New York is probably the most visited city in the United States. Famous for fashion, nightlife, art, food, and theater, New York is the heart of the world. Every culture is represented here, and there’s always something to do. You can spend a lifetime exploring and never really see it all. NYC is one of the most amazing places in the world (it’s why I call it home), but as a backpacker, it can take a big bite out of your budget. However, a city this big is bound to have some great deals, and there are plenty of things to do that won’t cost you a few months of your savings. I’ve lived in NYC for over three years and can tell you: deals can be found!
Hostel prices – A night in a 4-6 bed dorm starts around $25-35. A private room that sleeps two starts around $80-100 per night. There aren’t many hostels in Manhattan and, if you want the best deals, it’s better to stay in Brooklyn or Queens. Hostels vary in what they offer but many offer free linens, free WiFi, and free towels. My favorite hostels are Jazz Hostels or the YHA.
Budget hotel prices – In NYC, even budget hotels are expensive. You can find a room at a two-star hotel in Manhattan starting at $70, but more realistically, expect to pay between $100-150 per night for something on the low end, and then go up from there. That will get you a decent, clean room with a private bathroom. Manhattan is incredibly expensive so if you want more value for your money, consider staying in Brooklyn or Jersey City. On Airbnb, you can find shared rooms for around $25 per night and entire homes for around $80 per night.
Average cost of food – New York has food at every price range. You can eat a mid-range sit-down restaurant for $15-25 per main course. Dinner for two with drinks usually averages around $50-70. Prices just go straight up from there as NYC has some really fancy and expensive restaurants. Pizza slices can be found as little as a dollar, though typically cost about $3. Sandwich shops, kebabs, salad shops, and cafe meals generally are less than $10. There are plenty of street vendors with meals around $5-8. If you cook your own food, expect to pay around $60 per week for groceries that will include pasta, vegetables, chicken, and other basic foods. Here’s a list of some of my favorite places to eat in NYC.
Public transportation cost – New York and its boroughs (and parts of New Jersey) are really well-connected with the subway. You can get to wherever you need to go, or close to it, with public transportation. Think about downloading an app or using the trip planner on the MTA website because the subway, with 24 different lines, can be intimidating and confusing at first. Public transport is pretty affordable. The fare for a subway or local bus ride is $2.75. The fare for an express bus ride is $6. You can also buy a 7-day transit pass for $31. The MTA charges a $1 fee on each metro or bus pass. Most cabs around the city will cost around $15. Uber is an alternative and has a base fare of $2.50 and costs about $2 per mile.
Suggested daily budget – $60-90 (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, taking advantage of all the free activities the city has to offer, using public transportation, and avoiding expensive watering holes. You can always lower this number by using the budget tips below. This city can eat into your budget easily so be careful with your spending!)
Money Saving Tips
- Take a free tour – New York is a great place to walk around. However, only seeing New York from the outside is half the story. Take some of the free tours to see the other half. On Wednesday, there is a free tour of Grand Central Terminal offered by the Municipal Art Society (they offer a lot of other tours around the city too). Trinity Church offers free daily tours when there are no services. The Brooklyn Brewery offers free tours on Saturday. Finally, Big Apple Greeters will pair you with a local New Yorker to show you around for a day with advance notice.
- Get cheap theater tickets – Tickets though can run hundreds of dollars, especially for the new and popular shows. Luckily, there’s a way to get discount tickets. The TKTS stand in Times Square offers 40-50% off select shows. You need to arrive at the counter the same day to see what they have but it’s usually a widespread and good selection. Be prepared to wait in line for about an hour. TKTS also have offices at the South Street Seaport and in Brooklyn.
- Visit the museums for free – NYC is littered with some of the best museums in the world from the Met to the MoMA to the Guggenheim. Many museums offer free entry certain days of the week. The Whitney Museum of American Art is free on Friday, the Solomon R. Guggenheim has “suggested” donations after 5pm on Fridays, the Museum of American Folk Art is free, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design is free on Tuesday evenings free, the Steuben Galler is free, the MET is free (suggested donation is $20) and the Museum of Modern Art is free after 4pm on Friday.
- Get a MetroCard – You’ll be taking the train a lot and fares can add up. Get one of the Unlimited MetroCards and save yourself a bundle during your trip.
- Eat on the cheap – Between the food carts, dollar slice shops, kebab places, and ethnic eateries (Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai are some of the cheapest places in the city) you can eat really cheap in NYC. Avoid the expensive restaurants (OK, maybe one) and you’ll never bust your budget on food. Yelp!, Google Maps, and Foursquare are three good places to find cheap eats.
- $1 happy hours – Love oysters? Eat them during the $1 happy hours that happen each night all over the city. The best deals are the John Dory Oyster House and Jeffery’s Grocery, which offers all their oysters for $1.
- Couchsurf – Accommodation is expensive in NYC and, with few hostels, there aren’t many options for a budget traveler. Use a hospitality website like Couchsurfing and stay with locals for free. There is a huge network in the city with tons and tons of hosts. In order to increase the chance of success, request as far in advance as possible!
- Consider getting the New York Pass – This pass allows you free entry to over 80 attractions and includes a hop-on/hop-off tour pass. A one-day pass is $110 per person and a three-day pass is $240 per person. You can save money by purchasing your tickets online.
- Redeem hotel points – Be sure to sign up for hotel credit cards before you go and use those points when you travel. This is especially helpful in big cities. Be aware that most hotels charge parking fees if you have a car, and adjust your budget accordingly.
Top Things to See and Do in NYC
- Take the Staten Island Ferry – That two-hour long line to see the Statue of Liberty not appealing? Well, walk a few blocks to the Staten Island ferry. The free ferry will take you across the harbor and give you a good view of both the Statue of Liberty and the city skyline. The ride takes about 20 minutes.
- Walk the Brooklyn Bridge – Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to experience an interesting view of the New York skyline and harbor. It’s a long walk but good food and drinks (like the brewery) await you on the other side. Stopping to take photos and meandering along the way will make the walk about 40 minutes. I enjoy doing this walk at night when downtown Manhattan is all lit up.
- Meander through Central Park – A great way to relax in the city and leave behind the crowds is to spend the day in Central Park. It’s free, there are lots of little paths to walk, and, since it covers over 40 blocks, it’s easy to spend hours upon hours wandering around. During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions in the park too. From the late spring to the early fall, there are free guided walks run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11am. I’m a big fan of laying out in Sheep’s Meadow on a hot, sunny day with a book, some food, and a bottle of wine.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art – From the early 20th century portraits and sculptures to the steel mastery of Frank Stella, the Met is one of the foremost collections of fine art in the world. The museum is expansive and visual, that you should plan on spending an entire day here. The museum is open daily from 10am-5:30pm with extended hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is $25. Budget tip: The $25 “fee” is really just a suggested donation so you can pay whatever you want.
- Museum hop – While the MET is a category of its own, New York City has dozens of museums worth visiting. The Natural History Museum, the MoMA, and Guggenheim are just three of the big ones. There are 11 museums on the museum mile near Central Park that would take days to really see. Pick the ones you want to see the most and visit those unless you have weeks in the New York to see them all.
- Visit Radio City Music Hall – Is there a more American theater than Radio City Music Hall? This timeless testament to entertainment has captivated visitors since the 1930s. Tours run daily from 9:30am-5pm and cost $27 (you can get a discount by purchasing your tickets online).
- Take in the theater – You can’t come to NYC and not see a Broadway show. There are many great shows here from musicals to Shakespeare to offbeat shows. There’s nothing better than witnessing NYC theater, and it’s such an integral part of life here you should check it out. Visit the TKTS booth in Times Square to get half price tickets.
- See the Empire State Building – Get a bird’s eye view of the city from atop one of the tallest buildings in the world. It’s open late now so you can even see the city all lit up at night. A standard pass to the 86th floor is $34 and to both the 86th and 102nd floors is $54.
- Walk the High Line – Made from a converted train track, the High Line is an urban walking park on the west side of NYC. The area covers eight blocks and is extremely popular. Lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, food stalls, and greenery, this walk is one of the best things to do in the city, especially on a nice day. Go for a walk, sit with a book, people-watch — the High Line is a must-see and a true favorite among locals. Next to it, in the Meatpacking District, there’s the new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art (a museum that collaborates with the Met). Even if you don’t go inside, the building is worth seeing, as it is a work of art in itself. But I would recommend going inside as there is a wonderful exhibit of American art.
- Transport to the jazz age with Prohibition Bars – I love the 1920s — a lot. And that’s one of the reasons I love NYC so much — there are a lot of other people here who love the Jazz Age. There are lots and lots of Prohibition-style bars serving classic drinks while pumping out live jazz and swing music. While the fancy cocktails they serve may not be cheap ($12–15), I’m hooked on the atmosphere. Stepping into these bars with the music playing, people dancing, and everyone dressed the part transports me back in time to an era when things were classy, carefree, and fun. Some of my favorites are The Back Room, Bathtub Gin, and the Mulberry Project.
- Check out the Lower East Side Tenement Museum – You’ll learn how immigrants from around the world lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they tried to make it in America. It’s a good follow-up to what you’ll see on Ellis Island. You can only visit this museum via guided tours and they need to be booked in advance. I personally like the “Meet the Residents” tour, where live actors portray and share the story of newly arrived immigrants. Admission is $25 and it’s open daily from 10am-6:30pm with extended hours on Thursdays.
- Visit Trinity Church – A colonial-era church, this is where many of the founding fathers of America worshiped. It’s free to enter and the surrounding graveyard has many of the original leaders of the country, including Alexander Hamilton, who was the first secretary of the treasury.
- Head to Top of the Rock – This area is always filled with hustle and bustle. Wander around Rockefeller Center to see where they film The Today Show, shop, snack, and take the elevator to the “Top of the Rock” for another bird’s-eye view of the city (which I personally think it better than the Empire State Building, since from the top of here you can get that building in your picture too!). Tickets cost $34 and it’s open daily from 8am-12am (midnight).
- Just wander – Walk from the east side to the west side and marvel at the beautiful New York City architecture such as Grand Central Station, Union Square, the New York Times building, the Chrysler building, and much more. There are so many historic buildings in New York City, that just wandering around and looking at them is a good afternoon activity.
- Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island – Though the line for the ferry from Battery Park is long, if you get there early, you can avoid most of it. (Come late and you’ll have to wait a few hours.) The Statue of Liberty is spectacular to see up close (she’s as big as you imagine), but the real highlight of this combo is Ellis Island, where you can learn about the immigrant experience and get a sense of the people who helped build NYC (you’ll even find my family’s name inscribed on the wall!). There’s such a great sense of history there that you can’t help but be impressed. Tip: If the line’s too long and you don’t want to wait, take the free Staten Island ferry for photos of the statue and harbor.
- Battery Park – Named Battery Park for the old batteries (cannons) that defended the city, stop here for music and street performers, people-watching, relaxing, and all other park-related activities. You can also explore the ruins of the old fort that kept watch over the city. Battery Park is large and hectic, but I still love walking through here. There are tremendous views of the harbor, too.
- Wall Street –Take a photo with the famous bull and then walk to Wall Street and see where all those bankers destroyed the economy. There’s heavy security in the area, but you can sit and watch people whiz in and out of buildings on their way to cause some other financial disaster.
- Federal Hall – One of the most overlooked museums in the city sits across the street from the NY Stock Exchange (NYSE). Federal Hall, built in 1700, is where George Washington took his oath of office (you can see the Bible he was sworn in on!), was the first capitol building of the US, and was the site of the US Customs House in the late 1700s. It’s one of my favorite attractions in the area. I especially love the old vaults of Customs House. I highly recommend you visit, plus it’s small and doesn’t take long. Admission is free and it’s open Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm and it’s open Saturdays during the summer.
- Museum of American Finance – Down the street from NYSE and Federal Hall is the Museum of American Finance. Housed in a historic bank building on Wall Street (of course!), it has permanent exhibits on the financial markets, money, banking, entrepreneurship, and Alexander Hamilton (the founder of the US financial system). If you want to understand the workings of what happens on Wall Street, this is a perfect place to start. Entrance is $8 and it’s open daily (except Sundays and Mondays) from 10am-4pm.
- World Trade Center & 9/11 Memorial and Museum – The recently opened “Freedom Tower” gives you a panoramic view of the city, and there is also a lot of information about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On the elevator up, you can also see images of the historical development of NYC. At the bottom of the tower is a park commemorating the victims of the attacks along with an extensive museum. The museum houses moving exhibits about the significance of 9/11. For an additional fee (on top of the entrance fee), there are guided tours. The memorial is open daily from 7:30am-9pm. The museum is open daily from 9am-8pm with extended hours on Friday and Saturday. Admission to the museum is $24.
- Grand Central Terminal – Grand Central Terminal is the city’s historic train station. It was going to be torn down in 1975 but was saved by Jacqueline Kennedy, who raised money for its preservation. There are free historical tours on Wednesdays. I love coming to the main concourse and looking up at the “stars” in the ceiling and people-watching as everyone races to and fro. All those people — where do they go? What do they do? Also, there’s an amazing eatery in the basement called the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. And for fancy (and expensive) cocktails, visit the Campbell Apartments and step back into the 1920s (dress code enforced). It was once the office of John W. Campbell, a member of the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors and finance tycoon from the 1920s.
- Times Square – No matter when you go to Times Square, it will be packed with people (usually other tourists). There are pedestrian areas where you can sit and hang out. If you aren’t shopping or eating or seeing a show, there isn’t much to do in the area (and no New Yorker hangs out there), but it’s still a fabulous place to people-watch for a few minutes from the top of the red steps of the TKTS kiosk.
- The Cloisters – Few people make it up to the Cloisters (it’s all the way up near 204th Street), a branch of the Met devoted to medieval Europe. It took me years to finally see it, and I kicked myself for waiting so long. It was built with Rockefeller money from parts of five European abbeys between 1934 and 1939. (They even stipulated that the land across the river would forever remain undeveloped so the view would be unspoiled!). The building and its stunning cloistered garden are very, very peaceful and beautiful. It’s one of the best things to do in the city. There are free tours each day that explain the history of the museum and the paintings and exhibits. To get in, there’s a suggested donation of $25 (which includes same-day entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). It’s open daily from 10am-5:15pm with extended hours in the summer.
- Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Head over to the MoMA for lots of beautiful (and weird) modern art and some vivid impressionist art. I hate modern art. I just don’t “get” it. How is shovel on a wall art? I dislike modern art BUT this museum does have Van Gogh’s Starry Night as well as other post-impressionist art so I can’t hate it completely. If you love modern and contemporary art, this (I’m told) is one of the best in the world. It’s open daily from 10:30am-5:30pm with extended hours on Fridays. Admission is $25.On Fridays after 4pm, the museum is free (and I like seeing Van Gogh for free)!
- Prospect Park – Get out of Manhattan and explore Brooklyn’s version of Central Park and the cool Brooklyn Museum right near it. Spend the afternoon discovering its vast collection of both historic and contemporary art and artifacts.
- Bronx Zoo – Head north for a look at one of the oldest and biggest zoos in the United States. It’s an incredible experience for kids too. It’s open daily from 10am-4:30pm. Admission is $17. (Budget tip: Go on pay-what-you-want Wednesdays to save money.)
- See a Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Knicks game – Like sports? NYC has some world-class sports teams. I’m not a big sports fan (the Yankees play soccer, right?), but games are fun when you have friends to share the experience with. If you have a chance and the desire, don’t miss a sporting event, because New Yorkers are serious about their local teams!
- See a TV Show! – TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon offer free tickets to their tapings (although they must be reserved well in advance). See each show’s website for details and to make reservations.