Posted: 1/17/2020 | January 17th, 2020
New York City. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world and one of the most popular destinations in the US. Sprawling, busy, exciting — there’s a reason people call it the city that never sleeps!
It has something for everyone — including lots of budget-friendly activities for travelers looking to stretch their pocketbook. I lived in the city for years and still return often. Whether you’re looking for history, nightlife, food, or art, this city won’t disappoint.
To help you plan your trip, here are the best things to see and do in NYC — no matter your budget!
1. Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island
At 151 feet tall, the Statue of Liberty is spectacular to see up close. But the real highlight of this duo is Ellis Island. Here you’ll learn about the immigrant experience and get a sense of the people who helped build the city. There’s such a great sense of history there that you can’t help but be impressed.
2. Central Park
The perfect way to relax in the city and leave the crowds behind is to spend the day in Central Park. It’s free, there are lots of paths to walk (or run), bike lanes, lakes to row in, and a zoo. The park spans over 150 square blocks (840 acres) it’s easy to spend hours wandering around. During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions (line up early for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park).
From the late spring to the early fall, there are free guided walks run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11am. I’m a big fan of laying out in Sheep’s Meadow on a hot, sunny day with a book, some food, and a bottle of wine.
3. World Trade Center & 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Wander the somber memorial and then take in the view from the new “Freedom Tower.” On the elevator up, you can see pictures of the historical development of the city and how it’s changed over the years. To get a deeper understanding of 9/11 and the events that unfolded, visit the museum. It’s home to some moving exhibits that illuminate the significance of the tragedy and its impact.
180 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 266 5211, 911memorial.org. Daily memorial hours are from 7:30am–9pm. Daily museum hours are from 9am–8pm (closes one hour later on Fri–Sat). The memorial is free to visit and entry to the museum is $24. Free admission on Tuesdays after 5pm (on a first-come, first-served basis).
4. Wall Street
Take a photo with the famous Charging Bull statue (which was commissioned in 1989 and is made of bronze) and then walk to Wall Street and see where all those bankers destroyed the economy. While there isn’t much to see here (the Museum of American Finance is temporarily closed) it’s still an iconic part of the city and worth seeing with your own eyes, if only briefly.
5. Battery Park
Named Battery Park for the old batteries (cannons) that defended the city, you can stop here for music and street performers in the summer, people-watching, relaxing, and some lounging in the sun with a good book. You can also explore the ruins of the old fort that kept watch over New York City. The Park is large and can get a little hectic but there are some tremendous views of the harbor that make it worthwhile.
6. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge offers an easy 25-minute walk into Brooklyn and the waterfront park on the other side of the bridge. Stopping to take photos and meandering along the way will make the walk about 40 minutes — which is definitely worth it! You get a lot of wonderful views of Manhattan as you make your way across. I enjoy doing this walk at night when downtown is all lit up (and there are fewer crowds).
7. Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal is the city’s historic train station. It was going to be torn down in 1975 but was saved by Jacqueline Kennedy, who raised money for its preservation. There are free historical tours on Wednesdays. I love coming to the main concourse and looking up at the “stars” in the ceiling and people-watching as everyone races to and fro.
Also, there’s an amazing eatery in the basement called the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. And for fancy (and expensive) cocktails, visit the Campbell Apartments and step back into the 1920s (dress code enforced). The space was once the office of John W. Campbell, a member of the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors and finance tycoon from the 1920s.
89 E. 42nd Street, Midtown, grandcentralterminal.com. Opening daily from 5:30am–2am. Tours are held daily at 12:30pm for $30 per person with discounts available. Purchase at mas.org/tours or at the ticket windows.
8. Trinity Church
Trinity Church is one of the oldest churches in America. The original building burned down in 1776, but the current church is still beautiful and one of the most iconic sights in the city. It has an ornate Gothic-style structure and is famous for its colonial graveyard, where you’ll find many famous Americans (including Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers).
74 Trinity Place, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 602 0800, trinitywallstreet.org. Opening daily from 7am–6pm.
9. The Guggenheim Museum
This museum is home to a renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, early modern, and contemporary art. The cylindrical museum (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) is considered one of the 20th century’s most important architectural designs. It’s one of my favorite buildings (and museums) in the city.
1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, +1 212 423 3500, guggenheim.org/new-york. Opening Sunday–Wednesday and Fridays from 10am–5:45pm, Saturdays from 10am–7:45 (closed Thursdays). Admission is $25 with discounts for students and seniors. On Saturday nights from 5:45-7:45pm, admission is by donation.
10. City Hall
New York’s City Hall is a great piece of historic architecture. It also has a beautiful little park nearby that’s filled with office workers during lunch (in the summer anyway). To learn about the building’s history, art, and architecture, take one of the guided tours. On a tour, you’ll be able to see the rotunda, the city council chamber, Governor’s Room, and the City Hall Portrait Collection. It’s a great place to learn about the city and how it functions.
City Hall Park. Pre-reserved tours are typically offered for groups (10–20 people) on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10:30am and for individuals on Thursdays at 10am. There are also first-come, first-served tours on Wednesdays at 12pm.
11. Rockefeller Center
Wander around Rockefeller Center to see where they film The Today Show, shop, snack, and take the elevator to the “Top of the Rock” for another bird’s-eye view of the city (which I personally think it better than the Empire State Building, since this view includes the Empire State Building in the picture). It will be busy at sunset and on the weekends, so come during the week to beat the crowds.
30 Rockefeller Plaza, +1 212 698 2000, topoftherocknyc.com. Open daily from 8am–12am (last elevator up at 11pm). Admission is $36 to visit the observation deck once, $50 to combine that with a tour of Rockefeller Center, and $54 to visit the observation deck twice in 24 hours.
12. Times Square
No matter when you go to Times Square, it will be packed with people (usually other tourists). There are a few pedestrian areas where you can sit and take in the city but if you aren’t shopping or eating or planning to see a show then there isn’t much to do in the area.
While no New Yorkers hang out here, it’s still a fabulous place to people-watch for a few minutes from the top of the red steps of the TKTS kiosk. You can really get a feel for how busy the city is from here.
13. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is one of the biggest museums in the world, and if you only see one museum in New York, this is the one I would recommend. It has a huge collection of art, historical artifacts, photographs, and other exhibits. There’s even a real Egyptian tomb in here! Personally, I enjoy its expansive impressionist and Greek exhibits. The museum can get a little chaotic and usually filled with people (especially on weekends) but since it is so big you can often find some quiet spots away from the crowds. You can easily spend hours here so budget a lot of time if you’re a history buff like me!
1000 5th Avenue, Central Park, Upper East Side, +1 212 535 7710, metmuseum.org. Opening Sunday–Thursday from 10am–5:30pm, Friday–Saturday from10am–9pm. Admission is $25 (includes entrance to the Cloisters and Met Breuer for three consecutive days). Free for kids 12 and under.
14. American Museum of Natural History
Made even more famous by the Night at the Museum movies, this is another museum that requires a lot of time. The exhibits on nature, human history, and marine life are comprehensive and educational so I wouldn’t try to rush your visit. Also, don’t skip the section on space at the Hayden Planetarium, which is run by science guru Neil Degrasse Tyson. They have really detailed exhibitions on the origin of the universe!
Central Park W. at 79th Street, Upper West Side, +1 212 769 5100, amnh.org. Opening daily from 10am–5:45pm. Suggested donation of $23 ($13 for children ages 2–12). Note: Even though this museum only technically asks for a suggested donation, be prepared to pay to go into any special exhibitions and/or movies.
15. The Frick Collection
This collection features paintings by famous European artists as well as 18th-century French furniture and intricate rugs from Asia. To be honest, you have to really love Dutch artists to want to spend time here (which I do). Fortunately, they also host a lot of wonderful temporary exhibits so there is often a lot of other art to see in addition to their main collection.
1 East 70th Street, +1 212-288-0700, frick.org. Opening from Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-6pm and Sundays from 11am-5pm (closed on Mondays). Admission is $22 USD, with discounts available to students and seniors. Visit Wednesdays between 2pm-6pm and the entrance fee is “pay what you wish.”
16. The Museum of the City of New York
This museum will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about New York City. Architecture, parks, streets, culture, famous sights — you name it! There are multiple rooms that illuminate the city throughout the ages via interviews, maps, interactive exhibits, profiles of historical figures, and various artifacts. It’s the best history museum in the city. Also, there’s a fun exhibit here where you can create the future NYC (a la Sim City style). It’s great for kids!
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St., +1 212-534-1672, mcny.org. Opening daily from 10am-6pm. Admission is $18, with discounted rates for students and seniors.
17. Empire State Building
This is one of the most historic landmarks in all of New York City. Built in 1931, the art deco interior is beautiful and the view from the top is breathtaking. You can get a real feel for how densely populated New York is as you stare out at the city. Get here early or during lunchtime to avoid the lines and tour groups. And don’t forget to bring your camera!
350 5th Avenue, Midtown, +1 212 736 3100, esbnyc.com. Price: $36 to visit the observation deck once, $50 to combine that with a tour of Rockefeller Center, $54 to visit the observation deck twice in 24 hours. Discounts available for children and seniors.
18. Broadway Show
You can’t go to New York City, the theater capital of the world, without seeing a show. Current highlights and my favorites include:
- The Lion King
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Dear Evan Hansen
- School of Rock
- Come From Away
- The Book of Mormon
You can find discounted theater tickets at the TKTS offices around the city (Times Square, South Street Seaport, and downtown Brooklyn) for shows that day. They also have an app where you can see what they offer too! Expect to spend at least $100.
19. The Cloisters
Few people make it up to the Cloisters (it’s all the way up near 204th Street), which is a branch of the Met devoted to medieval Europe. Even when I lived here, it took me years to finally see it — and I kicked myself for waiting so long! Built with Rockefeller money, the Cloisters was made from parts of five European abbeys between 1934-1939. The building and its stunning cloistered garden are serene and beautiful and a nice break for the hustle and bustle of the city. There are free tours each day that explain the history of the museum and the paintings and exhibits.
99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, +1 212 923 3700, metmuseum.org/visit/visit-the-cloisters. Opening daily from 10am–5:15pm (closes early in the winter). Admission is $25 (includes entrance to the Met and Met Breuer for three consecutive days) and free for kids 12 and under.
20. The High Line & Whitney Museum
The High Line is a former train track that has been converted into an urban walking park. It stretches almost 1.5 miles from 34th Street to the Meatpacking District. Lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, food stalls, and greenery, this walk is one of the best things to do in the city — especially on a nice summer day. Go for a walk, sit with a book, people-watch — the High Line is a must-see and a true favorite among locals.
21. Lower East Side Tenement Museum
This is a fascinating museum that offers visitors a chance to visit former tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. You’ll learn how immigrants from around the world lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they tried to make it in America. It’s an insightful museum and a good follow-up to what you see on Ellis Island. You can only visit this museum via guided tours and they need to be booked in advance. Personally, I like the “Meet the Residents” tour, where live actors portray and share the story of newly arrived immigrants.
103 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, +1 877 975 3786, tenement.org. Open from Friday–Wednesday from 10am–6:30pm and Thursdays from 10am–8:30pm. Admission is $25 with discounts for students and seniors.
22. Take a walking tour
NYC is home to dozens of walking tour companies — and many of them are free! Be sure to take one of the many, many walking tours the city has to offer to get a unique and cultural look at the city that never sleeps from a local guide. There are all sorts of focused tours on street art, history, food, and much more! I always take my friends on at least one when they visit. A few walking tour companies worth checking out are:
For more suggestions, check out my favorite NYC walking tours.
23. Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Want to see lots of beautiful (and weird) modern art? You’ve come to the right place! Personally, I hate modern art. I just don’t “get” it. But, while I dislike modern art, the MoMA does have Van Gogh’s Starry Night as well as other post-impressionist art which makes it worth visiting. If you love modern and contemporary art, this (I’m told) is one of the best in the world.
18 W. 54th Street, Midtown, +1 212 708 9400, moma.org. Open Saturday–Thursday from 10:30am–5:30pm and Fridays from 10:30am–8pm. Admission is $25 with discounts for students and seniors. The MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is free of charge to the public daily (9:30am–10:15am). On Fridays after 4pm, the museum is free
24. Prospect Park
Spend some time outside of Manhattan and go explore Brooklyn’s version of Central Park (the Brooklyn Museum is right next down and it’s worth a visit too). Opened in 1867, the park covers over 500 acres and is a great place to have a picnic, read a book, people watch, or lounge in the sun.
25. Bronx Zoo
Head north for a look at one of the oldest and biggest zoos in the United States. Opened in 1899, the zoo spans almost 300 acres and sees over 2 million visitors each and every year. Home to over 650 different species, it’s a great place to visit with kids. Gorillas, birds of prey, bison — there is a huge assortment of animals here and you’ll definitely learn a lot during your visit!
2300 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, +1 718 220 5100, bronxzoo.com. Open Monday–Friday from 10am–5pm and Saturday–Sunday from 10am–5:30pm (limited hours from November-April). Tickets are $22.95, but it is pay-what-you-want on Wednesdays.
26. See a Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Knicks Game
Like sports? Then you probably already know that NYC has some world-class sports teams. I’m not much of a sports fan but games are fun when you have friends to share the experience with. If you have a chance and the desire, grab some tickets to a game!
27. See a TV Show!
TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon offer free tickets to their tapings (although they must be reserved well in advance). It can be very difficult to get tickets so try to get tickets for multiple shows to increase your odds. For more details, see the website of each show for details and to make reservations.
Walk through the narrow aisle of the Je Bon Sushi restaurant in the East Village, and head down the tiny stairway to find this hidden dinner theater. This four-person improv comedy competition takes place within the structure of a high-energy Japanese game show, with slapstick theatrical performances. Go with friends to enjoy some sushi, sake shots, and a night of ridiculous fun.
15 St. Mark’s Place, East Village, +1 347 985 0368, batsulive.com/new-york. Tickets from $30.50.
29. Ellen’s Stardust Diner
Since 1987, this diner is home to an incredible waitstaff of singers and dancers. Between tours and musical performances, actors and actresses wait tables at Ellen’s, where they belt out songs as they serve you slightly pricey, very American diner food (think shakes, burgers, and lasagna) in uniforms from the 1950s. It’s incredibly cheesy but good fun — especially if you’re a theatre fan!
1650 Broadway, Times Square, +1 212 956 5151. There’s usually a line so be sure to plan ahead!
No matter how long you’re here for — and no matter what you’re interested in — New York City will have something for you. While it’s not the most budget-friendly city in the country, there are plenty of free activities and lots of cheap things to see and do to keep you busy and entertained.
And if you want to splurge? Well, you’ve come to the right place!
With so many things to see and do it’s no surprise that tourists love to re-visit this diverse, lovely, and eclectic city. But don’t take my word for it — put this list to the test and let me know what you think!
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