Is it your first time in New York? There are literally a million cool things to do in New York City. That’s what makes it New York. The possibilities here are endless… and so is the amount of money you can spend on those activities.
We want to help you save money on your visit to New York City. So, we are going to keep this list budget friendly. That means we are going to skip things like shopping at Tiffany’s or eating out at world class restaurants. Instead we’re going to focus on other things that make New York stand out.
We lived in NYC for a looong long time before leaving to travel the world. Thus we think we know a thing or a hundred about the City That Never Sleeps. However, we rarely ever experienced New York through the eyes of a tourist, which is why we haven’t really written about it until now.
Recently we returned to NYC after being away for almost three years. We got to experience NYC in a new light, through the eyes of a visitor. With that in mind we decided to pick out the most amazing things about this city that everyone visiting New York for the first time should experience. NYC attractions are a dime a dozen, but there are things that everyone should experience in New York to get a real understanding of how interesting and diverse this city really is.
We aren’t saying you should do everything on this list. But… You should do everything on our list of things to do in New York City. First off, though, let’s talk about some basics when visiting the city.
If you want to save a few bucks visiting some of NYC’s best destinations you might want to consider the The New York Pass that gives you free entry to 100+ iconic attractions.
Please note – Some of our selections contain affiliate links. These allow us to earn a small percentage every time you make a booking. Using our links enables us to provide all the information found on this site free of charge.
Table of Contents
Getting Around New York City
NYC has a subway system that is one of the largest in the world… and among the oldest too. While it doesn’t work quite as well as it once used to the MTA Subway is still one of the more convenient ways of getting around NYC, especially if you are staying mostly in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. So basically everywhere in the four main boroughs.
Check out our guide to riding the subway in New York City for a full run-down on how to use the public transportation system.
Aside from subways and buses, Uber and Lyft are great options, but they tend to be more expensive (but more comfortable) than yellow taxis. If you want a classic New York experience take a taxi at least once, and talk to the driver. Otherwise stick to public transpiration to save your hard earned money on things like delicious food, great museums, and other NYC attractions.
If you love the convenience of Hop On, Hop Off buses you can get a one or two day pass here.
- The Best Hostels in New York City – Want more NYC hostel options? Check out our guide here.
- The Best Hotels in New York City – For more options on where to stay in New York City.
Things to Do in New York City For a First Time Visitor
Sky-High Views of Manhattan
The Manhattan skyline is famous around the world, and it’s an incredible sight to behold. It might be even more amazing, however, to view Manhattan from up above in one of the following three amazing observatories. All three of these viewing platforms offer incredible views of Manhattan and across both rivers, and are among the attractions in NYC that every tourist should visit.
Empire State Building – For classic sky-high views of Manhattan we recommend the 81st floor of the Empire State Building. The observation deck there is open air, meaning there is nothing between you and amazing sights but a fence. This allows for unobstructed views, and amazing photos of Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Tickets to the Empire State 81st floor will cost you around $40.000. Make sure to arrive at the Empire State Building an hour or so before you want to be top side as the lines do tend to get long.
The Empire State Building also offers a second deck, on the 102nd floor. This costs $17.00 more, and while you can pretty much see all of Central Park from here (a view you won’t get from the 81st floor), this area is totally enclosed. In our estimation the Empire State’s 102nd floor is not worth the extra $17 bucks.
Top of the Rock – The Rockerfeller Center Observation deck is another great choice for amazing views of Midtown Manhattan. The 70th floor of Top of the Rock, is not enclosed in glass so you can get open air vistas from here. This observatory offers better views of northern Manhattan, including Central Park, than the Empire State Building does. However, you will find yourself paying $50.00 during sunset hours, making this a bit pricier option than the Empire State.
One World Observatory – The Freedom Tower, as One World Trade is also called, offers the highest observation deck in New York City. The downside is that its not open air, and all views are from behind glass. Still, you will get absolutely amazing views of Manhattan to the north, and some cool looks at the Statue of Liberty to the south. Tickets cost $42.00 for basic entrance. Go here if the weather is really nice, otherwise we recommend the Empire State Building, or Rockerfeller Center.
Rooftop Dining in NYC
Speaking of sky-high views, New York is home to a bunch of great rooftop restaurants and bars. There’s nothing quite like enjoying a meal or a drink high above the streets of the city. For our full list of recommended bars and restaurants have a look at our guide to rooftop bars and restaurants in NYC!
Things to Do In NYC – Embrace the Madness of Times Square
For longtime New Yorkers Times Square is a no-go zone, a place reserved for tourists and those unfortunate souls who have to work there. For a first time visitor, however, Times Square can be a magical place of blinking lights and dazzling displays.
Back in day, as late as the early turn of the century, Times Square had a dark reputation for being a seedy and sometimes dangerous area of Manhattan. Those days are long, long gone. The modern Times Square is policed to the point of feeling occupied, and is totally safe day and night. The major avenues running through the Square have been closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian zone for tourists to slowly walk along, or sit at tables while eating an overpriced snacks.
There are a bunch of stores in Times Square that you can get shopping done at, although we aren’t sure why you would pick that area for your shopping needs. You can also find many restaurants here, all of which are overpriced, but the excitement of dining in Times Square convinces some people to splurge.
Overall, while locals avoid it like the plague, Time’s Square should be on every first time visitors list of things to do in New York City.
Spend Hours at the MET – Metropolitan Museum of Art
Out of all the museums in the world, and in New York City, the MET is among the ones we hold most dear. This place is absolutely packed with all sorts of amazing exhibits. From Modern Art including luminaries such as Monet, Picasso, and Dali, to Ancient Greek monuments, Medieval arms and armor, and even an entire chunk of an Egyptian temple. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum of Art holds over two million works of art, spanning over 5,000 years. Wowzers.
The selection here is huge, and it’s impossible to see it all in one day, which is why we suggest you buy a pass to the MET (for $25.00, unless you are a resident) that is valid for three whole days. That’s a great deal, don’t you think?
There may be many to visit, but the MET is definitely one of the best museums in NYC. We highly recommend spending AT LEAST a few hours getting lost among the corridors of this massive and fascinating museum. You don’t have to be a museum geek or art nerd to appreciate this place, trust us.
The MET is but one of dozens of awesome museums in New York. Also in the neighborhood and worth noting – The Museum of Natural History (take your kids there ASAP!!), the Guggenheim, and the MoMA.
Check out our article on the best museums in New York City for more great choices.
Things to Do in New York City – Brooklyn Bridge Walk
As one of New York’s most iconic works of engineering and design the Brooklyn Bridge has connected lower Manhattan with lower Brooklyn for over a hundred years. We highly recommend you take a walk or a bike ride over the bridge, and stop along the way for some unforgettable views and photos.
If you are feeling particularly adventurous plot a course to leave Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge and return via the Manhattan bridge, which is a bit further up north. If you do so on bike the trip will take no longer than two hours.
While you are in the vicinity you might want to stop and have a pie at Grimaldi’s, one of the very best places to get delicious NYC’s pizza.
South Street Ferry, Statue of Liberty Ferry
The Staten Island, or South Street, ferry is a great way to get a sweet look at Downtown Manhattan, and even a nice peak at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The ferry takes about 25 minutes each way, and costs you the price of a Metro Card swipe. So, basically, the South Street Ferry is the most budget friendly way to watch great views of southern Manhattan. As such we think it’s one of the main attractions in New York City for those traveling on a budget.
If you want to do a full on tour of Liberty Island and Ellis Island you will have to commit to taking a much longer trip on the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Ferry. Tickets for this amazing trip costs around $24.50 for adults, and is totally worth it, especially if you have the time and the weather is nice.
Explore Central Park
Central Park is another location and tourist attraction in New York City made famous in movies, shows, and other bits of pop culture. Central Park is the 5th biggest park in New York City, but it’s by far the largest park in Manhattan, and the most world-renown green space in any metropolis.
Surrounded by the towering spires and residential buildings of midtown, Central Park is a green oasis in the madhouse that Manhattan can be. From picturesque ponds, to massive lawns, baseball fields, playgrounds, and a ton of walking/biking/running paths, Central Park offers hours of quaint exploration. Tourists mingle with locals here, as Central Park is popular with just about everyone who spends any time in Manhattan, especially on gorgeous spring, summer, or fall days.
When the weather is good we HIGHLY recommend you rent a Citibike and ride around the bike paths of Central Park. Be warned, however, you can not ride your bike on walking paths, so be careful to only ride where legal, or you WILL get a ticket.
Noteworthy Locations in Central Park –
- The Great Lawn – Pretty much what is sounds like. A huge grassy lawn to chill out on.
- Strawberry Fields – A memorial to John Lennon.
- The Ramble – A “woodland” walk through varied topography.
- Alice in Wonderland – A really cool sculpture inspired by Alice and her friends.
- Bethesda Terrace – A beautiful terrace over-looking a large fountain and pond. Extremely picturesque.
- There are a lot of other place to discover and things to do in Central Park. You can learn all about them here.
One thing we think you should NOT do in Central Park is take a horse drawn carriage ride. Not only are these rides over priced tourist traps, they are pretty much animal abuse. The poor horses wear blinders all day long and are forced to plod along on concrete while surrounded by the madness of the city.
Instead of taking a carriage ride why not rent a bicycle, or even a bicycle taxi, which will give you the same exact tour, minus the carriage and the horse manure.
Things to Do in New York – Head Down to Chinatown
Located right next to Little Italy, New York City’s Chinatown is a crowded congested delight. If you are craving authentic Chinese cuisine don’t even bother going to any Chinese restaurants anywhere else in the city.
Entering Chinatown is like being transported to a totally different continent. It is one of the most unique neighborhoods in the city, so if you want to experience something slightly different, definitely head down to Chinatown.
While you are at it explore Little Italy, which is right next door. This shrinking neighborhood still offers some of the best Italian food in the entire city, so if you are craving a taste of Italy, make sure to visit.
Want to explore Chinatown, SOHO, and Little Italy in just a few hours? Then check out this guided tour!
Things to Do in New York City – High Line Walk
The High Line is a two mile stretch of old elevated subway tracks converted into a public park and space in Manhattan’s Lower West Side. This awesome “park” runs from 30th Street and 10th Avenue to a few blocks below 14th Street in Greenwich Village. Along the way you can get some sweet views of the Lower West Side, and the Hudson River.
We highly recommend you take a walk near sunset on a nice day, and walk from the south end to the north end. The north end of the High Line, near 30th street, can afford you some stunning sunset views, as the sun dips down into the Hudson River. A cool and free thing do in New York City for first time visitors and long term residents alike.
Explore the High Line & Hudson Yards on this guided two hour walking tour!
Things to Do in New York City – Roosevelt Island Skytram
“What’s on Roosevelt Island that is worth visiting?” you might ask. Good question! Most New Yorkers have no idea. We don’t either. As far as we can tell it’s just a collection of ugly brown apartment buildings, housing some 10,000 New Yorkers. However, what we DO know is that there is a SkyTram connecting Roosevelt Island to 59th street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. And we know that the SkyTram is totally worth getting on.
Taking this SkyTram costs just a single swipe of your MetroCard (so $2.75, or $5.50 round-trip) and you can get some really sweet views of Manhattan and Long Island City this way. Bring your camera and take the short trip.
Midtown Views from LIC or Greenpoint
There are many places along the East River where you can get prime views of Manhattan. The best will be found in Greenpoint, or Long Island City. You can also hit up Williamsburg, or DUMBO, for some sweet looks at the iconic Manhattan skyline.
We recommend you try this twice, once during the day, and once at night. There are plenty of places you can go out in Greenpoint and WIlliamsburg after you are done paying the skyline a night time visit. Another totally free and cool thing to do in New York City for first time visitors.
Eat a LOT of Pizza
We New Yorkers are pretty positive that we have the best slice of pizza you can buy anywhere in the world. A proper New York slice has thins (but crispy) crust, a flavorful sauce filled with garlic and yummy spices, and just the right amount of cheese. If your slice isn’t crispy, or if there is enough cheese on it to choke a baby, you aren’t eating a real slice of New York pizza.
There are about a billion places you can get a delicious slice, so we’ll leave the hunt up to you. Just follow the simple criteria listed above and you’ll find something delicious, we promise.
Oh, and by the way, pineapple doesn’t go on NYC pizza. That’s all we’ll say about that. Expect to pay $2.50 – $3.00 for your slice of authentic NYC pizza.
Check out The Vessel
As one of NYC’s newest attractions the curious structure known as the Vessel is absolutely worthy of a visit. Fascinating to look at from the outside, the true wonder of the Vessel is revealed when you entire within, and start climbing stairs towards the top. The honey-comb like nature of the design combined with the lower West Side Hudson River views make for an unforgettable experience.
For information tickets and visiting hours for the Vessel go here.
Visit One of NYC’s Great Bookstores
There are an amazing amount of awesome independent bookstores in New York City. If you are a book lover you owe it to yourself to visit a few of them. Lucky for you we even wrote an article about our favorite bookstores!
Visit Peter Pan Donuts, Brooklyn
Love donuts? Well then, head to Peter Pan Donuts in Greenpoint Brooklyn for freshly made delights. This old school donut shop is like stepping back in time to the 70’s, complete with $1.00 coffee in authentic NYC coffee cups.
After you are done gorging yourself, take a stroll down to the East River for some prime views of the Manhattan skyline.
Catch a Broadway Show
Hamilton. The Lion King. Wicked. Phantom of the Opera. And so much much more. From Broadway all the way to Off Off Broadway, New York City has an unmatched theater scene.
Whether you have an urge to see a pop culture phenomenon in a massive theater or an independent production on a tiny stage, there is something for all theater lovers in NYC.
Enjoy the show!
New York City Has a Lot of Sports Teams. Go See One.
Sports fans, rejoice. Catching one of these teams is certainly one of the things to do in New York.
The Knicks, the Yankees, the Mets, the Giants, the Jets, the Rangers, the Nets, the Islanders, the NYCFC, the Liberty…did we miss anyone? We might have. Anyway, you the get point. We have a LOT of sports teams based in New York or in the surrounding area (such as New Jersey and Long Island).
Whether you like basketball, baseball, football, soccer, or hockey there is something year round you can partake in. Any team playing in Madison Square Garden will cost a pretty penny, but some teams can be watched for pretty decent prices.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
A stirring tribute and remembrance to all the men, women, and children who lost their lives on the horrible day that was September 11th, 2001. Pay your respects and marvel at human resilience while you are at it.
While you are down near One World Trade pass by St. Paul’s Chapel. After September 11, 2001, St. Paul’s became the site of a relief ministry for rescue and recovery workers. It is a minor miracle that while the skyscrapers were collapsing just across the street there was no practically damage done to St. Paul’s Chapel. Due to this the church was nicknamed “the little chapel that stood”, and has earned a bit of a legendary reputation.
Things to Do in NYC – Check Out Grand Central Station
Historic Grand Central Station is one of the more impressive public spaces in New York City. It’s also a good location to add to your Instagram collection.
You can pass through here on your way to many other destinations, so GCS is worth at least 15 minutes of your time or you can even take a guided tour if you want to learn all about the history and its hidden attractions.
Things to See in New York City – The Flatiron Building
The Flatiron Building is one of the most iconic buildings in New York City. Built in 1902 this used to be one of the tallest buildings in New York City, and it is still, to this day, one of the most unique buildings in the Big Apple. Definitely check it out, or even take this awesome Flatiron Food, History & Architecture Tour.
Whelp, there you have it guys, that’s our guide to NYC for first time visitors. There are a million other things you can do in NYC, and a billion things to spend your money on, but this guide should be a great place to get started in your explorations. We hope we have given you some ideas on what to do in our hometown of NYC.
If you want to save a few bucks visiting some of NYC’s best destinations you might want to consider the The New York Pass that gives you free entry to 100+ iconic attractions.
Where to Stay in New York City
Boutique Hotel in New York City – Ludlow Hotel in the Lower East Side
If you can afford to splash out in New York City and want to stay far away from the uber touristy areas like Times Square, there is no better hotel to opt for than the Ludlow Hotel in the Lower East Side. Rooms have spectacular views of the city’s iconic skyscrapers, hardwood floors, artisan-crafted Moroccan lamps, and minibars with local products. Luxurious ensuite bathrooms include marble counter-tops, brass fixtures, soaking tubs, and heavenly rain showers.
Additionally, unlike most hotels in NYC wifi access is free of charge in every guest room. If you want to be social after a long day exploring the city the hotel has a lovely garden and lobby bar and lounge. Of course there is also a fitness center. For the best prices at the Ludlow Hotel click here.
Best Hostel in New York City – The Local NYC
If, like us, budget travel is more your style don’t fret. Staying in a fabulous budget friendly hostel in NYC is an option. The Local NYC is likely the best hostel in New York City. The Long Island City (that’s Queens) hostel is located right across the East River from Midtown and is only a 10 minute subway ride away from 5th Avenue in Manhattan.
The hostel has a lovely rooftop patio with skyline views of Manhattan, large and immaculately clean rooms with lockers and uber comfy mattresses, and an onsite bar for mingling or to enjoy live music and locally crafted brews on tap. For the cheapest prices at The Local NYC click here.
As always, happy travels, and we’ll see you on the road!
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3 thoughts on “36 Cool Things to Do in New York City For a First Time Visitor”
Hi Randi and Michael, what can you suggest the best to visit in NYC for half a day tour? Is it possible?
Happy New Year!
A half day tour of NYC would be a whirlwind affair, indeed. This is a very hard question to answer as it depends a lot about your personal interests. However, one thing we definitely think you should NOT miss out on is visiting the Empire State or Rock Center observatories!
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