What else can be said that hasn’t already about New York? The world’s most famous city, the setting of countless TV shows, movies, and songs, is an incredible and diverse one that truly celebrates the American values of liberty, individualism, and unity. This blog outlines some of the top tourist attractions that are most popular for first-time visitors to New York, but in the city that never sleeps you can do a million other things and still have the time of your life. It really is that good.
Top Tip | We bought the New York CityPASS to get access to 6 of the most visited attractions in New York, which for us was the best deal out there, saving us up to 43%!
Top things to do in New York
- Central Park
- Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
- Broadway and Times Square
- Top of the Rock
- Empire State Building
- The High Line
- American Museum of Natural History
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- 9/11 Memorial and Museum
- Brooklyn Bridge and Park
- Grand Central
- Museum of Modern Art
- Time Out Market
- Strand Bookstore
- Where to Stay in New York
New York’s Central Park is an oasis in the centre of the world’s most famous city. Covering 842 acres, the mammoth park brings in just under an estimated 40 million visitors annually. The park was first proposed by William Cullen Bryant, a poet and editor of the New York Evening Post, and Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect. The park was approved in 1853 and finally finished in 1876.
Nowadays there are numerous attractions and events throughout the sprawling park, including The Lake, The Pond, Harlem Meer, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, The Great Lawn, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Zoo, and Strawberry Fields, an ode to The Beatles star John Lennon. In summer, the local favourite Shakespeare in the Park takes place in the Delacorte Theater, offering free performances of Shakespeare’s classics. Visitors can cycle through the park, take advantage of horse-drawn carriages, or even hire boats on the lake. In winter, the park hosts two ice-rinks, helping visitors to tick off that iconic bucket list item of ice-skating at Christmas in New York.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Perhaps New York’s most familiar landmark, the Statue of Liberty hosts thousands of visitors daily. Designed by the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and based on the Goddess Libertas, the statue was given to the USA as a gift from the French people in 1886. Standing at 93m tall, the Statue of Liberty is one of America’s most important structures, and one of the most recognisable in the world.
The perhaps lesser known, but historically more important, Ellis Island lies adjacent to Liberty Island, and was one of the most important immigration inspection sites. In operation between 1892 and 1954, the site was estimated to have processed around 12 million immigrants. Today, the site hosts a museum that tells the history of the site and the people that passed through it, as well as exploring what made America so enticing.
A ferry ticket on the Statue Cruises gives the opportunity to visit both islands for $18.50/adult departing from Manhattan’s Battery Park between 8:30 and 17:00. Getting to Battery Park as early as possible gives you plenty of time to visit both islands, and will reduce the amount of time spent queuing for security. The ferry takes roughly 15 minutes between Battery Park and Liberty Island, and around 10 minutes between Liberty Island and Ellis Island and Ellis Island and Battery Park. You can upgrade your ticket to include climbing to the pedestal or crown of the statue, but make sure you book well in advance as these sell out quickly.
Broadway and Times Square
Broadway is a Manhattan’s oldest North-South thoroughfare, cutting the city diagonally for 21 kilometres and exiting through The Bronx. However, for the purpose of sightseeing, Broadway usually refers to the section in the Theatre District encompassing Times Square, specifically between 42nd and 53rd Streets. In this district, 41 theatres present some of the best shows, plays and musicals around. To find the future stars of the stage, make a visit to Ellen’s Stardust Diner, home of the singing waitstaff!
Top Tip | For a shot at cheap Broadway tickets, the TKTS at Times Square gives you the best opportunity. Queue up on the day for a chance of tickets at up to 50% off.
In the centre of the Theatre District, you will find Times Square, so called after the New York Times moved its HQ there in 1904. Loved by tourists and disliked by many locals, the bright lights of Times Square continue to attract droves of visitors every year. With a complex, and often crime-ridden past, the seediness of the 60s, 70s and 80s has given way to a more focussed haven for tourists. Snap a couple of pictures and move on to discover the real New York.
Top of the Rock
Standing at an impressive 850ft, 30 Rockefeller Plaza was completed in 1933, and rivals the Empire State Building as offering the best panoramic views of Manhattan from its 3 observation decks. Visitors can learn about the history of the building, enjoy shops and refreshments, as well as reenacting the famous beam walk (in a safe interactive environment of course!) before heading up to the Top of the Rock observation decks. Make sure you visit all three decks, as the final 70th-floor offering has no glass enclosure to spoil those fabulous photos. Timed tickets ensure that the crowds are well managed, but make sure you plan ahead, as there may be a wait before your allotted time. In winter, enjoy the film-famous ice-rink and Christmas Tree that take pride of place in Rockefeller Plaza. That Home Alone scene, anyone? 😭
Empire State Building
Heading to the top of the Empire State Building, the scene of countless movies, is, without doubt, one of the most iconic experiences in the Big Apple. The building stands at 1454ft and is the fifth-largest building in New York. Completed in 1931, it is currently (2019) the 28th tallest in the world and was originally the world’s tallest building for around 40 years. The Empire State Building is located at 5th Avenue, W 34th St., and the 86th and 102nd-floor observatories welcome around 4 million visitors every year. Open every day until 2am, sunrise and sunset time slots are the most popular for visitors. You can purchase a standard ticket only, or upgrade to an AM/PM Experience tickets that allows you to see Manhattan by day and by night.
Easily one of my favourite things to do in New York is to walk the 1.5 mile High Line from Greenwich Village to Hudson Yards. A sustainable park built on an old freight line above the West Side of Manhattan, the High Line was saved from demolition by local residents and is now a fantastic destination for greenery, public art, food, drink, and events. With spectacular views over Chelsea and across the Hudson River, this elevated oasis has to be at the top of your list to gain some respite and take in those iconic New York views. Spend some time exploring Hudson Yards, New York’s newest neighbourhood, located just at the end of the High Line.
American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), adjacent to Central Park in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is one of the largest natural history museums in the world. Founded in 1869, the five floors of the museum encompasses everything from the smallest frogspawn to deep space, from dinosaur skeletons to the origins of humans.
Some of the highlights of the permanent exhibition include the Hall of Biodiversity, a 2,500 square foot space full of flora, fauna, and 3.5 billion years of evolution; The Hall of North American Forests, featuring a cross-section of a 1,400 year old sequoia tree; and the museum’s most well-known display, the 94-foot-long blue whale model suspended above the Hall of Ocean Life.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Adjacent to the Museum of Natural History, on the opposite side of Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art stands as one of the top museums in the world, featuring over 5,000 years of art from across the globe. The museum’s vast collection of permanent work is split over 17 departments, consisting of everything from Egyptian art to musical instruments and costumes. Alongside these, an exciting array of temporary exhibitions and events. The current building has now expanded to 20x the size of the original building, now standing at over 2,000,000 square feet.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
A sombre but important visit, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum remembers one of America’s most tragic days. Standing on the original site of the twin towers, 2 deep pools offer the opportunity for visitors to reflect on the lives lost. Inside the museum, you will learn about the events that lead up to and during 11 September 2001 through a series of preserved artifacts from the day, curated artwork, and stories of those involved. Items such as discarded shoes and jewellery, twisted girders, a shop front covered in rubble, and the shell of a partly destroyed fire engine all help to portray the horror and scale of the attack. The museum also outlines how the day unfolded and the rescue operation, with press cuttings, news channels and photography from the world’s media.
Despite being a distressing subject, the museum does a brilliant job of telling the story of the day, giving both those affected by the events and visitors to the city a space to learn, reflect, and offer messages of hope in the face of hate.
Brooklyn Bridge and Park
In Lower Manhattan, the famous Brooklyn Bridge joins Manhattan to its neighbouring borough. Completed in 1883 as the first steel-wire suspension bridge in the world, the 1.1-mile walk has now become one of the top attractions in the city. Not only will the crossing give breathtaking views back over Manhattan, but the variety of people, performers, souvenir sellers and tourists gives a fantastic overview of the diversity of this city.
At the Brooklyn end of the bridge, you will find the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park. Not only does it offer those perfect views across lower Manhattan and the East River, but there are countless events and things to do all year round. The park is based along a number of piers containing everything from traditional parkland, playgrounds, sports facilities, dog parks, public BBQ grills, and even PILOT, a trendy oyster and cocktail bar located on a historic boat. In the summer, an extensive events programme includes the popular Movies with a View, showcasing a variety of films in the park with Manhattan as the backdrop
Another icon of numerous films and TV shows, Grand Central Station has transformed itself from a transport hub to a tourist, shopping, and dining destination. Opened in 1913, the station currently operates 44 platforms, more than any railroad stations across the world. The stunning interior and architecture has won the station a number of awards, and has turned it into a huge tourist attraction, with figures in 2013 highlighting the 21.9 million visitors in the year. Featuring 65 shops and 35 dining outlets, Grand Central is a great place to visit come rain or shine.
Museum of Modern Art
Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), located at the intersection of West 53rd and 5th Ave., has one of the most expansive collections of modern art in the world. Opening to the public in 1929 as the brainchild of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, the museum now delivers a dynamic catalogue of thought-provoking exhibitions and events, featuring artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and many many more. MoMA is currently closed as work is being undertaken to further improve the galleries and spaces, and is due to reopen in October 2019.
Time Out Market
Again located at the end of Brooklyn Bridge, Time Out’s second market after Lisbon is situated in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighbourhood. Time Out Market New York has curated some of the best food and drink purveyors from the region, including Bessou’s Japanese comfort food; Jacob’s Pickles; Felice Pasta Bar; Little Ada; and New York’s favourite pizza, Juliana’s. With a total of 3 bars, 21 eateries, and a rooftop offering truly spectacular panoramic views, Time Out Market has truly brought New York’s incredible culinary offering under one roof.
With a slogan of ‘18 miles of books’, Strand Bookstore really is every bibliophile’s dream. Located on Broadway just by Union Square Park, the famous bookstore has everything from new releases to rare finds, CDs and vinyls, to stationary. With an impressive calendar of events on top of everything else, it’s a great place to enjoy an afternoon in the Big Apple. And don’t forget to pick up your New York gifts on your visit, including mugs, tote bags, magnets and apparel! Can’t get to the main store? Weather permitting, there are also kiosks at Central Park (E. 60th St & 5th Ave) and Times Square (43rd bet. Broadway & 7th Ave.).
As I said, New York is such an incredible city that there are a million other things that you can do. These tips are just some of the most popular for tourists’ first-time visits to the city. Hit me up in the comments for those ultimate things you think people can’t miss!