18 best things to do in New York City

by Jan

What are the very best things to do in New York City?

New York is an amazing city and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.  It’s a fantastic city to explore, but with so much to see, where do you start?

Realistically, you’ll never run out of new things to see in the Big Apple.  Whether you’re looking for the world-famous landmarks and bucket-list attractions, or lesser-known haunts, you could be busy for a lifetime.  There’s always something new around the corner.

If you are visiting New York for the first time, planning your trip can be extremely daunting.  Knowing the best things to see and visit can be a minefield.  So, to make it easier, we’ve put together our list of the best things to do in New York.

Our guide includes top tourist attractions, landmarks, and historic sights, as well as green spaces and some fun places to eat.  Plus we have put them all together in a 7-day New York itinerary, so you can plan each day.

So, in no particular order, here’s our guide to the best things to do in New York.

*contains affiliate links

Take a trip to the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island

The Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty Manhattan, New York, USA

The Statue of Liberty is a must-see attraction for all first timers in New York. It is New York’s most iconic sight and attracts millions of visitors a year. The copper statue was built in France under sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi between 1875 and 1884.  It was then shipped to New York City as a gift of friendship from France in 1885.

For the best views of the Statue of Liberty take the ferry from Battery Park in Manhattan. This round-trip includes a self-guided tour of Liberty Island and the Museum.  You can book your tickets direct from Statue Cruises.  This round trip will also take you to Ellis Island, home to the National Museum of Immigration.

How to see the Statue of Liberty for free

If you want to see the Statue of Liberty for free, take a ride on the Staten Island commuter ferry.  You’ll get a good close-up view from the ferry but won’t be able to get out on Liberty Island.  For the best views, stand on the right-hand side as you leave Manhattan.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, New York, USA

Your round trip to Liberty Island, includes a stop at Ellis Island.  Here you can visit the National Museum of Immigration and learn about the plight of the United States’ first immigrants.  Take a tour through the arrivals hall where over 12 million people took their first steps in the process of becoming a US citizen.

Admission to the National Museum of Immigration is included in your trip.  It also includes an audio guide.

Chill out in Central Park

People sitting on grass with New York skyline backdrop

No visit to New York is complete without at least one visit to Central Park.  In fact, you’ll probably need to go more than once, as it’s truly enormous.

You’ll find plenty of things to do in Central Park.  Look out for the Alice in Wonderland statue and Belvedere Castle or have lunch overlooking the lake.  Plus, don’t miss the Strawberry Fields, a living memorial to John Lennon.

A walk in Central Park is one of the best free things to do in New York City and a great way to unwind. Or if you prefer, you could join the many joggers and cyclists.

If you are visiting New York with kids, allow some time for Central Park zoo as well.

Visit a New York Museum

Natural History Museum, New York

New York is home to over 90 amazing museums, many of which are in Manhattan.  They even have a Museum Mile, with a diverse collection of museums.

For first-timers in New York, some of the best art museums to visit are MOMA the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) and the Guggenheim.  Other popular museums in New York include the Tenement Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

If you are visiting with kids, we’d recommend the American Museum of Natural History*.  Set over 4 floors, this museum has a huge collection of the most awesome natural history exhibits in the world.

The highlights include the most extensive dinosaur selection in the world, amazing amethyst crystals and an enormous blue whale.

*gifted

Take a walk over Brooklyn Bridge

Crossing Brooklyn Bridge , New York

A walk over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge is one of the best free things to do in New York. Previously one of the largest suspension bridges in the world, Brooklyn Bridge is now a major attraction for anyone visiting New York.

The Brooklyn Bridge joins Manhattan with Brooklyn, so is ideal if you’re trying to explore one of the other neighbourhoods.  The walk is 1.1 mile (2km) long and takes about 30 minutes. It can get busy, and you will have to dodge all the people stopping for photos.

Another option is to hire bikes, but walking gives you more time to enjoy the scenery and stop for lots of photos.

Find out how we spent a day out in Brooklyn.

Go to Dumbo

View of Manhattan Bridge from Dumbo, New York

Once you’re across Brooklyn Bridge, head down into Dumbo (District under the Manhattan Bridge Underpass).  This area has become a must-visit place for instagrammers who want the iconic shot of Brooklyn Bridge from below.

You can get the best views from Washington Street, then head for lunch.  Afterwards, take a stroll along to Brooklyn Heights.

We walked along to Luke’s Lobsters, who reportedly sell the “Best Lobster Roll Ever”.

Look at the Manhattan Skyline

Every first timer in New York should head to the top to look over the Manhattan skyline. There are five top observation decks, so unless you have no budget, it’s unlikely that you’ll visit them all in one go.

Views over Manhattan, New York from Summit One Vanderbilt.

The five top observation decks in New York are:

  • The Empire State Building – At one point the tallest building in the world, this is still one of the most famous buildings in the world and undoubtedly a classic!
  • Top of the Rock – With its location at the top of the Rockerfeller Centre, it’s worth a visit to see the art-deco features and views over Central Park.
  • The Edge – This outside observation deck is perfect for thrill-seekers, who don’t mind hanging out above the streets below.
  • One World Observatory – Located at the World Trade Centre, this is now NYC’s tallest building.
  • Summit One Vanderbilt – One of the newest observations towers, which offers a full immersive art experience.

City pass

Climb Summit One Vanderbilt

Boys in room full of silver bubbles at Summit One Vanderbilt, New York

Summit One Vanderbilt is one of New York’s newest and most exciting observation towers.  Innovative use of mirrors, space, and technology will challenge your senses from the moment you step in the lift.

A speedy ascent takes visitors to some of the best views in Manhattan and a unique art encounter. We loved this immersive art experience  and recommend it as one of the must-do attractions in New York.

If you are thinking of visiting multiple observation decks, you should consider buying a New York City Pass.  This will give you discounts on admission to many of New York’s top attractions.

See Grand Central Station

Grand Central Station, New York, USA

It’s easy to forget you’re in a train station at Grand Central Terminal, as the building is so exquisite.  Yet, it is one of the busiest stations in the world.  Whether or not you need a train, this is a must-see place in New York.

Don’t forget to pop downstairs to try the whispering pillars!

Just minutes away from the train station is another of New York’s most stunning buildings, New York Library.  Built in 1895, this historic landmark will impress you with its magnificent ceilings and architecture.

Admission is free, so it’s worth a quick look, even if you don’t need a book.

Take a walk on the High Line

Railway track garden on the The High line, New York

The High Line is part of a regeneration project in New York and provides another pleasant green space for visitors to enjoy.  The urban park stretches for 2 miles from Hudson Yards.  However, you can get off part way to visit Chelsea Market and the galleries.

At 30 feet above street level, this elevated walkway provides a perfect viewpoint to observe other districts, such as Chelsea and the Meat Packing Area.

It’s best to visit the High Line on a sunny, dry day, when you can take your time to enjoy the views and art installations.  At the foot of the High Line, you can visit the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Admission to the High Line is free.

Visit Times Square

Bright lights on the billboards at Times Square, New York, USA

Although Times Square gets some bad press as a tourist destination, it’s still a must-visit place for first timers in New York.  With the dazzling neon billboards and street performers, there’s always a buzz and something going on.

Take a stroll down Wall Street

Merrill Lynch Bull, Financial District, New York

Wall street is in the heart of New York’s financial district and home to the New York Stock Exchange.

Look out for the bronze sculptures of the Raging Bull or the Fearless Girl.  You’ll probably see queues at both ends of the bull – one to stroke his face and the other for his genitals!

You could also pay a visit to Trinity Church, where you’ll find some of New York’s oldest graves, including those of Hamilton and his son.

Visit a New York stadium

Whether or not you are a sports fan, you can’t beat a visit to the home stadium of one of New York’s top teams.  Visit Madison Square Garden to see the New York Knicks or the Yankee Stadium, home to the NY Yankees.

Brooklyn Nets Basketball Game, New York

We opted for the Barclay Centre in Brooklyn, where we saw an exhilarating match between the Brooklyn Mets and Houston Rockets.  The game was electric and the atmosphere was unforgettable, and definitely one of the best things to do in New York.

Visit the 9/11 Museum & Memorial

911 Memorial, New York

The 9/11 Memorial Plaza covers the area where the World Trade Centre twin towers once stood.  The memorial serves as a tribute to the thousands who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centre in 2001.

Reflecting Absence is breathtaking structure set in the footprints of the Twin Towers.  Waterfalls on all sides gush constantly into the pools and granite craters below.

Take a moment to read some of the victim’s names inscribed around the edge of the memorial or for some quiet contemplation.

Admission to the 9/11 Memorial is free.

Motorcycle dedicated to the first responders of the 9/11 attack, now in the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

One of the most emotive things to do in New York is a visit to the 9/11 Museum. It’s an inspiring museum dedicated to remembering the tragic events of the Twin Towers crash.  As you’d expect, much thought has gone into getting a museum that is both informative and respectful.

Visitors can follow a step-by-step timeline of events leading up the bombings, hear real-life stories from survivors and see memorabilia and pictures from the event.

You should book in advance online, as tickets sell out fast.

Head to Little Island

Little Island, New York

Another of the best free things to do in New York is a visit to Little Island.

Little Island is a public park on stilts on the edge of the Hudson River.  It has an interesting design resembling tulips in the river.  Once on the island, you can follow the winding pathways around the gardens.  Landscapers have designed the area so that it is in bloom all year round.

Little Island is an area for relaxation and contemplation.  You’ll find a small café and play area by the amphitheatre, as well as several music makers.

It’s a good idea to combine your visit here with your walk on the High Line.  Admission to Little Island is free.

Admire the Vessel

The Vessel, Hudson Yards, New York

The honeycomb-shaped Vessel is one of New York’s newest landmarks.  It is a stunning art piece in the centre of Hudson Yards.

Unfortunately, you can no longer climb the spiral staircase inside the Vessel, but you can look up at the sky from within.

See the Oculus

Oculus New York, USA

The amazing Oculus building is actually the transportation hub for the World Trade Centre.  However, as well as trains, it offers plenty of options for shopping and eating.

Even if you don’t fancy shopping, you should visit the Oculus at least once, just to admire the architecture.  It was built as to show the city’s resilience after the 9/11 attacks.  It is easy to walk through on your way to the 9/11 Memorial.

Explore Greenwich Village

Playing Chess in Washington Park, New York, USA

It would be a good idea to include a visit to Greenwich village in your New York itinerary.  The village is an arty neighbourhood on the westside of Lower Manhattan.

Greenwich village is home to several of the New York university campuses, so has a laid-back vibe.  As you’d expect, it also has a good choice of bars and cafés.  You can also spot the apartment from Friends here.

At the heart of Greenwich Village, you’ll find Washington Square Park.  This lively public park has street artists, vendors, and plenty of picknickers.

If you enjoy chess, you could challenge one of the locals, but don’t expect to win!

Climb aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

USS Intrepid, New York, USA

Have you ever got up close and personal with a Nasa space shuttle or climbed aboard a nuclear submarine?  If not, you really need a visit to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum*.

Set aboard the decks of the aircraft carrier Intrepid, this really is a museum with a difference.  You can explore the Intrepid, see jet fighter planes, Concorde and have a close-up of the Enterprise space shuttle.  But for me, the best bit was climbing aboard the Growler, a real-life nuclear submarine.

*gifted

Have lunch at Chelsea Market

Chelsea Market, New York, USA

Chelsea has a bustling food hall, so is perfect for a quick lunch.  We grabbed tacos at Taco 1 and clam chowder ( a fond reminder of our trip to San Francisco).

Afterwards, you can browse the mini markets, looking at the vintage clothes, antiques, and artisan jewellery.

Enjoy a Broadway Show

Lion King Broadway Show, New York

One of the highlights of any trip to New York is a show on Broadway.  With 41 theatres to choose from, you’re sure to find a show you like.

Book in advance to guarantee tickets for Broadway’s top hit shows or get some cheaper last minute tickets from TodayTix.  We used them to get tickets for the Lion King, which perfect on a rainy afternoon.

Accommodation in New York City

You’ll find plenty of choice of accommodation in New York.  You really need to consider your budget, what you want to see and how you intend to travel around.

Obviously, accommodation away from central Manhattan can be cheaper, but you will need to factor how easy it is to visit the attractions.

Mid-range accommodation

We stayed at The Fifty Sonesta Select, a mid-range hotel in Midtown Manhattan.  This hotel had a very central location, in walking distance of many of NYC’s top attractions.  It also offered suites, which were ideal for a family and also had a small kitchenette.

Click here for prices and availability at The Fifty Sonesta Select.

A cheaper option, with a good location near the Flatiron Building and amazing décor is the Hotel Chelsea.

Click here for prices and availability at the Hotel Chelsea.

Budget-friendly hotels

If you are looking for budget accommodation, the Pod Hotels offer good value.  Alternatively, you could look at somewhere less central for your stay.

Click here for prices and availability at the Pod Times Square.

Eating in New York City

Black Tap Shakes, New York

So where are the best places to eat in New York?  Quite honestly, you’ll will never be stuck for somewhere to eat in NYC.  You’ll find a vendor or restaurant at every corner.  Some of the classic ones for first-timers in New York are Katz’s Delicatessen, Junior’s Cheesecake, or the Russian Tea Room.

Or, if you want a gigantic shake, head to the Black Tap.  Alternatively, try Ellen’s Stardust Diner, for an all-singing theatre-style experience.

How to get around New York

We used the subway, which was easy to navigate.  When you arrive from the airport, buy a metro card, which will last a week.  This will give you seven days of unlimited travel and save a lot of money.  The pass is currently $33 (+ $1 activation fee).

You should also expect to walk loads, so wear some comfy shoes.  It is an enormous city, so there’s plenty to see and there’s no better way than on foot.

Travel resources for New York

Here are some of the websites we use when planning our trips.

Discover accommodation to suit all budgets at Booking.com

Get some of the most affordable prices on flights with Expedia

Look at some of the best tours and trips in New York

Best travel guides for New York

If you’re looking for more information on New York, the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides are very inspiring.  Or, as the name suggests, the Top Ten New York City travel guide provides top ten lists to everything.

Another good option for making the most out of your visit is the Mini Rough Guide to New York.  These travel guides come in a handy, pocket-friendly format, so are ideal for popping in your pocket.  And you can’t go wrong with a Lonely Planet New York City Guide, which provide practical information from locals.

To enthuse younger children about your visit to NYC, try the Kids’ Travel Guide to New York City.  It will help prepare them for all the iconic landmarks on your trip.

We'd love to hear from you!

What are your favourite things to do in New York?  We’d love to hear your comments below.

*Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, which means we may earn some money at no cost to you if you click on one. (Read our full Disclosure Policy)

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