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16 cheap outdoor thrills, ice skating to zoos

Adventures for the thrifty at heart.

Outdoor activities in NYC don't have to set

Outdoor activities in NYC don't have to set you back. Exhibit A: Bring your own footwear and skate for free at the Bryant Park. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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 recreation for the thrifty at heart, as selected by our urban explorers: features editor Meredith Deliso, associate editor Sarina Trangle, reporter Lisa L. Colangelo and culture writer Jordan Hoffman.

And, for more cheap thrills, check out our 17 picks for restaurants and bars as well as 17 ways to get cultured.

Lace up and go ice skating

You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy taking a glide across the ice in one of these outdoor rinks. Admission is free to the Rink at the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park (bring your own skates or rent them for $20 and up). The Rink at Brookfield Place in lower Manhattan charges $15 for a 90-minute session on the ice (skate rentals $5). LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park features two outdoor rinks; admission is $10 for weekends and holidays and $7 on weekdays (skate rentals $7). Riverbank State Park, with its sweeping views of the Hudson River, charges $5 for adults and $3 for kids (skate rentals $6). (LLC)

Ride the Roosevelt Island Tram

With just a MetroCard swipe you can leave the subway tunnels and bus traffic behind and soar over the East River to a quiet, planned community with its very own lighthouse. Not much to do other than take a stroll, but what more do you want at that price? (JH)

Explore Woodlawn Cemetery

Not quite as famous as Green-Wood in Brooklyn (and lacking any mysterious green parrots), Woodlawn is still a breathtaking 400-acre pocket of tranquility in the Bronx. (It is also more welcoming to drivers than Green-Wood.) It is the last resting place of such notable people as jazz legends W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Max Roach, as well as Irving Berlin and Herman Melville. (JH)

Discounted admission to the Bronx Zoo

This lush 265-acre site in the middle of the Bronx is where you can go to see lions and tigers and bears without leaving New York City. And the charismatic gorillas at the Congo Gorilla Forest are always a treat. But don’t even try to cover everything in one visit. Luckily you don’t have to. General admission is pay-what-you-wish all day on Wednesdays. (Some attractions like the Children’s Zoo, Congo Gorilla Forest and Wild Asia Monorail have an additional fee.) (LLC)

Take a spin on the historic Forest Park Carousel

This hidden treasure features 49 horses, along with chariots and a menagerie that includes a lion and tiger. Experts say the carousel’s figures — which are about 100 years old — are some of the last remaining work of master carver Daniel Carl Muller. It’s also an official New York City landmark. That’s a lot of history and a lot of fun for $3.50 a ride (there are discounts for additional tickets). There are other kiddie rides on site along with a playground in the lush park. (LLC)

Explore the relics from the World’s Fair

Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens was the site of not one but two World’s Fairs, the 1939-40 and 1964-65. And luckily, not all of the structures were dismantled after the fairs were over. Start with the Unisphere, a spectacular 350-ton globe built by the United States Steel Corporation for the second fair as a symbol of its theme “Peace through Understanding.” A short walk away is the hulking New York State Pavilion, an architectural marvel also built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair that is finally getting some attention after years of neglect. It features the Tent of Tomorrow, supported by 16 columns that are 100-feet tall — next to three tiered observation towers that’s a modern relic of space-age ambitions. Nearby is the ancient Column of Jerash, a gift from Jordan to the city during the 1964-65 fair. The 30-foot-high marble column dates back to 120 A.D. (LLC)

Baseball on the waterfront

In addition to being home to two MLB teams, NYC also has two minor league teams. In Brooklyn, there’s the Cyclones; in Staten Island, the Yankees. Both have intimate stadiums located on the waterfront, affording you a cool breeze on hot summer nights, scenic views and wallet-friendly ticket prices. (MD)

Hitch a ride on the NYC Ferry

The Staten Island Ferry isn't the only boat ride in town. For the same price as a MetroCard swipe, you can cruise six different routes, including from Astoria, Soundview and Bay Ridge, and even out to Rockaway. Find great views of Manhattan's east side, plus indoor seating when the weather isn't agreeable. (JH)

Get off the grid at Gateway National Recreation Area

This massive national park is located in three boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — as well as in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. At the Jamaica Bay portion, there's a great park station with information about local wildlife, a nice gravel path and quite possibly the best bird-watching location in the city. (JH)

Admire the Palisades at Wave Hill

The 28-acre public garden boasts picturesque views of the Palisades, Hudson River and its verdant coasts. The Riverdale getaway waives the $8 adult admission on Tuesday and Sunday mornings. Guided tours, bird-watching expeditions and other special events can cost more. (ST)

View the Manhattan skyline from Astoria Park

One of the best views of the city can be seen from Astoria Park, located on the East River between the RFK (aka Triborough) and Hell Gate bridges. Stake out a bench or spread out on the large green lawn and soak in the landscape. This is the stuff New York City postcards are made of. (LLC)

Find friendly competition at the Chess & Checkers House in Central Park

At this small, octagonal hut not far from the Wollman Rink and the Carousel, check out free board games daily. There are places to sit both inside and on nice, shady tables outside. No one will stop you from playing video games on your phone, but Backgammon has delighted people for 5,000 years — you think you are too good for it? (JH)

Get kayaking on the water

A city surrounded by water is the perfect place to go kayaking. And with the increase in waterfront access in all five boroughs, several groups are encouraging New Yorkers to grab a paddle and get into the water with seasonal programming. The North Brooklyn Boat Club offers free “public paddle” sessions with guides in kayaks and canoes along Newtown Creek. The Manhattan Community Boathouse has free kayaking on a first-come, first-served basis on the Hudson. You can kayak for free along the Staten Island shoreline with Kayak Staten Island, a volunteer group. The Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse offers free kayaking between Piers 1 and 2. (LLC)

Yoga in the middle of a park

Whether you have a standing date every Thursday evening in the summer, or are a one-and-done bucket list visitor, Bryant Park’s free outdoor yoga series is another seasonal staple. And best of all — you don’t have to lug a mat. (MD)

Tennis on the West Side

You don’t necessarily need to shell out money for a permit or private club to get in a few games of tennis in the city. Within Hudson River Park, three tennis courts are open and free to the public. And there’s an hour maximum to help minimize wait times. (MD)

Watch a parade

Sometimes it feels like every day is a parade in New York City. That’s because there are dozens of these colorful, melodic spectacles that take over city streets for a brief, exciting few hours. Here are some of the biggest:

  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade: There’s nothing quite like this tradition that dates to 1924, with its giant balloons, colorful floats, celebrities and, of course, Santa. People start camping out at 6 a.m. along Central Park West from West 75th to West 59th streets for the best views of the parade, which runs from the Upper West Side to Herald Square.
  • Lunar New Year: Lions, dragons, drums and firecrackers. The city is draped in red as Asian-Americans across the city celebrate this important holiday in February. While the best-known parade takes place Manhattan’s Chinatown, the parade in downtown Flushing is a close rival and is less crowded.
  • St. Patrick’s Day Parade: At this New York City tradition, more than 100,000 people march up Fifth Avenue to celebrate the wearing of the green and Irish pride. The parade draws about 2 million spectators every March.
  • NYC Pride March: Next year’s march marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, a turning point in the battle for gay rights in the U.S. Despite that somber history, this June march is a joyful event and celebration for the LGBTQ community and its supporters.
  • National Puerto Rican Day Parade: Touted as the largest demonstration of cultural pride in the nation, the parade draws more than 3 million spectators along Fifth Avenue each June, waving flags and cheering the marchers and floats. (LLC)


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