I'll take Manhattan ... anytime_but most of all in summer.

Nothing could lure me away from the city on those balmy evenings when the Philharmonic performs in Central Park. As the sun begins to set against the darkened silhouette of the West Side skyline, thousands of New Yorkers filter on to the Great Lawn in the middle of the park. Some come with linen napkins and candelabra, others with paper cartons of Chinese food. The stage may seem miles away, the conductor a mere dot. But it doesn't matter. As the stars begin to twinkle and the music begins to swell, the sight of several thousand people lying on a patchwork of blankets, flickering candles at their sides, is hypnotic. Later, as Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture begins, the evening ends with a brilliant burst of fireworks exploding overhead. And all of this is absolutely free. What more could you want?

After 6 1/2 years here, I've become a jaded New Yorker of sorts. I've learned to cope with the crowds, to ignore the ever-present dirt and to appreciate the city's quirks. But most of all, I've gradually discovered many of the diverse and unheralded jewels long-treasured by budget-conscious New Yorkers, and periodically stumbled upon by some fortunate visitors.

From window-shopping on Fifth Avenue to gallery-hopping in SoHo to people-watching most anywhere -- there is simply no better place for seeking out low-cost food, entertainment and even culture. Reasonably priced restaurants abound. Street musicians, magicians, mimes and even fire-eaters seem to be in every part of town. And best of all, the city's cultural calendar is chock-full of free plays and concerts, particularly in the summer.

With a little guidance, an adventurous spirit and a comfortable pair of shoes, a first-time visitor can get a taste of Manhattan's summer pleasures over, say, a long weekend. The intrinsic logic of the city's streets and its mass transit system must be mastered first. Then a visitor can tackle the city a section at a time, choosing parts of town that are within easy access of one another and integrating the city's free entertainment offerings wherever and whenever possible.

So how would this jaded New Yorker spend three fun-filled days in Manhattan, on a limited budget? I would spend one day in the middle of the island, exploring the city center and sampling a museum or two; one day primarily in Central Park, and the evening at Lincoln Center; and one day exploring the lower end of Manhattan -- SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, Greenwich Village and the South Street Seaport.

Despite Manhattan's intimidating size, it is not that difficult to get from place to place here, especially in the summertime when the city is less crowded. The streets of this 22.7-square-mile island -- 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles at its widest point -- are laid out in a gridlike fashion that is easy to follow: The numbered streets run east and west, the avenues north and south. But some sections have winding streets that don't follow the pattern -- Greenwich Village, Chinatown and Little Italy, for example -- so it's a good idea to carry along a map.

Walking is probably the best way to get a feel for the city, although the transit system is both fast and convenient. Besides, a trip to Manhattan wouldn't be complete without taking at least one ride on the gritty, grafitti-covered subway. The fare is $1, but do not try to stuff a bill into the turnstile. It won't work, and you are likely to get snapped at; New Yorkers can be a testy lot on occasion. Subway tokens are available at any of the stations: Buy a handful and keep them within easy reach. The $1 bus fare can be paid either in tokens or exact change.

Taking at least one taxi ride is also an essential part of any visit to the Big Apple. Many cab drivers are colorful characters, whether Pakistani, Yugoslav, Russian, Greek, Haitian or Polish. Or you may get a blabbermouth from Brooklyn who will turn to you quite seriously and say: "I'm tired. Do ya wanna drive?"

Of course the main tourist draw this summer will be the festivities surrounding the Statue of Liberty's centennial on July 4. Nearly 6 million spectators are expected to cram into Lower Manhattan to view the colorful parade of tall ships and the promised spectacular fireworks. Among the free activities scheduled is a colossal outdoor concert in Central Park on July 5 with violinist Itzhak Perlman, opera stars Placido Domingo and Marilyn Horne and Zubin Mehta conducting the New York Philharmonic. For three days, Lower Manhattan will be transformed into a huge carnival, featuring 800 vending booths and 3,000 entertainers -- from every state and 55 nations -- on seven stages set up near Battery Park.

Liberty Weekend will be a spectacle. But if you want to avoid the crowds, as well as get a real sense of the everyday pace of this city, choose another weekend.

Since most Manhattanites -- including myself -- work in Midtown, the area roughly bordered by Central Park to the north, Third Avenue to the east, 34th Street to the south and Sixth Avenue to the west, it seems the most logical place to begin a tour of the city. On your first day, spend a few hours taking in the city's proverbial bustle, then escape to one of the city's numerous art museums and cap the evening with a bit of free theater and a picnic supper.

With its towering buildings, crowded sidewalks and honking taxicabs, Midtown is the part of the city that most people envision when they think of Manhattan. But to experience Midtown in all its bustling glory, explore the area only on a weekday. On weekends, the only other people on the streets will be tourists with cameras slung over their shoulders or jean-clad entrepreneurs headed to their offices to finish up a pressing project.

Spend an hour or two walking along the broad sidewalks of Fifth Avenue. Since you are not in a hurry, the dizzying pace of the New Yorkers, darting in and out of gaps in the sidewalk traffic, just may amuse you. Take in the windows of Tiffany & Co., the diamond wonderland at 727 Fifth Ave., or browse through the beguiling displays at Bergdorf Goodman's across the street. Don't miss the ostentatious atrium of Trump Tower -- real estate magnate Donald Trump's super-luxury mall -- with its pink marble walls and brass accents. Remember -- just looking costs nothing.

A classic window-shopping treat that is often overlooked: Steuben Glass, on Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, an establishment known for its hand-blown crystal trinkets. The expected assorted hand-warmers and paperweights are attractive, but in the back of the smartly lit showroom are some of the most exquisitely carved crystal sculptures imaginable.

Six blocks down on Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 50th streets, is the entrance to Rockefeller Center, with its charming Channel Gardens, six reflecting pools surrounded by decorative flower beds. The promenade leads to the sunken outdoor American Festival Cafe', encircled by colorful flags, and the graceful bronze statue of Prometheus. The 70-floor RCA building towers over the scene. An observation deck atop the building, 850 feet above the sidewalk, offers outrageous panoramic views of Manhattan's skyscrapers. (It costs $3.25 for adults, $1.75 for children.)

You are likely to pass what I consider one of the most entertaining aspects of Rockefeller Center as you enter the promenade off Fifth Avenue. More often than not someone will be standing here espousing one philosophy or another, shouting to be heard above the roar of the traffic.

The felafel sandwich from the vendor on the northwest corner of 51st Street is a tasty bargain at $2.75, including a soda. Take the sandwich -- and lots of napkins, it can get messy -- across the street to the steps of the famed St. Patrick's Cathedral. At lunchtime, half the world seems to pass by this 107-year-old Roman Catholic church. Don't be surprised if the elegantly dressed fellow to your right whips off his tie, maybe even his shirt, so he can catch a few rays. I have seen it happen.

Peek inside the church at the stunning French-made stained-glass windows and the 110-foot-high cross-ribbed Gothic arches.

When it's hot -- and New York can get sticky in the summer -- I like to cool off in any one of a number of refreshing atriums scattered throughout Midtown. The three-tiered public atrium of the Citicorp Center at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue is a delightful spot to catch your breath. Shops and eateries surround the outer rim of a spacious area dotted with foliage as well as tables and chairs. And there is free entertainment here daily: One recent afternoon it was a jazz concert. (Call 559-2230 for listings.)

Or visit the greenhouselike setting of the IBM building at 57th Street and Madison Avenue. Here you can relax under a tall bamboo tree and then take in the free art or science exhibit at the adjacent IBM-sponsored gallery.

In fact, weekday afternoons are the perfect time to visit one of the city's more than 50 museums; choosing one depends entirely on your taste in art. (Many of the larger ones have pay-what-you-wish admission policies.) The Museum of Modern Art, at 11 West 53rd St., has a rich collection of works extending from the impressionist period to the present and is within walking distance.

The stately Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue is a short bus ride away. It could easily take three full days to see this grand museum, with collections dating back to ancient times. But don't miss the Temple of Dendur: An entire Egyptian temple has been transported here piece by piece and reconstructed exactly as it stood in Egypt. Outside the museum, several hundred people waste many an hour on the steps, watching a mime mimic passing pedestrians, breakdancers perform body-twisting feats or an acrobat teetering on a unicycle with one hand.

(Other museum possibilities include the Museum of the City of New York at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street with its multimedia presentations of the city's history, where admission is always free, and the Whitney Museum of American Art on Madison Avenue and East 75th Street, with its collection of 20th-century art. Admission to the Whitney is free only on Tuesdays. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue between 88th and 89th Streets is well known for its snail-like architectural design. Mostly modern paintings hang in the gallery's spiraling exhibit hall. Admission is free only on Tuesdays between 5 and 8 p.m.)

When food comes to mind again, walk east to Madison Avenue and turn right. Between 80th and 81st streets, you will find E.A.T., a gourmet delicatessen, which sells a wide variety of cheeses, cold salads, breads and meats -- all the makings for a picnic.

Then with your basket of goodies in hand, head to the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, the 2,000-seat outdoor home to the New York Shakespeare Festival presented by producer Joseph Papp. This year's festival features "Twelfth Night," starring F. Murray Abraham of "Amadeus" fame, through July 20. The Festival Latino, a celebration of music and dance, begins on Aug. 6 and runs through Aug. 25. Tickets are distributed the day of the performance beginning at 6:15 p.m. While you wait for the show to begin at 8 p.m, enjoy your delicacies on the banks of the nearby lake in the shadow of Belvedere Castle, an imitation of a medieval palace. (Check local papers for outdoor concerts.)

On your second day in the Big Apple, reacquaint yourself with Central Park -- an 840-acre oasis of wooded paths, trees and lakes -- discover the chic charms of Columbus Avenue on the West Side and take in a little culture at Lincoln Center.

Begin the day with a classic New York tradition: brunch. Take a subway or a bus to the Upper East Side, a fashionable neighborhood with tree-lined streets, stately brownstones, high-rise apartment buildings and broad, busy avenues. Try Ruppert's at 1662 Third Ave. at 93rd Street, a classic but casual restaurant-bar with live music and high ceilings. A sumptuous meal of creamy eggs benedict or crispy french toast made with thick slices of challah bread should cost less than $15 for two, including drinks.

In the same way that spending a few hours in Midtown can give you a sense of the city's pace during the week, a few hours in Central Park can reveal much about the spirit of the city on a weekend. After living in a canyon of concrete all week long, Manhattanites flee to Central Park on weekends as if their sanity depended on it. I know mine does.

I can't think of a more relaxing way to spend a sultry, summer afternoon than floating lazily in a row boat on the lake in Central Park. The view of the skyline at the park's southern edge is dramatic, an odd contrast to the lake's tranquil setting. I always try to avoid looking at the murky water -- it somehow spoils the idyllic effect. But after all, this is New York City.

On a single afternoon here you can watch a softball game at one of the Heckscher ballfields, get a tan on the Sheep Meadow or join a folk-dancing group on the edge of Belvedere Lake. You are likely to hear the strains of a steel-drum band or perhaps a rhythm and blues group. You will see joggers, roller skaters, bikers and even a horse-drawn carriage or two. Recently, I caught a few interesting sights sure to turn the head of most visitors: One young man whizzed by on a motorized skateboard, wearing a winged contraption of some sort on his back, and an elderly matron dressed in a navy blue suit strolled beside me, pushing her pet poodle in a baby carriage.

The park also provides a garden of children's delights, from the zoo in the southeast corner, where admission is only a dime, to the Conservatory Pond, where intricately detailed model yachts sail, maneuvered by remote control from the water's edge. (The zoo is presently being renovated. Completion is expected by next summer.) A statue of Alice in Wonderland to the north of the pond is ideal for climbing, and there are storytelling hours on summer Saturday mornings, beginning at 11:30, at the base of the statue of Hans Christian Andersen to the west.

After a full day in the park, head to the West Side, a richly diverse, residential neighborhood affectionately dubbed "the Yupper West Side" recently by New York magazine. The recently gentrified area with its skyrocketing property values, however, is still a healthy mixture of middle-class and working-class families as well as "yuppies." The neighborhood's hub is Columbus Avenue, with its trendy boutiques, gourmet shops and outdoor cafe's. Prices are generally moderate, but they can be tricky, so check posted menus.

One of my favorite spots for people-watching and munching is Anita's Chili Parlor at 287 Columbus Ave. Get a table outside and share a nacho gigante -- a Mexican pizza -- with a friend. The frozen daiquiris are mouth-watering and the selection of beers refreshing. A few hours here watching the passersby are guaranteed to please even the most avid people-watchers.

And then it's time to move on to Lincoln Center, the home of the city's most prestigious cultural institutions. The center's plaza is framed by three separate buildings -- the New York State Theater to the left, Avery Fisher Hall to the right and the Metropolitan Opera in the center. A fabulous fountain that sporadically sprays 20-foot-high streams of water into the air faces the opera house, an elegant structure with tall, arched windows, red-carpeted spiral staircases and crystal snowflakelike chandeliers.

Watching well-dressed crowds fill the plaza on their way to the opera or the ballet can be exciting even when you don't have any tickets. But if you're longing to hear the strains of classical music, don't fret. To the left of the Metropolitan -- sort of tucked behind the complex -- is peaceful Damrosch Park, which features a 3,500-seat open-air theater around a bandshell. On most summer evenings, you can enjoy free concerts here.

For late-night life on the Upper West Side, one possibility is the West End Cafe' at 2911 Broadway, a short cab ride away ($4) from Lincoln Center. I discovered this informal and inexpensive jazz club when I was a graduate student at Columbia University. Once frequented by Beat generation names such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the cafe' is still a hangout for college students. Past the long, noisy wooden bar to the right is an intimate room that seats about 100. Here, for a mere $3 minimum a set, you can catch some of the best Dixieland jazz in town.

On your last day in the city, head downtown to the lower part of Manhattan, an area so varied that it includes money-driven Wall Street and the financial district as well as the avant-garde East Village. Two of Manhattan's ethnic pockets are here, too -- within a few blocks of each other: Little Italy and Chinatown.

Even a couple of days in this area may not be enough to fully explore it. But a brief glimpse of SoHo's art world, a sampling of the historic South Street Seaport area, a romantic ride on the Staten Island Ferry topped off with savory ethnic specialties and a few hours in vibrant Greenwich Village should give you a sense of the many different neighborhoods that make up downtown Manhattan.

Spend the morning discovering new artists in SoHo, a name that literally means south of Houston Street but more obviously refers to London's art district. Once zoned exclusively for light manufacturing, SoHo became a haven for artists in the 1960s when they moved into the area's large, commercial lofts. In recent years, the area's avant-garde quality has become more middle class, but it is still a lively neighborhood of countless galleries, curious shops, narrow, brick-paved streets and 19th-century buildings fronted with cast iron.

Two shops definitely worth investigating are: Think Big at 390 West Broadway, the place to seek out pencils as tall as people or tea cups as big as fruit bowls, and D.F. Sander's & Co. at 386 West Broadway, a high-tech housewares shop with displays that are so attractive they even make scouring pads look appealing.

Then head over to the Museum of Holography on Mercer Street, an intriguing museum that claims to be the only one in the world to focus exclusively on this form of laser technology.

Consider having a bite at Elephant & Castle at 183 Prince St., a cozy restaurant known for its fluffy omelets. Or ignore those hunger pangs until you get to the historic South Street Seaport. This renovated complex of shops, food emporiums, cafe's and popular restaurants is located on the southeastern tip of Manhattan. (To get there from SoHo, take the No. 1 IRT subway line from Houston Street to Chambers Street. Change to the No. 2 train, heading downtown, and get off at Fulton Street. The Seaport is a short walk from the station.)

The second deck of the Fulton Market, one of the numerous buildings in the complex, is a food lover's paradise. From vendorlike stalls you can buy just about anything your palate desires, from crisp-fried french fries and homemade ice-cream to sausage heroes and steamed clams. Free entertainment can be had here, too. You may catch a fire-eater swallowing flames in the middle of a crowd, packed three-deep on the waterfront plaza, or you can listen to a full-fledged concert on Pier 16.

Not far away is one of the biggest unheralded bargains left in the Big Apple -- the Staten Island Ferry. For a mere quarter, the grimy ferry -- no mistaking where you are -- will take you across New York's windswept harbor, passing Ellis Island, America's gateway for countless immigrants, and Lady Liberty herself, standing tall and glorious. The view of the Manhattan skyline is simply breathtaking. As the boat pulls away from the slip and heads into the harbor, a tranquil feeling takes over. The constant hum of the city disappears as the buildings get smaller and smaller. Stay to the rear of the boat because the seats outside provide the best vantage points, and simply remain aboard for the return trip.

Back in the city, explore Chinatown and Little Italy, two neighboring ethnic enclaves that form one of the city's oddest juxtapositions. (Take the No. 1 IRT uptown from South Ferry to Canal Street.)

What I always find fascinating here is how quickly the tone of the neighborhood changes from block to block. Turn from Canal Street to Mulberry Street and watch the Chinese signs fade away to red, white and green awnings advertising homemade pasta. Chinatown's tiny, winding streets are constantly backlogged with honking cars and trucks, and the neighborhood is growing so fast that it is beginning to encroach on Little Italy to its north.

Walk along Canal Street -- Chinatown's major thoroughfare -- with its pagoda-shaped phone booths and browse through the exotic food markets, where whole ducks hang from hooks. Also notice the endless supply of trinket shops, where various knick-knacks from souvenirs to children's computer games can be had at bargain prices.

Sample the local specialty, dim sum -- assorted appetizers. The mouth-watering morsels, from steamed pork dumplings to crab-filled pies, are served on carts, and cost $1.30 a dish. A whole meal for two can cost less than $10. Choose a restaurant that appears to have a high percentage of Chinese customers to be assured of high-quality food.

Turning north onto Mulberry Street leads you into a small corner of Italy. Small strings of white lights crisscross overhead, and strolling minstrels wander from restaurant to restaurant, singing Italian ballads. Sit at the outdoor cafe' at Ferrara's at 195 Grand St. and watch the fun, while you sip a steamy cup of cappuccino and savor a creamy ricotta-stuffed cannoli.

Spend the rest of the evening in Greenwich Village, once the bohemian heart of the city and still, at least to me, one of the most colorful neighborhoods -- a perfect end to your three-day visit. From Little Italy, it should not be difficult to find a taxi. But if it is, walk west on Canal Street to Sixth Avenue and take a bus north to Bleecker Street and Minetta Street.

*Here you are in the heart of the West Village, an area that has been home to some of this country's greatest literary giants: Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Henry James and Eugene O'Neill. Walk north on Minetta Street, which runs into Minetta Lane, where you turn right. (The streets in the Village tend to be winding and confusing, so use a map or simply ask for help if you get lost -- New Yorkers can be helpful, even if their reputation short-sells them.) Notice the charming town houses, the brownstones with their neat gardens and the quaint street lamps. You can almost imagine hearing the gentle clip-clop of a horse-drawn carriage.

But the mood is soon broken as you approach MacDougal and Bleecker streets, with their colorful fruit and vegetable stands, pastry shops, funky boutiques and espresso houses with outdoor cafe's. While most of today's creative talents, like pop artist Keith Haring, have blossomed in the nearby East Village, the West Village still attracts a vivacious crowd, especially on summer evenings.

On Thompson Street, turn northward to Washington Square, the congenial but chaotic hub of the West Village. Completely surrounded by the buildings of New York University, Washington Square, a park of sorts, serves as the university's campus. Trees line two sides of the square and a large fountain lies at its center. On the edge of the square facing Fifth Avenue is a large, white marble arch.

Here, magicians mingle with mimes, preppies with pushers. In one corner under the trees, old men play chess, in another youngsters flip Frisbees. Under the arch, an artist paints instant portraits of passersby for a small fee, and a vendor sells fluorescent-green neon-gas-filled necklaces. Sit on a bench for a while and revel in the merry mayhem that rules here.

In three days you will only have scratched the surface of Manhattan's rich diversity. But at least you will have experienced the city's spirit, without having to spend every last bill in your wallet.

Take Manhattan? You bet I will. Will you? Dody Tsiantar works in the New York bureau of The Washington Post.