Destinations USA

Highlights of New York City – A Guide For First Time Visitors

So you’re going to New York City for the first time but what to see and do. The chances are you are visiting on a city break and only have a few days, so don’t try and do everything. You will fall in love with the place and we’re sure this will be your first of many trips.

I know the hipsters will say, ‘forget the tourist attractions, you must visit the fruitarian cafe in Brooklyn or some other dull coffee shop’. Ignore those comments, you can do those on your fifth trip. When you do visit a city for the first time you do want to see the iconic sights, after all, that is why the city is famous in the first place. Here is a very interesting article from the Telegraph relating to this.

For the first trip, we will look at the most famous of New York’s five boroughs, Manhattan. Its sky scrappers, avenues of yellow taxis and the bright lights of Broadway are the images that probably come to mind and yes, it is like that. From the moment you step out, these sights and the frantic soundtrack of the traffic all seem strangely familiar.

In no particular order here are our highlights and some useful tips for the first time visitor to NYC.

1. The Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center, NYC

Situated between 48th and 51st streets, just off Fifth Avenue is the Art Deco Rockefeller Center. Take a trip to the Top of the Rock observation deck on the 70th floor to get that perfect view of the city. We prefer this view than the nearby Empire State Building because it is often not as busy, the 360-degree views are stunning and as you are not on top of the Empire State Building you get great views of it.

Although not quite as busy as the Empire State Building it does get very busy at certain times of the year so make sure you book your tickets online. As there are pre-show videos, an obligatory photograph and a limited number of lifts it can still take quite a long time to get to the top. However, once you’re there you can spend as long as you like and it is quite spacious.

2. Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal

The Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan

Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street, as seen in so many films including The Fisher King, North by Northwest and Men in Black. We love the scene in The Fisher King when the commuters and the concourse transform into a ballroom dance. It is far better than most stations with its unmistakable clock and over 90 shops & restaurants. It was nearly lost to the developers in the 60’s, luckily it avoided the fate of Penn Station, they made a right ugly mess of that.

As I was corrected on, it is a terminal and not a station as it is the final stop. Obviously, avoid the morning and evening rush hours so you can meander without getting in the way of tired, short-tempered New Yorkers.

3. One World Trade Center And The National September 11 Memorial
One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center, Lower Manhattan, New York City

In the shadow of the gleaming new tower of One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) is the 911 Memorial, two reflecting pools sit in the footprints of the Twin Towers. If you feel up to it, visit the 911 Memorial. It poignantly displays artefacts, personal items and recordings from the events of 2001. We used a New York CityPASS to bypass the queues and save money on admission, and it’s well worth considering if you are taking in a few of New York’s main attractions.

4. Walk The Brooklyn Bridge
New York Taxis

The famous New York yellow cabs crossing the Brooklyn Bridge

Only 15 minutes walk from the One World Trade Center is the magnificent 19th century Brooklyn Bridge looking just like it does in all those Ikea posters. The central walkway sits above the roadway and can be narrow in parts as you have to share it with cyclists. Like so many city cyclists they are sometimes not the most pleasant of individuals especially if you step out of the pedestrian zone by a few millimetres.

If the weather is fine then try to walk the complete length of the bridge to Brooklyn, you get some great views of Lower Manhattan.

The Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge

5. Central Park
Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland in Central Park

No longer the rubbish strewn, graffiti-tagged park of the 70’s and 80’s, Central Park is now a beautiful sanctuary of peace away from the stress of the city. Busking violinists have replaced the drug dealers.

6. The American Museum of Natural History
Dum Dum Night at the Museum

‘Dum Dum’ at the American Museum of Natural History

The impressively large American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s a perfect place to spend the day especially if the weather isn’t so good. What is unusual are the number of dioramas showing landscapes and animals from around the year and classic scenes from history. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay until closing time to see if it all came to life as in ‘Night at the Museum’. We did download their app which does have a ‘Night at the Museum’ tour which takes you around all the characters featured in the film including Rexy the T-Rex, Dexter the monkey and of course “Dum Dum’ the Easter Island head.

7. The High Line
The High Line NYC

The High Line from the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street

The High Line is a one and a half mile walkway and park on an old converted elevated railroad stretching from the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, they still have sections of the old track alongside the walkway. Walking the High Line is a perfect thing to do on a sunny afternoon, relax and watch the pandemonium of the New York rush hour streets unfold below you.

Honourable Mentions

Times Square: You must visit at night to get the full experience of Times Square, very touristy and full of aggressive Elmos but definitely a ‘must visit’, well at least for 20 minutes.

Statue of Liberty: Not quite as big as you probably imagine but it is THE symbol of NYC and America. One of the best ways to see it is from the free Staten Island Ferry which runs every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day from the Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan.

Metropolitan Museum of Art: With over 2 million works of art we’re sure you’ll find something you like. It houses the ancient Egyptian papyrus, Imhotep’s Book of the Dead, it’s worth visiting just for this.

Broadway Shows: Although we’re not big fans of musicals, usually too much overacting and shouty songs, there are some we are partial to. Even if you are not a big fan you must try a night out on Broadway, the home of musicals.

Do you have any tips for the first time visitor to New York or if you ware visiting soon, what are you most looking forward to? Let us know below.

Read more: Should you visit New York in the winter?

Highlights of New York City,. A guide for first time visitors

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  • Sreekar
    March 3, 2018 at 10:47 am

    Wow. Just the post I have been looking for. Will come in handy when I travel this summer. Good to know that we can fit in so much in short trips too! So many must sees on that list!

    • Mr and Mrs W
      March 3, 2018 at 10:57 am

      New York is actually quite a walkable city and you can see quite a lot in a small area. Walking can also be much quicker than taxis.

  • Anne
    March 3, 2018 at 11:31 am

    My favourite thing to do for first time visitors is the Empire State Building. It has got super expensive though since I was first in New York. An alternative is to take the helicopter tour which is still surprisingly good value. I really want to visit the memorial and one tower though on my next visit

    • Mr and Mrs W
      March 5, 2018 at 11:08 am

      Yes, the helicopter trip is pretty good. The 911 memorial is definitely worth a trip on your next visit.

  • Michela of Rocky Travel
    March 3, 2018 at 3:03 pm

    I just realised that I last visited New York 18 years ago! So I’d really like to go back and see more of this amazing city. The 911 Memorial, and the High Line too. Plus the modern art museums in New York which are some of the best in the world!

    • Mr and Mrs W
      March 5, 2018 at 11:09 am

      There is so much to do in New York and you do need to go back. We love visiting the modern art museums but just didn’t have time this visit,

  • Mei
    March 3, 2018 at 3:09 pm

    I’m so glad that the High Line and the American Museum of Natural History are both among your hightlights! Because these two were our highlights when we visited NYC! 😀 We also went to the Brooklyn Bridge, but it was way too hot to walk the complete lenght. So we need to return to NY even if just for that. LOL. The 9/11 Memorial was also unique, even if kinda harsh…

    • Mr and Mrs W
      March 6, 2018 at 10:10 am

      We had some really nice weather at the end of October early November so was perfect for walking the High Line and the Brooklyn Bridge.

  • Claire
    March 3, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    You’re totally right, on a first visit to a city, you should do the top sights, and throw in a few personal things that mean something more to you. I’d love to go to the American History museum, I want to see Dum Dum! And the Statue of Liberty of course. Well, everything on the list really!!

    • Mr and Mrs W
      March 6, 2018 at 10:12 am

      There was so much more to do as well but you just can’t do everything. We just have to go back soon.

  • Danik
    March 3, 2018 at 5:14 pm

    Totally agree with this list. I love New York city, so much to do and see. But I do love the parks and walking around the water front and the bridges over it like Brookyln. Get me back there in a flash.

  • Jenn and Ed Coleman
    March 4, 2018 at 11:56 am

    I think there is a certain set of travelers that forget to you advice to see the famous sites first. You can (and will) eventually find your favorite fruitstarian cafe, but starting there seems like putting the cart before the horse. I have seen Samantha Brown speak on several occasions and she echos your same thoughts. She adds build a routine (like morning coffee in a local cafe) and make sure to take a walk around the highlights. I think it’s in these excursions that your new favorite fruitarian cafe can find you.

  • Simon
    March 5, 2018 at 11:02 am

    All iconic and must-see if you’re heading to New York City. I agree with you as well, you have to check these out on your first trip. Central Park is on the top of my NYC list of places to visit though.

  • Meg Jerrard
    March 6, 2018 at 1:09 am

    This is a fabulous guide for first time visitors – New York is iconic, but I remember my first trip was intimidating trying to plan out and remember all the sights I wanted to see – there are so many iconic spots! For that reason, you make an excellent point about not trying to see everything, it’s harder of course when you’re on the other side of the world and a trip is a big deal, but if you’re in the States I totally agree that it’s a place which required multiple trips back! Even though I’ve been a couple of times now I still haven’t done things like walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ll have to add that to the list for my next trip, thanks for the tip!

  • Lucy
    March 6, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    New York has been on my bucket list for years! You have whet my appetite even more. I would like to see the tourist destinations as this is what I have seen in the movies! The Rockefeller, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge are all on the list.

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  • Emmalene
    March 12, 2018 at 8:10 pm

    Great tips, we definitely tried to fit everything in two days, not leaving us time to do the things we really wanted to do. I’d like to think we’ll do a second visit soon and won’t have to touch midtown Manhattan at all