Are you a New York City first-timer? Did you finally decide to go to New York City soon? Great plan! I am sure you will love it. I have been to New York five times now and I am determined to go again next year. This city is addictive you know!
In this blog
Read on if you are interested in:
- Mobile friendly map
- The best must-see highlights (including ticket links)
- Free things to do/see
- Fun tours
- Where to eat
- Roof top bars
- Out of Manhattan
- When to go
- How to get there & around
- Where to stay (link to next blog)
So let’s start with a bit of orientation and preparation. That is super important as a New York City first-timer! I created below a mobile friendly map with my favorite highlights, roof top bars, hotels, shops, etc. in New York City. You can check and uncheck the various categories based on your interests. You can save the map via Google Drive to use it on Google Maps on your smartphone for example.
It makes sense that if you visit this city for the first time, you want to see at least the main highlights, right? But what are the most interesting ones? Let’s start with my favorite highlights in NYC that require an entrance ticket. Tip: get your e-tickets in advance to skip the longest waiting lines. Click on a colored word/sentence for more info and tickets.
- Empire State Building
- Statue of Liberty
- Ellis Island
- 9/11 Memorial Museum and Ground Zero
- One World Trade Center Observatory
- Top of The Rock
- Broadway musical
Personally I am not a museum type really. However, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the American Museum of Natural History are worth seeing if you have the time, especially on a very cold or rainy day.
Free stuff in NYC
If you would continuously visit paid highlights in Manhattan, you could easily spend around 300 dollars a day just on entrance fees alone. Luckily there is lots and lots to see without paying anything for it. A smart idea is to combine the best of both. As a New York City first-timer you don’t want to get bankrupt, right? So here is some free stuff to do in New York City.
I love strolling around the park, escape the buzz of the city for awhile. New York City has a lot of parks to explore. These are my favorites, most in Manhattan.
- Central Park including Strawberry Fields (John Lennon Memorial)
- High Line
- Battery Park
- Hudson River Park
- Union Square Park
- Washington Square Park
- Prospect Park (Brooklyn)
Trinity Church, Cathedral Church of Saint John the divine and St. Patrick’s Cathedral are the most famous churches in Manhattan, for a reason. Go and check them out for free!
Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge… All photogenic! So check them out. Joining a Brooklyn Bridge Bike Tour is also great fun (but not free any more).
Tip: take a ride to the first metro station on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge called High St. and go back walking over the bridge towards Manhattan. Great view!
New York is full of landmarks and other beautiful buildings, squares, etc. that you can admire for free by foot or on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Times Square, Broadway, Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, Flatiron Building, Trump Tower, famous luxurious 5 star hotels like The Plaza and Waldorf-Astoria, etc.
I also liked visiting the campus of Columbia University in the Upper West Side. There was a graduation going on. Once I even looked into applying, but the 55K tuition was a bit above budget…
TV shows on the street
NBC’s TODAY and several other TV programs are recorded right on the streets of Manhattan. And you can join the excitement for free! Just go there and check it out! The same can be the case for some movie premieres. In this way I saw the Backstreet Boys and the full cast of Sex & The City 2, right in front of my nose, for free!
Staten Island Ferry
You can take the free ferry to Staten Island from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan. THE opportunity to sail pass Miss Liberty without having to stand in line for hours or pay anything!
New York City first-timer or not, exploring the neighborhoods of Manhattan is always a good idea! I would suggest to explore one or a few neighborhoods each day to get a good impression of the daily life in New York City. The main neighborhoods are the following. You can also check them via the map above (it’s the last category, marked by hearts in the map). From north to south:
Harlem – Upper West Side – Upper East Side – Hell’s Kitchen – Midtown – Garment District – Murray Hill – Chelsea – Gramercy – Greenwich Village – East Village – SoHo – Little Italy – Lower East Side – TriBeCa – China Town – Financial District
Not for free but really a must-do when in New York City: shop till you drop! There are tons of department stores to scour, such as Saks 5th Ave, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Loehmann’s and Century 21, and shopping centers like the Rockefeller Centre with more than 100 stores and 40 eateries. You will see everyone walking around with the bags! Oh and of course Victoria’s Secret and the M&M’s World on Broadway!
Personally I love all the shoe shops in New York, there is so much choice! Here is your chance to finally see (and – if you can afford it – buy) a pair of Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo! Aldo and Steve Madden usually have lovely shoe collections too! One time I saw so many great shoes I decided to take photos of them on my feet as it would be impossible to take them all home!
Most of the shops mentioned are located between 6th Ave W 48th St and 3rd Ave E 63rd St, see also the map at the beginning of this article.
A good, experienced, local guide can be of great added value and learn you a lot about the city. Short in time? Special interest? Consider one of these tours. Click on a colored word/sentence for more info and tickets.
- New York in One Day Guided Sightseeing Tour
- Stories from the Dark Side of New York City with NYPD Guide
- Manhattan Sky Tour: New York Helicopter Flight
- Sex & The City Tour to follow the footsteps of Carry, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda!
- TV and Movie Locations Tour with Official NBC Studios Tour
- Harlem Wednesday-Morning Gospel Tour
- Harlem Soul Food and Jazz Evening Tour
- Best of Brooklyn Half-Day Food and Culture Tour
Where to eat in New York
There are so many restaurants in Manhattan that you will die before you can try all of them. From Russian to Jamaican to Polish to Nepalese, pretty much all kitchens from around the world are represented in Manhattan. Check Tripadvisor to find a restaurant of your choice. Or go to China Town or Little Italy if you are in the mood for Asian or Italian food. To me, always good places to eat or get a refreshing snack in NYC are: Hard Rock Cafe, Shake Shack, Jamba Juice, Pret-A-Manger or a roof top bar/restaurant (see below).
Roof top bars in Manhattan
Going for a drink, lunch or dinner at a roof top bar is always a good idea! Unless you are unlucky with the weather or try to get in at NYE without a reservation… Check these out (see also the map in this blog post):
- ART NoMad at Arlo NoMad
- 230 FIFTH
- Magic Hour at MOXY NYC
- Mr Purple
- Salon De Ning at The Peninsula
- The Roof at Public Hotel (215 Chrystie St)
- The Roof at Viceroy Central Park (57th)
- Upstairs at the Kimberly
- St. Cloud at The Knickerbocker
- The Crown
- Salvation Taco at Pod 39
- Sky Room NYC
- Gallow Green at McKittrick Hotel
In anyways, make reservations for any roof top bar/restaurant in time. During the week you might be able to get a spot a few hours in advance, but during the weekends, around the holidays, etc. you better make reservations earlier in advance, some places even months (NYE). Better safe than sorry! Also, if open at NYE, expect ticket prices for a NYE roof top party between US$75 and US$450 per person that night.
Out of Manhattan
If there is a Yankees Game it’s pretty safe to travel to the stadium in the Bronx by subway and foot. Join the Boroughs Tour: Harlem, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Coney Island if you also want to safely see something more of Queens and the Bronx.
Across the Brooklyn Bridge, in Brooklyn, check out Prospect Park. Brooklyn is hip and happening. There are also a bunch of nice roof top restaurants and bars in Brooklyn that offer great Manhattan view, such as Northern Territory, Westlight and 1 Roof top Garden Bar.
You can visit Coney Island and Little Odessa on your own ocassion by train. From Manhattan to Stillwell Avenue it takes app. 1 hour (D and Q lines are the fastest). Breathe some fresh air on Brighton Beach.
If you want to get out of New York to go somewhere different and have the time: take a day trip to Philadelphia! I did this once. It’s only a 1.5 hours train ride away (from Penn Station).
When to go to New York
My favorite times to visit NYC are the first half of May and the second half of September. Moreover when you are a New York City first-timer, timing is important to enjoy the city as much as possible. Pleasant temperatures, parks in full bloom or in beautiful autumn colors, not too crowded, perfect!
In the summer months NYC can also be fun but it often gets too hot (35°C+). Then at least make sure you book a hotel with air-conditioning and go ice cream shop hopping! Nowadays, New York has four months a year when the temperature does not drop below 30 degrees Celsius so a hotel room without air-conditioning is simply unbearable during summer.
Autumn can be a great time to go to New York as well, especially the parks are beautiful with yellow, orange and red colored leaves. Mid-September, early October, it’s not so hot and not so cold any more, I’d say: go for it!
Going mid-December, before Christmas starts, is a special time in New York too. Magical with everything lit up and festively decorated. The downside is that outside it can get terribly cold and the leaves have fallen off the trees. Luckily the shops and restaurants are warm. A great way to get into the holiday spirit. Just make sure you go home at least a few days before Christmas, before it becomes one big madhouse in NYC. Read more about why I would not recommend to go to NYC with NYE.
How to get there & around
A convenient way to get around in NYC is by metro and/or double-decker bus. To start with, get yourself:
- 24, 48 or 72 hour metro pass, it’s much more beneficial than paying for single rides.
- BIG BUS Hop-On Hop-Off bus ticket for 2 hours, 1 day or 2 days.
You will walk around a lot any way. Unless you can afford a Private Chauffeured Escalade tour?! LOL
You can use the map above on your mobile phone to find everything easily. Before booking book a hotel, check out in advance how far the closest metro station is and whether it’s a central line or not. This can save you a lot of time getting somewhere in the morning. You can easily download a map of the metro system at MTA (PDF) and safe it on your phone or download an app.
After midnight take a taxi. Simply hail an available taxi (sign lit up) by raising your hand from or just off the side walk. Pay the ride cash or check whether there is a credit card sign on it (before stepping in). Uber is another convenient way to get around NYC.
Guided tours are a great way of seeing and learning more about a city than you ever thought you would. Especially for a New York City first-timer! Or get at least (skip the line) tickets in advance not to waste any time. Some recommendations below.
From/to the airport
As a New York City first-timer you may wonder the best way to travel between the airport and your accommodation in Manhattan.
- From/to JFK airport most of the times I took a yellow taxi Manhattan. Nowadays we have Uber, which is usually cheaper (US$35-45) than a regular yellow taxi (US$50-60) to Manhattan. Taxi is convenient unless you get into a traffic jam, but somehow I never did.
- Booking a (shared) shuttle from/to the airport is a relatively cheap option that I used a few times and it’s great yet usually a little more time consuming than taxi or Uber. If you are lucky, you are the one the shuttle drops off first or picks up last. I prefer shuttle above public transport from/to the airport as it’s door-to-door service.
- Traveling by public transport (AirTrain) from JFK is the cheapest (under US$8) but requires multiple transfers which is inconvenient with suitcases. However, if road traffic is bad, public transport ain’t such a bad option after all.
- From Newark airport I usually take the NJ Transit train to Penn Station in Midtown, Manhattan and then walk, take the metro or a taxi from Penn Station to my hotel.
For flights to NYC check out Skyscanner. There are basically three airports you can use: John F. Kennedy (JFK), La Guardia and Newark (in New Jersey). See also the map in this blog post.
1st time in NYC
Are you a New York City first-timer? Then please take some basic advise from me, a fellow NYC lover with some experience:
- Come as long as possible, there is sooooo much to see! 3 days is really not enough…
- Take the list of all you want to see and cut it into half. Take it easy. You will come back anyway.
- Bring some good walking shoes, clothes matching the forecasted weather and a thick wallet.
- Read this article and book the activities/tours that you want to do in advance.
- Copy the map in this article to Google Maps on your smartphone via Google Drive.
I still remember the first time I went to New York City. Yay, so exciting! Skyscrapers, parks, taxis, hot dogs, billboards, all the things that you saw on TV, you will see for real! This is what you dream about, right? I had just turned 21, honestly, I was still such a travel baby back then. Taking my first steps into the big world.
Reality check: after an eight hour flight, 6 hours of time difference, cold and windy mid-December days, overwhelmed by first impressions. New York City is fabulous, there is no other place like it. However, walking miles and miles, waiting in lines, soaking it all in – it takes a toll on your energy level, whether you like it or not. The first couple of nights I spontaneously fell asleep before 8pm! What a party pooper.
So do yourself a favor and try to take it easy. I know, I know. Not an easy thing to do. Yet essential to really enjoy it. Hopefully this blog post will help you to make choices yet get the most out of your NYC trip. You will come back anyway.
More NYC info
Please also check out my two other articles about New York City:
- New York City is fabulous – just don’t go with New Years Eve (plus tips if you do)
- Where to stay in New York City: my favorite NYC hotel collection
Last update: October 2019
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