Summer is the busiest season in New York City. While tourists crowd the museums and Times Square, locals have their own summer fun, often for free and usually away from the bustling attractions. Here are ten ways local folks take advantage of the summer season in the Big Apple. Plan on trying a few during your next visit.
1. Governor’s Island
Governor’s Island sits between Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan and has a long role in U.S. military history, which you can learn all about by visiting Castle Williams (a National Parks site) and Fort Jay. Over the past decade, the island has been an evolving experiment in public urban space. It’s been home to outdoor art, polo games, playgrounds, food trucks, jazz concerts, zip lines, picnic grounds and more. The offerings vary from summer to summer — for 2018 overnight “glamping” stays have been introduced. To get to the island, catch a ferry from Manhattan daily, or from Brooklyn on weekends and holidays.
2. Coney Island
If you visit Coney Island in June you can catch the Mermaid Parade, a celebration of summer and Coney’s colorful, off-kilter history. At other times you can see a traditional carnival sideshow, then ride the historic Cyclone and Wonder Wheel along with newer rides for all ages. Visit the New York Aquarium or watch a Cyclones minor league baseball game after eating a hot dog at the original Nathan’s. Locals tend to have clams (on the ½ shell or fried) with a draft beer on the boardwalk before walking about 10 blocks east to play in the surf at Brighton Beach, where the sand and surf are less crowded and you hear more Russian than English.
3. Bryant Park movies
There are lots of parks, rooftops and outdoor bars where you can see movies in NYC but the quintessential experience is in Bryant Park. It’s a beautiful little park behind the central library in the middle of the city. The full range of city residents come out to put down a blanket, picnic and watch popular movies ranging from ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘The Terminator’. Expect singing if it’s a musical, cheering for good guys and booing for bad. Come early to grab your spot. Open bottles are okay.
4. Entertainment in Central Park
Central Park overflows with free entertainment in summer. The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park produces one drama and one comedy each summer, often but not always with big stars. You have to line up early for tickets, which they give out at noon. If lines aren’t your thing, try sprawling out on the Great Lawn with a blanket and a bottle of wine to hear the Philharmonic, which usually plays two or three free summer concerts in the park. Central Park SummerStage in Rumsey Playfield celebrates music of all genres, from all over the world and from all ages. See world pop, reggae, kids music, rap, folk acts and more. Just be prepared for a lot of dust and little standing room.
5. The U.S. open
If you’re lucky enough to get U.S. Open tickets, you’ll feel like you’ve gained access to an exclusive New York club for the evening. It helps if you like tennis, but even if you don’t follow the game, go for the celebrity sightings in the stands, the great food, and the potential for an upset everyone will be talking about the next day. You can enter the grounds and see the side matches for free but need tickets for the main stadium.
6. Restaurant week
Most New Yorkers get out of town in August, but those who stay spend their free time making lunch reservations. Luckily, there’s a two-week period starting mid-summer where top restaurants offer fixed-price lunch and dinner deals. It’s a chance to sample places you couldn’t otherwise afford or to check out a place you’ve been curious about. You can make reservations in advance — highly recommended — on Open Table.
7. Bike Lanes
New York is gradually becoming a more bike-friendly city (with limits). You can rent bikes to ride around Central Park, or on a path that runs alongside the Hudson River from Wall Street to the George Washington Bridge. Alternatively, cross the Brooklyn Bridge and explore the Brooklyn waterfront from Williamsburg to Red Hook.
8. Museum Mile Festival
The only thing better than spending time in New York’s outstanding museums is getting in for free. On one evening in June, this festival offers free admission to seven museums along 5th Avenue. Outside on 5th, enjoy food, music, face painting, chalk drawing and more. If you miss it, check individual museums to see if they offer a free day or evening during the week or if they have a Target-sponsored free event each month. The Brooklyn Museum’s free evening is the first Saturday of each month.
9. Explore DUMBO
Walk over the Brooklyn Bridge (it’s exactly one mile), then head to the waterfront for New York’s eclectic DUMBO neighborhood, where Walt Whitman once wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle and the Grandfather let his dogs howl at the moon in the film ‘Moonstruck’. Ride Jane’s carousel, even if you aren’t a kid. Explore the neighborhood’s evolving shops and restaurants (Almandine Bakery and Powerhouse Books are certainly worth browsing). Walk along Brooklyn Bridge Park, where you’ll find fantastic playgrounds, beach volleyball and a soccer pitch, a pop-up pool, a climbing wall, roller skating, public art and more. The hardest part of any visit is choosing between a peach cone at Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory or peppermint patty at Ample Hills.
10. Ride Ferries
Manhattan is an island — Brooklyn and Queens make up one end, and Staten is an island, too. A great way to see the city is by ferry. Take the round-trip Staten Island ferry for free from Whitehall for amazing views of the harbor and Statue of Liberty. A New York Water Taxi goes from Pier 11 in Manhattan to Ikea in Red Hook Brooklyn for free on weekends ($5 one way on weekdays). When you disembark, go to Ikea or explore Red Hook’s cobbled streets and hipster vibe. NYC Ferry isn’t free, but it goes between Manhattan and points in Brooklyn, Queens and even the Bronx for $2.75 one-way ($1 more with a bike). By New York standards that’s still a cheap day out, and you’re sure to discover something only the locals know about.
About the author: Eileen Gunn is a native New Yorker, freelance journalist and the founder of FamiliesGo!