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New York City is diverse, lively, dense, and home to iconic sights and symbols like the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Streets are filled with skyscrapers. It’s a mix of cultures and foods and world-class art. Theater is top quality here. You can shop till you drop. At Times Square, you will marvel at the oversized flashing lighted signs that surround the crowds below. And when you are tired of the bustle, escape to the wonders of Central Park with its lakes and trees and grassy hills.
With all New York City has to offer, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when planning a trip, especially if it’s your first time in NYC. Here are some major things to know that will help. Be flexible once you get to New York, but at least have a game plan ahead of time so you can best enjoy this wonderfully complex city.
New York City is made up of five boroughs, with Manhattan at its core. While you can venture to Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, you will want to center your first trip in Manhattan. This is where you’ll find the Empire State Building, Times Square, Broadway shows, and Central Park. If you have time, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or take the subway to the Bronx. If you have only a few days, plan to spend most of your time in Manhattan.
Staying in Manhattan on your first trip allows you to fit in the most sightseeing. That doesn’t narrow it down a lot, though, as Manhattan is large and there are hundreds of hotels. Many people book a hotel in Times Square because they’ve heard of it and seen the ball drop on TV on New Year’s Eve. But I recommend staying at least a few blocks away from the chaos and noise and giant neon signs of Times Square. Choose a place in your budget and preferences at least a few blocks away.
I like staying near Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street. This puts you at a transportation hub within walking distance of Rockefeller Plaza, Bryant Park, Times Square, and Central Park. I can recommend the Hyatt Grand Central as a mid-priced, clean, attractive option.
If you’re after lower prices, you can opt to stay in New Jersey or Brooklyn, or anywhere outside the middle of Manhattan. The trade-off is more time spent on the train or subway. I like to pack my sightseeing days full of sights, walking out the door of my hotel and being right in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Figure out what’s best for you.
While your interests will determine how you fill your time in New York City, there are three iconic sights that will top your list on your first trip.
The Statue of Liberty National Monument. Lady Liberty, recognized around the world as a symbol of freedom, stands waiting to welcome you to New York. Before you go, think about whether you want to take the boat out to the island and see the statue from her pedestal. Or are you fine with taking the free Staten Island Ferry and getting a close-up view from the water? Do you also want to go to nearby Ellis Island, where immigrants were brought and processed into the U.S. for years? You can get tickets to see both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Allow basically a morning or afternoon to do the joint tour.
Built where the Twin Towers once stood, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum honors those lost in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Be prepared for an emotional experience.
If you are short on time, you can visit just the memorial pools outside the museum. Allow at least 2 hours for the museum.
This famous green oasis covering more than 800 acres calls to visitors and locals alike. Stroll along the tree-lined paths or relax on the grassy lawns of North Meadow and Sheep’s Meadow. Marvel at the lovely curves of Bow Bridge. And visit the Imagine memorial to John Lennon.
If time is limited, enter the park at the south end and wander as long as you can. There’s more to see than at the north end of the park. Download a map or app of the park so you can easily find the points you most want to see.
For your first trip to New York City, consider an attractions pass. This can save you money, especially if you plan to visit the most popular places. Basic options include:
These are for a set number of days. Fit in as many attractions as you like in that time. Some come with skip-the-line perks. Two to look into are the Sightseeing Pass and the New York Pass.
These are for a set number of attractions, such as three or five choices from the options given. If you know what you most want to see, these are a good kind of pass. One to consider is The Explorer Pass.
You don’t have a choice of which attractions are included. But many of the most popular are included. Check out the CityPass, which is a booklet of six tickets
Do a cost comparison with what you want to see between having a pass and no pass to find out whether you want to invest in one.
The vastness of New York City never ceases to amaze people. And taking in a view of the city from above is a must when you visit. Not only do you see the density of the buildings but you have the water, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty to spy on from up high. Here are four main places that feature a panoramic view. Book tickets ahead of your visit to get the time of day you prefer. If you can choose two of these viewing sites, book one in the daytime and the other at sunset for views of NYC in all lights.
The Edge is an outside platform 101 stories up, and it literally hangs off the edge of the building. You see West Manhattan and south to the Statue of Liberty. The angled glass walls allow you to lean out over the city. And there’s a glassed section of ground where you can stand and look straight down at the city below.
This is my favorite of the city view places. After you get over the strange sensation of feeling like you’re on the brink of falling 100 stories to the sidewalk, it’s quite exciting. And the views are certainly breathtaking.
From the top of Rockefeller Center, you can take in views of Central Park and Manhattan Midtown from 70 floors up. And from the Top of the Rock you can clearly see the Empire State Building. That’s one reason some people recommend this one if you are choosing just one view site. And with indoor and outdoor viewing decks, you can stay inside if it’s cold or rainy.
This grand symbol of New York, the Empire State Building, is billed as the “world’s most famous skyscraper.” Get your ticket and ride the elevator to the 86th floor, where you can look out at the city from the 360-degree observatory. See the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, and the Statue of Liberty.
If you choose, you can include a visit to the 102nd floor as well. Here are floor-to-ceiling views that can cover up to 80 miles away on a clear day.
The newest entry into fantastic NYC viewpoints is the Summit. The entrance is inside Grand Central Station. It does have a view of the city, and it also has other floors with mirrors and shiny objects. It’s an experience that goes beyond taking in the city sights. Take a look at the website and see if it’s something you want to do.
As your trip gets close, check the weather. If it looks like a day of rain or extreme cold is coming, no problem. Plan for amazing indoor options. A few top picks:
This world-class art museum offers so much to see that you could easily spend days here. Not only does it display art from different historical periods and countries, but also the architecture of the building alone is worth a visit.
Like the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum, the Met can be enjoyed in short sessions. Plan for a morning or a few hours. Then, look at the online information about the exhibits. Choose two or three areas that fascinate you and start there. You will likely want to return to see more!
This grand museum has been around for 150 years. While it’s a great way to keep young ones in your party busy and happy, I’ve found as a grown-up that I love natural history displays.
Popular exhibits include the brown bears in the North American Hall of Mammals, the massive blue whale model that measures 94 feet, and the huge Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.
This imposing building is a great place to shelter from the weather. The stately lions standing guard on the front steps are named Patience and Fortitude. The architecture inside the library is noteworthy. And it’s free.
You may think of New York City as a fashion mecca and figure you need to dress up. But while there are upscale stores and elegant restaurants, for sightseeing, you don’t need to be fancy. You will walk and walk and walk. And that’s the best way to experience New York. So, wear comfortable shoes or flat-heeled boots. And it may be surprising but rest assured that casual clothes are fine for Broadway shows and most restaurants.
These tips touch on some things that can make your trip easier and more fun. With a bit of planning, you will enjoy your time in New York. I’m betting you’ll want to return for more incredible experiences in this fascinating city.
Go over to our New York City category to find out more about the Big Apple:
As the owner of the travel blog, Exploring Our World, Sharon enjoys taking her readers on a journey with her. Articles often delve into the history of a place, and by adding in a generous number of photos, she inspires others to explore for themselves. In her early travels, she was most frustrated by coming back home and learning that she had missed a fascinating sight or a hidden gem. Now she helps travelers prepare for a trip by passing along travel tips, pointing out lesser known things to see, and alerting them to enjoyable day trips from major cities.
Her travel articles have been published by Stripes Europe Newsletter and the World War 2 Writing and Research Center. Whether she’s discovering more about her hometown of San Diego, California or flying to faraway places, she enjoys sharing with travel lovers around the world.