The Tightwad’s Guide to NYC Culture

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relaxing in a park in nyc
This is a guest post by Jeff Dobbins, a New York City–based writer and tour guide, who is one of the best authorities on the city I know.

New York City has an abundance of cultural riches: remarkable sights, incredible food, world-class museums, and superb theater, music, and dance. But a look at some of the city’s prices ($450 for dinner at Masa Restaurant, $477 for a ticket to the Broadway show The Book of Mormon) and visitors tend to think one needs personal riches to afford them. Yet the city offers plenty of bargains, deals, and freebies just underneath its surface if you know where to find them.

Cheap and Free NYC Attractions

busy grand central station
Most of NYC’s greatest attractions are free of charge: Times Square, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Terminal, Greenwich Village, the High Line, Harlem, the 9/11 Memorial, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and the Brooklyn Bridge are all free to explore.

While the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are admission free, the ferry to reach them costs $13.00. A free alternative for a stunning view of both is the Staten Island Ferry, which passes them while crossing New York Harbor. (Note: You will have to disembark in Staten Island and wait for the next ferry back to Manhattan, so the trip takes approximately 90 minutes.) From May to October, Governors’ Island (also free) has excellent views of both monuments, as well as the Manhattan skyline.

Moreover, there are plenty of free tours available for many of the city’s attractions:

  • The Central Park Conservancy offers several park tours daily
  • The Grand Central Partnership gives tours of the famed landmark Fridays at 12:30pm
  • The Village Alliance leads walking tours of Greenwich Village, June–October
  • The Lower East Side BID offers walking tours every Sunday at 11am, April–November
  • Tours of the High Line are available Tuesdays at 6:30pm
  • Free Tours By Foot offers walking, food, and bike tours of NYC’s neighborhoods solely for gratuities
  • Big Apple Greeter provides walking tours, lead by locals, which are completely free

Cheap Eats in New York City

street food in nyc
New York City has some of the best food in the world, and you’ll find savory and mouth-watering restaurants on every block. But there are plenty of equally delicious alternatives to NYC’s prime (and expensive) restaurants. Many of NYC’s staple foods are very inexpensive:

Bagels — A bagel with cream cheese is usually $1.50–$2.00. Wonderful bagels can be found at Ess-a-Bagel, Murray’s Bagels, and Lenny’s Bagels.

Hot dogs — Hot dog carts are ubiquitous in Manhattan’s tourist areas, and the “dirty-water” dogs usually cost $2.00. Good grilled dogs can be found at Gray’s Papaya, where the “Recession Special” (two franks and a fruit juice drink) is $4.95. For gourmet dogs, try Crif Dogs, Asia Dog, and Shake Shack, each around $5.00.

Pizza – A single-topping slice is usually $2.50–$3.50, but many pizzerias are offering plain cheese slices for only $1.00. One of the most popular “dollar joints” is Two Bros. Pizza, with seven locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn.

Chinatown street food — Food carts on Canal Street (between Broadway and the Bowery) sell steamed, grilled, and fried Chinese food for $1–$2. Neighborhood bakeries have savory and sweet pastries for 80 cents, and dumpling stands (Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry St., and Fried Dumpling, 106 Mosco St.) offer five dumplings or pork buns for $1.00. Enjoying these treats in bustling Columbus Park is a unique cultural experience in itself.

If you prefer to dine in a restaurant, many along Mott, Pell, and Bayard Streets offer dim sum and noodle entrees for $6–$10.

Little Italy — The family-run Italian restaurants along Mulberry Street can be pricey for dinner, but most offer lunch menus for $10 or less. Grotta Azzura has prix-fixe two-course lunches for $9.95.

Falafel stands — There are many in Manhattan selling inexpensive falafel and gyros. One of the best is Mamoun’s, offering baba ghanouj and kebabs for under $6.00.

Harlem soul food — Jacob Restaurant and Manna’s feature big buffets of soul food and salads (they’re popular, so the food remains fresh), sold by weight: $4.95–$6.50 per pound.

Food trucks — NYC has some excellent food trucks, serving everything from BBQ to lobster rolls to gourmet desserts at reasonable prices. To find out which trucks are near you (or to find your favorite truck), the free mobile app Eat St. provides real-time information.

Finally, in warm weather, head to the city’s green markets like the Union Square Greenmarket, to gather locally grown foods for a picnic in one of the city’s parks. Large gourmet stores like Fairway and Zabar’s are also good places for picnic supplies.

Free Museums

the guggenheim
The Big Apple is a big center for art, history, and culture, and you can’t throw a stone without hitting a museum or art gallery. Luckily, most of the city’s famous museums offer “pay-what-you-can” or even free days and hours.

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art – accepts a “suggested donation,” meaning you decide what you can afford to pay for admission
  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) – free admission Friday nights, 4–8pm (be warned, it’s a mob scene)
  • American Museum of Natural History – a “suggested donation”
  • Guggenheim Museum – “pay-what-you-can” Saturdays, 5:45–7:45pm
  • Brooklyn Museum – a “suggested donation”
  • Whitney Museum – “pay-what-you-can” Fridays, 6-9pm
  • The Frick Collection – “pay-what-you-can” Sundays, 11am-1pm
  • Museum of the City of New York – a “suggested donation”
  • The Cloisters – a “suggested donation”
  • Jewish Museum – free every Saturday
  • Studio Museum in Harlem – free every Sunday

See the Theater on the Cheap

Neon signs light up the hazy streets of Manhattan near the theater district
New York is famous for its theater productions. Everyone coming to the city dreams of seeing a Broadway show. They don’t dream of those theater prices though, with some tickets costing hundreds of dollars for new and popular shows.

Thankfully, half-price tickets for Broadway and off-Broadway shows can be purchased at the TKTS booths. Currently, full-price Broadway tickets cost $120-$160 each, so expect to pay $60-$80 “at the booth.” Discount tickets are offered for same-day performances, and the selection and quantity vary daily. TKTS has a free mobile app, providing real-time listings of shows and discounts. There are three TKTS booths:

  • Times Square – 47th St. (the island between Broadway & Seventh Ave.)
  • South Street Seaport – At the corner of Front and John Streets, near the back of 199 Water Street
  • Downtown Brooklyn – 1 MetroTech Center at the corner of Jay Street and Myrtle Avenue Promenade

If you’d rather skip the TKTS lines or prefer to buy your tickets in advance, check BroadwayBox.com, which lists discount codes for shows (up to 50% off). The codes can be used when purchasing tickets online or at the box office.

Many shows offer cheap “rush” tickets (i.e., first-come, first-served tickets) or lotteries on the day of performance. Producers claim these programs keep their shows affordable for people of all financial means, but rush tickets are usually for locations that don’t sell at full price (i.e., front row far sides or last row of the balcony). So, the tradeoff for extreme discounts ($27-$40) are partial-view locations and early-morning lines. But for sold-out hit shows, “rush” may be the only tickets to be had. Prices and policies vary, so check each show’s website for details. The best resource for rush ticket information is Studentrush.org

Twice a year (just after Labor Day and early January), the Broadway League presents Broadway Week, when most shows offer two-for-one tickets. Check NYCgo.com for schedules and information.

Cheap Music & Dance Tickets

The stunning interior of a popular theater in New York, complete with impressive chandeliers
New York City also has many opportunities to see some of the city’s famous music and dance shows.

The venerable Metropolitan Opera has $20 rush tickets ($25 Saturday) for orchestra level seats. Procedures vary for weekday and Saturday performances, so check their website for details.

You can get half price, same-day tickets to Lincoln Center performances, available at the David Rubenstein Atrium, located at Broadway and 63rd St.

The New York Philharmonic offers tickets to open rehearsals (usually mornings) for $18. They also offer student tickets for select concerts for only $13.50. Rush tickets can be purchased online or at the box office up to 10 days in advance.

Carnegie Hall has same-day tickets for only $10. They also offer obstructed view locations at 50% off (but unless you have a thing for the conductor, what’s to see?).

The New York City Ballet has tickets beginning at $20, as well as student discount tickets.

Many of the city’s most historic houses of worship (Trinity Church, St. John the Divine, St. Bartholomew, etc.) offer chamber concerts that are free or inexpensive. Check the music listings in Time Out NY for a weekly schedule.

Visit Your Favorite Television Show

A street view of NBC Studios
TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with David Letterman Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, This Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon offer free tickets to their tapings (although they must be reserved well in advance). See each show’s website for details and to make reservations.

From landmark sights to diverse cuisines, or visual and performing arts, freebies and bargains are available in every variety. Meager funds needn’t keep one from enjoying the city’s rich culture. New York City may seem like an expensive destination on the surface, but if you look a little deeper, you’ll find that everything you thought was expensive can in fact be done on a tight budget. With so much to do, your biggest challenge may be how to budget your time not your money.

Jeff Dobbins is a freelance writer and author of Walks of New York, an online guide to New York City. He’s worked in NYC’s cultural scene as a performer, writer, press representative for Broadway shows, and manager of theaters on Broadway and in Lincoln Center. Follow him on Twitter and Walks of New York’s Facebook page.

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