On the front end of last summer’s Europe trip, we spent four days in New York City. While I lived in Manhattan in my early 20s, it was our niece Kiva’s inaugural visit to the Big Apple. So as to show her the highlights over a long weekend, we planned an epic first time in New York itinerary for her, perfect for teens, adults and children alike.
Where to stay in New York City
If it’s your first time in New York, you’ll likely want to stay somewhere central that makes it easy to bop around Manhattan island without a lot of time spent in transit. If your budget affords you a stay at the Plaza Hotel, you should absolutely take it. If not, staying at a vacation rental in Greenwich Village or a hotel in Midtown Manhattan are other great options.
If you’re trying to do NYC on the cheap(er), you’ll find better deals over the river in Hoboken or higher the street number you go in Manhattan (e.g. above 86th Street).
How to get around New York City
Whether it’s your first time in New York or you’re a pro at getting around the city, you have options for transit; it’s one of the best things about NYC, in my opinion. I still default to traditional yellow cabs if I’m taking above-ground transportation. They’re usually quicker than waiting for an Uber or Lyft.
However, if you’re staying in Manhattan and are located off of a metro line, the subway is the way to go. It’s efficient, and it’s much faster than sitting in car traffic. Even better, now you can use Google Maps to figure out your subway route to your destination.
What to do on your first visit to New York City
There are so many things to do on your first time to NYC, your biggest problem is going to be narrowing them down, which is why I’ve compiled a greatest hits list from 25 years of visiting our nation’s cultural capital, as well as broken it down by neighborhood for you. Depending on how many paid attractions you decide on, it may be worth buying a New York: CityPASS to get discounts for many of them.
1. Take the ferry to Staten Island
Taking the ferry from the tip of Manhattan in the Battery over to Staten Island and back is not only a great first-day activity for getting your bearings, but it’s free! I love this breezy boat ride in summer months, and it was a great intro to the city for our niece. If you don’t have time to visit the Statue of Liberty, you’ll still get to see it from the ferry.
The ride takes about 25 minutes and is very pleasant in warm weather. Once you arrive in Staten Island, you’ll get off the ferry, walk around and re-board to ride it back to Manhattan. The ferry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so no matter when you arrive at the terminal, you shouldn’t have to wait more than a half an hour for a boat.
2. Walk through the Oculus
The Oculus, a transportation hub and shopping mall, was built as a response to the September 11 attacks as a way to bring people back to Downtown Manhattan. It’s also a stunning piece of art meant to demonstrate New York’s resilience. You can take the subway to the station when headed downtown or simply wander through it when you’re visiting the 9/11 Memorial.
3. Visit the World Trade Center
Adjacent to the Oculus, the former site of the Twin Towers is now World Trade Center, 16 acres of sprawl and urban development with an abundance of shopping and dining. While there, pay tribute to the victims of the September 11 attacks at the outdoor 9/11 Memorial and take some time to go through the museum.
4. Walk the length of Wall Street
There isn’t a lot to do on Wall Street per se, and it’s a quick trip to walk it at length, but it’s cool to see The New York Stock Exchange at 11 Wall Street from the outside and imagine what it’s like to hear that iconic bell ring (tours of the inside are no longer open to the public). If you’re a history nerd or finance geek, there are insider tours of Wall Street worth looking into.
5. Grab lunch at Eataly
A New York institution with Italian roots, Eataly is a culinary adventure and journey through high-quality food that originated in Torino, Italy. There’s now a location in downtown Manhattan, and we found it a perfect spot for grabbing lunch amid our walking tour of Wall Street, Battery Park, Staten Island and World Trade Center.
6. Visit the Statue of Liberty
Often, a trip to New York for the first time will include a visit to the Statue of Liberty, as well it should. A gift from France, it was placed on Liberty Island during America’s centennial and has become symbolic of the American Dream. Many tours offer a combo ticket to the Statue and Ellis Island.
7. Check out the view from the 91st floor of One Vanderbilt
By far, the coolest thing we did in NYC with my niece was go up to the top of SUMMIT One Vanderbilt in Midtown Manhattan. I personally think it has even better views than the Empire State Building. You can get tickets here, and you definitely want to purchase them in advance.
8. Peek into Grand Central Station
After you leave the SUMMIT, take a stroll into Grand Central Station right next door. This Beaux-Arts beauty first opened in 1913 and, aside from being a transit hub, also houses shops, restaurants and more.
9. See a show on Broadway
We’re big theater fans in my family, so no trip to New York is complete without a Broadway show. On our last visit, we were fortunate enough to see Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in Music Man, which has since closed. For discounted tickets, try the lottery system the day of the show or visit one of the TKTS booth in Times Square or Lincoln Center for a shot at unsold seats at a steep discount.
10. Experience Times Square after dark
I can’t believe I’m actually telling you to do this, but every first timer to New York has to see Times Square at least once, and I prefer it under a cloak of darkness, the neon lights illuminating the throngs of bodies in awe of this spectacle. Since my time working in Times Square, the area has been shut down to traffic and as a pedestrian plaza is now much easier to navigate on foot.
11. Indulge in cheesecake from Junior’s
Cheesecake in the Theater District is kind of a rite of passage. Are there less touristy cheesecake restaurants than Junior’s? Definitely. Does that mean you shouldn’t grab cheesecake there after your Broadway show? Absolutely not. The Times Square walk-up window is perfect for grabbing a slice to go.
12. Stroll through Central Park
There’s no better way to kill time in New York than checking out the iconic 843-acre park that sits right in the center of the city. I love getting off at the 81st exit by the Museum of Natural History and walking to Sheep Meadow and Belvedere Castle. If you’re traveling with kids, you may add in a detour to Central Park Zoo while you’re in the area.
13. Spend some time exploring Museum Mile
Depending on the age of the group you’re traveling to NYC with, you may want to factor the American Museum of Natural History (the one with the giant T-Rex skeleton), the Guggenheim, the Met, the MOMA and/or the Whitney into your plans. Each of these activities will take a solid three hours, so if you’re limited on time—or traveling with littles—I’d pick one museum as your afternoon plan, then unwind in Central Park afterward.
14. Take a walk down Fifth Avenue
You may not be able to afford anything, but window-shopping on Fifth Avenue is an adventure in itself. Fifth Avenue not only boasts Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Armani, Bergdorf Goodman and other department stores known for their tricked-out window displays—plus, American Girl Place for all you parents out there—but it’s also home to architectural marvels like St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
15. Pop into FAO Schwartz
While you’re on your 5th Avenue shopping spree, be sure and stop by FAO Schwarz, which originally opened in 1870 and long reigned as largest toy store in New York City. Though the original flagship store on Fifth Avenue that was the setting for many a movie scene like the famed keyboard dance in BIG closed a few years back, a new one has since opened on Rockefeller Plaza.
16. Visit Rockefeller Plaza
Home to the storied 30 Rock, Rockefeller Center most famously has the giant Christmas tree and ice skating rink during the holidays, but this 19-building complex spans 22 acres between 48th and 51st streets and has plenty of places to dine, shop and stroll.
17. Explore Chelsea Market
One of Manhattan’s many trendy neighborhoods, Chelsea is the city’s art district, and it’s not only brimming with galleries but it boasts Chelsea Market, which occupies the former National Biscuit Company factory building. Today, it’s full of eateries, shops, tech and start-up business and is a great place to go for a wander and pick up a distinctly New York souvenir. It also routinely hosts pop-up art markets and experiential shows like the current MAGENTAVERSE.
18. Walk the High Line
Attached to Chelsea Market, the High Line is an elevated green space built on an abandoned elevated railroad track and peppered with well-manicured gardens and art installations of all kinds. Just shy of 1.5 miles, the High Line runs from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street along the west side of Manhattan. I highly recommend walking the length of it, as every section offers different perspectives of the city and its residents.
The High Line ends at Hudson Yards, the largest mixed-use private real estate venture in American history, and the Vessel, currently closed to the public.
19. Eat dim sum in Chinatown
Is your crew full of adventurous eaters? Then you must take them to Chinatown for the best dim sum and noodles in Manhattan. Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Little Alley, Jing Fong, Pinch, House of Joy—there are so many delightful places to get dim sum in NYC, you really can’t go wrong with where you choose.
20. Have a slice of New York-style pizza
Dim sum not your thing? Maybe pizza is! You’ll find New York-style pizza by the slice on pretty much every block in Manhattan, but I’ve always been partial to John’s on Bleecker simply because I used to live down the street. Little Italy is another obvious choice for pizza.
21. Track down as many Kobra murals as you can
Love street art? Then you’ve likely seen the work of Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra even if you don’t know his name. He’s got dozens of murals across Manhattan and Brooklyn, and they’re eye-catching and make for great photo backdrops. Even if you don’t know much about art, you’ll start to spy a trend with all the Kobra murals sprinkled throughout the city that depict notable figures like Mother Teresa, Gandhi and David Bowie.
22. Brunch in the West Village
Hands down the thing I miss most about living in NYC is the weekend brunch culture, and nothing gives you the vibe as nabbing a table al fresco in the West Village. I have so many favorites—Jack’s Wife Freda, Jane Restaurant, Little Owl—but wherever you can get in will give you a good taste of what it’s like to live in NYC. And be sure you stroll down Cornelia Street while you’re in the neighborhood, particularly if you’re a Taylor Swift fan.
23. See the Friends apartment building
I had no idea teens these days were into Friends, but my niece got as big a kick out of seeing 90 Bedford Street that Monica, Joey, Chandler, Rachel, Phoebe and Ross once called home as I did the first time I visited New York. If you’re an uber-fan, there’s the ultimate Friends experience you can book.
24. Ride the subway
Even if you throw in the towel and decide to get around by cab in New York, you have to take the subway at least once. My tip? Hop one of the north-to-south lines like the 1 (red) or A/C (blue) and take it from one tip of the island to the other.
Pro tip: New York subway stops all have tap-to-go entry, so you can simply tap your credit card or phone at the turnstiles and waltz right through without having to fool with the kiosk. The same goes for the buses.
25. Stroll the waterfront at Brooklyn
One thing I didn’t do enough during my time living in New York was go to Brooklyn despite it being fairly well-connected by subway. Now, I sometimes stay on that side of the river as it’s where many of my friends live, and its views from Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO offer such a gorgeous perspective of the NYC skyline that Brooklyn absolutely makes it onto my first-timers list.
There are so many things to do in NYC, you won’t have trouble filling your days. On subsequent visits, you may decide to go shopping in Soho or kick it in Union Square, but the above is everything we were able to cram into a long weekend on my niece’s first time in NYC.
If you’ve visited before, what was your favorite thing you did during your first time in New York? What should I add to this list?