New York City is my hometown. Even though I have never resided on the island of Manhattan itself, I have lived in Brooklyn or New Jersey for the best part of the last 30 years, commuted to work in Manhattan for most of that time, and generally considered going to the City to be the obvious top option for any cultural or leisure outing throughout these years.
Turns out it is a pretty challenging task to look at your hometown city from a visitor guide perspective. Most visitors only have a limited time and do not want to miss any must-sees; when friends or relatives from elsewhere in the world come to New York for the first time, I almost always end up providing them with the list of unmissables plus a few “if-time-permits” possibilities. I am staying that course with this guide, primarily enumerating the most popular sights and mentioning in passing some of the lesser ones.
Unlike my other travel guide entries, I am not using any ♥’s in this guide. It is simply impossible to grade on a scale the things that I have seen so many times. Instead, I will be putting a single ★ to a handful of sights that I consider more or less “musts” for the first visit to town. Your mileage will certainly vary so pick and choose, and anything that strikes your particular fancy merits further research on your part.
Things to See
New York’s unparalleled wealth of treasures and attractions requires a non-trivial allocation of time to see. Even if you eschew all or most of the museums, you will still need no less than a couple of days just to get a feel of it. And the city is pretty big, even if – as most tourists do – you will never leave the island of Manhattan except during the airport transfers. If you want to minimize the time spent on public transport getting from point A to point B, you have to focus on a specific part of the city on a given day; therefore, more than a couple of days are needed to cover all there is to cover in some depth.
You could get on a tour bus, though. One of the largest “terminals” of hop-on/hop-off bus routes is immediately to the north of Times Square, on Seventh Avenue between 47th and 49th streets. I always find rides like that useful only for orientation purposes, but you may check off some of the exterior sights that way as well.
For the purposes of this guide, I will keep sights mostly grouped in categories (with only a few geographic markers and linkages), leaving it to you to plot your preferred itinerary on the map.
Nobody ever misses Times Square ★, which over the last 15 years or so has been largely pedestrianized to make a truly public space out of a mere convergence of two major arteries in Broadway and the 7th Avenue. The elevated platform at its northern edge offers you a chance to look over the sea of heads.
There may be a couple of other locations in the whole island of Manhattan that are squares in the traditional sense of the term. Most others are actually parks, each a welcome oasis of greenery in the middle of the big city. Among the most prominent are Bryant Park, Madison Square Park, Union Square Park, Washington Square Park, City Hall Park. This is far from an exhaustive list – look at the map of the City and you will find many green spots throughout.
Rockefeller Center ★ is another tourist magnet, centered on the sunken summer garden that in winter becomes an ice-skating rink. It gets especially busy around Christmastime, being the location of the main holiday tree in the city.
The Battery ★ (aka, “Battery Park”) at the southern tip of the island is not only a superb green space, but also the embarkation point for trips to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. If you are content with viewing the statue from a distance, the edge of Battery Park is the best location for that. Next to the park is the Staten Island Ferry terminal – you can take a free round-trip for great views of the city and the harbor from the water.
They are somewhat overrated as tourist attractions, in my honest opinion, but the statue of Charging Bull and the corner of Wall Street where the New York Stock Exchange is located are in close vicinity of the Battery and known well enough to be practically unmissable for a first-time visitor to the Downtown Manhattan.
There is nothing overrated about Central Park ★. It is big enough and diverse enough to easily sustain a full day of exploring. Hitting a few highlights in just the southern half of the park (for instance, from Gapstow Bridge to the Literary Walk to the Bethesda Terrace over the Bow Bridge through the Ramble to the Belvedere Castle) will take a couple of hours at least.
The High Line, an elevated path along disused rail tracks on the West Side, is a fairly recent addition to the public parks roster in the city. Linear parks such as this are still a relative oddity throughout the world, which is a big part of the allure.
If slow walks around pleasant neighborhoods are your thing – they are most definitely mine! – Soho (art galleries), Greenwich Village (bar-hopping), or Upper East Side (stately residential architecture) are among my favorites depending on the day’s preferences. Do not expect to get truly lost in this big city, though – the grid pattern will lead you to major streets in the space of a couple of blocks practically anywhere.
This is not the Old World – the oldest surviving building in Manhattan is only about 250 years old. But you are not coming here for medieval castles or Renaissance palaces anyway. You are looking for marvels of modern architecture, which are plentiful in New York.
Skyscraper icons such as Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Flatiron Building, or Woolworth Building are obvious targets. They do not offer much in terms of interior tours but are impossible to miss even if you tried, whether on a tour bus, on foot, or picking their spires out while on an observation deck. Giving them ★’s seems reductive.
One World Trade Center (aka, “the Freedom Tower”) is in the same category of being by now iconic and unmissable. When you are nearby, you should stop by the Memorial Pools which trace the outlines of the WTC Towers that fell on a fateful day in 2001.
Many mixed-use buildings in the city have accessible public areas, so if you see an entrance sign of the “atrium open to public” kind, do not hesitate to step in for a peek. The Winter Garden at World Financial Center is one that I am going to explicitly mention; there is a spot on its marble staircase landing that offers a delightful echo effect.
Grand Central Terminal is another superb public place that you can walk through, stopping to take in its tremendous main concourse. Its ultra-modern much younger brother, the Oculus is one of the centerpieces of the rebuilt World Trade Center area, the other being the Freedom Tower.
Among other newest additions to the New York scene is the Vessel, an esoteric structure at the recently regenerated area of Hudson Yards.
The main branch of the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is yet another landmark that is both unmissable and worth coming by.
Churches are usually among the most interesting architectural features of any giving city, but I inexplicably have been giving them short shrift in Manhattan. Nonetheless, St. Patrick’s Cathedral clearly deserves a look – the neo-Gothic church built in the mid-19th-century is the largest cathedral in North America.
St. Paul’s Chapel is another ecclesiastical building worth stepping in, and one of the oldest still-standing buildings in Manhattan, dating to 1766. A few blocks down from it, Trinity Church looks upon Wall Street.
Brooklyn Bridge ★ has to have a place on any itinerary around New York’s sights. When it opened in 1883, it was the first of its kind, an innovative breakthrough that influenced bridge-building ever since. Make time and effort to walk over the bridge on its pedestrian pathway at least half the way.
World-renowned collections or special-interest exhibits, there is plenty to choose from in New York City.
Quite a few of the museums are the foremost of their respective kind in the whole of the world, presenting themselves as obvious picks to be visited. The Metropolitan Museum of Art ★ is simply among the top five art collections anywhere. The Museum of Modern Art will hold its own against any comparison with contemporary art collections. American Museum of Natural History, famous for its dinosaur displays, has few equals of its sort.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum probably should have been mentioned in the architecture section above – and warrant a ★, being a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site. Its art exhibitions are usually of limited-time nature (although there is a portion of the permanent collection that is on display in one of the rooms), and not always worth the price of admission, so make sure that you research whatever is currently on before buying tickets. You can usually step into the building to admire its spiral main atrium even without paying for admission.
The Metropolitan and the Guggenheim anchor the Museum Mile, a stretch of Fifth Avenue with a high concentration of superb museums. On this stretch are also the Frick Collection, one of the best formerly-private art museums, Neue Galerie New York, famous for its Gustav Klimt pieces, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Museum of the City of New York.
The Met Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan, frequently gets overlooked on account of its comparatively remote location near the northern tip of Manhattan. For lovers of medieval art and architecture, it is probably the best museum in the city.
Whitney Museum of American Art gets frequent mentions as one of New York’s top museums. Its collection is contemporary and, as the name suggests, geographically constrained. It will likely impress only a small percentage, although there is an added bonus of open terraces with Chelsea rooftop views.
On a somberer note, Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, at the edge of the Battery, is focused on preserving memories of the terrible period of the recent history, so that it would never be repeated. There is also a Jewish Museum, a separate institution located on the Museum Mile, dedicated to the history of Jewish communities in New York.
Also undeniably somber, National 9/11 Museum is dedicated to the events and the aftermath of the attacks of that day. The museum entrance is for a fee, while the Memorial Pools mentioned above are in an open public space.
Other museums throughout the city that may be worth consideration, depending on your specific interests, are Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum, Museum of Arts and Design, New Museum, New-York Historical Society, the Morgan Library & Museum, Tenement Museum, Merchant’s House Museum, the Skyscraper Museum, Rubin Museum of Art.
National Museum of the American Indian offers a bonus of being located in the historic Customs House that I could have well included in the architecture section. The collection itself is fairly compact and free to see, as any Smithsonian Institution museum is.
It follows that the city well-known for its skyscraper lines offers a superior wealth of high viewpoints, so I separated them under their own heading. They are all fairly expensive attractions, so on a given visit to the city you probably will go to at most one.
The newest of them all, The Edge, is probably my favorite. It is billed as the highest skydeck in the Northern Hemisphere, constructed in a way to give you the closest feeling of floating in the sky. Its location in Midtown near the western edge of the island offers great views towards all major areas and sights in the city.
Top of The Rock was my favorite before the Edge, enjoying a most central Midtown location that allows for great perspectives in all directions. It is a bit lower and a bit pricier.
I have not yet found time to visit One World Observatory, although I see it getting consistently high marks elsewhere. Recalling my experience at the top of the old World Trade Center, I suspect that there is a limit of what you can see towards Midtown and beyond from the Downtown location.
The oldest observation deck of them all, at the Empire State Building, has never been able to impress me too much compared with the others. Looking at the surrounding city through the fence has always been a bit of a downer for me, but you may feel differently about its historic quotient. In addition to the main observation deck, there is one an even higher (and much smaller) that you can get to only by paying for a very expensive timed-entry VIP ticket – I might do it one of these days to see if my overall opinion may be swayed by it.
I have recently read that Chrysler Building will soon join the lineup of observation decks in the city. Its location on the eastern side of Midtown will undoubtedly offer a different perspective.
This is the city that never sleeps, offering endless opportunities for entertainment for all tastes.
Going to a Broadway musical ★ is a bit of a rite-of-passage for a New York visit. If you have a specific one in mind, I recommend planning for it and buying tickets well in advance. When that is not practical, and if you are ok with spending a non-trivial time in line while getting tickets to what’s available today at sometimes pretty good discount, the Tkts booth at the northern edge of Times Square is a place to check out.
World-famous performance venues such as Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, or Madison Square Garden usually require non-trivial advance planning. So does the Metropolitan Opera.
Nightlife-wise, comedy clubs or rooftop bars are plentiful throughout the city. I’ve been to quite a few and, short of recommending any specific venue, I simply recommend that you include one or a few on your itinerary and do your own research to pick what you may like.
If you’ve read this far, you recognize by now that there are so many things to do in the heart of New York City that an average visitor on a trip lasting a few days is highly unlikely to venture to the other boroughs (unless there are relatives to see). Nonetheless, several better-than-average points of interest – including some that would especially appeal to younger travelers – are located outside of the island of Manhattan.
Among them are the Bronx Zoo, New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, New York Aquarium, Luna Park at Coney Island, the Noguchi Museum, and many many more.
Places to Eat
New York’s food scene is among the most varied and vibrant in the world. It would be disingenuous of me to recommend one restaurant over the other – and pointless to list all that I’ve been to over the years – so I’m leaving it to further research on your own. TripAdvisor gained sufficient critical mass over the last decade or so to be a great starting point for research according to your preferences.