Let’s face it, New York City has a lot to see. And being in the Big Apple may turn even the most well-seasoned off-the-beaten-path travelers into grinning, camera-toting tourists. It’s okay; it happens, especially in NYC. So, for that tourist in all of us, here are the top 10 (“touristy”) things you should fit into your New York itinerary — plus a few extras.
Kind of how you can’t visit Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, you can’t visit New York City without seeing the Empire State Building. Crowded? Yes. Touristy? Very. But that doesn’t detract from the stunning views of the Big Apple that you get from the 86th floor. Go up at night to really have your breath taken away.
Rockefeller Center (and Top of the Rock)
If you’ve ever watched a movie set in NYC at Christmas, you’ve probably seen characters skating at Rockefeller Center, or visiting the giant Christmas tree. Rockefeller Center, while admittedly probably more impressive during the winter months, should end up on your NYC itinerary any time of the year.
The square, lined with colorful flags, is also home to 30 Rock — the literal building where Tina Fey’s popular TV show is set. Here, you can pay to go to the Top of the Rock – a 70th-story observation deck not unlike the Empire State Building’s. I actually prefer the Top of the Rock view to the ESB, simply because you not only get a 360-degree view of the city (and Central Park), but you can also see the Empire State Building in the New York skyline from here.
New York City is rife with museums to visit. Like art? Check out the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the Cloisters, or the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). How about history? Head to the American Museum of Natural History or the Museum of the City of New York. There are so many great museums to choose from in NYC; these are just a few of the most popular ones. If you’re in the mood for something a bit different, check out Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, or the Museum of Sex.
Times Square at Night
Probably the most-visited (and therefore most crowded) spot in New York City is Times Square. The bustling hub has been made a little less so in the past year, as traffic has been diverted around the square, making it solely pedestrian traffic that you’ll have to wade through. Even if you aren’t interested in things like the Hershey’s and MnM superstores or the giant Toys ‘R Us that are in or around Times Square, you should still check it out. To really be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the place, go after dark when everything is lit up. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even get serenaded by the Naked Cowboy.
See a Broadway show
New York is known for its theater culture. Just take a walk through Times Square and you’ll be bombarded with 20-foot-high billboards announcing 20 different shows. If you have the time (and money), definitely catch a show, be it a musical or drama. If you don’t want to pay a lot of money for tickets prior to your NYC visit, you still have options.
Visit the TKTS kiosk in Times Square the day of any show to see if they’re offering any deals. Find out beforehand if the show you’re interested in does rush tickets, sells standing-room only, gives discounts for students, or offers a ticket lottery. Wicked, for example, usually sells out weeks in advance. But, if you go to the Gershwin Theater 2 ½ hours before showtime, you can enter your name in a drawing for tickets. If your name is pulled, you can purchase up to two front-row tickets for $26 each. This is how my mom and I saw Wicked, and it was an amazing experience. Other popular shows host lottery drawings, as well. And if you enter on a weekday outside of tourist season, you’re much more likely to “win.”
Go here for the latest info. on rush, lottery and standing room policies for current Broadway shows.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Perhaps one of the most iconic figures in American history, the Statue of Liberty is a must-visit for anyone traveling to the Big Apple. You can buy a ticket and catch the ferry down at Battery Park (beware long lines), and be dropped off at Liberty Island. As of July 2009, you can once again be taken up into Lady Liberty’s crown for a unique view of the New York City skyline. Or, you can climb the steps to her pedestal, or simply admire her from the ground.
Once you’ve had your fill of the green lady, hop back on the ferry and head over to Ellis Island. Most Americans can trace at least one ancestor who immigrated to the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, so you probably can, too. You can go into the refurbished main building, which is now the Ellis Island Museum. Stroll through exhibits that chronicle the island’s role in immigration history, and try to imagine what it would have been like to be herded through and inspected in the Registry Room.
If you’re interested in your family’s own history, you can visit the American Family Immigration History Center, which provides professional assistance for investigating immigration history, family documentation and genealogical exploration.
World Trade Center site
I often feel like, 30 years from now, when my generation is the age of our parents, we’ll talk about “where we were” when 9/11 happened, just like our parents’ generation can pinpoint exactly where they were when JFK was shot. It’s the sort of cataclysmic event in American history that will undoubtedly make it into every history book for decades to come. So, if you find yourself in lower Manhattan, be sure to pay your respects at the former site of the World Trade Center. As of August 2010, plans for a permanent memorial and museum at the site are under way. You can visit the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site and see the growing collection of artifacts and stories from Sept. 11, 2001, and check out plans for the memorial.
After visiting sites like the Empire State Building and Times Square, you’ll probably be convinced that New York City is nothing more than noise and skyscrapers. Head on over to Central Park, however, to have your assumptions changed. As hard as it is to believe, parts of the 843-acre park are quiet and relaxing. And green! A popular part of the park for tourists is Strawberry Fields, which pays tribute to Beatle John Lennon. The entrance to this part of the park is off Central Park West, right across the street from where Lennon was fatally shot in front of the Dakota building.
Get an ethnic taste
Head down to a few of New York City’s ethnic enclaves for a bit of culture — there are plenty to pick from. I recommend Chinatown and Little Italy to start with, as they are close to one another. Manhattan’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. Little Italy used to be home to more than 40,000 Italians and cover 17 blocks, but has shrunk considerably. The food, however, is still delicious.
After dark, head over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Brooklyn Heights. Then walk down to the bank of the East River, where you’ll get a stunning view of the New York City skyline, with the illuminated bridge in the foreground. It’s one of my favorite views in the city.
Take a stroll down Wall Street in Lower Manhattan and see where a majority of the nation’s financial transactions take place. You can stand in the spot where George Washington took his oath of office as the first president of the United States, and then cross over to Bowling Green and take a photo with the infamous Charging Bull statue.
Head down to the South Street Seaport at Pier 17, right on the East River. Here you can shop, eat, and get some great views of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.
If you don’t want to pay the fee to visit Liberty and Ellis islands, hop on the Staten Island Ferry (free of charge) for a ride that will bring you in range of Lady Liberty and the Lower Manhattan skyline.
Stop in at Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. It’s the largest train station in the world by number of platforms (it has 44), and definitely is an impressive sight to see.
If you’ve never visited the city before and don’t have a clue where to start, here are a few ideas I recommend to make your visit a bit easier:
The NYC City Pass booklet ($79 for adults and $59 for children) is valid for nine days and contains tickets to six of New York City’s top attractions: the Empire State Building; the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including entry into the Cloisters); the American Museum of Natural History; the Museum of Modern Art; a choice between the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, or a 2-hour Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise; and a choice between the Guggenheim Museum and Top of the Rock admission.
CitySightsNY is most well-known for the blue double-decker hop-on-hop-off buses that ferry tourists around New York City (not to be confused with the red ones, which are operated by Grey Line). While hop-on-hop-off buses aren’t appealing to all, CitySightsNY also offers a “Super New York Tour” that ends up being similar to a City Pass.
Valid for three days (and costing $86 for adults, $65 for children), the vouchers give you unlimited access to the hop-on-hop-off buses and all the narrated tours (downtown, uptown and Harlem, Brooklyn, and a night tour). And you also get free admission to the Museum of the City of New York, a 1-hour Circle Line harbor cruise, a ferry ticket to Liberty and Ellis islands, and a choice between the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock observation decks.
If it’s your first time to NYC and you’re nervous about navigating the subway system or hailing taxis, this pass might be right for you. You can basically use the hop-on-hop-off buses for your main transportation, and walk everywhere else.
Do you have suggestions of must-see spots that aren’t on my list? Share them in the comments below.