They don’t call New York “The Big Apple” for nothing. With five boroughs, a population of over eight million people and 468.9 square miles of land and water, there is a lot of ground to cover. The city puts it to good use, with some of the world’s best restaurants, bars, shops, museums, galleries, iconic experiences and offbeat attractions all vying for your attention. It’s enough to overwhelm any visitor, so we’ve put together this guide for you to make the most of your visit and see more than just one side of New York City.
1. Start with iconic New York at the Empire State Building
The Empire State Building is one of the most recognized sights in Manhattan and visiting is a great introduction to the city. The Empire State Building, which recently unveiled a new light system, was unaffected by the storm and remains open.
A trip to the 86th floor observatory is a quintessential New York experience, and one that will offer a little bit of perspective on the city–in more ways than one. In addition to learning about the history and growth of New York and its famous buildings, you’ll also get a bird’s-eye-view of the city from above. Seeing New York from this angle helps you better understand and appreciate the scale of the city, and gives you a frame of reference to help you navigate its streets for the rest of your trip.
As one of city’s most popular attractions, the Empire State Building can get very crowded, especially on weekends, and the wait to get in can take hours. If you don’t want to stake out your space in line early, it’s worth it to book special skip-the-line admission.
If other iconic sights, like the Statue of Liberty, 9/11 Memorial, and Time Square are also on your list, you can beat the crowds and skip the stress and see them all in one day with the Viator VIP Access: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and 9/11 Memorial. You’ll not only see and learn about some of the city’s most iconic sites, you’ll get in before anyone else, entering the Empire State Building before it opens to the public and getting an unobstructed view from the observation deck.
From there, you’ll skip the line to see the Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (temporarily closed as of December 4, 2012), visit Rockefeller Center and Times Square, take a walking tour of Battery Park and Lower Manhattan, tour the 9/11 Memorial and take a hop-on hop-off cruise to the Statue of Liberty all in one. It’s like an accelerated course in the very best of New York’s attractions.
2. Discover the city’s artsy side
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) are the city’s two famous art museums, and for good reason. While MoMA was the first museum dedicated to the modern era and now contains more than 150,000 works, the Met is the largest art museum in the United States with over 2 million pieces of American, Islamic, African, Asian, Oceanic, Byzantine, Egyptian, European, classic and modern art. If you’re short on cash the MoMA is free to visit Friday nights from 4PM to 8PM, although you’ll have to wait in a very long line unless you get there early. Otherwise, it’s $25 for adults, $18 for seniors and $14 for students. On the other hand, The Met simply asks for a donation, which can be any amount you would like.
Just because these two are the more well-known doesn’t mean they are your only options. Simply wandering around the between 10th and 11th Avenues will allow you to immerse yourself in a world of creativity–for free. The Austrian Cultural Forum, housed in a historic landmark building, is another worthwhile free art museum to visit showcasing modern Austrian art, music, film and literature, and the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art and the Art Students League of New York allow patrons to view some of the city’s most talented works free of charge.
Read about the Best Free Museums in New York City
3. Travel the world without leaving New York at the American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History was founded in 1869 and works to educate the public on “human cultures, the natural world, and the universe.” While the museum features an array of rotating exhibits, their permanent collection includes offerings like enormous dinosaurs reconstructed from authentic fossils, precise depictions of the world’s mammals, extensive collections of colorful gems and stones, interactive recreations of the planet’s ecosystems using video and sound enhancement, the Hayden Planetarium and much more.
Like many museums in New York, while they have a suggested pay amount, you can really give as much or as little as you would like for admission.
4. Visit New York’s most unique urban park
Once an elevated railroad track, The High Line is a 30-foot-high urban park featuring outdoor art installations, outdoor cafes, colorful gardens, recreational lawns and views of the city from the West Side’s Meatpacking District to the artsy Chelsea area. This is a hotspot for photographers and visitors and features interactive art installations that are designed to work with the architecture and design of the landscape. In the near future, it’s likely visitors will also be able to visit the Low Line, an underground urban park created in an abandoned subway station.
After Hurricane Sandy, the High Line is open but for reduced hours.
Learn about the High Line’s history and neighborhoods on a New York High Line Park Walking Tour
5. See why Sunday is New York’s favorite day of the week
No-pay parking, free food, complimentary comedy, $1 theater tickets and lively booze brunches make Sunday New York’s best kept secret. The Upright Citizen’s Brigade offers free comedy shows at 9:30 PM on Sundays, as does the Knitting Factory and Beauty Bar, both at 9PM. And for $0.99, you can see Off-Broadway Shows at the Soho Rep. Just make sure to get there early, as you can only get the discounted tickets at the door.
For those who want to keep the party going on Sunday, the places like La Giara and Essex offer delicious meals with all-you-can-drink libations like Mimosas, Screw Drivers and Bloody Marys. Moreover, with a drink purchase, establishments like Dell’ Anima, Iron Horse and Spring Lounge allow you to eat like a king for free.
6. Watch a movie at the Film Forum
The Film Forum isn’t just any old movie theater; it’s a mix of never-heard-of-before titles, artsy indies and provocative features that make it very quintessential New York. It began in 1970 as an alternative venue to screen independent films, with a mere 50 folding chairs and one projector. Today, it is a three-screen cinema that holds 489 visitors.
7. Eat like a local by browsing the city’s finest farmer’s markets
To experience the more natural side of New York, visit one of the city’s fine farmer’s markets. Grow NYC hosts many of them, and you’ll get to act like a local while also feeling the sense of close community that exists in such a big city. The Union Square Greenmarket, which operates on the north and west sides of Union Square Park, offers everything from handmade cheeses to organic beauty products. Best of all, you’ll be able to sample goodies ranging from vine-ripened tomatoes, flavorful duck breast, ice wine, homemade chutneys, tangy cheeses, spicy sauces, sweet honeys and more. It’s open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
8. Dine at one of the city’s many themed restaurants
Sure, it’s silly, and maybe a bit “touristy,” but where else will you have the chance to be attacked by ninjas, go back in time at a classic 50s diner or visit the spooky lair of Dr. Jekyll, all while eating dinner? Check out Ninja New York, which is designed to depict a ninja village during feudal times. It’s schmaltzy fun: smoke creates an atmosphere of the unknown, while magicians do tricks at your table and ninjas jump out of hidden places to scare you.
At Ellen’s Stardust Diner, you’ll eat at a classic 50s diner, with creamy milkshakes and old-fashioned meatloaf, a model train encircling the room, 50s videos playing on television sets, waitresses wearing poodle skirts and waiters donning retro bowling shirts and belting out oldies and Broadway tunes. If you head to Jekyll & Hyde Club, you’ll immerse yourself in a world full of bizarre waitstaff, vampires, werewolves, Egyptian mummies, talking statues and, of course, delicious food.
9. Get lost in Central Park
A visit to Central Park is a trip of its own. With 843 acres of lakes, lawns, woodlands and park drives, you can easily spend your entire day exploring. While many people come to jog, play sports on the lawn or just relax by the water, this city of its own features a zoo, numerous playgrounds, fishing, horseback riding, paddleboating, pools, ice skating, public art, rides, restaurants, historical monuments, sports fields, castles, gardens and more.
Read more: 5 Free Things to Do and See in Central Park
10. Take a day trip to Brooklyn
Brooklyn has transformed over the years and is a great spot to see a bit of New York outside the borough of Manhattan. The hip neighborhood of Williamsburg is just one subway stop from Manhattan, and you can take the L train to Bedford or Lorimer. Here you’ll find trendy restaurants, cocktail lounges, wine bars, performance spaces, quirky museums and great shopping.
Some particular spots of interest include the Brooklyn Brewery, which brews award winning beers and is open Monday through Thursday for tours, Fridays for happy hour and Saturdays and Sundays for tours and tastings. The City Reliquary is a free and worthwhile offbeat museum featuring odd New York artifacts like bones of subway rats, pigeon feathers, bed bugs and old photos. The Brick offers quirky theater experiences, Beacon’s Closet has great vintage shopping and Brooklyn Bowl is part bowling alley, part concert hall.
Explore the best of this borough on one of our Brooklyn tours
- Jessica Festa