31 tips for visiting New York City for the first time

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New York City is truly one of the most exciting cities on the planet. That famous skyline, the history, the food, the shows; it’s a place unto itself, with something for everyone of nearly every age. As one of the world’s great cities and with so many things to do in New York, the city can be a bit intimidating for newbies – we’ve been there. Our ultimate guide to New York City for first timers includes no less than 31 tips to help you start spreading the news and prepare to leave – if not today then whenever you’re ready to hit the Big Apple and be a part of it.

time square and neon signs at night

Things to do in New York City for first timers

Basic NYC Tips for First Timers

Let’s begin with some tried-and-true advice. Don’t think you can do it all in one visit. It ain’t gonna happen. New York City is HUGE. And it’s packed to the skyscrapers with things to see, do and experience.

Choose your activities based on the length of your stay, whether it’s a long weekend, one week, or ten days. Choose your top 5-10 activities (we’ve got tips!) and plan your schedule accordingly.

Do not overbook activities or think you can do 4 museums a day. You can’t, and even more, you shouldn’t, it’s just too much. Same is true if you’re assuming that the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island won’t take most of the day. It will if you choose to visit both attractions.

The best way to get around is by walking or by taking the subway. Purchase a reloadable Metro Card at any subway station. NYC’s subway system is convenient and cost effective. You can get anywhere you need to go via the subway and borough transit lines. The bonus? Avoiding the worst of NYC’s traffic gridlock.

Buy a CityPASS if you’re going to visit many of the city’s major attractions. It’s one of our favorite travel hacks, as the NYC CityPASS includes entry to the Met Museum, Natural History Museum, Empire State Building, 9-11 Memorial, Top of the Rock, and the Intrepid Air, Sea and Space Museum. It will save you money and help you skip the long ticket lines.

new york city subway entrance

Wear good walking shoes. On our recent visit we clocked nearly 30,000 steps per day. You will be walking to places, from places, and in places. Don’t ruin your visit by ruining your feet with bad footwear.

Book tours, hotels and shows as soon as you book your dates.  

Go see a Broadway show or play. Even if you don’t love musicals or theatre, Broadway is the best in the world. Don’t give away your shot of seeing the best there is – there’s a show for every taste.

Use the map below to search for hotel and short-term rental options

Top New York City attractions for first time visitors

Remember my advice in the first section? Depending on the amount of time you have on your first visit in NYC, choose your attractions wisely. You can’t do it all on a first time visit to the city, so pick from this list of 12 attractions for a great first taste of things to do in New York.

I can hear some of you asking, ‘Can you combine attractions?‘ Absolutely! You can do the Empire State Building in the morning, then visit Times Square and Rockefeller Center after lunch in the afternoon.

Be sure to stop in to Magnolia Barkery for a snack, then see a Broadway show in the evening. The option to return to Empire State to see the city lights at night is up to you.

Save up to 50% on combined prices for admission to must-see attractions! Shop Now at CityPASS.com!

Must see NYC attractions

The Empire State Building – This towering world icon Empire State Building offers breathtaking 360-degree, open-air views from its famous 86th floor observatory. Immersive and interactive new exhibit galleries on the second floor invite guests on a journey from the building’s construction to its current place in pop culture. If you get a CityPASS ticket, it gets you in twice. First visit during the day and again at night for incredible views of the city skyline during the evening.

lady looking out from the empire state building

Visit Times Square. It’s one of the best free things to do in New York. everyone needs to see it at least once, kitschy and crazy as it is.The center of it all. Times Square has changed a lot since we first visited in the 1980s, and for the better. It’s free and very pedestrian-oriented, which is good as it’s consistently crowded.

Go during the day and again at night if you can. Enjoy the vibe and be gobsmacked (and blinded) by the advertising and light displays. Tip: Stay away from the mascot figures roaming around the square. They’re not free and will charge for photos.

Walk through Central Park. New York City’s green heart is bordered by the expensive coops and skyscrapers of the Upper West and Upper East Sides. But anyone can enjoy a stroll through the Park for free, enjoying the playgrounds, ponds, castle, zoo, plays and attractions.

Central Park is a wonderful natural oasis. It helps visitors and residents escape from the concrete jungle that is New York City.

But wait, there’s more!

view of central park in fall

See a Broadway Show – Be sure to book tickets for a musical or play. See my tips below on how and what Broadway shows to book.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Consistently voted as one of the top museums in the world. The Met is New York’s most visited museum and attraction. The Met presents over 5,000 years of art from every corner of the world for everyone to experience and enjoy.

If you’re visiting New York with kids, consider taking a special Fable and Lark tour of the Met to keep them engaged and having fun.

Natural History Museum. Explore human cultures, the natural world, and the universe. All with a visit to one of the world’s most famous natural history museums. Meet the Titanosaur, one of the largest dinosaurs ever discovered, in the museum’s fossil halls.

See world-renowned dioramas, the 94-foot-long blue whale, and the stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space. It features an 87-foot-diameter sphere that appears to float inside a glass cube. 

The Guggenheim – The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum celebrates 60 years as an architectural icon in 2020. Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s “temple of spirit,” where radical art and architecture meet. Daily tours included with admission. Open seven days a week.

And we can’t forget these

9/11 Memorial & Museum. The powerful and emotional 9/11 Memorial and Museum is a somber place of respect and reflection. Experience a moment of quiet at the twin reflecting pools. Here, the names of every person who died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center are inscribed.

Examine the history and impact of the events and learn stories of loss and recovery. Note: This is an intense and emotional museum experience that may not be suitable for young children.

Rockefeller Center. John D Rockefeller was once the richest man in the world, and he built his complex in midtown Manhattan as an ode to his success. It’s the headquarters for entertainment giant NBC and many other corporations.

The Rock is also home to NYC’s famous Christmas tree, skating rink, and many other fun things to do in New York in December.

Entrance to Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock is included with a CityPASS. Here you can experience breathtaking 360-degree panoramic views of New York City and beyond.

Walk the High Line. New York’s newest public park is a linear one. It’s built on a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure running from Gansevoort St. to 34th St. on Manhattan’s West Side.

Access is free and offers a wonderful view of the Manhattan skyline and Hudson Yards. Enjoy a free guided tour or just appreciate the gardens, murals, artwork and people-watching along the route.

As if that’s not enough

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Get up close and personal with Lady Liberty and the beauty and history of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Both are located in New York Harbor and accessible via ferry.

statue of liberty and ellis island

You can ride the Staten Island ferry to get a view of the iconic Statue. Or book a ride with Statue or Circle Line Cruises. Explore the grounds of Liberty and Ellis Islands, stand in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and learn about the rich history of immigration at what once was the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station. Note: If you get off the boat to explore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, it will take up most of one day.

Bryant Park and New York Public Library – Both of these city landmarks are free for visitors and offer different New York experiences for guests. The outdoor space of Bryant Park has chairs and amenities for visitors to enjoy at any time of year, including a Winter Village with skating rink and bumper cars on ice.

The New York Public Library is a beautiful Beaux-Arts style building with free wifi, places to sit and rest during a busy day. It also hosts free exhibitions, concerts and author talks and conversations.

Eat a street pizza, pretzel or hot dog from a vendor – I suppose this should be under food, BUT you really should eat one item from a food vendor on your visit. It’s very NYC.

bagels and food cart in new york city for first timers

How to get into New York from the airport

New York City is served by three international airports, one located in New Jersey and two located in Queens. Make sure you know which airport you’re flying into before you arrive so you can plan your route into the city.

Newark Airport

The Newark EWR Airport in New Jersey has an AirTrain that connects its terminals to the NJ transit system for a direct train into NYC Penn Station. The train is convenient, skips the street traffic and only costs $15 USD one way. It’s the best way to get into the city unless you’re traveling with a big group or lots of large luggage. Time: 30-60 minutes

La Guardia

I’ve taken Dial 7 car service from both La Guardia and Newark. Dial 7 is a luxury private car service that tends to be on the expensive side. But if you have a family of four or more and a lot of luggage, it may work out to be the same cost as transit for your party.

For La Guardia, there’s also the Via Rideshare service that’s partnered with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to launch “LGA Connect.” It provides travelers a ride from the airport to their destination in one of the five boroughs for a flat rate.

The program is part of the ongoing effort to alleviate airport congestion by offering convenient and affordable shared rides. Those traveling from LaGuardia to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens will be able to get a Via for a flat rate of $15 and those traveling to Staten Island or the Bronx will be able to get a Via for $20. Time: 30-60 minutes

JFK Airport

In addition to Uber and cabs, you can get into New York City from JFK (which is in Queens) via the AirTrain from your airport terminal to Jamaica Station. From there, you can board the E train or the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) into the city. While the LIRR is slightly more expensive, it’s an express service into NYC Penn Station and will get you there a little faster than the subway. Time: 60-90 minutes

new york city subway train

Where to stay in New York City for first time visitors

We’ve stayed in a variety of neighbourhoods during our visits to New York City, including; Chelsea, the Lower East Side, Midtown, and the Upper West Side. The location choice has depended on where we need to be most of the time to minimize walking and train trips.

For first timers to the city, Midtown Manhattan is a great location for a hotel base. The area has improved a lot in terms of hotel offerings, and is very central to Broadway theatres, Times Square, Bryant Park, the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Centre, as well as close to many Metro subway lines.

Keep in mind that NYC hotels are expensive and usually small, which makes it a challenge for families. That said, you don’t go to New York to stay in your hotel room, right?

The Best Western Plus Hospitality House on West 49th is like a renovated apartment, with breakfast included and an in-suite kitchen and living room. There’s room to move for families, just like in an apartment. It’s modest but clean and very well-located. 

We’ve also enjoyed stays at the Benjamin, Westhouse and various Moxy Hotels in the city.

Click here for more New York City hotel options.

The historic Benjamin Hotel in Midtown Manhattan is the perfect pied-à-terre for a luxury family getaway in New York City.

Top tours for first time visitors in New York City

Taking a tour is a great way for first time visitors to see the bright lights and big city that is New York. The Hop On, Hop Off bus tours are great to get a lay of the land, visit many city neighborhoods on one easy bus ride, and you can get off and on wherever you wish.  If you’re traveling with older family members, the chance to bus around town will be welcome.

There are New York City tours for every interest, taste, and budget. Got tweens and teens? Try the Ride, an immersive tour of the city with live actors, music and lots of audience interaction.

More interested in the history of the city? Take a Hamilton tour, learn about the immigrants who built New York at the Tenement Museum, or discover Hasidic Brooklyn with Tours by Frieda.

For fans of the many TV shows filmed in New York, book an On Location Tours and learn everything you wanted to know about the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sex and the City, or Gossip Girl.

There’s the NBC Studio Tour (a must for SNL and Today Show fans), Architectural boat tours, Scott’s Pizza Tours, Disney Musical Tours, Graffiti Tours, Fable and Lark Magical Tours of the Met Museum, etc. We could go on, but you get the picture. There’s a tour for everyone.

Where to Eat in New York City

The better question is where can’t you eat? New York City is filled with restaurants, food halls and street vendors selling everything from pretzels to hot dogs to halal kebabs. You can find anything here, so we’ve listed a few of our favorites below to get you started.

For our family, a stop at Shake Shack is a must. The shakes and burgers are delicious at each location (there are many in the city). We also love popping into Joe’s Pizza in Times Square for quick slice, and Eataly in the Flatiron district for Italian fare, and cocktails on their rooftop patio and bar. Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway is great, though it is very popular and has long lines for its food accompanied by musical service.

The Smith Restaurant is a popular franchise that serves good food in white bricked surroundings. It’s very family-friendly and has a great brunch. Pret a Manger cafes are everywhere and perfect for quick and healthy bites. Bare Burger offers tasty beef and vegan burgers, where one side of the menu is animal protein, while the other side is plant-based. There are also loads of good ramen places if you’re craving a simple bowl of noodle soup.

Try a New York City Food Hall

New York is also home to some fantastic food halls. The Chelsea Market in the Meatpacking District has tons of food vendors to choose from in a busy former location of the National Biscuit Company.

Turnstyle is an underground market underneath Columbus Circle. Check out the Bolivian food, vegan choices and burger joints here. Gotham West Market has fabulous pizza and ramen in Hell’s Kitchen, and is a few blocks from the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. In Midtown, check out City Kitchen at ROW NYC on the second floor, serving up donuts, lobster rolls, and more ramen.

New York City is famous for high end restaurants too. If you’ve got the budget, book a table at Babbo, Batard, any Jean-Georges, Samuelsson or Boulud restaurant in the city. 

Tip: We’re fans of the nybucketlist on Instagram. If you want to find out the latest art opening, food craze or secret speakeasy (like we did), follow this account for the latest and greatest of anything and everything in NYC.

What Broadway Shows to see in New York City

I’m a massive fan of musicals and theatre, and never miss the opportunity to see a show (or three) when I’m in New York. Any first timer should see a Broadway show too, in my humble opinion, as you’ll be watching some of the finest actors, singers and dancers on the planet. Why miss such an amazing opportunity?

If traveling with kids, check out of Broadway’s family-friendly musical shows. The Disney shows like Frozen, Lion King and Aladdin are great and highly-entertaining for all age groups. For the older kids, check out Mean Girls, Wicked, Hamilton (if you can afford it), Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story.

For everyone else, there’s a Broadway musical or play out there for you, trust us. And if in doubt, get tickets for Come From Away, you won’t regret it.

How to Book Broadway Shows in New York

There are a number of ways to book Broadway shows. Our favorite is by booking directly online with the production and theatre if it’s a newish show, or through the free TodayTix App, which I LOVE.

With TodayTix, there’s no need to line up for tickets and waste your precious holiday time. See the App to find and pick the show, date and time, pay, and meet up with the red-jacketed Today Tix staff 30 minutes before showtime at the theatre. You can also enter ticket lotteries for same day tickets. It’s a fantastic service. You can also book show tickets via Broadway.com or Headout.com.

We’ve just scratched the gritty, gum-encrusted surface of New York City in this article. But as I’ve learned, successful visits to NYC involve taking little bites of the big apple each time you’re there. You’ll never be able to enjoy the entire thing all at once.

That’s why New York is New York.

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Plan the perfect visit to the bright lights and big city of New York with our ultimate and helpful guide packed full of 31 insider tips from a travel pro.

Disclosure: The writer thanks CityPASS for tickets that allowed entry to various attractions in New York City. As always, her opinions and love of NYC are honest and her own.

Credits: Claudia Laroye

Claudia Laroye
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