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 the first-time visitor, navigating the city's seemingly endless possibilities can understandably feel a bit 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 own 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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Take in Sweeping Skyline Views
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 are 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 nab a sweet view for free, too, by wandering out onto the 19th-century span of the Brooklyn Bridge or grab 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.
Set Sail Into New York Harbor
It's easy to forget, while in the midst of Manhattan's sprawling concrete jungle, that you're actually on an island at all. 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).
Explore Central Park
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 popular 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 along with a side of entertainment, too, with annual events like the music-filled SummerStage programming, or the beloved free performances via Shakespeare in the Park.
Watch a Broadway Show
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 requiring booking well in advance.
Of course, Broadway's pricey, so do try to scout for savings. Hit up the TKTS booth in Times Square for same-day theater ticket 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.
Take in The Met
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. Measuring in as the largest museum in the Western hemisphere, visitors could easily get lost for hours taking in any one 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, too (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 every year, too.
Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge
A leading NYC landmark and the city's most celebrated 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.
See the Statue of Liberty & Visit Ellis Island
You'll undoubtedly be sharing the experience with throngs 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 nearby attraction Ellis Island. Now a national museum of immigration, the complex once served as 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, entry's included with your ferry fare, so plan ahead to make a day of it.
Visit the MoMA
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.
Hit Up the High Line
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 in 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.
Go to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Many visitors to NYC feel compelled to not only pay their respects to the site of Ground Zero but also to see how the World Trade Center area has gone on to reinvent 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, serving to present the story, impact, and significance of September 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 attacks, while a historical exhibition examines the events surrounding the three American sites struck during 9/11, including contributing factors to the tragic incident, as well as its aftermath and worldwide impact.
Visit Times Square at Night
As one of the most iconic places in the world, Times Square, where the New Years Eve ball drops, is worth a visit any time of day, but 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!
Eat a Classic New York Pizza
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 it goes without saying that New York City pizza is a must-try for anyone's first visit to the city. Among our favorites: 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 up with the best pepperoni you've ever eaten,
Visit the Coney Island Boardwalk
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!
Visit the American Museum of Natural History
Among New York's gargantuan 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.
See the New Whitney Museum of American Art
Set in one of the most exciting new buildings in Manhattan in decades, the Whitney's Renzo Piano-designed building opened in 2015 to many accolades. The museum's collect 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, outdoor space showcases more art as well as offering views of the Hudson River, lower Manhattan, and the surrounding Meatpacking District.
Watch the Commuter Rush at Grand Central Station
The world's largest railway station serves nearly a million commuter daily. And while it's utilitarian in purpose, it's also 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.
Take a Free Ferry Ride
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 just wait on the ferry to take it back to Manhattan.
Walk Through the West Village
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 neighborhood 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.