10 Must-See New York Sights and Attractions for First-Time Visitors

New York from Empire State Building

New York from Empire State Building

10 Must-See New York Sights and Attractions for First-Time Visitors


You could spend weeks exploring “The Big Apple”. However most visitors usually have a handful of days to immerse and explore this exciting city. This is why I developed this 10 Must-see list for first-time visitors.

They are based on my time living and working there, and the dozens of trips that I have made there over the past twenty years – often with people going there for their first taste. My most recent journey was taking my partner’s parents who have had it on their wish list for decades and asked me to design an itinerary. They wanted one that gave them a typical New York experience while not breaking the bank.

Statue of Liberty New York

Statue of Liberty New York

What do you need to know as a first-time visitor?

  1. New York Hotels can be expensive (and the rooms small), so you need to plan for it. Although there are over 100,000 rooms in Manhattan, it can be a challenge to find reasonable priced ones at times, like in the run up to Christmas or when there is a major conference in town. You need to (1) agree a decent budget for accommodation which may be higher than you usually like to spend and (2) book as far in advance to lock in deals.
  2. It’s challenging to rely on public transport to get to and from the airports. It is really difficult too use public transport from the airports into Manhattan as there is no direct links. There is a bus service but the easiest is to use a cab, or pre-book a transfer. The cab fare is a fixed fee and so you can be confident you will not be ripped off. They change over time but are around $40.
  3. New York is busy, noisy, exciting but can be tiring. Do not over schedule your itinerary and allow some downtime to just sit back and soak it all in. If travelling from Europe you will probably wake up early due to jet lag and so may get tired by the end of the day. Don’t over commit and wear yourself out. I recommend a five or six day trip to see all the sights I recommend ideally.
  4. The subway is not as scary or dangerous as people think it is. Get down underground and travel on the subway. It is the cheap way to get around the city, easy to work out and you will get a feel for how New Yorkers are and live. Like any major public transport system, be sensible and stick with the crowds and busy times.
  5. Pre-book your sightseeing. Most of the things I recommend doing can be pre-booked and I recommend you doing so, especially if you are visiting in the busy summer months or run up to Christmas or you may find you cannot get in when you want, or lose time waiting in line or for an allocated time.
New York at night from "Top of the Rock"

New York at night from “Top of the Rock”

 What are the 10 things you should see and do in New York as a first-time visitor?

  1. Circle Line “Best of New York” Tour. Do this on your first morning or afternoon after arriving in New York. It is a 2.5-hour boat ride around the entire island of Manhattan with commentary. It will give you great views of the skyline, Statue of Liberty and immerse you into the history, layout and trivia of the city. If you only follow one recommendation from my list this should be it. More at: https://www.circleline42.com
  2. Times Square. You will want to visit this landmark site that you will have seen in films, TV shows and publicity for the city. It is at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, and stretches from West 42nd to West 47th Streets. In reality it is a bit grubby and always packed, but taking a picture of you in this famous location is a must. It is the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Avoid the restaurants and shops here as they are all geared to taking the most from the tourist in my view. The official site is http://www.timessquarenyc.org
  3. Empire State Building. Built in the 1930s this is an icon and a must-visit. It gets very busy and so aim to go there first thing and consider booking the Fast-Pass. It is better to spend a bit more and not lose valuable sightseeing time in lines. Find out more at http://www.esbnyc.com
  4. Macy’s. Located across the road from the Empire State Building is the World’s Largest Department Store. It stretches across a city block and can be a bit confusing as is series of connected buildings. It is an institution and a must for shopping. As a foreign visitor you can get a discount card for almost all purchases from the help desk. More at http://l.macys.com/new-york-ny. If you want an up-market department store then visit the other New York institution that is Bloomingdales too.
  5. 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This is a sobering and moving experience. Since the events of September 11 are such a significant event in the history of the city I recommend a visit. The fountains are magnificent, and built in the footprint of the original towers. The museum takes you underneath where the original towers were and has mementos, stories from the people and families and items from the recovery process.  It is best to pre-book and get a time to visit at http://www.911memorial.org. If you want to see another take on New York from up high you should also visit the new One World Observatory located on top of the One World Trade Center that was built to replace the destroyed towers https://oneworldobservatory.com
  6. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. These are two significant New York icons. Ellis Island is where all immigrants were processed before entering New York from Europe between 1892 and 1954, with over 12 million people passing through. The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and dedicated in 1886. You catch the ferryboat from Battery Park that takes you to both. There are many different ticket permutations from just visiting through to climbing to the top of the Statue. I strongly recommend booking an early boat to avoid crowds at both sites. You can see the options and book tickets at http://www.statueoflibertytickets.com
  7. The Highline. This is one of the really innovative sights in the city. It is a park that has been created along an abandoned above-the-ground railway line in lower Manhattan. There are places to sit, areas that host entertainment and various food and craft stalls. It has become a much-loved space for locals and visitors. I was sceptical about it but became a huge fan after visiting it. Find out more at http://www.thehighline.org
  8. See a Broadway Show. London’s West End and New York’s Broadway are the two most important centres of live theatre in the world. Going to a show while here is part of the total experience. Famous names from film and TV are usually starring in one of the New York plays, and musicals are always in plenty. Tickets can be pricey and while it is worth checking out what is on at sites like Ticketmaster (http://www.ticketmaster.com) before you go, a way to see a show at lower cost is through the TKTS booths fitted around Times Square that sell same day discounted tickets for shows that are not sold out. Visit https://www.tdf.org for more.
  9. Central Park. Another New York iconic location. This vast park is over 778 acres and offers welcome relief from the busy city. It stretches all the way from North 110th Street to Central Park South (59th Street), and from Central Park West (8th Avenue) to 5th Ave. A great way to explore is hiring bicycles, which you will find at the entrances at the bottom of the park or in shops around it. There are different paths to follow with places to get refreshments and relax. The official site is http://www.centralparknyc.org. Running along the side of the park is museum row with many of the city’s most significant museums including American Museum of Natural History, Guggenheim Museum and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  10. Rockefeller Center and Top Of The Rock. The last iconic site I recommend on your itinerary is another you will instantly recognise from films and TV. The Rockefeller family built this complex in the 1930s. It is in Midtown Manhattan between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. It includes the famous Radio City Music Hall, Top of the Rock Observation Platform (highly recommend going up it at night), NBC TV studios and tour and the plaza where a vast Christmas tree and ice-skating rink is set up every winter. Find out more at https://www.rockefellercenter.com

Final thought

New York is exciting and thrilling. It does really never go to sleep and there is so much more to see than my ten top must-see tips. Once you have been once you will want to go back.

Additional Resources

Listen to my Tips For Travellers New York Podcast which gives more detail on all of the must-see places as well as additional tips and a history of the city: http://directory.libsyn.com/episode/index/id/3328581

New York Time Square

This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.

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10 Must See New York Sights

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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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