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 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 during the summer when the sun comes out and the city’s urban dwellers are itching to escape from their cubicles and cramped apartments and get outside as often 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.
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.
Visitor to the island this summer will get to be the first to experience a newly opened 30-acre park that that has been years in the making (New York magazine called it a “jewel”). The new park features a section full of hammocks called Hammock Grove, a new playground featuring a wooden climbing gym, and a green plaza full of food vendors, public art and communal sitting space called Liggett Terrace
Throughout the summer there are numerous free events that take place on the island, including:
• River to River festival featuring numerous free art shows throughout the summer;
• The NYC Volkswagen Traffic Jam, a spectator-judged vintage Volkswagen car show and picnic featuring Volkswagens from the 1950’s – 1970’s;
• For a full list of all the activities going on at Governors Island this summer, check out the Governors Island Calendar of Events
• For more information, visit the Governors Island Home Page
2) See Free Music Outside
Music lovers in New York know that one of the best times in the city to see live music (oftentimes free) is during the summer when the many ongoing music festivals around the city gear up, 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.
The 4th Annual Village Voice 4Knots Music Festival
Once again taking place at New York’s legendary South Street Seaport, The Village Voice’s 4Knots Music Festival will be back for its fourth year on July 12, 2014. Continuing the Voice’s 14-year history with live music festivals, 4Knots will be showcasing renowned and emerging artists on today’s breaking music scene. Most exciting of all was the announcement that Dinosaur Jr. will becheadlining this show, along with Mac Demarco, Those Darlings, Speedy Ortiz, Rad Key and many others. And best of all, like every other year, the show is free to all.
• For more information, visit the 4th Annual Village Voice 4Knots Music Festival official site.
Central Park SummerStage
This year’s SuumerStage shows, which takes place at the famed Summer Stage in Central Park, are as eclectic as ever, featuring free performances by everyone from:
• Andrew Bird (July 8);
• Amanda Palmer (July 21);
• Dr. John (August 2); and
• Blood Orange (August 16).
For a full list of all the shows, visit the 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 since I moved here, and they easily have one of the best lineups in the city, and this year is no exception. This summer you can see the following for free:
• The Dum Dum Girls/Hospitality/Teen (June 21);
• Bebel Gilberto (July 17); and
• St. Vincent (August 9).
For a full list of all the shows, visit the Prospect Park Celebrate Brooklyn Full Calendar
Best of the Rest of the Festival
• Northside Music Festival: (June 12 – 14, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, featuring free shows from CHVRCHES and Thee Oh Sees)
• River Rocks (Pier 84, July 10, 24, and August 7, featuring free shows by Wild Beasts, Teenage Fanclub and Temples)
• Bryant Park After Work (Bryant Park)
• Broadway in Bryant Park (Bryant Park)
• Live on Pier 26 (Pier 26)
• Seaport Music Festival (South Street Seaport)
For a full list of all shows taking place this summer, check out The Village Voice’s The Ultimate List of Free Summer Concerts in NYC, 2014.
3) Hit the Beach
Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden and Coney Island
Visitors to New York are often surprised by the fact that New York City actually has beaches that are both clean and fun to visit, all within a close distance. Rockaway Beach, Fort Tilden and Coney Island are all less than an hour away, and are all accessible by subway and bus.
Rockaway Beach has become a favorite getaway in recent years due to the growth of the many restaurants and bars that have opened up nearby recently. However, recent damage by Hurricane Sandy has meant that portions of the boardwalk and beach are not yet ready for visitors, though most of it is accessible and even open for surfing.
Nearby Fort Tilden beach, which has recently come into favor by the local hipster and gay communities due to its slightly more remote location, is back open after being shut down from Sandy.
Finally, Coney Island has been welcoming beachgoers for generations, and this summer the nearby park is welcoming several new attractions, including the refurbished Cyclone and the newly constructed Thunderbolt roller coasters.
Though a little more difficult to get to, the Long Island Rail Road 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 (the Cannonball Express). Sitting at the tip of the island, the train will take riders there in a little over three hours via service from Penn Station.
4) Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Roof Exhibit
Artist Dan Graham created this site-specific commission for the Met’s Roof Garden, which is comprised of curves of steel and two-way mirrored glass set between ivy hedgerows. Though difficult to explain, the exhibit has been described as “part garden maze, part modernist skyscraper facade.”
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 only pony up spare change from your pocket).
• For more information, visit the Met’s Roof Garden Exhibit site.
5) Shakespeare In The Park
Okay, this one’s not exactly a revelation. Shakespeare in the Park has been attracting massive crowds for over half a century (5 million people over 50 years to be exact), and a look at the number of people who still line up every day for tickets is proof it’s as popular as ever. This year, the two productions being staged are Much Ado about Nothing (June 3 – July 6) and King Lear starring John Lithgow (July 22 – August 17).
You could line up like everyone else at the theater in the morning in the center of Central Park, hoping to snag a couple of tickets as they’re given away at 12 p.m. But, for those in the know, the 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 alerting you about your free pair of tickets. If not picked, just try again the next day.
• To learn how to sign up for ticket virtually, visit the Shakespeare in the Park Virtual Ticketing
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? Brooklyn, of course. The Brooklyn Flea, which is the actual flea market, now operates in two different locations, including its original Fort Greene location on Saturdays and Williamsburg on Sundays. Smorgasburg, the food-centric outdoor market, can be found in Williamsburg on Saturdays and Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sundays, and each features 100 local and regional vendors.
• To learn more about the Brooklyn Flea and Smorgasburg, please visit the official Brooklyn Flea site.
7) Watch Free Movies Outside
Not only is New York home to the locations for many movie and television shoots, but it’s also home to an active outdoor movie-watching culture. 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 will be showing Saturday Night Fever, Blazing Saddles, National Lampoon’s Vacation and The Karate Kid.
In Williamsburg, you can find plenty of ironic ’80s and ’90s nostalgia with showings of Back to the Future, Heathers (greetings and salutations TheExpeditioner readers) and The Big Lebowski.
Finally, for one of the more scenic views while you watch a movie (see above), head to Brooklyn Bridge Park, where this summer they will be showing Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and The Wizard of Oz.
• For a complete rundown of every movie playing for free outside this summer, check out this comprehensive list.
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 world’s most heavily visited cities.
Come hungry, and check out some of the best restaurants and bakeries in the neighborhood, such as:
• Phayul (Tibetan food, 37-65 74th Street (37th Road), second floor);
• Pio Pio (Peruvian, 84-02 Northern Blvd., between 84th & 85th streets); and
• Rajbhog Sweets (Indian sweets, 7227 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY 11372).
9) Friday Means Free Museums in New York
While Friday afternoons for most New Yorkers means happy hour, 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 otherwise pricey museums such as the Museum of Modern Art (normally $25!) and the International Center for Photography (normally $14).
Here’s a full list of museums that offer free admissions on Fridays:
• Museum of Modern Art (4 — 8 p.m.)
• Whitney Museum of American Art (pay what you will, 6 — 9 p.m.)
• Morgan Library and Museum (7 — 9 p.m.)
• The New-York Historical Society (pay what you will, 6 — 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 — 8 p.m.)
• Japan Society (6 — 9 p.m.)
• New York Hall of Science (2 — 5 p.m., September through June)
• Rubin Museum of Art (6 — 10 p.m.)
• Asia Society (September through June, 6 — 9 p.m.)
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 guided tours, and 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 to Help You Find Free Things to Do In New York City
[New York City skyline from the Sheep Meadow in Central Park via Shutterstock; Governors Island by Timothy Schenck Photography courtesy of The Trust for Governors Island; Real Estate performs at Prospect Park Bandshell by John Dalton/Flickr; Rockaway Beach by traxus440/Flickr; The Roof Garden Exhibition by Clare Henry; Shakespeare in the Park by Dan Nguyen/Flickr; Brooklyn Flea by Chris Oakley/Flickr; Jackson Heights by Aleksandr Zykov/Flickr; MOMA via/Shutterstock]
Matt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheExpeditioner.com. 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.com.