Money

One of the best things to do in New York City is completely free—but there’s a catch

AFP_PH94S
Timothy A. Clary | Getty Images

When a friend invited me to New York's Shakespeare in the Park last summer, I immediately accepted — and then did a double take.

Did the invitation really mean that I needed to arrive at 6:00 a.m.?

Alas, it was not a typo. "Yes, you really do have to get there that early," my friend assured me.

NYC's Shakespeare in the Park is one of the city's most unusual cultural institutions. Unlike some Broadway shows that sell for thousands of dollars per ticket, the shows have always been and remain completely free.

But tickets are limited, so hopeful patrons spend weekend mornings throughout the summer camped out in front of the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in hopes of scoring seats. Hence my 6:00 a.m. call time.

Randomly assigned tickets are handed out precisely at noon, and each person in line can get up to two tickets each. For groups hoping to sit together, up to four consecutive seats can be guaranteed. And if you want to be sure that you'll get tickets at all, arriving before sunrise is a must. While you might get lucky if you show up at 8:00 a.m. or later, you better pray you're not waiting in line past the "Rock of No Hope."

There are several ways to acquire tickets, including a daily lottery, but waiting in line is a rite of passage for many.

At first, I was skeptical of any event that required me to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and spend six hours sitting outside, but it ended up being well worth it. The group of people I weathered the wait with — both friends and friends of friends — came prepared with games and snacks. Park visitors walked by to say hello to those of us in line. And a number of accommodating restaurants were willing to deliver food directly to the theater.

The six-hour wait passed quickly. Other than the fact that we arrived before dawn, the day felt exactly like hanging out with friends in the park, which is likely the same activity I would have done had I not committed to attending the show. Only this came with a bonus at the end.

Keeping the shows free has been a core tenet of Shakespeare in the Park since its founding.

Originally called the New York Shakespeare Workshop, and later the New York Shakespeare Festival, the annual event was started by Joe Papp in 1954 as a "means of making Shakespeare's works accessible to all members of the public, regardless of income," according to WNYC.

The group's first performance took place in an old church along the East River, and the workshop moved to Central Park in 1957. At the time, the Parks Commissioner, New York's notorious Robert Moses, thought the shows should generate profits to pay for wear and tear on the park. Papp protested, and eventually the group won funds from the city to build a permanent amphitheater. That became the Delacorte Theater, where the shows still take place today.

"By keeping [the festival] free, I feel we have supported and defended the very core of the democratic philosophy, which is the greatest good for the greatest number," Papp said at the dedication of the Delacorte in 1962.

The tradition still stands. Shakespeare in the Park tickets are 100 percent free — and tickets are completely worth getting up at 4:00 a.m.

If you're interested in squeezing in a show this summer, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" runs through August 13th.

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook

Don't miss: Self-made millionaire Mario Batali: This is the only time it's worth getting into debt