Suggested New York City Itineraries for First-time Visitors

February 5, 2007 by

Best of the Viator Blog, North America, Places to Go, Suggested Itineraries, Travel Advice & Inspiration

If it’s your first trip to New York City and you only have a few days, the clock is your nemesis. There are ways to skip the lines, but it may cost you a bit. So the following suggested New York City itineraries offer a few options to squeeze in many of the major sights, without breaking the bank, while still getting in a few little-known facets that will make you feel more like a seasoned traveler and less like a tourist first-timer.

Empire State Building and Observation Deck - New York City Tours

Empire State Building and Observation Deck – New York City Tours

First, the wild card: the Empire State Building. Currently the city’s tallest structure, the Empire State Building’s observation decks are open until midnight most nights, 2am at other times. Depending on what time you get to New York, you may want to go here the first night (when the lines are shortest) or early the next morning. The lines can be long at peak daytime hours. And if it’s foggy or rainy, wait until the weather clears.

Day 1: NYC Museums, Broadway and Times Square

Choose between the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Both are overwhelming; don’t even pretend you’ll see it all. Pick a few galleries based on your tastes and wander and enjoy. Arrive close to opening in the morning and plan on having lunch there. If it’s summertime, the Met has a roof deck with a limited menu (and alcohol); MoMA has several somewhat fussy cafes throughout and the excellent restaurant next door, The Modern. (If you choose the Met you can also stroll through Central Park after the museum, since it’s in the park.)

I’m sending you to Broadway tonight, so if you have a specific, sold-out type show in mind, you’ll want to secure those seats before your trip (here are all of the Broadway show tickets available through Viator). Worst-case scenario if you didn’t buy tickets in advance: head to Times Square’s TKTS in the late afternoon to get discount seats for whatever is available that night, cash or traveler’s checks only. If you’ve picked a play rather than a musical, look for the short ‘plays only’ line. If you’re dying for a show not at TKTS, head to the show’s box office and wait for cancellations, or ask about standing-room tickets.

Times Square - New York Tours

Times Square – New York Tours

Before dinner, you may want to hit the hotel to freshen up. Then head to Times Square and take in the madness, embracing the touristy heart of the city. The wide traffic islands in the center are the best vantage points. For dinner, do a classic pre-theater pre-fixe. Joe Allen (326 W. 46th St) is a classic, set on the Theater District’s Restaurant Row.

Most Broadway shows start at 8, but some at 7. Arrive about 15 minutes before curtain. Business casual is fine, though even if it’s allowed, please don’t eat in the seats. Bring mints or cough drops, just in case. After the show, head to Angus McIndoe for a drink and keep a look-out for your Broadway cast.

Day 2: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

You definitely want to book in advance for the Statue of Liberty, ideally as early in the morning as you can bear. When you book your ticket, make sure you add on the free, timed-entry passes that will get you into the museum and the statue itself. There are only a handful of these available each day; getting a pass for late in the day will also mess you up with the ferry schedule, forcing you to cut your time at Ellis Island. There’s also a full range of tours to the Statue of Liberty, from the Lady Liberty Helicopter Tour (a bargain at $62 per person) to the New York Harbor Cruise that gets you right beneath Lady Liberty.

Statue of Liberty - New York City Tours

Statue of Liberty – New York City Tours

Lunch Break: The food concessions on the islands aren’t too exciting, so you’ll probably want to eat as soon as you get off the ferry in Battery Park. My favorite choice for a late lunch downtown is Les Halles (15 John St) in the Financial District, operated by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. Otherwise, walk over to historic Stone Street (so named because it was the first street in the city to get stones rather than dirt/mud.) It’s a quaint pedestrian-only lane lined by short buildings, which in turn are surrounded by skyscrapers. Adrienne’s Pizza or Financier Pastry Shop are my top picks there.

If you go to Stone Street, walk just a bit to the south and find the foundation of Lovelace Tavern, which served as the Dutch city hall in the early days. Just across the street is Fraunces Tavern, where a triumphant General George Washington bade farewell to the troops in 1783 (if you want to learn more about the Revolutionary history of New York, consider a Patriot & Revolutionary Era walking tour).

Depending on your route, the New York Stock Exchange should be on your way. Closed to tours since September 11, 2001, it’s still a grand sight. Kitty-corner is Federal Hall, the site of George Washington’s inauguration. And on the white-marbled building on the other corner of Wall and Broad Streets, you can still see the unrepaired gashes of the terror attack of 1920, which caused the deaths of 40 people and a horse. There’s no sign or marker, but they’re easy to find on the Wall Street side of the old J. P. Morgan building.

Continue walking a few blocks over to the Ground Zero / World Trade Center site. Reconstruction is underway, though it’s been so slow and the physical void remains immense. The subway and New Jersey PATH trains run through the site and construction has begun on the primary new building for the site, the Freedom Tower, which will reach 1,776 feet (541 meters). If you stand near the entrance to the PATH station, you’ll see a timeline of events, and pictures that were taken by average New Yorkers that day and in the weeks after the attacks. To the north of the site stands a tall glass building; that’s the new WTC 7. It replaces the 47-story building that fell late in the day on September 11, 2001. If you want to see more, walk to the south side of the site and visit the Tribute Center and continue to the fire station and see the new memorial mural to the 343 firefighters who died that day. If you continue along the south side of the site, you’ll go up some stairs and into the World Financial Center, allowing better views down into the pit. Take more stairs back over the West Side Highway, leading you along the northern side of Ground Zero.

As you get back to the PATH entrance, you can turn around and see the back of St Paul’s Church. Not only was this the church where Washington prayed just after he was sworn in as the first president of the United States (New York was originally the capital, remember,) it served as a year-long comfort center for rescue workers after Sept. 11; Washington’s pew was a podiatry station. The church has a tremendous amount of mementos on display here. It was the gates of this church that was adorned with thousands and thousands of notes by people coming to pay respects after the tragedy.

Now don’t feel weird about this, but now I’m going to send you bargain shopping. Century 21 is directly across the street from Ground Zero. The reason you shouldn’t feel weird about this is because downtown struggled financially for a very long time after the attacks. Even more than a year later, historic businesses up in Chinatown were closing, citing the fact they just never recovered from the loss of downtown business after 9/11. So spend freely down there. Century 21, far from a ‘secret’, is a madhouse of bargains, designer and otherwise. The selection varies, but you can be sure that if you buy a bargain designer purse, it wasn’t made in a sweatshop with indentured slave labor like you might find up on Canal Street.

Dinner: Consider Pastis or Balthazar (crowded/celebrities/bistro fare), John’s or Lombardi’s pizza (crowded, but cheap and old-school), Gray’s Papaya (totally cheap hot dogs), Babbo (Mario Batali at his best, noisy and crowded), Per Se or Café Gray (Time Warner money’s-no-object splurges), or Katz or Carnegie (old-school classic delis). After dinner, consider the Empire State Building or maybe a New York City ‘night loop’ bus tour.

Day 3: NYC Odds ‘n’ Ends

Central Park - New York City Tours

Central Park – New York City Tours

I’ve only got one requirement for your third day: Central Park. At bare minimum, you need to take 15 minutes and walk through any little sliver. Better options: the free cross-park guided tour, the Bethesda Fountain, the zoo, ice skating, the carousel or Strawberry Fields.

After that, you’ll just have to decide what you most want to do because unfortunately there’s no way you’re going to cram it all in. My top options: walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, visit either the American Museum of Natural History or the Guggenheim, see the main room of Grand Central Terminal, trek upstairs to the main reading room of the New York Public Library on 42nd and Fifth Avenue, wander through Rockefeller Center and St Patrick’s Cathedral across the street, people-watch in Washington Square Park, or make time for a tour of the United Nations (and, if you plan at least a day in advance, lunch in the UN Delegates’ Dining Room). Also give one of the street vendors a try. And then come back to see more of what you missed!

Amy Langfield

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One Response to “Suggested New York City Itineraries for First-time Visitors”

  1. Scott Mc Says:

    I want to share some of the more off-beat things you can book as part of the ‘traveler, not a tourist’ idea. Some of my favorites, in no particular order:

    NYC Rock n’ Roll Walking Tour

    New York City Hip Hop Tour

    Sunday Gospel Tour to Harlem

    NYC tour with a personal photographer

    Private NYC tour in a 1975 convertible Chevrolet Caprice Classic