1. Hustle somebody.
Not all New York bars are about the liquor. This city has a long history of gaming halls — chiefly pool and billiards — where Paul Newman-looking sharks stumble in faking intoxication just to smoke a drunk tourist out of $20. Do the same at neon-lit and moderately tacky Space Billiards in Midtown or the upscale Society Billiards in Flatiron, and you might end the night a few bucks richer.
2. Join high society…temporarily.
Take a personal tour through all the most regal hotel lobby bars without dropping a dime (The Plaza, St. Regis, Waldorf Astoria etc.) and marvel at all the gilded décor that made them world famous — especially the exotic and mildly lurid mural by Maxfield Parish in the Old King Cole bar of the St. Regis.
3. Take a dance class for about $20.
Any dance class will do, but balancing between salsa and vogue will probably pay off the most in New York City, as few venues are more embracing of amateur dancers trying new steps than the gay bars of the West Village, especially downstairs at The Monster or upstairs at Duplex. There’s no better partner than a Broadway back-up dancer who can bellow the stepping-time over the Madonna or Hector Lavoe tracks.
4. Go to the Natural History Museum.
For a buck you can marvel at how dated, racist, and xenophobic the decades-old anthropology exhibits are (plenty of African and Native American villagers in showcases beside animals, not a whole lot of Europeans) before checking out the stellar modern astronomy wing. Follow up complaints on the previous exhibits with local science hero/nerd, Neil Degrasse Tyson.
5. Grab some gelato in Little Italy.
Go to a swanky restaurant in Little Italy and put money that most people spend on overpriced Italian wine towards copious amounts of delicious handcrafted Gelato from M’o Il Gelato or A.B. Biagi. For an alternative sugar high, try one of the countless bubble tea café’s in Chinatown like Vivi or Patea Bubble Tea, only a few blocks away. Try to count how many streets you recognize from a Scorsese movie during the stroll between sugar doses.
6. Have a fancy night out.
It can be a bit surprising when people realize just how cheap a fancy night out can be in NYC when they aren’t shilling out for booze, so why not spend $40-60 on a show at a venue where being sober is sort of the norm and starchy evening dress is welcome (i.e. Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola)? The red carpet of Lincoln Center remains the most perfect place to make-believe you are a Hepburn or Monroe or Cooper in the 60’s.
7. Marvel at architecture and New York City’s history.
The austere white marble facades of the Upper East Side on Madison Avenue never lose their luster in the dark, and the cozy little brownstones of the West Village’s Greenwich Avenue are peppered with gargoyles and plaques commemorating the famous beatniks and hippies they once guarded.
8. Go outside.
Visit the city’s plethora of outdoor attractions, such as the New York Botanical Gardens, The Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, or that massive Central Park thing people are always walking through during Act Two of a Romcom, in which “New York is a character itself.” Peruse the countless ornate sculptures in Central Park, like that one featuring beloved characters from Alice in Wonderland by the Model Sailing Pond or the highly recognizable Bethesda Fountain by the Lake, all while wondering if “he is the one that will make me quit my writing career to settle down in Westchester” or whatever trite movie trope that is forced upon so many female characters.
9. Ride the water taxis circling Manhattan all day for $31.
This is basically the price drinkers pay for two Manhattans cocktails plus tip. Try to end your trip at Pier 63 as it is only a few blocks from the new Whitney Museum for American Art — another New York landmark.
10. Take care of yourself.
You can also visit a bathhouse in Manhattan for about $40 to purge your body of toxins while watching heavy-set men whipping each other with reeds. The Russian and Turkish Baths on E. 10th Street is a good place to start.
11. People watch.
Just go be around a lot of people. This may seem counterintuitive to your daily efforts of avoiding stress in the big city, but one of the things that makes NYC what it is are its crowds. And people watching in Times Square can be oh-so-delicious when you are sober (look at how uncomfortable that Texan family is around those desnudas!). For a more inspiring look at humanity, check out Washington Square or Madison Square- both of which have a history of attracting artisans and casual folk musicians.
12. Go to church.
Meditate in some of the most beautiful rooms in the city, including the largest cathedral in the world (St. John’s the Unfinished). The Catholic Church owns more real estate in NY than any other private institution other than NYU, after all.