Exploring new locations and activities is part of living your best, most balanced life. So, I recently planned a vacation to Manhattan’s East Village, a historical breeding ground of avant-garde movements in politics, art, music, and culture, to spend 3 unforgettable days in NYC. New York City is one of the world’s most exciting (and expensive) places to visit. It’s a city everyone should visit at least once. Unfortunately, it’s also a place that many hesitate to explore because of the crowds, crime, and the cost.
To avoid crime, don’t be too flashy with money, purses, or jewels. Pay attention to your surroundings, and stay indoors after midnight. Unfortunately, I don’t have many tips for avoiding crowds in the most densely populated city in the U.S., but it is entirely possible to make the most of the city without breaking the bank. If you’ve got three days, you can make your unforgettable trip to the Big Apple without spending a fortune. In this blog post, I’ll share with you how I did it so you can start planning your own budget-friendly trip to NYC!
In April 2021, one of my favorite friends moved to New York City to fulfill her dream of living there. Two years later, I was going crazy missing her, so I planned a trip to visit her over Memorial Day weekend when she would have time off work to hang out, and hopefully, some of the locals would be out of town at their beach houses. She lives in the East Village, so my husband selected a hotel that was a three-block walk from her tiny studio apartment.
I stayed at the Moxy NYC East Village (112 E. 11th St.), and while there are cheaper hotels in the area, a few are more expensive. However, the Moxy has a cool vibe, kick-ass common areas, and a partnership with the rooftop bar next door. It’s also across the street from the historic Webster Hall, built in 1886. And, since my stay was at least three days long, I received complimentary bottled water and a $30-a-day food credit for the hotel’s cafe and bar. So most days, I ate breakfast and got my morning latte at the Alphabet Bar & Café d’Avignon Pop-up at Alphabet Café in the lobby. Except, that is, for the days I treated myself to a New York bagel or an Italian pastry.
I flew in on Thursday evening and flew out on Tuesday afternoon to miss the crowds at the airport and save a few bucks on flights. I took a cab to and from the airport, which wasn’t cheap at a minimum of $40 each way, but everyone should experience the adrenaline rush of putting your life in the hands of an NYC cabbie at some point. 😂 It’s kind of a rite of passage, as is stepping into the street to hail one for the first time.
Tips for a Budget-Friendly 3 Unforgettable Days in NYC
Okay, enough about why, when, and how I arrived in “the city that never sleeps.” I know what you care about is how to have a phenomenal time without going into astronomical debt when you visit New York. So, let’s get down to business.
Exploring the City
Minimizing the number of taxi rides you take will help you maximize your budget. Get ready to walk a LOT during your 3 unforgettable days in NYC. Like more than you’ve ever walked before. More than Disney World. So much walking. Pack your most comfortable shoes, and consider inserting some Dr. Scholls inside of those. Anyone you see walking the streets of New York in stylish stilettos or even chunky wedge heels is secretly regretting their choice and wishing they had worn more sensible shoes. It seems to be a consensus that as long as the fit is cute, the shoes can be whatever is comfortable. So take advantage of that, and rock the cushioned sneaks with your dress. Everyone’s doing it. And your feet will still hurt at the end of the night, so why make it worse?
Manhattan and Brooklyn have buses available, and stops are identified on your maps app by a blue square with an M in the center. But, my friend who lives locally said the Manhattan buses were unreliable and sometimes scary, so we stuck to the subway. While it takes some time to figure out what train and what stop you need to get to if you’re not familiar, the Big Apple’s subway system really can get you just about anywhere you need to go, and for only $2.75 a ride as of the day this article was written. Also, because the city never sleeps, trains run all day and night, even on holiday weekends. So, with a bit of planning, you can see everything you want for less than $20 in transportation costs a day.
Some basic subway etiquette and navigation tips:
Plan your activities by geographic proximity whenever possible. This minimizes walking and the number of subway fees you’ll pay.
Pay attention to signage so you get on the right train going in the right direction and off at the correct stop.
Move with purpose. In the subway, everyone is in a hurry.
Don’t be afraid to grab onto a rail or pole if there are no more seats, but don’t hog it. Sharing is caring.
If you’re standing, watch your balance. Those trains start, move, and stop abruptly.
Don’t block the doors when they are open, and don’t be roaming around the train when it’s moving. There will be time to get to the door when it opens.
Keep your purse strapped cross-body and in front of you where you can keep an eye on it, even in sardine situations.
Taking Advantage of Free or Low-Cost Activities
Believe me, if you want to, there are a million ways to spend money during your 3 unforgettable days in NYC. But you don’t have to be a big spender to make lasting memories and have an iconic big-city experience. So here are some activities that don’t cost a lot but leave a lasting impression, roughly organized by geographic location.
Central Park – is where you can see some of the city’s best views. It covers a massive 843 acres and includes everything from lakes to lawns to forests to a full-on castle. You can walk it for free, but I recommend renting a bike or scooter from Central Park Bike Tours to cover more ground in less time. They have self-led or guided tour options. I did the guided group tour and had a great time, but we did not see some sites I wish I had, like the Belvedere Castle. We did see lots of iconic spots from films and movies like Sex and the City and Elf and the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon. There are also many other providers of tours of the park, including the Central Park Conservancy, which cares for the park, so do some research ahead of time to pick the one that is the best fit for you.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Met, as it’s often called, is a place you can get lost in for hours, maybe even days. Because I went with a local and she had proof of residency, we were able to give a pay-as-you-wish donation to cover our entry costs. If you don’t have a local to get you in for less, admittance for adults is $30, which is a bargain considering you could easily spend 3-4 hours perusing the historic objects and works of art. I fell in love with the Cecily Brown exhibit featured until December 2023, including the two pieces shown below. Also, don’t skip the rooftop garden, where you can get some of the best views in the city, especially at sunset! The line for the elevator to the roof is a long one, but one that is worth standing in.
Tram to Roosevelt Island – Roosevelt Island is essentially a park in the center of the East River, and it’s where you can stroll under the cherry blossoms in the spring, soak up some sun in the summer, and take an aerial tram ride from the Upper East Side to the island and back again, for only $2.75 each way. Learn more here.
Grand Central Terminal – During one of your subway rides, hop off at Grand Central Station and spend a few New York minutes gawking at the iconic subway terminal and reminiscing about seeing it in movies like The Day After Tomorrow or reading about it in books like Catcher in the Rye.
Times Square – take iconic shots of skyscrapers, people watch, and grab a famous Nathan’s hot dog or soft serve ice cream from one of the countless food trucks. If you’re into cheesy I ❤ New York souvenirs, this is also a prime place to grab them. While you’re there, stop by Radio City Music Hall for a photo out front and the Rockefeller Center for a chance at a celebrity sighting. I also recommend the rooftop bar at Yotel Times Square, Social Drink & Food. The views are iconic, the fried pickles were to die for, and the vibe is so laid back I almost thought I was back in Cali.
The High Line – a former raised railway in the Chelsea area, walking the High Line gardens made my artsy heart so happy! Besides getting there, it’s free and was one of the highlights of 3 unforgettable days in NYC for me. Something about this urban jungle fed my soul. But then, I am a self-confessed plant and art nerd. I can see why so many writers, poets, musicians, and artists spend time in New York. Inspiration is as plentiful as people. If you listen carefully to the wind, you can almost hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past begging for someone to tell their stories.
The Little Island – another island park- is much smaller and steeper than Roosevelt Island. Peruse levels upon levels of gardens, great views, and a fountain. This spot was packed full of influencers trying to get the perfect “don’t I look cute in NYC” shot, but it’s a must-add to your list of things to do during your 3 unforgettable days in NYC.
East Village (ish)
While I waited for my late-rising New Yorker friend to get up and ready each day, I took some time to trek around and explore the gentrifying yet still a little gritty East Village. Below are some budget-friendly spots you should check out if you’re there.
Tompkins Square Park – One thing the Big Apple does right is public parks; basically, all of them are worth checking out. Tompkins Square is no exception, even though its history has been a little tumultuous. It’s been the scene of civil protests and riots since the 1850s. However, thanks (or not thanks depending on your perspective) to increasing gentrification and enforcement of a park curfew, the square is safer these days than in decades past, especially during daylight hours.
Union Square – Not only is this a major subway station for the East Village, but it also hosts “green markets” on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, where you can buy everything from honey, vegetables, and freshly baked bread to flavored moonshine and artisan wares.
Washington Square Park – Technically in Greenwich Village, this is another historic park within walking distance of the East Village. In movies, when you see old men playing chess in the park, it’s often Washington Square Park they’re playing at. The park’s arch and fountain are popular photo spots, and due to its proximity to NYU, college students are often found lounging in the park between classes.
The Buffalo Exchange – Big Apple girls are known for their sense of style, and the Buffalo Exchange is where they go to sell the high-quality clothing and accessories that they just never really wore when they need some extra cash. Score vintage and new items at a fraction of their original cost and up your street-style game without breaking the bank. Just make sure you arrive with extra room in your luggage!
9/11 Memorial – My friend and I did not tour the museum, but we did stop by the outdoor memorial fountain and gawk at the One World Trade Center. No visit to Manhattan is complete without it. An inverted fountain does not photograph that well, but it does leave quite an impression in person.
New York Stock Exchange/Wall Street – although mostly a ghost town except for tourists like myself on a federal holiday weekend, it was cool to visit a financial center of the world and see the charging bull statute.
Staten Island Ferry – The ferry gets crowded, but it’s free, and you get to see the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines, and some adorable lighthouses. Pro tip: head to the view platforms on the back of the ferry rather than fighting for a spot on the “statue side” like everyone else does. You’ll see the statue and a lot more.
Brooklyn Bridge – Walking the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn and back again is another inexpensive way to soak up the city. Unless you choose to buy fruit cups, ice cream, or tchotchkes from the vendors whose booths line the bridge, it’s free. Ignore the crowds and stop near the halfway point to snap a picture of you on the bridge – it is worth it!
Chinatown – Not only will you find arguably the best Asian food in the States here, but it’s also an experience, like being transported to another world. Noodles, dim sum, and fried ice cream? Yes, please!
Eating Out Like a Local for 3 Unforgettable Days in NYC
Yes, New York has countless 5-star restaurants you could splurge at, but with so much affordable yet delicious food available, you don’t have to! Here are some phenomenally yummy budget-friendly options I ate at, thanks to the recommendations of the locals I met during my 3 unforgettable days in NYC.
Black Seed Bagels – my friend’s neighbor down the hall said Tompkin’s Square Bagels were bigger, but I wouldn’t know because the line was like 55 people deep when I walked in. So, I headed to his second fav, Black Seed, and was not disappointed one bit with my traditional New York bagel with lox and cream cheese.
Veniero’s Pasticerria – an authentic slice of New York cheesecake or an Italian pastry is a breakfast fit for a King or Queen. Trust me.
Ray’s Pizza and Bagel Cafe – this is where I had my first and favorite NY slice, although I tried a couple. The crust. That’s all I have to say.
Food Trucks – you can’t go wrong with a Nathan’s Hot Dog or Halal Guys truck, especially one with a long line. Not all food trucks are created equal. The line is an indicator of quality.
Vin Sur Vingt – don’t come for the food. Come for the fancy French wines served by Frenchmen at happy hour prices. Sit at a table outside, and people watch unless the city maintenance crew is restriping the street with toxic-smelling paint like they did while we were there. In that case, duck inside and marvel at the eclectic soundtrack (although the soundtrack may vary based on the bartender.) I recommend the sparkling rosé.
Whiskey Tavern – perhaps the friendliest service in Manhattan- makes every customer feel like one of a kind. My friend had maybe too much fun here, so I sample their buffalo wings while she sobered up. I still have the sign they made for us as a souvenir. (If you go- you’ll know).
212 Hisae’s – known for cheap drinks and delicious eats, there might be a wait. Also, it will be loud af inside. Get the french fries with cheese sauce and the Chicken Dumplings or Korean Beef. Then, the wait and noise will all be worth it.
Taqueria St. Marks – click the link and read the review of this world-class taco joint by TheInfatuation.com. They took the words right out of my mouth. Fortunately, they didn’t take the tacos out of it! The Carnitas tacos were some of the best I’ve ever had, and I grew up in San Diego. I know my way around some Mexican food. Eat here.
Udon Lab – located in Koreatown, not far from Times Square, the Udon soup smelled insanely good, although my friend and I had sushi. As soon as the girls at the table next to us got theirs delivered, I regretted our choice. Don’t get the sushi. Get the Udon!
One Worthwhile Splurge During 3 Unforgettable Days in NYC
Yes, you’re planning a budget-friendly trip to the Big Apple, not a bank-breaking extravaganza. But that doesn’t mean you can’t splurge a little on a stellar view of the city skyline. If you do, here are the four that I recommend. Pick one, and add it to your itinerary for 3 unforgettable days in NYC. Discounted tickets are available if you get one of the many tourist pass packages available.
SUMMIT One Vanderbilt Experience – this is not your average view deck. It’s an all-encompassing, interactive experience unlike anything else out there. The elevator ride feels like you are launching into space as it whoosh-whooshes you hundreds of stories into the air. And, if I ever win the mega-millions, I may need to install a glass-walled room filled with thousands of reflective silver balloons in my pad. Just saying. Photos don’t do it justice. You have to see this for yourself.
The Edge – the highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere, and if you’re really adventurous, you can climb it! They even offer sky-high yoga classes up there! My friend did the Edge with her sister when she came to visit and said it was amazing.
Top of the Rock – since you’re visiting Rockefeller Plaza anyway, thanks to my helpful list of free or low-cost things to do while you’re in NYC, adding this to the list is easy-peasy. But, you do want to plan ahead and secure a reservation in advance; that way, you only have to get to the Rock once. Plan your visit to the Times Square and Radio City Music Hall area just before or after your reservation to maximize efficiency.
The Empire State Building – the most expensive on the list with the longest lines, it’s also basically the quintessential NYC view experience. In my opinion, if you’re going to do the Empire, you may as well do it right and plan ahead to do the 102nd floor at sunset or after dark when the lights are twinkling.
Wrapping Up Your 3 Unforgettable Days in NYC
From taking the subway to free museum visits to eating at great restaurants that locals love, it is entirely possible to spend three days in New York City without breaking the bank. You can explore the city, see the sights, and make memories that will last a lifetime without spending a fortune. So, if you’re heading to NYC anytime soon, remember these tips and start planning your unforgettable (and affordable) stay. And, if you’re looking for more vacation destinations, check out this article on my favorite summer camping spot or this one about how to get on the guest list for one of the most exclusive members-only clubs in Hollywood, CA. Also, don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss out on a blog post. It’s free, and signing up takes less than a New York minute.