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Visiting New York on a budget

New York city taxi cab

After budget guides to London and Paris, I’m back with one for another of my favourite cities – New York. I first visited the Big Apple almost 20 years ago and it made a big impression on me. It was my first trip outside Europe and felt a million miles away from my normal life in a small town in Herefordshire. But although it was so different it felt familiar from films and TV – yellow cabs, steam coming up through subway grilles, hotdog stalls, neon lights in Times Square, towering skyscrapers. I couldn’t get enough of it, and still can’t – I’ve been back four times since and will need another New York fix soon. But like many world-class cities it can be expensive to visit. So here are my tips on visiting New York without blowing the budget.

View of the Empire State Building from the Rockerfeller Centre in New York

New York skyscrapers

Things to see and do

A big part of what makes New York so great is its atmosphere, and you can soak it up for free just walking the city streets. The changing feel as you move through the city’s neighborhoods – from the Upper East Side and Soho to Chinatown and the Meatpacking District – makes it almost like visiting lots of different cities. And that’s before you get out of Manhattan into the city’s other boroughs.

There are plenty of places you can visit for free, like Times Square, the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station and St Patrick’s Cathedral. There are also the parks – as well as huge Central Park there’s the High Line on a old elevated railway track, Brooklyn Bridge Park and lots of smaller neighbourhood parks. NYC Parks hold free or low-cost events in the parks throughout the year, like concerts, exhibitions, film screenings and tours. Friends of the High Line also run free tours each Tuesday at 6.30pm from May to September where you can learn about the park’s history, design and horticulture.

For other New York tours, Free Tours by Foot run a variety of walking and cycling tours. They cover lots of different neighbourhoods as well as themed tours like a Greenwich Village ghost tour, East Village food tour or subway art tour. Tours are free but you tip your guide what you think it’s worth. Grand Central Partnership also run a 90-minute free walking tour of area around Grand Central Station at 12:30pm every Friday. Or you can get your own private guide through the Big Apple Greeter scheme, which matches tourists with over 300 local volunteers who show you around their personal New York.

If you want to visit big-name attractions like the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, then it might be worth investing in a New York City Pass. They cost $106 per adult and cover six different museums and attractions – if you plan to visit them all you can save $79 on entrance fees.

Central Park in New York

Autumn colours in Central Park

Museums and culture

Entrance fees to New York’s big museums are normally at least $20 per person, but there are ways to save. Some museums have certain times when you can ‘pay what you wish‘ – like the Guggenheim (5.45pm–7.45pm on Fridays), the Frick Collection (11am–1pm on Sundays) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (6pm–9m on Fridays). There’s also free entry to the Museum of Modern Art and Museum of the Moving Image from 4pm–8pm on Fridays and to the New York Botanical Gardens every Wednesday. Many smaller museums are free all or part of the time too – find a full list here.

A couple of other museums have a ‘suggested donation‘ rather than a fixed entry price. So if you’re happy to brazen it out and offer less, you can save on the usual $25 entry cost to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the $22 they suggest for the American Museum of Natural History. You can also see art for free by browsing the galleries that fill converted lofts and warehouses in Chelsea.

For Broadway on a budget, you can pick up discounted theatre tickets at TKTS booths which sell same-day seats for up to 50% off. Their Times Square booth usually has big queues, but there are quieter South Street Seaport and Brooklyn branches. Or check out the next generation of actors, dancers and musicians at a free performance by students from the Juilliard performing arts school.

Lights in Times Square in New York at night

Bright lights in Times Square

Top city views

The top of the Empire State Building might be New York’s most iconic viewpoint, but it’s pricey at $44 to go right up to the 102nd floor. The Top of the Rock viewpoint at the Rockerfeller Centre is cheaper at $27 and you also get the bonus of a great view of the Empire State Building.

Or why not get a drink to go with your view at one of the city’s rooftop bars. Many are attached to fancy hotels, so you have to fork out for a room or run the gauntlet of bouncers and cover charges to get in. But 230 Fifth has a big roof terrace bar on Fifth Avenue that’s open to anyone. It overlooks the Empire State Building and has patio heaters and blankets so you can still sit out when it gets chilly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a roof terrace sculpture garden and café with great views over Central Park that doubles as a martini bar on Friday and Saturday evenings from May to late autumn.

Nearer to the ground there are spectacular views across the water to lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge and the park at the end of it. Or you can look out over the Statue of Liberty from the esplanade at Battery Park City down at the tip of Manhattan. If you want to get a closer view of Liberty you need to get out on the water, but you can have a free harbour boat trip by taking the Staten Island Ferry. The service shuttles between Manhattan and Staten Island 24 hours a day, taking 25 minutes each way.

The New York skyline at sunset

Sunset over New York from the bar at 230 Fifth

Eating and drinking

If you’re looking to eat out on a budget, there’s a whole website dedicated to cheap eats across New York, with recommendations from local food bloggers where every dish costs $10 or less. You can also save by getting food to go – from breakfast bagels to pizza slices or deli sandwiches. The food truck scene is also really big in the city, with food stalls serving food from around the word. They often move around so the best way to track them down is on using this site, which even has a street food app.

If you like beer then you can take a free tour at the Brooklyn Brewery every weekend. Tours run on the hour from 1pm–5pm and they have a bar where you can sample the produce after – with beers for $5 each or five for $20. Or during the week they run small-group tours for $8, including four tasting samples. They’re happy for you to bring in your own food or order takeways too.

Grand Central Station in New York, USA

Grand Central Station

Travelling around

New York is a great city to walk around, but it’s big, so if you’re covering lots of ground the best way to get around is on the subway. It runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and costs $2.75 for a single journey or $30 for a seven-day MetroCard, which gives you unlimited subway and bus journeys. You can also use it on the Roosevelt Island Tram – a cable car with fantastic views across East Manhattan and the East River. It leaves from the station at 59th Street and Second Avenue.

Travel to and from the airport can be expensive, but there are lots of public transport options. You can get to JFK using a MetroCard – take the A train to Far Rockaway to the Howard Beach/JFK Airport stop (about an hour) then the AirTrain to the airport (15 minutes). You can get to Newark and La Guardia airports using various subway, bus and train combinations – see this comprehensive guide for details.

A more energetic way to see the city is with the new Citi Bike scheme. You can borrow bikes from docking stations south of 79th street in Manhattan and in Brooklyn. They cost $9.95 to access the bikes for 24 hours or $25 for a week, then you can make as many journeys under 30 minutes as you like for free.

View from the Top of the Rock at the Rockerfeller Centre in New York

Looking towards Central Park from the Top of the Rock

So those are my tips for seeing New York on a budget – do you know of any more New York bargains or have any money-saving tips?

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47 Comments Post a comment
  1. Really love the Grand Central Station shot! I’ll make it to New York one day (I hope!)

    October 14, 2013
    • I’m sure you’d love it Kathryn – such a vibrant city and so many photo opportunities out there!

      October 14, 2013
  2. I have been curious what New York looks like …

    October 14, 2013
    • It’s so strange to see it in real life as it’s on so many TV shows and films it looks like you know it already!

      October 14, 2013
    • Haha! I guess tv give you hints on what to see which sometimes it gives you excitement. I wanna visit that place someday.. enjoy your visit in New York!

      October 14, 2013
  3. What a fantastic resource you have created here. I will definitely be using it if we ever make it to NYC. Thanks for sharing!

    October 14, 2013
    • Thanks Alison, hope it comes in useful if you do take a trip to New York sometime!

      October 14, 2013
  4. Oh wow. I’d LOVE to go to NY. One day I hope. Great source of info.

    October 14, 2013
    • Hope you do get to make the trip out there sometime, it’s such a fantastic city.

      October 14, 2013
  5. hi lucy, wow i love your new format on your blog and your photos really pop!!! yes i love nyc and i am going again this december for 6 days so i am really looking forward to it again.

    October 14, 2013
    • Thanks Michelle, I thought it was time for a bit of a design refresh! Hope you have a fantastic trip to New York, I’ve always wanted to see it in winter with the Christmas decorations and skating rinks.

      October 14, 2013
  6. Awesome tips! I love New York and the biggest obstacle to visiting often is that I tend to bleed money while I’m there – not on the next trip thanks to you!

    October 14, 2013
    • Thanks – yes it’s such an easy place to splash the cash, I have to keep away from the shops and try to limit my cocktail bar visits!

      October 14, 2013
  7. Love the shots and definitely very good tips. Thank you for sharing!

    October 14, 2013
    • Thank you – I love photographing New York, there’s almost something going on or some interesting detail to capture.

      October 14, 2013
  8. Those are some very good tips. When I went several years ago, we stayed a hostel up near Harlem and ate at a pizza by the slice place for cheap. The $30 metro card is a great tip – subways will get you almost everywhere you want to be there.

    October 14, 2013
    • Thanks – I stayed up in Harlem last trip too, in a rental apartment, and it was so much better value than staying in Manhattan. Next trip I’d like to stay in Brooklyn too to get a different perspective on the city.

      October 14, 2013
  9. Nice job covering my home town Luce. Next time I can be used for company and free food tours 😉

    October 15, 2013
    • Excellent, I might take you up on that! Feel like I might need another New York fix before too long.

      October 17, 2013
  10. Great info and tips that I am sure will come in handy for me when I visit the city. Thank you! Love your photos

    October 15, 2013
    • Thanks – New York is a great place for photography, so much to see and so much going on.

      October 17, 2013
  11. Sooner or later….

    October 15, 2013
    • Hope you do get to make the trip out there soon!

      October 17, 2013
  12. Great advice. Contrary to what so many think, NYC doesn’t have to be expensive. Brooklyn Brewery is one of my favorites.

    October 16, 2013
    • Thanks – I’m hopefully going to stay in Brooklyn on my next time out there and explore a bit more of the area, there’s always so much to discover in New York.

      October 17, 2013
  13. Fab guide – it’s been far too long since I was last in NY (18 years) this has made me want to book up now! Excellent tips – I’ll be bookmarking this.

    October 17, 2013
    • Yes writing it made me want to go back again soon too, it’s one of those places I could go back to again and again and never get bored of.

      October 17, 2013
  14. Hi Luce! Great post, I haven’t been in NY in a long time and you have some really good tips. I especially like the cheap museum ideas and the top city views (because I love taking photos).
    Good job,
    Frank (bbqboy)

    October 17, 2013
    • Thanks Frank, I love climbing up somewhere high for a great view too, it’s one of my favourite things to do in a new city!

      October 17, 2013
  15. Ashley #

    This has been so helpful! I am planning a couple of days in New York next month and didn’t really know where to begin. Thank you for your advice and insight!!

    October 21, 2013
    • Hope you have a great trip and that the tips come in useful!

      November 1, 2013
  16. I’ve been in love with New York since the days I used to watch the tv sitcom Friends. I’ve only visited once, but I was staying in New Jersey so only spent a day in the city. I would love to go again soon, spend a couple days there exploring some of the popular attractions. This post, as well as the other ‘on a budget’ posts are very useful and I will definitely look back to them the next time I travel. Also, the pictures are spectacular! The central park picture looks so surreal.

    October 31, 2013
    • I’m sure there’s a whole generation who got to know New York through watching Friends! Hope the tips come in useful when you do make it out there. This time of year is a fantastic one to visit – those colours in Central Park were just spectacular!

      November 1, 2013
  17. Great write up! I wish I had these tips when I visited last year. It’s very easy to spend money in New York.

    November 3, 2013
    • It is isn’t it – I have to make sure to stay well clear of the shops and cocktail bars if I’ve any chance of staying in budget!

      November 6, 2013
  18. Hi Lucy,

    I just moved to New York 2 months ago and I can only agree with you: It’s super expensive but there are quite some possibilities to save money just like your tips suggest. I love Central Park because it gives you so many possibilities to do stuff for free (or at least cheap) outside like picknicking, exploring the park by bike or on rollerskates or just wandering around watching all the musicians. I can also really recommend to sign up for groupon or giltcity before coming here. Those two platforms always have great deals and you can save a looot of money (e.g. on renting bikes, city tours, restaurants or even spa’s).

    November 4, 2013
    • Thanks Mirja, and congratulations on your move to New York, it’s an amazing city! Central Park is fantastic, there is always something going on. And great trips about the voucher sites, I’ve used them at home but never for travel so will give them a try.

      November 6, 2013
  19. A super guide that would have been very useful before our recent trip! One of my highlights of our visit was the Highline. Loved it. I could have spent much longer there. We walked our socks off that day, starting at Central Park and ending in Soho via the Highline, West Village and Greenwich village then visiting NYC campus and Washington Square on the walk back. I would just add a caveat about the CityPass. The puff says it allows you to skip most queues but we found that was largely untrue. It was particularly frustrating at the Natural History museum having to queue with people buying their tickets, just so we could present our ticket to the desk. The queues for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island boats, there and even worse back again, were so unpleasant I think I would choose the boat tour alternative with hindsight. Or the a Staten Island ferry, as you suggest – even better.

    November 11, 2013
    • Hope you had a good trip. The High Line is one of my favourite spots, such a good way of using the space. Know what you mean about walking, I always end up doing miles every day in New York. And thanks for the City Pass tip.

      November 11, 2013
  20. Great tips here, thanks Lucy. So many things I need to check out before I start exploring tomorrow.

    December 8, 2013
    • Hope you have a fantastic trip – look forward to reading about it!

      December 9, 2013
  21. Reblogged this on Woman on the run.

    January 15, 2014
  22. travelblog14 #

    Great picture choice and great tips!

    January 28, 2014
  23. Monica DiNatale #

    I am always searching for deals! My guide book 365 Guide New York City lists restaurant deals and bar specials. http://www.365guidenyc.com I want everyone to enjoy the city that I love at a fraction of the price.

    February 18, 2014
  24. Simon #

    NYC in February! Is it too restrictive?

    August 27, 2014
    • I’ve never visited in February but have in early winter and although it was cold we had bright sunny days – you do run the risk of getting hit by snow though, which would make it very pretty but harder to get around!

      August 28, 2014

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