Want to explore the Upper West Side but broke like a joke? If so then I feel your pain. I grew up in NYC and have spent the past 30+ years.
So, while I am currently financially stable, that wasn’t always the case. There were times when I was feverishly checking my inbox for aa newsletter from the Skint (a great newsletter about free things to do in NYC).
I was hoping against hope that I would find some of the best free things to do on the Upper West Side of NYC.
Since then, I have a lot more money in my pocket. But, I am always looking for deals so that I can make the most of what I do have.
Plus, I am currently living in Harlem. So, it is easy for me to hop on the 1/2/3 and do a lit Upper West Side walking tour.
And since I love the Upper West Side, I am down there every chance I get, looking for budget-friendly things to do on the Upper West Side.
So, if you want to save money and explore the Upper West Side, then have a look at this local’s guide to the neighborhood.
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Best Free Things to Do on the Upper West Side of NYC
1. Visit the American Folk Art Museum
The American Folk Art Museum is a fascinating destination for art enthusiasts and casual visitors alike.
In total, the museum is home to an extensive collection of over 8,000 artifacts, primarily focused on folk art and pieces created by self-taught artists.
One of the unique aspects of this museum is the distinctive artwork it houses, crafted by artists who honed their skills through personal experience rather than structured training.
This results in a truly original and diverse range of art pieces, including quilts and portrait paintings.
The museum’s collection also spans an incredible 400 years and incorporates artifacts from around the globe, providing a comprehensive look at the evolution of folk art.
The museum also regularly hosts themed, temporary exhibitions and even has a cute little souvenir shop that you will love.
Also keep an eye out for scheduled docent tours, providing detailed insights into current exhibitions.
Local Tip: This museum is pretty small and won’t take more than 30 minutes or an hour to visit.
So, enjoy some of the other best things to do on the Upper West Side after, like visiting Lincoln Center. You can also grab some amazing pita bread and hummus from Miriam.
Address: 2 Lincoln Square, New York, NY 10023.
Hours: Open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 am to 6:00 pm.
2. Visit the Firemen’s Memorial
The Firemen’s Memorial sits right on Riverside Drive at 100th Street. It is an enduring symbol of respect and gratitude to New York City’s bravest – people who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
Unveiled in 1913, this historic monument commemorates the lives of New York City firefighters who were lost in the countless fires that have popped across the city’s vast history.
These include, but are not limited to, the catastrophic blazes of 1835 and 1845.
This monument is a poignant testament to bravery and duty, crafted from Tennessee Marble, and one of the best free things to do on the Upper West Side today.
During your visit, look at an evocative tableau of a horse-drawn fire engine, charging towards danger. It reminds you of what these people do and how we shouldn’t take it for granted.
3. Catch a Free Performance at Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center is at the epicenter of performing arts culture in NYC.
After all, this grand complex is filled with specialized buildings that are home to the New York Philharmonic (for lovers of classical music and the New York City Ballet.
Meanwhile, opera enthusiasts will love attending a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
Additionally, Film at Lincoln Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center both enrich the facility’s cultural offerings with independent cinema and jazz performances.
Remarkably, Lincoln Center also organizes numerous free events throughout the year, including the popular “Summer for the City” event.
This annual event includes concerts, live theatrical performances, dance performances, and art exhibitions.
Local Tip: Julliard is also right here. You can attend performances for free since they are typically student showcases where students gain practice in their respective disciplines in front of a live audience.
Address: Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023
4. Explore Riverside Park (and the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial)
Riverside Park is one of the best parks in New York City since it goes all the way from 72nd Street to 156th Street.
In total, the park is about four miles long and is a giant greenspace where you can enjoy sweeping views of the Hudson River.
Stop by in the spring to see beautiful flowers and in the fall to admire incredible foliage.
Other fun things to do include a visit to the Eleanor Roosevelt Memorial, exploring the Grant National Memorial (122nd Street), a walk on the Hudson River path, a visit to the Grant National Memorial, and a stop at the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument (89th Street).
Just try and stop by between March and October since this is when all of the riverside eateries are open for business.
Address: Riverside Park, R25M+R3, New York, NY 10025
5. Explore the New York Historical Society on Friday Nights
One of the best things to do on the Upper West Side for free is to head to the New York Historical Society on a Friday night.
Okay, technically speaking the hours are “pay-what-you-wish”. So, admission between 6:00 pm and 8:00 pm on Friday evenings is almost free.
However, you’ll be glad you stopped by since this place has a treasure trove of artifacts that relate to the vibrant history of New York.
Founded in 1804 within the confines of a pre-war mansion, it’s the city’s oldest museum and boasts an impressive collection of over 60,000 cultural and historical artifacts.
Plus, Its prime location right on Central Park only adds to its allure.
Visitors can marvel at noteworthy pieces such as George Washington’s inauguration chair, a leg brace worn by President Franklin D Roosevelt, and a graffiti-covered door from Jack Stewart’s house.
Also, look for an amazing ceiling mural done by Keith Haring, displayed prominently above the admissions desk.
Designed with the modern visitor in mind, the museum features an array of interactive kiosks throughout the interior, transforming the learning experience into an engaging journey through time.
You can even visit the on-site gift shop and pick up some cool NYC souvenirs while you’re here.
Address: 170 Central Park W, New York, NY 10024
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, with extended hours until 8:00 pm on Fridays.
6. Enjoy the West Side Community Garden
The West Side Community Garden sits in between West 89th and West 90th Street. It is a beautiful green oasis where you can go for a quiet retreat within the city that never sleeps.
Since it was established in 1975, this privately owned, volunteer-run garden has become a sanctuary for locals and tourists alike.
It’s also overflowing with a captivating array of flower beds and lush greenery that any nature lover will adore.
Featuring comfortable benches and winding footpaths, it’s a great place to go for a walk away from the crowds of Central Park.
Address: 123 W 89th St, New York, NY 10024
Hours: Open 24/7
7. Explore Columbia University
Sitting on the northernmost edge of the neighborhood, Columbia is a prestigious University with stunning grounds that you’ll love exploring if you’re looking for free things to do on the Upper West Side.
This Ivy League institution dates back to 1754 and has a rich history that is reflected in its architecture.
Additionally, the university has welcomed numerous celebrities as students, including former President Barack Obama, actress Julia Stiles, and novelist Jack Kerouac.
Take some time to wander through the campus, absorbing the intellectual energy that permeates throughout the area.
While campus open spaces are accessible to the public, consider booking a guided historical tour for a more insightful experience.
Address: 116th and Broadway, New York, NY 10027
8. Enjoy a Free Event at Pier 1
Pier I is not just a picturesque spot along the Hudson River. It is a hub for fun, and free, community activities.
Its unique locale in Riverside Park South provides a stunning backdrop for a variety of free events, making it a gem among the city’s many piers.
Some of these events include “Summer on the Hudson: Star Gazing,” which allows residents and visitors to observe celestial bodies morning through the sky.
Live musical performances and sports events also frequently grace the pier, offering an eclectic range of entertainment that everyone will love.
Address: Riverside Park South, New York, NY 10069
9. Visit Central Park
Central Park is one of the best things to do on the Upper West Side for free.
It serves as an oasis of tranquility and natural beauty with its sprawling meadows, shimmering lakes, and intricate network of footpaths.
The inception of the park can be attributed to renowned architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
Their vision was to carve out a piece of nature that would remain accessible to all New Yorkers, regardless of their socio-economic status or race.
As a result, Central Park spans an impressive 843 acres, home to a plethora of attractions like the MET, Museum of Natural History, and Central Park Zoo.
However, its grandeur and popularity often draw large crowds, particularly on weekends.
So, for a more serene experience, consider visiting on a weekday afternoon or exploring areas above 72nd Street, like the Harlem Meer and North Meadow.
For a more informative visit, the Central Park Conservancy offers themed tours revolving around art or wildlife. Most are well-priced at under $15 or free.
Check their website for more details, and immerse yourself in the charm of Central Park.
10. See Some Banksy Street Art
Banksy, a pseudonym for an anonymous England-based street artist, is renowned for his provocative, and often politically charged street art murals.
His iconic mural, “Hammer Boy”, can be found on the wall of a DSW on 79th Street and Broadway.
This piece, created in 2013 during Banksy’s stay in the city, depicts a painted boy swinging a hammer at a real fire hydrant. As a result, the artist infuses a bit of whimsy and intrigue into the mundane.
Over the years, the mural has been preserved by protective glass that was installed by the store owner, ensuring it remains one of the best free things to do on the Upper West Side of NYC.
Address: 2220 Broadway, New York, NY 10024
Free Things to Do on the Upper West Side for New York Residents
11. American Museum of Natural History
Overlooking the ethereal beauty of Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History is a treasure trove of natural history exhibits that explain the beauty of the world around us.
However, this is one of the best free things to do on the Upper West Side now ONLY if you are a resident of New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, with a valid ID.
But, if you can get inside then you will enjoy access to a permanent collection, inside Theodore Roosevelt Park, that includes animals, fossils, rocks, plant life, and human cultural artifacts.
Among the standout exhibitions are the Hall of Biodiversity, the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, and the David S. and Ruth L. Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth.
Some awe-inspiring exhibits include a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, the Willamette Meteorite, and a life-size model of a blue whale.
Local Tip: Technically admission is pay-what-you-wish for residents of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. So, you will have to pay something to enter.
Address: 200 Central Park W, New York, NY 10024
Hours: Open daily from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.
12. St. John the Divine
This is one of the coolest churches in NYC that is free ONLY to New York residents – everyone else will have to pay $15.00 to enter.
However, it’s worth it since this Episcopal church is stunning, regularly features rotating art exhibits, and is empty – unlike St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Highlights include 17th-century Barberini tapestries, Gothic-style sculptures by Simon Verity, the biggest stained glass window in the USE, and modern pieces from Tom Otterness.
You can even see a Keith Haring sculpture in the Chapel of St. Columbia.
To complement the tremendous Romanesque, Gothic, and neo-Gothic design of this place, the church offers an impressive array of programs and events.
For the music enthusiasts, there are regular choir performances and organ recitals that resonate throughout the church.
Just don’t forget to bring the kids and take them to the Children’s Sculpture Garden.
Address: 1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025
Hours: Open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and on Sundays from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm.