Has New York City captured your imagination with its sparkling night skyline, the endless things to see and do, and the 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, it is possible to take commuter trains and/or the subway to get into NYC.
Visitors arriving into Laguardia, on the other hand, have fewer public transportation options. If taking a taxi or car service from Laguardia, brace yourself for at least an hour ride into Manhattan as the traffic can be horrendous in this area depending on the time of day your flight arrives.
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. You will pay to sit in traffic. To save money, book a ride with the most trusted shuttle from the New York Airports. They’re comfortable, reliable, 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
Driving and parking in Manhattan are a nightmare. The best way to get anywhere in New York City is to put on the most comfortable shoes and take the subway or walk. (I own 2 pairs and wear them all the time to walk around NYC.)
And what about that pesky luggage?!
Of course, the easiest way to get around either by subway or on foot is without carrying heavy bags. Many subway entrances have only stairs and sidewalks, restaurants, and other attractions are likely to be crowded and even restrict luggage and other big bags.
So be sure to drop off your luggage at your hotel as soon as you can. Most hotels will securely store your bags even if your room isn’t ready for check-in yet.
Free of your bags, you can move around the city hassle-free, take in your surroundings, and focus on whether you should be heading uptown or downtown. 😉
New York City Orientation and Subway Travel Tips
- 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 rentals 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 at TKTS, 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. Christmas in New York is so magical when the ice skating rink fills with skaters just 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 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 the Top of the Rock offer breathtaking views! If you’re short on time or money (or both!), visit just 1 of these amazing skyscrapers.
The Empire State Building is a classic NYC landmark with an observation deck on the 86th and 102nd floors. If you choose the Empire State Building, head south on 5th Avenue (street numbers going down 50, 49, etc.) to 34th street.
The Top of the Rock observation deck is on the 70th floor. The bonus is you’ll also get to see and photograph the skyline with the Empire State Building in it. To visit the Top of the Rock, return to Rockefeller Plaza.
Either way, purchase your tickets in advance to save time in line…or even avoid the line altogether!
If you plan on maxing out on all of New York’s famous sights, save time and money with a New York CityPass, which gets you entry 6 NYC sights (3 set & 3 you choose) for one bundled low price! At some attractions, skip the line privileges are included, as well.
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. (Aren’t there just so many things to do in NYC!?) 😉
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, and likely the effect of museum fatigue, 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: New York CityPASS includes entry to both the Met and the Museum of Natural History. The Guggenheim is not far from the Met and can also be included with your CityPASS depending on which attractions you decide to visit.
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 shop in Soho, see classic NYC in Greenwich Village, eat well in Chinatown, 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.
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. As with any New York City attraction, purchasing tickets in advance to avoid waiting in line is a smart way to maximize your time.
As you ask yourself is the New York CityPASS worth it, know that the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is included with CityPASS but the One World Observatory ticket is not.
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, but you’ll also see architecture and art, as well as tour Chelsea Markets.
Pro Tip: Another (obvious) sight to consider, depending on how much time you have in New York City, is the Statue of Liberty. You can take a boat ride tour to Lady Liberty or opt to pass by from a short distance 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.
For a detailed breakdown of the best places to stay in NYC, neighborhood by neighborhood, head over to my where to stay in New York City guide.
New York City hotels are quite pricey, making it ideal if you have hotel points to use for an award stay. If you have credit card rewards like I do, Hyatt is a Chase transfer partner with solid redemptions. IHG points can be earned with the cash and points trick.
If you don’t have enough points to use for an award stay, New York City has hotel properties in all major hotel loyalty programs, which could make for a lucrative points-earning opportunity for paid stays.
Use AwardMapper to check for hotels with loyalty programs and where they are in Manhattan.
If you don’t collect hotel points, these hotels are ranked as a top value in New York City. Keep in mind value is relative in NYC and could mean value in terms of location and amenities, too.
I’m not a food critic, but I’m no stranger to a fantastic meal. If you’re looking to let your inner foodie out, this where to eat in NYC guide has more than enough to make your taste buds smile.
Whether you’re looking for authentic Indian food or the best veggie burgers in NYC, New York City has an endless number of fantastic restaurants. Just promise yourself to stay away from tourist trap chains and fast food!
All of the suggestions below are based on my own unforgettable NYC eating experiences. (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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