by Laura Matiz
[Original post 1/11/2015: revised May 28, 2016 with updated details and Governors Island info.]
Historic lower Manhattan has so many things to see and do. Knowing how to get around for free makes it even more fun. Many parts of lower Manhattan have transformed from commercial to a heavily residential area. Buildings that once housed large banks and corporations now feature unique apartments that take advantage of the tall ceilings and impressive lobbies. New construction has added units to the market as well, including the Frank Gehry-designed building on the east side of island, one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. Visitors to this area can benefit from knowing about these free transit options — on land and on the water.
Staten Island Ferry
Commuters and tourists know the Staten Island Ferry is one of the best ways to experience the imposing New York City harbor. The 25-minute trip to Staten Island, which has been free since 1997, skirts the Statue of Liberty offering frugal tourists a cheaper and faster alternative for getting a photo of this famous landmark. A round trip from Manhattan does require passengers to disembark on Staten Island before getting on the next ferry back. During this rush maneuver, one can miss the amazing aquarium tanks at the Staten Island terminal featuring exotic fish so mesmerizing that you might miss the next boat back.
Starting in 2017, tourist and visitors might not rush back to Manhattan given the planned opening of the New York Wheel. Like its brethren, the London Eye, the NY Wheel is sure to draw plenty of visitors and offer stunning views of the New York skyline.
The magic is on the return trip as the boat approaches the majestic view of lower Manhattan. Get a good spot on the outdoor decks to get the best photos. Stay on the east side decks to avoid the crush of tourists getting pictures of Lady Liberty. Another hint: take the ferry in the late afternoon when the skyscrapers absorb that warm glow of the sun. The ferries run frequently and on time. On weekends, they run every 30 minutes during the day, but check the schedules to plan your trip. Bicycles can be brought on board, but cars have not been allowed on the ferry since 9/11. Free WiFi service is now available in the terminals and on all the ferries. Both the Manhattan and Staten Island terminals are renovated and clean with lots of security personnel.
IKEA Express Shuttle to Red Hook
The NY Water Taxi's IKEA water taxi shuttle is another great way to see the New York harbor. The 25-minute trip starts on Pier 11, Slip A in the east side of lower Manhattan and cruises along the Brooklyn coastline. The shuttle is free on weekends with reasonable weekday fares. Riders can choose to disembark at one of two stops in Brooklyn, the Red Hook Dock on Van Brundt Street and the IKEA dock. The trip can be quite refreshing in the summer time when New York is sweltering and the marine breeze feels so much cooler. When reaching the Brooklyn stops, the Verrazano Bridge becomes an imposing view as it stands tall at the edge of the bay, a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. A great photo opportunity.
Of course, riders can immediately take the ferry back, but Red Hook offers many spots worth investigating. Museums, restaurants and bars, art galleries are within walking distance and anchored by the IKEA superstore, which features a large cafeteria-style restaurant featuring – could it be anything else? – Swedish meatballs. For a cheap-eat, try the delicious BBQ baby back ribs with corn bread, when available. For a detailed overview of other places to visit in Red Hook, Michael Hsu's thirteen-part Must-See Red Hook is an excellent guide.
Downtown Connect Bus Service
The Downtown Connect shuttle loops around lower Manhattan making 37 stops in a U-shape route. This services is relatively unknown to most New Yorkers, but offers an excellent way to tour lower Manhattan and all for free. Service is available seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day starting at at 10 AM and a final run at 7:30 PM. Buses arrive at 10-minute intervals on weekdays and at 15-minute intervals on weekends, but electronic signs provide approximate wait times. Tracking information is also available on the web and mobile devices, such as the live route and bus tracking shown below from Nextbus. This screenshot below shows the route: red dots represent stops and selecting a stop will provide approximate wait times.
Governors Island Ferry
Governors Island is a 172-acre island in the heart of New York Harbor. Minutes away from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, it's accessible by ferry and open to the public during the summer. The weekend ferry is free in the mornings, other times is costs $2 per round trip. There is no additional charge for bicycles. The island offers many outdoor activities and is fun for the whole family.
I enjoy getting to know this fabulous city and I hope these free public transit services make the exploration of lower Manhattan and the harbor equally enjoyable for you.