Free Outdoor Summer Music Festivals and Concerts in New York City
Although some New York City outdoor music and culture series are created specifically with children in mind, there are lots of grown-up series that families can enjoy, too. At these wonderful alfresco events, most of which take place in parks and plazas, families can pack a picnic, stake out a spot, lay down a blanket and soak up some culture at no cost. Don't worry if the kids aren't totally into it; sit along the perimeter and let them run around, dance and play and they'll be happy.
While many of the series, including SummerStage, Celebrate Brooklyn! and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, host dedicated family days, it's worth browsing their full schedules. There's no minimum age to enjoy jazz, classical or rock, right?
We've rounded up the city's best free outdoor music and performance series and highlighted the events we think will be of particular interest to families.
Celebrate Brooklyn! – Prospect Park Band Shell
Friday, June 5-Sunday, August 11
Free but there is a $3 suggested donation
One of the city's premier summer performance fests, Celebrate Brooklyn! always has an eclectic lineup of live acts and films, and this year's no exception. Catch the innovative Ballet Hispanico on Thursday, June 28, a The Muppet Movie sing-along on Saturday, July 28 and lots of cool music. Other offerings of particular interest to families include the Ezra Jack Keats Family Concert on Sunday, July 8 featuring Sweet Honey in the Rock; New Orleans' prodigy Trombone Shorty on Friday, June 29; and legendary performer Lyle Lovett, who closes the series on Saturday, August 11.
River to River Festival – Downtown Manhattan
Sunday, June 17-Saturday, July 15
Another multidisciplinary fest featuring music, film, dance, theater and art throughout lower Manhattan. The lineup is so varied and jam-packed—Suzanne Vega in concert on Tuesday, June 26, Come Out & Play Field Day on Saturday, July 14 on Governors Island, New York Classical Theatre's ongoing environmental staging of Twelfth Night—it's impossible to encapsulate it in a paragraph. Offerings of particular interest to families include The Cooper-Hewitt's Graphic Design Family Program Saturday, July 7-Sunday, July 8; We're Floating, an interactive poetry walk with artist and author Jon Cotner on Saturdays July 7 and 14; and a screening of the new film Side by Side on Monday, July 9, about the history of filmmaking preceded by Flip, a stop-motion short created by kids at the Children's Museum of the Arts. Or just walk around lower Manhattan: There are so many things going on as part of this fest, you very well may stumble upon something offbeat and cool.
SummerStage – Citywide
Tuesday, June 5-Thursday, August 30
Some events are FREE, others are ticketed
This massive festival sponsored by the City Parks Foundation boasts more than 100 performances throughout NYC. The main events for kids are the daytime SummerStage Family Days, which are held in every borough except Staten Island.
- Brooklyn Family Day on Sunday, June 10 features interactive African movement and music with FELA Queens, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and DJ Stormin' Norman.
- Bronx Family Day on Saturday, June 30 features a Little Club Heads dance party, juggling/acrobatic comedy team the Red Trouser Show and the Bindlestiffs' Hell on Wheel Unicycle Club.
- Queens Family Day on Sunday, July 29 features soul singer Randolph Matthews, LuckyBob's Magic Juggling Comedy and a dance party by Little Club Heads.
- There are two Manhattan Family Days. The first is on Sunday, July 8 on the SummerStage main stage in Central Park with Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players, performers from the New York Chinese Cultural Center and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. The second is on Sunday, August 12 in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park with a Jazz for Young People show, a dance party by Little Club Heads, the Double Dutch Dreamz and live DJ DJ Bobbito Garcia.
It's also worth browsing SummerStage's entire calendar. Although it says you can sort by age, that functionality doesn't seem to be working correctly at the moment. However, you can see a complete list of SummerStage Kids events, which go on throughout the five boroughs all summer long.
New York Philharmonic Concerts in the Parks – Citywide
Tuesday, July 11-Tuesday, July 17
We're delighted that the NY Phil is bringing back its free performance series for summer 2012. The famed orchestra will play outdoor evening concerts in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx, plus an indoor matinee on Staten Island. Fireworks will follow all of the alfresco concerts, meaning only Staten Island won't see sparklers.
Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series –Citywide
Wednesday, July 25-Thursday, August 9
More classical music in all five boroughs, including two Manhattan concerts. A word of warning for families: These performances attract many serious listeners. Happily, they tend to sit right up front, which means if you head toward the perimeter, you'll most likely avoid condescending stares.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors – Upper West Side
Wednesday, July 25-Sunday, August 12
Another genre-spanning fest with more than 100 music, dance and other live performances. Kids should enjoy the interactive Tangle on July 26-29, when visitors will help experimental Polyglot Theatre company weave colorful elastics around poles in Josie Robertson Plaza. The Roots of American Music Festival on Saturday, August 11-Sunday, August 12 is also a great option for families. Sunday, July 28 is Family Day with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Chinese acrobats and the aforementioned Tangle.
River & Blues – Battery Park City
Thursdays, July 5-26 at 7pm
Enjoy blues concerts by a diverse lineup of artists like Jim Campilongo and Mark O'Connors Hot Swing in Wagner Park.
Harlem Meer Performance Festival – Harlem
Sundays, June 17-September 2 at 2pm
This intimate concert series takes place beside the picturesque Harlem Meer in Central Park. The 2012 schedule hasn’t been released but the lineup usually includes local emerging and established Latin, jazz, world and gospel artists. Bonus: A few steps away you'll find a playground, catch-and-release fishing in the Meer and picnicking.
On Stage at Kingsborough – Manhattan Beach
Saturdays, July 7-28 at 8pm
Enjoy live music at the oceanfront campus of Kingsborough Community College. The lineup includes patriotic pops, Broadway tunes, swing and jazz concerts. The gates to the grounds open at 7pm so bring a blanket and picnic while the sun sets. Maria the Ice Cream Girl will also be on hand selling bagels, wraps, sodas and, you guessed it, ice cream.
R&B Festival at Metrotech – Downtown Brooklyn
Thursdays, June 7-August 9 at noon
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s lunchtime concert series takes place on a grassy, tree-lined strip of downtown Brooklyn. The music sure is fabulous. Ky-Mani Marley and Fishbone are just two of the rhythm and blues greats you can see here.
Madison Square Music – Flatiron
Wednesdays, June 20-August 8
Enjoy jazz, bluegrass, folk, R&B, soul and pop performances in beautiful Madison Square Park on Wednesday evenings. Acclaimed chef Zakary Pelaccio will be selling food from his restaurants Fatty Crab, Fatty ‘Cue and Fatty Snack, so you can pick up dinner. While there, check out the interactive art installation Pet Sounds, created specifically for the park.
Broadway in Bryant Park – Midtown West
Thursdays, July 12-August 16 at 12:30pm
Who needs TDF? On Thursdays at lunchtime, catch performances by the casts of big Broadway shows right in Bryant Park at no cost. The schedule won’t be released until June, but last year's shows included The Lion King, Wicked and other kid-friendly hits. Also check out Bryant Park's After Work concert series Wednesdays June 6-August 29 to catch local jazz, classical and world music artists.
Stars of Tomorrow – West Village
Tuesdays, June 5-August 21 at 6:30pm (no show July 3)
Hudson River Park's Pier 45 hosts performances by the talented students from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and Mannes College the New School for Music.
Sunset on the Hudson – West Village
Fridays, June 8-August 24 at 7pm (no show July 7)
Cap off the week at one of our favorite picnic spots with free nighttime concerts on Pier 45. Dine alfresco as you catch live performances by local jazz, classical, soul and blues bands.
Riverrocks – Midtown West
Thursdays, July 12, 26 and August 9 at 6pm
Pier 84, the largest of Hudson River Park’s public piers, presents three rock concerts this summer. The spot also hosts Blues BBQ on Saturday, August 25 at 2pm, featuring yummy eats and live blues music.
Naumburg Orchestral Concerts – Upper East Side
Tuesdays, June 19, July 10 and 24, and August 7 at 7:30pm
An oldie but a goodie, this series has been going on in Central Park's historic Naumburg Bandshell since 1905! Unlike most of the other concert series in this post, you can actually sit on chairs at this concert, assuming you arrive early enough to snag one.
Seaside Summer Concerts – Coney Island
Thursdays in July and August
Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz sponsors this annual concert series. The schedule isn't yet available but in the past it has featured greats like Joan Jett and Aretha Franklin.
Martin Luther King Jr Concerts – Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Mondays in July and August
The Brooklyn Borough Prez also hosts this concert series in Wingate Field. The schedule isn't yet available but last year Queen Latifah played.
And if you're wondering about the concert series hosted by the Today Show and Good Morning America, here's the deal: Yes, your family can catch big names like Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Kenny Chesney, Maroon 5, Mary J. Blige and The Beach Boys but seeing these concerts is a serious commitment. Be prepared to arrive before dawn (in the case of huge stars, long before the sun comes up) in order to snag a halfway decent spot. Good luck.
Find out about other seasonal fun in our Summer Fun Guide.