This post may contain affiliate links, meaning that if you choose to click through and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no cost to you.

What to do in NYC?

Are you planning to visit New York and looking for unique things to do in NYC?  While the tourist sites like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center are fun….there are only so many times you can visit them.

Which is exactly where my sister and I found ourselves on our recent trip to new york city. Since both of us were returning visitors, we were looking for fun things to do in new york that we had never done before.

We were determined to make our #sistersinnyc weekend trip memorable & budget friendly.

“What are the best things to do in new york, outside of the major attractions?” is something we found ourselves asking. It felt a little silly as we knew there was plenty to do, but you don’t know what you don’t know.

Our only scheduled event was to see Moulin Rouge the Musical on Broadway so we were off to some sort of start.

But to help fill in the gaps we turned to social media, searched through blogs and I must say, found some excellent options for fun things to do in nyc.

Without further ado, here are our top things to do in the nyc that are also mostly free.

Our 3 Day Itinerary for NYC looked like this:

Day 1: 

Morning/Afternoon: Travel & Getting settled into our AirBnB in the Bronx
Late Afternoon: 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Evening: Dinner at La Esquina

Day 2:

Morning: The Vessel
Lunch: Ellen’s Stardust Diner
Afternoon: Free Tours on Foot in Brooklyn
Dinner: Scarletto
Evening: Moulin Rouge the Musical on Broadway

Day 3:

Morning: Alexander Hamilton House & brunch nearby
Afternoon: Stroll through Columbia University & Central Park
Late Afternoon/Evening: Check out of Air BnB and travel home

Top Unique Things to Do in NYC

The Vessel at Hudson Yards

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the Vessel has been closed indefinitely for entry. However, you can still walk around it and the surrounding Hudson Yards area.

This was an unexpected gem from our list of options. I had randomly seen some friends on Facebook post pictures of it during their visit and thought it looked cool. I honestly couldn’t believe I had never heard of it.

It looked interesting and was free, so why not? 

While free, you do need a ticket as they do staggered timed entries. You can book a slot on their website in advance or there are a limited number of daily tickets available that can be picked up onsite. My sister and I opted to go first thing in the morning and arrived about 30 minutes prior to it opening. 

The key to getting the most out of The Vessel is to go on a nice day and get there early.

Getting tickets on site is super simple. There is a free standing online ticket kiosk near the entrance line where you scan the QR code and select your time. Easy peasy!

We used our free time to take some pictures, enjoy the sunshine, and purchase a coffee next door in the mall. Although, you can’t take drinks into the Vessel so be sure to finish any hot beverages before your entry time.  #rookiefail

Once inside the Vessel it’s really cool. The curves of the structure create different visual oddities and the reflection of the surrounding buildings and floating clouds make this outing so unique. While it is mostly stairs I did also see an elevator available.

From the top you can see the Hudson River, take fun pictures & enjoy your time outdoors! For us, it was the perfect way to spend a cool summer morning and one of our top things to do in nyc.

Straight Deets:

Cost: Free
Time: ~1 hour
Location: Hudson Yards
Opening Hours:  Monday-Sunday 10:00am-9:00pm *Check for holiday hours*
Booking Required: Yes, either the day of or online in advance
Directions: Take the 7 subway line to the Hudson Yards stop. Exit the station and turn right.
Website: https://www.hudsonyardsnewyork.com/discover/vessel
Top Tip: Go first thing in the morning.

Free Tours By Foot

Another free thing to do in NYC and with options in multiple boroughs. It was really hard for us to choose a tour, but with our limited schedule, only a couple fit.

Ultimately, we decided on the Brooklyn Graffiti Art Tour as it allowed us to tour a different neighborhood. #freethingstodoinbrooklyn

Our tour guide was great! He was an artist himself and had a lot of knowledge about the different types of graffiti, the history of the art, and stories about the individual artists.

The distance walked wasn’t too much but the length (about 2.5 hours) was maybe about 15-20 minutes too long. We had about 20 people in our group and everyone in our group stayed until the end.

Afterwards, our guide stayed around to answer questions, offer suggestions of other cool things to do in nyc and provided directions.

Bookings are recommended and was really easy through their website. In fact I did it on my phone while we were at lunch one day, so points for being mobile friendly. Not every tour is offered every day and some fill up quickly so you’ll want to look at the schedule ahead of time.  

A confirmation email is sent to your shortly after booking which includes your details and directions on how to get to the meeting point, which varies for each tour. Overall, the process was easy and smooth and I highly recommend checking out Free Tours on Foot in New York City.

Other popular tours to choose from were:

  • Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO
  • SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown
  • Downtown Manhattan
  • Harlem
  • Greenwich Village
  • Grand Central Terminal
  • Lower East Side Food Tour
  • Central Park

Straight Deets:

Cost: Free + an optional tip for your guide at the end
Time: ~2 – 4 hours
Location: Varies by tour
Booking Required: Yes
Opening Hours: Varies by tour
Directions: Will be provided in the confirmation email after booking
Website: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/new-york-tours/
Top Tip: Use the bathroom before the tour starts

9/11 Memorial Museum

Depending on when you last visited New York, you may or may not have been to the memorial and museum. It was something I hadn’t done before and we took the opportunity to be inside to escape the rain. 

The musuem is very large and if you spend time reading and visiting each section it will easily take you 3-4 hours to experience it all so be sure to give yourself enough time.

Tickets can be purchased online for an entrance time or at the site itself. We purchased ours on-site at the ticket kiosk and hung out around the tribute fountains until our entry time. We happened to be visiting the museum on 9/12 and there were leftover flowers from the remembrance tributes from the day before. 

Once inside there is a cafe and audio guided tours available for rent. There is also a free audio guide that you can download prior to arriving and listen to with your own phone & headphones. The free audio guide is very good and the recording by Robert DeNiro is a great addition to exploring the museum.

Even though this tragic event has been covered by every media outlet, had films and documentaries made about it my sister and I both still learned a lot about that day that we didn’t know. There is a wealth of knowledge inside and the foundation did a wonderful job of balancing facts with compelling stories.

They’ve curated a collection of voicemails, personal items, unsung heroes and perspectives of the day. It is overwhelming and yet no story is displayed in a way to overshadow another.

Whether it’s an event you feel you know a lot about or only a little, it is well worth visiting if you have the time. 

Straight Deets:

Cost: $28 per person
Time: 3 – 4+ hours
Location: 180 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10007
Booking Required: Yes
Opening Hours:  Sunday – Thursday 9am to 8pm, Friday – Saturday, 9am to 9pm
Directions: https://www.911memorial.org/visit/about/getting-here
Website: https://www.911memorial.org/
Top Tip: Download the free audio guide from their website prior to arriving and be sure to leave yourself enough time to explore.

Hamilton Grange House

As fans of Hamilton the Musical and having just seen it in the West End in London, we thought it would be fun to visit the house Alexander Hamilton and his family lived in. 

It’s operated by the National Park Trust and is free with guided tours offered throughout the day. This is the one activity we didn’t really plan all that well and I encourage anyone interested in doing a guided tour to check the schedule in advance.

I will say this wasn’t our most favorite activity (mostly because of our lack of planning), but if you’re in the area and want to learn more about the founding family it makes for a quick stop. Note there are also other Hamilton and Schuyler houses and stops you can do in New York and New Jersey if you want to go all in!

But the Hamilton Grange house is the same house built by Hamilton and the one he lived in until his death and the one his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, lived in for another 40 years afterwards. 

The house has been moved from its original site and much of the furniture and decorations inside are not original, but they do have a few items like Hamilton’s desk and the family piano that belonged to him.  

We arrived about 5 minutes after the guided tour began and weren’t able to join, but decide to stay around for the open house. The bottom floor of the house (the museum entrance) has a small gift shop and a timeline of Alexander Hamilton’s life and work.

For the open house, they open up the top floor (the main living floor) for you to walk around and see more of the house and how it may have been during Hamilton’s day.

It was a bit underwhelming so if you happen to make it great, but I wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to do it… unless you have a small budget and then well it’s another cheap thing to do in nyc.

We really wish we could’ve done the park ranger guided tour so I’d be interested in knowing more about that from anyone who has done it! 

Straight Deets:

Cost: Free
Time: 30 mins – 1 hour
Location: 414 West 141st Street New York, NY 10031
Booking Required: No, although for the open house they will take your name down and let groups go up in small batches in order of signing up
Opening Hours: Wednesday – Sunday from 9am – 5pm
Guided Tours offered at 10am, 11am and 2pm
Self Guided Tours from 12 – 1pm and 3 – 4 pm
Directions: Hamilton Grange National Memorial is in Saint Nicholas Park in Manhattan. It is located at 414 West 141st Street, between Convent Avenue and St. Nicholas Avenue.
Website: https://www.nps.gov/hagr/planyourvisit/index.htm
Top Tip: Get there in time for the guided tour

Trinity Church (Gravesite of Alexander Hamilton)

Gravestone of Alexander Hamilton

It’s important to note that Trinity Church is in Lower Manhattan while the Grange House is in Upper Manhattan so they aren’t near one another. BUT if you make a day of it you can see all the Hamilton sites in one day or you can split it up over a few days. So if you are a fan of the musical or interested in learning a bit more about the Hamiltons, you can visit the gravesite of Alexander, his son Philip, who was also killed in a duel, and his sister in law Angelica Schuyler at the site of Trinity Church. 

Trinity Church is one of the oldest buildings in NYC still standing and built in the old gothic style. They have very clear signs pointing you to Hamilton’s gravesite, but it’s also an interesting place to hang around as there are many important American revolutionaries buried at this location. They’ve also built up around the church so everywhere you look is another tall standing building.

Straight Deets:

Cost: Free
Time: 30 mins – 1.5 hours (depending on if you attend a service)
Location: Broadway at Wall Street
Booking Required: No
Opening Hours: Monday through Saturday, closed Sundays for Services only
Church: 7am-6pm Churchyard: 7am-6pm
Service Sundays at 9am & Weekdays at 12:05pm: Holy Eucharist, Chapel of All Saints
Directions: Trains J & Z at Broad Street, R & 1 at Rector Street, 2 3 4 & 5 at Wall Street
Website: https://trinitywallstreet.org/about/trinitychurch

Columbia University

New York City, the land of opportunity, sky high rent prices and educational institutions. Ok maybe people don’t think about that last one very often and if they do, they likely default to thinking of NYU.

But while NYU is located within the middle of the city (and near the Away HQ!) and is only identifiable by its NYU banners, Columbia University is a pretty large campus that transports you to another world once you step inside. 

My sister and I had some time to kill before her flight so we decided to walk down Broadway after brunch to see what we could find because there are always things to do in Manhattan. And, hello, what is more New York than than walking Broadway after brunch?!

Side note: I love exploring cities and areas by just walking around. It can be a bit of a gamble, but I’ve found so many cool things doing it this way! Because what is more NY than that? Taking a yellow cab? Well okay, yea maybe. 

In a vibrant city like New York, walking down the street will always hold something interesting for you. I noticed we were only a few blocks from Columbia and suggested we walk through the campus.

Having previously been a study abroad advisor its not unusual for me to visit a college campus, especially one as prestigious and historical as Columbia.

After grabbing a coffee at the Pret across the street (how very European) we walked under the arched entrance onto an absolutely beautiful campus.

There is something about being around young, bright academic minds, that gives me a feeling if giddiness and hope. To think about the important thought leaders and world changers who had stepped on this campus brought a proud smile to my face. 

And in keeping with our Hamilton theme we walked over and stopped by the building named after him with his statue proudly situated out front. 

If you’re interested in adding this to your itinerary there are also guided historical tours and self-guided tours of campus available.

Straight Deets:
Time: ~1-2 hours depending on how much you explore
Location: Broadway and 116th Street in Manhattan · New York, NY 10027
Booking Required: No
Opening Hours: Visitor Center – Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m
Directions: 125th Street stop on five bus lines (M4, M5, M11, M60, M104) and one subway line (the No. 1 local)
Website: https://visit.columbia.edu/

Prospect Park

A Brooklyn favorite and certainly a top 10 things to do in new york on a nice day. I ended up meeting a local friend of mine here for a birthday party on a lovely weekend afternoon and it was busy! 

The weather was perfect and everyone was out enjoying the last bit of summer before winter arrived. Full disclosure, I didn’t explore much of the park as we mostly sat and chatted catching up, but the vibe and feelings I got from the park were enough to fill me up. 

Much of the section of the park we were in was covered with trees providing plenty of shade for hot summer days. Plus plenty of open spaces for picnicking, playing volleyball or sunbathing. Dogs are welcome in the park and there are wide trails for walking, running or cycling. 

Sometimes the best way to get to know a city is to hang out in the park for the afternoon. It’s easy to get caught up in always doing something new, but I’ve found that sometimes you’ve just got to stop and smell the roses. Figuratively, that is, as I don’t recall seeing any roses at Prospect Park. 

Straight Deets:

Cost: Free
Time: ~1-5 hours
Location: Brooklyn
Booking Required: No
Opening Hours:  Daily from 5 am–1 am.
Directions: North of the park take the 2 or 3 line, West of the Park take the F or G line, East side of the park take the B, Q or S
Website: https://www.prospectpark.org/
Top Tip: Bring a blanket & some snacks and take a break

Some of our Favorite Restaurants in NYC were…..

La Esquina on Kenmare in Soho

Do you like mexican food?
With a fun atmosphere? 
And a cool Speakeasy type settings?

Then La Esquina has you covered! This was a recommendation from my sister’s friend and we almost skipped our reservation for another activity and are so glad we didn’t! 

Reservations are a must at this place so be sure to plan ahead. Walking up to it, it doesn’t look like much, but don’t be fooled. There is a hostess the diner looking venue and after confirming your reservation, they let you through the door behind them which takes you downstairs, through the kitchen and straight to the bar!

It all felt very exclusive and fun and the atmosphere was full of energy and enjoyment! We ordered a drink from the bar and hung around until they took us to our table. 

The lighting inside was pretty dark so we didn’t get a great photo, but our drinks, food and waiter were all spectacular. They pack the tables in tight so expect to be sitting close to other patrons. But if you can handle a couple hours of close quarters you’ll enjoy this place.

Cost: $$
Location: 114 Kenmare Street
Booking Required: Yes
Opening Hours: Daily from 11am – 2am
Directions: Corner of Lafayette & Kenmare
Website: https://esquinanyc.com/
Top Tip: Get the house speciality the Sexico Margarita. It was so our favorite of the night! 

Scarlatto near Times Square

Another recommendation from a friend, who is herself Italian, and suggested this Italian place so we of course couldn’t pass it up.

We made a reservation to eat here before our Broadway show. It wasn’t all that busy, but you never know in the Time Square area so if you’re on a time schedule I recommend booking in advance.

Scarlatto is a cute Italian restaurant very near the theatre district. In fact, it was only about a 5 minute walk to our broadway theatre which made it the perfect location. We shared a bottle of wine from New Zealand and I ordered the mussels and my sister the seafood risotto. They were both delicious and served in good portions. 

There is no lack of restaurants in the theatre district but if you want a taste of authentic Italian food while in NYC we both recommend you try Scarlatto. 

Cost: $$
Location: 317 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036
Booking Required: Recommended
Opening Hours: Daily from 12 – 11:30pm
Directions:  Between 8th & 9th Avenues
Website: https://scarlattonyc.com/
Top Tip: Find a restaurant close to your theatre so you don’t have far to walk

Ellen’s Stardust Diner

Oh man! So fun! If you don’t have plans to see a show while in New York but want to be entertained, check out Ellen’s Stardust Diner.

It’s a 50’s themed diner where all of the servers and floor staff are aspiring Broadway performers and take turns singing songs… continuously. 

I honestly only expected to hear a song here or there while we ate our lunch, but they come at you one after another with only enough pause to exchange microphones and queue up the next song.

We thoroughly enjoyed all of the performances and seeing what songs each singer selected for themselves. It’s a great way for them to practice audition songs and you know, not let their souls die while waiting tables. 

These are people who are natural born performers so don’t be surprised when they perform their tails off for you. They aren’t just standing on a stage singing a song, they are walking around, singing duets, and pulling out props to enhance their performance. 

They’re having a blast, so you should too! 

Additionally, all of the tips and donations you give go towards paying for their acting and singing classes. The restaurant isn’t just using them for their talent, they are actively trying to help them live their dreams while providing an income.

And many of their previous waiters are currently performing on Broadway so you know the talent here isn’t lacking. 

And although your waiter may take a 2-3 minute break to sing a song (ours sang Let It Go from Frozen and was fabulous!) there is no lull in service. In fact, our food and drinks came out so fast we were shocked at the speed! 

The wait to get into Ellen’s Diner can be pretty long, so getting their early or going at off peak times can help. We went here for lunch after touring the Vessel and there was no wait and plenty of tables open. 

Cost: $$
Location: 1650 Broadway, New York, NY 10019
Booking Required: Reservations are not accepted
Opening Hours: Daily 7am – 12am
Directions: Corner of 51st Street and Broadway
Website: http://www.ellensstardustdiner.com/
Top Tip: Try to go early or during off peak times to not wait in a long line

Tell me your favorite free things to do or places to visit in New York City! I’d be happy to write another post on this topic if there are sites you’d like me to review.

Love it? Pin for later!

Other Destination & Travels