The air seems to hang differently in Manhattan. Maybe it’s the collective weight of all the dreams and plans and goals put out into the universe from generations of those stubbornly determined souls with the fortitude to make their way to this concrete jungle island.
It changes you. This air filled with the intensity of driven purpose. It makes you consider your own life. Those dreams you put up on the shelf long ago. Spend an hour walking the streets in New York City and you’ll be blowing the dust off your dreams in no time.
I will be forever grateful to have shared New York with my kids. I never expected to be able to swing it. But we did and I’ll tell you how we saw NYC on a (super) tight budget.
We saved money on parking and tolls (and therapy to deal with the trauma of driving through the city) by taking the train. The trip took a bit longer than if we had driven, but we were able to take in amazing scenery, leisurely drink our coffee, and there may have been some donuts involved. The best part is that the train took us right into Grand Central Station, which is unbelievably beautiful. You should really put it on your list of places to see. Those soaring blue ceilings with the constellations painted on them, the huge arched windows, the stone walls–it’s almost cathedral-like.
The last time I had been in NYC, I had spent much of my visit at the World Trade Center. Our high school chorus was staying in the Marriott there and we even rehearsed on the 108th floor of one of the towers. Seeing those towers come down just a few years later changed me in ways I’m still discovering. While we decided the 9/11 Museum might be a little too heavy for our kids, we definitely did not want to miss a chance to share the significance of that day and what it meant for us as a nation. We focused on the courage and heroism of that day and how we came together. It was very important to us to visit the 9/11 memorial. While tickets are required for the museum, the memorial is free.
The Statue of Liberty
While there are plenty of tour companies competing to be the one to ferry your family over to Lady Liberty, we didn’t have room in the budget for five tickets. Thanks to the Staten Island Ferry, we didn’t have to miss the chance to see one of the most iconic New York City sights. The ferry is completely free and crosses the Upper Bay from Manhattan to Staten Island. It just so happens to also give you a great view of the Statue of Liberty as you go. Try to find a spot on the right side of the boat as you leave Manhattan and the left side as you return.
The American Museum of Natural History
You could easily spend several days at this museum that inspired the box office hit franchise, Night at the Museum, and you still wouldn’t see it all. There are countless fascinating exhibits and there is surely something for everyone. You can purchase tickets online for a set price, but if you have the patience to wait in line, you can “pay what you wish” to see this incredible museum. Our favorites were the African and North American mammals (I hope this is the only place we’re ever locking eyes with lions and grizzly bears) and the Ocean Wonders. Nothing makes you feel quite as small as standing under the blue whale suspended in the air above you.
Just across the street from the American Museum of Natural History is Central Park. An oasis in the middle of the hustle and bustle, this is a fantastic spot to slow your pace. We visited the zoo where the sea lions made us laugh, the penguins were charming, and we got to feed sheep, goats, and llamas. Then we fed ourselves by finding a hot dog vendor and a bench and we spent a few minutes just absorbing the world around us. People, pups, horse-drawn carriages, artists, musicians all make this one of the best spots to just sit and breathe in that dream-laden NYC air.
Times Square and Broadway
This might be the most energetic spot in the city. The sidewalks become ocean tides carrying people this way and that. It’s easy to get caught in the flow. The neon lights turn night to day and it’s hard to know which direction to look first. If you’re hoping to see a show (and I don’t just mean the guy dressed as Elmo fighting Thor), but you’re not sure you can fit it into your budget, make sure you head down to Times Square first. The Theater Development Fund operates a TKTS Discount Booth where you can find last minute deals to experience the arts on Broadway and Off-Broadway. Tickets are usually 20-50% off regular prices.
This could easily end up being the biggest bite out of your Big Apple budget. We found prices to be much more reasonable further away from your typical tourist areas. We really enjoyed finding the local hole-in-the-wall delis to get that traditional NYC food. We were also not too proud to hit up the street vendors. I completely admit we didn’t plan well for our meals. As evidenced by the hangry meltdown in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. (And I’m not referring to the kids.) You live, you learn. There were many dining opportunities left on the table (hardy har har), so we’ll just have to plan to return soon!
There are exactly seven hundred million hotels in NYC. Check Groupon. Check discount travel sites. Just make sure you read the reviews. (Always, always, always read the reviews.) Try to find a great deal in a part of the city that you want to spend most of your time exploring. But if that’s not possible, there’s most likely a subway stop super close to where you need to be.
Top of the Rock
This, my friends. This was our biggest splurge and it was worth every single penny. Most people choose to get a sky-high view from the Empire State Building, but here’s why I went a different way. I wanted to see the Empire State Building as part of the skyline. Top of the Rock makes it super streamlined. You book your tickets ahead of time and you choose a time slot. You’re basically making a reservation. Which cuts way down the time spent waiting in line, and it cuts way down on the number of people sharing the observation deck. My biggest tip? Pay the little bit extra to get your reservation during sunset. The city takes on a gorgeous glow and the lights begin to twinkle and it feels as if anything is possible in this city.
New York, New York. There’s truly nowhere else like it on the planet. It might seem impossible, but you really can see it on a budget. And if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere!