Not many people know it, but at some point in my life I lived in New York City. After a short visit in December 2000, when I had a long layover on my way back to Sardinia, I realized that there were too many things to do in New York that I’d have to go back. So I made sure to get a job there, which would give me the chance to properly explore the city.
During my first time in New York, I did all the classic touristy things. After all, as self professed unsuccessful backpacker I see no point in going to a major tourist destination and skip the tourist attractions that make it just that – attractive. I am the kind of person that will spend hours in line to visit the Colosseum in Rome, or that will lose her balance because of a heavy backpack during a multi-day hike (that’s what happened during my Jesus Trail in Israel).
So, for all the people who do enjoy tourist attractions as much as I do, I have decided to put together a selection of the most classic things to do in New York, with a few tricks on how to enjoy them even in a limited time.
13 Classic Things To Do In New York
Take in the view from the Empire State Building
There’s nothing like enjoying great panoramic views of a city, even more so if that city is New York. I have been on top of the Empire State Building a bunch of times, and every single one I got the chills. My advice is to go right before the sun sets, to take in a magnificent view both during the day, and then at night.
The obvious issue with timing is that there may be lines for the tickets, and even going well in advance may mean having to wait before being able to ride the elevator to the observatory. Last time I went there with my sister, it took us well over an hour. The good news is that it is possible to buy tickets to the Empire State Building Observatory online, and thus skip the lines. No more timing issues!
Visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
It would be absurd to go to New York and not visit the Statue of Liberty. This is the symbol of the city – actually, the symbol of the United States, that has inspired so many immigrants looking for a better life.
The typical starting point to visit the Statue of Liberty is Battery Park, from where the Statue Ferry leaves. As it gets closer, the views of the Statue and of Manhattan are impressive. Once there, it is possible to get to the Pedestal to visit the museum and learn about the history of the Statue.
A proper visit of the Statue of Liberty generally continues on to Ellis Island, to visit the museum. A guided tour is actually a good idea, since not only there will be a guide to explain all the history and technical aspects of the Statue and the museum, but it will also allow to skip the inevitable lines. Tours of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can even be bought online.
Go to Time Square
Nothing screams New York more than Time Square. We have all seen it a million times: during new years’ eve celebrations, and day in day out on the news whenever they mention the stock exchange. In fact, there’s no way to avoid Time Square, for it is the heart of Downtown Manhattan – close to Grand Central Terminal, Madison Square Garden, Fifth Avenue, Madison, etc.
Yet, seeing it in person is a whole different experience. It is a bit overwhelming – bright and shiny as it is. But it really deserves a visit. Seeing Time Square is – quite simply – one of the things to do in Manhattan.
Explore Central Park
Think that there’s nothing better than a walk in the park to get away from an urban jungle? Well, Central Park is indeed a park, but also much more than that. The park is actually huge. From Columbus Circle, its southern boundary, to the northern one, it is 4 km. It is 800 meters wide. The whole surface is 315 hectares.
Yes, Central Park is much more than a city park. It is a tourist attraction in and of itself, with some incredible landmarks: Strawberry Fields, aka John Lennon’s memorial; and the beautiful Bethesda fountain and terrace are just a few.
To be honest, finding one’s way across Central Park isn’t easy. That’s why I recommend taking one of Central Park Tours. They are 100% responsible (no animal use, which to me is a bonus as I can’t stand the use of animals in tourist attractions), and great value for money.
Get lost in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) is one of the finest art galleries in the world, with works that range from ancient Egypt to the modern era. The museum is so vaste (there are 19 curatorial departments that host various collections) that it takes an entire day to explore, if not more. The good thing is that re-admissions are allowed on the same day, so it is possible to leave and come back to continue the visit. It’s also possible to buy tickets to the Met in advance to skip the lines.
Go around in circles at Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum is one of the must sees of New York. It was was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and opened in 1959. The building is a real work of art, both on the outside and on the inside. The hosted exhibits change regularly, so make sure to check what’s on when planning to visit. It actually is the architecture of the building that is simply unique.
Tickets to the Guggenheim can conveniently be bought in advance to skip the line and to get access to special exhibits too.
Admire some real iconic art at MoMa
Home to some truly iconic works of modern art such as Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, or Warhol Campbell’s Soup, as well as works by Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Dali and Pollock, MoMa is a great place to spend an afternoon. I went for the first time with a journalist friend of mine who specialized in art, and it gave me the key to understanding and appreciating modern art. Tickets to MoMa can be bought in advance to skip the lines.
Learn about international affairs in the United Nations Headquarters
As I said at the very beginning of this post, the first time I visited New York I fell so in love with it that I vowed to live there, at least for a while. I then started looking for jobs in the city, and I eventually landed an internship at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters. After having visited the headquarters on a guided tour, I got to spend a few months actually working there.
Not many know, but there’s actually more than one United Nations building. We are used to seeing always the same one in the news, but the entire area where this is located, called UN Plaza, is home to the various offices and departments of the UN.
One of the most interesting things to do in New York is visiting the United Nations Headquarters, in a guided tour of about one hour. The tour goes to the main lobby, the General Assembly Hall, the Security Council Chamber, the Trusteeship Council Chamber, and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Chamber in the renovated Conference Building.
Walk across Brooklyn Bridge and along Brooklyn Heights
Brooklyn Bridge is one of the landmarks of New York. The view of it, and the view from it are simply amazing. But there’s more. Brooklyn Heights, right on the other side, is the first suburb of New York City. It is a gorgeous area, with beautiful old buildings, historic churches and – from the Brooklyn Promenade – a spectacular view of Lower Manhattan, which includes New York Harbor and even the Statue of Liberty.
Guided tours of Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights also include a visit of DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Overpass), which used to be an industrial are and is nowadays a beautiful artistic district packed with shops and galleries.
Go to church in Harlem
Ok, I don’t mean to literally go to mass. Indeed, one of the most fun things to do in New York is listening to a gospel choir, and there’s no better place to do that than Harlem. I went there the first time I visited New York and enjoyed the experience so much that I took my sister there when she visited me. The music and singing are very cheerful and a lot of fun, and anybody listening is bound to be in a really good mood afterwards.
There are gospel choir tours of Harlem, which add to the already fun experience of listening to the choir also a visit to Apollo theater and other landmarks of this part of the city.
Walk around SoHo, Little Italy and Chinatown
SoHo is one of my favorite areas of New York, just so scenic and so picture perfect. I also like Little Italy – though the Italian in me won’t ever fully appreciate the food served in the restaurants there. And Chinatown feels like a whole different planet, with all the small shops and restaurants.
One of the nicest things to do in Manhattan is visiting these 3 neighborhoods, which are right next to each other. There even are guided tours that take to all the important landmarks – ie the site of the first ever recorded murder case in New York City.
Dance to a Musical in Broadway
I love musicals, and one of the things I loved the most when I lived in New York was the possibility of seeing a different one every week. My first week there I went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and it was a fabulous experience, in a very small theater where the dancers and singers interacted a lot with the audience.
Broadway has a huge selection of shows on offer, and I really recommend taking advantage of it. Tickets to Broadway shows can even be bought online.
Do a Greenwich Village food walking tour
One of the nicest things to do in New York is eating. The selection of restaurants, the street food scene, the eateries available are all incredible and it would be a pity to miss out. A cool way to enjoy at least some of all the amazing food on offer in New York is by taking a food tour. There’s various around town. I like Greenwich Village so I’d opt for a food tour in that area.
Where to stay in New York
A city like New York has no shortages of places to stay. The only two issues when looking for accommodation in New York are picking the right area, and finding something that doesn’t blow the budget.
I used to live in Manhattan (initially near Madison Square Garden, then near the Lincoln Center) and I loved it, though it could be chaotic at times. The southern bits of Manhattan are definitely quieter and give more of a feeling of neighborhoods where it is pleasant to walk around, and I would recommend staying there.
The French Quarters has nice, cozy room (if only a bit small) and it at walking distance from a lot of attractions. Hotel 50 Bowery, on the other hand, has much bigger rooms and is a cute boutique hotel located in Chinatown.
Another option could be staying in Brooklyn – after all, the public transportation system in New York works really well. I love converted buildings and Whyte Hotel is located in what used to be a factory – so in a charming building. Rooms there are large with stylish decorations.
And here’s an even more detailed list of where to stay in Manhattan for under $200 a night.
Have you ever been to New York? What did you like the most about it? What other classic places would you recommend visiting?
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