The Tightwad’s Guide to NYC Culture

By Nomadic Matt | Published November 12th, 2012

This is a guest post by Jeff Dobbins, a New York City based writer and tour guide, who is one of the best authorities on the city I know.

New York City has an abundance of cultural riches – remarkable sights, incredible food, world-class museums, and superb theater, music, and dance. But a look at some of the city’s prices ($450 for dinner at Masa Restaurant, $477 for a ticket to the Broadway show, The Book of Mormon) and visitors tend to think one needs personal riches to afford them. Yet, the city offers plenty of bargains, deals, and freebies just underneath its surface if you know where to find them.

Cheap and Free NYC Attractions

central park in manhattan, nyc
Most of NYC’s greatest attractions are free of charge. Times Square, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Greenwich Village, the Highline, Harlem, the 9/11 Memorial, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and the Brooklyn Bridge are all free to explore.

While the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are admission-free, the ferry to reach them costs $13.00.  A free alternative for a stunning view of both is the Staten Island Ferry, which passes them while crossing NY Harbor. (Note: You will have to disembark in Staten Island and wait for the next ferry back to Manhattan, so the trip takes approximately 90 minutes.) From May – October, Governors’ Island (also free) has excellent views of both monuments, as well as the Manhattan skyline.

Moreover, there are plenty of free tours available for many of the city’s attractions:

Cheap Eats in New York City

cheap food in new york city
New York City has some of the best food in the world and you’ll find savory and mouth-watering restaurants on every block but there are plenty of equally delicious alternatives to NYC’s prime (and expensive) restaurants. Many of NYC’s staple foods are very inexpensive:

Bagels  - A bagel with cream cheese is usually $1.50 – $2.00. Wonderful bagels can be found at Ess-a-Bagel, Murray’s Bagels, and Lenny’s Bagels.

Hot Dogs – Hot dog carts are ubiquitous in Manhattan’s tourist areas, and the “dirty-water” dogs usually cost $2.00.  Good grilled dogs can be found at Gray’s Papaya, where the “Recession Special” (2 franks and a fruit juice drink) is $4.95.  For gourmet dogs, try Crif Dogs, Bark, Asia Dog, and Shake Shack, each around $5.00.

Pizza – A single-topping slice is usually $2.50-$3.50, but many pizzerias are offering plain cheese slices for only $1.00.  One of the most popular “dollar joints” is Two Bros. Pizza, with 7 locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn.

Chinatown Street food – Food carts on Canal Street (between Broadway and the Bowery) sell steamed, grilled, and fried Chinese food for $1-$2.  Neighborhood bakeries have savory and sweet pastries for 80 cents, and dumpling stands (Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry St and Fried Dumpling, 106 Mosco St) offer 5 dumplings or pork buns for $1.00. Enjoying these treats in bustling Columbus Park is a unique cultural experience in itself.

If you prefer to dine in a restaurant, many along Mott, Pell & Bayard Streets offer dim sum and noodle entrees for $6-$10.

Little Italy – The family-run Italian restaurants along Mulberry Street can be pricey for dinner, but most offer lunch menus for $10 or less.  Grotta Azzura has prix-fixe 2-course lunches for $9.95.

Falafel Stands – There are many in Manhattan, selling inexpensive falafel & gyros. One of the best is Mamoun’s, offering Baba Ganouj and kebobs for under $6.00.

Harlem Soul FoodJacob Restaurant & Manna’s feature big buffets of soul food and salads (they’re popular, so the food remains fresh), sold by weight: $4.95-$6.50 per pound.

Food Trucks – NYC has some excellent food trucks, serving everything from BBQ to lobster rolls to gourmet desserts at reasonable prices.  To find out which trucks are near you (or to find your favorite truck) the free mobile apps Tweat.it and Eat St. provide real-time information.

Finally, in warm weather, head to the city’s green markets like the Union Square Greenmarket, to gather locally grown foods for a picnic in one of the city’s parks.  Large gourmet stores like Fairway and Zabars are also good places for picnic supplies.

Free Museums

ancient greek statues in NYC museums
The Big Apple is a big center for art, history, and culture and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a museum or art gallery. Luckily, most of the city’s famous museums offer “pay-what-you-can” or even free days and hours.

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art – accepts “suggested donation,” meaning you decide what you can afford to pay for admission.
  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMa)– free admission Friday nights, 4 – 8pm (be warned, it’s a mob scene).
  • American Museum of Natural History – “suggested donation”
  • Guggenheim Museum – “pay-what-you-can” Saturdays, 5:45 – 7:45pm
  • Brooklyn Museum – “suggested donation”
  • Whitney Museum – “pay-what-you-can” Fridays, 6-9pm
  • The Frick Collection –  “pay-what-you-can” Sundays, 11am-1pm
  • Museum of the City of New York – “suggested donation”
  • The Cloisters – “suggested donation”
  • Jewish Museum – free every Saturday
  • Studio Museum in Harlem – free every Sunday

See the Theater on the Cheap

new york city is famous for its theater
New York is famous for its theater productions. Everyone coming to the city dreams of seeing a Broadway show. They don’t dream of those theater prices though, with some tickets costing hundreds of dollars for new and popular shows.

Thankfully, half price tickets for Broadway and off-Broadway shows can be purchased at the TKTS booths.  Currently, full price Broadway tickets cost $120-$160 each, so expect to pay $60-$80 “at the booth.”  Discount tickets are offered for same-day performances, and the selection and quantity vary daily.  TKTS has a free mobile app, providing real-time listings of the shows and discounts that are offered.  There are three TKTS booths:

  • Times Square – 47th St (the island between Broadway & 7th Ave.)
  • South Street Seaport – At the corner of Front and John Streets, near the back of 199 Water Street
  • Downtown Brooklyn – 1 MetroTech Center at the corner of Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue Promenade.

If you’d rather skip the TKTS lines or prefer to buy your tickets in advance, check BroadwayBox.com, which lists discount codes for shows (up to 50% off).  The codes can be used when purchasing tickets online or at the box office.

Many shows offer cheap “rush” tickets (i.e. first come, first serve tickets) or lotteries on the day of performance.  Producers claim these programs keep their shows affordable for people of all financial means, but rush tickets are usually for locations that don’t sell at full price (i.e. front row far sides or last row of the balcony).  So, the tradeoff for extreme discounts ($27-$40) are partial-view locations and early morning lines.  But for sold-out hit shows, “rush” may be the only tickets to be had. Prices and policies vary, so check each show’s website for details. The best resource for rush ticket information is Studentrush.org

Twice a year (just after Labor Day and early January) the Broadway League presents Broadway Week, when most shows offer two-for-one tickets.  Check NYCgo.com for schedules and information.

Cheap Music & Dance Tickets

music and dance shows in nyc
New York City also has many opportunities to see some of the city’s famous music and dance shows.

The venerable Metropolitan Opera has $20 rush tickets ($25 Saturday) for orchestra level seats. Procedures vary for weekday and Saturday performances, so check their website for details.

You can get half price, same-day tickets to Lincoln Center performances, available at the David Rubenstein Atrium, located at Broadway and 63rd St.

The New York Philharmonic offers tickets to open rehearsals (usually mornings) for $18.  They also offer student tickets for select concerts for only $13.50.  Rush tickets can be purchased online or at the box office up to 10 days in advance.

Carnegie Hall has same-day tickets for only $10.  They also offer obstructed view locations at 50% off (but unless you have a thing for the conductor, what’s to see?)

The New York City Ballet has tickets beginning at $20, as well as student discount tickets.
Many of the city’s most historic houses of worship (Trinity Church, St. John the Devine, St. Bartholomew, etc.) offer chamber concerts that are free or inexpensive. Check the music listings in Time Out NY for a weekly schedule.

Visit Your Favorite Television Show

letterman theater
TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon offer free tickets to their tapings (although they must be reserved well in advance). See each show’s website for details and to make reservations.

From landmark sights to diverse cuisines, or visual and performing arts, freebies and bargains are available in every variety.  Meager funds needn’t keep one from enjoying the city’s rich culture. New York City may seem like an expensive destination on the surface but if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that everything you thought was expensive can in fact be done on a tight budget. With so much to do, your biggest challenge may be how to budget your time not your money.

Jeff Dobbins is a freelance writer and author of Walks of New York, an online guide to New York City.  He’s worked in NYC’s cultural scene as a performer, writer, press representative for Broadway shows, and manager of theaters on Broadway and in Lincoln Center.  Follow him on Twitter and Walks of New York Facebook page.

comments 36 Comments

We’ve only been to NYC once and fell in love with it. Just walking through the city was enough for us. We enjoyed delicious and inexpensive meals from the Dosa Man in Washington Square and the Azuri Israeli Cafe in Hell’s Kitchen. Definitely have to get back there someday. This list of tips will be handy to have. Thanks!

Thanks, Gayla. It is a fascinating place to explore on foot (and subway). Hope you do make it back to NYC soon.

I love NYC. I’ve only been 4 times but enjoy it immensly each time, BUT if you can’t afford NYC, then go to a cheaper city with a bad rap and cheaper prices. Every major citly has some culture, nice restaurants, museums, history, etc….You just have to know where to look.
I just got back from Detroit. Talk about a city with a bad rap. I went to 3 very nice restaurants, a nice jazz club to see a legend, stayed in a Casino Hotel at a fraction of what NYC rooms cost, visited 2 museums, and stayed 5 days for what 2 would have cost in NYC.

Dan @ ZenPresence

This is a great article, I’ve been to NYC once and loved it, can’t wait to go back! I had no idea that you could book tickets to shows at discount prices., it was the only activity I missed in NYC due to the cost of each ticket.. once I go back though I’ll be sure to use those services. Thanks!
http://www.livin3.com
Wear Positive, Feel Positive

Thanks Givi. There are plenty of discounts for theater available. They are hard to get during the peak of tourist season (Thanksgiving – New Years), but January – March and in summer almost all shows offer discount tickets. Plus, there are lots of great free performances every summer in NYC.

What a great and in-depth article! I had no idea that you could be on TV shows for free. Also I love the Met so I’m glad it’s on the list :)

Been to NYC three times. Loved it each time a little more.

I’m reminded of a place my Uncle too me to: http://www.rudysbarnyc.com/home.html

Not only is it one of the famous bars in Hell’s Kitchen, it serves FREE hotdogs. Can’t wait to go back.

Rudy’s is great! One of the few old-school saloons left in midtown. Even the duct tape on the banquettes adds to its seedy fun. The pitchers of beer are cheap. And I agree, those hotdogs are good.

Excellent list! I stayed in Manhattan for a few days, other than all the rain it was a blast! Simply wandering through the streets was quite fun, the pizza and dogs were unforgettable. Don’t forget to use the subway instead of taxis. And don’t forget to speed walk.. everyone in NYC walks faster than you!

Great post, Jeff. Proud to call myself a New Yorker! NYC is one of those cities that can be as expensive or inexpensive as you make it based on what you want to do. For every expensive restaurant, there is a hole in the wall serving great food at a lower price. If you can figure out the subway, you’ll save money on taxis. It’s all about knowing where to look, so I’m sure this helped a lot of people out!

Thanks, Koren. Coming from a savvy New Yorker, that means a lot.

Playbill.com is also a good resource for getting discounted theatre tickets in advance. If you want to plan ahead a bit, you can usually buy some heavily discounted (80-90% off) vouchers from Restaurant.com I’ve done that in the past (just Google for a promo code) and have gotten $25 meal vouchers for some decent restaurants for just $2.50.

Nia

Yep, and I love George’s (restaurant) in Lower Manhattan. It’s another great cheap eat, with friendly service.

Amanda

Wow, didn’t realize that big museums like the Met and the Guggenheim were pay-what-you-can. Great post, one thing I remember from my trip to NYC was how expensive everything was, especially while dining out.Glad to see some cheap eats represented here, I’ll have to try Gray’s Papaya the next time I make it out there.

@Amanda: There are actually a bunch of cheap hot dog places throughout the city that include the word “Papaya” in their name: http://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=Papaya+Hot+Dog&find_loc=New+York%2C+NY. When I was in my twenties, I spent more evenings than I should feel comfortable admitting getting my dinner at those places. :)

Amazing tips… Thank you… would love to see a broadway show… hopefully i can get hold of those rush tickets.

I hope you make it to a show soon. As I mentioned, be sure you check the show’s website before you head to the box office (they change policies sometimes). And, there’s plenty of free, great theater in the summer.

This is a super useful article. I’m more of a non-North American traveler, mainly because I’ve always felt a three-day trip to NYC would cost me about the same as a couple weeks in another country, but it’s a place that I’ve always wanted to visited. Now I’ve got a bit more incentive to get booking! Thank you!

I hope you do visit soon. The cost of NYC hotels is daunting, but there are relatively cheap options (I have a post on Manhattan Budget Hotels, and there’s airbnb). Just book those cheap accommodations well in advance. Everything else can be done inexpensively.

Wow! Great post Jeff. I love NYC but haven’t been back in about 5 years because my last trip ended up costing me about double what I had planned. You provided a lot of great ideas for entertainment and dining that could actually make for a great trip without breaking the bank. Time to start planning another trip there now. I really appreciate the article! Keep it up!

Thanks! Let me know if you have any questions while planning your next trip.

This is AWESOME. I’ve never thought NYC was as expensive as people always say, I guess because I stick to China Town and dirty water dogs for food and hit up the free museums!

Eat Pizza and Chinese food to save money. Travel with one backpack and take public transportation!

Nice post Matt. I really want to head down to New York soon so this would be a good guide on the cheap. I’ve heard of the Staten Island ferry idea and it’s a gooder. Could also head up to Canada from New York and check out Nova Scotia!

Thanks for the post!

Saw Gray’s Papaya on No Reservations, place looks bomb for a late night drunk grub sesh!

David

Reads like every other travel guide. He lists all the worst attractions. Seriously, my grandparents would have been amazed by a train station or tall building and the statue of liberty ferry ride. Eat crummy street food like hot dogs — like I needed help with that.

NomadicMatt

What are you suggestions?

I’ve been to a few different TV tapings in NYC. The View was my favorite.

For the half hour shows like the Daily Show, the waiting time is not worth it imo – they’re like blink and you’ll miss the actual taping.

Matt, I just checked book of mormons tickets and they expensive ones are $176

Show:
The Book of Mormon
Eugene O’Neill Theatre
Performance:
Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 2:00 PM
Seats:
1 Ticket, Partial Left Orch Row J, Seat 25
10 rows from Stage. Seating Chart
Total Price:
Tickets ($165.00 each): $165.00
Service Charge ($8.00 per ticket): $8.00
Handling Charge ($2.75 per order): $2.75

Total Cost: $175.75

Price includes a $2.00 Facility fee per ticket.

NomadicMatt

That’s for a solo, obstructed seat. I once got a great seat for Wicked at $100 bucks. Usually those tickets are last minute cancellations. A non obstructed orchestra seat is a lot more expensive than $175.

Kailos, these prices are the “regular” tickets to the show. The producers designate 20-40 seats in the Orchestra and Front Mezzanine as “Premium,” which they sell at $477 each. They tend to be the only ones that aren’t sold-out months in advance, so those with deep pockets actually buy them (I think). “Premium” tickets and prices are shown pretty prominently on the show’s website.

Great article, its always great to know that there are like minded folks out there! Too bad we didn’t see this before we went to NYC just a month ago! I’ll bookmark this for future use!

Thanks!

Maria

Maria, hope you make it back soon and enjoy the city on the cheap. As you can see, there are plenty of budget options.

Thanks Jeff,

Awesome post and will come in handy for when I’m in NYC later this month.

:)

Megan

Thanks, Megan. December is by far the busiest (and most crowded) tourist time in NYC, so discounts are hard to come by. But, the cheap food and museum hours still apply. There will still be tickets to Broadway shows at TKTS, but far fewer (and maybe smaller discounts than 50%) so you may want to check BroadwayBox.com to buy in advance. Hope you have a great time in the city.

Liz

These are some great suggestions on how to enjoy NYC on a budget! If you’re headed this way and looking for an affordable way to see the city, Family In New York is the way to go! They offer custom private New York tours! They will build a tour just for you based on your unique needs and interests and make sure you get to see the things you want to see!

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