11 best views in NYC for free, or close enough
Best views in NYC for free
Ask anyone who’s been to New York City — or even a local — and they’ll tell you one thing: it’s expensive. Freebies in the big apple are hard to come by, but they do exist — if you look hard enough.
Sadly, they won’t present themselves in the form of a hotel stay. However, you can find plenty of mesmerizing viewing points in NYC that are either free, or close enough.
Whether you’re on a budget, or just like bagging a bargain, add these 11 addresses to your New York itinerary.
1. Central Park north
This green, grassy landmark covering 2.5 miles (4km) is one of the best free things to do in New York. However, there’s one side that doesn’t get as much visitor love, and that’s the north end.
Most travelers tend to explore Central Park from the south entrance, which starts at 59th Street.
The popular NYC horse and carriage rides begin — and end — here. What’s more, there’s also the opportunity to hire bikes to explore the grounds.
The south entrance is also closer to park attractions, like the Central Park Zoo, Wollman Rink and Bethesda Terrace.
Conservatory Garden — best views in NYC for free
As alluring as the south side of Central Park is, it also tends to be busier. Exploring north of the Metropolitan Museum, the park begins to feel less like a tourist spot.
While the attractions are fewer up north, there’s one place in particular that’s worth the journey.
The Conservatory Garden is a 6-acre formal garden located at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue.
Go north: the Conservatory Garden in Central Park — best views in NYC for free
An iron gate guards the entrance to this floral oasis. Within its grounds are several gardens, such as the Italian garden, with its grand lawn and 12ft jet fountain.
Also here, is the French-style garden with its colorful display of tulips come spring. At its heart is a fountain with a sculpture, the Three Dancing Maidens, by German sculptor Walter Schott.
The conservatory garden in Central Park really is the jewel of the north (end). Visit during fall and enjoy seasonal varieties like Korean chrysanthemums.
Tips on visiting — best views in NYC for free
The Conservatory Garden is open all year round, and is 100% free. Opening and closing times can change depending on the season, so check the website before making your trip.
I suggest taking the metro or bus, especially if beginning your trip from the south end of Central Park. The Conservatory Garden is towards the far northern end of the park and is a good walking distance.
Instead, follow my lead and take the metro from 59th Street Lexington Avenue to 103 Street. It’s about an 11-minute walk to get to the park.
Alternatively, you can exit at 110 Street Station Central Park North, and walk down to the Conservatory Garden.
Conservatory Garden, 1233 5th Avenue
The Three Dancing Maidens sculpture at the Untermeyer fountain — best views in NYC for free
“When across the river in Brooklyn, it almost feels like you’re watching the world at a distance.”
Map: 11 FREE or cheap viewing points in NYC
2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commonly known as The Met, this gargantuan institute is an NYC staple. It’s probably the most popular of all the galleries on this stretch of road known as Museum Mile.
Outside and in, the Met is quite a work of art. The lobby’s a constant stream of conversations merging into one noise bubble. It’s grand, bold, and one of my favorite places to return to when in New York.
An awesome view, but for a price — best views in NYC for free
While the views from The Met are free, unlike the museums in London, the initial entrance ticket isn’t. During my visit, tickets cost:
- $25 (£19 / €23) for adults;
- $17 (£13.20 / €15) for senior citizens; and
- $12 (£9 / €10.30) for students.
Children under 12 enter for free.
Residents of New York state, and university students from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut can pay what they want.
However, even though there’s a fee, it does give you entry to all exhibitions. On top of this, your ticket’s also valid for 3 consecutive days, and gets you access to all 3 Met locations.
The Cantor Rooftop Garden Bar — best views in NYC for free
From about mid-April to October (depending on the weather), The Met opens its popular Cantor Rooftop Garden Bar. Located on the 5th Floor, it’s a tranquil spot to enjoy an alfresco drink, or meal.
Take the elevator in the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts galleries to reach the bar on the 5th floor.
My tip is to come here just before sunset. There’s no need to shell out on a fancy meal or cocktail. Instead, simply come to enjoy the views of Central Park and the surrounding skyline.
The usual opening hours are Sunday to Thursday, 11am to 4:30pm, and Friday and Saturday: 11am to 10 pm. However, as always, check the website, as times can change according to when you visit.
An NYC institution — The Metropolitan Museum
3. The Aviary NYC
See New York City from a different angle at The Aviary NYC. This chic cocktail bar sits on the 35th floor of the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the Columbus Circle.
While its specialty here are the unique and innovative cocktails, it’s totally free to visit the bar. Take your seat (there are 90 to choose from) and take in the views overlooking Central Park and Manhattan.
Mandarin Oriental, 80 Columbus Circle, New York
4. Brooklyn Bridge
It’s long, it’s wide and it’s 100% free. The Brooklyn Bridge isn’t only one of the city’s most famous landmarks, it also offers incredible views from both sides.
Joining the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, the bridge was the first fixed crossing across the East River. It stands at 41m tall and 26m wide and has been featured in countless films and TV shows.
Walk along the bridge towards Brooklyn, admiring the far-reaching river views on either side, and the Brooklyn neighborhoods ahead.
Stop, stand and admire: Brooklyn Bridge — best views in NYC for free
5. Brooklyn heights promenade
When across the river in Brooklyn, it almost feels like you’re watching the world at a distance. While the area has grown tenfold in popularity — and prices, Brooklyn remains as chilled as ever.
Along with excellent places to eat, drink and live, Brooklyn also has some fantastic viewing points. One such place is Brooklyn Heights promenade.
This pedestrian walkway within easy reach of Brooklyn Bridge, gives uninterrupted views of Downtown Manhattan and the East River. A long platform measuring 557m in length, it’s free to roam and gives you a different perspective of New York.
Watch local life go by — best views in NYC for free
Walk, bike, or just find an empty bench and relax. For me, coming to Brooklyn Heights Promenade gives you a temporary resident status. It’s a place where you can watch the joggers, dog walkers and walkers go about their daily routine.
Grand townhouses and mansions line the Promenade, giving a hint to the borough’s historic past.
Brooklyn Heights Promenade stretches from the Brooklyn Bridge to the ramp north of Atlantic Avenue. Metro stations 2 and 3 are the nearest, if you plan to skip the bridge and come straight here.
Find a bench and admire the view — best views in NYC for free
6. Brooklyn Bridge Park
Under the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and past the Brooklyn Bridge is a park bearing the same name.
Different portions of the park — called piers — have different features. Pier 1 has plenty of green spaces, a playground and views of New York Harbor and Brooklyn Bridge.
Pier 2 is, in short, the sports area. Come here to try your hand at basketball, handball or get your skates on at the roller rink.
Most probably my favorite pier is no. 4. It’s where you’ll find the park’s very own sandy beach. The park also includes a tobacco warehouse and 2 19th-century structures.
7. Westlight at The William Vale
In the Williamsburg neighbourhood in Brooklyn, is a rooftop bar known for one thing: 360° views of lower Manhattan. The William Vale is a 5-star luxury hotel, home to 183 rooms, and a magnificent rooftop bar called Westlight.
Take the elevator to the 22nd floor to reach the bar. An inside bar and dining area are surrounded by an outdoor terrace, offering guests unrivalled views of Manhattan.
A touch of sophistication in Brooklyn, Westlight is ideal for long lunches and lazy summer evenings.
Turn a night out into a night over with a stay at The William Vale. Rooms come with floor-to-ceiling windows, open-air balconies, and of course, the best views overlooking the NYC skyline.
Enjoying a glass of wine at Westlight Bar — best views in NYC for free
8. Staten Island ferry
There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such a thing as a free ferry. Since 1997, the Staten Island Ferry has been 100% free, transporting passengers between Manhattan and Staten Island.
Of course, the ride isn’t the only thing that’s free here. Views from the ferry are too, especially if you bag a good seat.
It operates 24/7, and with a journey time of about 25 minutes. Ferries leave every 15 to 20 minutes during peak hours, and every 30 minutes at other times. However, I always advise checking the schedule before you travel.
Where to get the Staten Island ferry — best views in NYC for free
In Lower Manhattan, the Staten Island ferry departs/arrives at Whitehall Terminal on Whitehall Street. On the Staten Island side, you arrive at/depart from St. George Terminal in St. George.
The R and W lines will take you to Whitehall Street on the Manhattan side. You can also take the 1 train to South Ferry and take a short walk to the ferry terminal.
Tips before visiting
Be aware of public holidays in the USA as they can affect ferry schedules. On these days, services run every 30 minutes throughout the day. Departures leave on the hour and half hour from each terminal.
Avoid using the ferry service during the rush hour (8-10am/5-7pm). Boats tend to be packed during these times, and it won’t be pleasant for you, or for regular commuters.
100% free ride and views from the Staten Island ferry
9. Empellón Al Pastor at Pod 39 Hotel
Take a breather in midtown Manhattan at the Empellón Al Pastor rooftop bar.
Situated at the top of the building of Pod 39 Hotel, the bar’s an intimate place to spend an evening.
Empellón Al Pastor at Pod 39 Hotel is open seasonally, weather permitting.
10. Roosevelt Island Tramway
Experience an aerial view of Manhattan and the East River on board the Roosevelt Island Tram.
Technically, the ride isn’t free, but if you’ve already got a MetroCard, you can use it to pay the fare.
I first took the train to Roosevelt Island station, and then came back on the tram. The station’s one of the deepest below sea level, located more than 100ft (30m) below ground.
There’s no mistaking that you’re on Roosevelt Island
What to see on Roosevelt Island — best views in NYC for free
On a bleak, dreary day in January, I made the trip to Roosevelt Island. I didn’t have any idea about what to expect when visiting, but I was curious to see it for myself.
Aside from an information center, there’s not much to see on Roosevelt Island. The views along the river are pretty, and the tranquil surroundings are a welcome from the maddening crowds of Manhattan.
However, aside from this, Roosevelt island consists of residential buildings, offices and the tram.
All on board — best views in NYC for free
It’s easy to understand why visitors like the tram. This moving cable car awards some of the best views in NYC, and it’s also something different too.
The entrance is at 2nd Avenue and 60th Street. It runs every 7 to 15 minutes, with a journey time of around 4 minutes to Tramway Plaza.
As you can imagine, the tram’s very popular and lines build up quickly. However, if hanging around in long lines isn’t your thing, visit during the week — the earlier the better.
Another option to visit Roosevelt Island is by the NYC ferry. The boarding point’s on the east side of the island. Unlike the tram, the ferry makes one stop at Long Island City and then continues on to Manhattan.
As always, check the tram schedule before visiting, and avoid visiting during the weekday rush hours.
Get the best seat on board the Roosevelt Island tram
11. Governors Island
Unbeknownst to many visitors, there’s a 172-acre island in New York Harbor just 800 yards from lower Manhattan. Governors Island is a destination with serene parks, historical buildings and a 22-acre national monument.
It was also from Governors Island where Wilbur Wright made the world’s first historic flight in 1909.
The views from Governors Island are also pretty spectacular. Navigate your sights on the New York Harbor, Lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.
Things to do on Governors Island — best views in NYC for free
A walking tour is one of the easiest ways to navigate, and learn more about, Governors Island. There are 2 welcome centers: Soisson Landing and Yankee Pier, from which you can join a guided tour.
Check the website for the most up-to-date information on tour days and times.
Come summer, hordes of people come to Governors Island for the scenery, parks and to have a picnic. You’re welcome to bring your own food and dine al fresco at one of the island’s picnic tables.
Alcohol, however, isn’t permitted on Governors Island, but you can buy, and drink it, in certain areas.
Barbecues too are off limits, unless you’ve reserved a designated grilling station. Eating out at Governors Island is also an option. There are plenty of vendors on hand selling a diverse variety of cuisines.
An aerial view of Governors Island — best views in NYC for free
How to get to Governors Island — best views in NYC for free
The only way to reach Governors Island is by ferry. Ferry services run daily and, on the hour, starting at 10am from Lower Manhattan.
The departure point is the Governors Island ferry waiting room in the Battery Maritime Building.
A good tip to finding the building is to look for the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at 10 South Street. The Battery Maritime Building is just next door.
Traveling by New York subway
There are several options to reaching the Governors Island ferry waiting room by metro. They are:
- No. 1 train to South Ferry;
- R train to Whitehall St station
- 4-5 train to Bowling Green station
Cost of the ferry to Governors Island
A round trip to Governors Island costs $2 for adults and $1 for seniors. Children under 12 are free. Everyone rides for free at the weekend, so long as you go before 11:30am.
All ferries have accessibility for passengers in wheelchairs, but this doesn’t extend to all buildings on the island. There are, however, wheelchair-accessible portable toilets on the island.
Have you been to New York City, or are planning a future visit? Which of these viewing points would you most like to see? Leave me a comment below.
Till next time, happy boutique travels x
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.
Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....