More insider guides for planning a trip to New York
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
New York city has a reputation for being pricey. And deservedly so. But there are a legion of fun, free things to do too. Here are the best free things to do for solo travelers, children, couples, and families, from free ferry trips to Staten Island (where views over Manhatten are glorious), and wandering through Central Park, to watching the street artists at Washington Square, and soaking up the atmosphere at South Street Seaport. By David Farley, Telegraph Travel’s New York expert.
Search for a lost ancestor at Ellis Island
For more than 60 years from 1892, Ellis Island served as one of the main immigration processing centres in the United States. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of living Americans today can trace at least one ancestor whose gateway to America was through this island just off the coast of Manhattan, many escaping war and famine. Today the place is a fascinating monument to human immigration. Visit the restored Main Arrivals Hall and the museum which is a self-guided tour through the complex’s history. At the American Family Immigration History Center, visitors can do multimedia searches through the archives. Who knows? You might just find a lost ancestor.
Contact:00 1 212 363 3200; ellisisland.org
Opening times: Daily, 8am-5.15am
Nearest Metro: Ferry terminal from Battery Park
Explore a lesser known corner of New York City
This 172-acre island south of the Brooklyn Bridge off the southern tip of Manhattan is one of the city’s most beloved green spaces. Between May and October, you can access it by ferry from the Battery Maritime Building (10 South Street) in Manhattan or from Brooklyn Bridge Park in DUMBO. With bikes for hire, a beach, acres of lawns, and a promenade around the perimetre, it’s perfect for a stroll, or an afternoon picnic taking in views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty. There are number of food trucks and vendors operating on the island, and a line-up of summer-long events from the Jazz Age Lawn Party to pop-up dinners.
Contact: 00 1 212 440 2200; govisland.org
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 10am-6pm; Sat-Sun, 11am-7am
Nearest Metro: Ferry from Battery Maritime Building
Visit the 9/11 Memorial Monument
There are few places in New York City as emotionally, politically and patriotically loaded as this spot in lower Manhattan. The memorial consists of the footprints of the two towers, today, two giant reflecting pools with the names of the victims inscribed along the periphery. Another powerful monument to the victims who lost their lives on 11 September, 2001 is inside St. Paul’s Chapel, the diminutive church from 1766 across the street from the reflecting pools, houses photos, fliers, and mementos related to the attacks. Fans of contemporary architecture should take a look at the new Santiago Calatrava-designed subway station that looks like the skeleton of a stegosaurus.
Contact: 00 1 212 266 5211; 911memorial.org
Opening times: Daily, 7.30am-9pm
Nearest metro: E to World Trade Center; A, C, 1, 2, 3 to Chambers St; 4, 5 to Wall St; 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, Z to Fulton St
Take it to the bridge… the Brooklyn Bridge
Arguably the most famous bridge in the world, the Brooklyn Bridge is not only aesthetically pleasing, it makes for a great walk. The 271-foot-tall neo-gothic arches are certainly the bridge’s trademark, but strolling along the elevated pedestrian walkway (starting in Brooklyn and walking toward Manhattan) is a must for any visitor. When it was completed in 1883, it not only united the two, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at almost 7,000 feet. The bridge’s construction was overseen first by John Augustus Roebling and then his son, Washington. But after Washington suddenly died, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, took over and finished the job, a fact that has been largely lost to history.
Nearest Metro: 4, 5, 6 to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall (Manhattan); F to York St, A, C to High St (Brooklyn)
South Street Seaport
Explore an historic port
Most New Yorkers have known the 400-year-old South Street Seaport as the home of the massive fish market. It moved to the Bronx in 2005 and now locals and visitors flock here to meander the cobblestoned streets flanked by the largest concentration of 19th-century buildings in New York. Big efforts have gone into reviving the neighbourhood, whose roots can be traced back to the 17th century, with the development of wide spaces, social dining and drinking scene, shops and a market. It’s entertaining enough to stroll the streets, window shopping, checking out the historic ships docked on the East River, and taking in the views of the nearby Brooklyn Bridge.
Nearest metro: 2, 3 to Wall St.
Sip an espresso in Little Italy
Benvenuto al’Italia Piccola. Also known as Little Italy, this swathe of all things Italian isn’t what it used to be. For decades the area has been losing its Italianness to encroaching Chinatown. But that hasn’t stopped the masses of tourists from descending upon what’s left, Mulberry Street. Little Italy today is a collection of shops peddling in Italian food products and mediocre restaurants (complete with aggressive barkers trying to lure every passerby inside). Nurse a cappuccino at an outdoor café if you must, but don’t waste time and money eating at any of these restaurants. Still, Little Italy is an amusing quick diversion on your way to Chinatown or elsewhere.
Nearest Metro:N, Q, R, W, J, Z, M, 4, 6 o Canal St.
Head to the markets of Chinatown
Sprawling and dense at the same time, New York’s Chinatown isn’t just the chief neighbourhood in which to pick up super cheap ‘I Love NY’ t-shirts and gadgets. Chinese began settling in the area in the 1850s and it has grown and expanded since. It’s not the biggest Chinatown outside of the motherland – that distinction would go to the Chinese-area in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – but estimates suggest there are about 100,000 Chinese living in this Manhattan enclave. There aren’t many Chinese landmarks here, so put away the map and wander the streets where markets brim with live seafood and restaurants buzz with atmosphere.
Nearest Metro: N, Q, R, W, J, Z, M, 4, 6 o Canal St.
Lower East Side
Feel like a movie star as you explore Lower East Side
Sometimes this neighbourhood feels like a movie set, with five-floor tenement buildings, their façades partly masked by snaking fire escapes; narrow streets; and subterranean shops. It all makes for one of the city’s most atmospheric neighbourhoods. A century ago, the Lower East Side was a bastion of new immigrants – mostly Central and Eastern European – and due to high crime rates it became known as the place not to go (lest you wanted to leave without your wallet). Today, though, the Lower East Side has become synonymous with one thing: partying. Its streets are overflowing with bars but there are also some great restaurants. And don’t miss the very intriguing Tenement Museum.
Nearest Metro: F to Delancey St.
Live like the locals in Greenwich Village
Say you live in ‘the Village’ and locals who know their New York neighbourhoods will swoon. This leafy area, filled with historic brownstones, stretches from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River, W. 14th to Houston Streets. There are actually two neighbourhoods that make up the Village. The names ‘Greenwich Village’ and ‘West Village’ are generally interchangeable, but locals use West Village to demarcate the more tranquil section between Sixth Avenue and the Hudson River, while Greenwich Village is generally referred to as the area centred around Washington Square and the intersection of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets. The latter area might interest fans of the 1960s, as it was here where young, struggling artists named Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, got their start.
Nearest Metro: A, C, E, B, D, F, M to W. 4th St.
Enjoy the street performers at Washington Square
It might be hard to envision it today, but this well-manicured swath of land in the centre of downtown Manhattan was once murky marshland, a cemetery, and then a military parade ground. Of the city’s 1,900 or so parks, Washington Square is one of the most memorable. Not only because of the giant arch that stands where Fifth Avenue begins; nor for the recently revamped and re-manicured landscape of the place, but because of the people who frequent the park. Bohemians and beatniks, street performers and students from nearby New York University give the place a groovy and fun vibe. On hot days, children play in the fountain and jazz musicians thump out tunes.
Nearest Metro:A, C, E, B, D, F, M to W. 4th St.
Admire the High Line Park’s glorious gardens
It all began with a long stretch of abandoned elevated railroad track. Built in the 1930s, the track was used to transport cargo from the piers along the Westside at 34th Street to downtown Manhattan until 1980. But the track fell into disarray and a movement to turn it into a park picked up steam, aided by the support of celebrities. And finally in June 2009, the High Line Park officially opened, becoming only the second elevated park in the world (after Promenade Plantée in Paris). Since opening, the High Line has become an instant Big Apple classic site, wowing visitors and locals with its cool design (it goes right under the Standard Hotel) and incorporating much of the natural surrounding.
Nearest Metro: A, C, E, L to W. 14th St./Eighth Ae.
Pull up a chair at Times Square
This ‘square’ (which is really just the convergence of Seventh Avenue and Broadway) flashes and pops with enough lights to make your head spin. But the square wasn’t always so bright. After the Depression, the area was the most dangerous part of town. And in the 1980s, the strip clubs and peeps show houses became infamous. All that’s gone now in the new Disney-fied version of the space, where mega-stores compete with fast-moving news tickers and flickering billboards for your attention. The latest development, though, is a good one: tables and chairs have replaced part of the street, making Times Square a much more comfortable place to spend a couple hours.
Nearest Metro:1, 2, 3 N, Q, R, W, S to Times Square
Marvel at Grand Central station’s architectural elegance
What is this, Grand Central Station? We’ve all asked this question when we’re in a suddenly and unexpectedly busy place. Now go see where it originated and you’ll catch the true meaning of this bustling transportation hub, as a whopping 750,000 people pass through the station every day. Yes, you say, it’s only a train station. But quite a majestic one indeed. Roman-style vaults may impress, but visitors are awed by the starry sky of an arched ceiling in the main ticket hall. Built in 1913, Grand Central is the dream of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unlike once-glorious, now decrepit Penn Station, Grand Central is still shining like the day Vanderbilt conceived it.
Contact: 00 1 212 340 2583; grandcentralterminal.com
Opening times: Daily, 5:30am-2am
Nearest Metro: 4, 5, 6, 7 S to Grand Central/42nd St.
Take a closer look at the Chrysler Building
The 86-storey Empire State Building may get all the ooh and aahs from out-of-towners, but the ‘little’ Chrysler building (at 77 floors) is a stunner. Look closely enough and you’ll notice the grills of automobiles at the top (the name of the building should be a clue as to why it’s car themed). But there are more than just car parts going on here: gargoyles jut out at floor 59 and eagles two floors above that. Made with stainless steel, this striking skyscraper gleams in the sunlight during the day and reflects the city lights at night. Most of the exterior of the building is off limits, but pop into the lobby, open to the public during the day, to get a taste of the marble-clad Art Deco interiors.
Contact:00 1 212 682 3070
Opening times: Mon-Fri, 8am-6pm
Nearest Metro: 4, 5, 6, 7 S to Grand Central/42nd St.
Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral
It’s not New York’s biggest cathedral (that honour would go to St. John the Divine), but St. Patrick’s is the city’s most famous and arguably most beautiful. This bewitching neo-gothic structure makes for a nice architectural contrast with the Art Deco-clad Rockefeller Center across the street. Completed in 1878, the cathedral is one of the country’s most identifiable churches. Up to 2,200 people can fit inside and the interior has been packed to take part in requiem masses for notables such as Babe Ruth, Celia Cruz, Robert F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, and Andy Warhol. Be sure to check out the Pieta, three times larger than Michelangelo’s version in the Vatican, and sculpted by Araldo Perugi.
Contact: 00 1 212 753 2261; saintpatrickscathedral.org
Opening times: Daily, 6:30am-8:45pm
Nearest Metro: E, M to 5th Ave./53rd St.
Explore Central Park and enjoy its many elements
Central Park is the work of genius landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also helped create Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco). Olmsted’s objective was to give city dwellers a reprieve from the blights of urban life, to make them forget – if only for a couple hours – that they were in one of the most bustling cities on the planet. It worked. Even today, one finds New Yorkers and New York visitors taking advantage of the park’s many elements: from ponds and orchards to rock formations and meadows. A whopping 25 million people visit the park each year and it still does a fine job of absorbing urban dwellers.
Contact:00 1 212 360 2766; centralparknyc.org
Opening times: Daily, 6am-1am
Nearest Metro: A, B, C, D, 1, 2 to 59th St./Columbus Circle
Upper West Side
Take a stroll around Columbia University
Sedate and tranquil compared to the rest of Manhattan, the Upper West Side is for many a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Midtown or lower Manhattan. Largely residential with quiet tree-lined streets, the neighbourhood has a few attractions that may inspire a visit: the American Museum of Natural History, for example. Fans of Seinfeld should most certainly wander up: the coffee shop on the corner of Broadway and W. 112th St. may look very familiar, but Columbia University is a lovely stroll, as it exudes a classic university campus with its monumental neo-classical buildings, sculpture-studded plazas, and students buzzing around.
Nearest Metro: 1 to 116th St./Columbia University
Watch fireworks at Coney Island
It’s one of the longer journeys you’ll take on the subway – about an hour – but it’s a pleasant one, as part of the way is elevated. Coney Island has long been a summer escape for urbanites. Stroll the historic boardwalk, take a dip in the Atlantic, or take in a baseball game, as the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team play at the charming MCU Park just off the Boardwalk with free fireworks every Friday night through summer. If you’re there for lunch, Nathan’s Famous on Surf Avenue is, indeed, world famous, hosting their Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest since 1916, but for a better calibre of food try Totonno’s (1524 Neptune Ave) offering some of New York’s finest pizza.
Opening times: Luna Park, mid-April to October
Nearest Metro: F, D, N, Q to Coney Island/Stillwell Ave.
Take a peaceful walk through Green Wood Cemetery
When it was founded in 1838, this vast and bewitching cemetery was actually a rural spot in Brooklyn. Today it sits smack in the centre of an urban landscape. And provides for an enchanting, peaceful stroll. The 478-acre city of the dead is actually the highest elevation in the borough, making for some lovely views, as you stroll along ornate gravestones and neo-Gothic chapels. In the 19th century before Prospect Park was constructed, Green Wood was Brooklyn’s unofficial city park.
Contact: 00 1 718 768 7300; green-wood.com
Opening times: Daily, 8am-5pm
Nearest Metro: D, N, R to 25th St.
Board the Staten Island Ferry for great views of Manhattan
Sad as it is to say, there are few obvious sightseeing opportunities in the borough of Staten Island. One of them, though, is to take the free ferry from Manhattan. It provides a great view of the lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. And the Staten Island neighbourhood at the ferry dock, St. George, boasts cafés and restaurants. Over 70,000 people per day take the five-mile, 25-minute scenic ferry ride. You should too. Ferries leave every 30 minutes.
Contact:00 1 212 639 9675; siferry.com
Opening times: 24 hours per day
Nearest Metro: Whitehall St./South Ferry