We love New York City! We’ve visited the Big Apple many times over the past decade, but haven’t really shared a lot of our experiences from our travels.
What we learned over all these visits is that trying to plan a trip to NYC can be overwhelming.
There is just so much to see and trying to pick out what you should focus on can be a really big task. That is why we wanted to make planning your trip to NYC easy.
It doesn’t matter if you are a first time visitor or this is your 5th time visiting, this list of the ultimate things to do in New York City will make your next trip unforgettable.
What is included in this article on New York City
About Openings and Closings in NYC
Please make sure to check with each attraction before booking to see what their current procedures and opening times are. Things are changing constantly these days.
Best Things to do in New York City
There are five boroughs of the city that are all worth exploring, but we are going to focus on Manhattan as this is where most first-timers begin and where we always tend to hang out the most.
We decided sort this list of what to do in New York City by wow factor. Putting the must-see things to do at the top (especially if you are visiting for the first time) and the things we feel you can leave for a second or third visit near the bottom.
We also give prices and Google map coordinates to help you find each attraction. So happy browsing!
What Should You do on your First Trip to New York?
1. National 9/11 Memorial and Museum
To see the spirit and resilience of the people of New York, a visit to Ground Zero at One World Trade Center is a must.
The site of the Twin Towers has been transformed into a powerful memorial.
Two 9/11 memorial reflection pools sit at the bases of where the twin towers were with names etched into the walls.
The pools are surrounded by skyscrapers showing how New York has rebuilt and is standing with hope rather than hate.
Going into the 911 memorial Museum is something everyone should do.
Inside it shows the devastation and real-life impact September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the World Trader Center bombings of 1993.
We feel that it is one of those important things to do in New York regardless of whether it is your first time or not.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum remind us all that these senseless acts of violence only hurt the innocent but when tragedy strikes, the best of the human race emerges.
2. Empire State Building
Not many cities in the world compare to the NYC Skyline at night. Especially from above.
That makes heading up the Empire State Building one of the coolest things to do in New York.
It used to be the tallest building in New York but that title is now held by the new building at 1 World Trade Center. Still, the views of the city from here are incredible.
Our favorite time to visit the Empire State Building is at night. The observation deck is open until 2 am!
Going after midnight ensures that there are no crowds for you to fight with crowds while taking in the neon lights igniting the city skyline.
If you do want to visit the Empire State Building during the day we recommend heading there early to avoid the lines.
3. Go Up to the Top of the Rock
In our opinion, no trip to New York would be complete without visiting the Rockefeller Center and the Top of the Rock.
This has one of the best views of New York. While I feel that the skyline view itself is better from the Empire State Building, the view of the Empire State Building is breathtaking from the Top of The Rock.
This view is the classic New York City view that we all see in the movies.
Plus, it’s cool to visit here because it is home to NBC Studios.
In the morning you can stand outside to watch the today show, and if you really want to jump through hoops, you can try to see a Jimmy Fallon taping.
Make sure to book your tickets in advance for the Top of the Rock. It can get really busy during peak seasons.
4. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
If you want to fit in a little culture during your visit to New York then one of the best things you can do is hit up the museums.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is truly our favorite museum in NYC.
There are so many things to see at the Met.
It takes days to really experience it all, but highlights include Van Gough’s self-portrait, Dantes Inferno, ruins, a recreation of the Sistine Chapel, and an incredible Egyptian Display complete with mummies and ancient tombs.
But you don’t have to spend days in here. A hour or two will give you a good appreciation for what it has to offer.
Take it from us, a couple that doesn’t really put museums high on a list to visit, this is one you should make sure you see.
When people say you could spend days exploring the Met, they mean it.
5. Spend a Morning at the Statue of Liberty
If you ask anyone you know they are going to say that one of the top things to see in New York is the Statue of Liberty. We would agree but you do have to be committed and have time.
If you are visiting New York during high season, you can stand in line for hours waiting to catch the ferry.
Even when we went during the offseason, we had to wait for 45 minutes just for the ferry to fill up.
It is then a 15-minute ride from Battery Park out to Liberty Island.
When you get to the Statue of Liberty you can book a time to go up to the top of the statue of Liberty Head (I did this when I was 16 years old) and you can walk around lady liberty admiring the views of Manhattan.
There’s an excellent museum to visit with the original flame on display.
If this is your first trip to New York you will want to make time to see this as it is really impressive and worth the cost.
6. Ellis Island
Many people include the Ellis Island tour with the Statue of Liberty. We did this our first time to New York together and we found it fascinating.
We actually enjoyed our Ellis Island tour more than our time at Liberty Island to learn about the history of immigration to New York.
Make your way up to the second floor and there is an excellent collection of photos displaying the history of Ellis Island.
Cost: Included in Statue Of Liberty Tour
What to do in NYC for Free or On the Cheap
7. The Oculus
While visiting the 9/11 memorial, your eyes will be drawn to the striking structure known as the Oculus.
The design of stark white steel ribs interlocking high above the ground represents doves flying from the hands of a child. It gives a sense of hope at the site of a tragedy.
It is a transportation hub so chances are you will come up from the subway here.
In our opinion it is one of the best free things to do in New York.
8. Be Wowed by The Vessel
The Vessel at Hudson Yards is a remarkable work of art that gives wannabe photographers their perfect Instagram worthy shot.
If you are looking for fun things to do in New York City then make sure to add this to your list.
Surrounded by eye-catching skyscrapers, this art installation takes you up a spiral staircase of 2500 steps for views of the Hudson River and mid-town.
Entrance is free, but you must book a timed slot at the kiosks on sight. We suggest getting there early so you don’t have to wait around.
This was by far one of the best things to photograph in New York as it is so unique.
9. Hudson Yards Shopping Center
This midtown Manhattan neighborhood is an awesome place to hang out for the morning. Go inside and you get another cool view of the Vessel.
It’s home to very expensive condos and we can only imagine who has an apartment in this neck of the woods.
If you aren’t in a rush, there are plenty of things to keep you busy while you wait.
The Hudson Yards shopping center is located right next door where you can go in for a bite to eat or you can grab a coffee to take away with you on a stroll.
10. Have Coffee while strolling High Line
Once you’ve grabbed your coffee at the Hudson Yards take a walk on the High Line. This is something we try to do on every trip to New York.
The High Line is a 1 1/2 mile long elevated walkway and park that cuts through Manhattan’s West Side. It was an old freight train track, that is now a pedestrian path through condos and skyscrapers.
You catch some great views of street art along the way as well.
It takes about 30 – 40 minutes to walk from Hudson Yards to the Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District.
11. Chelsea Market
By the time you’ve visited the Vessel and walked the Highline, I am sure that you are hungry, so pop into the Chelsea Market for lunch or brunch.
Located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, this is definitely one of those “New York things to do”, so make sure to add it to your list.
Chelsea Market is located in the old Nabisco Factory where Oreo cookies were invented!
Today it has been transformed into office buildings for Google. Well, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc.
The market is a food complex on the main and basement floors with everything from tacos to ice cream.
It has everything your empty stomach could desire, so be sure to pop into this complex that takes up a full city block for any treat you desire.
12. Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge
For one of the best views of New York , a walk along the Brooklyn Bridge is a must.
While you can get to Brooklyn by bus or subway, why not walk from lower Manhattan to Brooklyn across the bridge.
Though it is not the oldest bridge in NYC it is one of the few bridges that you can actually walk across.
You can stand overhead looking at the New York traffic pass underneath, dodge new yorkers scuttling to work and keep an eye out for cyclists whizzing by in the bike lane.
This is a great place to see the city from a different vantage point.
13. Take in the Manhattan Skyline from Brooklyn
When you get across the Brooklyn Bridge, spend a morning or afternoon on the waterfront of the East River in Brooklyn.
There are plenty of things to see here, including iconic views across the East River of the Manhattan Skyline from DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and The Brooklyn Bridge Park.
You can wander around the cool neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, head out to Coney Island, grab a slice of Pizza at the famous Grimaldi’s pizzeria and stroll along the waterfront admiring the shops, cafés, and Jane’s carousel.
Brooklyn is really a neighborhood and attraction unto itself that deserves more than a few hours, but if you are visiting New York for the first time, this is a great introduction.
14. Be Wowed by Times Square
This is probably one of the most touristy things to do in New York, butyou can’t miss visiting it.
There is a reason that this is square is world-famous.
Walk around and be amazed by all the neon billboards and skyscrapers that completely surround you. Revel in the hustle and bustle that happens here 7 days a week.
You definitely have to make sure to visit if this will be your first time in New York.
We also almost always stay in or near this area when we are in the city. It’s just one of the best people watching place on earth.
There is always something going on and going up to sit on the red steps to take it all in is a must!
15. Rent a Bicycle in Central Park for Free
Central Park is one of my favorite places in Manhattan and no visit to the city would be complete without at least stepping foot in it.
Watch street performers at The Mall which is an elm tree-lined pedestrian path, see the Hans Christian Anderson and Alice In Wonderland statues, enjoy a coffee by the pond, and take a picture of the Bethesda Fountain.
Remember, Central Park is huge, so a great way to get around if you have limited time is to rent a bicycle. There are so many things to see that you’ll want wheels to do it right.
If you have some more time, we have found one of the best ways to discover Central Park is to just wander around and get lost.
You will always end up at a major street and it is a great way to escape the business of the Manhattan streets for a few hours.
Other ways to see Central Park – Horse and Carriage, Pedicabs, walking, Central Park Tours.
Google maps: Central Park Bike Rentals
16. Pay Respect to John Lennon in Central Park
Located on the West Side of Central Park, Strawberry Fields is a memorial to John Lennon.
Lennon lived right across the street at the Dakota (where he was also shot out front) and spent a lot of time in this part of Central Park.
There is a circular mosaic that looks like a record with the word “imagine” etched into it in the center of the path.
Go early in the morning as there are flocks of tourists around it getting a picture of the famous memorial.
17. Take the Subway to Grand Central Terminal
This is more than just your average train station, it is the largest train station in the world.
Besides being a major hub it is also one of the most beautiful buildings in New York City.
Its massive main concourse was actually modeled after a Roman public bath and it is really impressive to take in, especially during the hustle and bustle of rush hour.
When you visit Grand Central Train Station make sure not to miss the whispering gallery for a little fun.
Getting Around New York City
The best way to get around New York is by using the Subway.
The New York Pass includes the Hop on Hop off Bus, but we find this a waste of time.
Getting on the subway is fast and efficient and it’s very reasonable. Just get yourself a metro pass card at the machines (cost $1) and fill it up with some cash.
It’s easy to refill, so you can start out with the $9 that comes preloaded. And then you are free to go around for $2.50 per ride.
One of our favorite things to do in New York is to jump on the subway and get off at a stop we have never been to.
Metro rides allow one free transfer within a 2 hour period, so you can pop into Grand Central on your way to anywhere and get back on without wasting a ride!
18. Admire the Guggenheim Museum
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim is worth going inside if only to wander around and see the architecture.
With our New York Pass, it was free, so we popped in to see the displays too.
Special exhibits are constantly changing in this very modern gallery.
19. Museum Mile
The Guggenheim is located on Museum Mile, and if you really love exploring history and culture, you might want to check out all the museums along this stretch of road that lines Central Park.
20. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
For Modern Art, MOMA is the place to go. It was the first museum we ever visited in New York because we had heard so much about it!
It houses the famous Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh and houses one of the best collections of modern art in the world.
If you want to save yourself some money MOMA offers free entrance each Friday between 4 and 8 pm. It also offers access to its sculpture garden for free every day from 9-9:15 am.
21. The American Museum of Natural History
If you are looking for things to do in New York with kids, then the American Museum of Natural History is one of the places you will want to add to your itinerary.
This is a fun museum for them to see dinosaurs, life size animals and scenic displays.
We didn’t love this the American Museum of Natural History museum, but a lot of people do! And the life-like displays are very impressive.
22. History of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall Tour
Seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall was a highlight for us when visiting New York at Christmas, but you can’t always see them perform.
If you want to know more about this historic landmark, one of the best things to do is to take a Radio City Music Hall Tour. You can admire the art deco interior and learn about the history of this world-renowned concert hall.
See the private quarters of Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel who wined and dined the greatest artists of the time including Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Judy Garland and more.
Meet a Rockette and see the magnificent hydraulic stage.
23. Madison Square Garden Tour
When you take a tour of Radio City Music Hall, they offer a discount to tour Madison Square Gardens with your ticket. If you have the New York Pass it’s included.
Chances are, you won’t be able to catch a game or see a rockin’ performance at Madison Square Gardens, but we think tours are the next best thing!
24. Greenwich Village
I’ll never forget walking around Greenwich Village with our friend Melanie as she pointed out her old haunts. While it has changed a lot over the years, it is still a place to feel like a local New Yorker.
Home to the famous arch of Washington Square Park, this is where the cool people hang out.
It’s a place to relax, people watch and watch artists at work in one of the many off-Broadway Theatres, workshopping their latest and greatest masterpiece.
- If you have time, take a walk to other cool neighborhoods like SOHO and East Greenwich Village.
We barely left these neighborhoods when visiting New York for the first time.
Take a tour to really learn the history of the area. The Hippie days are long gone, but a tour will show you where all the cool spots were that helped shape the culture of today.
25. Bryant Park
Bryant Park is an excellent destination year-round with free movies showing at night in the summertime and free ice skating on the rink in the winter.
We really loved this park in the winter. It is less crowded than Rockefeller Plaza and the man-made skating rink is a great place to spend an evening.
There’s the winter village set up with many shops and eateries lining the path, there are street performers in the summer and lots of dining.
It’s known as Manhattan’s meeting place.
26. Take a Selfie with the Wall Street Bull
This is a silly little thing that attracts way too many visitors for what it is. People actually line up for a crowded selfie around the Wall Street Bull.
But it seems to be the thing to do when visiting New York, so when in Rome…
When you are done at the bull, go around the corner to the iconic Wall Street. It is pretty cool to see.
This is the financial hub of the world and it’s worth spying on “the suits” who walk by doing something very important on their cell phones.
27. Indulge in Pasta in Little Italy
I don’t think there is a cooler Italian area anywhere in the world (outside of Italy).
This is a part of the city that has somewhat kept its heritage. Buildings are decorated with white and green stripes and even the garland hanging over the streets are in Italy’s colors of red, white and green.
Some eateries have been around since the 1800s and so far, Little Italy has survived gentrification (at least for now).
So go in for a bite to eat and follow in the footsteps of NYCs most famous Italians.
28. Take a Boat Tour
If you don’t want to visit the actual islands of Ellis or Liberty, we suggest taking a boat tour to see New York from the water.
There are plenty of chances to get out on the Hudson River in New York with boats to Governors Island, New York City Water Taxis crossing the channel and Liberty Island Boat Tours, (where you don’t have to get off)
The best way to get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan on the cheap is to jump on the Staten Island Ferry.
It crosses the New York Harbor 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. You can just take it for the views or, if you have a little time spend an hour or so ob Staten Island.
29. Check out Some Broadway Shows
If you love live productions then you know one of the top things to do in NYC is to take in a Broadway show.
Times Square is in the heart of Broadway and streets jutting off from the square have marquee billboards showcasing the latest Broadway productions.
Movie stars always flex their acting chops on Broadway and there’s no better way to see your favorite star than to go and see them in a play.
The New York Pass app lets you know what deals you can get while you are in town.
Make sure to book your tickets in advance, especially if you plan on taking in one of the more popular shows.
30. New York Public Library
I know what you are saying, “Who goes to the library anymore?” But the NYC Stephen A. Schwarzman Public Library is special.
Built back in the 1800s this building is simply beautiful. It costs nothing to enter and it is worth the trip just to see the newly restored Rose Reading Room.
If you are a fan of architecture then you will not want to miss this.
There are free tours Monday to Saturday at 11 am that take you through the second largest library in the world!
31. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Whenever Dave and I travel, we suddenly become religious. Well, we at least visit churches and cathedrals. There is so much history inside them.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York is one of the oldest and most recognizable cathedrals in the United States.
If you are like us and go to places like the Vatican, Notre Dame, and the Koln Cathedral only when traveling, this is another one to add to the list.
32. Get Your Culture on at The Lincoln Center
The Lincoln Center houses David Geffin Hall, David H. Koch Theatre, and the Metropolitan Opera House.
It is home to the New York City Ballet, The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
So, if you want to step into high society for an evening, this is one of the best to do it.
Whenever we think of the opera, we picture Cher and Nicolas Cage going to the Met in the film Moonstruck which is located right here.
If you are visiting New York at Christmas, we suggest checking out The Nutcracker at the Lincoln, it’s a tradition!
And if you’ve always wanted to see the ballet, this might be the time to do it.
33. Go Shopping
New York is one of the best places in the world to go shopping.
I’ll never forget my mom getting angry with me as a kid because I didn’t want to buy anything from Bloomingdales.
We had come all this way to New York and I was having a tantrum about shopping.
I’ve changed my tune these days!
When visiting New York, you have to make sure to walk along 5th avenue to do some window shopping and go into the world-renowned stores of Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdales, and Macey’s. And don’t forget Tiffany’s.
How to Save the Most Money in New York City
We used the New York Pass to see all the top New York City Attractions. A three-day pass cost $199 USD. It pretty much gives you access to all of the top things to do in New York, including tours.
It also includes the hop on hop off bus if you want to get a lay of the land and see the city, plus you can catch it from one area to another at no extra cost. However, we found the subway to be faster.
But if you are not used to using city metros, the tourist bus is the best option.
We liked having the New York Pass because we went into places that we otherwise wouldn’t have checked out. And they ended up being great experiences.
The app helps you:
- plan your trip
- gives suggested itineraries
- offers discounts to shows, tours, and dining experiences
- and is updated daily with new ideas and hot deals
We found it to be worth the money for what we did. But make sure you are actually going to do a lot in New York City because you could buy it and not end up using $199 worth of experiences.
If you are only planning on seeing one or two sites, we suggest purchasing tickets one at a time. Or looking into just a one day pass.
Where to Stay in New York
New York has no shortage of great places to stay. From the high-end hotels near Central Park to the more affordable accommodation on the upper east side. There is something for everyone.
When choosing your accommodation we suggest figuring out where you want to explore the first and then plan your hotel around that.
If you are a first-time visitor you one of the best places to base yourself is in Mid-Town so you are in the heart of it all. The only drawback here is that it gets really expensive.
If you are on a budget I would suggest looking at the Lower East Side or Upper Westside and take advantage of one of the best subway systems in the world.
It may add a little extra time getting around the city but it will save you a ton of cash.
As you can see there are a lot of things to do in New York and there is no way you could cover all of these things in one visit.
Our recommendation is to stick to Manhattan if this is your first visit to New York City and leave things like taking the Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn, and some of the museums for another visit.
If there is one thing I can guarantee you it is that you will be back.
Plan more of your New York City travels:
Traveling to the United States, see our United States Travel Guide
YOU MAY ALSO WANT TO CHECK OUT THESE OTHER CITY GUIDES
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What have you done in New York City? Leave suggestions in the comments below so we have ideas for our next visit!