9 Budget-friendly activities in NYC

I recently went to see the New York Philharmonic in Central Park. I’ve been here a little over a year now, and I’m blown away by the sheer amount of budget-friendly activities in the city. This event cost me nothing. Just open air, tons of people, and great music. A group of us picked up some cheese and box wine and had a grand time.

When tickets to Madison Square Park and Radio City Music Hall are exorbitantly expensive, there are still so many free activities available in they city. I know lists like this exist everywhere, but here’s my take on some of the best budget-friendly things available here:

Free activities in NYC:

Shakespeare in the Park

Every summer, the Public Theater puts on free shows in Central Park. One of this year’s plays, Julius Caesar, has received a ton of press recently. The combination of Shakespeare, Central Park, and free is too good to pass up.

Free Fridays at the Museum of Modern Art

From 4-8 PM on Fridays, you can get into MoMA for free. If you’ve never been to the MoMA, it’s well worth it. Exhibitions change fairly regularly, so it’s not just something you cross off your list and be done with it.

Pay-What-You-Wish Fridays at The Whitney

Every Friday from 7-9:30 PM, you can pay whatever you want to get into The Whitney. To be honest, this shames me enough to cough up $5, but you can pay nothing, a penny, a dime; it’s all good. The Whitney is MoMA’s younger, trendier cousin. As someone who doesn’t know much about art, there is some weird shit up at The Whitney. Don’t believe me? Go check it out yourself.

Walk along the High Line

The Whitney runs right alongside the High Line, so those should be done back-to-back. It’s a park converted from an old above ground railroad line, so it’s long and narrow. Performance art can be regularly found along the High Line; on a quiet day, there are picturesque spots with lots of great photo ops.

People-watch in Washington Square Park

A favorite location for NYU students and city-dwellers alike, this park is a mecca for unique individuals. Of all the parks in NYC, this one has the most action condensed in a small place. The fountain is refreshing to sit next to in the summer, and a haven for skateboarders in other seasons. I’d recommend getting a slice a pizza a few minutes away and just sitting back to enjoy to view.

Central Park (duh)

Did I mention that parks are great when you’re on a budget? Central Park is HUGE. I’ve yet to walk its length, despite multiple visits. There are places for casual rock scrambles, you can spread out and play soccer/volleyball/a sport of your choosing, picnic your heart out, or take a boat out on the lake. It’s pretty and nice. It’s pretty nice. If you get tired of Central Park, go check out Battery Park and Bryant Park. Do it.

Cheap activities in NYC:

Get a ShakeShack burger from Madison Square Park

Eating counts as an activity, right? I’d start out by walking through Eataly and the M&M store first, then crossing the street for a burger in the park. Pro tip: ShakeShack has a reasonably-priced beer; if there’s a group of you, split a pitcher. Personally, I don’t think these burgers are cheap, but I also have to always get a ShackStack, which is a burger with two patties – one beef, and one cheese-stuffed fried portabello mushroom. (I’m drooling.) The experience of having a beer and burger on a nice day in a park is really, really nice.

Climb up to the Crown in the Statue of Liberty

While not the cheapest thing to do, this is something I definitely recommend. Two adult tickets will set you back ~$50, but this is a full day affair. The museum on Ellis Island is incredibly interesting, and you can pick up your own audio tour, no need to pay double the price for a guided one. Pack some snacks for the day, and take lots of pictures! Wear comfortable shoes; the climb to the crown is full of narrow stairs. Great for kids, bad for claustrophobia. Make note: while you can book a Liberty Island tour without Crown access, going up to the Crown is really the cherry on top. If that’s something you want to do, book your ticket THREE MONTHS in advance. Seriously, you won’t be able to go otherwise; they sell out that far in advance.

Broadway Roulette

At $55 per person, this isn’t exactly cheap, but I would consider it to be a budget-friendly alternative to buying a full-price Broadway ticket. I’ve used Broadway Roulette a couple times, and have no complaints so far. At $55, you’re sort of getting what you pay for. The seats are always towards the back, and you’re not going to see Hamilton or The Book of Mormon. Why I keep going back: as someone who isn’t a huge theater buff, it’s a fun experience! I like not knowing what I’m going to see until the day of the show. (If you’re curious, I’ve seen Dames at Sea and Something Rotten through Broadway Roulette.)

This isn’t close to an exhaustive list. I’ve purposefully excluded Brooklyn and the other NYC boroughs. It’s mostly because they’re far from me; I’m less inclined to go to Brooklyn when I know it’ll take me over an hour to get home afterward. That said, Prospect Park, Smorgasburg, and the Botanic Gardens are all worth a visit, among others. NYC has budget-friendly activities just like any place else. Of course, it’s incredibly easy to blow all your money here, but that doesn’t have to be the case. What big activities did I miss?


  1. I didn’t realize you could go to the crown in the Statue of Liberty! Last time I went was maybe 2004. Security was super tight because of 9/11. We could go up to the base of the feet but that’s it.

    People watching at Washington square park is great, plus $1 a slice pizza a few blocks away (maybe more, I was last there in 2007).

    Walking through Grand Central is a fun 30 min activity, plus the echo rooms downstairs are super cool.

    People watching during NYCC is great, you can camp out near the Javitts Center (a few blocks east and south) by the benches and fountain and see lots of cool costumes.

    So much to see and do!

    1. Author

      Yes, all great things to do! I admit I haven’t taken the time yet to walk through Grand Central; adding that to my own list of things to do!

  2. Here is where I admit I’m a terrible New Yorker:
    I’ve never done Shakespeare in the Park, and I’ve only been to one Broadway show because my coworker had free tickets.

    I like the High Line a lot for people new to NYC. I also think the Bryant Park library is worth going to, because it’s huge and iconic. Could be combined with David’s Grand Central idea.

    And there are tons of free outdoor movies, too!

    1. Author

      I haven’t taken advantage of any outdoor movies, but I know they exist! I’ll have to find some this summer. The library is definitely a must-do and doesn’t take long, like David’s Grand Central idea. Thanks for stopping by, Luxe 🙂

Leave a Comment