The Best Things to Do in New York You Can't Miss on Your First Visit
When visiting New York, we think it can be quite easy to get overwhelmed as the city offers so many things to do. We've put together a list of best things you can't miss when in New York, even when traveling on a budget.
New York is one of the world's most famous cities which possess many nicknames.
But no matter if you prefer to call the city Big Apple, The City of Dreams, The City That Never Sleeps or just New York, no name will emphasize enough the fact that it is a place with a never-ending list of things to do.
You could spend days, weeks, or months in New York without getting bored and every day choose from an overwhelming number of things to do. From historical monuments, churches, modern buildings, museums, parks, bridges, attractive skyline, expensive shopping streets, stunning views over the city to quiet neighborhoods, New York City offers so many attractions and things you can't miss that narrowing down your perfect New York itinerary can be quite challenging.
We've handpicked the best things you should not miss, when visiting New York - in this post, we did not focus on food or random lame activities only to extend the article with tips you won't do anyway.
We've rounded up a perfect list of the top sights you must see when in New York for the first time for both travelers on a strict budget and for those who can afford to splurge from time to time.
BEFORE YOU ARRIVE IN NEW YORK
After traveling in South America and Central America, arriving in New York was a bit of a shock, especially money-wise as prices in the city are pretty high no matter if we are talking about accommodation, food or entrance fees.
Despite the fact we needed to save as much as we could, we still wanted to see everything (or at least we tried), and investing in New York City Pass was a great way how to save money and have guaranteed access to six of New York's best attractions.
How does the pass work?
You buy the pass and have access to the following attractions plus you save 43% when you visit all of them (in comparison with buying the tickets separately):
The Empire State Building
American Museum of Natural History
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Top of the Rock Observation Deck OR Guggenheim Museum
Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island OR Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
9/11 Memorial & Museum OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
We spent three full days in New York and used the pass to the maximum, so if you plan on visiting those sights as well, we recommend you to purchase the pass.
STATUE OF LIBERTY & ELLIS ISLAND
There is probably not a more notoriously known landmark in New York than the Statue of Liberty, and if it is your first time in New York, we believe you will want to see the Lady up close.
Yes, it is as enormous as it seems on photos! The symbol of liberty and hope stands on Liberty Island, and it was the first thing immigrants traveling from Europe or other parts of the world on the boat saw when arriving in the USA. Not only its appearance and masterpiece made from the Statue of Liberty one of the must-visit attractions in New York, but also the story behind it and the number of exceptional artists who were working on it back in the 19th century.
When you buy tickets for Liberty Island, you can automatically visit Ellis Island as well.
On this lesser-known island is an interesting museum dedicated to immigration. If you plan on visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, you can read our detailed post on how to get there and how to purchase tickets.
The regular ferry ticket for the Statue of Liberty costs $18.50, but you can also use your New York City Pass here.
EMPIRE STATE BUILDING
Towering in the center of Midtown Manhattan, Empire State Building is New York's iconic landmark.
Only when standing on the observation deck on the 86th floor, you will be able to admire how breathtaking the city indeed is. While you can visit the top deck of Empire State Building any time during the day (until late hours), the most popular time to see the Big Apple from above is during sunset and right after when the city lights up.
Check out the sunset time, and do not forget that you are not the only one with this spectacular plan - arrive at least 45 minutes before the time you want to be on the deck as despite good organization lines are long because of many people and thorough security check.
Empire State Building's 86th floor is New York's highest open-air observation deck, and if you plan on seeing the city from above only once, this is probably the place where you should be heading.
Regular access to the Empire State Building costs $40, but you can use your New York City Pass here.
The High Line in New York is not exactly a sight.
It is a more than two kilometers long walkway where you can enjoy strolling among greenery, old brick stone houses and modern art while still in the heart of Manhattan.
The High Line allows you to see the city from a different perspective. We've written a full post about the High Line, about things you can see there with all necessary information on how to visit it, in case you are interested. In short, nowadays the High Line is one of the most attractive and lively outdoor places in New York, and we are incredibly grateful that the old freight train tracks hadn't been destroyed as intended, but have been transformed into a remarkably cool place which both foreigners and locals enjoy visiting.
There are several access points where to start your walk on the High Line, but it is worth it to begin near The Vessel, another excellent, brand new structure which we believe will soon become another must-visit landmark in New York.
The best thing is that both the High Line and The Vessel are free to visit!
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
New York is an American cultural center, and there is no shortage of museums and exhibitions.
It is not possible to visit all the museums during only a couple of days, not only it is not cheap, but it is also quite time-consuming as the museums are large, so choose only two or three of them otherwise you would have spent so much time inside.
American Museum of Natural History belongs among one of the most classic museums in New York, and you won't make a mistake when you decide to spend several hours there - note that this museum is one of the world's largest museums of natural history situated in a complex comprises 28 interconnecting buildings so arrive either early or choose only a section or two you really want to know more about to make sure you won't feel rushed.
The location close to Central Park is convenient, and the general admission costs $23 - you can buy your ticket here - or you can use your New York City Pass.
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Metropolitan Museum of Art alias Met is the fourth biggest museum in the world (and one of the finest), so you can tell that only a couple of hours inside won't do this place justice. We were thinking that museum and history lovers should even make two completely separate trips to New York, as it is impossible to see it all in only three or four days, which is the usual length of stay in the city.
The Met has many exhibitions and so many different wings focused on so many historical periods and geographical areas that we would have needed at least a week to soak everything in without feeling overwhelmed. Our favorite part was the Egyptian section which was remarkable and even inspired us to visit Egypt, but you can see here bits of American history, admire arts of Africa or Oceania, get to know Asian or Near Eastern art better, appreciate Greek and Roman sculptures, European paintings from Medieval times and much more. In case the weather forecast does not look promising, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is, for sure, the place where to spend a rainy day.
The museum can get quite busy, especially on weekends (honestly, we've never seen so many people in a museum before), so you will most likely have to line up outside, but the queue moves fast. Before entering the museum, you need to go through a security check first (no food is allowed).
General admission costs $25, or you can use your New York City Pass.
Like everything in New York, Central Park is enormous.
You will meet here people strolling around, jogging, cycling, relaxing on perfectly-cut lawns (Sheep's Meadows is the most popular one), walking their dogs, and simply enjoying free time.
There are several points of interest in Central Park such as Belvedere Castle, Bethesda Fountain or Gapstow Bridge, but we believe it is much better to get in and let yourself loose in Central Park, follow one of many paths and leave crowds behind. You can easily spend hours wandering in Central Park, so do not plan big and try to explore only a part of it thoroughly rather than to rush through it.
We were lucky enough to have perfect weather when in New York, and wandering around Central Park was so pleasant.
Even when you have enough of museums, you can stop by at Guggenheim Museum without any intention to walk inside (although it is worthwhile when you are interested in impressionism and contemporary art).
The unique building of the Guggenheim Museum is close to Central Park and two of New York's best museums, the Met and American Museum of Natural History. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Weber was asked in 1943 to design the building which should be unlike any other museum in the world, and this is the result.
The admission to this museum is quite steep, $25, so if you are not unsure if you want to spend your money on another museum, you can admire the building only from the outside and then carry on.
When we got to Wall Street, we had a feeling as we stepped into a classic American movie.
One of the world's most famous streets looked so familiar to us, although it was our first time in New York. Buildings with American flags stood there proudly while people dressed in business suits were rushing fast around us, and everyone looked way too important. The most famous building on Wall Street you cannot miss is Federal Hall with high columns and a bronze statue of George Washington in front of it.
Another popular sight on Wall Street is the statue of Charging Bull, but a picture with the bull is nowadays apparently must-have, so it is almost impossible to take a photo without crowds (unless you want to wait in the line).
We found it quite amusing.
Even without a budget to spare for shopping, who wouldn't want to walk one of the world's most expensive streets?
New York's Fifth Avenue is an elegant street extending from Washington Square Park to 143rd Street in Harlem.
The avenue has almost 10 kilometers, and honestly, we had no idea that it is so long.
When you want to go shopping, we recommend you to find where your preferred shop is located in advance, otherwise, you would be walking there forever. We roamed the stretch between Central Park, and the Empire State Building and had a feeling it was enough to get a sense of the Fifth Avenue. We were quite surprised that we could have found here not only exclusive and expensive shops but also quite ordinary brands, but taking into account the length of the street, it makes sense now.
Walking Fifth Avenue can be either free attraction or a very expensive matter, depending on your mood and state of your bank account.
Times Square is crazy.
Many people, including New Yorkers, think it is a tourist trap, but we believe it is another must-visit place when in the city.
Just because it is so different when you compare it with other so-called squares all around the world. Do not expect a peaceful historical plaza, and you'll be fine. Times Square is rather a street than a square, a very busy avenue we must add with thousands of people walking in every direction possible, traditional yellow cabs driving to and fro and picking up tourists from expensive hotels, many restaurants, bars, and shops. But when you ask us what we imagine when we hear Times Square, it would be for sure many neon lights and LED screens displaying advertisements on products, new movies or Broadway shows.
Approximately in the middle of the Times Square is a small deck, rather a place with several steps where people sit and hang out, but when you go to the top, you will get a nice view and better idea about how busy Times Square is.
TOP OF THE ROCK OBSERVATION DECK - ROCKEFELLER CENTER
Are you looking for another place where you can enjoy a bird's eyes view of the city?
Rockefeller Center is then the place. We even think this observation deck is better than the one on the more classic Empire State Building, so if you plan on visiting only one skyscraper to see New York from above, we recommend you this one. The highest deck on the Rockefeller Center is called Top of the Rock and lies on the 70th floor.
To get to the Top of the Rock, you need to make a reservation in advance (even when you have New York City Pass) - there are time slots available every five minutes, and times closer to the sunset tend to fill up quickly, especially in the summer. From the 70th floor, you'll get a hard-to-beat view, but unfortunately, it is no secret, and it took quite long until we got through security via the elevator to the top, and here we had troubles to find a good spot to have an undisturbed vista.
Entrance fee for the observation deck is $38, but you can also use your City Pass. Either way, you decide to get the ticket, head to the official website, and make a reservation for a specific day and time - or you can buy a flexible ticket here.
9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM
Memorial of the 11th September 2001 and the attached museum nowadays inseparably belong among must-visit places when in New York. Although it is a sad and tragic place, you should come and pay tribute to victims of one of the most horrible and murderous terrorist attacks in human history.
We cannot exactly describe the suffocating feeling when standing above Ground Zero, reading names of all victims and looking into pools with flowing water - it was a powerful moment, and it reminded us how important is to fight against terrorism to make sure this situation will never happen again.
Seeing Ground Zero is for free, but if you have time, we think the visit is not complete without going to the museum. You can see there installations reminding all events preceding 9/11, read here about heroes and hear fates of all victims from all five airplanes hijacked that day.
Entrance fee cost $26, or you can use your city pass.
INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM
If you don't believe that New York City really has it all, then head to Intrepid Museum.
It is another famous institution in the city, but way different from museums we have talked about above, and we recommend it to all fans of ships, aircraft, and army stuff overall (or generally for everyone who wants to see army equipment at least once in a lifetime up close) - it is pretty special as you cannot see machinery like this every day. Intrepid Museum contains space shuttle Enterprise, aircraft carrier, unique submarine, or much more.
Expect queues, especially in the season - we waited 45 minutes only to get in, and then another 45 minutes for the access to the submarine. Entrance fee cost $33, which is not cheap, but we had a great time there as we've never been to a similar museum before.
We are big fans of TV show Friends, so we couldn't leave New York without seeing at least one place connected with shooting this iconic series.
Although the building you could always have seen from the outside in almost every episode is random and looks like many others in this part of New York, you will find it without hesitating as quite a lot people stand on the pavement and stare into the top flat's windows.
You will find the building on the corner of Bedford Street and Grove Street.
There is no better way how to explore Brooklyn Bridge than to walk from one end to another.
New York's most iconic bridge is incredibly photogenic from the Brooklyn side with the city's towering skyline on the horizon, and we recommend you to travel by metro to Brooklyn first, and then stroll slowly to Manhattan. Thousands of people cross Brooklyn Bridge every day, and we advise you to be careful as you need to share the walkway with many cyclists, which was quite stressful at times.
The best time to cross the bridge is definitely in the morning as it gets busier later during the day as you need to share it with many tourists and locals as well - but do not get discouraged!
The 30 minutes walk was one of the best things we've done in New York.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
Unless you bought tickets for either NBA or NHL game or for a concert, Madison Square Garden would be a pretty short stop on your itinerary when taking a picture from the outside is enough for you.
If you are driven to explore Madison Square Garden more thoroughly, you can book a behind-the-scenes tour, and get to know the world's most famous arena even better.
After attacks on 9/11, not only Twin Towers were destroyed, but also many buildings in the near surroundings.
As the World Trade Center was and still is a transportation hub with approximately 200 000 daily travelers, it was quite clear that the city would need to rebuild the terminal as soon as possible, but the pompous main station house, the Oculus, designed by famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, was not opened earlier than in 2016, almost 15 years after the attacks and cost exorbitant $4 billion.
Anyway, we liked the design of Oculus, and you can visit it even when not traveling anywhere as within the terminal is also The Westfield World Trade Center Mall.
New York has many neighborhoods, and you can choose your favorite one, but we believe you would like Greenwich Village.
Despite its popularity, Greenwich Village is a laidback community with many restaurants and cafes.
This residential area is often simply called The Village and before you fall in love with this neighborhood, note that living here is ridiculously expensive. When in the area, make sure you will find your way to Washington Square Park and gaze up at Washington Square Arch, another New York's iconic attraction.
GRAND CENTRAL STATION
When walking the streets of New York, we had a feeling that there are so many iconic places we won't have time to see them all.
Grand Central Station was another place we knew from the movies, and although we did not use any train, we just had to peek inside the terminal. The station is very busy, and it is quite cool only to watch bustle and hustle of the place, but once you take in the atmosphere, look up at the ceiling painted with stars and admire the design and architecture.
SOHO & LITTLE ITALY & CHINA TOWN
New York is the city of many famous neighborhoods, and it is mission impossible to visit all of them when in the Big Apple for the very first time.
If you enjoy walking streets in areas with many boutique shops and galleries, SoHo would be the right neighborhood for you - upscale, safe, and relaxed.
While New York is the city of immigrants, take advantage of it, and roam to either Little Italy or China Town. No matter which district you choose, one thing is obvious - you will experience an interesting walk through picturesque neighborhoods while enjoying great food. We can promise you will have an authentic feeling such as in Italy or China.
Gothic Trinity Church is one of the oldest churches in the USA, but even though it is for sure an astounding and notable structure, we found it interesting rather for the unusual settings.
Trinity Church stands near Wall Street and in the past years has been overgrown by many modern skyscrapers, and it almost looks like the church is hiding in the street not to be swallowed by new sharks.
ONE WORLD TRADE CENTER
After 9/11 happened and the site of the World Trade Center was cleaned and safe again, it did not take long and new plans of redesigning the area appeared.
One of the most shining projects is One World Trade Center, nowadays the tallest building in New York which is overlooking Ground Zero and became soon after its completion a new city's iconic landmark which adds to already remarkable skyline.
Of course, apart from offices, One World Trade Center also has an observation deck, and you can get to the top for $35.
New York's City Hall lies close to the Brooklyn Bridge but like many American historical buildings, despite its importance, looks pretty small when you compare it to skyscrapers in its proximity. But dimensions are not everything and the elegant building, the seat of New York City government, is one of the finest and most important in New York.
If you want to learn more about the building, the architecture or history, take one of the guided tours.
ST. PATRICK'S CATHEDRAL
A prominent landmark of New York City, St. Patrick's Cathedral, is yet another exceptional piece of architecture and a welcomed historical sight you will for sure appreciate after visiting mostly modern attractions.
St. Patrick's Cathedral is close to the Rockefeller Center, so you can visit it while waiting for access to the observation deck.
WHERE TO STAY IN NEW YORK
New York is a city with no shortage of accommodation, but it is not always easy to find a reasonably priced hotel in a good location. Be prepared to pay a bit more than usual as this is one of the top world's destinations, and we recommend you to book your room as soon as you know your travel dates.
Budget | Pod 51 - We won't lie to you - it is almost impossible to find a budget-friendly accommodation which is not a hole with terrible reviews. This hostel is well-located and well-rated, features modern and clean facilities and excellent rooftop.
Mid-range | RIU Plaza New York Times Square - The extraordinary location only a few meters away from Times Square, great breakfast, helpful staff, and comfortable rooms makes from this hotel one of the best accommodation options when in the city.
Luxury | The Plaza - The most iconic hotel in New York City lies close to Central Park and 5th Avenue and if you are looking for a splendid place to stay with a touch of luxury, look no further.
Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.
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