15 Free Things for Art and Design Lovers to Do in NYC

published Nov 30, 2016
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(Image credit: Vault Travel)

If you live in New York, you don’t need another reminder of how outrageously expensive this city is. But while rent, down payments on a house and living costs are undeniably high, Manhattan and its boroughs attempt to make it up to us by being rich in plenty of 100% free-to-enjoy art, culture and design. From art museums, to craft fairs, to gallery openings, this is how starving artists (and designers!) save in the city.


Many of the city’s best art- and design-focused museums offer weekly or monthly “free” time. Oftentimes, these hours are designated “pay what you wish,” but if you can handle an only slightly judgmental look from the front desk associate, then feel free to waltz right in.

Museums with “Free” Hours:

(Image credit: The Whitney)

The Whitney: Found at the southern entrance to the High Line (another free feast for the eyes, see details below), the Whitney offers “pay what you wish” hours from 7-10PM on Fridays. It gives you enough time to work through several floors of 20th-century and contemporary art, and catch the sunset on one of the modern building’s outdoor staircases.

The New Museum: Located on the Bowery in the Lower East Side, the New Museum is devoted to the latest in contemporary art—check out their current exhibitions before you go. Thursday evenings from 7-9PM are designated “pay as you wish” hours, with a suggested minimum of 2 bucks.

The Museum of Modern Art: Admission is completely free on Friday evenings from 4-8PM, including all galleries, exhibitions and films (just be sure to grab a separate ticket for the film).

Museums that are ALWAYS “Free”:

(Image credit: NYCGo)

The Met’s Cloisters: Located in northern Manhattan, the Cloisters is a branch of the Met focused on the art and architecture of medieval Europe. While the suggested price of an adult ticket is $25, if you pay in person at the booth, you can donate what you wish.

The American Folk Art Museum: Located across from Lincoln Center (another gorgeous spot to marvel at NYC’s architecture, even if you don’t have tickets to the ballet), The American Folk Art Museum is remarkably always free and open to the public. Here, you’ll find the works of America’s self-taught creatives and artists.

The Bronx Museum: Admission to the museum is always free for all ages. Check out the list of current exhibitions, including Linda Cunningham’s look at the Bronx’s evolving waterfront.

Botanical Gardens and Parks

If you go at the right time, you can admire many of NYC’s most impressive gardens and arboretums without paying a dollar.

The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx: A personal favorite, this sprawling botanical garden in the Bronx covers 250 acres of flower gardens, greenhouses and arboretums. Basic grounds admission is free all day on Wednesdays and during the pre-brunch hour on Saturdays, from 9-10AM. If it’s your first time visiting, do yourself a favor and splurge on the $20 all-garden pass, because you won’t want to miss the giant greenhouse (the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, shown above).

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Visiting a botanical garden in the dead of winter can be a little disappointing, but free admission during weekdays from December through February and Saturday morning from 10AM-noon makes this garden an ideal winter walk destination.

The High Line: Before stopping in at the Whitney’s Free Fridays, stroll along The High Line, an elevated public (read: free!) park in Chelsea along an old freight rail line.

Craft Fairs

Check out what the city’s crafters and makers are working on without paying a cent.

(Image credit: Renegade)

Renegade Craft Fair: Four times a year, the Renegade Craft Fair comes to town. For the three weekends leading up to Christmas, this fair featuring 150 makers will take over Industry City in Brooklyn. Wandering the fair is 100% free, but bring cash in case you spot any holiday presents you can’t pass up. Dates: December 3-4, 10-11 and 17-18.

Brooklyn Flea: During the winter months, this outdoor fair of vintage, antique and craft vendors moves indoors under the impressively arched ceilings of Starlight One Hanson, a marvelous Art Deco-style former bank. It’s hard to decide what to gawk at first: The vendors’ eclectic wares, or the architecture. Entrance is free, open Saturdays and Sundays 10 AM-6PM through March 2017.

Open Art Galleries

In Chelsea and Bushwick, local artists open their studio spaces to the public (and you may even score some free drinks out of it).

(Image credit: NewYork.com)

Chelsea Galleries: If you walk along 25th or 26th Street in Chelsea on any given Thursday between 6 and 8 PM, you’re likely to stumble across a gallery opening or two (or ten). Search the map for the golden-ticket term “Opening Reception,” which typically guarantees a crowd of hip art-admirers and free-flowing wine. Hint: This is a fabulous free date idea.

Bushwick Galleries: Same deal as the Chelsea galleries, but with all the colorful grit and spunk this Brooklyn neighborhood is known for. Bookmark the Upcoming Openings calendar.

Off-Beat Must-Visits

For the design-lover with a taste for the obscure.

(Image credit: Brooklyn Brief)

Green-Wood Cemetery: Admission to this gigantic (478 acres!), beautifully-designed cemetery in Brooklyn is always free. When I wandered through the day before Halloween, the front entrance was busy, but the center of the park was quiet and peaceful. Pro tip: Look up at the front gate to spot one of Brooklyn’s largest colonies of nesting Monk Parakeets.

Dead Horse Bay: This eerie beach along Brooklyn’s coast has a not-so-pleasant past: It was once surrounded by horse-rendering plants, and later became a landfill (yuck, I know). Today, the beach remains littered with a treasure trove of glass bottles, jugs and broken shards of glass and ceramics, making it a destination for local artists and glass collectors. If you make the trek, don’t forget sturdy shoes and gloves.

Tell us, NYC dwellers, what other awesome free things did we miss on our list?