(By someone who spent all her money on food)
I’ll stop over in New York on the way back from Guatemala. What a great idea! I thought as I booked my flights. I was all prepared; I had my ESTA, I purchased a New York Lonely Planet, and I’d researched all the things to know before travelling to the USA.
Unfortunately, my bank account didn’t quite agree with my rash decision to spend some time in one of the world’s most expensive cities. I not only had a huge culture shock when I landed in the Big Apple; after spending next to nothing in Guatemala, I had a huge financial shock too. While there’s loads of things to do in NYC, a lot of these can be quite pricey! So I vowed to just spend my money on the three essentials: accommodation, transport and food.
I stayed at the New York Loft Hostel, which was really great. At $40-$59 a night for a dorm room, it wasn’t cheap, but there were lots of extras such as unlimited free breakfast, a free BBQ night and happy hour with $5 glasses of wine.
But despite all this, after booking just my accommodation I ended up with a $240 shaped hole in my pocket. A far cry from the $5-$7 per night I paid for a hostel in Guatemala!
When I touched down in La Guardia airport, it was dark and I had no idea where I needed to go, so I jumped in a yellow cab. Only $24, the cab didn’t break the bank,but I could have probably got to the hostel for cheaper. But for $30 you can purchase a 7 day railcard – which means unlimited subway travel. New York as a city is very walkable and easily travelable by rail, at any hour of the day or night (even if the subways are crazy confusing). So $30 is the only really necessary transportation cost for a week in the city that never sleeps.
Now here’s the problem people like me (aka gluttons) have in America’s biggest city. Food is amazing, varied, accessible all hours… and really does tug at the purse strings. But I went for it – I was only going to be in New York for five days, after all, and food is one of the greatest joys in my life.
Eating culture in New York is significantly different to British cities. In London or Bristol there are dozens of small local supermarkets, but American big city society focuses more on eating out and less on convenience cooking. Even though it is perfectly possible to cook your own food in New York, you do have to look for it a little bit harder. If I was really scrimping and saving, I would have done that and saved myself a small fortune. But as previously mentioned, I live to eat, so I went a bit wild down New York’s culinary avenues…
But it’s not all bad news. In the whole time I was in New York, the amount I spent on tourist attractions was… zero. I didn’t go to the top of anything, I didn’t get any expensive package trips and I didn’t really go shopping. But I had a great time – you can still experience some of the best things to do in New York without money.
Here’s some of my top free things I did in NYC:
Get the Staten Island Ferry past Lady Liberty
When you walk to real downtown Manhattan, you’ll come across a bunch of people trying to sell you tickets for a boat to Liberty Island. Rather than walking right to the ports for these places, walk left and you’ll find yourself at the Staten Island Ferry terminal (if in doubt ask a policeman for directions). The Staten Island Ferry is completely free and actually a commuters ferry. You don’t get to get all close up and personal with the big green lady, but you have a perfectly good photo op of her and great views of the Manhattan Skyline on the way back. Getting the ferry itself is a bit of an arduous process- they come every 30 minutes, then take about 30 minutes to cross and then you have to wait another half hour for the returning one. All in all, it can take two hours, but the Statue is a must see and for free, I wasn’t complaining.
If you want to do a bit of reading up about Lady Liberty before you go and visit her, check out these 40 fun facts about the Statue of Liberty over at Where To This Time!
Down 5th street. Around Times Square. Over the Upper East Side. In Chinatown. New York is extremely walkable and while it may feel like your legs have been wrenched out of your body after the first couple of days, it really is the best way to absorb the city in all its glory. I probably spent a good 60% of my time here just walking around and looking up. There’s no place better.
Visit the Parks
The world’s most famous concrete jungle actually has a variety of lush green parks. Central Park, it’s most renowned, covers 843 acres and sees 37.5 million annual visitors. Central Park is fun to just amble around in; but there are a few notable sights to see in the park itself. My favourite area is the tranquil Strawberry Fields, where the famous ‘Imagine’ John Lennon memorial is situated (opposite the road is his last house, where he was shot in 1980) and you can also visit Alice, a large sculpture depicting a scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, amongst much else. Downtown in the meat-packing district is the Chelsea Highline, which is an elevated walkway containing nature and greenery and covers nearly 20 blocks.
Go window shopping
If you can resist from buying everything, New York is great fun to window shop in. Whether it’s marvelling at Macy’s, exploring all the thematic shops of Times Square, or checking out Chelsea Market; New York really does have it all. My favourites were the flea markets in Brooklyn at the weekend; The Brooklyn Flea market is only on Sundays and contains all sorts of charming bric-a-brac, and the less well known (and more expensive) Artists & Fleas market sells vintage clothes, jewellery, home accessories, posters and more… I didn’t buy any thing in either of these places (although I would have loved to put some whole stalls in my backpack), but going to absorb the atmosphere is fun in itself.
Visit the museums
Ok, a bit of a failing point for me here… I didn’t visit a single museum in my five days in New York. The weather was too good, I was enjoying walking around too much, and I figured that I haven’t been to a lot of the museums in London since I was ten, so I shouldn’t be falling over my feet to tick the ones in New York off my list. But if I was there longer, or if I visited when the weather wasn’t so great, I’d have definitely checked a few out. The American Museum of Natural History is always pay what you wish, as is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can choose to pay a dollar for these museums, although you might get some snooty looks. Other museums that were highly recommended to me were The Brooklyn Museum and the Guggenheim, which are pay what you wish on certain days. So if you are savvy with your schedule, you can time it so you never pay for a museum!
New York is pricey, there’s no denying it. But most of its intricate beauty can be marvelled at without parting with thousands of dollar bills, especially if you have somewhere you can stay for free (and can use their cooking facilities). Despite spending zero dollars on tourist attractions, I feel like I experienced a lot of what the city has to offer. Of course, you could be there for five years, or maybe even a lifetime, and still feel like NYC has more to give. I guess that’s why it’s made its way near the top of my must go back soon! List….
If you’re going to New York, you’ll probably be landing at JFK international airport. Check out some essential information for JFK from airport info HQ to plan your trip.
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