So, you’re finally planning your trip to New York, and what a trip it’s going to be. With some of the most iconic sites and experiences in the United States of America – and the world – you won’t be disappointed. I remember my first trip to the Big Apple like it was yesterday. Those first moments of being in Times Square, shopping on 5th Avenue and seeing the Statue of Liberty are likely to last a lifetime. And if they don’t, do what I do, make New York one of those places you keep going back to time and again.
In this list I’ll give you a rundown of the top 10 most iconic things to do in New York for first time visitors. Of course, there are plenty more things to do but these are definitely the ones to have at the top of your to do list.
Quick note: New York State is vast as is New York City. This article focuses mainly on things to do within Manhattan and nearby boroughs like Brooklyn and Staten Island – the parts of New York that most tourists visit.
1. Consider getting a New York city sightseeing pass
Before you arrive in New York, think about how you want to spend your time. If you want to go up the Empire State Building and hit up the museums, a city sightseeing pass could save you money. Most offer up to 45% discount on around 90 attractions in the city. I find I always see more places when I have a city pass. That said, there is a lot to see for free in New York – just craning your neck at the famous buildings can fill up your whole trip – so do the maths. In order of popularity, here are the main sightseeing passes in New York. I’ve included some hop-on hop-off buses, too. The tickets are much cheaper than a sightseeing pass and it can be a great way to get around.
- New York Go City Explorer Pass
- The New York Pass
- New York CityPASS
- Big Bus Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour
- New York Hop On Hop Off Bus
2. See the Statue of Liberty
What started as a symbol of freedom has become so famous it’s the backdrop to almost every US movie and sitcom based in New York. It took me a few trips to New York before I finally got myself organised to get tickets and I couldn’t believe I didn’t go sooner. Don’t be me – make this one of the first things you do in the city. There are plenty of ways to see the Statue of Liberty including taking the free Staten Island ferry, going on a guided tour, taking a cruise or, helicopter rides. Or you can simply buy official tickets if you want to do it yourself.
I’ve written a full article about how to visit the Statue of Liberty – tickets, tours and ferries. And I’ve written a separate guide for whether the hard-to-get Statue of Liberty crown tickets are worth it? Whichever way you see the Statue of Liberty, I recommend taking the time – even if it’s only an hour – to also visit the immigration museum at Ellis Island. I don’t know a faster way to understand US history in one place.
If you want quick-book links:
- Best Statue of Liberty tour, $49. Choose the 9 a.m., 4-hour tour with priority line access and choose Pedestal Access. No guided tour gives Crown Access.
- Best City Sightseeing Pass for tickets: New York CityPASS, $136. Pedestal Access – first-come basis only.
- Official Statue of Liberty tickets, from $19.25 including the ferry to the islands and Crown Access tickets.
- Best quick-book standard tickets: good last-minute official tickets if you’re struggling to book direct. No pedestal or Crown Access.
- Best Cruise Around The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, $30.
3. Go up the Empire State Building
Shamefully, it also took me several visits before I went up to the top of the Empire State building. On previous trips I’d been put off by the long queues. But, as it happened, on my sixth trip I strolled by late at night and thought, let’s give it a try, which was great because there was hardly any queue at all. Even better: I got to see the New York skyline at night. One of the best views if you ask me. So, my tip is to go late. You can buy skip the line tickets here: Empire State Building General & Skip-the-Line Tickets
4. Explore Times Square
Sure, Times Square, New York’s entertainment hub, is tourist central, but aren’t you a tourist? I certainly was when I visited and that didn’t stop me being dazzled by the hustle, bustle and flashing lights of the giant billboards that symbolise Times Square. Most people go for the photo ops and just to say they’ve been (though there is plenty to do in Times Square including Madame Tussauds, M&M World, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not).
Top Tip: If you want to spend some around Times Square but want to avoid the crowds, head to The View restaurant and Lounge. Located 48 floors up inside the Marriott Marquis Hotels, you can grab a sunset cocktail as the bar revolves, moving Times Square’s views around you.
5. Walk across Brooklyn Bridge
Another iconic thing to do in New York is to take a stroll or bike ride over Brooklyn Bridge. Most people catch the subway to City Hall in Lower Manhattan and walk over the bridge into Brooklyn from there. My tip, or rather the tip given to me by a local, is to catch the subway to High Street (Lines A and C) within Brooklyn then walk back over Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan. That way you have the Manhattan city skyline in view for your entire walk. Here’s my favourite free New York subway app on Apple and Android.
6. Take a stroll through Central Park
The important thing to know about Central Park is that it’s absolutely huge at 843 acres (1 acres is broadly equivalent to 1 football pitch). So, unless you intend to dedicate all of your time in New York to the park, you won’t get to see all of it. Instead, decide where you want to go first. My suggestion is to enter the park near West 72nd Street (Subway: 72 St). That will bring you out near the Dakota Building where John Lennon was shot. Opposite, on the edge of the park you will find Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon (I once saw Yoko Ono walking by). From there you can explore some of the less gruesome attractions including The Central Park Lake, Loeb Boathouse, The Alice in Wonderland Statue, Belvedere Castle and the Egyptian Obelisk. Here is the official Central Park Map. You can book a bike with Central Park Bike Rentals.
7. See a show on Broadway
Whether you want to simply step foot on New York’s famous Broadway or see a musical or show, adding Broadway to you itinerary it’s a popular thing to do for first time visitors in New York. Unless there’s a particular show you’re desperate to watch, check out the cheap TKTS ticket booths and take a punt on something with last minute tickets. It won’t be the latest, hottest show in town but it’s Broadway and there are some classic shows still running and a lot of it is about the experience. Check out this guide for how to get cheap Broadway tickets.
Top tips: Broadway is very close to Times Square so you can see both at the same time if you just want to clap eyes on the places. If you’re on a budget, there are plenty of cheaper shows ‘off-Broadway’. Really into theatre? Consider getting tickets for The Ride – a theatrical experience on a bus while you drive around the sights of New York.
8. Explore the Financial District
There aren’t many cities where the financial district holds interest for tourists (unless you’re a trader), but Manhattan’s financial district is surely one of the exceptions. Top sight include Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange with the famous Star-Spangled Banner American flag positioned outside. Keep an eye out for the Charging Bull. Known as the bull of Wall Street, this bronze sculpture is thought to represent the aggressive financial optimism of New York’s financial district. However, its status was surpassed in 2018 when an artist created Fearless Girl and placed her opposite the bull, hands on hips in defiance. She was created ahead of International Women’s Day and represents female empowerment. Together, the bull and the girl are a great sight. Don’t miss: Oculus – the impressive designer exterior of the new World Trade Centre Transport Hub. Nearby is Battery park where you can get free views of the Statue of Liberty. Of course, also within the Financial District is the 9/11 memorial and new One World Tower.
9. Visit the 9/11 Memorial and One World Tower
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you’ll be familiar with the terrorist attacks that took place on the Twin Towers on 9 September 2001. Ground Zero as it was known after the attacks has been transformed and on the site of the former twin towers now stands the magnificent One World Tower.
There is also a 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The memorial is free to visit and features a series of black pools that stand on the footprint of the Twin Towers, and includes the names of the people who died in the attack. The museum (paid admission) may not be for everybody – it catalogues the events leading up to the attacks and contains artefacts including parts of the towers, the survivors’ staircase and a firetruck. I did visit and struggled between finding it too intense but also very moving whilst also feeling like a voyeur intruding on a great tragedy I had not right to look at too closely. I took a guided tour: 9/11 Memorial Museum and Walking Tour or you can book Skip The Line Tickets. Less sombre, you can book New York One World Observatory: Skip-the-Line Ticket
10. Explore New York’s Best Museums
It’s possible you may not find time to actually explore New York’s fantastic museums in any detail. In that case, I’d recommend choosing one. Though that presents another problem because New York has some of the best museums in the world. To help you choose, here are some the most popular.
- American Museum of Natural History – famous for the dinosaur exhibits which wow kids and adults.
- Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – New York’s premier collection of modern art including Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) – largest art museum in the Western hemisphere with over 2 million pieces.
- The Guggenheim – modern art where the round building design is as famous as the museum. Perhaps one to see from outside?
- The Whitney – focuses on American art.
- Sea, Air & Space Museum – a military and maritime museum that has great kids’ programmes.
Top tip: Many of the museums are located in or near Central Park. Check opening times before you plan your New York itinerary. Check what’s included in your City Sightseeing pass in case you can get a good deal on entry. Also, some museums have limited free or pay what you want hours if you’re on a budget.
11. Tick off New York’s most iconic buildings
New York is one big outdoor museum, packed with iconic buildings that you’ve seen so many times in the movies. And exploring these buildings, taking pictures, is one of the best activities if you’re exploring New York on a budget and you want to do lots of free stuff. If you’re looking for a handy list to work through, here are some of the most popular sights. Some of them you can also explore inside if you have time:
- The Chrysler Building – an art deco building from the late 1920s, it’s small by 21st century standards but no less iconic.
- The Empire State Building whether you stand inside or head to the top, this 102 story art deco building is one of the most famous in New York.
- Rockerfeller Centre – an office building that features heavily in movies. Also home to the giant Christmas tree (at Christmas only). You can book tickets to go to the Top of The Rock.
- Radio City Music Hall – lit with neon signs and around the corner from the Rockefeller Centre, this entertainment theatre is known as ‘the showplace of the nation’. It’s also home to the world-famous Rockettes.
- Grand Central Terminal – functionally it’s a train station (one of the largest in the world). For tourists it has a beautiful interior from the early 1900s. Hungry? Try the iconic Grand Central Oyster Bar.
- Flaitron Building – most well known for its triangle shape
- St Patrick’s Cathedral – wedged into the high-rises of Manhattan, this gothic church really stands out.
- New York Public library is the 4th largest in the world and a New York City Landmark.
- Summit One Vanderbilt – the new kid in town, this building delivers inside and out. Take the elevator to the 91st floor mirrored observation deck for some of the best views in Manhattan. You can buy Summit tickets in advance.
12. Go shopping on 5th Avenue
The first time I visited New York we lived in a wonderful place where I gained $2 for £1. So, despite not being a major shopaholic, I took that nice exchange rate and hit the shops. New York’s 5th Avenue, known as Millionaires’ Row, is renowned for high-end brands and you’ll at least want to step foot there to see famous shops like Saks, Tiffany’s, Bergdorf Goodman and the Apple Store. Even if you don’t have the budget for designer shopping, the window displays are worth the trip, and the surrounding streets have more affordable brands. Don’t miss Bloomingdale’s on 3rd Avenue. They have special offers for out of town visitors e.g. the 10% savings pass. If you prefer to bag a bargain, why not book an outlet shopping tour like this Woodbury Common Premium Outlets Shopping Tour.
13. See the tenements of the Lower East Side
New York’s Lower East Side is rich with history. Traditionally an area for immigration, you can visit a museum of the tenement buildings as well as explore the diverse range of cuisines that immigration have bought to this fascinating part of New York. As gentrification goes, today the Lower East Side has given way to trendy cafes, bars and art galleries but the history remains if you know where to look. I’ve written a full guide to Things To Do In New York’s Lower East Side. Don’t miss: Katz Deli.
14. Stroll the High Line
The High Line is a fun way to pass a few hours in New York and although it wasn’t so well-known previously, it’s become a very popular thing to do for tourists in New York (as well as locals). What is the High Line? It’s a former overhead railway line that has been converted into a public park and urban green space complete with walkways, food, cafés, artists, shops and great views over Manhattan as you go.
15. Eat New York’s most famous dishes
I don’t know which New York has more of – famous sights or places to eat. Probably places to eat. So, where do you start? My suggestion is to start with a list of things you want to eat. And they are some pretty awesome famous New York dishes to try including:
- New York styles pizza
- New York strip steak
- Street food – hot dogs, pretzels
- Deli sandwich – go for pastrami or corned beef
- Anything Italian
- New York cheese cake
Interested in a multi-destination trip? Did you know you can easily catch the train to Washington DC via Philadelphia. Find out more in my guide to How to Get from New York to Washington DC. And check out this guide if you want to know where to stay in New York.
That’s my guide to the most iconic things to do in New York for the first time visitors. Got any comments or questions, leave a note below.
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