Cheap, Fun Things to Do in NYC (in Every Borough)
Get your kicks ready. Put some cash on the Metrocard. These suggestions involve a lot of walking, and a lot of traveling from borough to borough. Most people complain about how expensive New York City is, but there are TONS of things to do here that are either completely free or extremely affordable. The first trick to getting the most out of a trip to New York City (or making the most of living in NYC) is opening yourself up to experiences outside of Manhattan, because the other boroughs add so much to the culture of the city as a whole.
The second trick? Get a really comfortable pair of shoes.
1. On the west side, Take the 1, 2 or 3 train to Columbia University at 110th Street. On the east side, take the 6 or 4/5 to 96th or higher, if you like. Walk down…all the way down until your feet collapse under the weight of you. I started doing this when I lived on West 93rd street. If I went after work I’d sometimes pass friends heading home on their commutes, which was really fun.
2. Stroll through Chelsea Market (preferably on a weekday). Watch the bakers knead dough into bread. Admire the artistry on a million painted cupcakes. Imagine Giada DeLaurentis giving you a personal tour through Buon Italia. Sample the incredible selection of flavored oils and salts at The Filling Station. Buy a snack and walk out the back door…
3. Then take your gelato, or crepe or lobster bisque up to the Highline (one of the entry points is right behind Chelsea Market). It’s an elevated park that runs from Gansevoort to West 30th Street, and it’s great. Hang on the bleachers, relax on the wooden chaise lounges, then walk the length of it. It’s a great vantage point, and there are always cool art installations to admire.
3. Ride the Staten Island ferry to Staten Island, and back again. It’s free, and a pretty lovely view of downtown Manhattan on a warm, breezy day. Alternatively, take the $2 tram over the East River to Roosevelt Island. No cars are allowed on, so you have to walk around. Its strange history is fascinating.
13. Amuse yourself at one of the city’s summer street festivals in various boroughs. They’re all basically the same, but that’s part of the fun. They sell the most random stuff (socks, toiletry samples, vegetable peelers?) and all offer the same food (fresh lemonade, Italian sausages, zeppoles, crepes), but they are so quintessentially summertime in New York.
4. Take the Hoboken ferry (or the PATH train) to Hoboken, NJ, and take a walk around. This little town is stinking adorable, and offers an amazing view of the city from the park at the water’s edge. Don’t forget to walk down the main thoroughfare in town–Washington Street. Tons of cute little shops, bars, restaurants and Carlo’s Bakery (from “Cake Boss” fame).
5. Hit the Brooklyn Flea and peruse the unique vintage goods. While you’re there, grab some delicious and unique grub at Williamsburg’s huge food vendor-palooza–Smorgasburg. There are smaller versions of this in Queens at LIC Flea and Astoria Flea.
6. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn, then hang at Brooklyn Bridge Park for a while. It’s awesome. Walk back from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and behold one of the greatest views ever. I never get tired of this (until I get side-swiped by a bicycle).
7. If you have more time to spend on the Brooklyn side, don’t miss a stroll through DUMBO (downtown under the manhattan bridge overpass). What a cool area. Check out the view beneath the two bridges and the vintage carousel on the water, then grab a pastry from the wonderful French bakery, Almondine. Keep going to the end of the block, then spend some time in the coolest bookstore/art space– The PowerHouse Arena. (PS: If you’re looking for uniquely beautiful kids’ books–this is the place).
8. Little Italy on Mulberry street is okay, but let’s face it–it’s cheesier than a plate of lasagna (much like this sentence). For a more authentic experience, head to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, long-considered the “real” Little Italy of NYC. Arthur Avenue Retail Market is a don’t-miss for food lovers (they even have a guy rolling cigars up front, which is pretty cool). My favorite thing to do in the area is grab some fresh (AND CHEAP) homemade pasta and ravioli from Borgatti’s Ravioli & Egg Noodles to cook at home. This place is a gem.
9. You don’t have to hop on a train to bask in the splendor of Grand Central. It’s crazy hectic and nuts in there, but its splendor cannot be denied. (Also: I still haven’t done it, but you’ve gotta try the whispering wall in there).
10. Take the N or R train to Coney Island! It’s so retro, it’s fabulous. Walk the boardwalk, eat something greasy, do some grade-A people watching, and catch the Coney Island Circus Sideshow ($10 adults; $5 kids) around the corner from Nathan’s hot dogs. (Do the side show before you eat, not after–watching people swallow knives or drive nails through their nose (no, seriously) could make anyone lose their lunch).
11. Grab a coffee and walk around the West Village, arguably one of the most charming neighborhoods in Manhattan. Feeling daring? Plop on someone’s stoop and read the Times.
12. Pardon the obvious, but get thee to Central Park! It’s hard to not feel good about life in Central Park. It’s wonderful. My favorite spot is the area near Bethesda Fountain, because there’s just so much activity always happening (photo shoots! acrobatic troupes! musical performers! disco rollerskaters!). I’d rather meet a friend for a lap around the park than happy hour.
14. Watch some seriously impressive–and aggressive–basketball action at the West 4th Street Courts, otherwise known as “The Cage”.
15. Take the ferry to Governer’s Island in the summertime ($2, round-trip). Once you’re there, you’ll marvel that this little oasis from the city exists. The Jazz Age Lawn Fest is held there for two weekends in the summer (June 14/15 and August 16/17). My friends got engaged there two years ago, and the band even played them a dance!
16. Explore Pearl River Mart, a Chinese emporium with trinkets and tschotskes for days. I miss the days when this was a dusty, grimy, 3-story wonderland on Canal Street, but the glossier version on Broadway is still extremely fun to browse for unique gifts.
17. Is it Tuesday? You can get free admission to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden today (you can also get free admission here on Saturdays from 10-12). Is it Wednesday? Today’s the day to head to the Bronx; the New York Botanical Garden is free all day today (and from 9-10 am on Saturdays), and the Bronx Zoo offers pay-what-you-can admission. (PS: Admission to the Botanic Gardens in Brooklyn is free every weekend from November through February).
18. Grab a lemon or cherry ice from the Lemon Ice King in Corona, Queens, then cross the street to watch European men play bocce ball in the middle of the street. This is what New York is all about.
19. Eating a full meal at Balthazar is an ambrosial experience, but it’s definitely on the high end. To indulge in their atmosphere and goodies on the cheap, grab a take-away croissant and a coffee (I had one of the best lattes of my life there) and walk around SOHO, window-shopping. It’s like Paris meets New York without maxing out your credit card.
22. Work off the calories at one of the free exercise classes available every day of the week, in every borough through Shape Up NYC. There’s your basic yoga, Zumba, and Cardio Kick-boxing, but they also offer classes in African Dance, Women’s Self-Defense, and Pre-Natal belly dancing!
24. See a movie outside in a park or on a pier. They’re totally free! This year, I can’t wait for Princess Bride, Back to the Future, Zoolander and Clueless. Apparently there’s some popular movie called Frozen that will also be shown later this summer, but I’m letting that one go.
25. Think beyond Central Park–NYC is full of so many great, green outdoor spaces. Some favorites are Riverside Drive Park, Washington Square Park, Ft. Greene Park, and Astoria Park. Lay around, read a book, people-watch, picnic.
(All photos by Jenn of Much to My Delight.)