Visiting New York City on a budget may seem like an impossible feat, especially in recent years with all the hype that has taken over the city. Hundreds of dollars for a theatre ticket? Nearly $100 for a night out in the cinema? Almost a grand for hotel and food? Makes it sound like you need to be a banker to have a good time in the Big Apple!
Now, let me assure you, there are plenty of things you can do without shelling out thousands of dollars and blowing your life savings on a weekend trip – and I will share these tips with you in this post. I visited New York during a road trip around New England during the leaf peeping season. I spent a few days in New York before I drove up to the Catskills Mountains and then further on to Canandaigua, Rochester and finally to the Niagara Falls.
New York City Suggested Travel Itinerary on a Budget
Here is a bullet-point list of things I did during a four night stay in New York City. Next to each item in brackets is how much they cost:
- Bought a 7-day MTA Public Transit Pass ($32)
- Visited Central Park ($0)
- Visited B’nei Yeshurun Synagogue ($0)
- Walked Around Times Square ($0)
- Visited the 9/11 Memorial Park ($0)
- Walked Across Brooklyn Bridge ($0)
- Visited Grand Central Station ($0)
- Visited Grand Central Library ($0)
- Took Staten Island Ferry to sail past the Statue of Liberty ($0)
- Walked along the High Line ($0)
- Visited Lower East Side ($0)
- Visited Washington Square Park ($0)
- Walked around Greenwich Village ($0)
- Visited Roosevelt Island ($0 with transit pass)
- Visited the Stonewall Monument ($0)
- Went to the Tenement Museum Lower East Side ($24)
- Graduate’s of the International Center of Photography’s exhibiting at the Rita K Hillman Gallery ($0)
- Walked a LOT ($0)
Where to Eat in New York City on a Budget
Below is a bullet-point list of the places where I ate while I visited New York. These are for the budget-conscientious traveller, they are not Michelin star places.
- Breakfast included in hotel rate ($0)
- Brunch at Dunkin Donuts in Greenwich Village ($7)
- Lunch at the Lexington Candy Store (~$20)
- Burrito Lunch in Lower East Side (~$9)
- Cake at Lower East Side ($6)
- Dinner at the Subway near Central Park (~$8)
- McDonalds Dinner in New Jersey (~$7)
- Dinner at Wendy’s at South Ferry Terminal (~$10)
- Shake Shack Dinner at Grand Central Station (~$17)
Chances are these will cost the same any time you visit (plus a little bit for inflation). Now here is a bit more detailed list of the things I would suggest you do during your visit to New York City.
First, watch this short video to learn what I did while I was in New York City. Once you have watched it please scroll down and check out my detailed itinerary. By the way, the video is subtitled, just click the closed caption button to display it. There is also a photo gallery at the bottom of the post.
Where to Stay in New York City on a Budget
The elephant in the room and the biggest hurdle to overcome during a New York City holiday on a budget is: accommodation costs! Yes, the average cost of a hotel room in New York City is more than $280 per night. So if you want to go to New York City for a long weekend, that would cost almost one grand! I think that is absolutely crazy and I started researching like crazy for a cheap place at a reasonable distance from New York.
After a bit of research I found the perfect place for my stay: The Econo Lodge in Meadowlands in New Jersey. It is a 25 minute bus ride from Manhattan on the 158 bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT). The bus stop is right outside the hotel and the ride takes hardly any time, delivering you to the headquarters of the New York Times and a 10 minute walk from the High Line.
My hotel cost $92 per night, which was a bargain! The bus trip was 25 minutes to PABT at a cost of $2.50 if I remember correctly. You can buy a booklet of tickets at PABT so you don’t need to worry about having enough change when you get on the bus which run every 15-20 minutes. There is the express and slow service, so make sure you get the express. The bus has comfortable seats and A/C, providing amazing views of the Manhattan skyline if you get a seat on the left.
Basically, you don’t need to book at the Econo Lodge if you don’t want to – you can just shop around in the same area if you want higher-end places. Meadowlands is a huge sports complex with a massive stadium at the heart of it, so there are plenty of hotels here but all are at a discount price compared to Manhattan.
Here is a map of Meadowlands to show you how close it is to Manhattan:
Cost of Public Transport in New York City
The subway ticket cost $32 for a week and is also valid on the bus and other forms of transport. However, it is only valid in New York City so not in New Jersey – which sucks if you are staying in New Jersey! That is why you need to buy a booklet of tickets at the PABT if you decide to stay in New Jersey. Every time I crossed the bridge to New York I had to pay a separate fare for the bus.
What do to in New York City on a Budget
Here is a list of things I did in New York City during my visit. I am not going to put them in chronological order – you can just pick and choose. They are all pretty much free and FUN!
Visiting Times Square
My first stop in New York City was Times Square. The square is just super busy and it’s not that big a deal, some signs on the walls and people staring at them. It was also a special Diwali festival, so the place was full of people queuing up to get Indian food. On top of this they were relaying the sidewalks so it was impossible to walk anywhere. AVOID AT ANY COST!
The 9/11 Memorial and the World Trade Center
The National September 11 Memorial is a tribute of remembrance and honour to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The Memorial’s twin reflecting pools are each nearly an acre in size and feature the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. The best way to get there from the High Line is to walk to 14th Street and get the A, C or E lines direct to WTC.
Take the underground from Times Square to the WTC Memorial. It is well worth a visit and by 7-8 PM it is pretty quiet. It looks absolutely magnificent with the waterfalls at the the centre of the World Trade Center complex. There is also a new shopping centre covered in white marble in the shape of a dinosaur skeleton. The area itself is not that big and well worth a visit.
The memorial pools sit within the footprints where the Twin Towers once stood. The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools. It is a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil. It was also the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history.
There are various activities and a huge museum to visit but the museum looked full to the brim so I didn’t pay to get in. It was also quite expensive. If you want to visit all the museums in New York, you better start saving! They all charge at least $20 per person.
Brooklyn Bridge at Night
I was hoping to take a bus or the subway to Brooklyn Bridge but it turned out walking there was much faster. Manhattan is not wide at all so if you have the energy just walk everywhere. It will save you the hassle of getting on the subway. Anyhow, Brooklyn Bridge looked fascinating at night and I managed to take some awesome photos. By this time I was totally exhausted so I headed back to the hotel for an awful night’s sleep.
Dinner at Subway
By the time I walked around New York City I became pretty hungry so I had dinner at a Subway. I only really eat the veggie patty sandwich which is my favourite. One of my university jobs was at a Subway in Edinburgh, Scotland as a student and I am sort of a connoisseur.
Here is a bit of Subway history: Back in 1965, Fred DeLuca set out to fulfill his dream of becoming a medical doctor. Searching for a way to help pay for his education, a family friend suggested he open a submarine sandwich shop. With a loan of $1,000, the friend—Dr. Peter Buck—offered to become Fred’s partner, and a business relationship was forged that would change the landscape of the fast food industry. Today, the Subway brand is the world’s largest submarine sandwich chain with more than 44,000 locations around the world.
Erev Sukkot at B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue
B’nai Jeshurun is a nonaffiliated Jewish synagogue community. They use a traditional prayer book and welcome Jews from every stream of Judaism. How I got there is also an interesting story. After crossing the bridge from New Jersey to New York I got lucky. As I was getting off the bus I looked lost and a Mexican looking guy asked if I needed help – so we started talking.
It turned out his grandmother was Hungarian and he was from Israel. He told me he was heading into town so if I wanted to share a ride in his Uber I could come along. He reassured me he wasn’t a kidnapper (like you would admit to it) so I got in as it was on the way to the synagogue.
Tip: if you are staying in New Jersey cross any bridge and then get into a taxi or uber to save a tonne of money. Taxi companies charge extra for doing inter-state journeys.
Thanks to the Uber ride I got to the synagogue a bit early so I went for a walk in Central Park. It was beautiful as the sun was just about to set. Once the sun set I went back to the synagogue which looked amazing on the inside and everyone was very friendly. There was lots of singing and they had a sukkah at the top of the building. They were super welcoming so if you are Jewish and in New York I would totally recommend a visit.
Around Central Park and Grand Central Station
In New York everything is grand. I discovered this after visiting the Grand Central Library and the Grand Central Station! First, I went for another walk in Central Park to visit the lakes and take some more shots of the buildings. The park was full of runners and walker, tennis players and tourists. The leaves already started falling but luckily the city came under an unexpected heat wave and the temperatures hit 30 degrees C! For the four days I was there several temperature records broke due to the summer heat.
Instead of relying on my rain coat, I was walking around in a T-shirt with sweat pouring down my back. It was quite unexpected and for the first day I was carrying my jacket around with me. I got to 5th Avenue just after lunch time and was very hungry and started looking for somewhere to eat.
The Lexington Candy Shop
By total chance I stumbled upon the Lexington Candy Shop, which is in fact a famous burger joint. It had several hundred Coke bottles in the window, covering several decades of designs which drew me in so I decided to sit down and have lunch there.
On the inside it looks like one of those typical US diners: metal stools by the bar and seats by the window. Several movies were shot here, including some by Woody Allen. In fact, his favourite table was right next to mine. The guy sitting at Woody Allen’s table was quite chatty so he gave a burger recommendation which worked out fine.
The Half Half and the Buffalo Burger
I saw a lady sipping some delicious drink at the bar and I ordered the same. It turned out it was another New York delicacy called Half-Half. It is half lemonade and half sweet tea – totally fab! And the lemonade is home made in the bar from fresh lemons. The buffalo burger was also super nice, I’ve never tasted anything like that before.
The shop’s history: Founded in 1925, Lexington Candy Shop is New York City’s only reminder of a bygone era when soda fountains and luncheonettes were fixtures in every neighborhod throughout New York. Continuously owned and operated through three generations of family and partners, walking into the restaurant has often been compared to going through a time warp. In 2015 they celebrated their 90th anniversary!
Grand Central Station
After lunch I headed to Grand Central Station. The building is pretty much hidden away between the skyscrapers but on the inside it looks stunning. I cannot believe at one point in history they wanted to demolish this building to give way to another skyscraper. There is an Apple store inside where I recharged my battery – it was running out very fast taking all the photos and videos.
The basement is full of restaurants and the famous oyster bar. I came back here to have dinner at the Shake Shack one evening. The food was very tasty but the burgers were so small that I stayed half hungry afterwards. There are historic tours inside the building so if you are interested in one just check this website.
Grand Central Library
From Grand Central Terminal it is a very short walk to Grand Central Library. The library is open every day – check the link for opening times. It is definitely one of the most stunning libraries in the world so make sure you visit.
History of the Library: The library was built using the money of Samuel J. Tilden (1814-1886). Upon his death he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune — about $2.4 million — to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York. Read more here. Entry is free and you can easily spend an hour or two wondering around the building. From here I went down south again but I will continue in another post.
South Ferry Terminal to Staten Island
The best way to reach South Ferry from the Grand Central Library is by bus or by the Subway. I took the bus to see other parts of the city but the 1, 5, R and W Subway lines also go to South Ferry. At South Ferry Terminal you can catch the free ferry shuttle to Staten Island. Staten Island is not worth a visit in itself but the journey there is amazing – and FREE! Make sure you queue up in time as the ferry only runs every 15 minutes and there is always a crowd. If you are hungry, like I was, there is a Wendy’s at the terminal so you can eat while you wait.
Tips: The Statue of Liberty will be on the left hand side in the direction of travel.
Go to the back of the ferry to have the best views of Manhattan and stay to the right hand side of the ferry if you are facing the dock to take good photos of the bay and the skyline.
As soon as you leave the terminal switch sides to take photos of Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn itself. Try and go about half an hour before sunset to get the best light and some amazing sunset shots. When you are about 10 minutes into the journey go downstairs and go out at the back to take a full panoramic photo of the city.
When you arrive in Staten Island you will need to get off and re-board but this will be easy and there is plenty of time. Unfortunately they don’t open the front section of the ferry so on the way back there are no good photo opportunities.
The Midtown PABT Bus Terminal
Arriving at Midtown Bus Terminal is quite fascinating too. The terminal is at a busy intersection and it has several levels like a multi-story car park with a central courtyard for the ticket office and shops. Once we crossed the Lincoln Tunnel the bus turned right onto the Port Authority Bus Terminal ramp. The ramps are for use by bus only and look like a spaghetti junction. Some of them elevate the bus 4-5 stories above street level before entering the terminal building. Currently more than 80 million passengers use the facility each year! If you are a public transport geek it is definitely worth a visit.
A bit of history: By 1939, growing interstate bus traffic was causing chaos in New York City. Buses would drive to and from eight separate bus terminals scattered throughout Midtown. Congestion was a major problem and the City needed a good answer. In 1949 they broke ground at the site between the Eighth Avenue, 40th Street, Ninth Avenue and 41st Street. The construction required 9,000 tons of structural steel and more than two million bricks – more than the amount for a conventional Manhattan skyscraper. Read the rest of the story here.
The High Line in New York City
From PABT it is an easy walk to the High Line. You will walk past some important buildings like the New York Times offices or Madame Tussauds Museum. Join the High Line at the intersection of 11th and W 30th Street if you want to walk the full length.
The railway line originally opened to trains in the 1930s as part of the West Side Improvement Project. It went through the centre of blocks, rather than over the avenue, carrying goods to and from Manhattan’s largest industrial district. The last train ran on the High Line in 1980, pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys. The line became non-viable because of the decades-long growth in the interstate trucking industry. A group of property owners lobbies for demolition. However, Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident, activist, and railroad enthusiast, challenged this in court. Thanks to his efforts the line still remains open and is now a beautiful park.
When I visited during the mid-October summer a number of models were taking advantage of the good weather. Their photographers followed them around taking shots in front of various landmarks, such as the meat packing building.
The walk along the tracks is super relaxing and gives you the opportunity to peak into offices and apartments along the way. Both sides of the walk are lined with perennial plants, trees and shrubs regularly attended by the Friends of the High Line. The walk takes about an hour at a relaxing speed or a little longer if you stop to eat and take in the scenery at a more leisurely pace.
The Tenement Museum in Lower East Side
The Lower East Side is an easy ride from the WTC. Walk to Fulton Street, which is a couple of blocks away from the 9/11 Memorial and then take the JZ line North. The best stops for the Lower East side are Delancey Street/Essex Street. It is an easy walk from here to the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street.
The Lower East Side refers to the area alongside the East River. This stretches from the Manhattan Bridge and Canal Street up to 14th Street, roughly bounded on the west by Broadway. It includes areas known today as East Village, Alphabet City, Chinatown, Bowery, Little Italy, and NoLita.
In a beautiful summer day it is just the perfect location for an easy stroll. Here, most streets are tree lined and wide and one can breathe history with every step. Midtown and the area around Central Park are so much busier and have less character compared with the Lower East Side. Not to mention the local grocery stores and independent cafes which differentiate it from other New York neighbourhoods.
For lunch I would 100% recommend the Wolfnights Burrito restaurant on 99 Rivington Street, just round the corner from the Tenement Museum. They sell gourmet wraps and everything is freshly made in front of you.
Around Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is a narrow stretch of land on the east of Manhattan. There is nothing exciting there but the journey to the island is quite fascinating. One easy option to get there is using the Roosevelt Island Elevated Tramway. It looks like a ski lift and flies passengers over the water, providing amazing views of the city and its bridges.
According to the New York Times, Roosevelt Island had a series of names in the past. It was also home to a penitentiary and the New York City Lunatic Asylum, before residential development began in the 1970s.
The Tramway stop is a short walk from the 59th Street Station. They accept the regular MTA transit 7-day pass so it is well worth a trip. From the West side of the island the views are amazing and there is a grassy area to sit. I had my dinner here and watched the sun set then headed back to Manhattan.
The Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building looks quite amazing with the narrow shape and tall windows. A multitude of people were taking photos and some were sipping cafes on the benches in front of it. The gardens were very nice with everyone enjoying the heat.
Around Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is another historic district of New York. This is the area where the gay rights movement started. The Stonewall Monument is just a stone’s throw away (get the punt?) and it makes for a relaxing walk (watch the video for more).
There are various sex shops here and what I found weird is that parents were peeping through the windows with their kids! In front of one of the sex shops was a Dunkin Donuts where I had breakfast so I could observe the goings-on.
The Washington Square Arch has been a staple of the park since 1889. Designed by Stanford White the arch was first built out of wood and plaster to commemorate the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration.
Crossing Brooklyn Bridge During the Day
Brooklyn Bridge is one of the best known attractions in New York – and also one of the most annoying! Since it is so famous most tourists want to walk across it. Add to it the regular New Yorkers doing their business and you will get a huge crowd. I literally had to queue to get on the bridge! This is made worse by salespeople trying to flog off some tourist trash along the way. AVOID AT ALL COST!
A bit of history: New York legislators approved Roebling’s plan for a suspension bridge over the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1867. It was the very first steel suspension bridge, boasting the longest span in the world: 1,600 feet from tower to tower.
Before I started my ascent, I really needed to find a toilet though. Problem is there are no toilets anywhere near the bridge! Fortunately I found a Starbucks but there a queue for the toilet! It was such a waste of time going to Brooklyn Bridge during the day!
By the time I got to the first tower of the bridge I was so fed up with the crowd I turned around. I honestly don’t understand why everyone is crazy about the bridge. The views are not exciting at all and it is full of people. There is also the danger of colliding with a speeding cyclist. Instead of the bridge I would highly recommend the Roosevelt Island Elevated Tramway. The views are far better and it is much less crowded.