5... A Ferry Good Time
The Staten Island Ferry is a true New York institution. The ferry's been running between Staten Island and Manhattan since 1816 and it’s used by thousands of commuters every day. It’s relaxing to be out on the water for the five-mile, 25-minute journey, and you also get great views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, so have your camera primed and sit on the starboard side.
Leaving from a terminal just northeast of Battery Park, the ferry runs around the clock, with three to four departures an hour during peak periods. Once they reach Staten Island, most visitors opt to get on the next departing ferry for the trip back - for this leg, you can sit on the Brooklyn-facing side and see if the Cunard Cruise Line’s enormous Queen Mary 2 is in port.
By the way: from late May through early October, your free-ferry options double. Governor’s Island, part of which is designated a National Monument, can be reached by ferries that make the short half-mile run on Fridays and weekends. They leave from a terminal right next to Staten Island’s.
4... Enjoy a Rink, and Don't Sink
Once the weather turns brisk, lots of ice skating rinks open up around New York, but finding one that won’t charge megabucks to slip on isn't as easy. The Pond at Bryant Park (42nd Street and 6th Avenue) in the New York Public Library’s “backyard," lets you skate in the scenic surroundings of midtown's high-rise buildings. To make this rink time totally free, though, you'll need to plan ahead and bring your own skates and lock for the free lockers – skate rentals are $12, and checking a bag is $9.
After skating, you can warm up by getting a steaming hot drink from the Big Apple Cider stall ($3) on the east side of the park. It your sweet tooth's aching, the Sweet Shops sells perfect-looking caramel apples ($5) next door.
Once the ice rink disappears for the season, you can shift your attention to unfrozen aquatic pursuits and head west to the Hudson River. The volunteer-run New York City Downtown Boathouse runs free walk-up kayaking from mid-May through mid-October from three points on Manhattan’s west side. For the 20-minute trips, which are completely free, you don’t need any skills beyond a sense of adventure and the ability to swim.
3... Museums Exhibiting Serious Savings
With normal admission at many of the city’s major museums hovering around the cost of two movie tickets, a visit can’t always be approached lightly. Luckily, many of the city’s best cultural institutions also have regularly scheduled times when you can get in for free.
\At the Museum of Modern Art (53 W. 53rd St.) normal admission is a stiff $20, but that fee disappears during its Target Free Fridays, which begin at 4 p.m. Get there early to cut down on the crowds around you. Across town is the often overlooked Asia Society and Museum (725 Park Ave., $10 normal admission), whose Friday freebie times are from 6 to 9 pm. This cool and sleek gallery puts together well-edited shows of both ancient and contemporary art, much of it drawn from the collection of John D. Rockefeller III. Also keep in mind that at New York’s finest, the Metropolitan Museum (1000 Fifth Ave.) the $20 admission is only a suggestion. If times are tight, or if you’re only there for a quick pop-in, you can always pay less.
2... The High Line's Elevated Expectations
The High Line (www.highline.org), a brand new park whose first section opened in June of 2009, deserves all the hype it’s gotten so far. Walking along this elevated railway gives even the most gentrification-hating local a fresh perspective on the city below, and above.
Although it’s currently only about a half-milelong, plans are afoot to extend it north all the way to 30th Street. For now, head to the Meatpacking district and take the stairs at Gansevoort Street. Once you’re 25 feet in the air, you’ll be rewarded with views of the Hudson and feeling of freedom from all the traffic below. As you make your way north to the 20th-Street end, you'll come across a rotating group of vendors selling pastries, sandwiches, and other snacks. Descend at 16th Street to visit Chelsea Market for even more nosh options. Favorites include the brownies ($2.75) at Fat Witch Bakery and the Italian cheeses and olives, and sweets available from the Buon Italia grocery.
1... Concerts in a Working Environment
In New York, summer is unquestionably the best time for free music concerts: there's Celebrate Brooklyn, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Central Park SummerStage, and the Philharmonic's Concerts in the Parks, just to name a few. But that doesn't mean that there aren't any options when the weather turns cold. The Winter Garden, inside the World Financial Center (220 Vesey St.) is a grand, open space with marble floors and towering palm trees installed beneath a sparkling 12-story-high glass ceiling. Although it's always a nice place for grabbing a bite from one of the many restaurants nearby, it's also a performing-arts center with many events year-round - and they're all free. A couple winter standouts for this season include the New Sounds Live Silent Film concert series, in which old movies are accompanied by live groups playing newly commissioned scores, and the Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra's Jan. 2010 performance of "Peter and the Wolf," which will feature narration by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman.