Rosheda Stephenson calls NYC and the Caribbean home. Her travel articles are meant to inspire passion, adventure, and curiosity.
Finding free activities in a city notorious for its exorbitant cost of living can feel like hitting the jackpot. Nothing is better than saving some of that vacation budget for a fancy meal or for a little shopping. Of course, it defeats the purpose of vacation if the free activities turn out to be dull and uninspiring. This list of is full of activities that will feel like you should be paying for them. So here it goes, a list of free things to do in NYC in the summer months that feels like you are having your cake and eating it too.
1. Dance the Night Away in Bryant Park
Bryant Park is one of New York City’s most underrated park. Although nowhere close in size to the bigger favorites—Central Park and Prospect Park—it is the one with the most exciting activities and one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Apart from the outdoor reading room and the pick-up chess games that the park is popular for, there is a plethora of free summer activities that New York families look forward to each year. The dancing events are possibly the most anticipated of these events.
On scheduled nights each week in summer, expert instructors and live music bands turn up in colorful gear to help the large audience shimmy and shuffle away to fast beats. Past themed dances include the tango, the swing, mambo and a fantastic square dance festival. All the events are free and open to both kids and adults.
After dancing there are tables set up where one can have a light prepacked snack if desired. Those who want to spend a little can visit any of the numerous food tents and stands for dinner or drinks.
If fast-paced dancing isn't your thing, one of the park's other free summer offerings like Tai Chi may be right up your alley. Check bryantpark.org for the park's summer schedule.
2. Stargaze From Manhattan’s High Line Park
The High Line Park in New York City's Lower West Side is a story of ingenuity and innovation. The park came about when involved residents of the community decided that their neighborhoods needed a green space and at the same time noticed that an abandoned elevated railway line had become populated by green plants that had taken root on the sides of the train tracks. The idea for an elevated park was soon born.
Today this idea has become the innovative green area known as Highline Park. Highline Park sits far above the lower west side section of Manhattan and occupies almost twenty city blocks. Walking along the park offers amazing views of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline with the added bonus of the beautiful flowers and plants that make this park New York city's own hanging gardens.
Starting early spring each year, telescopes appear along the sides of the Highline Park for those who want to try spotting the constellations from a vantage point literally on the top of New York City's buildings. The free activity attracts many locals and in the know visitors. Kids interested in astronomy will be impressed with the good views of the heavens, and even adults will appreciate seeing the stars from High Line Park's lush, garden-like surroundings.
The High Line park can be entered from many points. To plan a visit, see their website highline.org.
3. See Fireworks Over the Ocean
First time visitors to New York City are sometimes shocked to learn that the concrete jungle is home to several beaches. Yes, the seaside culture is alive and well in some parts of the city: there is no better way to see fireworks than over the majestic ocean.
There are other beaches to see fireworks, but the beach in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn shows the sparkly displays regularly during the summer season. Every Friday night starting in June and ending in September, the boardwalk fills with spectators excitedly peering towards the ocean, the amusement park behind and the still ocean before as they await the start of the fireworks. Typically, the display starts at 9:30 so be prepared for a long night if you have to trek back to Manhattan to your accommodations.
To make the most of the evening, head to the boardwalk a bit early to take in the multicultural magic that is Brooklyn. Expect to see any and everything. My family has had the chance to hold a live snake, see first class break dancing, and dance to live reggaetón: all for free. There is also an amusement park, games arcade, an aquarium, museums and numerous restaurants for those who want to make the visit a whole day affair.
If you want to see fireworks but don’t want to trek to Brooklyn, Macy’s department store also sponsors an annual free July 4th firework display that can be seen from many places in Manhattan.
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4. See Mermaids Parade Along the Beach
This parade is possibly the most risqué free summer activity in all of New York City. Early each summer Brooklyn’s Coney Island gets invaded by the fabled creatures for a colorful, risqué parade that many attend with relish each year. The parade normally takes place towards the end of June when it is getting warm, but it's still not too hot to spend a significant amount of the day outside.
If you have every attended Mardi Gras or a Caribbean carnival, then you have an idea of what takes place in this parade. Expect partial nudity (think nipples barely covered by pasties), colorful mermaid costumes, artistic floats, live music and political statements. Attendees sometimes get as colorful as the parade participant so feel free to get creative if you plan on attending.
5. Tour One of Central Park’s Gorgeous Gardens
To visitors and locals, Central Park feels like New York City’s personal oasis. The popular public park overflows with nature and calm all year round. However, in summer it really comes alive with color and life. Head to one of the soothing gardens to spend a few hours admiring nature at its best.
The beloved Shakespeare Garden is known for gorgeous rose varieties and other colorful plants while the larger Conservatory Garden is known for its series of breathtaking interconnected gardens where ponds, water fountains and well-groomed plants entice visitors to spend whole hours in contemplation. Artists, writers and those in need of quiet will particularly enjoy the no noise policy of Conservatory Gardens. Look out especially for the secluded benches hidden behind the colorful hedges and nooks surrounding the lily pond section of the garden. I have spent countless hours working on romance novels or poetry in these hidden nooks with hardly a soul in sight. As you can tell this writer absolutely adores the gorgeous Central Park. If you do plan on visiting the famous park check out my article, Things to do in Central Park, for ideas on what to do.
6. Go Birdwatching in Central Park
Early in the morning and late in the evening when the sun is well on its way to rest for the day, the beautiful Central Park buzzes with wildlife of the winged variety. Some of the busy birds call the park home, while others have stopped over for a shorter period. Professional birders estimate that between the birds that live in the park permanently and those that stop over, Central Park sees over 200 species each year.
For bird loving visitors, one of the park’s free guided walks or bird identification workshops is a good chance to both observe and learn about these species. The park also makes it easy for those who want to birdwatch at their own leisure. Free birding kits meant to encourage families to enjoy the park’s birds are available to borrow from any of the Park’s visitor centers. The kits come with binoculars, a guide to good birding areas and sketching paper. Needless to say, this is one of the best free things to in NYC in summer if your group includes little nature lovers with inquisitive minds.
Those who want to explore birdwatching in Brooklyn can also take part in similar free programs at Prospect Park.
7. Watch an Outdoor Movie in a Public Park
I am a big supporter of public parks. Not only do they provide respite and a chance to be rejuvenated by nature’s special panacea, but in NYC they are also some of the biggest sources of entertainment for local families. This is good news for visitors who are looking for free things to do in NYC that also gives them a chance to mingle with locals and get a good sense of the true spirit of New York.
Simply pack a blanket and some snacks and head out to the nearest public park on a scheduled movie night for some local fun while enjoying a free blockbuster. To find a schedule of movie showings over summer, check out the events page at nycgovparks.org.
8. Go Swimming in Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pop-Up Pool
Sometimes it feels like space is a rationed commodity in New York City. With expensive square footage comes many sacrifices. One of the unfortunate sacrifices is that most homes and many hotels do not have pools, but thanks to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, both visitors and locals can swim for free in the popular pop-up pool that comes out every summer. The park sits right below the Brooklyn Bridge and is easy to access by foot or by train.
Take the trek over the Brooklyn Bridge, then head to the pop-up pool for an hour of swimming, before heading to any of the great picnic spots with a prepacked picnic while enjoying the amazing views across the East River.
9. Get a Spot in Your Favorite TV Show
If you have watched Good Morning America, The View, or any of the popular TV shows, you will already know that many of them are filmed in New York City. Whether you want to be one of the excited members of the outdoor audience or to sit in on a taping of a night show like Jimmy Fallon, your visit to New York City is the perfect time to do so.
To be a member of the indoor audience of a show, you will typically need a free ticket that needs to be prearranged; outdoor filming have different requirements that can be easily found on the website of the show you are interested in.
10. Kayak for Free on a New York City River
The island of Manhattan is home to a few major rivers. Cruises, ferry boats, and other water vehicles are a common sight on both the Hudson River and the East River in every season. Come summer kayaks also join the party in a program that offers free kayaking on a first come first served basis to those who want to experience the famous NYC skyline while kayaking. Check nycgovparks.org for more information.
Finding free activities that are also fun can make a vacation to expensive New York City affordable for those on a budget. If you are visiting in summer, this list of free things to do in NYC over summer should save you a few bucks and add some major fun to your itinerary.
© 2018 Rosheda Stephenson