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New York offers travellers bright lights on a budget

The Big Apple dazzles when it comes to free sightseeing options. Here are some favourites.

Whenever I get a case of the ho-hums, I book a trip to New York. This is not as extravagant as it sounds.

New York is always a good idea, in my view. The city is constantly changing — in the Big Apple, more is more — and flights from the West Coast are a breeze. And then you have the cherry on top: The many free sightseeing options which mean you can explore to your heart’s content while your credit card remains unscathed.

In this city, I budget for accommodations and food. But unless I’m seeing a play or going to a sporting event, I know my sightseeing costs will be negligible. These are some of my favourite freebies.

The first stop on my most recent trip was to the stunning honeycomb-like structure called Vessel. It had opened a year before the pandemic began and I couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with it.

It’s no exaggeration to say I had my iPhone camera in overdrive that day. The futuristic Vessel is impressive in photos but it is an absolute showstopper in real life. Sixteen storeys in height, Vessel comprises 154 interconnecting flights of stairs within a spiralling bronze exterior. Due to safety concerns, the staircases have been largely closed since January 2021. But the structure, with its undulating curves that seem to reach for the sky, is utterly fascinating.

Next, I went to the nearby High Line, a unique elevated park built on an abandoned railway spur nearly 10 metres above street level. I make it a point to “walk the Line” on every visit because each season reveals a different perspective. Abounding in flora and fauna — and on this day, the aroma of cherry blossoms in full bloom — the High Line’s seamless union of urban design and ecology never fails to impress. That this pocket of tranquility exists in the heart of the city makes it all the more magnificent.

At the terminus of the High Line, visitors can browse, dine and raise a glass at the delightful foodie heaven that is Chelsea Market. This vibrant marketplace showcases the freshest offerings from fishmongers, butchers and artisanal cheesemakers, as well as numerous restaurants. Fun fact: Chelsea Market was originally the site of the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) factory, where the Oreo cookie was invented in 1912.

There are few cities that are as Instagram-worthy as New York and, for me, Times Square is unrivalled for sheer raucous energy. But after you’ve admired the glitz and glitter, don’t leave this area quite yet.

It would be a shame to miss Grand Central Terminal, the Beaux-Arts masterpiece that’s one of the busiest subway stations in the world and a National Historic Landmark. Rockefeller Center, the Art Deco skyscraper, and its iconic skating rink, are brilliant and should also be on your list. Ditto the otherworldly splendour of St. Patrick’s Cathedral across the street.

A visit to the National September 11 Memorial is also a must for me, but this moving tribute can also be unbearably heartbreaking. I’m always struck by how hushed it is here as visitors, even the children, wander quietly around the reflecting pools set in the footprints of the original Twin Towers. The memorial is free to visit, though the 9/11 Museum requires a ticket.

Steps away you’ll find Oculus station, the soaring ribbed structure that’s both a transportation hub and a shopping centre. It’s a great spot for a mental reset: Pastry and photo op, anyone?

As fantastic as these Manhattan sights are, however, it’s in Brooklyn that visitors will find a trio of experiences that I think are most quintessentially New York. It’s an easy subway ride to this borough and, once here, many begin their sightseeing by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. For some, this is a huge bucket list item checked. Next, a leisurely stroll in Brooklyn Bridge Park offers breathtaking views of the city’s gleaming skyscrapers. Finally, a stop in trendy DUMBO — a neighbourhood renowned for its galleries, shops and eateries — is the perfect reward for logging all those miles.

Best other freebies

But wait, there’s more! If you’ve got a few extra New York minutes, check out these additional free sights:

  • Central Park, of course, for the boating, the biking, and Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial.
  • Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, dubbed the “real Little Italy,” for the sidewalk raw oyster bars and custom cigar rolling.
  • The Staten Island ferry for close-up views of the Statue of Liberty.
  • The Strand Bookstore, for its “18 miles of books.”
  • Madison Square Park, where you can dine at the original Shake Shack while admiring the famous Flatiron building.

Bigger, higher, faster — it’s certainly easy to get in a New York state of mind, isn’t it? This is a wonderful time to start planning a trip because in springtime, crowds are smaller, lineups are shorter and hotels are cheaper.

And the sightseeing options? They’re priceless.

Top three that are worth a ticket

There are also many sights in New York that require a ticket. These are my top picks.

Circle Line Cruises: I’ve always loved Circle Line’s cruises around Manhattan because the boroughs are so different when seen from the water. You’ll learn some great historical facts as well. For example: In 1857 when a riverside park was proposed, businessmen balked, protesting that the waterfront was too crucial to be used as parkland. “Go inland to the central part of the island,” they suggested. “Land is so much cheaper there.” And thus, Central Park was created.

Observation Towers: New York has several of these towers and my top pick is Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center for its superb views of Central Park, the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty. The new Summit One Vanderbilt is a close second for its excellent views and very cool Mirror Room. (Tip: Don’t pay to go to the higher floor; views from the lower floor are spectacular.) The views from the Empire State Building are also very good but be aware that if you’re in the building, it obviously won’t be in your photo. In my opinion, the views at Edge NYC fall short, while One World Observatory is too far from the buildings in Midtown.

9/11 Musuem: While the National September 11 Memorial is free to visit, the 9/11 Museum requires a ticket — and it’s absolutely worth the price. It’s here that you’ll see a multi-ton steel column, folded over onto itself like a paper clip, and displays that include the last telephone messages from those trapped in the towers. Take the excellent tour if you can; otherwise, download the app.