New York is a behemoth of a city. Even if you don’t leave Manhattan (which you should), it would be pretty easy to pack out an itinerary for your first visit to New York, and still have a million things you haven’t seen.
I *had* actually been to New York City before, when I was 16, on a college trip. Which was a pretty awesome college trip option. BUT, with only three days and an itinerary intended to further my performing arts studies (ha), I didn’t really have the chance to explore the city on my own terms. Or drink, obviously. Going back as an adult, I basically had the itinerary at my whim, the city a sprawling playground just waiting to be explored. Of course, there were some iconic and essential sights that were top of the bucket list!
So whether you’re there for a weekend or a week, discover what I think are the essential things to do when you’re visiting New York for the first time!
Empire State Building & Top of the Rock
I’ve put both of these together because, well, frankly – if you’re short on time, you don’t need to do both. I *did* do both, but we had six days to play with. If you do want to check out both the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock on your first visit to New York, I’d suggest considering your timings to get a real feel for the city at different times of the day.
We popped to the top of the Empire State Building in the early afternoon sun and took in the view from Top of the Rock after sundown. The views were completely different – from being able to make out every rooftop, window and detail, to the amazing pattern of lights stretching as far as the eye can see.
New York travel tip: If you want to pack in the city’s best attractions, have a look at your New York city pass options. Find out if I thought the New York pass is worth the money!
Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island Cruise
If you don’t see the Statue of Liberty on your first visit to New York, did you even *go* to New York though?! I mean, yeah, there’s always the free option of taking the Staten Island Ferry. But I think I felt at my most ‘I’M ON HOLIDAY IN NEW-BLOODY-YORK’ when we took the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Cruise.
Being able to actually get off and walk up to Lady Liberty herself made the experience much more memorable than if we’d simply floated past. And as we took the very first ferry of the day, we were the first people up to the pedestal, a relatively tame brag that I’m disproportionately proud of. Sue me.
The ferry cruise also includes a stop at Ellis Island, to visit the National Museum of Immigration. The museum showcases and celebrates America’s strong immigrant heritage, and the top floor has some interactive exhibits that really engage you with the stories of those who came to the United States in search of the ‘American Dream’.
New York travel tip: Take the first cruise of the day, and you’ll not only beat most of the crowds, but you’ll be back on land well before lunchtime.
Take time to wander
Seriously, I can’t recommend this one enough. When it comes to visiting somewhere THIS iconic, you’ll be tempted to pack your first visit to New York with attraction after attraction. Wait. Stop. Put your phone down, step away from Google Maps. A little bit, at least.
One piece of advice for New York I’d give is to have an itinerary in mind before you go, to make the most of this eye-opening city. But within that schedule, make sure there’s time set aside for the pure joy of wandering. Give yourself an area (Central Park, Williamsburg, Soho and East Village are all prime targets), put away the ‘best things to do’ list and enjoy the street art, sights, sounds and… smells, definitely smells… of the Big Apple. Trust me.
New York travel tip: To combine your strolling with a bit of insightful insider NYC knowledge, join a pay-what-you-want walking tour.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
You’ll not only get a great Instagram snap, but you’ll also get a great view of the city. Unless you visit on the FOGGIEST DAY IN ALL OF HISTORY, like we did. Honestly? All that fog actually made it pretty atmospheric. And I *still* got The Shot!
New York travel tip: This is a great one for early in the morning, if you want to dedicate a day to exploring Brooklyn!
Eat *all* the food
Usually when I’m visiting somewhere that’s deemed expensive to visit I try and cut down food costs by making my own breakfasts. In a city like New York, that’s known for breakfasts? Hell no. Bagels, pancakes, and even a cheeky slice of pizza at 9am.
New York has *SO* many awesome places to eat, it’s hard to know where to start. I put together an extensive list, mapped out via the powers of Google, so I knew wherever I was in the city I’d be able to find somewhere worth eating at nearby. Having said that – if I spotted somewhere intriguing, I rolled in regardless.
Eating in New York City doesn’t *have* to be expensive either. Plenty of the places we went to cost no more than $10-$15, and if you wanna get the best of NYC food without spending a month’s rent, you can check out my list of awesome and affordable places to eat in New York.
New York travel tip: Rather than having three big meals in a day, we grabbed lots of smaller dishes as we explored – meaning I got to try more of the city’s amazing foodie offerings.
Visit Times Square
My rage in central London on a busy Saturday knows no bounds. Crowds aren’t my thing – but in New York, they’re often unavoidable. And Times Square is where you’ll find the best (worst) of them.
Despite that, it’s somewhere you just have to see when you’re in New York for the first time. It’s the New Yorkiest of all New York things and even with the crowds, I felt like I’d *arrived*. Y’know? It’s extra special at night, when the humongous billboards dance with light, music fills the air and yellow taxis line the streets.
New York travel tip: If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the big-ness of it, pull down a side street and walk a block or two – the smaller streets around Times Square are a lot less crowded. If you find a nice bar there to perch in, extra bonus points.
See a Broadway (or off-Broadway) show
Even if you’re ‘not a theatre person’, Broadway and off-Broadway have so much to offer, you’ll be hard pressed to not find *something* you enjoy. On our New York trip, we went to see Avenue Q – poignant for me, as it was actually something I saw the first time I visited NYC. Think Sesame Street, but with serious adult humour.
It’s not just musicals either – plays, concerts and comedy shows all feel that extra little bit starry in the Big Apple.
New York travel tip: The TKTs booths sell heavily discounted theatre tickets on the day of the show – for smaller queues, head to the Lincoln Center or South Street Seaport booths, rather than the Times Square one.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
Like a lot of people, I still remember where I was almost 18 years ago when the most horrific terrorist attacks in American memory took place.
Perhaps the most harrowing exhibit of all in the museum was the Historical Exhibition, which timelines the backstory, unfolding and aftermath of September 11th 2001. Real recordings from those trapped in the towers, artefacts found in the rubble and the stories of those who lost their lives *really* hit home.
Like a lot of people in the museum that day, I cried. As you’d expect, the 9/11 Museum isn’t a ‘fun’ place to visit, but from where I stand, it’s an important, moving and impactful one, that anyone visiting New York for the first time should take the opportunity to experience.
New York Tip: This was the only place where we experienced quite long queues – even though we had a special line with our passes. Arrive as early as possible in the morning to avoid a lengthy wait.
Visit Central Park
Honestly, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Central Park on this visit – but when I first went back in my teens, I saw a bit more of it. This place is seriously huge. Like 843 acres huge. So chances are, you won’t get to see all of it on your first New York City visit…
Map out some highlights before you go – popular places include The Pond (with *that* iconic bridge), Bethesda Terrace & Fountain, Belvedere Castle, Sheep Meadow (perfect for a picnic), The Mall (check out the statues) and The Lake.
New York travel tip: To help if you’re getting lost, check out the base of your nearest lamp posts. The numbers at its base will help you locate yourself – the first two numbers will tell you the nearest street.
Walk the High Line
Quite honestly, I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to spend our last night in New York. As the weather cooled slightly, we joined the High Line in Chelsea, and meandered up towards Hudson Yards.
The High Line opened in 2009 and stretches one and a half miles on the West side of Manhattan. The garden park was built on a disused viaduct of the New York Central Railroad. Along it, you’ll find beautiful green space, plants, flowers and urban artworks. It’s such a unique and beautiful spot, well worth walking through.
New York travel tip: The High Line is open from 7am until 10/11pm – if you want a quieter experience, go early in the morning. Find out more with this guide to walking the high line.