Alicia Keys captured the essence of New York City in her song Empire State of Mind when she wrote, “Now you’re in New York, these streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you.” Likely, you too will find yourself enraptured by this city’s buoyant energy the moment you step off the plane.
If you’re already familiar with things to do in New York City, you’ll want to dig deeper into the city that never sleeps with each visit. But for those new to NYC, you’d be remiss if you came here and skipped any of these classic must-do experiences.
Take in the View from the Empire State Building
The Empire State Building provides spectacular views of New York City. Your experience begins at the 34th Street entrance and Visitors’ Center where you’ll pass through security and buy your tickets before boarding second-floor elevators that take you to the top.
Highlights of your visit include the 80th floor Dare to Dream Exhibit depicting the iconic 102-story Art Deco building’s 13-month construction in 1930-31. The 86th floor is New York’s highest open-air observatory and the world’s most famous where 360-degree views include Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty. The 102nd-floor wraparound top deck offers panoramic views up to 80 miles away. Your experience ends in the stunning 5th Avenue Lobby.
Some tips for your visit – skip the line with an Express Pass, beat the crowd by arriving before 11 a.m., and use the second-floor bathrooms before getting in line for elevators. Note that kids under six are free. The second floor ESB store is open whenever the building is open. Shops and restaurants line ground level along 33rd and 34th streets, and 5th Avenue.
The Empire State Building is open 365 days from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.
Meet Lady Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is the most recognizable icon of the United States, a symbol of freedom and democracy. There are a number of ways to experience Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, both free and paid.
You can see the Statue of Liberty for free from the Staten Island Ferry that leaves Manhattan’s Battery Park every half hour. The 25-minute ride through New York Harbor passes by the Statue offering riders great views. Or, you can stay on land at Battery Park and enjoy the view from there. Head to the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn for great land views from Louis Valentino Jr. Pier.
For the full experience, take a tour of Liberty Island followed by Ellis Island with Statue Cruises, the only vendor authorized by the NPS to land on the islands. If you plan to climb to the Statue pedestal or crown, you have to make advance reservations. There are 377 steps to the crown and no elevators.
A final option is a New York Harbor cruise that circles the Statue of Liberty. Dinner cruises are popular, offering magnificent nighttime views of the Statue and the Manhattan skyline.
Attend a Broadway Show
Getting a ticket to the Broadway show of your choice can be arduous. Many of your favorites may already be sold out, but don’t despair. If you’ve been lusting after tickets to Hamilton or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there may still be a way. If you’re creative, you may not even have to pay full price.
The easiest way to get a ticket to a show on Broadway is to purchase it online months in advance. Since this won’t work for everyone, here are some other things to try. (The more flexible you are, the better your chances.) Grab some same day discounted show tickets from TDF’s TKTS Booths at 47th and Broadway or 62nd and Broadway – many with deep discounts. If you have your heart set on a big show, try a lottery at the theater of choice, or on TodayTix.
Even if you aren’t able to secure a ticket to a Broadway show, consider off-Broadway. The tickets are cheaper and generally easier to come by, and you’ll still have a fabulous New York theater experience. (Harry Potter fans should book tickets to Puffs, a hilarious off-Broadway spin on the popular series.)
(Tip: Don’t forget that there’s also the Apollo Theater in Harlem which first opened in 1914 as a burlesque theater. When the city’s mayor banned burlesque, the theater was closed and reopened as the Apollo in 1934 showcasing African American performers from the Harlem Renaissance. The theater’s famous Amateur Night quickly debuted such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie.
To get to the Apollo, you’ll make your way to the heart of Harlem on West 125th Street. You can tour the theater by joining a daily, guided group tour. One-hour tours are led by Mr. Billy Mitchell, who’s worked at the Apollo since 1965, so you’ll hear plenty of behind-the-scenes stories.
It’s also an electrifying experience to be part of the Amateur Night at the Apollo audience, cheering or deciding when to “sweep” a performer from the stage. Who knows? You may see the next Lauryn Hill, Jackson 5, or James Brown.)
Spend Time in Central Park
The state of New York set aside 750 acres of urban parkland in 1853, which became Central Park. It’s known as the lungs of New York City with thousands of trees that help to improve the air quality, myriad of jogging and biking paths, and green space to enjoy in good weather. There are so many things to see and do here, you’ll want to check out their official website, visit one of their Visitor Centers, or grab an interactive map to chart your own course.
A must-see in Central Park is the famous Central Park Mall & Literary Walk. This is the most photographed and recognizable part of the park having been featured in countless films. Mature elm trees form an elegant arc over a wide pedestrian walkway lined with benches. At its southern end is the lesser known Literary Walk with statues providing tributes to prominent writers.
Other park highlights include the bronze Alice in Wonderland sculpture, Wollman Ice Skating Rink in winter, the 1908 vintage carousel, Central Park Zoo, the Dairy Visitor Center & Gift Shop, and Bethesda Terrace. Families love Conservatory Water for its climbing sculptures, model boats, story-telling programs, and café. We tend to stay at Mandarin Oriental, New York in Columbus Circle because we like walking from the hotel into the park in a matter of minutes.
Experience Times Square
Times Square, aka Crossroads of the World, is the heartbeat of New York City. The billboards alone, or spectaculars as they’re known locally, are electrifying. At Midnight Moment, they’re also synchronized. This is classic New York, high energy hustle and bustle with everyone on the move. You’ll find something to please each member of the family in Times Square. It’s hectic but a must-do at least once in a lifetime just to say you’ve been there.
There are more than a few things to do at Times Square with kids. National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey is the most high-tech attraction with 60,000 square feet of exhibition space – for virtual sea life encounters. There’s a whole miniature world at Gulliver’s Gate, the best selection of Marvel comics at Midtown Comics, and three floors of chocolate at M&M’s World. And that’s only the beginning.
Other must-do Times Square attractions include touring Madame Tussauds wax museum and joining the studio audience for a TV show “Good Morning America.”
Explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has assembled an astounding collection representing over 5,000 years of cultural artworks from around the world. One really could spend days here and it’s a top pick for things to do in New York City with kids. The Met even has a family map. My daughter has always loved the Degas ballerinas, Egyptian mummies, Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), and Arms and Armour.
To make the most of your time with this vast collection, you’ll want to choose a guided or audio tour (there is also an audio tour for kids) that matches your interests. You can choose from a variety of engaging one-hour tours presented in various languages that begin at the Great Hall.
The Museum Highlights tours are regulars with other tours on rotation depending on featured collections. All guided tours are free with the price of admission.
You can spend all of your time at The Met Fifth Avenue (where most people start) or also visit The Met Breuer for an Architecture Tour, and The Met Cloisters for European medieval art and architecture audio tours. All three museum locations open at 10:00 a.m. seven days a week, but The Met Breuer is closed on Mondays.
Top of the Rock and Rockefeller Center
Head over to Rockefeller Center for a variety of activities. In winter, enjoy the massive Christmas tree and famous ice skating rink. During the rest of the year, admire some of the best NYC views from the Top of the Rock Observation Deck or take a behind-the-scenes tour of NBC Studios. Make a booking for brunch at the famous Rainbow Room. Snag a banana pudding and cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery. Also popular with kids is the enormous LEGO store, Nintendo store, and FAO Schwarz.
Don’t forget that you can request tickets for the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon or even catch a performance at Radio City Music Hall.
Close proximity to Rockefeller Center is a benefit to staying at The Towers at Lotte Palace.
Take a Walk over the Brooklyn Bridge
Many New Yorkers consider walking across the Brooklyn Bridge a rite of passage. Visitors wanting to experience New York like a local flock to the bridge to check it off their bucket list too. The popular pedestrian walkway, elevated above traffic, connects Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.
The Brooklyn Bridge is hands down the most iconic bridge in New York City, featured in films like Saturday Night Fever and Gangs of New York, among others. The architecture alone is stunning, but be sure to take note of the Manhattan skyline on your way across. Guided walking tours are available, including some focused on the bridge’s history or architecture.
At just over a mile long, it will take a half to full hour to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, one way. You’ll want to plan for it to be pretty windy with no protection from the elements. Wear a hat and sunscreen in the summer. Also, walkers share the bridge with cyclists, so be cautious. There are no essentials on the bridge like bathrooms, snacks, or water.
We started on the Brooklyn side and walked across to Manhattan. It’s a bit of a walk from the Brooklyn subway station (about 10 minutes) to the base of the bridge. It’s a well-marked path but not exactly through a major thoroughfare. On both sides, during a hot summer day, vendors sell much-needed bottled water and ice cream.
Pay Respects at the 9/11 Memorial
Many visitors to New York City want to pay their respects to the victims of September 11 with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The two are located adjacent to each other on an eight-acre Memorial Plaza, and are part of the larger 16-acre World Trade Center. They serve as a tribute to those who lost their lives as a result of terror attacks on February 26, 1993 and September 11, 2001.
The 9/11 Memorial Plaza includes 400 white oak trees, and two one-acre pools with the nation’s largest manmade waterfalls where the twin towers once stood. Every name of those who perished is inscribed in bronze surrounding the two Memorial pools. Memorial Glade includes six stone monoliths dedicated to rescue and recovery workers, relief workers, survivors, and community members affected by the attack. The Survivor Tree that endured the attack is a symbol of resilience and rebirth.
The 9/11 Memorial Museum is the nation’s primary institution dedicated to the remembrance of September, 11. Visitors will find state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits, monumental artifacts, and significant archives. The museum tells the story of both victims and survivors. Visitors can purchase tickets for guided Memorial tours, Museum tours, or combination tours which are also included options on various New York sightseeing passes.
Bask in the Nostalgia of Coney Island
Even if you’ve never been to New York City, you’ve likely heard of Coney Island. This nostalgic seaside resort is embedded in our culture through our music, theater, film, literature, television, and even video games. Once upon a time, over a century ago, it was the preeminent seaside getaway in America.
Today, it’s been revitalized to recapture at least some of its former allure. There are new bars and restaurants, and even the amusement park has gotten a major facelift. But the old carny-style ambience has remained too. You’ll find some of the same concessions that have been here for decades, an enduring circus sideshow, the traditional annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade, and of course, the famous boardwalk.
Must-do experiences at Coney Island include riding the Cyclone wooden roller coaster at Luna Park, and the 150-foot 1920s Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel at Deno’s Wonderwheel Amusement Park next door. An afternoon at the beach, or visit the New York Aquarium along the iconic Boardwalk are also good bets. Grab a hotdog from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, or a caramel apple from the 75-year-old Williams Candy store. If it’s playing, you can even watch a family-friendly sideshow.
Save on Things to Do in New York City With Sightseeing Passes
There are several options for NYC sightseeing passes that help you save month on attractions. They also conveniently allow you to skip the ticket booth lines in many cases.
The New York Pass is a popular all-inclusive pass for active sightseers as it includes admission to over 100 attractions across 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 or 10 days.
Less active sightseers or those who are weaving in a few major attractions in between eating glorious food and shopping may prefer the New York Explorer Pass. We used this during our trip a few months ago. This NYC sightseeing pass provides entry to 3, 4, 5, 7, or 10 attractions and tours from 90 options. You have 30 days to use the pass from its first activation.
Both are accessible via mobile phones apps so that you can skip the ticket lines and go straight to the gate in many cases. They also don’t require you to choose which attractions to visit in advance with the exception of guided tours which need reservations.
What are your favorite things to do in New York City?