New York deserves its expensive reputation—in 2021, it became the most expensive city in the United States to live in. But it can also be unaffordable to tourists who are used to one dollar beers and cheap eats elsewhere in America. But depending on when you go and where you go, there are bargains to be had in NYC, too.
Most people visit New York in the Spring and Autumn when the weather is ideal and the streets are bustling with people. But the colder it gets, the cheaper NYC can be.
Wrap up and visit between January and March and you’ll find flights and hotel prices at their lowest and many discounted entries to major institutions—not to mention, reservations at some of the top restaurants are easier to get, too. Here’s our pick of the best cheap eats and free New York attractions in its five boroughs.
Think of New York and you’re probably thinking of Manhattan—it’s the most visited borough. You’ll find the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Times Square, the Guggenheim Museum (go on a Saturday, from 4–6 pm, and it’s free) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the US, all on the Upper East Side and Midtown. A New York CityPass will give you discounted entry to six attractions. Contemporary hotel Pod 39’s “better than budget” amenities are also within easy reach of these favourites and it’s a great base to explore Uptown and Downtown.
Broadway runs the length of Manhattan and is where you’ll find some of the world’s best theatre shows. If you’re prepared to line up, get Broadway tickets at up to 50 per cent off at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square from 11 am for same-day matinee performances and 3 pm for same-day evening shows.
While synonymous with skyscrapers, Manhattan isn’t short of green spaces. Central Park has 843 acres to explore. The High Line, which runs from Hudson Yards to Chelsea, is a disused railway turned elevated public park with free art. After walking its 1.45 miles, head to Chelsea Market to try one of its 35 affordable vendors or pick up a slice at Greenwich Village institution Joe’s Pizza.
In Lower Manhattan, the Bowery Wall on the corner of Houston and Bowery is also home to some of the city’s street art—previous contributors include Banksy, JR and Shepard Fairey. The Ten Bells is well worth a visit in this part of the island for its inexpensive wine and tapas.
The Bronx’s most famous attraction is Yankee Stadium and, after a quick stint as a vaccination centre, it’s welcoming fans back to the bleachers in 2022. You can cheer on the Bronx Bombers, better known as the New York Yankees from as little as £11.
If you’re not tempted by one of the stadium’s hot dogs, you’ll find some of the Bronx’s best restaurants within a 15-minute walk of the stadium. The late Anthony Bourdain gave Feeding Tree’s Caribbean cuisine his seal of approval for its authentic jerk chicken, curried goat and shrimp. Try Sam’s Soul Food, another of Bourdain’s favourites, for its generous portions of smothered pork chops with rice, peas and collard greens.
If you still have room, Arthur Avenue is what many consider to be New York’s real Little Italy. Stop by Zero Otto Nove for a Neopolitan pizza before picking up the city’s best cannoli from the century-old Madonia Brothers Bakery.
No longer considered Manhattan’s poor relative, Brooklyn is finally getting credit as the home of some of New York’s most iconic attractions including Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (daytime admission is pay-what-you-wish) and the old-school amusements of Coney Island and Brooklyn Bridge.
Walking across the bridge is one of the best free things to do in NYC. Go early in the morning or late at night to catch it at its quietest. Juliana’s Pizza is also located next to the bridge and considered by many to serve the best pizza in New York.
One of the best parts about visiting Brooklyn is enjoying the views of Manhattan. The Brooklyn Promenade along the East River offers some of the best, or you can grab a drink in one of the rooftop bars along the waterfront from Dumbo to Williamsburg. We love Rooftop Reds for its stellar wine list made onsite. The McCarren Hotel in Williamsburg is a budget-friendly stay with a popular seasonal outdoor pool and rooftop bar come happy hour.
The Brooklyn Museum, on the edge of Prospect Park, is a less crowded but equally impressive alternative to Manhattan’s big hitters. Its collection includes works by Cézanne, Monet and Degas and its general admission is suggested.
Queens is arguably the most culturally diverse borough in NYC. A food crawl of the trucks and restaurants in Jackson Heights will take you from South Asia to South America with Indian, Bangladesh, Colombian and Ecuadorian flavours. Your dollars will go a long way around Junction Boulevard and Warren Street. For tacos, Taco Veloz and Birria Landia on Roosevelt Avenue have long lines for a reason.
To burn off some of those post-crawl calories, visit Flushing Meadows, Corona Park. At 897 acres, it’s the largest park in Queens and home to the Queens Zoo, the Queens Museum, Citi Field (the home of the Amazin’ Mets) and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the US Open takes place every September.
Fans of filmmaking should also call at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It houses the nation’s largest collection of TV and film artefacts, regularly screens films and is free on Fridays after 4 pm
Getting to Staten Island, the least visited borough of them all, is part of the fun. A ride on the Staten Island Ferry from lower Manhattan affords great views of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. What’s more, the five-mile, 25-minute journey is completely free.
On arrival, you’ll find Staten Island has more green space than anywhere else in NYC. The Staten Island Greenbelt offers almost 3,000 acres of lush parks, wetlands, forests and hiking trails. When the temperature rises, head to Ralph’s Ices original location in Port Richmond for one of its famous frozen treats for under a fiver.
For a spot of culture, you’ll also find the Staten Island Museum, one of the oldest cultural organisations in NYC, just two blocks from the ferry terminal and home to works by Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall.