There are so many things to do in New York that you’re never quite done exploring.

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 those of you who 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 make the most of them even when time is limited.

things to do in Manhattan

Admiring the view from the Empire State Building is a must when in New York – photo courtesy of David Mennerich (flickr)

25 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 get 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 you can buy tickets to the Empire State Building Observatory online, and thus skip the lines. No more timing issues!

These are the best tours and tickets to the Empire State Building:

things to do in Manhattan

Visiting the Statue of Liberty is one of the unmissable things to do in New York – photo courtesy of m01229 (flickr)

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 you to skip the inevitable lines. Tours of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can even be bought online.

These are the best tours of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island:

Take the Staten Island ferry

Most things to do in New York are quite expensive, so it is a relief to know that the Staten Island ferry is actually free. This ferry goes along Upper New York Bay 7 days a week, and goes between Whitehall Street and St. George on Staten Island. It gets more than 22 million passengers every year, each and every one enjoying the 25 minute ride thanks to the incredible views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, as well as those of Lower Manhattan.

things to do in Manhattan

Time Square is one of the unmissable places to visit in New York – photo courtesy of SouthernWI (flickr)

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.

Pay a visit to National 9/11 Memorial and Museum

Whether you visit this memorial or not, it is up to you. I was in New York on 9/11 so to me it is a way to pay respect to the thousands of people who died on that day, as well as those who died in the 1993 bombing.

The memorial consists of twin reflecting pools that are an acre in size and that are meant to be the footprint of the Twin Towers. There is a man made waterfall – the largest in North America. You’ll also see bronze panels that report the names of those who died on the two different attacks.

Perhaps a tour may help you better appreciate this memorial and its museum. These are the best ones around:

Go up One World Trade Center Observatory

It took almost ten years to complete this skyscraper which, with its 541 meters, is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and is located where the World Trade Center once stood. Its name comes from the north skyscraper of the Twin Towers.

The view from the Observatory is 360 degrees and from there you can admire all the way across Upper New York Bay and the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge on the other side. The best time to go up is right before sunset – the light is magic then!

These are the best ticket options to get to the Observatory:

Visit Rockefeller Center

Famous for the Christmas tree that is lit – a bit too early if you ask me – as Christmas season begins and for the ice skating rink that goes with it, the Rockefeller Center is one of the most famous places to visit in New York. It is made up of 19 buildings, 14 of which is a fantastic Art Deco style. There is a sunken plaza in the center. All of the buildings were commissioned by the oil magnate Rockefeller family.

Make sure to admire the Atlas statue – it was first placed in 1936 and it is right in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on Fifth Avenue.

Go up the Top of the Rock

For impressive views of Manhattan, make sure to go up the Top of the Rock – that’s the nickname of the 1930s Art Deco skyscraper located at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. It’s not as tall as the Empire State Building, but I promise the views are special: you get to see Midtown and Downtown skyscrapers as well as Central Park.

There is a timed entry to go up the Top of the Rock – so you may want to book your tickets in advance. These are the best options:

Visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral

The Gothic Cathedral of New York was inaugurated in 1878 and is located on Fifth avenue, where it occupies an entire block. Chances are you’ll come across it while walking along the street, so you may as well pop in for a quick visit.

things to do in Manhattan

One of the nicest things to do in New York is visiting Central Park – photo courtesy of vogueonthego (flickr)

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. And it’s a very romantic place to spend some time with your loved one (for more romantic cities, check out this post).

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 vast (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. If you want to skip the line to enter MET, you can get your tickets online here or here.

things to do in Manhattan

The Guggenheim is one of the places to visit in New York – photo courtesy of Moody Man (flickr)

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. However, if you ask me 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. Here are the best skip the line options:

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. These are the best options:

things to do in Manhattan

The United Nations is one of the places to visit in New York – photo courtesy of United Nations Photo (flickr)

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.

thing to do in New York

Walking across Brooklyn Bridge is a must when in New York – photo courtesy of Joe Hunt (flickr)

Walk across Brooklyn Bridge 

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. The bridge, completed in 1883, links Manhattan to Brooklyn across the East river and is the first ever suspension bridge built. You can cross it as a pedestrian – last time I was in New York there was a parade and it was incredibly crowded, so if you are shooting for an empty place, make sure to double check for events and races!

Admire the views of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights, right on the other side of Manhattan from the bridge, 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 area 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.

These are the best gospel choir experiences in Harlem:

things to do in Manhattan

Chinatown is one of the coolest areas of New York – photo courtesy of Alejandro Mallea (flickr)

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. You can book yours here. 

Dance to a musical in Broadway

If you love musicals as much as I do, then one of the things to do in New York that you are bound to enjoy the most is heading to Broadway for a show. There are a whopping 41 theaters, some of them with lights that are more than a century old, showing a variety of shows every night. If you like a quirky one, try to get tickets for The Rocky Horror Picture Show – it was my first ever musical in Broadway, with lots of interaction between the actors and the audience, and it was a lot of fun.

You can get tickets to broadway shows online. Here you can get tickets to the Lion King and here those for Aladdin.

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 recommend you opt for a food tour in that area.

Admire Grand Central

Built in 1913, Grand Central is not just a train station – it’s an architectural wonder. You will surely end up there at some point during your visit, so make sure to wander around a bit and take in the incredible building, where a multitude of shops and restaurants are located.

As Grand Central is quite close to Madison Square Garden, you can make sure to pop in there as well when you visit!

And the Flatiron Building

Located on Fifth Avenue at the end of Madison Square, this interesting looking skyscraper resemble an iron. It dates back to 1902 and it’s 87 meters tall. It’s one of those iconic buildings you just want a photo of!

Attend a show at the Metropolitan Opera House

The Metropolitan House of New York is located in Lincoln Center. It’s a massive modernist building where – if you go there during the season – you can attend opera or ballet. I recommend doing so – I went to see La Boheme and enjoyed every minute of it!

Hang out in Union Square

One of New York’s most famous gathering places, Union Square is full of life and art – with monuments, art installations, a market (though not every day). The area where it is located is also famous for nightlife and the incredible restaurants, and it has a more local feel than downtown. Make sure you go on Saturdays for the market, and hang around a little longer to enjoy dinner.

Go to Coney Island

One of the nicest things to do in New York if you have enough time during your visit is to go to Coney Island, which for a long time was used as New York seascape. The waterfront, which for a long time was mostly abandoned, has now seen a new influx of visits and the amusement park is a famous attraction. The rollercoaster is from 1927 and one of the oldest functioning in the world!

brooklyn heights view

The views of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights are splendid

Other Useful Information To Plan Your Trip To New York

When to visit New York

If you ask me, I’ll tell you that any time is a good time to visit New York. I visited during Christmas time and it was pure magic; I lived there throughout fall and winter and loved to see the color changes and to experience it under the snow. And I went in the summer and enjoyed the incredible vibe. So, to make a long story short: go whenever you feel like it!

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.

These are the best places to stay in Manhattan:

Here’s an even more detailed list of where to stay in Manhattan for under $200 a night.

Another option could be staying in Brooklyn – after all, the public transportation system in New York works really well. I love converted buildings and

These are the best places to stay in Brooklyn:

How to get to New York

New York is fantastically connected to the rest of the world through its airport. You can fly to JFK, Newark and La Guardia. If you can, make sure to opt for JFK as it is the one best connected to the city.

Getting from JFK to Manhattan

From JFK, you can count on buses, taxis, uber and even the AirTrain and subway to get all the way to the town.

Taxis are a convenient and fast way to get to your final destination. They have a flat rate of $52 to which you need to add the tolls and a $4.50 surcharge during peak hours (between 4:00 and 8:00 pm on weekdays). It’s honestly expensive, but if you can share the costs with other people, it’s not that bad.

UBER costs more or less the same – so if you don’t have internet to book your UBER, you may as well opt for a yellow cab.

Shuttles are a much cheaper yet comfortable option. They start at around $20 and can be booked online prior to your arrival. You can book yours here.

Finally, you can count on the AirTrain which takes you to Manhattan for under $8. Keep in mind that the AirTrain has 3 different lines.

This post explains everything you need to know on how to get from JFK to Manhattan in more detail.

Getting from JFK to Brooklyn

You can get from JFK to Brooklyn via cab for around $65 – so in this case you may really want to opt for an UBER.

The AirTrain costs just as much as it does to get to Manhattan – make sure to pick the right line and to change at one of the stations there to get your connecting subway to your final destination.

How to move around New York

New York is super easy to move around. The subway works 24/7 – though service is limited at night – and you can also count on a web of buses, on the yellow cabs and on Uber. I recommend walking as much as you can – as with anywhere, it really is the best way to experience a city.

Using the New York Pass

You may want to consider getting the New York Pass to enjoy discounts and skip the line access to a lot of attractions. Most passes also come with access to transportation. You can get your pass here or here.

Other useful information

No matter where you travel in the world, make sure to also get a good travel insurance. Get yours here.

Check out my post Why You Need A Good Travel Insurance.”

Further readings about the US

Are you planning a trip to the United States? Make sure to read my other posts:

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Find out what to do in New York - via @clautavani

 

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