5 free and cheap things in New York City

Updated July 09, 2016

You can’t beat a trip to the Big Apple, but if you’re on a budget, it’s not always the most affordable place to go.

During my latest trip to New York City in April, I decided to make a point to seek out cheap and free things to do. Below are some of my favorites finds.

Coney Island

I don’t know how I envisioned Coney Island, but as I boarded the subway for the 30-minute ride from my sister’s house in Brooklyn, I wasn’t exactly excited. I wanted to see it, of course, but I figured it would be too touristy. Or too dumpy. Or too expensive. To my surprise, it wasn’t any of those. Steeped in history, Coney Island was once the largest amusement area in the United States and is home to the Cyclone, one of the country’s oldest wooden roller coasters; the Wonder Wheel, which opened in 1920 and includes rocking cars that slide along a built-in track; and the B&B Carousell, which was built in 1906 and includes 50 hand-carved wooden horses. I was traveling with my mom, my sister and my two daughters, 7 and 4, and Coney Island was a hit with everyone. The amusement park portions allow you to come and go as you please and buy tickets a la carte if you want, meaning we could dip in for a few rides and games, then head back out to the boardwalk for a Nathan’s Famous hot dog and a beer or a lemonade. The people-watching along the boardwalk was excellent, and once you work up a sweat, the beach is only steps away. I typically visit New York several times a year and I can say our April afternoon at Coney Island was among one of my favorite adventures there.

Info: It takes 45-60 minutes to get to Coney Island from Midtown Manhattan on the subway using trains D, Q, N or F to Stillwell Avenue. coneyisland.com/tourist-information

$25 Broadway tickets

It’s hard to find cheap tickets to a show in New York, but if you or a member of your party is between the ages of 18 and 35, you could find yourself at a Broadway show for a mere $25. In an effort to make it easier for young people to attend the theater, Roundabout Theatre Company has created the Hiptix program, which reserves a portion of tickets (typically 10-40) from all of its shows for Hiptix members to purchase. Each member may purchase two tickets; the second ticket-holder does not have to be between 18 to 35. Both Broadway and off-Broadway shows are included but are limited to Roundabout offerings (you’re not going to find “Hamilton” here). When my husband and I visited a few years ago, we caught Matthew Broderick in his Broadway show, “The Philanthropist.” Eligible Broadway shows with tickets currently on sale include “The Cherry Orchard” starring Diane Lane and Irving Berlin’s “Holiday Inn.” Off-Broadway productions include “Love, Love, Love.” See roundabouttheatre.org for more details. And book as early as you can — the available Hiptix tickets do sell out quickly.

Info: $25 per ticket. 212-719-1300; hiptix.com

SeaGlass Carousel at Battery Park

You may have been on a carousel before, but you’ve probably never seen anything quite like this. The SeaGlass Carousel at the Battery Conservancy, which opened last year, features 30 giant fiberglass fish modeled after real sea creatures including angelfish, lionfish and clown triggerfish. Rather than featuring a central pole, this carousel includes four turntables driven by electric motors housed below the floor, allowing riders — who each receive their own fish — to smoothly float up and down while spinning side to side, almost as though they were being buoyed by the ocean. LED color-changing lights and “water effect” light projectors add to the underwater atmosphere. After your ride, go for a stroll through Battery Park or hop on the Staten Island Ferry for a great, and free, view of the Statue of Liberty.

Info: Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. State and Water streets. $5. 212-344-3491, seaglasscarousel.nyc

Personal stylist at Rent the Runway

Rent the Runway has become a household name because it allows women attending a one-time special event such as prom or a wedding to rent a designer gown instead of buying one. But in addition to offering online rentals, the company has also expanded to include retail locations in Chicago, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and New York City, where you can actually go in the store and pick out what you want to rent. Not sure what look you’re going for? For $25, you can schedule a 45-minute one-on-one appointment with a stylist who will help you find new designers, try on dresses and leave the store with your favorite. (You don’t have to have a stylist or pay money to try on dresses at the store — they also accept walk-ins.) When I visited the store in April I found a variety of designers, including Cynthia Rowley, Christian Siriano, Milly and Shoshanna, arranged by color. If you’re heading to New York for a special occasion or simply want to get dressed up for a night out, this is a great way to go without shelling out hundreds of dollars for designer duds. Oh, and if you have kids, don’t miss the adorable children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder, located next door.

Info: 16 W. 18th St. in New York. 800-509-0842; renttherunway.com/stories/flatiron

Mood Fabrics

Sure, “Project Runway” has been around for more than a decade — this year will mark Season 15 of the popular Lifetime show — but if you’re a fan, you never get tired of seeing contestants run through Mood in search of the perfect fabric. During our recent trip to New York, I had to stop in with my 7-year-old, who is a fan of the show and had also just completed her first set of sewing classes. We loved finding inspiration among the rainbow aisles of fabric, sifting through drawer after drawer of buttons and searching for store mascot Swatch, who sadly wasn’t there the day we visited.

Info: 225 W. 37th St. 212-730-5003, moodfabrics.com