AWNY’s Guide to Free Summer Activities in New York City  

There is nothing quite like New York City in the summer. It’s the season of rooftops, food markets, and outdoor events. Even a trip or two to the Hamptons or Jersey Shore!

While it is all kinds of wonderful, if we’re honest by the end of the season all those $20+ cocktails and outings start to add up—and have a pretty big impact on the hip pocket.

But fear not, AWNY has got you covered! Our committee has pulled together a guide to our favorite free events the city has to offer.

Paddle the Rivers of NYC

Did you know there is free kayaking in New York City each summer? Being on the water provides a different view of the city, and so long as you are well-balanced, you can get some great photos. Locations include the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse, The Downtown Boathouse, Manhattan Community Boathouse, and more. You need to register in advance for most locations, and it is generally on a first come, first served basis.

Yours truly, AWNY committee member Emma Cillekens taking taking a free kayak for a spin.

Walk The High Line

Take a walk along the 1.45 mile elevated park that is built on a former New York Central Railroad Spur. It is home to incredible gardens, gorgeous views, of the Hudson and the city, public art, and a host of free events. You can find out more about what’s going on at The High Line, here.

Watch a Movie in Bryant Park

Each summer Bryant Park hosts a raft of free activities. An AWNY favorite are the free Outdoor Movie Nights that run until the end of August. AWNY Committee member Zoe Wetherell says the atmosphere largely depends on the movies choices of the season. “One year they were showing Dirty Dancing,” she said. “It was so much fun”.

The lawn opens at 5pm and movies start at 8pm. You can find out more about this season’s movies and how to attend, here.

A movie in Bryant Park is a great free activity to try in New York City during the summer. Photo: Zoe Wetherall

Spend a Night with Shakespeare in the Park

When it comes to iconic free New York summer events, AWNY can’t go past Shakespeare in the Park. Every summer, the Public Theater a number of plays in the Central Park’s open-air Delacorte Theater. The tickets can sometimes be tough to get your hands on, but a hot tip from our experts is to line up in the standby line at the theater when the weather is a little drizzly. The show almost always goes on, and the crowds really thin out. Shows run until mid-September. More on how to get tickets here.

Visit Governors Island

If you haven’t yet discovered this gem, it’s time! Governors Island is a 172-acre island about 800 yards south of the bottom end of Manhattan. Passengers ride free on the ferry on Saturdays and Sundays before noon. There is also no surcharge for bringing a bike on the ferry. So, you could visit the island and ride around for the morning for free. There are also several paid activities to do when you arrive like great restaurants, including Island Oyster.

Governors Island entrance from the ferry
Governors Island, via ferry from Manhattan Photo: Melanie O’Brien

Visit Little Island

One of Manhattan’s newest public spaces is also free! You will find the artificial island park located at Pier 55 in the Hudson River. It is near the intersection of West Street and 13th Street in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea. Enjoy the island’s hills, pathways, and free events. You can find out more, here.  

See the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry

One of the best free thrills for tourists and locals alike, is to say hi to the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry. You also get a great view of the Manhattan skyline. The timetable can be found here. According to the ferry’s website, it provides transit to 22 million people a year.

The Manhattan Skyline from the free Staten Island Ferry. Photo: Zoe Wetherall

Visit a Museum on a Free Day or Pay What You Wish

Most museums in New York City have a “free day” or a pay what you wish day. A full list is available here. Some notables include The MET is always pay what you can for locals, MOMA is free on a Friday between 4 and 8pm, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is pay what you can on a Friday from 7 to 9.30pm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is pay what you wish on Saturdays from 5:45-7:45 pm.

Get Lost in Central Park

It’s sometimes hard to believe that just a few steps from busy midtown, you enter Central Park and somehow be transported to a hiking path, lake, bridge, zoo, sport field or a rocky outcrop. Central Park covers 843-acres and is home to 58 miles of hiking trails. It also has a castle, a carousel, Strawberry Fields, art and the well-known Loeb Boathouse on The Lake. Check out the parks’ website to discover all there is to see in the park.

There is nothing quite like getting lost in the myriad of free things to do and see in Central Park. Photo: Zoe Wetherall.

Attend a Free Event at Madison Square Park

Every few nights there is a new free event at Madison Square Park during the summer months. One of our AWNY committee members, Melanie O’Brien, lives in the area and says she loves attending events she would never normally be exposed to, including ones discussing sustainability, firefly spotting and impressive classical musicians from Carnegie Hall’s quartets.

Celebrate Brooklyn

This event at the Lena Horne Bandshell in Prospect Park is New York’s longest-running, free outdoor performing arts festival. It’s a partnership between BRIC and the Prospect Park Alliance. During the festival each summer you can see everything from chart-topping indie bands and dance troupes, to large-scale film projects. AWNY committee member Belinda Jackson has attended the event for more than a decade and says it is her top pick for Summer in the NYC. Find out more here.

Little Island music amphitheater during 2021's summer performances
Free live concerts during summer on Little Island. Photo: Melanie O’Brien

Walk Along the Hudson River

If you are craving that feeling of space in New York City, one of our favorite ways to find it is to walk along the west side along the Hudson River. Wherever you live, it’s always a refreshing break form the intensity of the city. Sunset is an especially beautiful time to take the walk.  

A view of the Hudson from Washington Heights in Manhattan. Photo: Emma Cillekens

Dance the Night Away, for Free!

Midtown Dance offers free weekly dance classes on 34th Street, in Midtown Manhattan every Tuesday and Thursday evenings through September 1. While most classes are Salsa, several other styles are taught including Swing, Mambo and Afro dance. You can find out more here.

Walk Along the Williamsburg Waterfront

Looking for something to do outside of Manhattan? Why not take a walk along the Williamsburg waterfront, which has stunning views of the city, especially at night. If you are looking to pair a free activity with a paid one, this area is also home to the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg, and the East River Ferry pick up.

Have you tried any of these activities? Or have any additional favorites we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

Author: Emma Cillekens

Emma Cillekens has been an AWNY volunteer since 2018. She is an award-winning journalist who hails from the Gold Coast. She was a breakfast radio host with the ABC in Outback Queensland before a scholarship stole her away to New York City to study her master's at NYU. Since she arrived in New York she's worked with The Wall Street Journal, WNYC, ProPublica, Barron's and MIT Technology Review to name a few. She spends most of her time making podcasts and consulting on everything storytelling. In her spare time Emma moonlights as a dance teacher.

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