Top 13 Free Things To Do In New York City This December
Everyone knows New York City is an expensive town, especially around the holidays. To save some money, try these tips for free things to do this December during your visit.
1) 9/11 Memorial
The 9/11 Memorial, on the site of the former Twin Towers, opened on September 12, 2011, in time for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and was easily the most anticipated new project in the city for the past decade. The memorial features two reflecting pools nearly an acre in size each, each filled with the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. Surrounding the imposing structures are the names of the nearly 3,000 victims inscribed on bronze parapets surrounding the pools.
Trust me when I say the pictures of the memorial don’t do the size of the pools justice. I couldn’t help but think back to trips to Niagara Falls when looking down upon the rushing water.
Not surprisingly tickets are hard to come by. Though entrance is free, due to huge interest, tickets must be obtained in advance via their website. A helpful hint for visitors this December who haven’t made reservations far in advance: large batches of tickets for almost any time are made available 24 hours in advance. Log on a day ahead, and you’re likely to snag tickets, as I found out on Thanksgiving last year.
2) The High Line
One of the world’s premier examples of urban preservation, the High Line is an elevated train line located on Manhattan’s West Side that has been transformed into a public park featuring Hudson River views, natural landscaping and a rotating collection of public art projects. Initially running from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 20th Street, the second phase of the park opened in the summer of 2011 extending north to West 30th Street, with a third phase to come online in the late 2014.
Popular among city-dwellers and visitors alike, the park has become a major draw to a neighborhood once only populated in the evening hours. Check out the many eateries along the way including Artichoke Pizza (10th Avenue and West 17th Street), Chelsea Market (9th Avenue between West 15th and West 16th Street) and banh mi at Co Ba (9th Avenue between West 17th and West 18th streets). Click here for other dining options in the area.
For the High Line hours and directions click here.
3) Free Central Park Tours
Central Park, one of the world’s most iconic parks, not only offers hundreds of free ways to explore its 843 acres (which makes up 6% of Manhattan if you were wondering), but is also home to daily free tours led by park representatives.
For example, the 45-minute Mid-Park Welcome Tour will take you over streams, under arches and through the woods along a maze of pathways in the secluded 38-acre woodland section of the park. The Southern Welcome Tour guides visitors from Grand Army Plaza, past the Pond and Gapstow Bridge, and includes a stop at the Dairy.
For a full schedule of all of the park’s free tours, visit the Central Park tour calendar.
4) MoMA For Free
Still one of the best deals in New York, MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) is free every Friday from 4:00 p.m. until closing at 8:00 p.m. This December you can visit the well-received René Magritte exhibit, focusing on his Surrealist years, as well as American Modern: Hopper to O’Keeffe exhibit, a look at the Museum’s holdings of American art made between 1915 and 1950, including works by O’Keefe, Hopper, Stieglitz and Wyeth.
What’s even better is that you can now receive a free tour of the museum, all for nothing. Head to iTunes or Google Play and download the MoMA app for you phone that includes five tour options, an art index and even background music to play while you browse. Not to be outdone, if you find yourself at the Brooklyn Museum, they also have a free app.
For hours and information about MoMA click here.
TOURISTY CHRISTMAS STUFF
5) Christmas Markets
Remember when Harry Potter and the crew visited Hogsmeade Village and found themselves in a Dickensian Christmas wonderland? Well, this might be a stretch, but if you happen to go at night after some snow has just fallen to one of the various holiday markets that spring up around Manhattan every December, you just may get the same experience. I know, it’s a stretch, but it’s still a great experience to help get you in the holiday mood.
Head to Union Square for the city’s largest market. Nearby, on Broadway between 13th and 14th street, is Max Brenner, where you can pick up the granddaddy of hot chocolate drinks. Okay, they’re not free, but you’re in Union Square: break out the guitar and earn your keep like everyone else!
6) Ice Skating In Bryant Park
It may not be as well known as the one at nearby Rockefeller Center, but the free ice skating rink (or Citi Pond for you corporate-minded folks) at Bryant Park is a full $18 cheaper, saving you much-needed cash for the inevitable trip to the emergency room. (Come on, you haven’t done this since you were 10, you think you’re not going to take a few spills?)
However, take note that the skate rentals are $15 if you don’t bring your own pair.
For more information about the rink click here.
7) Christmas in Midtown
I wouldn’t normally advise anyone to spend too much time in Midtown in December given the throngs of tourists and exorbitant prices charged for everything from coffee to street pretzels. But, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, a large swath of the neighborhood transforms into some the city’s most iconic holiday sights that even a travel snob/Scrooge would have trouble staying away from.
Start at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 50th Street to see Radio City Music Hall with its giant Christmas tree and tin soldiers decorating its marquee, then make your way down 50th Street and through the massive crowds to catch a glimpse of the ice skaters and Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (last year’s tree was an 80-foot Norway spruce hailing from Flanders, New Jersey).
Across the street on Fifth Avenue are the iconic holiday window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue. After walking by them, head north on Fifth Avenue to see some of the country’s most expensive shops along the famed stretch of Fifth Avenue leading to Central Park. Here you’ll also see some of the most expensively decorated shops as well, including the Cartier Building with its red ribbon wrapping the entire facade and the window displays at Bergdorf Goodman.
Finally, eight blocks north at 58th Street, you’ll come to FAO Schwartz, the world’s most famous toy store (and site of some massive lines come Christmas). To wrap things up, take in the glitzy Plaza Hotel across the street (and grab a bite to eat at the new The Plaza Food Hall), then make your way through the 59th Street entrance of Central Park and stroll down to Wollman Rink and watch the ice skaters underneath one of the world’s most famous skylines.
8) Winter Garden
Just next door to the World Trade Center site is the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center, a giant atrium that was refurbished after 9/11. All through December you can catch free holiday performances.
For the full schedule and more information click here.
From accordion-playing divas to Slavic soul, Barbes in Brooklyn’s Park Slope offers some of the city’s best and most eclectic variety of free music every night. Drinks are standard price and collection hats are usually passed around after the performances.
If you’re staying in Manhattan, don’t worry about getting lost just because you’re leaving the island. Barbes is literally across the street from the F stop, a 20-minute ride from Midtown.
10) Jazz at Garage
New York is known for its great jazz, unfortunately it’s also known for expensive clubs too. A night out at Dizzy’s Club for Jazz at Lincoln Center is going to set you back upwards of $35 a set, plus food and a drink minimum.
Instead, head to Garage Restaurant in the West Village where you can catch free jazz every night of the week in this former 1920’s garage.
To really save some money, huddle up at the bar and enjoy the show without having sit down for a full dinner.
11) Free Juilliard Performances
Heading to Lincoln Center for world-class performing arts? Good news for you, many of the performers you’re paying to see started out just next door at Juilliard, and all of them spent a good chunk of their time performing for free at recitals open to the public. These free performances range from Jazz, Chamber Music, Orchestral, Solos, Dance, Opera and Drama.
For a full schedule of the wide variety of performances, click here to visit Juilliard’s calendar of events.
When you’re at Lincoln Center, stick around for a free performance by the new fountain in the center of the plaza. Designed by the same people who brought you the waterworks at Vegas’ Bellagio, the fountain’s 353 nozzles are able to shoot water 40 feet in the air to create an “aquatic ballet.”
12) A New England Winter In New York
A good majority of visitors to New York this time of year are from far-flung and usually much warmer locations, and for many of them, this whole northeast United States thing is a novelty to them. Why not try fitting in a whole other region, all while staying in New York?
Stay with me here. Take a short subway ride to Prospect Park, in the heart of Brooklyn, and get your Thoreau on by making your way to one of the four nature trails that meander through the woods — a spectacular sight in the summer, and simply magical in the winter. Snow-draped pines, squirrels foraging in the fallen leaves, a rastafarian drummer playing for loose change: just like a Frost poem.
Finish up with a stroll through scenic Park Slope (like Hogsmeade, but with strollers), and cozy up with a warm drink in front of a roaring fire at nearby Union Hall, New York’s preeminent winter bar.
For information about Prospect Park click here.
For information about Union Hall click here.
13) Arthur Avenue
Sure, Manhattan has Little Italy, Brooklyn has, well, Brooklyn, but many visitors don’t know that the Bronx has New York’s most intact, most authentic Little Italy this side of the Mediterranean: Arthur Avenue.
Head north to the outer reaches of the outer boroughs to this five-block stretch for the afternoon and wander in and out of the many delis, bakeries, and coffee shops, all with nary a tourist in sight. And dont’ worry, you can be sure every business will be decked-out for the holidays.
For directions and a list of businesses, click here.
For more ideas for free things to do in New York, check out these resources:
By Matt Stabile
[Skating in Bryant Park by Mack Male/Flickr; Bow Bridge Central Park by Charles Hoffman/Flickr; Museum of modern art MoMA by Christine und Hagen Graf/Flickr; Union Square Holiday Market by Francisco Anzola/Flickr; Ice Skating in Central park by Georgio/Flick; Winter Market by Aurelien Guichard/Flickr; Ice Skating by Trilok Rangan/Flickr; Barbes by Joshua Smelser/Flickr; Garage by Emko Bos/Flickr; Juilliard School by El Scrapeo/Flickr; Prospect Park Winter by Arvind Grover/Flickr; Arthur Avenue Retail Market, Arthur Avenue Market by Patrick Donovan/Flickr]
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.