Locals' Favorite Activities in NYC: 11 Things You Can't Miss

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    Top NYC Recommendations

    NYC skyline - Empire State Building
    Harri Jarvelainen / Getty Images

    I have spent most of my adult life (and some of my childhood as well!) exploring New York City. Whether taking tours, visiting museums and attractions or dining in restaurants, I'm always thinking of how to share my findings with my readers here at About.com.

    I have the immense pleasure (and privilege) to play tourist in my own hometown (though it's not all fun and games) and this site has become very popular over the past 13 years that I've been running it, so it's no surprise that I often get emails from visitors and friends who want to know my personal recommendations for things to see and do in New York City.

    What you'll find on the following pages are some of my go-to recommendations -- perennial crowd-pleasing picks that I think are worth spending your vacation time doing and will appeal to a wide variety of NYC visitors, including both first-time and returning visitors. The list includes everything from free activities and guided tours to New York City museums and attractions -- my personal picks for what to see and do when you visit NYC.

    I want you to know that I've done each of these things personally -- and receive lots of feedback from other readers and friends that they continue to be worthwhile experiences. In some cases, I'm given free admission and/or tickets for the experiences, but I never let that cloud my judgment of the activity. I know your vacation time is precious and I want to make sure that you can trust my recommendations!

    More: ​Things You Didn't Know You Could Do in NYC

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    Circle Line Cruise - A Great Guided Tour of the City

    Circle Line new york
    vivalapenler / Getty Images

    Circle Line's many cruises are a fantastic way to begin your trip to New York City. They offer visitors a great overview of New York City, as well as a great way to orient yourself. Ranging from 30 minutes (on The Beast Speed Boat Ride) to 3 hours (on Full Island Cruise), Circle Line's cruises are suitable for visitors of all ages.

    The Beast Speed Boat Ride is a great option for families with school-aged kids and teens because it combines the option to see the Statue of Liberty up close (including a photo-op) with a high-speed boat ride through the harbor. You can get wet on this ride, so it's best when the weather is warm and is only operated seasonally. (There are height and health requirements for participating in this cruise, so make sure it's suitable for your group.)

    For folks with plenty of time, particularly adults, I love to recommend the 3-Hour Full Island Cruise. It completely circumnavigates Manhattan and gives visitors the wonderful opportunity to see New York City beyond the typical tourist-overview.

    The most popular option (and what I recommend for families) is the 2-Hour Semi-Circle Cruise. It travels from Midtown West to Midtown East through the New York Harbor and offers fantastic views of Downtown Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and a chance to travel under some of the East River bridges.

    For people on a tight timeline, Circle Line also has a Liberty Cruise, which is a great way to get up close to the Statue if you don't have time for the semi-circle cruise and the speedboat ride doesn't appeal to you.

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    Central Park - Manhattan's Greatest Free Attraction

    Alice in Wonderland sculpture
    John Turp / Getty Images

    Central Park has offered a welcome escape from the concrete jungle of New York City for over 150 years. This 843-acre oasis of green space is enjoyed by visitors and locals alike and offers travelers a peek inside the life of NYC residents, as well as a place to enjoy a break from the sidewalks and streetlights of Manhattan. Central Park is where residents head to exercise and relax, and you can too! Take a walk, a boat ride or just enjoy a picnic in Central Park and discover for yourself why Central Park is so popular.

    Animal lovers and families with children will love the Central Park Zoo, and throughout the park, there are beautiful sculptures to explore ( Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christen Anderson are probably the most famous) and playgrounds to visit. Central Park is also home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (on the East Side) and just across the street from the park is the ​American Museum of Natural History (on the West Side) There are lots of other museums along Central Park West and Fifth Avenue that are both close to the park and well-worth visiting, making it easy to include a visit to Central Park on your NYC vacation itinerary.

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    Top of the Rock - My Favorite Way To See NYC from Up High

    Top of the Rock
    Peter Carroll / Getty Images

    Seeing New York City from up above is another one of my favorite activities for visitors. The observation deck at the Top of the Rock might not be as famous as the Empire State Building Observation Deck, but that is one of its prime advantages -- ultimately it tends to be less crowded. Timed ticketing means there aren't crazy wait times to get inside or upstairs, and it's uptown location affords visitors beautiful views of Central Park, as well as the chance to see the Empire State Building itself. Still not convinced? Get a preview of the view in our Top of the Rock Photo Gallery.

    Interestingly, the Rockefeller Center Observation deck first opened in 1933 but was closed to the public in 1986. In 2005, the Top of The Rock re-opened to visitors and has been impressing guests ever since.

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    New York Public Library - A Beautiful Building With a Great Free Tour

    Rose Reading Room NYPL
    Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

    New York Public Library is housed in a Beaux-Arts building that was the largest marble building in the U.S. at the time of its construction in 1911. Built upon the Croton Reservoir, and located adjacent to Bryant Park, this spectacular building is free to visit (though it's not a lending library, so all the books have to stay put). Don't miss the free guided tour to get a full appreciation of the library's architecture, history, and artwork. There is even a fun children's room downstairs that's worth seeing if you're visiting with kids.

    In addition to beautiful architecture and an impressive book collection, the museum features temporary exhibits on a variety of topics.

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    Lower East Side Tenement Museum - Take a Peek Into NYC's Immigrant Past

    Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.
    Lonely Planet / Getty Images

    Accessible only by guided tour, this fascinating museum offers visitors the opportunity to step inside former tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum teaches visitors about the people that lived (and sometimes worked) inside of these buildings in a dynamic and engaging way. Advance reservations are highly recommended, and each tour explores a different apartment, so it's a great option for return visitors who want to explore NYC's rich immigrant past more deeply.

    Keep in mind that the buildings have been largely preserved, so steps are required and families with young children should choose a family-oriented tour. They also have neighborhood walking tours and a fantastic gift shop.

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    The Frick Collection

    The Frick Collection courtyard garden.
    Dan Herrick / Getty Images

    The Frick Collection is one of my favorite museums in New York City for several reasons. First, it's housed in the former mansion of Henry Clay Frick on Fifth Avenue, so you can experience his opulent home first-hand​ while checking out his art collection. The museum's collection is also a manageable size, allowing visitors to explore the entire place in a single visit. I also enjoy how the art is organized much as Frick had displayed it in his home -- according to his taste, as opposed to by artist or by era.

    Admission to the museum includes the use of an audio tour, which is a great way to learn more about the collection and the history of the building itself. Visitors should keep in mind that children under 10 are not permitted to visit the collection because it is displayed with a minimum of protection (ropes/barriers/platforms, etc.) in order to preserve the domestic feeling of the space. Although this is disappointing for families, it creates a unique environment in the museum that is worth experiencing.

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    Foods of NY - Delicious Tours of NYC Neighborhoods

    USA, New York State, New York City, Manhattan, Greenwich village,White Horse Tavern
    Stephen Rafferty / Getty Images

    Greenwich Village is one of my favorite neighborhoods for exploring and shopping, and Foods of New York's Original Greenwich Village Food and Culture Walking Tour does a fantastic job of guiding you through the neighborhood's deliciousness as well as its history. This tour is also a great choice if you're looking for a gift for your NYC host or an activity to do together -- it's enjoyable for both tourists and locals alike.

    If you've already tried this tour, you're in luck, because Food of NY offers a variety of other NYC walking tours, including one of Chelsea Market & The Meatpacking District, another that explores Chinatown, as well as several others.

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    Ellis Island Immigration Museum

    Great Hall at Ellis Island Immigration Museum
    sebi ryffel / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Whether your family passed through Ellis Island when immigrating to the United States or not, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum is well worth visiting. The ferry ride offers you fantastic views of the New York Harbor and Statue of Liberty, and the museum is loaded with interactive exhibits and displays that offer an amazing amount of insight into the immigrant experience.

    I highly encourage visitors to take a free tour of Ellis Island to fully appreciate the place and the experience of immigrants arriving on the island. These tours are led by NPS Rangers and dedicated volunteers and last roughly 45 minutes. They typically depart hourly from near the information desk but check the schedule because it can vary from day-to-day.

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    The Cloisters - Medieval Art Museum

    The Cloisters New York
    © Heather Cross

    The only museum in the US dedicated exclusively to medieval art, The Cloisters is located in Upper Manhattan's Fort Tyron Park. The area alone is worth the trip because it's amazing that you can be somewhere with so many trees and such beautiful vistas of the Hudson River and still be in Manhattan. The Cloisters itself was built using pieces of five medieval cloisters brought over from Europe, and houses over 1,200 pieces of medieval art. The most famous pieces in the collection are probably the Unicorn tapestries.

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    Bike the Big Apple - Explore NYC Beyond The Tourist Traps

    Brooklyn Bridge biking
    Volanthevist / Getty Images

    If you've been to New York City before and want to explore beyond the tourist core, Bike the Big Apple is a great way to get to dig deeper into NYC's neighborhoods and history. On these guided bike tours you'll be able to see the city's diverse neighborhoods and get a greater appreciation for what makes New York City such a vibrant, dynamic city.

    Although you don't need to be a triathlete in order to enjoy these tours, keep in mind that they do require a fair bit of exercise and are best suited to a reasonably fit audience. On their website, they give details on the distance and time of various tours, but most cover roughly 2 miles per hour and last 5-7 hours.

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    Take A Tour with New York Urban Adventures

    Alleva Dairy
    © Heather Cross

    Even after writing about New York City for 13 years, I'm still surprised at the number of tourists who end up dining at chain restaurants and shopping at national retailers while visiting New York City that they could just as easily visit if they went to the local mall. What makes New York City amazing (and particularly worth visiting!) is the smaller, locally owned stores and restaurants -- and I love that Urban Adventures focuses on sharing these spots with visitors through their walking tours.

    I have been on their Tenements, Tales and Tastes Tour and their new New York Craft Cocktail Tour and both tours were well researched and executed and included several spots that I had never visited before(not an easy feat!) Their tour guides are the perfect balance between professional and personable and I'd encourage any NYC visitor to check out their offerings.

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