Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

Free things to do in New York City in the summer? I know that it sounds like an oxymoron. Let’s face it, the words “free” and “New York City” are rarely used in the same sentence, but visitors to the city are often surprised both at how expensive it can be ($400 for a hotel room?) as well as the number of free things there are to do and see around New York, especially come summer when the weather is usually sunny and urban dwellers are itching to escape from their cubicles and cramped apartments as often as possible.

For those looking to save money and experience some of the best of what New York City has to offer, here are 10 free things to do in New York City this summer.

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

1) Explore Governors Island

Originally developed as a military base, in recent years Governors Island has been an unpopulated 172-acre island sitting enticingly close to the tip of Manhattan (and even closer to Brooklyn). Then, in 2003, the island was sold to New York City from the federal government, and the island was opened up for free to the public for access to its amazing views and open parkland.

The island itself is made up of bike lanes, parks, the remains of the military base and even the homes that the military families lived in, which are all ripe for exploration. You can rent bikes at a kiosk just down the hill from the ferry dock, and the rest of the island is easily accessible by foot. Head to Picnic Point at the far tip of the island for views of the harbor and open space to have lunch or throw a frisbee around.

Throughout the summer there are free events every weekend, including the FIGMENT NYC art festival (June 8- 9), the Bang on a Can music festival (July 13), and even a bocce tournament (August 24) and unicycle festival (August 31) to round out everyone’s needs.

• Governors Island Calendar of Events

• Governors Island Home Page

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

2) See Free Music Outside

Music lovers in New York know that one of the best times in the city to see live music (often free) is during the summer when the many ongoing music festivals around the city begin, offering everything from indie rock, classical, jazz and world music on a daily basis. Here are a few of the biggest and best of the lineups.

Central Park SummerStage

This year’s SuumerStage lineup is eclectic as ever, with performances from Fela Kuti (June 23), Lights (Canada Day: June 29), and a Metropolitan Opera recital (July 16).

• Central Park Summerstage Full Calendar

Prospect Park Bandshell Celebrate Brooklyn Series

Of course one of the best music festivals in the city is in Brooklyn — Prospect Park’s bandshell to be exact. I’ve been going to concerts here every summer, and they easily have one of the best lineup in the city, and this year is no exception.

This year they kick things off with a performance by Patty Griffin (June 5), followed by shows by Big Boi (June 20), Amadou & Mariam (June 21), Ladysmith Black Mambazo (June 28), Os Mutantes (June 29), Belle and Sebastian (July 11), Jamie Lidell and Dan Deacon (August 2), Eddie Palmieri (August 3), and They Might be Giants (August 10).

• Prospect Park Celebrate Brooklyn Full Calendar

Best of the Rest

• 4Knots Festival (June 29, South Street Seaport, Indie Rock)

• Williamsburg Park (All Summer, Williamsburg Park, Indie Rock)

Northside Music Festival (June 13 – 20, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Indie Rock/Electronic)

• River Rocks (July 11, 25, August 8, Pier 84, Indie Rock)

• Bryant Park After Work (Wednesdays, Bryant Park, Jazz)

• Broadway in Bryant Park (Thursdays, Bryant Park, Broadway)

• Live on Pier 26 (All Summer, Pier 26, Indie Rock)

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

3) Hit the Beach

Rockaway Beach and Coney Island

Visitors to New York are usually surprised by the fact that New York City actually has some beaches that are both clean and fun to visit, all within a close distance. Both Rockaway Beach and Coney Island are less than an hour away, and both are accessible by the subway that drops visitors off steps from the sand.

Rockaway Beach has become a favorite getaway in recent years due to the growth of the many restaurants and bars that have opened up there recently. However, damage due to Hurricane Sandy has resulted in the closing of the boardwalk and many of the local haunts, but the beach itself is still open this year, and now more than ever, those business still in operation are in need of visitors.

Rockaway Beach Information and Directions

Coney Island Information and Directions

Long Island

Though a little more difficult to get to, the Long Island Railway serves many of the island’s favorite beaches, including Jones Beach, Long Beach, Robert Moses and Fire Island.

Even better, due to increasing demand, the LIRR now offers non-stop service to one of New York City’s favorite Long Island getaways: Montauk. Sitting on the tip of the island, the train will take riders there in a little over three hours via service from Penn Station.

LIRR Beach Getaways

LIRR Montauk Express Schedule

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

4) See The Punk Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Opened as part of the Met Gala this year (you know, the gala that Gwyneth Paltrow said “sucked”), Punk: Chaos to Couture is shaping up to be one of the year’s popular exhibits (and a nice follow up to last year’s blow-out Alexander McQueen retrospective).

The exhibit examines punk’s impact on high fashion from the movement’s birth in the early 1970′s through its continuing influence today, and features approximately 100 designs, including original punk garments and recent, directional fashion to illustrate how haute couture and ready-to-wear borrow punk’s visual symbols. The exhibit will run from May 9 to August 14.

The exhibit itself is free with admission to the museum, and despite suggested prices, if you’re really in a bind, you can pay whatever you want (including nothing) to enter the museum (though, be prepared for a scowl from the staff if you just pony up spare change from your pocket).

Punk: Chaos to Couture

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

5) Shakespeare In The Park

Okay, this one’s not exactly a revelation. Shakespeare in the Park has been attracting crowds for over half a century, and a look at the number of people who line up every day for tickets is proof it’s as popular as ever. This year the two productions being staged are The Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour Lost, A New Musical​.

You could line up like everyone else at the theater in the morning, hoping to snag a couple of tickets as they’re given away at 12 p.m. But, for those in the know, those days of waiting on line are a distant memory. Now you can simply get in line virtually by signing up online on the day of the show. If you’re picked, you’ll get an e-mail telling you about your free pair of tickets. If not picked, just try again the next day.

Shakespeare in the Park Home Page

Shakespeare in the Park Virtual Ticketing

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

6) Shop and Eat at the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg

Where else are you going to find vintage sweaters, living room furniture made from reclaimed factory walls, and artisanal hot dogs all in one spot? The Brooklyn Flea is located at its original Fort Greene location on Saturdays, as well as along the water in Williamsburg on Sundays. Not only are the markets good for shopping, but the people watching is a show itself, so bring your camera and an open attitude and you may make some new friends along the way.

And for those who are more concerned about their stomachs than their closets, the organizers of the flea markets have opened up Smorgasburg on Saturday, which are food-only fairs featuring up to 100 food purveyors selling everything from Banh Mi to locally sourced honey. Keep an eye for the vendors with the long lines. Some vendors have parlayed their shops into well-reviewed and popular brick-and-mortar restaurants around the city.

Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg directions, times and vendor list.

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

7) Watch Free Movies Outside

Not only is New York home to the locations for many movie shoots, but it is also home to the world’s most active outdoor movie screening. Come summer, parks, piers and rooftops set up outdoor projectors and show movies around the city, a nice change from watching Netflix from your 300-square-foot studio apartment.

The most popular of these screenings occurs in Bryant Park, which this year is showing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Tootsie and E.T. Williamsburg’s SummerScreen at McCarren Park focuses on ’80s and ’90s retro with showings of Can’t Hardly Wait, The Goonies and The Craft. And at Pier 46 they are focusing on kid’s fare, with showings of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Madagascar 3, and The Adventures of Tintin.

Complete List of Outdoor Movies Playing by Day

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

8) See the World in Jackson Heights

Just a short ride on the subway (7 Train) from Manhattan is Jackson Heights, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city (if not the country) with over 65% of the population made up of immigrants, and an estimated 138 languages spoken here. Most notable is Little Colombia and Little India, where immigrants have opened restaurants and bakeries featuring the best of their country’s delicacies. Among other countries (and restaurants) represented here include those from South America, South Asia, and East Asia. In other words: basically everywhere.

To explore, head down the main thoroughfare of 37th Avenue from 72nd Street to Junction Boulevard and find yourself in what seems like another country. And the best part? You’ll have visited a part of New York few other travelers — and even New Yorkers — have ever been. Yes, off-the-beaten-path travel is possible in one of the country’s most popular cities.

Come hungry, and check out some of the best restaurants and bakeries in the neighborhood.

Phayul (Tibetan food, 37-65 74th Street (37th Road), second floor)

Pio Pio (Peruvian, 84-02 Northern Blvd., between 84th & 85th streets)

Rajbhog Sweets (Indian sweets, 7227 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY 11372)

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

9) Friday Means Free Museums in New York

While Friday afternoons for most New Yorkers means happy hour time, it also marks the time when some of city’s biggest and best museums throw open their doors and let visitors in for free, including expensive museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (normally $25!) and the International Center for Photography (normally $14).

Here’s a full list of who’s open for free and at what time on Fridays:

Museum of Modern Art (4 to 8 p.m.)
Whitney Museum of American Art (pay what you will, 6 to 9 p.m.)
Morgan Library and Museum (7 to 9 p.m.)
The New-York Historical Society (pay what you will, 6 to 8 p.m.)
New York Aquarium (pay what you will, after 3 p.m.)
International Center of Photography (pay what you will, after 5 p.m.)
Museum of the Moving Image (4 to 8 p.m.)
Japan Society (6 to 9 p.m.)
New York Hall of Science (2 to 5 p.m., September through June)
Rubin Museum of Art (6 to 10 p.m.)
Asia Society (September through June, 6 to 9 p.m.)

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

10) Visit Famous Graves

Okay, stay with me here. Where do travelers flock in Paris? Père Lachaise Cemetery to see Jim Morrison’s grave. How about Buenos Aires? Recoleta Cemetery for Eva Peron. Well, New York has its share of famous graves, most of which go unvisited by travelers (even though the price to do so is free).

Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx is famous for the great jazz legends buried there. In fact, so many are there, the cemetery has its own “jazz corner,” where such greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis and Max Roach are found.

Over in Queens is Saint John’s Cemetery, home to the city’s most notorious mafioso, including John Gotti, Lucky Luciano, Joe Colombo, Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese.

And perhaps most famous, Green-Wood Cemetery in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, is the city’s most scenic final resting place. Here you can find the graves of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Henry Ward Beecher, Leonard Bernstein, William “Bill The Butcher” Poole (of Gangs of New York fame), and William Marcy “Boss” Tweed.

Woodlawn offers self-guided tours. Directions and information can be found on their site.

You’re on your own at Saint John’s, but plot locations can be found here.

The Green-Wood Cemetery site can be found here.

Other Helpful Links

NYCGO Free Event Listings

Time Out New York’s Guide to Free Things To Do

By Matt Stabile

Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This Summer

[Governor's Island 10K by Shan213/Flickr; Celebrate Brooklyn by Seth Noreman/Flickr; Rockaway Beach by Dan DeLuca/Flickr; Shakespeare in the Park by Jonathan Hawkins/Flickr; Brooklyn Flea by Chris Oakley/Flickr; Superman Movie at Bryant Park by Howard Brier/Flickr; Jackson Heights by Paul Lowry/Flickr; MOMA by Bruce Berrien/Flickr; Woodlawn Cemetary by Ralph Hockens/Flickr]


Top 10 Free Things To Do In New York City This SummerMatt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of You can read his writings, watch his travel videos, purchase the book he co-edited or contact him via email at any time at (@TheExpeditioner)

Published on May 26, 2013

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  • location blanes

    Informative post to enjoy the things in New York for free…..In the year 2009 i was a part of the live music there…..Every guy was taking the full enjoy of the time there and so me too…

  • guest

    lets just forget about coney island i guess…. I have fond memories of that run-down excuse for an amusement park from childhood

  • Jill

    How about all the great walking tours–great for being outside. I saw a bunch of them on <a href="” target=”_blank”> I loved the one of Grand Central Station.

  • Lina

    Hey, how about Socrates Park in Long Island City, Queens? It's free and the art exhibits change always

  • Jah

    What is the best bar to go to in NYC?

    • nyc


    • TheExpeditioner

      Oh man, loaded questions. Depends on what you're looking for I suppose.

  • Mike

    On any "Best things to see/do in NYC list" how can you leave out the Ferry from South St to Staten Island and back. First of all it is free. The views are fantastic (Liberty, Ellis Island, etc)and you are right in the middle of the financial district, ground zero and City hall. If you have to make it "8 Best Things" add this one.

    • TheExpeditioner

      Sure, consider it done. Always a good suggestion, often overlooked by travelers. (Don't forget about Governors Island too.)