Big Apple, Small Budget
Lodging is the one aspect where Manhattan’s reputation for being expensive is deserved. Even so, there are a few tricks to making this cheaper. The best one is to stay with a friend (or house sit if your friends are away). People who live in NYC know how expensive the city is and are often willing to host friends for short visits. Even better: they will probably show you around!
Failing that, strongly consider using AirBnB or VRBO. It’s also possible to find cheap hotels across the river in New Jersey and then commute into the city each day but I don’t personally recommend that.
Although Manhattan boasts some of the finest dining in the world, you don’t need to shell out top dollar to eat well. The city is filled with moderately priced restaurants that serve excellent fare. Many places in midtown have lunch buffets during the workweek that offer incredible variety at delightfully low prices. And if you visit outer boroughs like Queens (e.g. the Flushing and Jackson Heights neighbourhoods) and Brooklyn (e.g. Smorgasburg) you will discover a wealth of ethnic cuisine that eludes even many New Yorkers! But make sure you don’t leave New York without eating some pizza because that’s what the city is best known for.
Transport is another thing that can be as expensive or cheap as you make it. While it’s entirely possible to spend a small fortune taking cabs around Manhattan, I highly recommend avoiding them entirely. The public transport system in NYC is one of the largest in the world and shockingly cheap for what you get. You can buy a pass that gives you unlimited use of the entire subway and bus system for 7 days for only $32. I can’t recommend that enough if you’ll be in town for more than 4 days.
While the subways tend to be pretty reliable during weekdays, the schedules can often be changed during weekends. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, plan your route on the CityMapper website before you leave or download their mobile app for Android or iOS to use on the go.
If you plan on spending most of your time in Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn (as opposed to Queens et al) and don’t want to waste the gorgeous spring/autumn weather in underground tunnels then you may want to consider a 7 day pass for the local bike-share program instead, which costs $25 by credit card. It’s faster for short distances (under two miles) than any other form of transport.
No visit to NYC is complete without a visit to Central Park. The park is quite large so you can spend several hours spread across multiple days strolling through it and still not see everything.
Another must-see is the Highline, an elevated park built on an old railway line. Within walking distance from there and also not to be missed is Washington Square in the heart of Manhattan’s iconic Greenwich Village neighbourhood.
Brooklyn Bridge park, on the other end (from Manhattan) of the historic bridge whose name it bears, is the last of the four parks that should be part of any trip to NYC. You can walk or bike across the bridge to the park and then return the same way or take the subway instead if you’re tired.
Coney Island is not exactly a park nor has it been an island for decades; it’s actually a beach that happens to host an amusement park. If you’re into beaches or amusement parks then it’s probably worth the subway ride to check it out.
If you have friends who live in NYC and work for big companies, they probably have corporate memberships to many of the museums and can get you in for free. It never hurts to ask!
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, colloquially known as “the Met”, is New York’s premier museum and should not be missed. Located right along the Eastern side of Central Park, it’s easily included in one of your visits there. Although they suggest that you pay $25 to enter, the price is actually just a suggestion and you can easily just pay $5 instead.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is free on Friday evenings. Although it tends to be a bit crowded at that time, it’s worth an hour or two unless you hate modern art. This one is also just a few blocks South of Central Park.
The Guggenheim museum is free after 5:45pm on Saturdays and definitely worth visiting. It too is conveniently situated along the Eastern side of Central Park.
Landmarks & Views
While Manhattan’s skyline no longer keeps up with modern Asian cities, it retains a distinctive character that sets it apart from mere forests of steel and glass. The Empire State building is a waste of time and money but you can get a spectacular view of the city from the bar at the top of a hotel called the Standard. The best part is that you don’t actually need to buy anything there: just show up in the early evening dressed nicely, wander in, scope out the view, use the toilet (which has a glass wall facing out onto the city), and leave.
Also worth a quick visit is the Freedom Tower near Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park (birthplace of the Occupy movement). This replacement for the ill-fated World Trade Centre is now the tallest building in NYC and has an interesting design.
Although it’s not technically a skyscraper, the Statue of Liberty is easily one of NYC’s most famous landmarks. The cheapest way to get a decent look at it is by taking the free ferry to Staten Island, which passes fairly close to Lady Liberty. You can catch the ferry at the South Ferry Seaport, which is a short walk West of the picturesque South Street Seaport.
Manhattan is home to some of the world’s best stageplay and, although Broadway shows tend to be quite expensive, there are numerous Off-Broadway venues sporting equally talented casts in cheaper plays that are thoroughly entertaining. If you feel adventurous, there is a whole other level of theatre known as Off-Off-Broadway, which can be slightly more avant garde.
I heartily recommend Upright Citizens Brigade for a night of laughs.
NYC has a very diverse array of music venues, offering everything from jazz to indie rock. If you enjoy live music, it’s worth spending a night or two hitting up a couple of the local favourites.
While cocktails at some of Manhattan’s trendier bars can easily set you back upwards of $15, NYC is also home to countless dive bars with $3 beers/shots and even a handful of breweries and distilleries that offer tours with free samples.