15 Unmissable Things To Do In New York City For First Timers

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New York City has an energy like no other city in the world. All the attractions (food, theater, art, parks) are world-class, and you’ll never run out of exciting things to do in NYC.

Although iconic, New York City tends to overwhelm first-time visitors, not just with the crazy traffic, honking, and amount of people, but with the sheer number of attractions to visit and places to check out.

This is why we’ve put together this list of attractions that first time visitors to the city can use if their not sure what to do or what are the absolute “must-sees”.

We’ve also shared our tips on where to eat, sleep, drink, shop, how to get around, and so much more!

Things to Do in New York City

1. Watch a show on Broadway

See The Lion King on Broadway in NYC
All dressed up for the Lion King

No trip to New York City would be complete without going to one of the big, glitzy Broadway Shows. It’s a once in a life time experience for many, and one of the best things to do at night.

To get an idea of what’s on and what’s popular vs. not popular, check out the Broadway grosses and look at the percentage of seats sold and average ticket price.

You can also use websites like Broadway Box, which has online discount codes that will save time and money, and usually give you better seats compared with using the discount TKTS booth that’s in Times Square.

My best insider tip is to find free events using The Skint. This will get you off the tourist trail if you wish to do that.

2. Bike around Central Park

woman riding bike through central park in the fall
Biking Central Park

Central Park is the biggest park in New York City and one of the city’s most famous places. Spanning 3.41 km², it’s huge, and so the best way to get around it is to hire a bike and cycle. You can hire bikes online here or take a bike tour. 

The park has a 6.1-mile loop with designated bike lanes, making it a safe and convenient to cycle, and since it’s all flat, anyone can do it.

As you pedal around the park, you’ll pass by iconic landmarks such as the Bethesda Terrace, Bow Bridge, and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.

New York City can be chaotic and overwhelming sometimes, so cycling amongst the lush greenery and seeing the city skyline poking above the trees is a refreshing retreat from it all.

Be sure to stop and watch the street performers or stop by a grassy area and enjoy a picnic.

family looking at manhattan skyline from brooklyn park
Great views from Brooklyn

Another popular cycle route people do is over the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, but if you only have time for one bike ride, Central Park is better.

3. See Iconic Views from the Skyscrapers

woman taking selfie in front of nyc skyline

New York City is not short of places to see amazing city views. One of the biggest draws to visiting NYC is to see the skyscrapers and see the world from new heights.

The most famous skyscraper in the city is The Empire State Building, which has an observation deck offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the city from its 86th floor.

From the top, you can see the city’s iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Central Park.

Another viewpoint, which is slightly less busy than the Empire State Building but still popular, is The Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center.

Here you can see awesome vistas of Manhattan from three different levels, so you can admire the city’s skyline from various angles.

The One World Observatory at One World Trade Center, one of the world’s tallest buildings, which has an observation deck on its 100th, 101st and 102nd floor.

4. Visit one of NYC’s Top Museums and Galleries

A van gogh painting
See Van Gogh free on Friday nights

New York City is home to some of the world’s most acclaimed museums. General admission is usually free for museums but donations are appreciated.

Perhaps the most famous is The Metropolitan Museum of Art, often referred to as “The Met,” which houses an extensive collection spanning 5,000 years of art from around the globe.

Another art museum not to miss is The Museum of Modern Art, also known as MOMA, where you have the chance to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night painting. It also has original pieces from famous artists like Picasso and Warhol. You can get in free from 4.30-8pm on Friday night.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is not only known for its impressive collection of modern works of art but also for its iconic spiral architecture.

girl walking in front of jackson pollack painting
Jackson Pollack at the MET

If you have kids, they will love exploring The American Museum of Natural History, which is a treasure trove of wonders, featuring exhibits on dinosaurs, space, and the natural world.

For lesser known museums, I personally like the Frick, an art museum dedicated to Henry Clay Frick.

The Met was a NYC attraction our teen wanted to visit!

5. Attend Free Yoga Classes at Bryant Park

people doing yoga in a park
Free yoga in Bryant Park?

If you’re looking for unique things to do in NYC, how about a free yoga class in Bryant Park?

Every summer from May 29th until September 25th, there is a free yoga class every Tuesday morning on the Upper Terrace and every Wednesday evening on the lawn.

Each class is an hour long and is instructed by one of NYC’s top yogis.

Bring your mat and enjoy!

6. Visit Coney Island

people on flying ride at luna park coney island

If you are visiting with your family, New York has some amazing amusement parks, and Coney Island is a classic!

Known for its iconic boardwalk that’s lined with amusement parks, including Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel, it’s the perfect place to take the kids and enjoy classic rides and carnival games.

Coney Island has a rich history as a hub for entertainment, and has been NYC’s amusement park hot spot since 1895. It’s an iconic place to visit in the city.

7. Walk the High Line

woman and two daughters walking on the highline nyc

Another unique thing to do is to walk along High Line, a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park built on a historic freight rail line from Chelsea Market to Hudson Yards.

It has stunning views of the Hudson River and the city skyline.

The park is adorned with lush greenery, art installations and sculptures, and architectural wonders, and sometimes hosts various cultural events and performances.

8. Eat Your Way Around NYC

person holding a cupcake
Don’t miss Molly’s Cupcakes

You will never go hungry in New York City. There are so many incredible restaurants and eateries, even the fussiest eater will find something for their taste.

To find out which restaurants are currently the trendiest, have a look on NY Mag’s Grub St blog.

Grub St also tends to have good information about the possibility of getting reservations.

Some super trendy places have no reservations policies and the wait can be up to 3 hours.

“For restaurants, you have hundreds of options. You’re in the restaurant capital of the world”.

For cheap eats, my favorite is Taim falafel bar in the West Village. They also have a new falafel truck. Their falafel is consistently on NYC’s best lists. It lives up to the hype, and it’s vegan.

Another street food favorite is the dosa vendor in Washington Square Park (lunchtimes).

coffee on table
Great coffee in NYC – In Common

For coffee we love In Common near Hudson Yards, the Bluestone Lane chain, Two Hands in Little Italy, and Culture Espresso. What di they all have in common? Well, it’s good coffee so they have to be Australian in origin!! See more NYC coffee shops to love.

Joe in the West Village is also a popular coffee option. It’s close to Taim falafel. Pok Pok NY is new and hot for Thai. Michael White’s Marea is consistently recommended for Italian, or you can visit Little Italy for family-owned pizzerias.

Chowhound Manhattan is another excellent way of doing foodie trip research, and you can even view menus in advance on Menupages.

Side note; NYC restaurants are known for being very crowded and discourage lingering. They do this subtly with design elements like backless seats.

shakshuka toast
Shakshuka Toast

Don’t visit NYC without eating…

  • Bagels – I like Murray’s Bagels in Greenwich Village, on 6th Ave between 12th and 13th. It’s just West of Union Square.
  • A close second, pizza! NY’s best pizza is a hotly debated. Di Fara in Brooklyn is very popular and serves slices. Slices in NYC are as big as your head. Be warned!
  • For Vegan Pizza options, try Cafe Viva on 2nd Avenue between 11th and 12th St.

9. Explore the NYC Nightlife

view of empire state building at night from 250 fifth
250 Fifth rooftop

For those who enjoy bars, clubs, live music concerts, and partying until dawn – you’re in the right city.

They don’t call it the city that never sleeps for no reason!

New York Magazine have a big feature on where to drink on each night of the week in NYC.

The MO Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental serves amazing cocktails and has an amazing view of Central Park.

There is no need to limit your drinking to night time, New Yorkers are also very fond of drinking with brunch.

Try the spiked coffee with brunch at Sons of Essex.

If you want a more unique way to drink in the city, you can usually drink for free if you go to an art show opening.

Have a look on The Skint to find info for new openings. They’re often quite fun, and you can just walk in, chat to people, and have a few drinks.

10. Go Shopping in NYC

chelsea market stall
Chelsea Markets

NYC is a shopper’s paradise! For people from outside the US, the chain stores that are popular in the USA are The Gap, H&M, and JCrew.

There is a JCrew in the Time Warner Center right next to the 59th St entrance to Central Park.

You can also find cheap designer clothes in NYC at one of the second-hand outlets.

The Century 21 Discount store near the World Trade Center is good(ish) for designer labels at discount prices.

Prices are probably better at designer discount stores in NYC compared to other states (such as Ross Dress for Less, which isn’t in NYC but is in places like LA and Vegas).

My most fashionable neighborhood is Soho in Lower Manhattan, which is where you’ll find boutique shops, thrift stores, and independent stores.

If you have kids – or you happen to love video games – check out Nintendo New York. It is right by Rockefeller Center (which has lots of clean bathrooms too).

markets at union square farmers markets
Union Square farmers markets

If you’re planning a picnic, head to The Union Square farmers market in the summer. It’s on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, but Fridays are the best and have the liveliest vibes.

There’s also an awesome Wholefoods supermarket in the Time Warner Center, with seating and even a microwave.

Perfect for lunch or supplies for a picnic in Central Park (and for a clean toilet near Central Park!).

11. Attend a Festival in New York City

people riding on motorbikes in a parade
Gay Pride in NYC

NYC knows how to do a festival or an event. I’ve been in NYC for Gay Pride, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 4th of July.

The 4th of July Fireworks are cool but the public viewing areas are claustrophobically crowded.

It’s definitely a once in a life time experience to see how big NYC does a festival, but you may literally only want to do it once in your life!

12. See the Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Of course, you cannot visit NYC without seeing the Statue of Liberty!

Don’t pay a fortune for the boat cruises (the circle line cruise is the most famous boat cruise), you can see the Statue of Liberty for free using the Staten Island Ferry, one of the free ferry services that operates between Manhattan and Staten Island.

The ferry has a scenic 25-minute ride across New York Harbor, and is a great way to see some of the best views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, and the Manhattan skyline.

It does not dock at Liberty Island though, so if you want to see the statue up close or visit the Statue of Liberty Museum, you’d need to get a ferry to Liberty Island which you have to pay for.

Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the money to get up close, especially since the Staten Island ferry passes relatively close to the statue so you can capture memorable photos easily.

13. Feel the Pulse of Times Square

family smiling at camera in times square

Times Square in New York City is a bucket list experience. The vibrancy and exhilarating atmosphere captures the essence of the city’s energy and dynamism.

Known for its dazzling billboards, neon lights, and bustling atmosphere, Times Square is the place to be to feel the buzz of the city.

It’s also right in the heart of the Broadway Theater District, and is most famous for being the place where the New Year’s Eve ball drops.

14. See Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal is one of the world’s most renowned train stations, not only a transportation hub but also a destination in itself since it’s featured in so many movies and TV shows.

The terminal’s Beaux-Arts architecture, depicted by its iconic celestial ceiling mural, is one of the city’s most recognizable backdrops.

You can also visit the Grand Central Market, a shopping center in the terminal where you can find a variety of gourmet foods and artisanal products.

15. Walk Along Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Finally, don’t miss a chance to stroll along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the East River.

The promenade is a peaceful and scenic walkway lined with benches, gardens, and historic brownstone homes.

It’s an ideal spot to end your trip, to take in the breathtaking scenery and reflect on your thoughts of the city.

Best Time of Year to Visit New York

woman and children holding hands ice skating at Bryant Park
ice skating at Bryant Park in New York City at Christmas

Most people say Fall is the best time to visit New York City, but I like summer in New York because there are so many free events taking place.

Only go in summer if you like the heat though, as temperatures often reach in the 90s F/30s C. The weather is bleak in winter and bitterly cold. It can snow, which is magical to witness, but do wrap up warm.

As a visitor, it’s a pain to work around attractions being closed for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

We do love experiencing New York during Christmas – it’s quite magical. Follow these holiday travel tips.

Getting To and Around New York City

family posing in front of subway New York City as walking down stairs
Go down!

You can easily fly into any of three airports. Kenndedy/JFK, La Guardia (LGA), and Newark (EWR). Transport links from all three airports to the city are good.

There are also cheap buses from Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. Mega Bus is the most popular bus company to use.

When it comes to getting around the city, the subway is incredible. I love it. You can buy a 7-day pass which is the most cost-effective for tourists.

Unlike other cities, there are no zone restrictions. For the same fare, you can use any subway including to Brooklyn and Queens. A subway pass is also valid for the buses.

a train

With the exception of “crosstown” buses that travel east/west rather than north/south, I don’t generally recommend the buses though. You’ll just end up stuck in traffic.

Google maps will give you subway directions if you click on the public transport symbol.

There’s a reason why Sarah Jessica Parker has such toned legs (apart from wearing heels all the time)!

family walking through Central Park, New York City
Stroll along the Hudson River

NYC is an amazing walking city.

A combination of walking and the subway is the best way to get around the city.

Where to Stay in New York City

New York City is an expensive city to visit. A hotel room can easily set you back $500 a night, it’s crazy.

To find cheaper places to stay, I tend to look for sublets using Craiglist in advance. Rent is so high in NYC that New Yorkers are often keen to sublet when they go away.

Another thing people are doing now to save money is staying in Jersey City and catching the train into Midtown Manhattan. This is another way to save money.

If I have any days before my sublet starts, I stay at the Hosteling International located at 103rd and Amsterdam (dorms only). It’s a really nice hostel.

At the risk of this sounding like an ad for the Ace Hotel (it’s not), it’s a great mid-range hotel option for people who want to keep it classy.

For a splurge (and possibly to tick an item off your bucket list), the uber famous Waldorf Astoria has surprisingly good rates.

We really love the INNside New York Nomad, having stayed there three times. Here is a list of other NYC accommodations that we recommend.

Final Thoughts

Sunset from Top of The Rock in NYC
Sunset from Top of The Rock

There you have it, those are the top things to do in the Big Apple for any first time visitor, and as you can see, there are tons of attractions to see and do.

As well as ticking off the bucket list item, be sure to take time out to mingle with the locals and wander the boroughs.

I love New Yorkers! They’re generally friendly and helpful.

There is a sense of anything is possible in NYC and people have self-confidence – living life their own way. The vibe is infectious, and you come away feeling like any of your dreams can come true.

Especially in Brooklyn, there’s also an amazing sense of highly concentrated creativity.

New York is inspiring and energizing.

We hope this guide helped you plan your visit and gave you some ideas for what to do.

Tours, Sightseeing & Passes

One World Observatory views Freedom Tower NYC

Viator is a Trip Advisor company and offers small group tours of NYC, plus passes and tickets to the most popular places and attractions including the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and One World Observatory.

I can personally tell you how valuable guided tours are. You learn so much and don’t have to figure out how to get to the biggest and most popular attractions.

New York City Travel Videos

You can learn more about our experience visiting NYC by watching our videos on our YouTube channel!

More NYC Travel Tips

You can read more guides about visiting NYC below:

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Are you planning to visit NYC? What do you think are the top things to do in New York? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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