10 free outdoor things to do in NYC before it’s too cold

Things aren’t back to normal but in New York city, but life feels more familiar again. At least, it did. Bustling Saturday night streets in the East Village. Holiday lights already strung up, and Christmas tree stations being built at every corner. Fall and it’s idyllic breeze has given way to colder nights, but it keeps popping back. Darkness comes earlier now, but there’s still plenty of free outdoor things to do in NYC before it’s officially freezing and stays that way.

Ahead of the winter season, and while the weather is still fickle, take advantage of all the free outdoor things to do in NYC right now. They’re proof that some good things in life are still free, even in New York City.

Fun, free outdoor things to do in NYC that you can still do now:

Explore Little Island.

The West Side’s Little Island, funded by Barry Diller and DVF was a hot ticket when it opened earlier this summer, with timed reservations needed after 12 pm. Now that we’re out of season, Little Island is open to the public every day from 6 am to 8 pm. It’s free to spend the day on Little Island and you can’t say that about too many things in the city.

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Little Island

Wander Central Park.

There’s nothing more glorious than Central Park on a fall day. And technically it’s fall for three more weeks. The entire park is 840 acres in its entirety. Yet every corner, crack and crevice presents something different to absorb upon each visit. Right around now is one of my favorite times of year to wander the park. Although peak foliage is over, it’s still one of the top free outdoor things to do in NYC.

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Bow Bridge

Look for street art.

One of the easiest free things to do outside in NYC is just stop and take in your surroundings. The East Village and Lower East Side have tons of interesting street art to enjoy and ponder.

From the colorful Doyers st. which unveiled its latest look this past summer to the latest unveiling of the famous Bowery St. Mural.

Browse outdoor New York City flea markets.

The now reopened Chelsea Flea is a shadow of what it used to be in the old days. But it’s still nice to walk through on a chilly weekend and you can usually unveil a decent find or two. Walk one block East to Madison Square Park to take a break and eat Eataly food under a heat lamp.

Finds at the Flea

The Hester Flea on the Lower East Side is good for finding artsy t-shirts or a warm cup of cider. Go to the nearby Pickle Guys afterwards for the best pickles in town.

The little Nexus Flea market is located on 1st and 1st, or as Kramer calls it, “The nexus of the universe.” The small L.E.S. corner includes various artisans selling clothing, accessories and even handmade comic books.

Head to the Upper West Side for the Grand Bazaar. New York City’s long running mainstay and biggest weekly market. Filled with new and old treasures and a variety of food trucks. Head across the street after to the nearby Museum of Natural History for a fun, but non free activity.

Sit in a historic garden (while you still can!)

The Elizabeth St. Garden is still open for now. However, with threatened eviction, and plans to build affordable housing the over thirty year old public space is in danger of becoming torn down.

The Soho garden is more than just a pretty, free park to sit inside. It’s a historic spot, and a special slice of city life nestled among the busy streets. Read more about it’s history and when to stop by here.

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Shop outdoor book shelves.

The Strand

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A weekend in NYC isn’t complete without a stop at the famous Strand bookstore. Weekends especially you can find the outdoor shelves packed with new books, and lots of people.

The Westsider and its UES charm

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Located on 88 and Broadway is the small, and packed Westsider book store. For years I’ve been making special trips to Zabars, but somehow only just discovered it. The special store faced a sad end in 2020, but it was saved by loyal patrons, and remains open today.

Inside, it’s loaded floor to ceiling with books. And a cool staircase leads to another crowded area that faces you upon arrival. Pre Covid, one could, and I’m sure would, sit there for hours. But luckily, there’s also an outside space. Limited, but still filled with random treasures. I got a Paula Fox book for $1.00 among other outdoor, vintage finds.

Enjoy free outdoor art installations.

The Fifth Avenue holiday decorations.

Fifth Avenue just kicked off their fifth year of large installation holiday decorations lighting up the streets by the Plaza hotel. Tourists, and locals too can go check out the large reimagined objects, including taxi cabs, childhood toys, festive decorations and more. The decoration installations are up until January 7th.

Interwoven on the Flat Iron.

The Flatiron Plaza continues their holiday tradition with the eighth annual Holiday Design competition.

The latest is Interwoven, an interactive art installation by Atelier Cho Thompson. The archways are activated with color coded sensors, and respond with corresponding lights and music when two or more people pass through them.

The installation also features an interactive story wall which allows visitors to share responses to the prompt “I dream of a world where together we can…” Plus, four acapella performances by Christmas carolers will take place in the North Public Plaza. It will remain on display through January 2, 2022. 

More ideas for outdoor art installations to check out can be found here.

Listen to music outdoors.

Throughout the pandemic in 2020, the music of Manhattan was present. Heard in quiet street corners, or crowds in Washington Square Park. New Yorkers desperate to connect, and create.

Now, inboxes are overflowing with event emails from venues and ticket companies. But free live music will always remain. Because it’s a part of what New York is all about. Some things are just so New York, and the free concerts from Concerts in the Courtyard on the Upper West Side are one of them.

Hang out under the Coca Cola sign.

To most people, this will just be another one of the free outdoor things to do in NYC. But to me, having grown up with the Coco Cola sign, it symbolizes a special part of my childhood. I remember it being a landmark to me on any return to the city. A sign that I was close to home.

It was far away. Unreachable, in an untouched land where no went went. That area is now L.I.C. and people live, and go there every day. The lawn underneath the famous sign is no longer an isolated island. It’s a great place to picnic, and gaze back at Manhattan.

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Visit the Wavertree at the South Street Seaport.

The Seaport offers visitors the chance to visit the permanently set 1885 Wavertree ship. It’s open to the public every weekend and completely free (with certain timed entries). This also includes a free outdoor exhibition on Pier 16 highlighting the historic Seaport museum. It’s also an excuse to visit a unique area you wouldn’t normally find yourself in too often.

What are some of your favorite, free outdoor things to in NYC?

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