There is a magic to New York that is all it’s own. A feeling, an emotion that is hard to match to words, an experience that lingers long after leaving the city lines. After all of our travels around the world, New York City is still our favorite city in the world. Granted we have an inherent bias of growing up right outside of it and living in it for years, but we are also aware how inaccessible it can feel because of the enormous cost of visiting.
Luckily for you, not only is summer in New York the best season to visit, but it is also the cheapest. The city empties of locals on weekends when the humidity starts to linger in the 90th percentile and the streets, parks, and public areas fill with programming for free and cheap things to do. Below is a roundup of some of the best free things to do in NYC in Summer.
Visit a park other than Central Park
Don’t do the thing that every other person visiting New York will do and flock to Central Park and only Central Park. Visit it at some point for sure, it’s beautiful and a really fun place to explore, run in, and people watch, but if you want to see New Yorkers in New York, head outside of Manhattan. Van Cortlandt in the Bronx has miles of hiking trails in an old growth forest, Sunset Park in Brooklyn has stunning views of the New York City skyline at sunset, and Flushing Meadows in Queens has a small but awesome science museum (great for kids). Grab a sandwich and head (gasp) out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs for a much more local and fun park scene on summer weekends.
How to Visit other Parks:
Find your desired park and go explore. Pick one that’s off the subway if you have less time to spare or sample other public transportation if you’re really looking for an adventure.
Free Music Festivals
Free concerts and performances everywhere in the summer. You would pretty much have to actively try to avoid them on a summer night when wandering the waterfronts and parks of Manhattan to miss them. Some of the best to check out are the Summerstage festival with free concerts and dance performances in every borough and Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park.
How to see Summerstage or Celebrate Brooklyn shows:
Summerstage’s main stage is in Central Park located off the E 72nd St. entrance, this is likely the easiest to get to. But the outer borough shows are worth traveling to if you have the time. All shows can be found on their website. Celebrate Brooklyn is only held in one location, the Prospect Park bandshell located just inside the 11th St. entrance.
Not free, but cheap and super fun. Skip the touristy and overpriced rentals outside of the entrance to Central Park and scattered throughout the city and head to the nearest Citibike station instead, the numbers and locations of which grow every year. For $12 you have a 24 hour day pass and can pick a bike up at any station although it must be returned to that same one or another 30 minutes later.
If you want it for longer than the 30 minutes, simply wait a minute or two and then can take the bike back out. In this way, you can explore much of the city, though the nearest station in that 30-minute window is always at the back of the mind. The free app has a map with all of the stations and gives specifics on whether each one has bikes available to take out or free spots to dock.
How to use Citibike:
Visit any Citibike station in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens to pay and take out a bike. Download the free app for access to route planning, bike availability, and a station map on your smartphone.
Take the Free Staten Island Ferry
Even with all of the love this tip gets on travel blogs and websites as one of the absolute best non touristy things to do in NYC, it is still somehow not that hyped up by tourists. Seriously, why? It’s free, it’s super accessible, and it’s awesome. You can pay to be on a dinky dinner cruise boat with a bajillion people OR you can simply hop on the SI ferry and cruise with the commuters past the best view of the Statue of Liberty in the city (also not a bad view of the skyline and Brooklyn). Bonus, there are cheap drinks for purchase at the on-site bar and free, albeit spotty, WiFi.
Once on the other side, the Staten Island Yankees minor league team stadium (not to be confused with the Major League Baseball team in the Bronx) is a short walk from the ferry drop off. Catch the all American pastime in action while taking in views of the downtown Manhattan skyline whenever the team is in town. Or, simply walk to the other side of the terminal and take the beautiful view in on the free trip right back to Manhattan.
How to Take the Staten Island Ferry:
The ferry runs frequently from the Whitehall Station in Lower Manhattan and drops off at St. George Terminal in Staten Island. If in Manhattan, take the 1 train to the South Ferry station or the 4 or 5 to Bowling Green.
New York City Free Street Fairs
The first signs of summer after a long winter start with the signs of a street fair. We would get more excited over a crappy corn dog stand sighting on Broadway in April than we do about a lot of things because it meant the grips of another NYC winter was finally, painfully, over! Street fairs are held all over the city. The generic ones will all offer the same shabby, overpriced clothing and greasy carnival food, and to be honest, we love those for exactly what they are.
For the non-Americans visiting NYC, street fairs can be a pretty accurate glimpse into the fairs of the rest of the country, with the same staple foods and low-quality souvenirs. However, in recent years, NYC has been upping its game with street fairs. Several of the ones we happened to stumble into last year were stuffed with local food vendors and handmade goods. Needless to say, these are much better. Another option is to scout out the Flea Markets that make homes in parking lots year round and seasonally. This one in the UWS is a fun option to start with, but there are plenty to explore.
How to Find NYC Street Fairs:
The traditional fairs can be found here, and the better ones, usually sponsored by a neighborhood alliance, are well advertised locally. Though honestly, the chances are really good of bumping into one if you wander through just about any neighborhood outside of the UES and Times Square during the summer weekends.
Paddling in New York City’s Waterways
Free kayaking and even some SUP (stand up paddle board) ing exists in several spots along the Hudson and East River waterfronts, all offering free paddling at different times throughout the week. The New York City Parks Department also offers canoeing and kayaking in some of the public parks.
How to Get on the Water in NYC:
See the websites and schedules: Downtown Kayaking in lower Manhattan, NYC Parks (citywide), Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, Kayak Staten Island, Canoeing in the Bronx River (some of these are paid events, but supposed to be really cool. Bonus: all the money supports the nonprofit that cares for the river and park), Red Hook in Brooklyn (can be reached by ferry from Manhattan), Long Island City in the East River, and a walk up first come first serve paddle at this boathouse in Midtown West Manhattan.
Walk Across Bridges
As touristy as it is, we still love the Brooklyn Bridge. The crowds are almost always present, and they are pretty intense, but as with most outdoor activities they can be avoided if you get out early enough or in worse weather. However, taking in the sunset behind the Statue of Liberty from the bridge walkway is pretty spectacular, crowds be damned.
There are other NYC bridges to be walked that are often crowdless but lack the vistas of Brooklyn. The George Washington Bridge in Northern Manhattan connects the island to NJ and has a lengthy and beautiful pedestrian walkway. The downside of this is the path runs directly alongside the very busy road, the exhaust fumes can be brutal. An underrated, non touristy walk is the Manhattan Bridge. It is different than the others, has a more industrial feel and is a bit boxed in feeling, but we think it has more New York in it.
How to Find the Pedestrian Walkways:
The Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path is across from City Hall Park on Centre Street and Park row. Take the 4, 5, or 6 trains to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Park or the J or Z to Chambers St. station and walk east. For the Manhattan Bridge, enter at Forysth & Canal St. in Manhattan or Sands & Jay St. if coming from Brooklyn. Be careful not to get on the cycling path for this one, you will get run down or at the very least be the victim of a blurry obscenity-spewing drive by.
New York City Beaches
Contrary to popular visitors belief, New York City has quite a few beaches (it is made up mostly of islands, after all). Well loved by locals, and crazy crowded on a summer weekend day, NYC beaches are quintessential New York in the summer. Aside from picnic areas in the parks, it’s hard to have a more authentic local New Yorker summer day than at one of the borough’s beaches.
Try the Rockaways in Queens for a fun, younger vibe that is accessible by subway. For the family-friendly, try Orchard Beach in the Bronx, a trip much easier made by car. The more tourist friendly Coney Island is fun for the boardwalk, another great spot to catch a cheap minor league baseball game, but the beach itself is mediocre here. Pack a cooler, some sunscreen, and strike up a convo with the towel next door.
How to Visit a Beach in NYC:
All public beaches are managed and listed by the NYC Parks Department. For the Rockaways, take the A all the way out to the Beach St. 67th station. During the summer season (memorial day to labor day), there is a bus from the 6 Pelham Bay Park train station stop to Orchard Beach, but driving is the easiest way to get there. For Coney Island, take the D, N, F, or Q trains to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue.
Pick a Beautiful Neighborhood and Wander
Most people know that visiting New York City means you should expect to walk, a lot. Not just because it’s a walkable city and easy to get around on foot, but also because half of the joy of being inside of this city is to wander its streets, feed off of the manic energy, and crane necks in order to take in the enormous amount of craziness and humanity that is happening constantly. However, there are some places that are better than others to do this. Williamsburg, the West & East Villages, and Astoria are touristy, but a couple of our favorites nonetheless. Small, charming buildings, delicious food and drink, and tree’s line these neighborhood streets.
How to Walk Pretty NYC Streets:
The West and East villages are located in lower Manhattan on the West and East sides respectively, Williamsburg is in Brooklyn, and Astoria in Queens. Subways and stops all depend on location.
Watch a Movie Under the Stars
There are many free movies in parks all over the city. Fun ones for tourist purposes are the Brooklyn Bridge Park screenings and Hudson River Park. However, same rule as all of the above, for more mellow and more locals, hit the less famous of the parks.
How to Catch an Outdoor Movie:
See sites linked to above for schedules, cancellations, and movie choice. Bring a picnic blanket, or sit on the grass, and make sure to bring snacks to enjoy during.
Run on the Hudson River
Running in New York is a real treat for runners of any level. One of the reasons we loved living there was how easy, flat, and beautiful it was. Many waterfront paths extended for tens of miles, or you can run through the streets for a bit more obstacles but as a great way to take in the city. This route covers up to 20 miles running on the iconic Hudson River. Take in the views, see more of the city than many New Yorkers ever will on foot, and take a trip across the George Washington Bridge all for the price of your free time.
How to Run on the Hudson:
The Path runs along the Western edge of Manhattan, mostly directly on the waterfront, with entrances throughout.
Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theatre of New York has been providing free tickets to Shakespeare shows since the 1960s. According to their site, over 5 million people have attended shows at the open air Delacorte theatre in Central Park. This is our absolute favorite summer tradition in NYC, we can’t wait to go every year. The shows change, the actors are usually pretty good, and it’s Shakespeare in one of the most famous parks in the world under the stars, need we say more? One thing many do not know is that you can actually bring your own food and drink inside even though vendors sell outside. We usually opt for a couple of sandwiches and a 6 pack, kick back, and enjoy the glory that is New York theatre.
How to Get Tickets for Shakespeare in the Park:
Free tickets are competitive, this is not for the faint-hearted. The two main ways to get free ones are to enter the daily lottery through the smartphone app, or line up at the theatre starting at 6 am for tickets that are not dished out until noon. Tickets can also be purchased on StubHub, but half the fun is the waiting in line with others dedicated to the cause. Plus, enjoying a cup of coffee while spending a morning in Central Park is not the worst way to spend a day in NYC.
Have you visited New York City in the Summer? What is your favorite way to pass a Summer day here?
Had enough of NYC? Head out of town to these beautiful day trips.