Some of New York City's best attractions and landmarks are free to visit. With the cost of hotels, restaurants, and more, visiting some free attractions and landmarks will help you stretch your travel budget (and maybe even save something for a splurge-worthy treat!)
St. Patrick's Cathedral
After over 20 years of construction, St. Patrick's Cathedral first opened its doors in May 1879. St. Patrick's Cathedral is the largest decorated Gothic-style Catholic Cathedral in the United States and seats 2,200 people.
They offer free public tours of the Cathedral on select days beginning at 10 a.m. and daily services are free and open to the public.
With 843 acres of gardens, open spaces, water, and pathways, Central Park is a great place to escape from the tall buildings and chaos of New York City streets. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, Central Park was the first landscaped public park in the United States and was inspired by public parks in London and Paris.
Of course, you can walk around the park, admire its many sculptures and gardens for free, but you might be surprised to discover that the Central Park Conservancy's walking tours are free and offer a great way to get acquainted with Central Park. There are many other ways to enjoy Central Park, including having a picnic and wandering around on your own with the help of a Central Park map.
The commuter ferry that runs from Battery Park to Staten Island may not be fancy, but it offers riders a chance to experience amazing views of Lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the New York Harbor for free.
The Staten Island Ferry runs 24 hours a day and each leg of the journey takes about 30 minutes and covers 6.2 miles. Of course, this isn't a "sightseeing cruise" so you'll need to consult your map (or ask a friendly New Yorker) if you want to identify some of the less obvious landmarks.
First built in 1913, Grand Central was saved from destruction by New York's landmark laws and vocal New Yorkers, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Brendan Gill, who wanted to see Grand Central restored. Extensive efforts to restore and revive this National Historic Landmark lead to its re-dedication on October 1, 1998, when Grand Central Terminal had been restored to its original glory.
Today, Grand Central Terminal is not only a transportation hub for travelers using the subway and Metro-North trains, but it is also a destination in itself. This beautiful example of Beaux-arts architecture is home to numerous restaurants, great shopping and even a beautiful cocktail bar, The Campbell Apartment.
Free daily tours of the New York Public Library offer visitors a great way to see and explore the Library. This Beaux-Arts building, designed by John M. Carrere and Thomas Hastings, was the largest marble building in the U.S. at the time of its construction in 1911. In addition to beautiful architecture and an impressive book collection, the museum features temporary exhibits on a variety of topics that are also free and open to the public.
You'll get to see the gold vault, trading desk, and a multimedia trading exhibit when you tour this neo-Renaissance building erected in 1924. The tour offers a great introduction to what the Federal Reserve does and the role it plays in the economy.
If you want to see the gold vault, you'll have to reserve a guided tour in advance, but you can visit the bank's museum and its two self-guided exhibits without taking a tour. Both the tour and museum exhibits are free and open Monday through Friday (except bank holidays when they are closed).
Over 39 million people visit Times Square each year, some to attend the area's many Broadway shows, some to shop or dine, and all to experience the glowing lights and energy of this famed area. The best time to experience Times Square is after sunset when the glowing lights and din are at their most impressive.
In recent years they have closed off many areas to cars, giving pedestrians much greater freedom in the neighborhood. The streets can be pretty crowded, so keep an eye on your belongings and travel companions. The area is filled with chain stores and restaurants, but most have something special to offer visitors at their Times Square location, including many interactive experiences and numerous photo ops.
Built primarily during the Great Depression, the construction of Rockefeller Center provided much-needed employment. Rockefeller Center has continued to be an important New York City complex and visitors can enjoy the Art Deco architecture and the artwork integrated throughout the area.
The Rockefeller Center complex is home to the famous Rock Center Ice Rink, which is often converted into a dining/lounge area during warmer months. Skating isn't cheap, but it's free to ogle the skaters on the ice.
Built between 1928 and 1930, William Van Alen's art deco building is truly a New York icon. When it first opened in 1930, it was the tallest building in the world for a few short months before being surpassed by the Empire State Building.
There's no observation deck, but visitors are welcome to enter the lobby of the Chrysler Building to see the ceiling mural during normal business hours.
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the is the largest church in the United States and is located in Morningside Heights in northern Manhattan. This Gothic Cathedral is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the grounds and gardens are open during daylight hours. After exploring the Cathedral, don't forget to explore the grounds to see the Peace Fountain and the Biblical Garden.
Although not free, visitors who want to learn more about the Cathedral can take a guided tour. The Cathedral is also famous for its annual Halloween Extravaganza and Procession of the Ghouls which takes place every year at the end of October.
The only private, full-scholarship college in the U.S. educating students for the professions of art, architecture, and engineering, The Cooper Union opened in 1859 with the goal of educating working-class men and women in New York City. Founder Peter Cooper, who was one of America's richest businessmen, had less than a year of formal schooling and couldn't spell. In the mid-1800s, he used his success to build The Cooper Union to give access to education to the children of immigrants and working-class families.
Other interesting facts about The Cooper Union:
- Thomas Edison and Felix Frankfurter were students.
- The Red Cross and NAACP were organized there.
- Researchers developed the prototype of the microchip at Cooper Union.
- Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt spoke in the Great Hall.
The Cooper Union offers visitors to New York City the opportunity to experience incredible art exhibits, lectures, and events. Exhibits cover topics ranging from graphic design and typography to art and psychology. While some of the offerings are not free, every month there are a couple of options available free to the public.