While well worth the price tag, hitting all of New York City's neighborhoods, sights and eateries can put a serious strain on your wallet. But travelers and locals on a budget don't have to stay away from the great outings offered by NYC tour operators. Many are completely free or tip-based, which means you can save that pocket change for one of the City's best pizza slices or for cab fare home after a night on the town. And you thought nothing was free nowadays.
Battery Park City Parks Conservancy
Battery Park City encompasses 36 acres of playgrounds, gardens and plazas. Every day, people flock to the space for outdoor fun or, in winter, indoor activities—the parks host fitness programs, art exhibitions and hundred of other happenings each year—but to get the most out of this cluster of green spaces, a free tour or two is in order. Typical offerings include organic-gardening walks around Wagner Park, public-art explanations at Teardrop Park and bird-watching excursions around the area (binoculars included). Tours change throughout the year and information generally doesn't become available until April, so check bpcparks.org (the conservancy's site) for the most up-to-date information.
Big Apple Greeter
Get a warm New York City welcome from Big Apple Greeter's team of volunteers (many of whom are multilingual) as they guide you through the City's diverse neighborhoods. You can sign up to request the type of excursion you'd like—the form asks what neighborhoods tickle your fancy and what you're interests are—and you'll be matched up (availability willing) with a local greeter. You might be led on an outing around, say, TriBeCa's Hudson Square, with its industrial buildings and cobblestone streets; or along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, peering at art deco gems; or to sample the food of your favorite ethnic cuisine. The company's 300 greeters collectively own extensive knowledge of the City and its best spots.
Brooklyn Brewery and SingleCut Beersmiths
Choose a borough in which to learn about suds-making. Brooklyn Brewery hosts free tours on Saturdays (between 1230-6p) and Sundays (from 1230-4p). Note that those under 21 years of age must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. Afterward, grab a seat at one of the indoor picnic tables and (if you're of age, of course) purchase beer tokens to sample some of the brewery's wildly popular creations, like Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn East IPA and various seasonal quaffs. In Queens, SingleCut offers a somewhat informal tour of its facilities on Sundays at 5pm. Repair afterward to the tap room—or start there, and buy a beer to have in hand while you check out the brewing process.
Central Park Conservancy
Central Park has 80 acres of woodland, 250 acres of lawns and 150 acres of water; trying to see it all without an expert tour guide can be overwhelming. The Central Park Conservancy's long lineup of free tours aims to cover it all (note: the organization also offers a series of ticketed tours focusing on things like "iconic views" and Belvedere Castle). See the most famous attractions, such as Bethesda Terrace and Fountain and Conservatory Water, on the Heart of the Park tour; visit somewhat lesser-known sights like the Harlem Meer on the Northern Welcome tour; or check out European-style plantings during walks around the nearly 80-year-old Conservatory Garden. Offerings change seasonally.
The Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership sponsors free weekly walking tours of the historic Flatiron District. A professional tour guide takes visitors on a 90-minute walking tour in and around this Manhattan neighborhood, with stops at sights like the MetLife Clock Tower, the New York Life Insurance Building and, of course, the famed Flatiron Building on 23rd Street. The tours meet up Sundays at 11am, at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park located at 23rd Street and Broadway.
Grand Central Partnership
See why the neighborhood surrounding Grand Central Terminal is so much more than a transportation hub. Every Friday at 12:30pm, the Grand Central Partnership conducts a 90-minute guided walking tour led by an urban historian. Make stops at the station's Whispering Gallery, discover the secrets of the passageways, gaze at the architectural splendor of the Chrysler Building and visit Pershing Square and the original Lincoln Memorial, among other notable Midtown locales.
High Line Tour
From May through October, the Friends of The High Line offer free tours twice a week of this former rail line that has become one of the most famous public parks in the world. These walks, which take a little over an hour, meet on the High Line at the Gansevoort Street entrance Tuesdays at 5:30pm and Saturdays at 10am. It is suggested that you arrive 15 minutes before the start time as they have limited space; note that the tours may be canceled due to inclement weather.
New York Public Library
The main branch of the NYPL offers free tours of the landmarked Stephen A. Schwarzman building, located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The tours start promptly at 11am and 2pm, Monday through Saturday, and are on a first-come, first-served basis (with a limit of 25 guests). The tours meet at the reception desk located just inside the main entrance, in the library's Astor Hall.
Sandemans, which offers free tours in major cities around the world, has many free walking tours available in NYC. One of their more popular ones explores Lower Manhattan, taking you on a journey from where New York began right up to the current day. See the heart of the world's biggest economy on Wall Street at the New York Stock Exchange, learn about the creation of the US melting pot while taking in views of the Statue of Liberty and visit the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center.
As evidenced by literary icons of the past, like Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, as well as the artists and students today who frequent the neighborhood's coffee shops, theaters and music clubs, Greenwich Village's bohemian vibe has stood the test of time. Discover the area's undeniable charm on a free walking tour sponsored by the Village Alliance. They're run on Saturdays from June through September, but you can always check out the website for an extensive list self-guided tour itineraries throughout the rest of the year. An emphasis is placed on the social, architectural and historic aspects of the Village, so you'll walk away well acquainted with its one-of-a-kind spirit.