FTF's "free" columnist (yes, we pay her) shares her tips on finding the most fun and top value for time spent at the top attractions in New York City.
You don’t have to be rich to enjoy New York, but it helps: There are few cities in the world that offer such a variety of money-squandering opportunities. And whoever said that the best things in life are free has clearly never taken a ride down Fifth Avenue in a Hummer limo with a Jacuzzi in the back.
The good news is that you can experience many of New York’s wonders without going for the Big Broke.
Many free activities and places in New York can reveal aspects of the city’s character and people in a way that a helicopter tour of Manhattan never could. Here are some price-less ways to pass time in the Big Apple that are easy on your stress levels, on your wallet and… available all year round.
Outdoors in the Big Apple
It took 20 years and 10 million cartloads of stone and earth to create the 340-hectare haven in the heart of the city – and you thought Mother Nature did all this! There are so many ways to enjoy the park, you could spend a lifetime exploring them all.
They include sports and leisure activities, educational, cultural experiences, and artistic pursuits – most of them free. Or you can just sit and relax and watch the world go by. The reservoir’s northwest corner off Central Park West and 90th Street is the best spot to enjoy the view of the skyscrapers circling the Park – you can even see the Empire State Building down on 5th Avenue at 34th Street from here – and take a few postcard-like photos. The best place to pick up maps and learn about upcoming events is the Central Park Visitor center at the southeast end of the park in the Dairy, a charming Victorian cottage. In nearby Sheeps Meadown, you can catch several audio tour markers set to work on your cellphone. Location: Central Park Visitors Center off Central Park West and 63rd Street.
The Brooklyn Bridge
You haven’t relished New York until you have watched the sun disappearing behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan through the web of Brooklyn Bridge cables. Your heart will stir, and it will hit you: “Wow! So this is New York!” The day the bridge opened in 1883, 150,000 pedestrians paid a penny to cross it. Today, the stroll across the Great Bridge, as it was called when it was built, is even more magical—and free. And if you’re (un) lucky enough to encounter a transit strike during your visit – positively essential. Location: Adjacent to City Hall, downtown Manhattan.
Staten Island Ferry
Having already tried riding to the sky, what could be more fun than a ferry ride? Especially when some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the Manhattan skyline are thrown in for good measure? The best and often overlooked sightseeing deal in town, the Staten Island Ferry offers a round-trip, one-hour voyage across New York Harbor. (Alternatively in summer, with older artsy kids, board the free Governors Island Ferry nearby and check out the latest public art installations on this uninhabited island. Location: The terminal is at the foot of Whitehall Street, Battery Park.
Ride a Fireboat
Alternatively, your family can spend the afternoon rolling on the North River for free aboard a historic firefighting vessel. The 130-foot-long John J. Harvey retired from the NY Fire Department in 1994, but rushed to help out on September 11, 2001 pumping 18,000 gallons of water in a minute into the scene for 80 continuous hours — Maira Kalman immortalized it in her children's book " " so be sure to read that in preparation for your visit. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, John J. Harvey offers irregular but frequent free public trips and creative water displays (more often in warm weather) in NY harbor. Get in touch about their touring schedule; donations welcome. Location: Pier 63 Maritime, North River, West 23rd Street.
This is just behind the main Public Library, and in winter features a skating rink where admission is free (geara rentals extra) . This is a gift to the city from annual sponsors, and is typically open every day and evening, beginning in early November till the ice melts. In summer, enjoy the budget-conscious outdoor cafes and historic carousel, or catch the free “sit-in” movies – typically classics like “Casablanca” – shown weekly on a big outdoor screen. Show the kids the lifelike owl statues that sit on tree limbs to scare off pigeons! Location: 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, behind Public Library.
Kayak the Hudson
Downtown Boathouse, a nonprofit organization, lends kayaks free on a first-come, first-served basis in what may be the ultimate NYC freebie. The volunteer-run boathouse also offers free 3-hour supervised tours of the Hudson River. Other free programs available: kayak polo, evening classes, and a youth sailing program. They also make their facilities available to the general public for the launching of small hand powered boats. Location: There are three sites: at Pier 40 at Houston Street, Pier 96 Clinton Cove at 56th Street, and at 72nd street and the walkway along the Hudson; check the website for more information and daily kayaking status.
An activity often neglected by the hurried visitor, observing the street life is a must in NYC. Best places for people watching: The Clock Information Booth in the main concourse of Grand Central Terminal at rush hour; Manhattan Mall (33rd Street and 7th Avenue) food court at lunch hour; any corner along Fifth Avenue in the 40s or 50s in the morning; Times Square pedestrian mall (7th Avenue between 42nd-46th Streets) before 8pm curtains; Rockefeller Center, all day long.
Famous Indoors Sights in the Big Apple
Kids seem to love New York. After all, some of the world’s tallest buildings, the most amazing city lights, the best toy shops and the biggest park are all here. Discovering New York with youngsters in tow is an adventure itself, but if you are looking for tried and tested ways to keep your kids entertained, the city’s built-in rides are your safest bet.
Vertical, horizontal, interactive, inside the buildings or on the water, they are guaranteed to please young and restless visitors. They are sure to be a hit with parents too: admission is free. Best of all, after a day spent pounding city’s pavements, you might even get to rest your feet!
Grand Central Terminall
87 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017
Boasting a cathedral-like main concourse and a 12-story-high ceiling that displays the constellations of the zodiac, this famous train station is NYC’s (if not the world’s) grandest public space. Frenetic, bustling with energy, yet beautiful beyond parallel, Grand Central epitomizes the city’s soul and its state of mind.
The Tweed Courthouse
52 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
A New York landmark, it is named after legendary “Boss” William Tweed, who apparently pocketed $10 million out of the $14 million budgeted to build the courthouse, and who later died in prison. "Law and Order" and many movies have been filmed in this impressive building, which was once a functioning courthouse. It now houses various Department of Education offices. Check out the online schedule for free tours, and arrange your day to fit in a free City Hall tour nearby. If time is short, just a quick look inside to see the breathtaking seven-story central rotunda is worth coming for.
New York Public Library
Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018
Feeling tired? Want to get away for a while from this wonderfully exhausting city? Guarded by two marble lions, dubbed “Patience” and “Fortitude,” this New York Public Library is an oasis of peace and tranquility amidst urban jungle. Head for the cathedral-sized reading room on the third floor, pull up a chair, and read, write postcards, or just doodle. There are several daily programs of baby and toddler story times, book groups, free tours, and traveling exhibits. Walk in and explore.
Trinity Church & St. Paul's Chapel
74 Trinity Place
New York, NY 10006
Need a place to tap into some inner piece and tranquility amidst the Manhattan’s urban jungle? Trinity Church is an Episcopal church right at the start of Wall Street that offers visitors breath-taking vaulted ceilings, magnificent stained glass windows, and a historic cemetery overlooking the Hudson River. The gates to the church serve as an unofficial memorial to the victims of 9/11, with countless tokens of remembrance left by both visitors and locals. St. Paul's Chapel, founded in 1766, was George Washington's favored place of worship, and achieved somewhat mythical status after surviving the 9/11 attacks unscathed. Both churches have free self-guided tours and frequent musical performances in addition to regular services.
Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Plaza between 48th and 51st Streets
New York, NY 10020
A visit to the birthplace of skyscraper architecture could hardly be considered complete without taking an elevator ride inside one of Manhattan’s architectural gems. For the largest concentration of the city’s operating elevators head to Rockefeller Center: This 22-acres Art Deco masterpiece complex has 488 elevators! Explore the Center's ground level for free; you can admire the promenade and public sculptures, roam the lobbies and the cool underground passageway filled with shops and restaurants at no charge. Due to heightened security, your brood will need clearance from a tenant to actually go up in any of these elevators. For a fee, however, your family can tour NBC Studios at the famous 30 Rock building. This is a great place to visit any time of the year, but it becomes a must-see spot during the holiday season when the world famous Christmas tree is erected and lit with 30,000 lights (usually on the first Monday in December). The Center’s historic observation decks are now called Top of the Rock and have their own admission fee.
Macy's Clothing Store
151 West 34th Street
New York, NY 10001
Kids might not like shopping, but they’ll love to ride the magic wooden steps in the world’s largest store – Macy’s at Herald Square, where the “Miracle on 34th Street” happened. Macy’s famous wooden escalators, almost a century old, still rattle and clank their way up to the ninth floor. These are reportedly the only working wooden escalators in Manhattan.
550 Madison Avenue (on 55th Street)
New York, NY 10022
Catapult your kids into the future at Sony Wonder Lab, a retail store-museum-entertainment complex. Sensory overload is guaranteed —kids emerge from the Lab glassy-eyed, deafened and ecstatic. While this is a great place for kids of all ages to learn about design and imaging technology through interactive exhibits, be prepared for “Mum, can we get a VAIO notebook / flatpanel LCD / robotic dog, pleeease?” Advance reservations for the museum lab can be obtained on the website.
10 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10020
Conveniently located right near Rockefeller Center, this store is the only place for all things Nintendo. This place is more than just a videogame shop. It is packed to the brim with games, accessories — even candy — as well as plenty of Nintendo themed merchandise. Some of the company’s first gaming devices are on display, and there are many demo kiosks around the store for kids to try out the latest videogames on the 3DS and Wii machines.
1600 Broadway (on 47th Street)
New York, NY 10019
This monument to round, packaged chocolate open till midnight daily is filled with just about every kind of item that you can possibly stick an M&M on. There are fun, interactive exhibits as well as trinkets ranging from mugs to oven mitts, from telephones to T-shirts. The massive ‘M&M wall’, contains M&Ms in all different colors and assortments, available for bulk purchase. It’s practically too much to resist.
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