Short on cash or saving for that next big vacay? If so then check out this list of free things to do on the Upper East Side.
Sure, this neighborhood is uber-posh and usually associated with designer stores, not budget activities.
However, if you dig a little deeper and get off-the-beaten path, you’ll find some awesome things to do on the Upper East Side for free.
But, I get it. You may not go to the Upper East Side a lot. So, you might not know what to do if you’re on a budget.
Well, luckily for you, I have lived here for well over 30 years. I basically live in this neighborhood and know all about some of best free activites on the Upper East Side.
So, stop stressing and use this local’s guide to help you visit the Upper East Side for less.
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Best Free Things to Do on the Upper East Side
1. Check Out Central Park
After all, Central Park is an integral part of the Upper East Side (UES) since this sprawling 843-acre park is home to the Balto Statue (E. 67th), the Central Park Zoo (E. 64th), the Mall, and the Literary Walk.
So, marvel at the grandeur of the Obelisk (right behind the MET), or relax near Turtle Pond with Belvedere Castle in the background.
For the best pictures head to Bethesda Fountain and Terrace near E. 72nd Street. It’s a perfect spot for photos since you can grab a selfie with people rowing boats on the small lake behind you.
If you have time, venture further north to see the Untermeyer Fountain and Huddlestone Arch near E. 106th Street.
For a richer experience, the Central Park Conservancy offers thematic tours centered around art, wildlife, and other child-friendly topics.
Most tours are either free or under $15 per person. So make sure you add Central Park to your bucket list if you want to enjoy the best free things to do on the Upper East Side of NYC.
2. Walk Along the East River Greenway
The East River Greenway is a 9.44-mile stretch of greenery along the East River. It begins at Battery Park in the south and stretches all the way to 125th Street in Harlem.
A walk here is easily one of the most delightful free activities in the Upper East Side of NYC.
So, prepare for one epic stroll that will be semi-interrupted when you pass by the United Nations between 34th Street and 60th Street, via First and Second Avenues.
In fact, this is the point at which The Greenway is separated into two sections: the one from Battery Park to East 34th Street and the one from East 34th Street to East 125th Street.
The latter is my personal preference due to minimal crowds and the fact that you get to walk through Carl Schurz Park, a personal fave.
You’ll also enjoy some picturesque views of Roosevelt Island and its iconic lighthouse, along with Randall’s Island, the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, and the Willis Avenue Bridge.
3. Hop Aboard the Roosevelt Island Tram
I love the Roosevelt Island Tramway because it offers some of the most epic views of New York City that cost just $2.75 each way (you have to tap/swipe your Metrocard).
So, the Roosevelt Island tram is more than just a transportation option — it’s an immersive experience that allows you to see the city in a whole new way.
As you ascend over the East River, Manhattan’s skyline unfolds before you. So, you’ll get to see famous landmarks of New York City like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building
Once you descend onto Roosevelt Island, you step into a world far removed from the city’s hustle and bustle.
Nestled under the Queensboro Bridge, this little island boasts historical landmarks like the Blackwell House, the quaint North Point Lighthouse, and the thought-provoking FDR Four Freedoms Park.
It’s the perfect place to go got a bike ride or a tranquil walk on a sunny day.
Start your journey at the tram station on 59th Street and 2nd Avenue, and uncover one of the Upper East Side’s coolest hidden gems.
Local Tip: Try and visit an hour or two before dusk. This way you can enjoy stellar daytime and nighttime views from the tram. Also try to avoid riding at rush hour since the tram gets quite busy.
Address: E 59th St & 2nd Avenue, New York, NY 10022
Hours: Open Sunday through Thursday from 6:00 am to 2:00 am and Friday and Saturday from 6:00 am to 3:30 am.
4. Explore the Amazing Architecture on East 62nd Street
The Upper East Side, and 62nd Street specifically, is filled with stunning architectural gems steeped in history.
As you stroll east from Central Park, each step reveals stunning mansions, exquisite stoops, and awe-inspiring brownstones that pay homage to the city’s rich past.
Notably, the stretch between Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue is filled with ivy-laced gates and pastel-hued brownstones that exude an irresistible charm.
It’s a beautiful blend of old-world elegance and modern grandeur that makes this spot a haven for photographers and architecture enthusiasts alike. I
Therefore, East 62nd Street can easily be considered one of the most Instagrammable spots in New York City.
5. Visit Albertine Bookstore
Located on the always stylish Fifth Avenue, this French bookstore transports you into an entirely new world.
It’s a world where books are the stars, where every nook and cranny features tales from the heart of France.
So, step inside the stunning main hallway and take in the marble grandeur that was once the entrance to a French embassy.
Explore the grand opulence of the ground floor before heading upstairs to the second floor. This is where you’ll find an intricate, bright blue ceiling studded with glistening constellations.
It resembles Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and is well worth a photo-op…or ten.
Whether you’re a well-versed Francophile or a casual book enthusiast, this place offers an enchanting journey through French literature as you explore one of the coolest bookstores in NYC.
Beyond its spectacular aesthetics, this bookstore is also known for hosting vibrant cultural events centered around French literature and culture.
So, stop by, and don’t forget to take a picture with the Little Prince statue out front before you leave.
Address: 972 5th Ave, New York, NY 10075
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.
6. Explore Carl Schurz Park
Another top outdoor activity in NYC, Carl Schurz Park is a 14.9-acre waterfront space that is an idyllic spot for a relaxing picnic.
Visitors can marvel at the sweeping views of the East River, the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse, the Triborough Bridge, and the Randall/Wards Islands.
Carl Schurz Park also features well-tended gardens, a waterfront promenade, and two spacious dog runs for furry friends.
Plus, the historic grandeur of Gracie Mansion is just a hop, skip, and jump away from the park. It’s a super cool, 18th-century, architectural marvel that is the official residence of the city’s mayor.
The mansion, an NYC attraction in its own right, offers tours and features historical exhibits well worth exploring.
However, it is not free to visit the interior of the mansion. You must also book a tour to visit, which is only available once a week.
Address: East 86th Street &, East End Ave, New York, NY 10028
Hours: Open daily from 6:00 am to 12:00 am.
7. Explore Randall’s Island
One of the most unique, free things to do on the Upper East Side of NYC is to visit Randall’s Island.
Separated from Manhattan by the Harlem River and from Queens by the East River/Hell Gate, Randall’s Island serves as a serene retreat from the city.
After all, it is a 516-acre island that is home to vast green spaces and a diverse array of recreational opportunities.
To get here, use the pedestrian bridge at 103rd Street and follow the path to the right until you reach a spacious green area.
From here, you can feast your eyes on stunning views of Lower Manhattan before taking a stroll among the verdant woodlands and past vibrant gardens along the East River and the Harlem River.
Admire incredible public sculptures (like the ‘Peace Makers’ and ‘Dream Machine II’ by Rubem Robierb) before challenging yourself on a myriad of running, hiking, and biking trails.
Local Tip: Love shopping? Then hit up Goodwill after since it’s nearby and an epic thrift store in Manhattan.
Address: 20 Randalls Island Park, New York, NY 10035
Hours: Open daily from 5:00 am to 12:00 am.
8. The Grollier Club
The Grolier Club not only celebrates the art and beauty of books but also the culture, history, and heritage that comes along with them.
So, visitors will be enchanted by beautifully-bound, handcrafted books – some of which date back centuries and line the shelves of this respected institution.
The club is also renowned for its diverse range of exhibitions, often exploring the profound impact of books on society.
Whether you are a passionate bibliophile, an art lover, or a history enthusiast, a visit to the Grolier Club will provide you with an enriching and awe-inspiring experience.
So, step into the world of books and enjoy one of the best free things to do on the Upper East Side.
Address: 47 East 60th Street, New York, New York, 10065
Hours: The exhibition hall is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
9. Museum of the City of New York (Pay-What-You-Wish)
Founded in 1923 by Henry Collins Brown, the aim of this incredible free museum on the Upper East Side is to detail and preserve the incredible history of New York City, and the people who live here.
In total, the museum is home to over 750,000 objects including photographs, paintings, sculptures, costumes, furniture, manuscripts, and more.
Highlights include the “Timescapes” half-hour-long film about the city’s history, the “New York at Its Core” exhibit, the “Activist New York” display, and the “This is New York” exhibition about how the city has inspired story-telling throughout history.
There are also a wide array of temporary exhibits to explore. So, you’ll always have something new to see at the Museum of the City of New York.
Local Tip: You can only enjoy pay-what-you-wish admission if you pay on-site. Any tickets purchased online will cost $20.00 per adult.
10. El Museo del Barrio (Pay-What-You-Wish)
El Museo del Barrio was established in 1969 by Raphael Montañez Ortiz.
The goal of this museum was, and is, to preserve and showcase the art and culture of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the USA.
Currently, the museum’s permanent collection contains 8,500 artifacts that cover 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art.
So, you’ll find everything here from pre-Columbian Taíno to modern and contemporary items.
Additionally, a wide array of artistic mediums are on display, including films, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures, installations, textiles, and more.
Stop by, enjoy one of the best free things to do on the Upper East Side, and see what temporary exhibits are currently on display.
Address: 1230 5th Ave, New York, NY 10029
Hours: Open Thursday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Free Things to Do on the Upper East Side with Kids
11. Visit the Cooper Hewitt Museum (Pay-What-You-Wish)
The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum is truly an innovator in the realm of modern design and a must-see attraction on the Upper East Side of New York City.
The museum’s unique approach to interactive exhibits offers a refreshing departure from the traditional museum experience.
Visitors are invited to engage their senses in unexpected ways — from touching textured walls to experiencing scratch-and-sniff installations.
This playful approach to exhibit design could easily be likened to the fantastical whimsy of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Despite the museum’s rotating roster of exhibits, the underlying theme of this museum is examining how design enhances our daily lives.
Although the gift shop may be a bit steeply priced, it’s worth browsing for the intriguing selection of items, ranging from kitchenware to stationery.
Local Tip: Ask about temporary exhibits at the front desk and if you should visit them first. They sometimes have video installations on the third floor that close early.
12. The Met’s 81st Street Studio
The 81st Street Studio is an extension of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is free to children and their caregivers.
Therefore, this is one of the best free things to do on the Upper East Side for families who want to enjoy a veritable treasure trove of immersive experiences that cater to the inquisitive minds of younger visitors.
The myriad of activities include using microscopes to get an up-close view of the world, creating music on oversized instruments, and enjoying the beautiful smell of a variety of different woods.
The studio, occupying a 3,500-square-foot area, is a hub of interactive learning that promises to stimulate children’s cognitive development, creativity, and problem-solving skills.
Moreover, the studio aims to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world we live in.
The studio also has a plethora of drop-in and self-guided art/science activities that make this place one of the best free activities in NYC for families.
Address: 1000 5th Ave Ground Floor, New York, NY 10028
Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, except Wednesdays when the museum is closed.
13. Climb to the Top of Belvedere Castle
Located right behind the MET in Central Park, Belvedere Castle is an amazing place to visit since you get to enjoy sweeping views of Turtle Pond and the surrounding area.
Designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould in 1867, just head inside this historic castle and climb a set of narrow, spiral, stone steps for free sweeping views of the area.
Just be sure to use the mirrors installed in the stairway to see if anyone is coming before you head up or down the stairs.
Afterward, visit the on-site gift shop and look for cool souvenirs. Or, just take tons of NYC Instagram photos and use them as souvenirs instead.
Local Tip: You can visit the castle any time. But, if you want to climb the steps to the upper observation deck then you’ll need to visit during the times listed below.
Address: Belvedere Castle, Central Park
Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Sometimes Free Things to Do on the Upper East Side
14. The Jewish Museum
Majestically looking out over Fifth Avenue from the comfort of the Upper East Side is the Jewish Museum.
It sits inside the historic Warburg Mansion from 1908 and is celebrated for its unique amalgamation of contemporary and modern art, seamlessly woven together with an expansive collection of Judaica.
Upholding the Jewish custom of Shabbat, the museum extends free admission to visitors during regular hours on Saturdays.
Therefore, everyone is invited to deeply explore and appreciate Jewish heritage and culture.
It is also one of the free museums on the Upper East Side that frequently hosts a variety of temporary exhibits, captivating visitors with its diverse and intellectually stimulating displays.
There’s even a permanent exhibit designed exclusively for children, meant to pique their interest and nurture their appreciation for art and culture.
Before you leave, stop by Russ & Daughters. This cherished Jewish-American restaurant started on the Lower East Side and has been serving classic Kosher dishes like lox, sable, and whitefish for 100+ years.
Address: 1109 5th Ave &, E 92nd St, New York, 10128
Hours: Only free from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm on Saturday and on select Jewish holidays.
Map of the Best Free Things to do on the Upper East Side
Best Free Things to do on the Upper East Side FAQs
Where Can I Walk on the Upper East Side?
You can walk to the following places on the Upper East Side.
- Jackie Onassis House (1040 5th Ave.)
- Old Mansion of Benjamin Duke, (1009 5th Ave.)
- Isaac Fletcher Home (2 E 79th St.)
- James Buchanan Duke Home (1 E 78th St.)
- The Commonwealth Fund (1 E 75th St.)
- Home of Joseph Pulitzer (7-11 E 73rd St.)
How Can I Watch the Skyline in NYC for Free?
Some ways to see the NYC skyline for free include:
- Staten Island Ferry
- Walk the Brooklyn Heights Promenade
- Visit Gantry Plaza State Park
- Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
- Check Out the High Line
- Hop Aboard the Roosevelt Tram
- Take the PATH to Hoboken