True to its heritage as the "playground for the people," Coney Island offers plenty of free activities and opportunities for cheap fun—especially during the height of tourist season in the summer months.
Since 2017, Coney Island has seen remarkable improvements thanks to an initiative by The New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) and the New York Parks and Recreation Department. While plans are currently underway to continue to bring new developments to the neighborhood, though, there are still plenty of opportunities to do free (or almost free) activities in Coney Island.
From spending a Wednesday afternoon at the New York Aquarium to taking a free walking tour of the historic boardwalk, there are many ways to enjoy this south Brooklyn neighborhood without spending anything more than the subway fare to get there.
- Stroll the Coney Island Boardwalk to Brighton Beach: Enjoy ocean breezes and views of Coney Island’s stadium and amusement park at the Coney Island Boardwalk, which is free to the public. Both the people-watching and the scenery are great free entertainment. For pure Brooklyn history, there's nothing like a view of the historic Parachute Jump and Cyclone roller coaster. The boardwalk runs past the New York Aquarium and all the way to the Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which is a great place to enjoy authentic Russian cuisine and culture in the city.
- Watch the Annual July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest: On the 4th of July, watch 20 ridiculously hungry contestants stuff themselves for a $40,000 total cash purse. Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating contest, sponsored by the original Nathan's stand-in Coney Island, reputedly began in about 1916. Recent winners have consumed as many as 74 hot dogs and buns in ten minutes. It's free and you won't be the one to go home with a stomach ache.
- Go to Coney Island’s Atlantic Ocean Beach: Enjoy nearly three miles of public beach along the Atlantic Ocean. Nearby features include free volleyball, handball, and basketball courts as well as playgrounds. Beware the riptides, though, and swim only when lifeguards are on duty.
- Take a Free Walking Tour of Historic Coney Island: The nonprofit group Save Coney Island organizes informative and free walking tours throughout the tourist season. You can get an in-depth look at the history of this famous attraction on one of these tours.
- Learn about Coney Island at the Coney Island Museum: True Coney Island fans have a taste for the bizarre and zany. The Coney Island Museum is the brainchild of Dick Zigun, a Yale-trained theater professional who has made Coney Island his passion for over twenty years. The memorabilia here, which commemorates Coney Island’s vaudeville and amusement park history, is worth the $5 admission.
- Go to a Seaside Concert: The Ford Amphitheater opened in Coney Island on June 25, 2016. Since then, they've hosted a number of famous musicians on their newly-constructed stage. While the amphitheater does have a slew of shows that aren't free, they also host a seaside concert series here every summer. Enjoy the ocean breeze as you hear music from some of the greatest musicians in the world. However, a limited number of tickets will be available for all shows, which must be picked up at the box office two days prior to each event.
- Watch the Fireworks: You can watch the fireworks at many stops in southern Brooklyn, but Coney Island lights off fireworks every night the Brooklyn Cyclones play on their home field beside the boardwalk. You can also watch them at Luna Park, which also puts on a fireworks display every Friday at 9:30 p.m. from the last weekend in June until the Friday before Labor Day.
- Go to the Mermaid Parade: Words cannot describe the irreverent, artistic, wildly popular Mermaid Parade in Coney Island. It is downright silly, and that's the key to its success. The Mermaid Parade celebrates the symbolic opening of Coney Island's beach season in mid-June each year (June 19, usually, but June 22 in 2019). Expect a crush of people: a mix of locals, European tourists, hipsters, families, the tattooed and untattooed, grannies, weirdos, and, of course, kids. One of New York City's best parades, it includes a breathtaking show of antique cars, occasionally driven by a middle-aged person wearing a fish costume. Once marginal, the Mermaid Parade has become such a hit that one can now buy tickets for better viewing.
Edited by Alison Lowenstein