The best budget activities in New York City
New York. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle. Mentioned in countless songs and seen on even more screens, it's a vibrant place that tourists travel to from all over the World. New York is home to some of the tallest buildings on Earth and people often describe it as rushed, busy, claustrophobic and overwhelming. However, it seems to draw people in with it's buzzing energy and those who live there love it. We were lucky enough to stay with a local, one of Chris's friends, who took us out on our first night. We didn't want to burden him with our prescence for too long, so we stayed in a budget hotel for our second and third nights. This gave us a good mix of local knowledge and proper tourist sightseeing.
With so much on offer to see and do, New York can quickly become an expensive vacation. It doesn't need to be though. We had a very small budget, but were able to enjoy our three days in the city and saw everything we had wanted to. We have created a list of our favourite budget activities in the city below.
See the sights from the street
Not only is walking free and a great form of exercise, it's also the best way to sight-see and explore. There are lots of bus tours and boat tours advertised, but they cost money and don't allow much spontaneity. Walking allows you to take side-routes, stop for pictures, nip into quirky shops or cafes, and really to get a feel for the city. I like walking round cities at different times of the day to watch the commuters, experience the quiet when everyones inside working, and then to feel the excited energy of the evening when the buildings are all lit up and people are heading out for the night.
New York has many famous skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building, the Flat Iron Building and the Chrysler Building. Walking around the city allows you to see these buildings from many different angles. Each time you cross a block, you'll be gifted with a new view. Having spent several months looking mostly at the ground so we didn't trip whilst hiking the Appalachian Trail, we enjoyed shifting our gaze towards the sky.
The High Line
Previously an old railroad bed, the High Line has been turned into a picturesque park that travels 1.45 miles across the city. The walkway is raised up, runs across several blocks and passes between buildings, giving some great and unusual views of the city. We bought lunch in Chelsea Market and and then climbed the stairs to the High Line which were just around the corner. Being a hot, sunny day and lunchtime, there were a lot of people wandering about, but it was still more tranquil than the neighboring streets. Chris had planned our day's itinerary so that we'd walk the whole distance Northbound, taking us just a few blocks away from the Intrepid Museum he was so keen to visit. It was definitely the most beautiful way to get there.
Ground Zero memorial
Although we had both been quite young when the Twin Towers terror attack happened, we both remember the shock of seeing it on the news and of the devastation it caused to a lot of people. It's hard not to feel moved by the sheer size of The Ground Zero memorials. Each water feature spans the surface area of the two towers and they're engraved with the names of people who had died there. It's possibly the most impressive memorial I have ever seen and well worth a visit.
View from the Rockefeller
We were very lucky to be staying in such an amazing location with Chris's friend and had an awesome view of the city from a 22nd floor apartment. However most budget hotels wouldn't offer this view, so if you want a great view over the city I'd recommend paying to go up the Rockefeller Centre. You'll get an incredible view of the Empire State Building and Central Park. I had visited New York previously with friends and paid for the day and night ticket, but wasn't that fussed by the night time view. It's hard to see what's what when all you can see are tiny lights!
Staten Island ferry
The Staten Island ferry is free and leaves every ten minutes or so from the dock next to Battery Park. The journey takes about 20 minutes and the best place to stand is definitely at the back, on the lower level of the boat. Everyone else seems to rush to right hand side, where the Statue of Liberty will pass. However the back of the boat is much less crowded and gives better views of Manhatten. The views of Lady Liberty are still great and you won't have to fight for space to see her.
Staten Island itself doesn't have much to offer, so most people depart the ferry just to queue up for the next one back. The boats are quite big so there was no worry that we wouldn't get the first one back. It seems silly that you have to get off just to get back on the same boat, but there you go!
Another free activity! Central Park is huge and can literally take up a whole day if you want it to. We were tired of walking and the heat was starting to irritate Chris, so we didn't wander around too much. We weaved through the middle of the park, ate some ginormous slices of vegan cheesecake, which we'd picked up from the Peacefood Cafe, and then circled round the lake. There's also a boating lake if you fancy rowing a boat around for a bit, lots of statues to look at, some strange looking buildings shaped like castles and usually some live bands or performers dotted around. We wandered past a jazz duo that was so loud and chaotic that it instantly filled us with stress. Really loud, off-beat jazz drumming is just not our jam.
Visit scenes from your favorite movies/TV shows
So many films and television shows are filmed in New York, it's like walking round a giant movie set. Most of the main tourist attractions will probably be part of your itinerary already, but if you want to do something a bit different, you can research points of interest from your favourite shows and create your own walking tour. Some of my favourite New York based television shows include Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother and Friends.
Try the world cuisines
There are so many amazing restaurants and food stalls in New York. You can visit Little Italy, China Town, Korea Town... just to name a few. We went to a quirky Japanese restaurant near Union Square on our first night. It didn't look particularly inspiring from the outside and no attempt had been made with the decor, but the staff were very attentive and the food was excellent. We love places like this. No pretence; just amazing food at a super cheap price.
Drink awesome coffee
Having worked in London's high-end coffee scene for many years, Chris is a bit of a coffee snob. I love drinking coffee, so am happy to follow him each morning on a hunt for a great coffee house. If you want more than just a standard caffeine fix, you'll be spoilt for choice in New York. Our hotel Econo Lodge (which we booked via Hotels.com) had an awesome little coffee shop a few doors down called Fisson. They had all the milk-alternatives one could want, as well as selling coffee cones, which were basically solidified coffee in ice cream cones with pretty sprinkles around the top. Another great coffee company we found were City of Saints Roasters, who had two beans to try, both of which were full of fruity flavours.
Even if you don't want to spend time wandering around trying to find an independent coffee shop, the Starbucks in New York had a great choice of coffee including nitro cold brew, and Starbucks are everywhere!
The final activity on our list is shopping. Depending on the exchange rate from your home currency, this may or may not be a budget activity. New York has so many shops that a certain level of self-control is definitely required. We didn't go in many of the shops, but we spent ages in the Nintendo store and the Casper Mattress store; more as a novelty than anything else. There are a lot of unusual and cool stores in New York that you cannot find in many other places. A lot of the stores also have photo-worthy displays, drawing in tourists wanting to fill up their Instagram accounts. Check out our super touristy photo below!
Where else would you go and what else would you do? Use the comments below to share ideas with others.
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