8 Free Museums in New York City and How to Visit
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art stopped offering pay-as-you-wish admission for visitors, it was the end of one of the world’s best budget-travel bargains. But New York City keeps democratic access to art alive with a trove of excellent free museums perfect for an affordable, spontaneous outing—so long as you’re willing to look beyond gilded Fifth Avenue.
American Folk Art Museum
Amish quilts and secret society art.
This small museum of folk or “self-taught” art is a world away from Museum Mile, showing eccentric works including furniture, Masonic objects, and books from the US and beyond—all of which can easily be seen in an hour or less. The gift shop is a winner for its unique items, often as unusual as the art on display. Think off-beat ties, curious home decor, and unusual jewelry.
Don’t miss: The masterwork quilts—overlooked but authentic expressions of American art
Queens County Farm Museum
The last farm in New York City.
Early in the 19th century, New York City beyond Wall Street was open farmland. It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but you can try at the city’s last working farm, the Queens County Farm Museum. Kids can tramp about the orchard and visit with heritage farm animals while parents shop for fresh eggs, raw honey, and pure wool.
Don’t miss: Hayrides from April through October, and farm-fresh produce stands from May through November
Bronx Museum of Art
Of the Bronx, by the Bronx, for the Bronx.
Just blocks from Yankee Stadium, this lesser-known gem is dedicated to the Bronx's art, urban experience, and diversity. Art world blockbusters are rarely on display, but visitors will find smart exhibits on contemporary artists with ties to the borough. Spend a day in the area with a visit here before heading out on a museum-organized neighborhood walking tour, and then venture farther north to the New York Botanical Garden. If you visit on a Wednesday, the garden is free as well.
Don’t miss: The first Friday of the month, when the museum stays open after dark for live music, panel discussions, and family activities
Brooklyn’s old-school, urban art house.
BRIC is a Brooklyn arts organization with free, cutting-edge cultural events. You can usually find a performance taking place in the theater or ballroom—think plays, dance performances, concerts, and poetry slams. What’s more, the main gallery holds major exhibitions of emerging New York artists.
Don't miss: UrbanGlass—the first artist glass studio in the US—and its free public gallery, both located in the BRIC House building
National Museum of the American Indian
Beaux arts building, native art.
This branch of the Smithsonian Institution lives inside the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, a masterpiece of the beaux arts architectural style. Collections pay tribute to the diversity of native cultures across the Americas, with well-designed exhibitions covering art, customs, and beliefs. The custom house—worth seeing in itself—lies near the lowest portion of the Wiechquaekeck Trail, an old Algonquian trade route.
Don’t miss: The custom house rotunda, where three exhibition wings meet under a skylight and murals
Socrates Sculpture Park
An outdoor escape.
Sculptor Mark di Suvero reimagined this former landfill on the East River into a sculpture garden and public park. It’s a trek out to Astoria, but the riverside green spaces and larger-than-life sculptures make for sublime urban moments. Most artworks are built onsite, often by internationally renowned artists—with some luck, visitors can watch them at work in the outdoor studio space.
Don’t miss: Free weekly yoga, meditation, and Tai Chi in spring and fall
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
Calling all presidential history buffs.
It turns out that the 26th US president was born in a typical 19th-century brownstone in the Flatiron District. The Roosevelt family reconstructed the original structure in the same area with period furniture and immaculate restorations, the perfect setup for a national historic site and museum. Though admission is always free, tours of the period rooms are only available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Don't miss: The Lion’s Room, where you’ll find a statue of Teddy on horseback, a replica of a statue on Main Street in Portland, Oregon
New York Public Library
More than a museum—and one of NYC’s best free attractions.
Travelers looking for an unconventional museum with extraordinary collections should head to the NYC Public Library’s flagship building in Midtown Manhattan. The Rose Main Reading Room (almost) gives the Sistine Chapel a run for its money with stone arches, coffered ceilings, and murals, while the Map Division holds almost half a million maps and thousands of atlases and books dedicated to cartography. Free, hour-long guided tours starting at Astor Hall are a great way to see why the library is a must-see—whether you’re a bookworm or not.
Don’t miss: The original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, on display in Gottesman Hall