Top 11 Free Things To Do In New York City This December
Everyone knows New York City is an expensive town, especially in December 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 years. 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.
Though entrance is free to the park is free, access to the new 9/11 Memorial and Museum must be purchased in advance. It takes about two hours to visit the museum, and you can purchase tickets in advance here.
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. Popular among city-dwellers and visitors alike, the park has become a major draw to a neighborhood once only populated in the evening hours.
The High Line is a perfect way to spend the afternoon with a coffee in hand, taking in the sights of New York in one of the most unique ways possible. Click here for dining options and things to do 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 Ramble Tour will take you over streams, under arches and through the woods along a maze of pathways in the secluded 36-acre woodland section of the park. The Iconic Views of Central Park Tour will take you to the park’s most iconic landmarks including, the Dairy, Sheep Meadow, Cherry Hill, the Lake, Bow Bridge, Bethesda Terrace, the Mall, and Literary Walk.
For a full schedule of all of the park’s ticketed and free tours, visit the Central Park tour calendar.
4) MoMA For Free
It’s nearly impossible to visit New York without spending at least one morning or afternoon visiting one of the world’s greatest collections of art at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art). If you’re visiting over the weekend, MoMA has free admission every Friday from 4:00 p.m. until closing at 8:00 p.m. Lines form quickly, especially during the holidays, so be sure to get there early to leave plenty of time to take it all in.
For hours and information about MoMA click here.
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 the Union Square Holiday Market for the city’s largest holiday market with nearly 100 vendors selling everything from German chocolate to decorative socks. Nearby, on Broadway between 13th and 14th street, is Max Brenner, where you can pick up the granddaddy of hot chocolate drinks.
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 $28 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 $20 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.
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.
9) 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.”
10) 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.
11) 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 more ideas for free things to do in New York, check out these resources:
Matt Stabile is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner. The Expeditioner began in 2008 and is headquartered in New York City. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.