On Park Avenue, begonias are blooming in hues matching the blur of passing taxicabs. At Bryant Park, the white tents of Fashion Week have been tucked away, and grass now shines on the lawn. And throughout the city, hotels and restaurants are readying themselves for the millions eager to visit at this lovely, exciting time of year. ¶ Collectively, the visitors will spend billions, and it's easy to imagine how. The bright lights of Broadway come with ticket prices of more than $100. Dinner at the Rainbow Room costs $200 a person. Even an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building will set you back $19. ¶ Still, New York City needn't be a daunting destination for travelers on a budget. As you plan your spring or summer sojourn, consider mixing into your itinerary some of these free Big Apple experiences.
LIKE A NATIVE
Why pay $25 for a whirlwind bus tour when the Big Apple Greeter program will match you with a New Yorker eager to show you around for free?
Let your volunteer guide give you an insider's perspective of such trendy neighborhoods as SoHo or TriBeCa or lead you to an off-the-beaten-path outer-borough neighborhood that you might not see otherwise, such as multicultural Astoria in Queens. Sign up at www.bigapplegreeter.org.
PICTURE THE SAVINGS
After your tour, enjoy a respite from the sun at one of the city's renowned museums. But don't pay full price. Although the Metropolitan Museum of
Art lists adult admission as $20, many visitors don't realize that this is a suggested price. You can pay as little as a penny.
Admission at the Natural History Museum and the Brooklyn Museum is also suggested, and other museums have discounts on particular days.
You'll find free or suggested admission at the Museum of Modern Art from 4 to 8 p.m. Fridays and the Museum of the City of New York from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. For a list, see www.nytix.com /Museums.
PLENTY OF FREE PARKING
Central Park, the vast backyard of the Met, is a must-see, but the city also has a plethora of other noteworthy public spaces.
Bryant Park's London plane trees make it one of the loveliest in the city. Watch children ride the carousel by day and, beginning in June, enjoy a free movie on the lawn by night in this Midtown oasis.
Madison Square Park offers views of the iconic Flatiron building and the culinary delights of the Shake Shack, a local favorite.
Farther downtown is Washington Square Park, the heart of New York University, where you can watch lively chess and checkers matches.
Or check out bustling Union Square Park, host to the city's largest farmers market, which operates on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
For a list of city parks, visit www.nycgovparks.org.
Another charming but lesser-known park is Riverside, on the western side of Manhattan along the Hudson River.
As you stroll the scenic waterfront promenade, stop at the dock at either 56th or 72nd Street, where the New York City Downtown Boathouse offers free, walk-up kayaking on weekends, holidays and some weekday evenings through October. (From June to September, you can also sign up beforehand for a free three-hour guided trip.) For info, see www.downtownboathouse.org.
HISTORIC GOVERNORS ISLAND
Down the Hudson River in New York Harbor is Governors Island, accessible by a free five-minute ferry ride featuring sweeping city views. The varied architecture of this 172-acre island, from pre-Civil War arsenal buildings to 20th century neoclassic structures, narrates its fascinating history.
First inhabited by Native Americans, it was bought by the Dutch and then by the British, who used it as a Revolutionary War base. After changing into U.S. hands, the island played a role in most major U.S. military engagements. In the 1960s, it became the Coast Guard's largest installation, with an on-island population of more 3,000.
A ghost town since the Coast Guard left in 1996, the island today welcomes visitors on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning next weekend. Musical and theatrical performances take place most weekends. Enjoy the only-front-facing view of the Statue of Liberty. More information is at www.govisland.com.
BROOKLYN BY BRIDGE
Take in panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline as you cross the Brooklyn Bridge on foot. From July to October, marvel at the public art installation that is the talk of the city: artist Olafur Eliasson's four 90- to 120-foot man-made waterfalls (with one under the bridge).
The bridge will be packed with other out-of-towners, but few know to fuel up beforehand with a cone at the scenic pier-side Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory or on coal-oven pizza at a local favorite, Grimaldi's. Fewer still know to stay after sundown, when, beginning in July, the Brooklyn Bridge Park will offer free activities such as weekly concerts and movie screenings. For more information and directions, visit www.brooklynbridgepark.org.
So many free events take place in New York City each day that it is impossible to list them. Many of the best lectures, concerts, performances, gallery openings and assorted activities are collected online by FreeNYC, www.freenyc.net.