New York is an absolutely legendary city. As the financial and cultural hub of the United States and the de facto capital of the world, New York is a city that everyone has to visit at least once in their lives.
It’s also legendarily expensive. While you can do New York on a budget, the cost of the major attractions is enough to make your eyes water. But you can’t visit New York without seeing certain places.
On my first trip to New York, I tried to strike a balance between seeing everything and not spending an absolute fortune. How well did I manage? Read my New York City spending diary to find out.
My first day in New York was really only half a day. It was already afternoon by the time I landed at JFK airport. I had a room booked in the lower East Village, close to Manhattan, which I felt was a pretty good deal at $98 a night. But first, I had to get there.
As tempting as a taxi from the airport might be, I wasn’t ready to spend the $80+ it would’ve cost. Besides, I had done my research before my trip. I knew I could reach my room relatively easily on public transit. So I took the AirTrain to Jamaica station for five bucks, then took the J train from Jamaica to Essex Market.
The train cost $33, but that’s because I bought a seven-day unlimited MTA pass good for buses and subways throughout the city. I figured in the long run, this would probably save me money. And even if it didn’t, it would save me the hassle of having to buy a ticket every time I wanted to travel on the subway.
I also didn’t want to be dragging my bags through the city until after I got my bearings, so I tracked down a luggage storage place nearby and dropped off my bags. New York’s transit system can be overwhelming for a visitor, and there’s no point carrying more than you need to.
The J train isn’t exactly a tourist attraction. It’s loud and long and kind of grotty. But as it enters the city, it crosses the Williamsburg Bridge, and the view of New York as the sky was getting dark was incredibly atmospheric. I was already excited to be in the city that never sleeps.
That doesn’t mean I don’t need to sleep. After my flight, I was pretty tired. Once I checked into my room, I found a local Mexican place called Los Feliz. Mahi-mahi tacos cost $13, and with a drink and a tip, my bill came to $23. Belly full, I headed back to the room and fell asleep to some bad TV.
Total: $551 (includes accommodation for 5 nights)
Now that I had myself situated, I was ready to see the sights. And the Statue of Liberty was first on the list. The subway took me to Battery Park, where I could jump on the ferry to Liberty Island where the statue stands. The ferry cost $23, including admission to the statue’s crown, an audio tour, and admission to Ellis Island Museum. Not a bad deal considering that this is a must-visit attraction.
Making the most of my ticket purchase, I visited both attractions. Back when Ellis Island was the gateway for immigration to the United States, $0.30 would buy bread, cheese, sausage, and a glass of lemonade at the concession stand. Those days are long gone.
Nowadays, Ellis Island has a cafe where you can get a decent meal of roast chicken, potatoes, and gravy or Dover sole for $12. As I looked over the options, I could feel my stomach grumbling, reminding me I had forgotten about breakfast that morning. But I decided to head back to the city in hope of finding something cheaper.
Back in Manhattan, I hit up the West Bank Gourmet Deli and tucked into a gigantic hot pastrami sandwich for eight dollars. It’s about as New York as it gets, and the amount of meat you get on your sandwich is honestly ridiculous. It’s a great deal considering its location.
Fueled by lunch, I headed deeper into the city. Did you know that it costs $72 to ride to the top floor of the Empire State building? Yes, it’s an iconic location. But the thing about seeing New York from the top of the Empire State Building is that you can’t see the Empire State Building while you’re in it.
Instead, I headed to Rockefeller Plaza and took the long elevator ride up to the Top of the Rock. $38 is a lot more manageable, and you get to see the Empire State Building in the thousand photos you’ll inevitably take of the skyline.
As darkness fell, I made my way to Times Square. This famous New York attraction has the bonus of being free – as long as you don’t get swindled by the numerous street vendors and performers. New York has cleaned up a lot in the last few decades, so keep your wits about you and you should be just fine.
Of all the gin joints in all the world, I had to walk into this one. It took a long time for the deli sandwich to wear off. So I had a late dinner at Bathtub Gin, an upscale bar near the West Village. At $23 for a Kobe beef burger, it may have been an unnecessary extravagance considering I didn’t even finish my plate.
Maybe I had one too many of the delicious cocktails. The Pandan Express was my favorite, but at $16 each, I probably shouldn’t have had four of them. I was probably a little wobbly as I made my way back to my room that night. My wallet was certainly lighter.
After the extravagance of the previous day, I thought I was being clever. My room was right next to Essex Market, a newly-renovated food market that not only sells produce but also has a wide variety of restaurants inside.
I picked up some granola bars for breakfast ($3.50 for 6) and stopped at Shopsin, a trendy Essex Market eatery. Their Egg Bomb cost $13. I ordered it to go and took it to Central Park, chewing on a granola bar along the way.
Central Park is free, and is one of the best places I’ve ever been to people-watch in my life. New York is home to every strata of society, from the dirt poor to the outrageously wealthy, and virtually all of them can be seen in Central Park. It’s the perfect place to while away a morning without spending too much money.
After my picnic in the park, I headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also known as the Met. The ticket was steep at $25, but it does cover you for three days over the three locations the museum operates.
And if you’re a huge art fan, you could easily spend those three days wandering around the halls of the Met. This institution is home to artwork from just about every culture and time period of history. After spending a few hours there, I still only had time for the highlights.
Close to the museum, I had dinner at UpThai, where a Pad Thai set me back $13, or $20 with a drink and a tip. If I wanted to save more money, I could’ve gone straight home from there. But my visit to Essex Market that morning had intrigued me. I had to pass right by it to get home…
Inside the market hall, a bar called Tops Hops specializes in craft beer. A tasting flight cost me $10, and I picked up a couple of cans of my favorites to take back to my room for another $16.
My cheap day in New York hadn’t turned out to be all that cheap. But at least I still had granola bars for breakfast. Taking one with me, I set out to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Not only is this free, but it’s a great way to get stunning views of the city and the iconic bridge that connects Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn.
Once I reached the Brooklyn side, I headed to Brooklyn flea market. This is a great place to do some shopping for quirky items you won’t find anywhere else. Conscious of the cost, I tried to keep my cash in my pocket. But there were a couple of vinyl records I just couldn’t resist. Another $20 gone.
I had heard that trendy Brooklyn, while not exactly cheap, offers better bargains than you’ll find in Manhattan. That proved to be true. I stopped for lunch at Heights Falafel. A falafel sandwich and a can of soda only cost me $6 and had me feeling a little better about my impulsive purchase at the flea market.
After lunch, I stopped by the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. To be honest, I didn’t have particularly high hopes. But I had heard good things from a friend who had been there. And even for someone without any particular interest in public transportation like me, I have to admit, it was quite fun. Exploring the old subway carriages is like taking a trip back in time to old New York. Admission was only $10.
I stayed in Brooklyn for dinner. The Soul Spot was only a few blocks from the museum and offers soul food and Caribbean cuisine that will make you feel like you’re someplace far south of New York City. Jerk chicken with cornbread cost $11.50, and the homemade lemonade was only $2.25 for a large glass.
Brooklyn had turned out to be cheaper than I thought it would be, so I didn’t feel too guilty about treating myself to a concert. Besides, where else can you listen to classical music while floating on the river? BargeMusic in Brooklyn lets you do that for around $35 a ticket.
The train home was free thanks to my 7-day pass. All in all, it was a fun day for not too much money.
For my last day in New York, I decided to get a little weird with it. After my now-customary breakfast of granola, I headed to Tribeca to see the firehouse of Hook and Ladder Company 8 – better known as the Ghostbusters headquarters.
Since this is still a working firehouse, you can’t just wander in. But it’s a great spot for photo opportunities, and there is a gift shop on site that I was able to resist.
In the mood for another quirky attraction, I headed to the Museum of the American Gangster. The building used to be a speakeasy back in Prohibition days, and this small but interesting exhibition illuminates the history of organized crime in New York and throughout the country. Tickets cost $20, but they include a guided tour to make sure you get the most out of the experience.
There’s nothing like a brush with the mob to make you hungry. Katz’s Deli is known for two things — great sandwiches and rude service. To be honest, I didn’t find the service exactly rude; more brusque than anything. That’s to be expected in a place as busy as this.
And when my sandwich arrived, I saw at once that I had made a mistake. The Reuben sandwich I received could’ve easily fed three or four people. There was no way I could finish it. And given that it cost $24, it seemed like a bit of a waste. Trying to recoup my losses, I wrapped up most of the sandwich and took it with me when I left.
My next stop was across the island of Manhattan at the 9/11 memorial. This monument pays tribute to a dark chapter in American and world history. But it also carries a message of hope. New Yorkers will never forget the tragic events of September 11, 2001, but the city has regenerated the way it always does.
After the sobering visit to the memorial, I needed some entertainment. So I headed to Greenwich Village and Cafe Wha?
Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Woody Allen, and numerous other legendary performers all got their start at this still-operating bar. The $15 cover charge was a little steep, but it helps to support musicians. And while I can’t say I saw the next Bob Dylan play while I was there, it was definitely a fun night.
Beers were $8-$9, I treated myself to a few of them, knowing it was my last night in New York. Besides, the monster Reuben I still carried in my bag meant I didn’t need to order any food. Once I made it back to my hotel room, I ate the rest of my sandwich and went to sleep, knowing I had an early flight the next day.
My New York spending diary
Trip total: $980.50 plus return flights
New York is never going to be a cheap place to visit. But there really is nowhere else like it on earth. And depending on what you’re interested in, there are ways to save money.
In hindsight, I probably should’ve spent more time in cheaper neighborhoods such as Brooklyn. If I had known how big the sandwiches they serve at Katz’s are, I might have gone there a couple of times and got a whole day’s food for $25.
But given everything I got to see, I’m pretty happy with how much I spent. It wasn’t cheap, but it was a great trip that I would be happy to do again.