Has New York City captured your imagination with its sparkling night skyline, endless things to see and do, and nonstop energetic pulse? Whether you’re drawn to live here (like me!) or visit, there’s no denying the magnetizing pull to experience incredible NYC.
If you’re planning your first visit to New York City, this guide has everything you need to know. From itinerary ideas with maps, tips on where to stay and eat, and how to get around, you have everything you need to make your first visit to New York City an absolute success!
Arrival into New York City
New York City has 3 airports nearby, JFK, Laguardia, and Newark Liberty in New Jersey. If your flight arrives into JFK or Newark, you can take commuter trains and/or the subway to get into NYC. Visitors arriving into Laguardia are best taking a taxi or car service, like Uber or Via. Although, either way, brace yourself for at least an hour ride into Manhattan as the traffic is horrendous in this area.
New York City taxis are available at JFK and Laguardia. It’s a flat $52 fare from JFK plus tolls and tip. The fare is calculated by the meter for rides from Laguardia. To save money, go with a shared van transport. They’re comfortable and far cheaper than a taxi.
If you live in the northeast and are coming for your first visit to New York City, you’re better off taking a commuter train like Metro-North, NJ Transit, or Amtrak into the city. Or, for an even cheaper option, take a bus directly to New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, just 1 block from Times Square.
How to Get Around in New York City
The best way to get anywhere in New York City is to take the subway or walk. Driving and parking in Manhattan are a nightmare.
New York City’s streets, with the exception of lower Manhattan, run in a systematic, grid pattern. Think of a giant tic-tac-toe board across Manhattan. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the city like an expert pedestrian.
- Streets run horizontally from east to west.
- Avenues run vertically from north to south.
- 5th Avenue splits the east side from the west side. Address numbers get lower the closer the building is to 5th Avenue and higher the farther it is away from 5th Avenue.
- Broadway is the exception. It runs diagonally, interestingly enough, following an old Native American footpath.
The New York City subway extends throughout the city. No matter where you want to go, it’s likely a subway line is heading in that direction. Here’s the subway info you need to know to look like a pro.
- Metrocards can be purchased from a ticket agent or from the automated machines in the stations. The small machines are for purchases made with credit cards or debit cards only. If you live outside the U.S., use 99999 as your zip code.
- You can buy pay-per-ride Metrocards or unlimited weekly or monthly passes. There’s a $1 charge to get the actual card before loading it with money or time.
- The subway fare is $2.75 per person each way with free transfers between the subway and city buses.
- If you plan to ride the subway at least 12 times, the weekly unlimited pass will save you money regardless of how many days you stay in New York City. Unlimited passes are good for just 1 person, as you can only swipe it once every 18 minutes, except if you’re making a transfer from train to bus.
- Download an NYC subway app or keep a PDF to save on your phone. I love the Exit Strategy app because it shows the subway map but also tells you which car will drop you closest to the subway exit.
- Don’t get confused between express and local trains. On the map, express train stops are marked with a white circle while local stops show a black circle.
One last thing to consider for travel within NYC…
- Bike rental kiosks and shops are plentiful. I wouldn’t suggest riding along the streets on your first visit to New York City, but scenic rides along the Hudson River bike path and through parks are great ways to combine sightseeing and transportation.
What to See and Do on Your First Visit to New York City
Itinerary Planning Idea #1 – Classic First-Time Sights
Times Square with its neon signs, bright lights, Broadway marquis, crowds of people, honking horns, and yellow taxis, all combine for a whirlwind introduction to NYC. On your first visit to New York City, it makes sense to start at this iconic crossroads.
While you’re looking up, down, and all around Times Square, you’re sure to notice all the Broadway Theaters and the billboards advertising what’s playing. A TKTS Booth sells discounted tickets for performances on the same day. The TKTS app lets you know which shows have discounted tickets on sale that day. If you’re set on seeing a particular show, though, check Broadwaybox for advance purchase of discounted seats. Either way, seeing a Broadway show is an absolute must!
Don’t waste time waiting in line and, instead, do as the locals do! Come back to TKTS 30 minutes before show time. There are always tickets available with practically no wait in line. 🙂
Walk east along 50th Street, crossing over 7th Avenue, then 6th Avenue, to reach Rockefeller Center. On your way, you’ll see Radio City Music Hall and maybe even a Rockette or two! The plaza at Rockefeller Center hosts the Today Show and their summer concerts, as well as the 30 Rock Center skyscraper, home to the SNL studios and the observation deck at the top. During the winter and around the holiday season, the ice skating rink fills with skaters right in front of the famous Rockefeller Christmas Tree.
Continue again east, out of Rockefeller Center, to 5th Avenue and see the striking facade of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Head inside to tour the cathedral with a guide or on your own with the audio guide app.
You’re now on 5th Avenue, famous for its upscale boutiques and department stores. Walk along the avenue for a for a first-hand look at the busy combination of traffic, tour buses, and pedestrians.
You’ll not want to miss a chance at a birds-eye view over New York City and the Empire State Building and/or the Top of the Rock offer breathtaking views! If you’re short on time or money (or both!), visit 1 of the buildings. The Empire State Building is a classic NYC landmark with an observation deck on the 86th and 102nd floors. The Top of the Rock’s observation deck is on the 70th floor, but you’ll also get to see and photograph the skyline with the Empire State Building in it.
If you choose the Empire State Building, head south on 5th Avenue (street numbers going down 50, 49, etc.) to 34th street. For the Top of the Rock, return to Rockefeller Plaza. Purchase tickets in advance to save time in line.
If you plan on maxing out on all of New York’s famous sights, save time and money with a New York CityPass, which lets you skip lines for entry into 3 or 6 NYC sights (you choose) for one bundled low price!
Pro Tip: Bryant Park (summer movies & holiday markets) and the New York Public Library (Rose Room) are worth a visit, too! Both are on the way to the Empire State Building at 42nd St. and 5th Avenue. Macy’s and Herald Square are just 1 block west of the Empire State Building, at 34th St. and 6th Avenue.
Itinerary Planning Idea #2 – Art, History, and a Classic Stroll
Several museums line the east and west sides of Central Park. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is along 5th Avenue at 82nd Street. The American Museum of Natural History is on the opposite side of the park on 81st Street and Central Park West. Both of these museums are musts on your first visit to New York City. From the Temple of Dendur to Impressionist paintings by Monet and Renoir at “the Met” and the Prehistoric Halls and ocean and mammal exhibits on display at the Museum of Natural History, these stops offer the quintessential NYC museum experience.
Choose 1 of these museums to begin your day. After a few hours, you’ll likely feel the effects of museum fatigue. So, head outside for some fresh air and a stroll through Central Park.
Central Park spans from 59th Street to 110th Street between 5th Avenue and Central Park West. Walk the pathways and discover Sheep’s Meadow, the Lake, and all the fountains, monuments, gardens, and bridges along the way. Be willing to “get lost” which is nearly impossible if you use the buildings and the traffic noise on the park’s east or west sides as bearings. Download the Central Park app to show where you are in relation to the park’s popular sights.
Meander to the opposite side of the park from where you entered and walk toward whichever of the above museums you have left to visit. Spend your afternoon enjoying another of New York City’s incredible museums.
Pro Tip: Other notable museums near the Met are the Guggenheim and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian, while the New York Historical Society Museum is next door to the Museum of Natural History.
Itinerary Planning Idea #3 – Exploring Lower Manhattan
Yes, Times Square needs to be seen, but it should also be left. New York City has so much more to offer first-timers! Take the subway down to Lower Manhattan and do a bit of exploring. Whether you want to casually walk around Soho (shopping), Greenwich Village (classic NYC), and Chinatown (busy with good eats) or want a detailed Lower Manhattan itinerary, you’ll glimpse more of the “real” Manhattan by heading away from midtown’s more touristy spots.
A few iconic sights should not be missed while you’re at Manhattan’s southern tip. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is a must! Stroll along the pedestrian promenade to admire the New York City views and wonder over how such an impressive structure was built before the days of power tools.
Pro Tip: Many visitors like to head into Brooklyn and get pizza at Grimaldi’s. The pizza is delicious, but if you prefer not to wait in long lines, see my recommended pizza stops in the Lower Manhattan itinerary above. 🙂
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum remembers and reflects on the events and the lives lost during the terrorist attacks. The experience is emotional but poignant and so well-designed. The reflecting pools are in the original tower footprints with the names of victims inscribed around the edges. The museum houses artifacts like a damaged firetruck and the personal anecdotal accounts of the day. The memorial and museum simultaneously honor the fallen, inspire a sense of Patriotism, and encourage a continuing faith in the goodness of humanity. You won’t want to miss this experience.
It’s also a great opportunity to see the sweeping city and harbor views from the One World Observatory, one of the best things to do in NYC. Purchase tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line.
After visiting the museum, walk along Manhattan’s west side, through the West Village and Meat Packing neighborhoods. The streets are small and, sometimes, even lined with cobblestones. Explore the cafes, beer gardens, and shops on your way to the High Line entrance at Gansevoort Street. It’s an elevated urban park built along abandoned train tracks. The views, street art, and ambiance along the walk will leave you feeling like a true New Yorker.
For a deeper look into the area, join a High Line and Meatpacking Neighborhood tour. Not only, do you get the High Line views, you’ll see architecture and art, as well as tour Chelsea Markets.
Pro Tip: Other sights to consider, depending on how much time you have in New York City, are the Statue of Liberty and South Street Seaport. You can take a boat ride tour to Lady Liberty or opt to pass by on the FREE Staten Island Ferry. Either way, the views of Manhattan from the water are stunning!
Top Things to Do Outside Manhattan on Your First Visit to New York City
See the best street art in New York City by spending a couple of hours in Brooklyn.
Traveling with children? They’ll love a day at the Bronx Zoo.
Coney Island Amusement Park and Boardwalk are right in Brooklyn and a perfect place for fun and ocean breezes to cool off from NYC’s summer heat.
Where to Stay and Eat in New York City
The best “where to stay” tip is to be within comfortable walking distance to a subway station. From there, you’ll be able to access all the places you’d like to visit.
New York City hotels are quite pricey, making it ideal if you have hotel points to use for an award stay. Hyatt is a Chase transfer partner with solid redemptions and IHG points can be earned with the cash and points trick. New York City has hotel properties in all major hotel loyalty programs, which could also make for a lucrative points-earning opportunity for paid stays.
If you don’t collect hotel points, you could check out these 4 New York hotels under $150 or check TripAdvisor’s list of the top value hotels in New York City. Keep in mind value is relative in NYC and could mean value in location and amenities, too. Here’s a sampling from the list.
I’m not a food critic, but I’m no stranger to a fantastic meal. New York City has an endless number of fantastic restaurants. Whether you eat at one of the recommended restaurants below or seek out your own, promise yourself to stay away from tourist trap chains and fast food. All of the suggestions below are based on personal and/or firsthand experience. (I’m hungry just typing these!)
- Del Frisco’s
- Locanda Verde
- ABC Kitchen
- Russ & Daughters
- Cornelia Street Cafe
- Sushi Zen
- Classic NYC Diner (Any)
- Market Table
- The Spotted Pig
- Candle Cafe
All that’s left now is to pack! You’re ready for a successful first visit to NYC!
So, have you traveled to New York City? What tip do you recommend for a first visit to New York City?
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