A city that never sleeps can wreak havoc on you holiday pocketbook especially if you have to travel halfway across North America to get there. But dig deeper, Amy Rosen writes, and you'll find New York is full of unexpected activities that don't cost a cent – and leave you richer for the experience.
Walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and check out the tree-lined streets and artisanal coffee shops. Say hi to the nice people with woolly hats and artful facial hair. Hit the Brooklyn Flea market. Then stop by Brooklyn Bridge Park on your way back, located under the Bridge. The evening views of Manhattan are like a Woody Allen movie come to life, and during the day you’ll find idyllic picnic spots along the waterfront with its promenades and lawns. The park is also the site of special events, including free Movies With a View, kayaking, rowing and fitness classes. Tip: A Wicked Hot Chocolate at Jacque Torres’ Chocolate (walk up New Dock Street to Water Street and turn left and it’s 66 Water St.) isn’t free, but it’s better than finding money. For details, visit brooklynflea.com, brooklynbridgeparknyc.org and mrchocolate.com.
Many say autumn is the best time to visit the city, and if the golden tones of the grasslands and the earthy scent of lavender and herbs are any indication, I’d agree. The High Line, New York’s elevated urban park, just opened its third section at the Rail Yards, which means more plantings, pathways, public art and even better views of the city and the Hudson River. The new High Line at the Rail Yards is the northernmost section of the trail, spanning from 30th Street and 10th Avenue, west to the curve near 12th Avenue, and extends north to 34th Street. It’s a magical spot on Manhattan’s West side. Tip: To celebrate this section’s opening last week, there are open-air tai chi classes, meditation, lunchtime concerts and nighttime narratives, but there’s a full calendar of ongoing programming, including a Sept. 30 stargazing session with members of the Amateur Astronomers Association, and the Haunted High Line Halloween on Oct. 25. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. For details, visit thehighline.org.
No matter what your beliefs, religion is always free, and more than a few houses of worship offer a glimpse into how the other half prays. The breathtaking main sanctuary of Central Synagogue is open to the public every Tuesday and Wednesday from noon to 2 p.m. for meditation, while free docent tours are given every Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. (If you happen to catch Cantor Morris Glazman rehearsing, you’re in for a treat.) Also wander through St. Bart’s, a thriving Episcopal church and a stunning gem of Byzantine architecture. You can take a tour, and even enjoy some contemporary American cuisine at the church’s restaurant and bar, Inside Park at St. Bart’s. Or listen to a powerhouse gospel choir and passionate pastor Calvin Butts at Abyssinian Baptist Church. It welcomes tourists to worship at the 11 a.m. service on Sundays (line up at the “Tourist Entry Point” on the Southeast corner of West 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard). Note: Once you’re there you’re expected to stay for the duration of the boisterous 21/2-hour service. For details, visit stbarts.org, centralsynagogue.org and abyssinian.org.
The aerial tram to Roosevelt Island is the main transportation to the island sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens in the East River, and the only commuter cable car in North America. (You can also take the F train to the Roosevelt Island stop, but that’s boring.) The tram sails over the East River with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop. This five-minute journey was a pleasant surprise, high, fast and fun – though not for those afraid of heights (my friend freaked out). You land on the other side and then check out the River Walk and the genteel neighbourhoods that were once home to prisons and poor houses. Note: It’s free to explore Roosevelt Island, but you need your MetroCard to get on the tram ($2.50).
Broadway Week is a biannual promotion that happens every fall and winter, whereby you can snag two-for-one theatre tickets to some of the Great White Way’s hottest shows. (So, at least one ticket is free.) We saw the utterly charming Once, which melted my heart into a puddle on the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre floor. You’ll even get a chance to tread the boards – during the Tony-winning musical’s preshow and intermission a bar opens up on stage. Hot tip: Off-Broadway Week, with its two-for-one theatre tickets, runs until Oct 12. For details, see nycgo.com/offbroadwayweek and nycgo.com/broadwayweek.
Being part of a live studio audience at free TV show tapings like The Daily Show, Saturday Night Live, Late Show with David Letterman and Live! With Kelly & Michael, are a draw for many but can mean planning a year in advance, lottery systems, long lineups and hours of sitting inside when you really should be exploring the city. Instead, get the limelight out of your system by popping by the Today Show at Rockefeller Plaza, NBC’s morning news and lifestyle program. The show, starring Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford (among others), tapes on the ground floor at the corner of West 48th Street and Rockefeller Plaza. Between 7 and 9 a.m. on weekdays, the hosts are outside on the plaza and fans can mug for the camera on live TV. For details, visit nycgo.com/tv-show-tapings.
Not only is the iconic 42nd Street library a National Historic Landmark and a marble masterpiece, and forget the fact that there are millions of free books, information and ideas inside: The Rose Main Reading Room may just be the most beautiful room in the U.S. (Although, it is currently closed for a few months for refurbishing.) Readers (and laptop users taking advantage of the Library’s free WiFi), sit around long oak tables illuminated by bronze lamps and tall curved windows, beneath 16-metre ceilings painted with dreamy skyscape murals. Open wooden shelving and grand chandeliers are glorious reminders of the power of knowledge (always free). For details, visit nypl.org.
Fashion Street (7th Avenue) is where your tour of the Garment District begins: A giant button with a sewing needle marks the spot, as does a statue of a garment worker leaning over a sewing machine. The past and present are woven together in this busy district, which has symbolized NYC style since 1919. Pop into still-thriving shops such as B&J Fabrics (since 1940) and M&J Trimming (for all of your ribbon, button and tassel needs), which are tucked into historic façades. As you walk about, look down at the white bronze medallions imbedded on the plaza, honouring designers such as Perry Ellis, Calvin Klein and Diane Von Furstenberg. Tip: There is a free self-guided Garment District walking tour designed for mobile devices, and free guided tours offered twice a month. For details, visit garmentdistrictnyc.com/explore.
IF YOU GO
One of the best ways to plan your stress-free NYC visit is checking out nycgo.com, a practical website and the official city guide.
Flying from Toronto? Porter Airlines (flyporter.com) and its many seat sales may be your best bet leaving from the Toronto Island Airport. If you’re flying out of other Canadian cities, direct flights to New York are available on Air Canada and Westjet (aircanada.com and westjet.com).