New York, New York. It’s a helluva town. Or more accurately it’s ‘one hell-of-a city’, but that’s why I don’t like musicals. It’s the biggest city in the U.S. but it’s also one of the priciest. So to lighten the flurry of dollars out your pockets, here’s a list of the absolute best of free New York.
Thanks to decades of iconic films, even if you’ve never been to New York, it’s probably the one city in the world that people feel they know more than any other – even if the New York they feel they know is from a completely different era than the one that currently exists. Growing up in the 90s watching Crocodile Dundee, Home Alone 2 and far too many Tom Hanks films, I was a little disappointed to discover that the city had actually changed to some degree in the last 20 years. The first thing I noticed is that the archetypal long, rectangular yellow Ford Crown Victoria taxicabs have all but been replaced by sleek and boring modern cars. I also was never offered a job at a toy company, had very little involvement with the mafia, and didn’t snog Meg Ryan once.
Nonetheless, New York is a city very much on the world’s subconscious radar. Anyone from Bolton to Bejing can string off a list of the major tourist sights; the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, Time Square etc, which are all worth a peek for the “Oooo it looks just like it does on TV!” moment. However, it’s very easy to fall into the gaping New York tourist trap and spend a fortune visiting a bunch of places you think you should just because you’ve heard about them. Avoid this. There’s a far better time to be had in New York for free.
If you’re going to pay for any of the big money-spinners, go to the Top of the Rock on the roof of the Rockefeller Centre. It has a much better view than the Empire State Building, mostly because you can actually see the Empire State Building! And as Karl Pilkington once wisely said “I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace, than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”
1. Long Island City Sunset View
Long Island City has quite possibly the best sunset skyline view in New York and not an ‘I NY’ t-shirt or foam liberty crown in sight. As you’re just over the East River in Queens, you get the sun setting over the other side of Manhattan, streaming down through 42nd street and silhouetting the whole skyline in an fiery orange glow. You can see the whole island from here, The Empire State, The Chrysler Building, The Freedom Tower to the south, and that weird skinny one that looks like a Jenga Tower. And the best bit? The tourist hoards only really ever cross the river for Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Bridge, so almost every evening it’s just you and the locals.
Take the subway to Vernon Blvd or Court Square and walk down to Gantry Plaza State Park or Hunters Point South Park on the river. Swig a sneaky beer, have a smoke, lie back on the wavey lounging benches on one of the old wooden piers reaching out towards the city, or just sit on the grass and watch latino teens play soccer. Whatever your medicine, just relax and enjoy the sleepiest sunset in the city that never does.
2. See Lady Lib From The Staten Island Ferry
To paraphrase the Ghostbusters, there’s a a something in this town everyone can get behind…a symbol. Something good. Something decent. Something pure. Something that will people will pay $5 for if it’s on a fridge magnet. I’m talking of course, about the jolly green lady herself, the Statue of Liberty.
For $25-30 you can get onto tiny Liberty Island and look up at her from her sandals, and if you like your women tall, green and French, you can even get inside her. Or, for a grand total of ZERO dollars you can get the free Staten Island ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan which takes you right past Lady Liberty, giving you great views of both her and the Manhattan skyline, perfect for starting your own postcard business. Which you can start with the money you’ve saved. Classic free New York!
And yes, she is naked under that toga.
3. Brooklyn Brewery
For centuries, New York was built upon wave after wave of industrious immigrants from the best beer producing nations on the planet. The Dutch were first, and they wasted no time in getting the pints in. “Right, let’s drop the bags off at the room lads then head to the bar for a few braus, your round Lars!” I imagine them saying as they stepped noisily off the boat in their clogs and “New Amsterdam Tour ’09” t-shirts. “What?! What do you mean there isn’t any? Did you check Tripadvisor? Right, Johan you try and get your hands on some yeast, I’m gonna ask that feathered fella with his top off if he knows where I can find some hops around here.”
And so, by 1612 they already had 3 successful breweries running. The Dutch were following by beer lovers from Germany, England, Czechoslovakia, and of course, Ireland, amongst others. New York quickly became the brewing mecca of America.
Unfortunately prohibition devastated the industry and anti-German sentiments after the world wars didn’t help either. The industry has been kicked into life in recent years though, and Brooklyn Brewery are largely to thanks for that. Started by two dreamers in the 80s and helped along by the city’s most famous graphic designer, Brooklyn is now a brewing powerhouse. The brewery itself is in epicentre of New York hipsterdom, Williamsburg, and runs free tours on the hour every Saturday (1-5pm) and Sunday (1-4pm). The BB story is a great one and the guides tell it brilliantly so this is well worth visiting. And with a pumping atmosphere and $5 pints, so is the bar inside.
4. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge to DUMBO
Short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, Dumbo is a former industrial ferry landing that is now the most expensive area in Brooklyn, and the 4th most expensive in the city. On Sunday’s it’s also home to Brooklyn Flea Market, a market so trendy the moustaches have moustaches, and the the French Bulldogs will judge your taste in boots over their artisan tortoiseshell spectacles.
Nonetheless it’s home to 75 stalls of good quality vintage gear, trinkets and handicrafts, as well as some truly delicious street food. And if food markets are your bag, head Smorgasbord in nearby Prospect Park on Saturdays with an empty stomach and some dollars, and leave with an empty wallet and a smile.
However, the main reason to visit Dumbo is the views. Walk there from the Lower East Side over the Brooklyn Bridge, which is really worthy of it’s own spot on this list, and then take yourself down to Washington Street. Here you can get yourself a poster-worthy photo of The Empire State Building nestled beneath the arches of the Manhattan Bridge, all framed very symmetrically by Washington’s million dollar red brick apartment blocks.
5. Central Park
New York takes a very American attitude towards city parks. Most other large cities tend have several large parks dotted around. New York decided instead to just have one massive park slap bang in the middle of the city. A park that has everything, woodland, a boating lake, fountains, playgrounds, amusement parks, an ancient Egyptian obelisk, an ice rink, softball pitches, a tavern, a memorial to John Lennon, a zoo. There were even grazing sheep in the park until the depression hit and the city removed them in 1934 for fear that hungry New Yorkers would eat them.
What results is the quite possibly the greatest city park in the world. Inspired unbelievably by Birkenhead Park just outside Liverpool. Indeed the only thing ever inspired by Birkenhead other than a train ticket out of there. A entire day could happily be spent walking through Central Park, at any time of year.
An hour in a 4 person rowing boat for $15 dollars is one of the few bargains in New York that doesn’t involved fast food, and on summer weekday evenings stroll over to the softball pitches to watch the genuinely high quality afterwork leagues play. And if plodding around a park the size of Belgium all day gets you craving a warm, sticky delicious hit of sugar, then walk ten minutes out of the park from Strawberry Fields and sniff out Levain’s Bakery on 74th Street, which sells the BEST COOKIES IN
NEW YORK AMERICA THE WORLD.
6. Walk The High Line
One and a half miles of disused rail track that has been resurrected as a tranquil elevated walkway running right above the chaos of central Manhattan. The High Line easily earns it’s place as one of the best free things to do in New York, especially on a sunny day.
The High Line runs from Hudson Yards in the north to the MeatPacking District in the south, with great views across the Hudson at sunset. It transports you to a green space up and above the mayhem of the city. The traffic and the exhaust fumes and the crazies are replaced by shrubbery and sculptures and well, other crazies. They can climb stairs too, and this is still New York.
Yet at the same time as taking you away from it all, the High Line weaves you right in amongst the bedlam, albeit from a safe distance. In one voyeuristic section there is even tiered seating, where from behind the safety of a large glass screen, you can watch with quiet schadenfreude the chaos of the busy road below, as in a crescendo of beeping and yelling the volcanic tempers of New York drivers reaches boiling point and they explode into each other. It’s pretty sick really. We only stayed for an hour or two.
7. Arthur Avenue, The Bronx
If you want a little piece of Italy, avoid Little Italy. The so-named area of Manhattan used to be the home to a large portion (but by no means the largest portion) of Italian immigrants in New York. As the city expanded, and this central Manhattan location became more coveted, the Italians were priced out of the neighbourhood. Little Italy now is not much more than a novelty museum to what once was. A tourist trap where you can eat food of half the quality for twice price.
There are dozen of Italian neighbourhoods around New York. But the ‘Real Little Italy’ is largely agreed to be Belmont in The Bronx, and Arthur Avenue is it’s Ragú clogged main artery. A thriving Italian American community still eats, shops, works and lives here. This is where Joe Pesci was working as a waiter when he was spotted by De Niro and Scorsese.
It’s home to an array of great Italian markets, some truly amazing seafood, and by far the best Italian restaurants in the city. Mario’s is one of the oldest in the area, and seems to have spent five generations crafting not only its consistently impeccable food, but also the most hospitable atmosphere it is possible to experience. San Gennaro and Tra Di Noi are also well worth a mention, the former for it’s delicious fresh seafood and the latter for the best osso buco in The Bronx…and good tablecloths.
8. Bryant Park
What Bryant Park lacks in size, this 4 acre urban oasis behind the New York Public Library makes up for in an exhaustive rota of joy. Smack bang in the ‘mid’ of Midtown, Bryant Park is where the office workers of the city flock to enjoy their lunches in the sun, and in a rare act of generosity not seen in most city parks, they even provide folding chairs and tables to aid this. But Bryant Park is not just a patch of grass, its a mini mecca of free things to do. Like a tiny philanthropic Disneyland, without the ties to Nazism.
Aside from the continuous free ping pong, putting green, chess, checkers and other board games on offer – and there are actually ‘Chess Hosts’ on hand to pair you up with a partner if you don’t have one – there are also regularly yoga classes, tai chi, language lessons, juggling, knitting, fencing, art classes, film showings, even fly fishing lessons! And every single one of them is free.
Bryant Park is a privately funded operation the states its delightful aim is to provide “the perfect park to the public”. How exactly they are funded and manage to provide all this perfection for free, I don’t know and nor do I want to. I can only presume horrific crimes must be being committed somewhere, but frankly if this means the people of New York can learn how fly fish and speak Japanese at no cost to themselves, then that is a price worth paying.
9. Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital
Photo by Toomuchglass.net
At the southern tip of the thin slither of land between Queens and Manhattan known as Roosevelt Island, lies the creepy old ruins of an old smallpox hospital. This was also where Tobey Maguire killed Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man. Wander round the spooky building and its grounds, and if you’re not easily wigged out come at night when it lights up beautifully. The hospital is surrounded by a fence so you can’t actually get inside and nose around unfortunately, well, you probably could if you really wanted to, but you’re not meant to. It probably smells of piss anyway.
This definitely haunted hospital seems like a world away from the Upper East Side, but it’s actually only an aerial tram ride away, which isn’t tram at all, but a cable car over the river. So even if you’re not into the ghosts of diseased Victorians and the Green Goblin, the journey alone is worth going to Roosevelt island for.
10. Greenwich Village
In the 50s and 60s Greenwich Village (or ‘the Village’) became the spiritual home of the New York beat generation. An East Coast mirror of what was happening in at the same time in San Fransisco. Now only the most successful of artists, writer, musicians and poets, or those with the most successful parents, can afford to live here, but there’s still a great vibe about the place.
During the day wander around the record shops, boutiques, bakeries selling tiny expensive cakes and beautiful tree lined streets. The Village still has a thriving gay scene, and a wealthy one at that, so the second hand clothes stores here are obviously impeccable. Washington Square Park is another of New York’s small but perfect green spaces that’s well worth popping by, and at night, Greenwich comes alive with hard partying gay clubs and the city’s best down and dirty jazz bars.
And of course, no visit to Greenwich is complete without strolling to the corner of Grove and Bedford, pretending you didn’t know the apartment block from Friends was there, and quickly taking a photo before you’re mistaken for ‘just another tourist’. Then spend the next hour wondering where exactly Monica’s balcony fits into the structure.
BONUS: Pod 39 Rooftop Bar
If $32 to get to the top of The Rockefeller Centre is more than you’re willing to part with – that is 16 hot dogs, after all – head up to the rooftop bar on top of the Pod 39 hotel. An amazing bar even at ground level, Pod 39 hosts an achingly hip Mexican-inspired menu of quirky tacos and tropical cocktails with gorgeous views of the city as standard.
The Empire State, The Chrysler, Freedom Tower, all the big boys glint prettily in the sunlight between the ivy clad brick arches while you slowly get fall-off-your-stool pissed on tequila cocktails that are far stronger than they taste.