The Guardian, April 9, 2014
New York can be stiflingly hot and humid in the summer but the city also has the perfect remedy: free open-air swimming. A network of dozens of outdoor public pools across all five city boroughs open for the summer months (usually closing around Labor Day weekend in early September). All you need is your swimming suit, towel, bag and a padlock for the locker (you won't be admitted without the padlock). The pools range in size and popularity. Red Hook Pool in Brooklyn, for instance is huge, with one end of the pool packed with children, while the other end is partitioned into lanes for serious swimmers. And while you are there, take the short stroll to a fabulous view of the Statue of Liberty (and Ikea if you are so moved). As part of the social wellbeing of the city, the pools also provide free snack lunches for children during the school holidays.
Free concerts in Prospect Park
Every Saturday night (and some other evenings) throughout the summer, Prospect Park in Brooklyn hosts free concerts, featuring an eclectic collection of acts. Summer 2013 saw They Might Be Giants, the Waterboys, Calexico, and the Barenaked Ladies to name but a few. The small venue allows families to picnic on the grass at the back while the more enthusiastic can congregate closer to the Bandshell stage. The concerts are a perfect excuse to leave the crowded streets of Manhattan to see one of Brooklyn's treasures: Prospect Park was created shortly after Central Park by the same landscapers and also features its own zoo, boating lake and carousel.
• Celebrate Brooklyn
Free friday nights at the Museum of Modern Art
Every Friday, the MOMA stays open until 8pm and hands out free tickets to anyone who enters after 4pm – it's best to arrive by 4:30pm to avoid the queue. Start with the rotating special exhibition on the top floor, move on to the fifth and fourth floor paintings, including Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and end with the second floor and its oversized sculptures, technology-infused media collection and the occasional interactive exhibit like Roman Ondák's Measuring the Universe, where visitors' names were written on the wall to mark their height. (See the Free Museum Day website for the schedule of other free admissions.)
• 11 West 53rd Street, moma.org
The most magnificent of the bridges across New York's East River, linking Manhattan and Brooklyn was completed in 1883 and is one of the oldest steel-wire suspension bridges in the US. A stroll across on the special pedestrian walkway affords great views of the city. At the Brooklyn end the area has been recently redeveloped with parks, piers and a carousel. The Manhattan end is close to the downtown sights of City Hall and the New York City Supreme Court, where you can re-enact the final scene from 12 Angry Men (white suit optional). A word of warning: pedestrians share the bridge path with cyclists, who have little patience for pedestrians wandering into the cycle lane – expect to be yelled at, at the very least, if you stray on to the wrong side of the path.
Explore Governor's Island
After strolling across Brooklyn Bridge, hop on a ferry to Governor's Island from Pier 6 at the bottom end of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Although the historically free ferry starts charging $2pp from May this year, there are plenty of free activities to try on the island, plus 30 new acres of park open to the public this May. Formerly a military base and home to the US Coast Guard, the island has been redeveloped as a sprawling public space – a "vibrant summer seasonal venue of art, culture and performance." The island's roster of events seems to grow each summer, but a few (free!) must-dos include: visiting the annual Figment NY sculpture project (this year's, a pavilion made from discarded plastic cups, will be held on 7-8 June); checking out the latest exhibit at the Building 110 Arts Center; getting in a round of mini-golf; free bike-hire mornings; history hikes of the island's historic district; or just packing a picnic and taking a leisurely lunch in the park with lower-Manhattan as your backdrop. You can also take the ferry from the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan, next door to the Staten Island ferry terminal.
• The island is open to the public from May to September. nps.gov/gois/planyourvisit/directions.htm
New York Public Library
There are two main attractions at the main branch of the city's library in Midtown Manhattan – well, three technically. The first is the gorgeous main reading room on the third floor of the Beaux-Arts building, where natural light bounces off long oak tables and the ceiling's chandeliers, and thousands of reference books line the 52ft (almost 16-metre) high walls. Standing in the room you can't help but feel inspired, as if you might become a little smarter simply by being in the presence of so much elegance. The other can't-miss highlights are Patience and Fortitude, two marble Lions who guard the main entrance.
• Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, nypl.org
In its 1940s heyday, this section of elevated railway was used to carry goods from factories on the west side of Manhattan – including the National Biscuit Company, known to generations as Nabisco, the makers of the Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers. As manufacturing companies left the city in the following decades, the tracks were abandoned and left to rot, until 1999 when an idea was hatched to build a New York version of Paris's Promenade Plantée. It took another 10 years for permits and construction to be completed, and when they finally were New Yorkers had a one-mile oasis, with flowers, fountains, benches and stupendous views of Chelsea below. The tracks that delivered Oreo cookies to millions of New Yorkers decades ago now offer a different sort of treat to visitors looking to escape the hustle of the city's streets.
• thehighline.org, various access points
New York; it's a jungle sometimes. And if you want to keep from going under you might want to get away from the concrete variety and head for one of the city's tranquil green spaces. The vast, infinitely filmed Central Park is of course unmissable, but there are other, smaller, "secret" gardens that also offer the chance to escape. 6BC Botanical Garden in East Village is one of New York's many community gardens and is a volunteer-run space perfect for a quiet relaxation. Meanwhile La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, in a once-gritty corner of the Lower East Side, is not just a vibrant green space but also a venue for festivals and events. Of course, the century old, 52-acre Brookyln Botanical Garden is another beautiful oasis, and is free to visit on Tuesdays, Saturday mornings and on winter weekends.
• 6BC Botanical Garden, 6th Street between Avenues B and C, 6bc.org. Open May-October, Sat and Sun afternoons and Weds evenings. La Plaza Cultural, Corner of 9th St & Ave C, laplazacultural.com. Public hours Sat-Sun 12-5 pm; Brooklyn Botanical Garden, 1000 Washington Ave, +1 718 623 7200, bbg.org
With a thriving comedy scene encompassing everything from stand up to improv, it's almost impossible to know where to start indulging your lust for laughs in the Big Apple. Still, it's always best to go in at the cheap end – and luckily there's a host of free shows to sample that you would be happy to pay for. Weekly stand up gig Whiplash – at the cutting-edge Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – is the best place to hear the hottest comics with an alt twist, while Sunday nights at the Knitting Factory is another long-running free gig, hosted by Hannibal Buress. Meanwhile the Alligator Lounge has a comedy night every Tuesday that comes with free pizza – so you can stuff your face when you're not laughing.
• Whiplash, Mondays from 11pm, UCB Theatre, 307 W. 26th St, +1 212 366 9176, ucbtheatre.com. Comedy at the Knitting Factory with Hannibal Buress, Sundays from 9pm, 361 Metropolitan Ave, Williamsburg, bk.knittingfactory.com. Alligator Lounge, 600 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn, +1 718-599 4440, alligatorloungebrooklyn.com
Take a brewery tour
America truly is the land of craft beer and, as the population of discerning drinkers grows, New York's breweries are becoming increasingly popular attractions for visitors. Try the Chelsea Brewing Company – Manhattan's largest microbrewery – which offers free tours with a complimentary sample beer. And if you're keen to check out a bigger brew house, head for the internationally known Brooklyn Brewery, which runs free, no-reservation tours on weekends.
• Chelsea Brewing Company, Chelsea Piers, Pier 59, +1 212 336 6440, chelseabrewingco.wordpress.com, open daily 12pm-1am, call to book a tour. Brooklyn Brewery, 79 N 11th St, +1 718 486 7422, brooklynbrewery.com, tickets for tours on a first come first serve basis, check website for details
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk