7 Best Things to Do in New York City on a Budget

New York City is not a cheap place to travel to, and everyone knows that. However, it's still possible to arrange a budget-friendly trip to New York if you know where to go. 

In this post, we have Kemi from Musings and Adventures, a local New Yorker who knows some off-the-beaten-path things to do in New York City on a budget.

Traveling to New York doesn't have to be expensive, so here's what to do if you want to explore the Big Apple without breaking the bank! 

What to Do in New York City on a Budget

Money means different things to everyone, and $10 to frugal travelers is either enough for entertainment for a day or chump change. Frugality is my thing, and by that, I don't mean I'll starve or go without necessities all in the name of saving a dollar. To me, frugality is finding or doing something for cheap or free instead of its costlier, identical option.

Nevertheless, if you find yourself in New York City, this is how to make $10 stretch before you head out.

PS. You need to buy an all-day Metrocard to use on subways and buses if you'll be going round Manhattan or into other boroughs. This should not be part of your $10 budget. Don't forget to check these NYC travel apps to make traveling around the city easier for you!

Quick tip: Are you planning to celebrate New Year's Eve in New York? You may want to check out some of the best things to do in New York City in the winter!

1. History and Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and some museums attached to it accept “contributions” as well as the standard admission fee, which means that if you have $1 to spare, you can be let in. These include the Met itself, The Cloisters, Brooklyn Museum, Bronx Museum and many more.

Some even have monthly free hours or weekly free days and the run the gamut from medieval, modern and contemporary art to niche museums and even the Bronx Zoo. Find out ahead of time in case free hours and days change.

I highly recommend this museum as it is very different from the modern art museums present in every city.

One of many artifacts and medieval sculptures present in The Cloisters, Upper Manhattan.

2. Food

  • Food Carts: You cannot come here and starve because we have food for all price points available for sustenance. After all, you’re going to be walking all over and you need the calories for that. There are numerous food carts in the touristic part of midtown (34th-47th Streets between Broadway and 8th Aves.) and they sell lamb gyros, kebabs, chicken, you name it. You can get thick portions for close to $5 drizzled in white sauce and hot chilli. Delicious! There are even cheaper options; just ask and they’ll tell you. A bottle of water is $1 and is healthier than soda. If you prefer soda, I believe it’s no more than $2 from these carts. It costs much more in shops and restaurants.
  • Food trucks: No doubt you’ll find yourself around 34thStreet and 7th Ave., aka Macy’s. If you do, head over to 34th/6thAvenue and Broadway for the Urban Eats row of food trucks located in Greeley Square. They are usually present from summer all through fall and you’ll be spoilt for choice on the various food types and nationalities present from Asian and Mexican cuisine to desserts, vegan platters and niche foods. Since they’re all different, their price points range from upwards of $5.
  • $1 Pizzas: There are hidden spots for $1 pizzas all around the city. I know that 2 Bros Pizza and Joe’s Pizza sell these dollar slices and garlic knots for cheap and they’re delicious. Google their locations to find some spots wherever you might be in the city. In my Brooklyn neighbourhood, I get 4 garlic knots for $1 as well as dollar pizza slices.
  • Buffet: In addition, there are lots of buffets near Penn station and on Broadway with platters of food for choice. They are priced by weight so choose wisely and factor in 8.875% tax if you want to spend less than $10.
  • Miscellaneous: If you’re lucky, you could go into a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for free food samples to try. Many restaurants or cafes also have staff with free samples outside their establishment to lure in customers. My tea and muffin spot has free muffin samples in the morning for rush hour and I take full advantage of it.

Lastly, you will see fruit trucks selling a bag of grapes for $2, two avocadoes for $3 or a bunch of bananas for a little more than $1. These are all healthier and cheaper options for sustenance.

3. Shopping

You will find yourself around Macy’s (34th/6th Ave.) sooner or later and I caution you to enter at your own peril. If you’re strong of spirit and know that you can browse without spending, go ahead. If not, stand down, people!

Macy’s does offer a 10% discount for out-of-town tourists so if you do buy something for $5, you can get 10% off. Hey, it is something!

Midtown is pricy for everything so head downtown to Canal Street (Chinatown) for cheap/affordable clothing or just to browse. Do not get carried away and buy fake designer goods in Chinatown because it might be a sting operation.

There have been stories of undercover cops posing as fake goods sellers or watching for unsuspecting tourists buying them. You don’t want to end up being fined for more than $10 or worse, being arrested and that charge going on your immigration record.

There really is no clothing of value for less than $10 unless you stained your top and want something cheap to last you a couple of hours. In that case, Chinatown has your back with cheap vests and shirts.

4. Sightseeing

If this is your first time, Times Square on 42nd St/7th Ave. is a sight to behold at night. It is terribly crowded but you can take as many pictures as you like. You cannot afford any of the stores with your budget but the food carts come to your rescue. They are all over the place.

If you’ve done Times Square before, good! No need to do it again. Now, hop on the subway to South Ferry (downtown Manhattan) for the Staten Island Ferry. It is free and takes you across the water to Staten Island where you will pass the Statue of Liberty and be able to take pictures.

Staten Island Ferry.

This is how most tourists escape the cost and the crowds of the Liberty Tours cruises. From the Staten Island dock, you can take pretty pictures of the Manhattan skyline, especially at night.

The Manhattan Skyline from Staten Island.

The picture on the left shows the Manhattan skyline from Staten Island and on the right is Lady Liberty from the Staten Island ferry.

Back in downtown Manhattan, head to Pier 15 at the South Street Seaport for people-watching on the huge deck chairs.

This area is open late spring through fall as all interesting activities in the area are during warm weather. You will see the Wavertree, a docked ship with a storied naval past. There are many food trucks in the area for cheap food and you can walk from here to Wall Street and all the historical sights of the area.

Downtown, you can find the Wall Street bull, Statue of the Fearless Girl, the historic Trinity Church, the statue of Washington at Federal Hall and the 9/11 Memorial Park. This area is amazing for New York City’s Dutch and British history as well as that of the American Revolution.

You can even walk all the way to Bowling Green (I worked in the area and did it numerous times) down Water Street and past the Staten Island Ferry. On this route, you’ll find many street traders selling souvenirs of the city for cheap. At Bowling Green, there is usually a pop-up market in summer selling trinkets, rings, and jewellery at affordable prices. I’ve bought a ring for $1 and there are others at that price point.

A free museum at Bowling Green is the Museum of the American Indian which chronicles the original inhabitants of the city and their history over centuries of colonization. I highly recommend it.

5. Ferry Rides

The Scramble on Outlook Hill.

Governor’s Island: If you’re tired of Manhattan after all this, escape to Governor’s Island for peace and quiet.

The island is open all through summer and is accessible via ferry only. You can take the NYC Ferry service from Pier 11 downtown to Governor’s Island. It costs $2.75 but there are days when it is free before 10 AM weekday mornings. It changes seasonally so confirm ahead of time or arrive before 10 AM and ask the pier staff.

The island is car-free so only walking or cycling is permitted but a $10 budget cannot rent a bicycle. Nevertheless, you can walk to The Scramble on Outlook Hill for beautiful views of downtown Manhattan and see the pop-up art present at exhibition spots on the island.

Every summer sees new attractions on here so walk around and watch out for them. There are food trucks on Leggett’s Terrace but you would save more if you brought a flask of water and just spent $5 on some food. Make sure you have the fare to return to Manhattan!

DUMBO: From Pier 11, you can also take the ferry across the East River to DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Brooklyn Bridge) in Brooklyn.

It is literally 5 minutes across the river and costs $2.75 per person per ride. You can walk onto the Brooklyn Bridge from here or you can explore DUMBO some more before taking the ferry back or using the subway with your all day Metrocard.

Brooklyn Bridge Park: You can take the NYC ferry to this location just after DUMBO. It is quiet and has a park where you can just chill and people watch.

It is quiet on weekdays but weekends see families come out. The area is being revitalized with food and activities and summer will see new activities.

With the ferry, you can also explore other NYC boroughs and if you feel adventurous, take the ferry to Rockaway Beach in Queens. Again, this is better done in summer as the waters are calmer and the beach is open.

6. Park

Every tourist knows Central Park in Manhattan but how many know of Prospect Park in Brooklyn?

This is my favourite park because it is not as crowded as Central Park. You can find quiet and serene spots to spread a cloth and lie down or just watch the geese in the ponds.

You can get here via subway on the B or Q lines heading into Brooklyn and the stops are Prospect Park on the B or Parkside Avenue on the Q.

7. Free Entertainment

The free screening of FAME! in Central Park.

The city has so much free entertainment all year round.

In summer, there is Shakespeare in the Park for literary buffs and if you’re into Jazz, Lincoln Centre has free jazz nights. There are also free summer outdoor film nights in various parks around the city but you have to arrive early for prime seating position. I have watched FAME! in Central Park as well as a Nigerian film in Morningside Park in Harlem.

In Prospect Park, there are also free music shows from international music stars at Prospect Park Bandshell and I have been to a couple of them.

All these are available through summer to early fall as the weather is warmer then.

In colder weather, especially around Christmas time, there are holiday markets and decorations in Bryant Park, downtown Manhattan and in all five boroughs to get in the holiday spirit.

A free music performance at Dammrosch Park in the Lincoln Center.

Lastly, street performers offer free entertainment year round and you can give $1 contribution for their effort. They are present around the tourist areas of midtown and downtown.

Contributor: Kemi from Musings and Adventures

Kemi is an introvert (although no one ever believes that), an avid bookworm and a keen traveler who wants to up her travel adventures in 2018 and beyond… limited PTO permitting. She loves touring her city and its new experiences as there is always something to see and do.

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17 thoughts on “7 Best Things to Do in New York City on a Budget”

  1. wow this is really surprising that you can do so much with $10 dollars in NYC. I have visited and have spent a lot of money there. Enjoyed teh list of options now I need to go back =)

  2. What a fantastic list! When I read the title my first thought was, “um, probably nothing”. But you have proved me wrong. I’ll have to keep all of this in mind if we ever travel to New York!

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