Planning a first trip to any large city can feel overwhelming, especially to New York City. The best advice we can give you, don’t try to do it all. Even if you lived in The Big Apple most of your life, you would still struggle to see and do everything in this sprawling metropolis. So, relax.
This New York City first-time visitor’s checklist will help you cut out all the noise, so you can focus on having a great first trip. Everything on this list can be seen in three full days, making it the perfect list for a long weekend city break.
At the bottom of this post is a downloadable checklist you can take with you on your trip.
None of the attractions in this guide sponsor us. We just enjoyed them and thought you would too.
Where to Stay in New York City
When it comes to saving money on vacation, we typically advocate for staying outside the tourist centers, in this case Manhattan. Though, unless you have a week or two to explore the city, time may be more precious than money. For a first-time visit to New York City, we recommend staying right in the heart, so getting around is quicker and easier.
On our first trip, we stayed in Times Square and had no regrets. The central location made it easy to pop back to the room whenever we wanted, then get right back out again. Worth it!
- Hilton Garden Inn Times Square – For the location, we felt the Hilton Garden Inn was the best value for money. We could even see the New Year’s Eve Ball from our window. Rooms were small, but nearby hotels weren’t much bigger and cost even more.
- Bryant Park Hotel – If you don’t mind being just a few blocks over to get a bigger room without a massive price bump, the Bryant is in an excellent location with clean, modern rooms. It’s close to Times Square, the subway, and you can opt for views of Bryant Park.
- The Sherry Netherland – Looking for something unique and special? The Sherry Netherland is on our list next time we’re in NYC for a special occasion. The rooms are pricier than our last two suggestions, but good value considering they look like they are for royalty. Located on the famed Fifth Ave, the hotel is right next to Central Park, a subway station, and just a 10-minute walk to Rockefeller Center.
Mapping It Out
We’ve mapped the attractions mentioned in this post for easy access on your trip.
Press the slider in the top left corner to open the attractions list. Clicking on an attraction provides more info, like address, phone number, and reviews.
To save this map to your phone’s Google Maps account, click the small grey star next to the title. To recall the map later in Google Maps, click Saved, then Maps. You’ll see this map in your list.
Cruise to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
No first-time visitor to New York City should miss seeing lady liberty in person.
Reachable by ferry from Battery Park, at the end of Manhattan, or Liberty State Park, on the New Jersey side, the Statue of Liberty stands proud in the New York Harbor. Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants passed through U.S. immigration on their way to a new life, sits just the island over.
General admission tickets include the ferry, Statue of Liberty Museum and Grounds, and Ellis Island but, it’s worth paying a little extra to visit the Statue of Liberty’s Pedestal observation deck. Allow a half-day for your visit.
People Watch in Times Square
Filled with tourist shops, screaming lights, and street performers, it’s easy to either absolutely love or absolutely hate this chaotic place, but you have to see it at least once.
What we love to do most in Times Square is people watch. The bleachers at the tkts booth are a great place to get a view without being in someone’s way.
First, pop into one of the iconic candy shops, like the M&Ms store or Hershey’s to grab a snack for the show. Then step back to just watch and appreciate all that’s going on in this relatively small space.
See a Broadway Show
Take advantage of being in one of the world’s greatest cities and see a show in one of the world’s best theater districts, Broadway.
Popular shows fill up quickly. If you have your heart set on a particular play or musical, it’s best to buy tickets early.
If you don’t care which show you see, take a gamble and stand in line at one of the tkts discount ticket booths at Times Square or Lincoln Center. They offer same-day tickets at discounts of 20-50% off retail value. Download their app or check their website for available shows, but get in line early, these discount tickets are not a secret.
Eat from the Streets
Though technically not an “attraction,” New York is home to some pretty fantastic food choices which should arguably be on any first-time visitor’s checklist.
As you wander the streets of NYC, you’ll come across food trucks and street vendors selling everything from pitas to Polish sausages. Though, it wouldn’t be a first trip to New York without grabbing a hot dog or a pretzel. I’m sure everyone has their favorite spots, but honestly, they all taste the same. Contentious, we know.
You’ll want to stop by an actual shop for some of New York’s other iconic eats. With so much choice, we’re sure lots of places do these classic foods justice, but here are some spots we’ve enjoyed.
- Pizza by the Slice – Little Italy Pizza (2 E 33rd St)
- Pastrami on Rye – Shamas Deli (150 W 38th St – If you blink, you’ll miss it, but we just love hole in the wall spots with great grub)
- NY Bagel – Bagel Market (133 East 43rd Street)
- Cheesecake – Junior’s Restaurant and Bakery (1515 Broadway)
Tour the Iconic Rockefeller Center
With 19 commercial buildings piled into an amazing 22 acres in the heart of New York City, Rockefeller Center is a must for any first-time visitor.
Strolling the multi-level outdoor complex and the indoor passageways connecting Times Square to Rockefeller Center is free. Though, if you want to learn more about this National Historic Landmark, we recommend taking one of the historian-guided Rockefeller Center Tours.
Be sure to hit all the major points of interest.
- 30 Rockefeller Plaza
- Prometheus Sculpture
- The Rink – (ice skating in winter, roller skating in the warmer months)
- Channel Gardens
- Radio City Music Hall
- NBC Studios
- Bronze Atlas
- St. Patrick’s Cathedral – (next door to Rockefeller Center)
Look Out from the Top of the Rock
Consisting of three levels, with indoor and outdoor platforms, Top of the Rock observation deck gives sky-high 360-degree views from the 70th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Giving a breathtaking view of the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock is our favorite of the NYC skyline views.
Plan your roof top visit for sunset to get stunning views over the city illuminated by the sun. You’ll also be there when the city lights come to life.
Step Back in Time at the Empire State Building
Synonymous with New York, this Art Deco icon is viewable from various vantage points across the city but is also worth a visit.
For us, seeing the Empire State Building was about more than just a great skyline view, it was about experiencing the building. Surprisingly, the lobby is free to visit and embodies all the 1930’s that you would expect.
Nonetheless, we still recommend getting a ticket to head up those elevators for the exhibits and of course, the views from the 86th or 102nd floor.
Other Skyline Viewpoints
Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building are our two favorites for a first-time visit to New York City. However, the One World Observatory, Summit One Vanderbilt, and Edge at Hudson Yard, all have thrilling views from the top of skyscrapers.
Marvel at Grand Central Station's Details and Architecture
We rarely put train stations as a must-see attraction, but Grand Central Station is worth the exception.
With extraordinary detail and a cathedral-like ceiling, the great hall looks more like a palace than a train station. It’s simply jaw-dropping. Even the passageways leading off from the hall are worth exploring.
Forget You're in the Big City while in Central Park
Until you’re there, it’s hard to imagine just how big Central Park is. You’d likely need almost a day to see it all, but it’s worth popping through for a few highlights. Not to mention, on a lovely day it’s just a beautiful place to take a break from the city.
All the highlights on this checklist are free to visit, and Central Park doesn’t have an admission fee.
- Gapstow Bridge
- Arsenal Gallery
- Delacorte Clock
- The Mall Literary Walk
- Bow Bridge
- Belvedere Castle
- Shakespeare Garden
Shop for Something Fancy on Fifth Avenue
Lined with luxury name brands like Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer, and of course Saks, Fifth Avenue is one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world.
If you happen to be visiting the city around Christmas, the window displays on Fifth Avenue are a top attraction.
Ride the Historic Subway
At some point, you’ll get tired of walking. Instead of taking a taxi, go local and use the public transportation system.
Established in 1904, New York’s subway system isn’t the oldest in the world but it’s definitely the most famous. Buy a ticket and ride the rails to get to your next attraction.
Have a bit more than three days in the city? Most of the subway in Manhattan is underground. For a more interesting ride, take the F train to Coney Island for elevated views of the city and harbor.
Reflect on a Tragedy at the Ground Zero Memorial
Most New York City first-time visitors will want to pay respect to those who lost their lives in the September 11th attacks; though, visiting the Ground Zero Memorial is a somber and emotional experience.
Today, two enormous reflecting pools, surrounded by plaques memorializing the victim’s names, lay where the grand towers once stood.
Within the square, The National September 11 Memorial Museum displays various artifacts, from building wreckage to news footage, in a loving tribute to first responders and the day’s victims. Reserve at least an hour and bring tissues.
Across the street and towering over the square at 1,776 feet, the newly built One World Trade Center signifies resilience, optimism, and hope for the future. Explore the shops in the ground level mall or buy a ticket to view the city from the sky.
Stroll the Financial District
No first-time visit to New York City would be complete without a wander through the world’s most famous financial district.
Unfortunately, the infamous New York Stock Exchange closed to tourists after September 11th, but it’s still worth the walk down Wall Street. On Broad Street, you’ll find the Fearless Girl Statue now facing off with the stock exchange. Near 26 Broadway, the Charging Bull gathers crowds.
If you’re good at planning ahead, book free tickets for a Federal Reserve Bank of New York Museum and Gold Vault Tour.
Explore the Neighborhoods of Manhattan
A terrific way to explore New York City for the first time is on foot. With New York City’s grand architecture and charming neighborhoods, there’s so many interesting places to wander.
Our favorite neighborhoods include Chelsea, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, and China Town. Each neighborhood has its own delights, from local shops to attractions, and off-the-beaten-path eats.
For instance, in Chelsea, we love popping into the Chelsea Market for lunch then walking it off along The High Line Trail. This once elevated train line now gives splendid views as you walk past well-maintained sculpture gardens.
On a first visit, don’t worry about seeing it all, pick a neighborhood or two and spend a few hours exploring.
Learn What it Takes to Keep International Peace at the UN
Visiting the United Nations was one of our favorite stops on our first trip to New York City. A guided tour took us through the General Assembly Hall, the Security Council Chamber, and several other smaller meeting rooms and exhibits on how the UN works.
With security checks and wandering through the outdoor gardens, plan a half-day for your visit. Purchasing tickets in advanced is required.
New York City Travel Guides
If you plan to spend more time in New York City, you may want to consider picking up a guidebook on the area.
- DK Eyewitness New York City (Travel Guide) – With inspiring photography, exciting itineraries, and detailed maps, we find Eyewitness guidebooks the most useful for planning our trips.
- New York in Stride: An Insider’s Walking Guide – This isn’t your typical guidebook. Filled with detailed walking routes for anywhere you want to be in the city. Pick a neighborhood and follow the route to discover eats, treats, and attractions along the way.
Download the New York City First-Time Visitor's Checklist
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