The 18 Best Things to Do in New York City

View of New York City from the East River Ferry

TripSavvy / Brakethrough Media 

Inimitable New York City—with its soaring skyscrapers, Broadway marquees, world-class museums, colorful neighborhoods, bars, and pleasant parks—is positively abuzz, brimming with boundless activity and potential for adventure.

As such, for first-time visitors, navigating the city's seemingly endless possibilities can understandably feel overwhelming. That's why going in with a bucket list, like our curated list of expert picks for the top 18 things to do in NYC for first-time visitors, is downright essential.

While the city extends to include five boroughs, of course (all with their distinct charms), first-time travelers tend to initially dig in on Manhattan's must-see sights and world-class icons, but it's worth diving deeper into an outer borough or two to uncover all that New York City has to offer.

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01 of 18

Take in Sweeping Skyline Views

One World Observatory
Tagger Yancey / NYC & Company

In Manhattan, it's all about those jaw-dropping skyline views. Get up to vertigo-inducing heights to gain perspective on the city's unique island terrain and skyscraping architecture. There is a trio of dedicated observatories that propose just such primo perches: The classic Empire State Building, of course, has indoor and outdoor observation decks on both the 86th and 102nd floors; the multilevel decks (spanning floors 67 to 70) at Rockefeller Center's Top of the Rock; and the newest downtown addition at the One World Observatory, which straddles the 100th, 101st, and 102nd stories atop the Western hemisphere's tallest building.

You can also nab a lovely view for free by wandering out onto the 19th-century span of the Brooklyn Bridge or grabbing a drink at one of the city's high-altitude watering holes. Try The Roof at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, overlooking Central Park, Bar 54, the city's highest rooftop bar, set in the heart of Times Square, or Bar SixtyFive, in classy Rockefeller Center.

02 of 18

Set Sail Into New York Harbor

Schooner saiilng with Classic Harbor Line
Classic Harbor Line

While in the midst of Manhattan's sprawling concrete jungle, it's easy to forget that you're actually on an island. Indeed, New York City owes much of its success to its island setting (which has long allowed its status as a thriving maritime port), situated at the mouth of New York Harbor and flanked by the Hudson and East Rivers on two sides. Sailing Manhattan Island's waterway perimeters is a beautiful way to gain insight into its unique geography and staggering architectural proportions—not to mention the chance to wave at Lady Liberty (who comes perched on an islet in the harbor) from the boat. You can hop on one of the classic tourist-oriented sightseeing boats (like The Beast speedboat, Staten Island Ferry, or Circle Line) or get more creative with NYC boat trips that even locals love (like schooner sailings aboard Classic Harbor Line or hands-on sailing lessons with the Offshore Sailing School).

03 of 18

Explore Central Park

Central Park in NYC, NY

TripSavvy / Brakethrough Media 

New York, NY, USA
Phone +1 212-310-6600

The lungs of New York City and essentially one enormous communal backyard for space-starved Manhattanites, Central Park is where just about everybody comes to kick back, unwind, exercise, and get centered in nature. Spanning a massive 843 acres, the park is home to numerous worthwhile attractions, including the Great Lawn (ideal for picnicking), the Loeb Boathouse (grab a bite or rent a canoe), Strawberry Fields (for John Lennon fans), the Central Park Zoo (penguins, anybody?), the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (a famous jogging circuit), and more. Whether you wander leisurely on foot, go for a run, or rent a bike, you're sure to appreciate the urban oasis that the park provides.

Prefer to tackle the vast terrain with an expert guide? Several companies provide guided park tours, including official park tours. During the warmer months, you can opt in to enjoy the park and a side of entertainment, with annual events like the music-filled SummerStage programming or the special free performances via Shakespeare in the Park.

04 of 18

Watch a Broadway Show

Billboards of different broadway plays in Times Square

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

Nowhere does theater bigger or better than Broadway! Take a stroll through Manhattan's Theater District, off-shooting the Times Square area, and you'll be spoiled for choice, with marquees set aglow with ads for the latest shows and stars (with Hollywood celebrities often stepping in for unique Broadway stints). The options are plentiful and ever-changing, with the hottest tickets booking well in advance. 

Of course, Broadway's pricey, so try to scout for savings. Hit up the TKTS booth in Times Square for same-day theater tickets discounted at up to 50 percent off, or time your visit to coincide with the biannual Broadway Week (held in fall and again in winter) to nab two-for-one deals on select shows.

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05 of 18

Take in The Met

Inside the met museum

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

1000 5th Ave, New York, NY 10028, USA
Phone +1 212-535-7710

The massive Metropolitan Museum of Art—better known as The Met by most New Yorkers—tops our list of the can't-miss museums in NYC. As the largest museum in the Western hemisphere, visitors could easily get lost for hours taking in any of the collections here, with a staggering selection of arts and artifacts spanning some 5,000 years of world cultures. Peruse Greek and Roman statues from antiquity, stare at the intricacies of Egyptian hieroglyphics and sarcophagi (don't miss the astounding Temple of Dendur), or wander through halls dedicated to pretty much every other culture and era, including African, Indian, Byzantine, an Islamic artworks. There's an impressive display of European paintings (including Rembrandts and Vermeers, as well as plenty of Impressionist pieces); if that wasn't enough, look out for more than 30 special exhibitions held annually, too.

06 of 18

Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

People walking across the Brooklyn Bridge

TripSavvy / Winifred Lao 

A leading New York City landmark and the city's most famous bridge, traversing the neo-Gothic span of the Brooklyn Bridge on foot has marked a New York rite of passage since it first debuted in 1883. Architecturally elegant, with twin arched towers and an artful web of suspension cables, the bridge not only proposes a practical means of connecting pedestrian (and vehicular) traffic between Downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn, but it also presents exhilarating panoramas over both borough's skylines, as well as out over New York Harbor and onto the East River.

07 of 18

See the Statue of Liberty & Visit Ellis Island

View of the statue of Liberty

 TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

You'll undoubtedly be sharing the experience with crowds of other tourists, but navigating the lines and crowds is well worth it for the chance to gaze upon the modern-day colossus that is the Statue of Liberty. A symbol of American democracy—and a one-time beacon of hope and promise for immigrants arriving at U.S. shores by boat via New York Harbor—is indeed, still today, an inspiring sight to behold. Dating to 1886 (as a gift from France to the American people), the monumental 151-foot-high sculpture (sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdi and engineered by Gustave Eiffel) sits atop a pedestal out on Liberty Island, which guests reach via Statue Cruises ferry service from Battery Park in Downtown Manhattan. Just be sure to plan ahead since access to the statue's pedestal or interior (including its crown) can be arranged with reservations only.

While the statue may garner most of the glory, don't overlook a visit to the nearby attraction Ellis Island. Now a national museum of immigration, the complex once served as a federal immigration station and processing center for new arrivals to the U.S. between 1892 and 1954. Expect an altogether insightful presentation, via artifacts, photographs, and multimedia exhibits, of the immigrant experience in America. Best of all, the entry's included with your ferry fare, so plan ahead to make a day of it.

08 of 18

Visit the MoMA

Museum of Modern Art in New York City, NY

TripSavvy / Brakethrough Media 

11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019, USA
Phone +1 212-708-9400

Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is a mecca for modern art lovers, boasting one of the world's most impressive and extensive collections of contemporary art, spanning paintings, sculptures, installations, and more. Works from big names like Van Gogh (look out for "The Starry Night"), Picasso (including his famous "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"), Warhol, and more line the halls, and a busy schedule of special exhibitions, films, educational programs, and cultural events ensure the museum is always abuzz with something new for art enthusiasts.

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09 of 18

Hit Up the High Line

The High Line in New York City, New York

TripSavvy / Brakethrough Media 

New York, NY 10011, USA
Phone +1 212-500-6035

New Yorkers can't agree on much—where to get the best slice of pizza, what's the best sports team, you name it. But one thing that we can all come together on is absolutely loving the High Line. Indeed, the High Line Park has proved to be one of the city's most beloved public projects, having transformed an old abandoned train trestle into an elevated, 30-foot-high urban green space when it opened in 2009. Stretching for nearly 1.5 miles from the Meatpacking District (next to the Whitney Museum of American Art) to the massive high-rise development underway at Hudson Yards, look out for these 10 highlights along the High Line en route, including landscaped gardens and lawns, public art installations, overlooks, and more.

10 of 18

Go to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum

The 9-11 memorial

TripSavvy / Winifred Lao 

180 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10007, USA

Many visitors to New York feel compelled to pay their respects to the site of Ground Zero and see how the World Trade Center area has reinvented itself since that fateful day in 2001. The outdoor National September 11 Memorial, which opened in 2011, fills in the imprints of the original Twin Towers with two reflecting waterfall-fed pools, traced by memorial walls that depict the names of 9/11 victims (it's free to the public). In 2014, the adjacent ​National September 11 Memorial Museum opened its doors, presenting the story, impact, and significance of Sept. 11 through historical artifacts, multimedia displays, archives, and oral histories. The museum unfolds at the foundation, or bedrock, of the former World Trade Center site and centers on two core exhibitions. The "In Memoriam" exhibit pays tribute to the nearly 3,000 victims of the atta. At the same time, a historical exhibition examines the events surrounding the three American sites struck during 9/11, including contributing factors to the tragic incident and its aftermath and worldwide impact.

11 of 18

Visit Times Square at Night

Lights and TKTS stairs at night in Times Square

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

As one of the most iconic places in the world, Times Square, where the New Year's Eve ball drops, is worth a visit any time of day, especially at night. You'll be struck by the neon signs, glowing billboards, and gridlock traffic 24 hours a day. You won't see much of a difference at 11 a.m. versus 11 p.m.! While there are plenty of stores for shopping and restaurants, merely walking around the few block radius will be interesting enough: There are always characters—in costume and otherwise—to spot!


12 of 18

Eat a Classic New York Pizza

a fresh pizza

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins 

Among other things New York is famous for, pizza is undoubtedly one of them. Is it the water? The flour? Generations of pizzaiolo knowledge passed down among families? Who knows, but New York City pizza is a must-try for anyone's first visit to the city. Among our favorites are Patsy's, which has been slinging pies since the 1930s in Harlem; Lombardi's, which calls itself America's first pizzeria; and Prince Street Pizza, whose square slices are loaded with the best pepperoni you've ever eaten.

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13 of 18

Visit the Coney Island Boardwalk

crowded coney island boardwalk

TripSavvy / Taylor McIntyre 

The iconic Coney Island Boardwalk is best visited in the spring, summer, or early fall when you can sit along the beach with a beer or margarita in hand. At any time of year, you'll be able to ride the iconic rollercoasters and thrill rides at Luna Park, have a hot dog at the famous Nathan's (site of the annual eponymous hot dog-eating contest), or visit the Coney Island Aquarium. In June, Coney Island hosts its unique Mermaid Parade—a not-to-be-missed festival if you're in the city during the summer!

14 of 18

Visit the American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City

TripSavvy / Brakethrough Media

Among New York's immense museums, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the best sights in New York. The museum's 45 exhibition halls span four city blocks and hold more than 30 million artifacts. One of the museum's best-known treasures is a 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound fiberglass model of a giant blue whale.

15 of 18

See the New Whitney Museum of American Art

Whitney Museum

 Wikimedia Commons

99 Gansevoort St, New York, NY 10014, USA
Phone +1 212-570-3600

Set in one of the most exciting new buildings in Manhattan in decades, Whitney's Renzo Piano-designed building opened in 2015 to many accolades. The museum's collection spans six floors and 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space, all dedicated to American artists across centuries. In addition to the expansive galleries, the outdoor space showcases more art and offers views of the Hudson River, lower Manhattan, and the surrounding Meatpacking District.

16 of 18

Watch the Commuter Rush at Grand Central Station

Exterior shot of Grand Central Terminal with Chrysler building in the background

TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins

89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017, USA
Phone +1 212-340-2583

The world's largest railway station serves nearly a million commuters daily. And while it's utilitarian in purpose, it's among the city's most beautiful public spaces. The 12-story main concourse is modeled after a Roman public bath, albeit with shimmering chandeliers and a map of constellations painted on the ceiling. Befitting of such a grand station, Grand Central is home to many shops and dining options, too.

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17 of 18

Take a Free Ferry Ride

The staten island ferry

 TripSavvy / Kelsea Watkins

If you want great views of the Statue of Liberty without spending a dime, ride the Staten Island ferry from Manhattan's South Ferry terminal. The 25-minute ride is completely free and will give you phenomenal views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Manhattan skyline. Once you're in Staten Island, you can wait on the ferry to take it back to Manhattan. 

18 of 18

Walk Through the West Village

Architecture of the West Village

TripSavvy / Donghee Eim

While New York City is full of beautiful neighborhoods straight out of a movie, few rival the brownstone-lined streets of Manhattan's West Village. Not surprisingly, the area has set the scene for popular TV shows like "Sex and the City" and "Friends." Walking through the West Village (and nearby Washington Square Park) will show you some of the city's most charming cafés, boutiques, homes, and more. 

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The 18 Best Things to Do in New York City