All over the world, from Burning Man in the Nevada salt flats to Roskilde in Denmark, there’s a pricey summer festival for every artistic taste. New Orleans, Newport, and Montreal have their Jazz Festivals. Britain has All Tomorrow’s Parties and Edinburgh Fringe. Germany has Bayreuth, and Austria has Salzburg.
New York City has everything. And, here, it’s practically free.
Free and super-cheap summer festivals are one of the reasons New Yorkers are willing to put up with life in this sometimes uninviting city that never gives us a moment’s rest. This is the time that intense and ambitious locals let our hair down and crack open a beer or two. There’s Fleet Week in May, Governor’s Island in June, fireworks in July, bike rides in August, performance art in September, and picnics all summer long in Central Park. And that’s the tip of the New York summer party iceberg.
The shows listed below are just a sampling of what’s on offer. The free festival circuit kicks off in early June, but July and August offer the biggest bang for your travel buck. For more information about these festivals and other free and cheap events around New York, refer to convenient local publications like Time Out New York, The Village Voice, and L Magazine for event listings as they happen.
- Sundays in July and August at the East River Waterfront Park in Williamsburg
This festival, which until last year was held at the derelict McCarren Park Pool (hence the name), focuses on obscure indie rock acts. It’s the place to be for bohemian types, which makes for some of the best people watching this side of Tokyo. There’s also plenty of American childhood nostalgia to go around: wear a bathing suit for the epic slip n’ slide, or join in a pre-show round of dodge ball. You can bring in a picnic lunch, though outside alcohol is not allowed.
- June 22 through August 19
- Free, though reservations are sometimes required for the biggest events
River To River boggles the mind. Multiple shows are scheduled every week from late June through mid August, at venues all over lower Manhattan, in just about any genre you can think of. You name it, they do it. They book huge rock concerts, hold experimental events like the annual Bang On A Can Marathon, and throw in some world class opera and orchestral music just in case that wasn’t enough. These events are a great way to mix sight seeing with living like the locals, as they are generally held in or near major tourist attractions like South Street Seaport and Battery Park.
- Saturday, July 17, 2010
- Along the Coney Island Boardwalk
- Music is free; additional Coney Island attractions are not included
Siren Fest is a great excuse to explore Coney Island. Take the Q or F trains to the end of the line deep in south Brooklyn, where, in addition to seeing big-name rock bands and up and coming indie acts play on two stages, you can ride the historic Cyclone roller coaster, eat hot dogs at the original Nathan’s stand, stroll on the boardwalk, and take in a traditional old school freak show. Insider tip: you are technically not allowed to bring alcohol into the venue due to New York’s open container laws. However, it’s not hard to get crafty and smuggle in cheap Russian beer you can pick up at any corner store in nearby Brighton Beach. I like Baltika #4 in a metal water bottle.
- Tuesdays From June 21 through August 23
It can be tough to snag a perfect spot on the Bryant Park lawn for this, the most popular of NYC’s outdoor film series. The best strategy is to work as a team. Send scouts to the park around 4pm in order to get the best position in the scrum that waits to stake a claim when the lawn officially opens at 5. Meanwhile, the rest of your group should go off in search of the makings of a picnic: with three supermarkets and the famous Greenmarket, Union Square is conveniently located and your best bet in terms of snacks. Your group should reassemble as soon as possible after 5pm to cement your claim on prime viewing turf. The movie, typically an old Hollywood classic or a more recent crowd-pleaser like Rocky or Star Wars, starts at sundown.
- Wednesdays in July and August
This outdoor film festival is a great alternative to Bryant Park. Because it’s outside the hustle-bustle of Midtown Manhattan, you probably won’t need to jockey for position. The films are more artistically challenging and diverse, reflecting the creativity and cosmopolitan flavor of the surrounding neighborhood. The setting, Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens, is a great place to enjoy outdoor art while you wait for the movie to begin. Even better, the park is in the heart of one of the city’s culinary hot-spots; you can easily bring in a picnic from any of a number of ethnic cuisines by getting a takeout meal to go or exploring one of the many Greek, Asian, and Latin-American groceries nearby. To get to Socrates Sculpture Park, take the N or W subway line to Broadway in Queens.
- July 8 – August 18
If you wait in line all day and still don’t get tickets for Shakespeare In The Park, console yourself with this more accessible free Shakespeare festival, held in a parking lot in the Lower East Side. This is Shakespeare in the streets, without the idyllic setting or celebrity cast that its Central Park counterpart rests on year after year. On the slate for 2010 are Julius Caesar and Love’s Labors Lost.
- July through August
- Free with Museum Admission
Every Saturday afternoon from the Fourth through Labor day, MoMA’s little sister in Long Island City hosts the best dance party in the five boroughs. The soundtrack consists of live music and legendary DJ sets depending on the week, and the ensuing bacchanalia is one of the high points of summer in New York. Don’t forget that access to the museum is included in your ticket price: PS1 is one of the best places in the city to see contemporary art
Coney Island Mermaid Parade
- June 19
The annual Mermaid Parade, held along Surf Avenue in Coney Island, is the USA’s biggest art parade. Celebrating the beginning of summer, participants dress in costumes representing the spirit of the ocean and paying homage to the freak show, burlesque, and generally campy nature of summer boardwalk culture. Following the parade, King Neptune and Queen Mermaid stroll down the beach, cutting ribbons and tossing fruit into the water to “appease the Sea Gods”, and the summer season officially begins.
Feast of San Gennaro
- September 16-26
This festival, held on Mulberry street in Little Italy, is held in honor of the patron saint of Naples. The main feast day is on September 19 and features a procession and mass in the Most Precious Blood Church. The remaining weekend days play host to one of the city’s biggest street parties, featuring a cannoli eating contest, food stalls selling Italian-American specialties, live music, and carnival games.
A little bit of everything
- performances several nights a week from June through August
- $2 suggested donation
Featuring local artists as well as international guests selected to reflect the uniqueness and diversity of Brooklyn, this outdoor performing arts festival has rocked the Prospect Park bandshell every summer since 1979. Most performances are musical in nature, but there are also outdoor films, theater, dance, and spoken word. This year, the lineup includes Allen Toussaint, Sonic Youth, and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings.
All summer long, public parks throughout the five boroughs play host to an incredible number of free cultural events. There are concerts in every conceivable musical genre, dance, opera, theatrical performances (yes, including Shakespeare), puppetry, and activities for children. The best way to find out exactly what is going on when and in what space is to pick up a copy of local weeklies like the Village Voice or Time Out New York when you arrive.