Last Updated on March 7, 2021 by Dani
As I’ve been wrapping up my summer in New York City, I sat down and looked back on all the things that made this summer a truly unforgettable time for me. I extended my stay not once, not twice, but three times in order to soak up as much summer as possible in the city I love so much. There are so many amazing things to do in New York City in the summer, and the best part about this list: most of these things don’t cost a penny! While New York City certainly can be expensive, it’s also possible to have an amazing time on a small budget.
The best things to do in New York City in the summer
1 Visit one of the nearby beaches
I love how fast you can get to a beach from most places in New York, no matter which borough you’re in. And most of them are only a cheap $2.75 subway ride away (if you don’t have an unlimited ride subway card anyway). In Brooklyn, you can head to the Rockaways or Coney Island, in the Bronx you can visit Orchard Beach or City Island, or take a ferry from Manhattan to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. Beaches are plentiful and give you a nice break from the sweltering heat that New York experiences every summer. And if you don’t want to leave the city, there are plenty of pools in NYC, many of them even FREE!
2 Enjoy a drink in one of the many rooftop bars
A city with a skyline like New York beckons to have rooftop bars, and there are dozens to choose from around town. From The Ides on top of the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg / Brooklyn to Manhattan classics like the Gansevoort Park rooftop, PHD, 230 Fifth, Le Bain on top of The Standard Hotel or the Jimmy Lounge on top of The James Hotel, there are enough rooftop bars to offer you different views of the city every time you go out.
If you only have a few nights in town, you can even join a rooftop bar crawl to experience several bars in one night! My favorite time for a rooftop bar is at sunset and watching how the city lights turn on one by one.
3 Cool off at an open fire hydrant
Because it is so hot, some neighborhoods open fire hydrants so that the water blasts out at all times. I loved watching exciting kids enjoying the cool water, squealing with excitement, having fun chasing each other around the hydrants or pouring buckets of the water over bypassing cyclists. Even better: join them and through the water to cool off? (Note: I know that it is quite wasteful to open them, and actually illegal, unless you use a spray cap, which reduces the water output per minute from 1,000 gallons to 20 – 25 gallons per minute. I only approve of those that have spray caps.)
4 Watch a free open air movie
Parks, neighborhood squares or a pier – take an outdoor space large enough to fit at least a couple of hundred people and you’re likely to have a venue for a free open air movie night. In NYC, they were even showing free outdoor movies on the Intrepid (a former aircraft carrier)! My favorite spaces to catch an outdoor movie were Pier 63 on the Hudson River (look at this sunset!), Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Watching an iconic NYC movie in Bryant Park, surrounded by lit-up skyscrapers, is one of the most memorable things you can do in New York City in the summer.
5 Enjoy a free open air music event
This goes in line with #4 – If you aren’t a big movie goer, you might prefer the free music events that are put on every summer in the city’s park and outside Lincoln Center. Lovers of classic music can enjoy free recitals of famous operas or watch the Philharmonic Orchestra play in scenic surroundings like Central Park or the Brooklyn Bridge Park. In addition, there is the Summer Stage with free concerts of all genres and DJ sets. Pack a picnic and enjoy a warm summer night in the park with some great live music to go with – the free music events are some of my favorite things to do in New York City in the summer.
6 Eat your way through the food markets
I am talking about the Smorgasburg Flea Food Markets in particular, a food market that takes place every Saturday and Sunday in two different Brooklyn locations. I spent countless Saturdays roaming the Williamsburg market in search of a new dish to try (picture anything from vegan donuts, lobster, pizza, Bolivian empanadas, BBQ sandwiches, ramen burgers and ice cream sandwiches) to enjoy it with a view of the Manhattan skyline across the river. On Sunday, the same market moves over to Prospect Park, where you can enjoy the same amazing dishes in a more relaxed setting, and combine it with a stroll through Brooklyn’s best park.
7 Hop on a FREE sunset cruise
Hop on the Staten Island ferry about 40 minutes before the sun sets and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular sunset vistas over the Statue Of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, as it starts to twinkle like a million little stars on the way back. And the best thing: The ferry is free!
8 Get a tan in the park
I love how when the first hot days arrive in May, half of the girls in the parks drop their clothes and tan in their bikinis – no matter if it’s the huge Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park or the tiny green spaces in Washington Square Park, you’ll see girls in bikinis everywhere all summer long. Join them an get a tan!
9 Run through New York City
I experienced New York City during a snowstorm once and was shocked to see runners still out in Central Park, running through the deep snow, packed warmly in several layers. Running in the summer is much more my cup of tea, and thousands of people feel the same way – all the running paths are packed at any time of day, and there’s nothing better than a sunset run along the Hudson River or a morning run through Central Park. Or you can simply pound the pavement and run on the city streets – a great way to see a lot of the city in little time. You can check out my favorite running routes in New York City here.
10 Invite yourself to a Rooftop BBQ
New Yorkers love their rooftops, and they love to barbecue. I was lucky enough to get to know several rooftops in Manhattan and Brooklyn and all the BBQs I went to were fantastic. Stunning views, great food, a cool breeze and good company – what’s not to love. Befriend a New Yorker with a rooftop and enjoy a rooftop BBQ with some locals. Tinder is a good way to achieve this, and if you don’t succeed, don’t worry: then #25 on this list is for you.
11 Try an ice cream donut
(You can get them at Peter Pan Donuts & Pastries in Greenpoint)
12 Visit the street fairs
On summer weekends, city blocks in Manhattan regular close for cars, and street fairs that are a mix of market and food stalls are held there. Several blocks of a main streets like Fifth Avenue are completely blocked off for traffic and you can enjoy walking on the street for a few hours while shopping for clothes or accessories, and munch on some fresh watermelon, Mexican tacos or another delicacy.
The New York Summer Streets are another car-free event that takes place in August: Park Avenue is closed off for traffic for seven miles, and there are free bike rentals, you can zipline and rock climb, visit a cool art & sound installation in the Park Avenue tunnel, to name just a few things.
13 The Mermaid Parade
The Mermaid Parade takes place on the Saturday closest to the official first day of summer (21 June), so this is a quintessential New York summer kick-off event and I loved experiencing the artsy, crazy, unique and sometimes explicit parade. The Mermaid Parade just belongs to summer and New York, and if you happen to be in the city while it takes place, then don’t miss it – the Mermaid Parade is one of the best free things to do in New York City in the summer, and anyone can walk in it! So get crafty and make your mermaid-themed costume and head to Coney Island.
14 Kayak for FREE in NYC
New York City is offering it FOR FREE on weekends! You can kayak for free in Brooklyn Bridge Park, in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side, in Red Hook and on Staten Island. Kayaking on the East River, with the Manhattan skyline as your backdrop, is one of the coolest things to do in New York City in the summer.
15 Go on a long summer night walk
I love exploring the different neighborhoods, getting lost while walking down random streets and taking in the atmosphere – especially at night. This is my favorite way to get to know New York’s neighborhoods better – and at night it’s not too hot anymore and there are less people in the streets. Best enjoyed with a cup of frozen yogurt in your hands – see below. For me, a night stroll through the West Village is one of my favorite things to do in New York City in the summer.
16 Cool off with a frozen yogurt or iconic NYC ice cream
Speaking of frozen yogurt – it seems like there is frozen yogurt everywhere in New York City. Every few blocks you find a fro-yo store, and many of them offer self-service which makes it super easy to end up with a massive cup of fro-yo piled with loads of toppings. Not necessarily a low-calorie snack, but so worth it on a hot summer day.
If you prefer ice cream to fro-yo, check out some of the best local ice cream shops: Ample Hills (a local Brooklyn ice cream shop and my personal favorite), Oddfellows, Van Leeuwen and Big Gay Ice Cream are all worth a visit. If you’re vegan: Van Leeuwen has the best vegan ice cream.
17 Enjoy a summer morning on the High Line
I am not sure when the High Line Park, a linear park built on a former elevated railroad track that winds its way through the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, became so popular, but it seems more and more crowded every time I head there. The mornings are lovely though – most tourists still enjoy their hotel breakfast and you’ll find some space on one of the sun loungers to read a book on the High Line or just relax, with a coffee in hand. Grab a cup of coffee at Blue Bottle (next to Chelsea Market, and from 9am also right on the High Line between 16th and 15th Street) and a pastry at Amy’s Bread in Chelsea Market and enjoy the green oasis that is the High Line.
18 Find a cutting-edge art exhibition
New York seems to be the center of the creative world, be it TV, movies, music or art, which is why you’ll always find some wonderfully creative exhibitions around town. The art exhibitions are always fantastic, especially in progressive galleries like the MoMA’s PS1 outpost where you always find some innovative and experimental art exhibits.
19 Visit the flea markets
I could spend all weekend roaming the flea markets around town – no matter if it’s the one in Williamsburg, Dumbo or Hell’s Kitchen (these some of my favorites – you can find a list of all my favorite New York City flea and food markets here), they’re all worth a visit for their knick knacks and memorabilia. Most flea markets also have a few food and coffee stalls, so grab an iced coffee and rummage through vintage clothes, old books, jewellery and art, and you’ll find a quirky souvenir for sure.
20 Go to an outdoor dance party
What’s better on a hot summer weekend than an outdoor daytime dance party! Even better if it’s on a rooftop in Bushwick. One venue worth checking out is Elsewhere – check their event calendar online. I also had a blast at the Warm Up party, which is held every Saturday from 3pm to 9pm in the MoMA’s PS1 art gallery in Long Island City. Mixing art and electro music – it can’t get any better than this (okay, this only holds true if you enjoy both art and dance music). Other outdoor dance parties that deserve a mention are the Sundays on the Roof on top of the Output Club in Brooklyn and the Summer Stage DJ Sets in Central Park.
21 Have a picnic in the park
What’s better than a picnic? A picnic with views over the Manhattan skyline! There are enough picnic spots in New York to keep you busy all summer long, but among my favorites are: Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park (pick up the famous Levains Cookie and a coffee on 74th Street on the way to Central Park), Pebble Beach just south of the Manhattan Bridge on the Brooklyn side (pick up food at TimeOut Market), Harbor View Lawn in Brooklyn Bridge Park (pick up Middle Eastern snacks at Sahadi’s on Atlantic Ave), Pier 1 Gantry on the Hudson River (pick up food at Whole Foods in Columbus Circle).
And should it rain, you can head to Grand Central Station and have an indoor picnic:
22 Go on a quick island getaway
An island getaway doesn’t have to involve flights and lots of money – just pack some food and take the ferry to Governors Island and enjoy a day away from the city in Upper New York Bay, while still enjoying the views of Manhattan. The artificial sand beach at the Governors Beach Club comes with stunning vistas of Manhattan’s southern tip, and if you decide to head over here for an event like the Fringe Festival or the Jazz Age Lawn, you’ll even get some free entertainment.
Roosevelt Island is another lovely island getaway, located in the East River. You even get a free scenic aerial tramway ride when you go there (included in your MTA subway pass, if you opt for the weekly unlimited rides pass) and there are some lovely lawns for picnics with a side of Manhattan. (Read more about both these places in Five Things To Discover In New York That Tourists (And Locals) Never Do).
23 Cycle around town
New York’s Citibike bike sharing program is awesome, and New York City’s bike lane network is extensive and constantly increasing. I love cycling around town so much – being able to take in the different neighborhoods and awe-inspiring skyscrapers is so much better than being stuck in a packed subway car! If you love cycling, rent a CitiBike and cruise all over New York City. A bike makes this vast city much more manageable – especially if you want to venture beyond Manhattan.
24 Watch the Botanical Gardens change over the summer
I can’t get enough of the Botanical Gardens in the spring and summer and love seeing how the flora inside the gardens changes from tulips to cherry blossoms to roses and hibiscus flowers. Luckily, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens offer free admission twice a week (check their website to see when admission is free) and the Bronx Botanical Gardens once a week (every Wednesday). Pack a book, your camera and a snack and recharge your batteries there for an afternoon.
25 BBQs with a view
I mean, nothing can beat a BBQ with this view, right? The public BBQ areas in New York are fabulous! You can find the one pictured below in Brooklyn Bridge Park, near Pier 5. Bring everything you need for your BBQ, head there early, and you’ll have the perfect NYC barbecue.
26 Sunset pizza at Pebble Beach
I love me a good sunset picnic – anywhere from Prospect Park to Riverside Park to Central Park and the Hudson River Park is a good choice, but my personal favorite spot is Pebble Beach, a tiny beach right in between the Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge. Get a pie from Juliana’s or Grimaldi’s and watch the sun set over Manhattan – it doesn’t get much better than that.
27 Summer Sunset Spectacle
Not only Pebble Beach (see above) has great sunsets though – there are so many great sunset spots in the city. Check out Pebble Beach (#26) or get inspired by TimeOut’s Top Ten Sunsets Spots in NYC. There is no better way to wind down after a busy day of sightseeing than with a breathtaking sunset.
28 Simply enjoy the perfect summer weather
I am from Germany, and spent four summers in the UK – I don’t take summer weather for granted. There are years when Germany has a lovely summer, but during others (like this year!) temperatures barely hit 20 C / 68 F, and it stays chilly most of the summer except for a few hot days. England was even worse, with lots of rain in the mix, and I remember barely ever leaving the house in flip flops or without a jacket. In New York though, summer means hot weather. I hung my jacket in the closet in May and didn’t take it back out until September. I love that even at night it is still hot enough to walk around without a jacket or long-sleeved shirt. As a summer chaser and sun addict, I really appreciate the hot weather (whereas most New Yorkers complain about it – hey guys, enjoy it while it lasts! The first blizzard is not far). So just be outside, wander the streets, and enjoy the hot summer air.
Got things to do in New York City in the summer to add? Share them in the comments below!