A friend of mine is heading out on her first trip to New York City, and she’s feeling quite overwhelmed by all of the different things to see and do.
“How can I manage all of this?!” she asks.
The answer is that you can’t, which is why there is never just ONE trip to the Big Apple. You simply must return several times. If you plan on making return trips, it won’t seem so depressing that you cannot pack everything into one, two, or even five visits.
Here is what I’d recommend for your very first trip to New York City, to get your feet on the ground …
1) Get a Great View of NYC
Everyone talks about going to the top of the Empire State Building (which is included in the NYC City Pass – not cheap at US$126 but worth it for the entrance fee bundling value of many costly venues) but honestly, the best views of New York INCLUDE the Empire State Building, right?
The irony is that it is best to see it from another vantage point besides standing at the top of it.
The Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center is one possibility, but for zero cost and a pretty good workout, simply walk across the Brooklyn Bridge for fabulous views of the city.
2) See the Statue of Liberty
Here’s a key tip – you can pay to see those New York icons the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and it IS a wonderful experience, but if you just want a good view of Lady Liberty for a few photos …
Take the free Staten Island ferry, see the statue from the harbor, take some pics, and move on to the next item.
If you’re in a crunch for both time and money, it’s the best bet.
3) Eat Classic NYC Food
A Nathan’s Famous hot dog from a cart, a shawarma from Halal Guys, soul food in Harlem, a New York pizza slice – I like Eater’s 30 most iconic NYC dishes to help you sort out the must-eat foods.
Track down and experience at least a few of them, but do NOT miss the ultimate New York deli experience at Katz’s or Russ and Daughters, on the Lower East Side.
4) Experience America’s Immigrant Story
You will need to plan ahead and make reservations for their guided tours, but I find that the Lower East Side Tenement Museum – with or without a stop at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration – tells the best possible story of the hardworking people who made this nation what it is today.
The Tenement Museum preserves the history of multiple actual families, across many decades, who lived at 97 Orchard Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
I have never walked out of a museum feeling as awestruck as the day I went to the Tenement Museum. Go there.
5) Visit One Major World-Class Museum
The biggie is of course The Metropolitan Museum of Art (which is why you may want to concentrate on one or two parts of the behemoth.)
Nothing compares to seeing “the real deal” art works up close and personal.
The Met is not your only chance to see world-class pieces, though.
I love the smaller, medieval-era art in the Cloisters branch of the Met, and also the Guggenheim or the Whitney.
Update Jan 23, 2019 – the outstanding 9/11 Memorial and Museum in lower Manhattan is well worth a visit as well.
6) See a Borough Besides Manhattan
A subway or bus ride will take you far from “the usual” tourist attractions in Manhattan, which is only one borough of five in New York City.
Take time to explore the famous zoo in the Bronx, or the walkable neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Jump on the “International Express” (the 7 Train to diverse Queens) or check out the odd things to see on Staten Island.
You can venture even further afield to the surf scene in the Rockaways or the kitschy wonders of Coney Island.
7) Get Outdoors, Even a Little
There are New York City green spaces that will restore your soul after only a short visit.
Watch the chess players and buskers in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village …
Go skating in winter at Bryant Park (or hang out under the trees and listen to concerts in the summer.)
There are acres to explore in the granddaddy of them all, Central Park …
Take an elevated, elegant stroll along The High Line, or sit down and people-watch in any pocket park that you can find.
8) See a Live Performance: Music, Theater, Dance
I don’t care how touristy it is, try to be in Times Square for a few minutes around sunset or at night. The place pulsates with energy and creativity.
Try the TKTS booth for discounted tickets to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, or consult the event calendar for NYCgo and Time Out New York‘s event calendar, but plug yourself into some sort of a live performance for a jolt of energy and excitement.
I’ll never forget stumbling onto tickets years ago to see vocal superstar Lena Horne live on Broadway, and who can beat the atmosphere of a live jazz show at an historic venue like the Village Vanguard, or Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater?
9) Notice the Details. Enjoy the Surprises.
Delight in the serendipity.
Make a little jump of recognition at turning a corner and seeing the elegant Flatiron Building. See if you can find the scene of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire near that pretty fountain at Washington Square Park.
Stop and admire the finishing touches on the backs of individual stairs installed in one section of The Metropolitan Museum of Art …
Many lists of things to do for a first-time New York City visitor are too long and too overwhelming.
Decide at the beginning that yes, you are coming back, which will take a weight off your mind and remove that dread of having to see too many things in a ridiculously short period of time.
Did I miss a must-do item for a first trip to New York City? Tell me down in the comments.
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