Ten tips for spending time in the Empire City without breaking the bank
New York is a vixen. I keep traveling, but it still remains the most alluring place I’ve ever been, a city bubbling with palpable energy and spirit. It will entrance you with its buzz, awe you with its anonymity, lull you into private moments in the midst of a crowd, and community on a near empty street.
Aaaannnd the sticker shock can break your spirit faster than a 2.5-hour wait at brunch. Yeah, most of New York ain’t cheap — from the Did-I-Just-Buy-A-Designer-Handbag hotel prices to the $18 cocktails.
But the best part of the empire city is that is does both high brow AND low brow incredibly well; public parks and other free-admission areas are, for the most, as manicured as the top museums; many street carts are manned with professionalism and skill of a lauded restaurant.
You can spend a week or more here and stay on budget and live really well.
Here’s how to do it:
Compromise on housing. Yep, if you’re trying to do New York on the cheap, your housing is just not going to be ideal. Best you understand that now. (Unless of course you have points and codes in which case GOOD ON YOU.) Your options for less than $60/night are probably these: stay in a room in someone else’s house in …Queens? (Look to Airbnb for that.) Or squat in a hostel or micro hotel, like the Bowery House — a sound chasm of box-sized, roofless cabins where I suffered last week. Don’t plan to spent much time there! Don’t plan to be comfortable! Who said going to New York meant being comfortable?! Maybe invest in a set of ear plugs. Ones that aren’t made of foam. OK let’s move on. It gets better.
Venture to the Queens International night market. It sounds far away, but I promise, it’s strikingly easy — just hop on the 7 line from anywhere in Manhattan and you’ll pop out in charming Corona, where suddenly the language changes and little abuelas selling tamales out of a blanket-lined basket appear. This is your prequel to the night market — check here for dates — where you’ll be forgiven if you find yourself overwhelmed by food choices from Burma, from Pakistan, from Bengal, from Malaysia (and a whole lot more), not to mention live music, beer and wine and shopping opportunities. Luckily for you, almost everything is $5 or $6 so go wild and fill yourself with snacks and happiness up for a 20-spot.
Spend some time in Chinatown. Besides being one of New York’s most interesting neighborhoods, so much of the food coming out of Chinatown is top notch — and wallet friendly. Get affordable dim sum at the semi-famous Nom Wah tea parlour, $1 buns at Golden Steamer, a tempting array of pastries at Tai Pan bakery and reasonably priced coffee and more at Silk Road Cafe. Maybe you’ll find a cheap souvenir — such as a piece of jewelry — to take home, too, from one of the many sidewalk vendors.
Have coffee in the park. New York is certainly known for its hyper-designed, hipster and adorable cafes, but they can get crowed — and you might find yourself paying $7 for a cup of java. Consider a coffee stall instead; the one lingering around Astor Place sells quality joe for just $2 along with a range of breakfast sandwiches, bagels and more, and you can enjoy the people-watching while you sip.
Hit a flea market. These days, New York is full of them, so if you’re around on a weekend, you won’t have to look far. Still, making the trek to one of Brooklyn’s original flea markets — in Williamsburg or Dumbo; check here for schedules — is worth it to sift through potential finds and perhaps breakfast of cold brew and a jian bing (a Chinese breakfast crepe from Jian Bing company), too.
Museum smartly. The entry to some of New York’s best museums tops $20 regularly, but keep in mind that the city’s slate of exhibitions extends well beyond just the MoMA and the Metropolitan. What’s more, there are many museums that offer free or discounted admission on certain days of the week. The Museum of Modern Art is free from 4-8 p.m. on Saturdays, on the Jewish Museum all day on Saturdays; and the Guggenheim allows visitors to pay what they wish on Saturdays from 5:45 to 7:45, just for starters. Don’t neglect to check out the teeny tiny Mmuseumm in a Chinatown alleyway — containing exhibits based on “things people of color were holding when they were shot and killed by the police” and “items left along the immigration trail,” it’s more political statement than traditional museum, but worthy nonetheless (a $5 donation is suggested.)
Delight in free experiences. Not all of NY’s entertainment is pricey; in fact some of the best experiences are flat-out free. Strolling the Brooklyn Bridge and the High Line (raised garden), particularly in the spring or fall when they’re less busy, are glorious undertakings and Central Park’s depth and beauty never fades. Of course, there isn’t much better than simply picking a neighborhood and conducting your own walking tour, complete with a good soundtrack in your ear buds.
Nab $1 oysters. Being on a budget doesn’t mean neglecting to treat yo’self. There are a number of spots in Manhattan that offer 1-buck oysters during happy hour. In the Lower East Side, try Grey Lady, in NoHo or Fish Cheeks (drink specials include $8 glasses of wine; a steal in the city!) for $1 bivalves or the Mermaid Inn (locations in East Village, Greenwich and the Upper West Side) to get ’em for $1.25 each.
Grab a slice. What’s cheap, filling and saucy all over? One of New York’s most memorable bites, that’s what. And you can debate the best all you want — Joe’s, Lombardi’s, Una Pizza Neapoletana, Prince Street? Depends who you ask. But they’re all gonna leave both your tum and your bank account full.
Take the subway — or the ferry. With a super extensive train system, there is little need to ever hop in an Uber. If you’re looking to see New York from the water, opt to jump aboard one of the various ferries traversing the East River and beyond. It will feel like a splurge, perhaps — and provide lots of photo ops, but it’s literally the same price as a subway ticket ($2.75).
Drink on the cheap. Not all bar menus are created equal. Pub owners essentially can charge whatever they like for the same beers and most places admittedly take advantage of the market. Thankfully, there are exceptions. At McSorley’s, patrons can grab two beers (YEP, TWO) for just $5. If that’s not a deal, I don’t know what is. Check out this link for more cheap drink ideas.
Eat the street meat. Long before food trucks became trendy all across the U.S., New York was known for its humble street cards peddling hot dogs, gyros, breakfast sandwiches and a lot more. Some of these operations are true institutions and the grub, executed with pride. This trip, I tried one of the halal carts outside of Washington Square Park, and wasn’t disappointed (but I did spill my gyro all over my shirt AND shorts). Check out this list of other notable cart eats.