17 ways to get cultured on the cheap via museums, theater and more

Anita Lo, right, talks about her cookbook "Solo" with editor Matt Rodbard during a recent event at Books Are Magic.
Anita Lo, right, talks about her cookbook "Solo" with editor Matt Rodbard during a recent event at Books Are Magic. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

New York City is notoriously one of the most expensive cities in the country. From sky-high rents to ever-rising transit costs to $20-plus cocktails to spendy boutique studios, you can feel the pinch at nearly every aspect of city living.

But it’s not all wallet-draining; throughout the five boroughs, you can find plenty of cheap thrills — that don’t skimp on quality — that make living here a daily adventure.

Here’s a look at our top picks in culture for the thrifty at heart, as selected by: features editor (and theater buff) Meredith Deliso, associate editor Sarina Trangle, reporter Lisa L. Colangelo, frequent contributor (and bookworm) Melissa Kravitz and culture writer Jordan Hoffman.

And, for more cheap thrills, check out 17 picks for restaurants and bars as well as 16 outdoor adventures

Books Are Magic, which opened in spring of 2017, sits roughly on the border between Cobble Hill and Boreum Hill in Brooklyn.
Books Are Magic, which opened in spring of 2017, sits roughly on the border between Cobble Hill and Boreum Hill in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Packed literary events at Books Are Magic  

Brooklyn author Emma Straub and her husband Michael Fusco-Straub’s beloved indie bookstore hosts book launches, author panels and more literary-centric events nearly every night of the week – and they’re totally free! Event information is posted on Facebook months in advance, so you can plan ahead. (MK)

Ancient artifacts at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art

A tiny shrine in the middle of Staten Island in the Richmond neighborhood, this collection of Tibetan crafts and artifacts created by Jacques Marchais is built to resemble a mountain monastery. Admission is just $6 for adults, $4 for seniors and students. (JH)

See where a Founding Father once lived at the Hamilton Grange.
See where a Founding Father once lived at the Hamilton Grange. Photo Credit: Colter Hettich

American history at Hamilton Grange

Part of the National Park Service (and 100-percent free), this memorial to Alexander Hamilton in upper Harlem is one of the houses he lived in, and the only property the founding father/Broadway star ever owned. It’s been relocated twice, and you can learn more about how and why when you take the tour. (JH) 

Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden is simply an outdoor kind of place. 
Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden is simply an outdoor kind of place.  Photo Credit: Colter Hettich

Little bit of everything at Snug Harbor Cultural Center 

In any other city this would be one of the most famous points of interest. This 83-acre park west of New Brighton in Staten Island, which was once a home for aged sailors, hosts a number of architecturally significant structures in a variety of styles. Many arts organizations make their home here, which means theatrical events, concerts, fine art exhibits, a children’s museum and a botanical garden. Most of the grounds are free to explore, but if there are admission fees, they are nominal. (JH) 

Once a senior center for the weathly, Andrew Freedman Home houses art galleries.
Once a senior center for the weathly, Andrew Freedman Home houses art galleries. Photo Credit: Jeff Bachner

Explore the Andrew Freedman Home

Originally commissioned to offer former magnates and aristocrats a way to maintain their extravagant lifestyles, the 1920s-era mansion-turned-museum boasts a spacious lawn and interesting architecture. A nonprofit also curates art shows, performances and community events in the Grand Concourse manor. (ST)  

Thursday gallery hopping in Chelsea

Admission to New York City museums can be steep, but for the art-collecting (and really, bargain-hunting) set, Chelsea’s art galleries, primarily clustered between 10th and 11th avenues, from 18th to 27th streets, are the places to browse art. Thursday nights bring new show openings and special artists events, which offer free admission – and, more importantly, free wine. (MK)

The American Museum of Natural History's blue whale has been a favorite for decades.
The American Museum of Natural History’s blue whale has been a favorite for decades. Photo Credit: Newsday/Jeffrey Basinger

Feeling small under the blue whale at AMNH

The blue whale has been on display at the American Museum of Natural History since the late 1960s – so for many of you, it’s been there as long as you’ve been going. But chances are you still stop and marvel at the 94-foot-long model. And thanks to the museum’s suggested admission policy, you can pop in just to see it if you please. (MD)

Pay-what-you-wish at the Met

Deal-seeking New Yorkers have long opted to lowball their price when it came to the Met’s suggested admission fee. But thanks to a new policy instituted earlier this year, they can let go of any residual guilt when they fork over a dollar to view the world-class collection. The new policy makes most non-New Yorkers pay a mandatory fee – and the rest of us continue to pay as much, or as little, as we like. (MD)

Open rehearsals at the New York Philharmonic  

Tickets to see the symphony at Lincoln Center don’t come cheap – or do they? If you are a morning person, you can see the New York Philharmonic for under $25, thanks to the ticketed open rehearsals that take you behind the scenes of what it takes to play on the stage at night. You will hear the music, sit close to the stage and still have some cash in your pocket for a show-rehearsal lunch on the Upper West Side. (MK)  

Panorama of the City of New York, the world's largest scale model featuring the five boroughs.
Panorama of the City of New York, the world’s largest scale model featuring the five boroughs. Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

Miniature marvel at the Panorama of the City of New York

Here’s a new way to see the city – in small scale. The Panorama at the Queens Museum features 895,000 buildings, as well as streets, parks and bridges in the five boroughs. Built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair as an exact scale model of the city, it no longer reflects every new structure but it’s still an impressive sight. It has its own room inside the museum, allowing visitors to walk around and view the Panorama from above, and pick out familiar landmarks. Museum admission is suggested, and free for students and those 18 and under. (LLC)

Vintage subways at the New York Transit Museum  

Subways can be fun, especially if you aren’t waiting for one to get to and from work. Step inside one of the New York Transit Museum’s vintage trains and learn how commuting has changed (or remained the same) over the years. Even though it’s located in a decommissioned Downtown Brooklyn subway stop, your MetroCard won’t get you in: Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors and kids 2-17. (LLC)

Outdoor art at the Socrates Sculpture Garden

At this fun park opposite Roosevelt Island (and next to a Costco) in Astoria, local artists are given ample room to create weather-sturdy, large-scale pieces. It’s also a cinema destination in the summertime when the Museum of Moving Image holds free outdoor film screenings. (JH)

Free Shakespeare in Central Park

Since its first performance at the Delacorte Theater in 1962, Shakespeare in the Park has become one of the quintessential summer in the city affairs – and one that truly feels like an event every time you manage to score tickets. (MD)

Standing in line for Broadway tickets

The Broadway lottery has gone digital, thanks to apps like TodayTix and shows’ own websites and apps (hi, “Hamilton”) that make trying your luck at a discounted ticket as easy as pressing a button. But there’s still a special charm in making the extra effort and standing in line at the theater for the rush. The regular tourist might not have the time to commit to the wait, but on a day off you can catch up on reading or make friends with your neighbors – and possibly walk away with a cheap ticket to a Broadway show. (MD)

Top-notch improv at UCB

For as little as literally nothing (Sunday’s ASSSSCAT 3000 9:30 p.m. show) to $7 or $12, you can catch the best improvisers in the city do their thing at this comedy institution. A second location opened a few years back in the East Village, but for the more established acts, try the new Hell’s Kitchen flagship. (MD)

Free pass to the Society of Illustrators

The Upper East Side museum for the long-standing Society of Illustrators is a treasure trove of pieces, from curated exhibits to the artwork lining the stairwells. And on Tuesdays, you can soak it all in during the museum’s free admission hours, from 5 to 8 p.m. Enhance your visit with a drink at the museum’s third-floor bar, where the walls are lined with more illustrations, and your evening’s set. (MD)

On the ground at New York’s botanical gardens

They are like zoos for plants! While the warmer months may make more sense, there is lots to do at the city’s botanical gardens on the grounds in the colder months, too, if you have got a good coat. Proof of NYC residency gets you a reduced grounds pass at the big one in the Bronx, and it’s free for everyone on Wednesdays all day and Saturdays from 9 to 10 a.m. In Brooklyn (currently undergoing some reconstruction), find free admission on Fridays before noon, and weekdays Tuesday through Friday from December to February. The much smaller Queens Botanical Garden (just a quick walk from great lunch spots in downtown Flushing is free to all from November to March. (JH)