Even with the Thanksgiving/Black Friday madness that hits New York City at the end of November every year, amidst all this chaos of consumerism, there are some very civilized oases where you can spend a peaceful, even contemplative Sunday without spending much money at all. Here are 7 free things to do in New York City and how I spent a truly lovely holiday Sunday that only cost me $5 in subway fare.
1. Bergdorf Goodman Windows: Delicious Eye Candy
Christmas in New York for me wouldn’t be Christmas without a pilgrimage to view the windows at Bergdorf Goodman at the corner of 59th St. and Fifth Avenue. The imaginative genius of the window designers in bringing to life enchanting themes year after year makes grownups stare in wonder, not unlike the little kids at FAO Schwartz’ toy store just opposite. This year’s theme, Holidays on Ice, covered everything from Halloween to Arbor Day, but with a distinctly glittery theme. Pure eye candy.
2. Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue
Now you might think that putting Tiffany’s on a list of what to do for $5 in NYC is a little ambitious, but here’s why I included it. First of all, they too had their own window displays, which told a different but equally romantic story, with the simplicity of the white miniature Manhattan facades adorned with only one colour: the signature Tiffany blue box. Even if you can’t afford the merchandise, going inside the iconic store is almost a ritual for anyone who has seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the staff recognizes that their store is as much a tourist experience as a retail store. But the memorable moment for me was taking the elevator to the upper floors and meeting the elevator attendant, a charming gentleman who escorted us to the floor above in a manner so civilized, it made me sorry I hadn’t lived in the days when this type of gracious service was the norm. No crowded escalators with people bunching at the bottom, struggling to find a place to move before being squeezed by people piling up behind them. Tiffany’s on Fifth is the last department store in New York to have an elevator attendant, and it will be a terrible shame when and if they eliminate this, so enjoy it while you can, if only for the nostalgia.
3. Breathe in Central Park
Steps away from all this glamour and opulence is a bit of nature and a welcome respite from all of humanity on the streets. The views, of course, are classic New York, even with new towers pushing the skyline hundreds of feet above the more modest elegance of the older hotels in the foreground. Pause to watch the skaters at the rink, or watch as the carousel riders go round and round on their vintage horses. If a leisurely walk on the treed pathways doesn’t settle your brain, there’s always the gentle clip-clop sound of horse-drawn carriages in the background to slow down the pace. Definitely no horns and sirens here.
4. The Frick
Exiting Central Park at 71st Street and Fifth, you’ll find yourself pretty much on the doorstep of the Frick museum – which on a good day is a treat, but on a Sunday can be an even better one if you go there between 11 am and 1pm when the entrance fee is ‘pay what you can’. When it comes to free things to do in New York City, it doesn’t get much better than the Frick. Only it did: this particular Sunday was double the bargain, because not only was the incredible permanent collection mine to enjoy for free, but I was able to take in the Girl with the Pearl Earring exhibition. Housed in an incredible mansion that is worthy of a visit for its architectural luxury alone, the Frick Collection is like visiting a mini Uffizi, or mini Louvre, with stellar pieces by Renoir, Goya, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, etc, etc, etc. on every wall. And while Vermeer’s Girl was as beautiful as expected, it always seems to be a piece of artwork that I am not expecting that I find most memorable. This particular visit, I was blown away by Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Sir Thomas More, which drew me in from across the room, and which I returned to twice, just to take in the incredible textures of the velvet and fur, along with the authenticity of More’s expression. Free doesn’t get much better than this.
5. Window Shopping on Madison Avenue
Walking to the subway to head downtown, I was introduced to a different Manhattan than the crowded tourist centers in mid-town’s Times Square and Rockefeller Centre – Madison Avenue. Residential and decidedly upscale, I passed by people who I knew had to be locals (because no tourist would survive walking for hours in those heels!). Even the stores on Madison Avenue, although smaller than their flagship stores on Fifth, felt more like neighborhood retailers in their size and intimacy. Without feeling like I was swimming upstream against the tide of tourists, I could actually pause to admire the elegant merchandise in the windows. Window shopping is one of the most enjoyable free things to do in New York City, and here it cost the same (nothing) as on the more frantic addresses but was much more pleasant without the crush.
6. Doorways in the Village
After the elegance of the upper East side, I headed to Greenwich village – which may be one of my favorite places in Manhattan. The scale of the buildings, the little nook-and-cranny neighborhood restaurants, even the narrow streets running between the lower-rise brownstones make this so much more human a place to walk. And just looking at the entrances and doorways decorated for Christmas made you feel like this is a place where people actually live, not just visit. The displays here were homey and beautiful and with their own version of a ‘window display’ that I couldn’t resist photographing.
Strolling Greenwich Village is one of the best free things to do in New York City but if you do choose to spend some money on a treat, there’s always the original Magnolia bakery for your sugar fix. Or if your appetite is bigger, enjoy brunch at any number of small restaurants that are as individual as the owners and as far removed from a national chain as you can get.
7. Believe at Macy’s
I finished the day the way I started it, with a visit to more Christmas windows, this time at Macy’s on 34th Street and 6th just after dark, where their ‘enchanted forest’ story was told through illuminated and animated window displays. There was even an interactive window where, with the use of augmented reality, people looking at the window could wave their arms to make snow fall within the scene itself. Grownups and children alike were having fun making it snow, and if that didn’t make you believe in the magic of NYC at this time of year, nothing will. All for the cost of a subway ride.
TIP: If you’re traveling to NYC on Thanksgiving weekend, and planning to return home on Sunday, remember that you are not alone. Airports, train stations, and highways are packed with people on the move, so allow a lot of extra time to get where you want to go. If you can, you might also want to consider traveling on Monday which can make for a much more pleasant travel experience.