10 of the best ways to enjoy New York on a budget
Take to the water
Despite recent stories of hapless tourists being charged $200 a ride by alleged scammers, the Staten Island ferry is still as free as it has been since 1997 and offers a dazzling view of the southern tip of Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty as it chugs out across New York Bay to the fifth borough and back again. Also free at weekends (although it’s $5 on weekdays) is the Ikea ferry that runs from Wall Street to the Swedish furniture store in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the East River ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn ($4 weekdays, $6 weekends) is another scenic option. If you do decide you want to splash out, the Circle line ferry, which circumnavigates Manhattan island in two-and-a-half hours for $41, really gives you a comprehensive perspective on the city.
Accommodation costs in New York can be as high as the city’s famous skyscrapers, but there are usually some bargains to be had among the array of properties available for holiday let on Airbnb, particularly if you avoid Manhattan. A bargain probably still means $100 a night for an apartment but, if you are willing to stay in a room in someone’s place, rather than having an apartment to yourself, you can cut the price to under $60. A flat-swap website such as HomeExchange is another option, although it’s obviously not for everyone. If you don’t fancy staying in an apartment, rooms at the Bowery House hotel-hostel in Nolita start at $109 a night for a double, while the summer rates at the Chelsea International Hostel on West 20th Street start at $75 for a single room with a shared bathroom, $140 for a private en suite double and $62 a person to stay in a dorm.
Don’t forget the tip
For the classic American diner experience, sit yourself down in one of the red-leather booths of the Waverly restaurant (cheeseburger $8.05) in Greenwich Village. Or if you want a wider selection head to Williamsburg on a Saturday or Brooklyn Bridge Park on a Sunday to visit Smorgasburg, an increasingly popular collection of open-air food stalls. Restaurants can be pricey in New York – especially once you factor in the mandatory 15%-20% tip – but Gruppo in Alphabet City is a good option for inexpensive and very tasty thin-crust pizza, and Cafe Argentino (499 Grand Street, +1 718 782 9477) in Williamsburg offers a $10 brunch. And if the well really has run dry, most delis offer a selection of cooked meals, usually charged by weight. For a cheap drink, try the Peter McManus Cafe in Chelsea, a friendly Irish pub where the bar staff will often give you a round on the house, or Jimmy’s Corner near Times Square, the best bar in that area.
Get up on the roof
New York was made to be seen from up high but, unfortunately, the observation decks of the Empire State Building ($32), the Rockefeller Center ($30), and the new 1 World Trade Center ($32) will all set you back a pretty penny. Another option is to go to a rooftop bar and make a drink or two last while you enjoy the view. The best in town is the Standard hotel in the Meatpacking District, which has a beautiful copper-coloured bar on the top floor and a busy roof garden overlooking the Hudson River. The staff can be a bit sniffy about who gets in – in the evening – but they’re friendlier in the afternoon. Also worth trying is 230 Fifth in Midtown, while in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Wythe hotel has a sweeping view across the East river of the Manhattan skyline. It’s unbeatable in the early evening as the sun goes down.
A stroll in the park
The decade-long effort by two Chelsea residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, to transform the abandoned and overgrown tracks of the old elevated freight train line along the city’s west side into a “park in the sky” – the High Line – has blossomed into one of New York’s most popular attractions. Strolling above the traffic among the semi-wild meadow plants – meant to evoke the decades when the tracks had reverted back to nature – provides a peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of the city below, and there’s something rather European about promenading from one end to the other, not in order to arrive at any particular destination, but simply for the joy of it. Central Park gives you even more of feeling of having been suddenly removed from the city; its 840 acres include a reservoir, a boating lake, sports fields, a zoo and more, and the line of Midtown towers framing its woods, meadows and gardens to the south is a quintessential New York view. Prospect Park in Brooklyn is not much smaller and includes the beautiful cherry trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Pay what you wish for art
They don’t like to shout about it but the $25 fee to enter the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park is actually a “recommended” amount: you can pay what you wish. John Singer Sargent’s portraits of the members of his artistic circle – including Monet, Rodin and Henry James – are on display at the moment, while the permanent collection covering Greece, Rome, Egypt and European and American art is unmissable. The Whitney Museum of American Art, which has just reopened in a brand-new building at the southern end of the High Line, also allows you to pay what you wish on Fridays between 7pm and 10pm. Its opening exhibition is a stunning survey of the US art scene from the beginning of the 20th century to today, while New York and New Jersey are themselves framed and presented as works of art through the huge glass windows at the east and west sides of the building. The Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street is also free on Fridays from 4pm. Don’t miss Jacob Lawrence’s striking Migration Series: the story of African-Americans’ journey north in the wake of the first and second world wars, told through 60 tempera panels painted in vivid blocks of colour.
Get some exercise
During the sweltering summer, the city opens dozens of free outdoor swimming pools across the five boroughs, many of them enormous. Asser Levy pool on East 23rd Street might be a good place to start. If you prefer a cycle ride, you could try picking up a Citi Bike from the city’s on-street cycle-hire scheme. There are stations spread across Manhattan below 60th Street, and in several areas of Brooklyn including Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and Fort Greene. Twenty-four hour access costs $9.95 although, if a single journey lasts longer than 30 minutes, you begin to rack up extra fees. For a longer ride, you would be better off hiring a bike from one of the numerous cycle shops in the city. At NYC Velo on Second Avenue in the East Village, or 11th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, prices start at $30 for 24 hours. The most enjoyable and safest trip is along the cycle path that runs up the whole west side of Manhattan, along the Hudson River – it’s a scenic journey that ends at the George Washington bridge, underneath which you will find the Little Red Lighthouse immortalised in Hildegarde Swift’s 1942 children’s book.
Go for a walk
Free Tours by Foot offers numerous tours of Manhattan and Brooklyn, including a ghost walk, a Williamsburg street-art tour, and tours of Harlem, Little Italy and Chinatown. I’d recommend the tour of Greenwich Village, which tells the story of the founding of this patchwork of dappled downtown streets by the Dutch as Groenwijck (Green District) in the 17th century up to its heyday as the home of the 1960s folk scene, taking in Cafe Wha? and the apartment where Bob Dylan wrote Blowin’ in the Wind. The tour also looks at the Village’s key part in the struggle for gay rights following the Stonewall riots in 1969, and you’ll also see an open-air swimming pool that the young Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro used to break into at night, right across the street from a house where Marlon Brando once kept a raccoon in the bathtub. As with many supposedly free walking tours, you’re encouraged to tip the guide at the end: $10 or $20 seems to be the going rate.
Cross the Brooklyn bridge
One of New York’s most recognisable landmarks, the Brooklyn bridge was built in 1883, and its limestone and granite neo-gothic towers make it far more imposing than the steel bridges that followed it further up the East river. The bridge’s pedestrian and cycle pathway is elevated, so it offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline and downtown Brooklyn. It can be a bit of a scrum on there sometimes as tourists stop for photos and to attach love locks to its metal latticework fencing – so walking across may take longer than you think. If you cross from Manhattan to Brooklyn, walk down through the Dumbo district afterwards and have a coffee or an ice-cream in Brooklyn Bridge Park, which runs along the shoreline and currently features an enjoyable sculpture exhibition by Jeppe Hein called Please Touch the Art.
Visit the 9/11 memorial
While the September 11 attack has already passed into history as the geopolitical turning point of the early 21st century, the 9/11 memorial (tickets for the museum cost $24 for adults, free on Tuesdays from 5pm) by architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker successfully turns the focus back on to the nearly 3,000 people who died in the atrocity. The memorial consists of two enormous waterfalls pouring into the foundations where the Twin Towers once stood, with the names of the victims cut into a metal rim around them. It communicates a powerful sense of loss and absence.