The Essential Things to Do When You’re Visiting New York for the First Time

Girl on Brooklyn Bridge in foggy weather

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 time 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. Going back as an adult, I basically had the itinerary at my whim, the city a sprawling playground just waiting to be explored.

From majestic view points and delicious eats, to outdoor spaces and cool museums in NYC, you won’t be short of things to do. Of course, there were some iconic and essential sights that were top of the bucket list!

Whether you’re there for a week or just a weekend, discover the essential things to add to your NYC itinerary when you’re visiting New York for the first time:

*This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I’ll earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you)*

Girl looking out at New York City from the Empire State Building

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!

More great viewpoints in New York City:

One World Observatory: North America’s tallest building, reconstructed at Ground Zero, the site of the Twin Towers.
Cantor Roof Garden: Part of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, the roof garden offers great views of Central Park.
Roosevelt Island Tram: For just a few dollars, take in the views from this cable car that goes from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island.
Staten Island Ferry: The cheapest way to see the statue of Liberty, and the some great views of great views of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights

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
. It’s also a great city for movie and TV fans to explore some recognisable backdrops – try planning your own walking tour of the best Gossip Girl filming locations in New York!

Girl on Brooklyn Bridge in foggy weather

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!

Things to do in Brooklyn:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden: An oasis amongst the buzz of Brooklyn, with thousands of varieties of flora
Brooklyn Flea Market: Browse the wares at this huge flea market, on Saturdays and Sundays in DUMBO
Grab street eats at Smorgasburg: Hundreds of local vendors gather in Prospect Park on Sundays
New York Transport Museum: Discover the history of New York’s transportation system

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.

Places to eat in NYC:

Joe’s Pizza: Classic New York slices in NYC’s most-reknowned pizza institutions
Los Tacos No.1: Mexican joint just off Times Square, ideal for a quick bite with a fiery kick
Burger Joint: Widely regarded as one of the best burger spots in NYC
Eataly: Italian market in Flatiron district with multiple restaurants to choose from
Xi’an Famous Foods: Hand-pulled noodles giving an authentic taste of China

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. If you want to explore more of NYC’s foodie culture, why not book a New York food tour?

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.

Show signs in Times Square

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.

The best Broadway shows to see in New York City:

Hamilton: Hip-hop musical based on the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton
Wicked: A Broadway staple with an alternate take on the Wizard of Oz
& Juliet: Refreshing jukebox musical take on the story of Juliet (and Romeo. But mostly Juliet)
Chicago: A slick, murderous affair set amongst 1920s decadance
The Book of Mormon: Hit comedy musical from Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park

Read More: More ways to find cheap theatre tickets in New York

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.

More museums to see on your first visit to NYC:

Museum of Modern Art: One of the world’s most highly-regarded contemporary art collections.
American Museum of Natural History: Dig deep into the natural world with one of the world’s most notable natural history institutions.
Museum of the City of New York: Explore the history of the Big Apple through photographs, textiles, memorabilia and much more.
Museum of the Moving Image: A must for film obsessives, with screenings and exhibitions exploring the cultural impact of media.
The Museum at FIT: One for the fashionistas, the Fashion Institute of Technology is home to some 50,000 costumes and fabrics.

NYC budget travel tip: If you’re visiting New York on a budget, find out if there are any free museum days happening.

Lake in Central Park, New York

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.

New York City Pass

I’ve got a whole post asking if a New York City Pass is worth getting, which goes into detail of how much we spent vs how much we saved. There are multiple types of pass, so definitely do some research into which works best for you before booking.

For us, it was definitely worth picking up a two day all inclusive pass. We saved around $88 on what we’d have spent visiting each attraction. If you don’t mind fast-paced, jam-packed days, and want to see as many New York attractions as possible, it can work out a fair bit cheaper and open your mind to things you might not normally try.

Your First Time in New York: City Guide

New York is big, busy, noisy and can be overwhelming. To get the best out of your trip as first timers visiting NYC, here’s some helpful information – including finding accommodation, and how the subway works…

Some general tips for your first visit to New York City:

  • Comfortable shoes are a MUST, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking!
  • Make sure you pack accordingly – New York in the winter can be bitterly cold, so bring your thermals.
  • New York City is generally safe for tourists, especially within the well-travelled Manhattan and Brooklyn areas. As with any city break, the best advice is to keep your wits about you and pay attention to your surroundings.
  • Keep your valuables well-secured – a money belt for under your clothes is really useful.
  • The subway at night can be intimidating, so if you’re a solo female traveller in New York, you may prefer to get a taxi. The Curb app connects you with licensed yellow taxi drivers in NYC.
  • Avoid visiting Central Park and more deserted areas during the night.
  • When you’re walking around, don’t stop suddenly or dawdle in a group taking up the entire sidewalk. The easiest way to annoy locals is by walking like a typical tourist!
  • Most establishments will take card, however it’s always good to have some dollars on you for markets and street vendors, as well as for tipping.
  • Speaking of tipping… if you’re a first time visitor to New York from outside the USA, don’t forget that you’re expected to tip in America. For restaurants, the average tip amount is 15-20%; in bars, $1 per drink. Valets, taxis and beauty services should also be tipped – check out this guide to tipping in the USA for the lowdown on how much.

Where to stay in New York as a first time visitor

For your first visit to NYC, I’d recommend staying in Manhattan. It’s where the majority of the main sights can be found and has easy transport links. Private apartments and AirBnB are available, but the city has some horror stories about weird setups and owners, so for comfort’s sake, I’d choose a hotel or hostel.

We stayed in the Aloft Manhattan Downtown ($$$) in lower Manhattan, which offered clean and comfortable rooms in a great location. There’s a Joe’s Pizza just around the corner too…

Hostels in Manhattan

HI Hostel NYC ($) – dorm rooms minutes from Central Park
Chelsea International Hostel ($) – no-frills dorms in the stylish Chelsea district
Kama Central Park ($) – private pod-style dorm beds in a central location

Hotels in Manhattan

Manhattan Bowery Lodge ($$) – super no-frills hostel-style hotel with private rooms & shared bathrooms
The Flat NYC ($$$) – simple but stylish hotel, a great central location in the Flatiron District
Freehand New York ($$$) – sleek and artsy upmarket hotel
Millennium Hotel Broadway Times Square ($$$) – location, location, location!
The Evelyn NoMad ($$$$) – art noveau boutique hotel
Moxy NYC Times Square ($$$$) – have always had good experiences with Moxy, and it’s pet-friendly too.
Gansevoort Meatpacking ($$$$$+) – 5* luxury with a rooftop pool and stocked mini-bar in each room

NYC Budget Travel Tip: Book a free cancellation hotel on a site like booking.com as soon as you plan your trip to lock in an affordable spot, and then monitor hotel prices in the run up to your trip. As long as you know your free cancellation deadline, you can cancel and re-book elsewhere if a better deal pops up.

Getting around NYC: Subway Guide

While there are many walkable attractions in Manhattan, the city also has a well-connected public transportation system, in the form of the New York subway. Usually, locals will refer to this as ‘the train’ (not the metro, tube or underground!)

The easiest way to navigate the subway on your first visit to New York is by simply plugging your journey into Google Maps or CityMapper. But it’s also good to have an idea of how the trains in New York work.

Basic New York subway etiquette is similar to riding the London Underground: Let people off before you get on, move away from the doors once you’ve entered the carriage and don’t put your bag on the seat. Generally, just be alert and polite, and you’ll be fine.

New York travel tip: Don’t miss Grand Central Station, one of the world’s most iconic train stations. Even if you’re not catching a train, it’s absolutely worth checking out.

Have you been to New York City? What are your top tips for someone’s first time in New York?

Read More:
15 Affordable Places to Eat in New York
Is the New York Sightseeing Pass Worth Buying?
The Little Things I Loved About New York City
Where to Eat in New York: Eataly
Colourful Travel in New York at the Color Factory

Similar Posts