From food, hotels, Broadway shows and tourist attractions, it’s very easy to blow your budget in New York City. But there’s many ways to enjoy NYC with kids without having to spend any money.
Here are our top 15 recommendations for kid-friendly free or inexpensive activities for families visiting New York.
- Children’s Center at the New York Public Library
- Grand Central Station
- New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex & Store
- Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room
- Staten Island Ferry
- Brooklyn Bridge
- Central Park
- Other Parks Worth Visiting
- Governors Island
- Coney Island
- Roosevelt Island
Children’s Center at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library’s Children’s Center is a great way to spend a few hours indoors.
The center offers a variety of activities to keep the kids occupied and entertained. Kids can enjoy story time, meet-and-greets with authors and more.
The center also has a wide collection of literature, music and media geared towards a younger audience.
The Children’s Center is also home to the original Winnie the Pooh and his best friends Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and Kanga. If you’re fans of Winnie the Pooh and friends this is a must do when in NYC.
The main branch of the New York Public Library where the Children’s Center is – also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building- is located at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is open through the week. Look for the famous lions guarding the entrance. The schedule of activities at the Children’s Center can be found here.
Grand Central Station
One of the biggest architectural marvels of not only New York City, but maybe the world, is Grand Central Station.
Sometimes referred to as Grand Central Terminal or just Grand Central, opened to the public in 1913 and is built in the Beaux-Arts architectural style, which was made popular through the Parisian educational system in the 19th century.
Today, Grand Central Station not only is a major hub for NYC’s public transportation system, but is also one of the most popular free attractions in midtown Manhattan.
Even if you do not want to catch a train, Grand Central Terminal is a must visit for its sheer history and splendor.
The terminal houses over 60 shops, 35 restaurants and eateries and several cultural events through the year. Here is a brief guide to the must-see sights at Grand Central Station.
Snap a selfie by the Information Booth Clock, admire the ceiling in the Main Concourse and the architectural splendor of the arches, stairways and pillars.
Read what visitors have to say about Grand Central.
New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex & Store
Have a train or subway fanatic in your family?
Then check out the New York Transit Museum Gallery Annex in Grand Central Station. You’ll find this gallery and store in the Shuttle Passage right off the Main Concourse.
This gallery features rotating exhibits from the New York Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn and shows some of the work that has gone into developing the city’s public transit system. Check out the mini train models or pick up a souvenir from the store.
Although the gallery welcomes kids of all ages, strollers are not permitted.
You’ll probably only spend a few minutes here but it is worth a stop if you’re already visiting Grand Central Terminal.
If you’re planning a trip to NYC in November or December, be sure to visit during Thanksgiving and Christmas as you’ll see several electric trains up and running!
Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room
Geared towards kids 5 to 12 years old, the Discovery Room at the American Museum of Natural History is one of the best ways to spend a morning or afternoon.
The Discovery Room at the museum may well be one of the best experiences your child may have in New York and the fact that it is free is a double whammy!
The museum offers the public free passes for 40-minute sessions, where kids can:
- create their own collections of minerals from the specimens provided,
- learn about ancient civilizations,
- assemble a life-size cast skeleton of a Prestosuchus (a 14-foot long prehistoric reptile),
- track live earthquakes anywhere in the world with a digital seismographic display
- and many more exciting, hands-on experiences.
There are also activities that adults can enjoy on the upper level. You can take a look at the schedule here.
Read what visitors have to say about the Discovery Room at the American Museum of Natural History.
Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island Ferry runs daily and provides free transportation from Manhattan to Staten Island.
Its nine-vessel fleet carries nearly 70,000 passengers a day between Whitehall Street in Manhattan and St George on Staten Island.
This is a great way to enjoy the New York skyline while cruising over the Hudson River.
Ferries are one of the oldest modes of transportation in New York. In fact, before all the future boroughs of Manhattan (Queens, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island) were connected by road and bridges, ferries were the only way to get around.
Ferries leave the docks on both sides every half an hour. You can check the ferry schedule here.
The Brooklyn Bridge is one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks. You may recognize this bridge from the movie Godzilla or in many artworks of New York City’s skyline.
Dating back to 1883, this suspension bridge was constructed purely to manage traffic. Today, however, it is a New York City landmark that sees thousands of tourists every year.
The bridge arches over the East River and connects to Brooklyn on one side and Manhattan on the other. Pedestrians use the elevated pathway to walk the entire length of the bridge. The bridge is also wheelchair accessible and stroller-friendly.
You cannot leave New York City without visiting Central Park. All of our visits to the Big Apple always includes either a morning or afternoon in Central Park.
The public park is one of the largest attractions in the city and you can easily spend your entire vacation here. Central Park is massive – boasting over 840 acres – and most activities in the park are completely free!
If you are looking for free outdoor spaces for your kids to burn off some energy, be sure to check out the Heckscher Playground, the Boat Pond and Belvedere Castle.
Heckscher Playground is a space dedicated to families, especially those with small kids. There are swings and slides as well as a large water feature, which is one of the biggest attractions in the park. Children can walk through the water feature and enjoy a good splash in the summer.
The Boat Pond
The Boat Pond (also known as the Conservatory Water) is famous for being the model boat pond which is open to boat enthusiasts and children to steer radio or wind-powered vessels in the water.
Younger kids may recognize this pond from Stuart Little and Saturday mornings are a popular time for boat races.
Off towards the east is Kerbs Boathouse – a place where you can check out several model yachts or stop by the cafe for a light snack.
Belvedere Castle is a miniature castle that serves as one of the visitor centers of the park. It offers one of the highest views of the park and the cityscape.
The National Weather Service has been measuring New York’s temperature from the tower of this castle since 1919. ‘Belvedere’ in Italian translates to “beautiful view” which is an absolutely apt description for what the castle overlooks.
Other Parks Worth Visiting
Other than Central Park (which is quite literally in the center of Manhattan), there are several other parks to visit if you don’t have a lot of time in midtown Manhattan.
Bryant Park is another Manhattan attraction that is famous for its lush gardens, al fresco dining (outdoor eating) experiences and several free activities around the year – including a European-inspired Holiday Market in December.
It is located right next to the New York Public Library so if you’re stopping by the Children’s Center, you can also visit Bryant Park in the same trip.
High Line Park
High Line Park is a public space in Manhattan re-imagined from an old, elevated freight line. Today, it is a garden where families can view art, participate in events and get a unique, elevated view of the city. This park is an example of how defunct industrial infrastructures can be converted into public spaces for everyone to enjoy.
Battery Park is a public park located in south Manhattan, overlooking the New York harbor. The ferries to the Statue of Liberty and to Ellis Island also depart from The Battery.
This 25-acre public park has eateries, perennial gardens, an urban farm, and more. The park and the area surrounding it is so named because of the artillery batteries that were positioned here when the area served as a fort to protect the settlements beyond, in the early years of the city.
Washington Square Park is a popular landmark in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The park hosts a variety of events, many of which are free. It is also home to the famous Washington Square Arch and water fountain you may have seen on TV or in the movies.
Chelsea Waterside Park is a cozy, two-and-a-half acre park which is home to a playground, a dog run and water features that kids find absolutely delightful. The park can be accessed and enjoyed for free. It is located at the West 23rd Street and the West Side Highway.
Governors Island is a 172-acre island between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn that hosts a variety of exciting events, often for free.
The island is a pleasant getaway within the city and you can spend a whole day here away from the fast-paced city.
If you are traveling with children, they are definitely going to enjoy the newly opened Hills, which offers different landscapes and features for visitors to enjoy. The Hills are also home to New York City’s longest slide (57-feet), which your kids (and mine!) will love.
Governors Island is accessible by ferry and is open to the public between May 1 and October 31. The ferry between the Island and Brooklyn is free. For other ferry services, children under 12 can travel for free.
Coney Island is a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn that features a lot of amusement rides and recreational activities in the summer months.
While rides and other activities at Coney Island may not be free, there are a few things you can do without having to open your wallet.
Take a walk along the Island Boardwalk and enjoy the views and the skyline as you walk down to Brighton Beach.
Coney Island also has a public beach along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, which is the perfect spot to play beach volleyball or handball or just relax in the sand.
There are also walking tours which have been organized for free by the non-profit Save Coney Island.
Roosevelt Island is an island in the East River, which is spread out under the Queensboro Bridge.
One of the best ways to reach the island is by using the Roosevelt Island Tramway which offers a unique view of New York City and its remarkable skyline.
The island has a lot to offer to the public today. It has a rich history and has housed prisons, asylums and hospitals in the past. The historical attractions are also kid-friendly and will allow you to have a good time with your kids for very little money.
The Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park is in honor of the former President and is good place for kids to burn off some energy and learn about Roosevelt’s life and legacy.
Lighthouse Park is also another place to visit if you’re looking for some quality family time with the kids. This park offers first-come, first-serve picnic and barbecue spots so make sure to pack a lunch or snacks if you’re planning on spending a few hours here.
New York City is where many people move to make their dreams come true. It is one of the most expensive cities to live in and also an expensive one to visit.
But visiting NYC with your family does not require maxing out your credit cards. You can plan an entire vacation to The Big Apple on a small budget and find plenty of activities with your kids that are completely free.