20 Indoor Places To Play for Free in NYC

Lego Fifth Avenue is full of fun photo-ops and interactive stations where kids can make Minifigures and more. Photo by Jody Mercier
Lego Fifth Avenue is full of fun photo-ops and interactive stations where kids can make Minifigures and more. Photo by Jody Mercier

We're staring down another long Northeast winter, and entertaining the kids during this extended, chilly season isn't easy or cheap. We went hunting for cool indoor places to play for free fueled by our desire to escape our cramped New York City apartments. Luckily, some of the best things in life are free if you know where to look.

If your kids are bouncing off the walls and your wallet is screaming for a break after a holiday spending spree, we've got you covered. Check out our list of 20 indoor places to play for free in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island for culture, fun, games, or just a much-needed change of scenery.

For more great indoor places to play for free, check out our Free in NYC Guide, which is loaded with more ideas, outings, and parent-tested tips to save a buck.

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Be sure to check with each venue for its COVID guidelines and requirements before heading out, and read more about local public safety protocols here. The current COVID surge has forced many last-minute closures and cancelations, so confirm details before departing. If your family prefers outdoor play destinations, we've got plenty of picks in our Guide to Parks and Playgrounds and our Winter Fun Guide.

1. Head to your Local Library

Not all branches are created equal, but there are plenty of cool, free spaces to hang out throughout the city's library systems. We're particularly impressed with the newly renovated Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library in Midtown; the newly opened Adams Street Library and Greenpoint Public Library and Environmental Center in Brooklyn, plus Queens' Hunters Point Library. Find even more options on our list of libraries with great kid-friendly play spaces, and discover what's going on at all branches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

2. Visit an Amenity-Filled Public Atrium

Our favorites include the Winter Garden Atrium in Battery Park City. If you've worked up an appetite, Hudson Eats is not to be missed.

RELATED: 100 Free Things To Do in NYC With Kids

Grand Central Terminal is a great indoor place to play
Pint-sized visitors love trying out the whispering gallery at Grand Central. Photo by Jody Mercier

3. Head to Grand Central Terminal

Train-watch, try out the whispering gallery, or take in one of the other kid-friendly activities.

4. Explore the Stacks

Pick up a new read and see what else is going on at some of our favorite independent bookshops, including author readings, craft activities, and even puppet shows.

5. Stop by the FDNY Fire Zone

Kids can learn about fire safety from a real firefighter at this Rockefeller Center stop.

6. Play in a Toy Store

Kids play for FREE at the mega-stores American Girl Place and FAO Schwarz. Check out amazing re-creations of NYC landmarks at the Lego Store nearby. Live farther south? Visit the Flatiron Lego Store and rest in its lounge while your child admires the re-creation of the neighborhood.

RELATED: NYC's Best Playgrounds: 20 Parks Worthy of a Subway Schlep

The Oculus is a great indoor place to play
The Oculus is worth a visit for the eye candy alone. Photo by Jody Mercier

7. Get an Eyeful at The Oculus

Gawk at the architectural wonder of The Oculus, the train station and shopping destination at the World Trade Center. More than 100 stores and eateries occupy the soaring, subterranean space.

8. Sample Retail-tainment

Hit one of NYC's interactive stores. We love the magic mirrors and giant castles at the Disney Store Times Square, and the amazing, engaging CAMP store, which has locations in the Flatiron District, Brooklyn, Hudson Yards, and Columbus Circle. Kidding Around has outposts in Grand Central and the Flatiron District and is one of our favorite independent toy stores.

9. Take Flight in the Wizarding World

Harry Potter New York is brimming with wands, magical creatures, and plenty of nostalgia for fans of the series.

10. Don’t Forget Central Park!

There are a handful of FREE indoor destinations in the 840-acre green space, including the newly-renovated Belvedere Castle and the Dana Discovery Center at the lovely northeastern edge of the park.

RELATED: 30 Days of Indoor Activities for Kids

Ninetendo NY is a fun indoor place to play in NYC
Try out new games or old favorites at Nintendo New York. Photo by Sara Marentette

11. Get Your Game On

At the 10,000-square-foot Nintendo NY, kids can gawk at the giant Donkey Kong and test not-yet-released tech and video games.

12. Have a Sweet Time at the Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling

This Harlem gem is housed in a David Adjaye-designed building on 155th Street and offers plenty of room to create and explore, plus weekly performative storytelling events. Kids under age 9 are always FREE and adults enter for just $7.

13. Visit the Museum of the City of New York

The museum is always free for children under 20 and has rotating exhibits highlighting New York's development and history.

RELATED: 50 Indoor Activities for a Rainy Day with the Kids

There's plenty of free fun at the National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian is multicultural New York at its best. Photo by Joshua Voda courtesy of NMAI.

14. Explore the Smithsonian

Explore the always FREE National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the historic U.S. Custom House. Programming includes family-friendly films, workshops, and other no-cost fun.

15. Eat Your Way Through Essex Street Market

This local food hall and market pays homage to its neighborhood's multicultural roots with a diverse mix of eats, plus fun, FREE programming, and cooking classes.

16. Hit a Play Cafe

Kids can play for FREE at some of these Brooklyn and Queens cafes—well, you'll need to spring for a coffee, but hey, you were going to do that anyway.

RELATED: NYC Winter Fun List: 40 Things To Do With Kids

Posman Books at Chelsea Market is a fun indoor place to play for free
Kids have space to play or read at Posman Books. Photo courtesy of Posman Books

17. Head to Chelsea Market

Watch the bakers in action at Chelsea Market, where a number of the city's best bakeries are rolling out dough, or read a story in the children's section of Posman Books after grabbing a bite to eat.

18. Immerse Yourself in Art

Introduce kids to contemporary art at the always FREE Bronx Museum of the Arts.

19. Seek out Nature in the City

See what's going on at one of the NYC Parks Department's many nature centers. Enjoy hands-on activities such as tours, crafts, and face time with animals.

20. Take Advantage of FREE Hours

Don't forget: Many NYC museums, zoos, and the aquarium offer free hours on a weekly or monthly basis.

This article, originally published in 2014, is updated annually.

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