First Time in New York – Guide to What to See in NYC
There’s so many things to do in NYC that it can be extremely overwhelming to determine your itinerary when it’s you’re first time in New York. How do you see everything that the city has to offer in your first 3-day, 1 week or 2 week trip here? Short answer – you can’t. That’s why instead of throwing 100+ things to do in New York City when you visit, I’ve highlighted the must-sees for your first time in New York.
Things to do in Midtown NYC
Check out some pretty amazing architecture
New York is pretty well known for its architecture and midtown Manhattan houses many of those gems. Some notable highlights to check out during your first time in New York include:
- Grand Central Terminal
- New York Public Library
- Empire State Building
- Flatiron Building
See the dazzling lights of Times Square at night
Times Square is usually high on the must see list for any first visit to NYC. The dazzling lights and hub of activity symbolize the city that never sleeps. However, don’t make the Square your main point of attraction here. While you’re there, try to see a show. Anastasia and Lion King are my favorites and the theaters take you back to different eras with the intricate and decadent interiors.
I also highly recommend Juniors for pre, post or no show dining while you’re in Times Square. The Something Different sandwich is one of my favorite dishes on the planet (loads of brisket stuffed between two giant potato pancakes and served with a side of au jus for dipping). Put your name down with the hostess, but wait near the bar. If you can grab a seat there, not only will you no longer have to wait, but you usually get food and drinks a lot quicker because your server is always accessible.
Pro Tip: Unless you’re going to the M&M or Hershey stores, hold the shopping for other parts of the city. Most of the stores here can be found in less hectic areas of the city.
If you must go to the top of a building, go to the top of the Rock
While my bias of being terrified of heights may come into play here, the thought of paying $30-$40 to stand at the top of a building for 10 minutes has never been an impulse for me. BUT I do know that the views can be amazing and a must not miss for many on their first time in New York. So if you’re going to do a top of the building, do the Top of the Rock.
Why Top of the Rock versus the Empire State Building or Freedom Tower? Because when you do the Rock, you actually get to see the Empire State Building or the Freedom Tower (plus Central Park). You especially want the Empire State Building in your shot since it’s a symbol of the NYC skyline.
Pro Tip: Skip the $39.20 and head to one of the city’s many rooftop bars. Rockefeller Center has one too called Bar SixtyFive, where you still have to pay $20 for a cocktail, but at least you have a drink in your hand for the same view, just a floor or two down.
Things to do in and near Central Park
Explore Central Park
On top of Central Park being a NYC icon, there’s so much to do and see here and its a must stop for your first time in New York. Keep in mind though that Central Park is massive and a lot to experience in its perimeters. You could easily spend a whole day here on its own. While I always encourage wandering around, have an idea of what you really want to see and what areas of the park you want to cover if you’re short on time.
For first timers I especially recommend entering at the Southeast End (59th street and 5th Avenue) and covering the following items:
- Meander around the pond
- Stroll along the Mall and Literary Walk
- Take in the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain
- Walk along the lake (or rent a row boat)
Learn more about the world at a Museum
The streets around Central Park house some of the world’s most precious art and history exhibits. The east side is home to Museum Mile, 8 museums in a one-mile radius along 5th avenue. Make one or two of the following a stop on your itinerary:
- Metropolitan Museum of Art – East Side
- American Museum of Natural History – West Side
- Museum of Modern Art – South Side
- Frick Collection – East Side
Do some high-end luxury shopping, if that’s your thing
Madison Avenue in the Upper East Side and 5th Avenue below the park are home to some of the world’s most luxurious brands and department stores. Even if you’re not in the market for anything, the window displays along are often a sight in themselves (especially around Christmas time).
Things to do in lower Manhattan
Walk along the High Line
The whole length of the High Line runs from 14th street to 34th street. I recommend either starting at 14th and walking to 23rd then getting off to check out Chelsea Market. Or reverse it and start at 23rd and depart on 14th to then wander around the West Village for a bit (one of the city’s most picturesque neighborhoods).
People Watch in Washington Square Park
Even though the Park is comprised of mostly concrete and only about 2 blocks long, Washington Square Park is a hub of activity. There’s always something interesting going on whether it’s a man playing a piano under the Arch, dance troupes doing their thing around the fountain or someone dishing out “free advice.” It’s a great place to sit and watch humanity be humans.
The winding streets of the Financial District have a lot of historic buildings to gander at. Stroll through the cemetery at Trinity Church where Alexander Hamilton was laid to rest. It’s also the oldest public building in continuous use in the city, having been open for 300 years. You can also honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Or check out the Charging Bull on Wall Street.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
I include this on the first timers list because I know a lot of people really enjoy getting to view Lady Liberty up close and in action. I’ve never personally been to Ellis Island but as the entry for immigration for millions of American ancestors it’s definitely a must-see sight for many. If New York’s immigrant history is an important part of your trip, I wholeheartedly recommend also checking out the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side.
Get out of Manhattan
There’s so much more to see outside of Manhattan though many first timers don’t make it out off the island. Check out some of the other boroughs with these activities:
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Not only an architectural marvel, the bridge also provides amazing views of Lower Manhattan. While you obviously get the best views walking towards Manhattan, I would also recommend taking the Brooklyn Trek (you can always stop and turn around to take a shot or take in the skyline). You can reward your trek with pizza at Juliana’s (which is owned by Grimaldi whereas Grimaldi’s is not owned by Grimaldi) and take in even better views at Brooklyn Bridge Park. If it’s nice out, you can even get the pizza to go at Juliana’s and sit along the water and eat.
Visit the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Brooklyn Museum
The gardens are absolutely stunning and the museum has some pretty interesting exhibits. They’re right next to each other so it’s super convenient, as well as right off the Eastern Parkways stop on the 2/3 so you don’t have to wander too much in the depths of Brooklyn to find them. If you’re craving even more outdoors time, walk over to Prospect Park to feel like you’ are hundreds of miles from the city.
Take in Panoramic Views of the NYC Skyline from Queens
Hop over to Gantry Plaza State Park to catch a sweeping view of all of the skyline landmarks in midtown Manhattan. There’s lounge seating around the park to relax and take in the glittering skyline at sunset (or any time of the day really). Take the ferry from Wall Street Pier or the 7 train to Vernon Jackson Boulevard to get here.
Want more details on where to catch the best view of the skyline? Check out the top 10 places to see the NYC Skyline.
Tips and Tricks for First Timers
Plan your itinerary by area of the city
Group together sights you want to see by the area of the city. Trying to tackle the Financial District and Central Park in the same day may not be the best use of your time and you won’t get to see as much of either part of the city.
Take the subway to get around
It may seem intimidating for your first time in New York, but the subway is the key to getting around cheaply. If you’re going to be here for more than 3 days (or taking the subway more than 11 times) I highly recommend getting the 1-week unlimited pass. It will save you $$$.
Eat all of the food
There is so much delicious food in New York City that even as someone who lived there for 7 years it’s overwhelming to choose between the different options. Here are some key food experiences for your first time in New York:
- Eat really good pizza – recommend John’s on Bleecker, Juliana’s near the Brooklyn Bridge or Artichoke Pizza (multiple locations)
- Eat at the first Shake Shack in Madison Square Park
- Marvel at how cheap and delicious the Falafel Pita at Mamoun’s is, then chow down in Washington Square Park
- Brave the line at Katz for a pastrami sandwich
- Nosh on perogies or anything else on the menu at Veselka (and it’s open 24 hours a day)
- Go for street meat at Halal Guys
- Order a steak somewhere historic – Keens (former Pipe Club where Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Einstein used to frequent) or Delmonico’s (the first fine dining restaurant in the U.S. where the Baked Alaska was invented)
- Have serious a serious food coma after eating chicken and waffles at Sweet Chick
- Try one of the food crazes – the cronut (Dominique Ansel Bakery) or cookie dough in a cone (DŌ)
Want more info on what to do in and around the city for your first time in New York? Check these out:
- Best views of the NYC skyline
- Day trips from NYC that you don’t need a car for