the butterfly gardens, what-have-you—without coughing up the full $25 admission. I figured that the ordinary stuff would be enough to keep me busy for, oh, about a year or five, and I was right.

Smithsonian Native American Museum. But aren’t the Smithsonian Museums all in Washington D.C., you ask?

Yes, except for this one. And like all the Smithsonians in Washington, this one’s free. It’s in a lovely old building in the Financial District, and it’s an impressive collection that maybe doesn’t have the same pizzazz and organization as its big brothers in Washington, but it’s still a tremendous deal and so worth the time. I think I even got the audio guide for free.

Staten Island Ferry. Take the 1 train to the end at South Ferry and you’re at the pier. It’s a fast, free ride past the Statue of Liberty to the island. Then, eat your picnic lunch on the promenade and  catch the Manhattan skyline, rising from the ocean like a dream-city, on the ride back.

Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge. I’m not big on following crowds or doing the tourist thing, but walking the bridge is so incredibly beautiful and historic and iconic, that you must do it. Take the subway to Brooklyn. Walk around the Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO neighborhoods for a while, then walk back across the bridge. The view is spectacular as Manhattan comes into view. Plus, most folks walk the other way, although I’m not sure why this is an advantage.

Aerial tram to Roosevelt Island. For the cost of a Metrocard ($2.50, one-way), you can take the tram to Roosevelt Island, a mishmosh of apartments, ruins, and still-functional long-term care hospitals. The real treat is the view as you dangle over the East River in the surprisingly fast and silent metal cubes. Head for the Queensborough Bridge at 60th St. and 2nd Ave.

Bronx Zoo on Wednesday. New York operates four zoos plus an aquarium, but the Bronx Zoo is one of the largest metropolitan zoos in the world. On Wednesdays, you can get in for a “suggested donation,” which again means whatever you want to give. The gatekeepers will want to sell you their $30 “Total Experience” ticket, which includes all the special exhibits like the 4-D theater and the Congo Gorilla Forest. But you can also pay for them individually. I went to see the snow leopards and the gorillas, but the former were inert heaps of fur on the rocks and the latter were nowhere to be seen. Still, the tigers were roaring and the grizzlies were clambering over the rocks and the zoo was totally worth the visit. Plus, Little Italy with its fabulous breads, meats, cheeses, coffee, and pastries is mere blocks away.

Museum of Modern Art on Friday afternoon. You can visit the MOMA every Friday from 4-8 p.m. courtesy of Target, Inc. It’s called Target Free Friday. Be prepared for crowds and a looong but fast-moving line. You can probably cover the museum in two Fridays.

New York Botanical Gardens. Across from the Bronx Zoo, the botanical gardens are a gracious and delightful way to spend a day. Admission to the grounds only is free on Wednesdays and Saturdays before 11. You won’t get into the Conservatory or the Rock Garden, which was disappointing, but the rest of the 250 acres is all yours.

the central court and fountain-Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center. A bunch of discounts are available here for the quick-witted and fleet of foot. Some Juiliard performances are free. (It is a school, after all, and the students need an audience.) Target-free Thursday performances happen in the David Rubenstein Atrium. You can find day-of-performance and last-minute discounts at the Rubenstein Atrium. (I subscribed to Atrium DiscounTix, although even at half-price, tickets aren’t cheap.)

You can get rush tickets for $20 to performances at the Metropolitan Opera two hours before the event.

There are no cheap dates to the major Broadway shows. The TKTS booths are your best bet for the discounted, but still expensive, tickets. You have to buy them the day of the performance, and you’re offered the seats that are available at that time.

Other free sights worth visiting–Chelsea Market, High Line Park, St. John the Divine Cathedral, Bryant Park, the main branch of the New York Public Library, the World Trade Center site.

What are your favs? I’d love to know.

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2 Responses to 10 Cheap Things to do in New York City

  1. Ainlay Dixon 9 May, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    That is an excellent list Kate, and I am really impressed you got the Tram ride on it. Not too many people figure that one out! Spring & summer has so many cheap or free events it is a great time for visiting – Wigstock in Thompson Square, the Tribeca film festival, the World Science Fair in Washington Square Park, the free concerts in Bryant park or Battery park, the Mermaid parade in Coney Island. When are you leaving?

    • Kate 10 May, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

      Wow. That means a lot, coming from a seasoned NYC denizen. Thanks for your list of places/events. There’s such an otherworldly number of things to do in the city, it would take half a lifetime to experience some of it. I was so glad to scratch the surface.

      I’ve left New York and am back in Michigan. Love the green grass and manure smell here, but sure miss the New York vibe. I could have stayed there a lot longer.

      Gentle readers: be sure to check out Ainlay’s blog. She’s trekking around the world with her husband and four (count ‘em) kids. Great read. Click on her name above.