10 Free or Cheap Activities for Kids and Families in New York City
Planning a trip to New York City with the kids? New York City can be overwhelming and expensive, or you can check out our 10 favorite free and cheap activities for families and kids in NYC and plan a fun, affordable trip that your kids will never forget!
1. Take a Playground Tour
With playgrounds at every turn, New York City is every child’s dream! Whether you’re exploring Central Park or walking through the neighborhoods, you’re never far from a great playground and the chance to let little legs run off some steam. Many NYC playgrounds are uniquely themed and offer up great opportunities for creative play. Many also have water features so if it’s a warm day don’t forget to toss a bathing suit, a change of clothes or even just a towel in your bag so the kids can get wet. Our boys have their favorite playgrounds which we try to visit every time we are in town, but they’re also planning an entire trip back to NYC for the sole purpose of scoping out new playgrounds! Check out a few of their top spots and we’ll be sure to update as we explore more!
- Heckscher Playground in the southwest corner of Central Park is our boys’ all-time favorite. Between the stone pyramids and bridges on the actual playground to the rocks that surround the park and are just begging to be climbed, we can easily spend an entire day here!
- Ancient Playground: Located just outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side, this playground is inspired by the Met’s collection of Egyptian Art. Our boys immediately fell into a creative storyline of exploring ancient Egypt and this new spin on their play lasted hours!
- Union Square Playground offers some really different play features that our boys love exploring. Conquering the giant metal sphere is a big highlight (and something that can’t just be done once!) With numerous coffee shops and breakfast spots nearby, it’s a great place to grab a latte and a bite to eat and sit back while the kids play.
2. Ride the Roosevelt Island Tram
After years of visiting NYC we just recently discovered the Roosevelt Island Tramway. How on earth did we miss this for so long?! Each ride costs one swipe of a MetroCard per person (there and back) so it’s not entirely free but it’s super affordable. The aerial tram spans the East River, connecting the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. You can hop on the tram at 59th Street and Second Avenue for a gorgeous ride over the river. Our boys loved having an aerial view of the city they normally only get to see from the ground looking up. Riders must exit the tram on Roosevelt Island (feel free to explore) and re-enter to return to Manhattan.
3. Take a Spin on the Seaglass Carousel
The Seaglass Carousel in Battery Park is another activity that isn’t free but is quite affordable and totally worth the small expense. This carousel is so unique that calling it a “carousel” is a bit of a stretch. It’s set on a slowly spinning platform with beautiful glowing sea creatures anchored to their own spinning orbs. Both the fish you sit in and the carousel walls glow as you ride, simulating a fantastical trip under the sea! At $5 a ride, it’s an affordable experience that is sure to add a little magic to your day. Our boys were begging for more but we limited them to one ride, though we promised to return on our next trip. We’d all love to see this glowing underwater fantasy after dark!
Bonus Tip: The Seaglass Carousel is just short walk from the Staten Island Ferry as well as from the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues if you want to check of a few things on our list all in one afternoon!
4. Hop on the Staten Island Ferry
Do you want to see the Statue of Liberty but want to skip the lines, the crowds and the cost? Hop on the Staten Island Ferry for a free, up close view of Lady Liberty. Departing from Manhattan, stay right at the entrance to the ferry once you board so you can get a great photo of your family with the Financial District in the background. Then find seats on the right side of the ferry for views of the Statue of Liberty. Departing from Staten Island, sit on the left side for the best views of the Statue of Liberty. The third floor has open viewing but it fills up fast, so if that’s where you want to be you’ve got to hustle to the top. The first and second floors have tons of open windows and the views are just as great with much less of a crowd.
Bonus Tip: There are bathrooms (and snacks) on the boat! Parenting win!
5. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
This is something we do nearly every time we visit! The bridge is so iconic and the views of Manhattan are unbeatable. There’s no place that feels so quintessentially New York City as standing in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. There are usually all sorts of street artists and musicians on the Manhattan entrance while the Brooklyn entrance is a bit quieter. To shorten the trip for little legs we often just walk halfway, stop and take in the views, then turn around. It still feels magical every time!
6. Explore the High Line
The High Line is my absolute favorite spot in the city. It’s a relatively recent addition, opening to the public in June of 2009, but has deep historical roots. Starting on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District, the High Line follows the old elevated railroad that served the industrial west side of Manhattan in the early to mid-1900s. Long abandoned, Friends of the High Line in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation reclaimed the elevated pathway to turn it into a public green space.
Wanting to tie together the past and the present, the original railroad tracks were left in place with meticulously planned and placed landscaping growing almost as if from the tracks themselves. No matter how often we visit, the significance is never lost on me. This was once a place that served as the industrial spine of Manhattan, then left desolate and obsolete as the railroad industry was replaced by reliable roads and trucks that dominated a continued industrial landscape for decades, and then nature reclaimed this space. The High Line is now a beautiful green park that weaves together the hustle and bustle of the city with the calming, self-nurturing elements of nature. (I highly recommend visiting in the fall when the colors change- it will take your breath away!)
The kids have wide open space to skip, hop and climb their way along the 1.45 mile path. There’s plenty of seating to stop and rest for a while, a water feature for little feet that need to cool off and splash around, numerous unique art exhibits to explore, and a handful of places to stop and have a quick bite to eat while you enjoy the path. If you walk the full length, you’ll exit at 34th Street and 11th Avenue near Hudson Years- which is another up and coming area with an incredible new attraction we’re keeping our eye on!
7. Go on a Sculpture Scavenger Hunt
New York City has dozens of amazing sculptures and statues, each filled with various levels of history and whimsy. Scope out some of your top choices so you know their general locations and head out on a hunt to find them. Or just keep your eyes peeled as you walk the city and do a little bit of research on the sculptures you find as you explore. Our family loves to look up the history of different sculptures as this often serves as a jumping off point for some great historical and sociological discussions. Some of our boys favorites include Atlas and Prometheus near Rockefeller Center, Charging Bull and Fearless Girl down in the Financial District, Patience and Fortitude standing guard of the New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, the LOVE sculpture at 6th Avenue and 55th Street and Alice in Wonderland inside Central Park.
8. Play in Central Park
Save an entire day for Central Park if you possibly can. Yes, there’s really that much to do! There are countless playgrounds and water features, wide open spaces for picnics, rocks for climbing, sculptures, fountains, musicians and street artists galore (our boys love the bubble guy!), and lots of food carts for drinks and snacks. For $15 an hour you can rent a rowboat for up to four people for great views of the city. The carousel and Central Park Zoo are always popular with little ones, and further north you can explore Belvedere Castle (currently closed for restorations through 2019).
9. Visit a Museum
Many of New York City’s museums have “Pay What You Wish” entrance fees or specific days that are designated as free or “Pay What you Wish” days. If you’re looking for a certain museum this might require a bit of extra planning to make sure you can visit on a free or pay what you wish day. For a complete list of when to save at each museum visit the NYC Arts website here. The dinosaur bones at the American Museum of Natural History are a big favorite in our family, as are the art museums.
10. Catch a Train from Grand Central Station
Grand Central Station is just that- Grand. If you want to experience the true hustle and bustle of NYC without the overly commercialized feel of Times Square, make a trip to Grand Central Station simply to stand in the middle of the main terminal and gaze up in wonder. More than just a train station, Grand Central also offers shopping and dining.
While many tourists prefer the comfort of taxi cabs, our family prefers to the subway- so hop on a train and experience NYC like a local! We’ve always found New Yorkers to be incredibly friendly. If we hop on a train and have to pull out a map or app to figure out our way, someone always offers to help us make sure we know where we are going! Plus, once you get the hang of navigating the subway, you can cover a lot more ground and make sure you check out ALL of our favorite free and cheap activities for kids in NYC!