Visiting New York City is something everyone should really do at least once, but you can’t expect to see it all in one trip. Unless you move here, you’ll barely scratch the surface, but there are ways to make the most of the limited time you have by including at least a few of these things to do on your itinerary.
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Visit Times Square
Times Square is the most frenetic part of the city, but it’s also a global legend as the cinematic epicenter of New York City tourism. While many New Yorkers studiously avoid its cacophony of flashing lights and thick crowds, it’s an exciting, colorful place to experience, and you should at least take time to catch a glimpse of its neon lights after dark. Going at midnight when everything is brightly lit and bustling with activity is especially unforgettable. Or, go early in the morning – as many TV shows have and are filmed at least partly in Times Square, you may even be able to get on a major news show like “Good Morning America,” which is broadcast live from Times Square.
See the City Lights from the Empire State Building at Night
The Empire State Building is ultra-touristy, but at the same time, New York’s iconic landmark, and tallest structure, is one that should not be missed. Of course, you don’t want to waste precious time waiting in line for hours either. That means, you may want to save your visit for the end of the day – in fact, very late in the day, ideally after 10pm. Many visitors are surprised to learn that it’s open until 2am every night, with the last elevator going up at 1:15am. A late night visit not only means skipping that long wait, but enjoying the gorgeous illuminated skyline that’s sure to be a highlight of your trip. If you go on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday between 9pm and 1am you can catch the live saxophonist too.
See the Empire State Building and more from the Top of the Rock
While visiting the Empire State Building is a must, there is one problem. You can’t see the building itself! The Top of the Rock, located 850 above street level in the Rockefeller Building, offers views of the city’s glowing lights after dark, as well as a fantastic view of the Empire State Building. During the day you’ll be able to spot prominent landmarks that include everything from Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge to the Chrysler Building and the Hudson River. If you arrive shortly before sunset, you can enjoy both the day and nighttime views. For those that need to choose between a visit to the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock due to time or money restraints, many feel that the latter offers the best experience.
Explore the treasures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Met as it’s more often called, is the largest museum in the Western Hemisphere, with a collection of over two million that spans the entire globe from antiquity to present. All are housed in a massive, gothic-style building, established in 1872 with numerous expansions taking place since then. It would be possible to roam its labyrinth of corridors for days, so you may want to plan ahead and create a list of must-sees before you go. Some of the highlights include the European paintings with works by artists like Rembrandt, Rodin, Vermer and Botticelli, while the Egyptian Collection features the Temple of Dendur, circa 23-10 BC, and the tomb of Perneb, circa 2440 BC. Visitor favorites include Italian artist Caravaggio’s The Musicians and the seven-ton Sphinx of Hatshepsut. If you really want to see everything, you’ll have to come every day for at least a week.
Spend an afternoon searching for one-of-a-kind finds at the Brooklyn Flea
Treasure seekers can find just about anything from clothes and antiques to furniture and just about anything you can imagine at the Brooklyn Flea, considered one of the world’s great flea markets. Held on at Fort Greene on Saturdays, and Williamsburg on Sundays, it blurs the traditional boundaries by throwing craftspeople, jewelers and locally-made fresh food into the mix. Locals love to shop for one-of-a-kind vintage finds from the more than 100 vendors who gather here, and occasionally you may even spot a celebrity or two among them.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
The Brooklyn Bridge is another one of the city’s most recognized landmarks. It stretches over the East River, connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. By walking across its promenade, a boardwalk that’s elevated above the roadway, you’ll enjoy especially exhilarating views. When it opened in 1883, it was the longest bridge in the world – and the mayor even had to arrange for a herd of elephants to cross before people could be convinced that it was safe. The beautiful bridge still continues to enchant as it has for over a century, you’ll be able to see the Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island and the Manhattan skyline.
Go people watching in Central Park
Central Park isn’t just for tourists, locals love it too, which means it’s a perfect place for people watching and to enjoy a more authentic experience in the Big Apple. Although it can be busy, especially in the southern section of the park, from 59th to 72nd Street, no matter how many people are here, you can always find a spot for a picnic or quiet contemplation. The park is also home to all sorts of attractions, with its own long list of things to see and do. When you want to get active, you can rent a bike and explore the 843-acre park, and its hidden histories and vibrant views, stopping at Strawberry Fields which hosts the Imagine Mosaic, a tribute to former New York resident John Lennon, Belvedere Castle and the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. Or, rent a boat at the Loeb Boathouse and paddle around the water. If you’ve got kids along, they’ll appreciate visiting the Central Park Zoo.
Shop or browse Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue is like heaven for shopping enthusiasts as the home of some of the best shopping in the world. Whether you have a wallet full of cash ready to spend, or you just want to window shop, this is the place to go. Located in the center of Manhattan, the best Fifth Avenue shopping takes place between 39th and 60th Street at NYC flagship stores. You’ll find everything from Tiffany and Louis Vitton to Gucci and Saks Fifth Avenue – as the saying goes, if you can’t find it on Fifth Avenue, it probably isn’t worth finding. One of the best ways to cap off your shopping extravaganza is to enjoy sipping a glass of champagne at Bergdorf Goodman’s 7th-floor eatery, admiring the Central Park views.
Follow the footsteps of millions of immigrants at Ellis Island
For millions of immigrants, their first glimpse of America was the State of Liberty, which gradually grew from a vaguely defined figure on the horizon into a stately colossus. As visitors approach Liberty Island on the ferry from Battery Park, they often experience a similar sense of wonder. The adjacent Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration tells the story of Ellis Island as well as immigration from the colonial era to today, through multiple galleries with photographs, artifacts and taped oral histories. You can join a park ranger on a walking tour, or take a self-guided tour through the island’s historic halls, following the footsteps of the millions of immigrants while learning about their journey to a new life in America. If you have an ancestor that came through Ellis Island, or aren’t sure if you do, you can search the database that contains the repository for over 22 million passenger records for those who arrived into the Port of New York between 1892 and 1924.
Pay your respects at the 9/11 Memorial
The 9/11 Memorial was completed just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, with the 30-foot waterfalls sitting on the footprint where the Twin Towers once stood. The pools measure nearly an acre in size and are said to be the largest manmade falls in North America. At the edge of the pool are bronze panels that are inscribed with the names of the 2,983 people who died in the terror attacks at the World Trade Center site as well as at the Pentagon and in Flight 93’s crash in Pennsylvania. In addition to the memorial, you can visit the memorial museum which tells the story of the tragic day through multimedia displays, narratives, archives and a collection of authentic artifacts. You’ll also have the opportunity to learn about the lives of the men, women and children who died.
Take in a Broadway show
Mostly located in the area surrounding Times Square, over three dozen Broadway theaters host some of the greatest shows in town. It’s the part of Broadway between 42nd and 53rd streets, including Times Square, that’s considered to be the home of the American theater industry. And there’s something for just about everyone playing, from big-budget musicals to stage debuts featuring Hollywood stars. Seeing a live show in New York is unlike anything else – you may even have the chance to meet the actors afterwards, or at a minimum, you’ll be a lot closer than you would had you just gone to a movie.
Catch a home game at Yankee Stadium
Watching a game at Yankee Stadium is on the bucket list of just about every baseball fan – and, even if you aren’t a fan of America’s pastime, it’s a great way to get a feel for what it’s really like to live in New York and even get to know some New Yorkers. The stadium is vast, and stocked with a multitude of fantastic amenities. Going to a game really isn’t just a sporting event, for many it stirs feelings of awe and reverence. While the stadium is new, its grand entrance pays homage to the original architecture, built in 1923. Inside is a replica of the iconic frieze that was removed from the old stadium in the 1970s when it was renovated, and now circles the grandstand. Arrive early, and you can also check out the onsite museum which boasts memorabilia valued at over $10 million, including signed baseballs and the old locker of catcher and American League MVP Thurman Munson who died in a plane crash in 1979; in the outdoor plaza past the centerfield wall, Monument Park features an inspiring collection of tributes to legends like Reggie Jackson, Yogi Berra and Babe Ruth.
Check out the World’s Largest Railway Station
Grand Central Terminal is not only the world’s largest railway station at 76 acres, it’s the nation’s busiest. Every day nearly 700,000 subway riders and commuters use it – and it’s truly a living temple to the city’s illustrious past. When you step in, you’ll be stepping into a bygone era, with the elaborate celestial ceiling mural soaring above the jaw-dropping main concourse that was modeled after an ancient Roman public bath. You can explore “secret” elevated passageways to take in an especially stunning view of the concourse, and discover what happens when you stand at the end of the Oyster Bar ramp and whisper into the wall. Be careful what you say, as you’ll be heard all the way across on the other side. If you’d like to do some people watching, come during rush hour, but if you’d prefer to admire it in peace, avoid that time of day.
Indulge in an amazing pizza at Grimaldi’s
New Yorkers love to argue about who makes the best pizza, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the main contenders, like Lombardi’s, Motorino and Di Fara’s, but if you can only try one, make it Grimaldi’s. Not only will you get an incredibly delicious, coal-fired pizza, but you’ll enjoy an unforgettable view of Manhattan from one of the oldest and prettiest parts of Brooklyn, right under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. This New York institution is all about the elements that go into the city’s very best pies: fresh-made dough, fresh house-made mozzarella and crushed tomatoes, all cooked by coal-burning brick oven. It’s large and consistently thin-crusted to nearly the edge of the pizza, though not cracker thin, with the edges often coming out with glorious, billowy charred bubbles.
Watch noir at the Film Forum
While New York is home to a number of great independent movie theaters, the Forum is the best of the best with its atmosphere somehow perfectly matching the mood of the carefully curated film that lights up the big screen every night. House specialties include classics by Orson Welles and international noir from Jean-Luc Godard as well as lesser-known gems. The Film Forum is the only autonomous nonprofit cinema in New York City and one of the few in the U.S. It features two distinct but complementary programs, theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, and repertory selections that include American and foreign classics, genre works, festivals and directors retrospectives. A third screen features extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films.
Listen to live jazz in Greenwich Village
Greenwich Village may be small, but it offers a wealth of New York nightlife options, especially great jazz. Small’s, which borrows a name from the legendary Harlem nightclub of the 1920s, is strictly in the tradition of a Greenwich Village jazz cellar; a small, intimate place, packed with fans every night of the week who look forward to the sounds of vintage, established stars along with talented up-and-comers. The Blue Note prides itself on being “the jazz capital of the world,” where musical titans like Charlie Haden go up against hot young talents. In Washington Square Park, free live jazz can often be enjoyed as well.
Ride the Wonder Wheel on Coney Island
From the turn of the century to World War II, Coney Island was considered New York City’s playground, but after the war, it suffered years of neglect. The arrival of the new Luna Park amusement park brought it back to life again, thanks in part to its iconic Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone Roller Coaster. Of course, it’s also famous as the home of Nathan’s Hot Dogs and the internationally renowned hot dog eating contest. If you happen to be here on 4th of July, you won’t want to miss the gluttonous debacle. In mid-June, usually the Saturday just before the official start of summer on June 21st, the annual Mermaid parade offers the chance to scope out lots of strange sights as the largest art parade in the country – an incredible, wild cohesion of ecstatic artistic frenzy.
Sip drinks at one of the city’s best rooftop bars
On your last night in the city, you may want to head to the Top of the Strand, the Strand Hotel’s 21st-floor rooftop bar that offers an uninterrupted view of the soaring Empire State Building – if you can grab one of the first-come, first-served benches that provide a front-row seat. If the weather isn’t cooperating, a retractable glass roof ensures a warm platform for viewing, safe from the elements. Other options include the lounge at Pod 39 Hotel, a rooftop bar that sits 17 stories above ground with a view of the East River, and Ides at the Wythe Hotel, an outdoor terrace bar on the sixth floor with sweeping vistas of Manhattan and the East River – a perfect spot to enjoy summer sunsets.