NYC has so many attractions you’ll be hard pushed to shoehorn them in to just one visit, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
This ballsy, bodacious place gets under your skin like no other city on the planet. New York City lures you with the promise of bright lights and just about anything else you care to ask for – and it doesn’t disappoint.
After all, you know the song, don’t you? “New York, New York, a city so nice they had to name it twice.”
It’s one of those misquoted and mis-attributed lines that do the rounds, often said to be a 1978 Gerard Kenny song lyric when in fact it first popped up on a George Russell track two decades earlier. Regardless, the sentiment’s true.
The Statue of Liberty
Google “NYC attractions” and the likelihood is this is the one that’ll pop up first. It may not look it from across the water, but to reach the crown of Lady Liberty involves a climb of 393 steps from ground level, equivalent to the height of a 27 storey building.
You’ll need to book well in advance because tickets are strictly limited. But to say you’ve been inside the most recognisable of all the NYC monuments is something pretty special indeed.
Bundled up on the same ferry ticket as the Statue of Liberty is Ellis Island. On the back of a wave of immigration from the poverty-stricken corners of Europe, New York earned the nickname ‘the melting pot’.
Today, an estimated 800 languages are spoken in the city, making it one of the most linguistically diverse on the planet.
The Ellis Island museum tells the stories of some of the 12 million immigrants who were processed on Ellis Island.
Something like half of the population of the USA can trace an ancestor who was one of them. Who knows: you might too.
One of the downsides to ticking off the biggest NYC sights is the queues that go with them. If you’re waiting for your ferry slot in Battery Park, while away a half hour or so where you bought your ticket, in Castle Clinton.
This sandstone fort, built in the early 19th century, is one of NYC’s National Monuments.
Alternatively, head for the water’s edge and watch the iconic orange Staten Island ferries shuttle back and forth across the harbour – it’s NYC’s best free ride.
The city’s fifth largest park (the top accolade actually goes to Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx) is also one of NYC’s top visitor attractions.
Rightly so – these are the city’s green lungs, a place where among the many tourists you’ll find joggers, horse riders and families making the most of their time off.
Don’t miss the Wollman Rink, packed with ice skaters in winter and Central Park Zoo, a year-round favourite.
Rent a rowing boat from Loeb Boathouse for some fun on the lake or tour the extensive park in style with a horse-drawn carriage rented by the hour.
A pilgrimage to the Strawberry Fields memorial, close to the spot where John Lennon fell, is a must for Beatles fans.
Ground Zero Museum and 9/11 Memorial
The footprint of the Twin Towers has become a tasteful memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 tragedy.
Elegant and calming, it’s a place to come and pay your respects regardless of whether you have a personal connection or not. Adjacent is the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
Through text, photographs and artefacts rescued from the rubble, it aims to inform, document and explore the continued significance of the attack and its aftermath.
Over in the Meatpacker’s District, you’ll find the unaffiliated but equally compelling Ground Zero Museum Workshop. This tiny museum uses photographs and audio stories to create a poignant and moving tribute to the fallen.
One World Trade Center
This iconic skyscraper, the western hemisphere’s tallest, is the main building in the rebuilt complex destroyed in the terrorist attacks of 2001.
At the time of their completion in 1976, the Twin Towers were the tallest buildings in the world. From the observation deck on the 107th floor of the South Tower, you could see that the towers swayed a little in the wind – they were designed that way.
Today’s tower, opened in 2014, has quickly cemented its place as one of NYC’s top visitor attractions.
As you ascend, the city grows up around you in a multimedia presentation that’s worth paying twice to see what you missed the first time. I won’t spoil the secret, but the great reveal as the elevator doors open is jaw-droppingly brilliant.
Empire State Building
No matter how many times you go up it, NYC tourist attractions don’t get any better than the Empire State Building. Stand at the bottom and look up.
You could be anywhere – the tiered top is invisible from this angle. But step inside those doors and you enter a glittering, Art Deco lobby that will take your breath away.
From the observation deck, open to the wind, the whole of the city stretches beneath you.
Yellow taxis look like toy cars as they busy themselves carrying passengers up and down New York’s avenues and across its streets.
Central Park anchors landmarks to the north, while One World Trade to the south is a symbol of hope and new beginnings.
Top of the Rock
Located at the top of the Rockefeller Center, hence the name, of the three high rise competitors it boasts the best view of the Chrysler Building thanks to its 50th Street location.
In winter, while you’re there, go ice skating at ground level on the Rockefeller’s rink beside the glittering tree that graces the plaza. Year round, the iconic Bar 65, adjacent to the famous Rainbow Room is the place to go for a drink.
Tucked away on a quiet street off Battery Park, where the lower reaches of the Hudson empty into the harbour, you’ll find the Skyscraper Museum.
If you’ve ticked off the main NYC sites and are looking for something more, this little-known museum does what it says on the tin, explaining the engineering behind the world’s skyscrapers and showcasing their design.
Exhibits change but you can expect to explore the architectural heritage of NYC’s iconic skyline and learn why skyscrapers are generally found in lower Manhattan and Midtown, but not in between.
The High Line
What do you do with a disused elevated railway that’s a blight on your neighbourhood? You turn it into a green space, of course.
Imaginative planting and a desire to preserve at least some of the architectural landscape makes this a must.
Linking the gentrified warehouses of the Meatpackers District to the newly developed Hudson Yards, the park seamlessly blends design, industrial heritage and ecology in what rapidly cemented its position as one of New York’s most popular visitor attractions.
One of the best NYC activities is simply to sit up there and watch the world go by.
But amble along and duck down to Chelsea Market while you’re passing for a Fat Witch Brownie, the best sweet treat in Manhattan.
Brooklyn’s answer to the High Line is taking shape across the water in happening Williamsburg, a reason if you needed one to drag yourself away from the neighbourhood’s trendy boutiques.
A now derelict sugar factory, built in 1882, forms the gritty industrial backdrop to this imaginatively landscaped park which runs alongside the East River.
Once, Brooklyn handled half the sugar trade in the United States, but changing tastes meant demand fell and the factories shut for good.
Now it’s a peaceful place, so park yourself in front of the best view in town, the Manhattan skyline, and watch the river traffic pass slowly by.
Though the New York Stock Exchange is no longer open for tours, a trip to the epicentre of New York’s financial district is a still one of the NYC highlights.
Stand on the steps of Federal Hall behind George Washington and look across to the unmistakable colonnaded façade of the place where many a fortune has been made and lost.
At nearby Bowling Green, the bronze of Charging Bull attracts a crowd, who rub its nose, horns and testicles of the bull for good luck.
Few who do realise that the artist originally installed it (illegally) in Wall Street before the authorities relocated it to its present home.
The instantly recognisable triangular shape of the Flatiron Building has been a fixture on the New York skyline since it topped out in 1902.
Originally it was named the Fuller Building, but locals gave it the nickname that not only stuck, it was later officially adopted.
Ironically, for one of NYC’s most photographed attractions and top places to visit, you can’t go inside, but the view of the Empire State Building from its feet along Broadway assures it of a place on any first-timer’s itinerary.
The best antidote to jetlag I’ve ever found, Times Square is a mecca for tourists late into the night. This is where the lights shine so brightly, it could almost be daylight.
Emerge from the subway and I defy you not to stand in awe of this temple to commerce and entertainment – sightseeing in NYC just wouldn’t feel complete without it.
Originally known as Longacre Square, it adopted its present name in 1904 when the New York Times moved in. On New Year’s Eve, Times Square is the focus for the annual ball drop, a tradition since 1907.
The rest of the year it’s only a stone’s throw from the stages of Broadway’s many theatres.
Coming to New York and not visiting the stores of 5th Avenue – or at least window shopping – is unthinkable. Almost all the big names are here: Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Tiffany & Co are just some of them.
But to visit the largest department store in the world, Macy’s, in Herald Square and the home of the Little Brown Bag Bloomingdales at 59th and Lexington, you’ll need to walk a little further.
Shop ‘til you drop – it’ll give you the perfect excuse to hail one of the city’s famous yellow cabs to haul your purchases back to your hotel room.
Madison Square Garden
A whole host of sports events in NYC are held at Madison Square Garden. Basketball fans won’t need to be told that this is the home of the New York Knicks; they share the venue with the New York Rangers who thrill ice hockey fans with a fast-paced game.
If you can’t get tickets, take a backstage tour instead. The All Access Tour is entertaining, informative and a must for your NYC sightseeing list.
The brownstones and cobbled, almost traffic-free streets of Greenwich Village might be a stone’s throw from 6th Avenue, but they feel like they belong somewhere else entirely. Gay Street was once a stable alley; around the corner you’ll find Jefferson Market Garden, a city oasis from spring to autumn.
Gay Street was once a stable alley; around the corner you’ll find Jefferson Market Garden, a city oasis from spring to autumn.
Washington Square famously featured in movies like I am Legend. Fans of the sitcom Friends will want to make a pilgrimage to the corner of Grove and Bedford. Nearby 75½ Bedford is the narrowest house in the Village, less than ten feet wide.
Union Square Greenmarket
A visit to a farmer’s market might not be an obvious choice among NYC things to do. But the Union Square Greenmarket is a great place to pick up the makings of a summer picnic on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday.
On the other days, a craft market fills the void. In winter, the space hosts one of NYC’s most magical Christmas markets, along with that found in Bryant Park in Midtown.
Many of those who came to New York on the promise of the American dream found themselves in a living nightmare, at least in the beginning.
The demand from wealthy New Yorkers for luxury clothing created a buoyant market for textile workers, many of whom worked from home out of cramped rooms in shared tenements.
Such workspaces are painstakingly recreated in the fascinating Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side, rising through the ranks of NYC’s top attractions list following a recent expansion.
This Lower East Side delicatessen featured in the Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal movie “When Harry Met Sally”. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Ryan’s character fakes an orgasm, leading the customer at the next table to utter the famous line “I’ll have what she’s having”.
You can sit in that same seat – it’s still marked by a sign – as you try some of Katz’s signature pastrami on rye sandwiches. Go hungry if you want to try dessert too – the cake portions are huge.
Though gentrification has diluted the ethnic authenticity of New York’s Chinatown, it remains an unmistakably Asian enclave in the heart of North America.
This is the place to grab a pork bun, drink a bubble tea or wave back at the nodding kitties in neighbourhood shop windows.
Chinatown is also one of the best places to visit in NYC to bag a cheap hoodie or I ❤ NY T-shirt, something that ensures a steady stream of tourists alight at Canal Street’s subway stations.
The UN building
New Yorkers like to boast that their city might not be the capital of the USA but it is the “capital of the world”. Such a claim is given credence by the location of the UN Headquarters here and a tour is one of the best things to do in NYC.
For an insight into the workings of international diplomacy, make sure you pre-book. Meetings permitting, you can sometimes access the General Assembly Hall and Security Council Chamber.
Roosevelt Island Tramway
The narrow island in the East River that took the name of a president is largely residential, but it’s a must visit for its aerial tramway.
This cable car links Manhattan at 59th and 2nd to the island and offers an usual view of the city to those who ride it. The distinctive red cars were fully refurbished in 2010 after a series of incidents a few years prior.
Museum of the City of New York
Located at the northern end of Museum Mile, the Museum of the City of New York is one of the essential NYC sights if you want to delve into the New York psyche and understand what makes this place tick.
Ongoing set pieces include a film cataloguing the development of the city – like the one you’ll experience at One World Trade but at a less breakneck pace – as well as exhibits on social activism and the people who made (and make) New York what it is today.
Gospel Brunch in Harlem
You don’t have to be religious to enjoy brunch in Harlem to the soundtrack of live gospel music. The sweet sound of those harmonies and melodies are the perfect backdrop to a convivial meal which will get your New York Sunday off to a great start.
The traditional choice is the Southern soul food served up at Sylvia’s, a community favourite since 1962. Newcomer Red Rooster is the creation of celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, whose modern take adds another dimension to the classics. Whichever you choose, reserve early – both fill up fast.
Activities suitable for children in NYC are easy to come by, and this is one of the stand outs. Since it opened in 1899, millions of visitors have passed through the gates of the Bronx Zoo, one of the largest in the United States. Its immense size enables it to hold one of the largest bison herds in captivity.
Along with the African Plains area and the Big Bears, they form one of the most popular sectors of the zoo. Visit on a Wednesday when general admission is free, though you’ll still need to upgrade to visit the premium exhibits such as Congo Gorilla Forest.
A baseball game at the Yankee Stadium is a must for fans hoping to catch one of the popular sports events in NYC. The $2.3 billion stadium, located in the Bronx, opened in 2009, a block north of the original which has since been demolished.
A construction worker buried a Boston Red Sox jersey in the dugout in the hope of placing a curse on the rival team, but he was caught and it was exhumed. The Yankees went on to win the World Series that year.
Grab a ticket for the grandstand or the bleachers and experience a game if you’re in the city between March and September. Just don’t wear red.
New York Botanical Garden
Completing the essential Bronx trio is a visit to the New York Botanical Garden. It boasts over a million plants on a site that covers around 250 acres.
Though it’s beautiful at any time, it’s especially worth the trip in autumn, when it’s a riot of gold, crimson and burnt orange.
Entry to the grounds is free on Wednesdays year round but it’s worth paying for a ticket to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory to see its collection of tropical plants, cacti and carnivorous plants from across the globe.
Few bridges become visitor attractions in their own right, but the brown stonework of Brooklyn Bridge has become one of the most iconic NYC landmarks.
A hybrid cable-stayed suspension bridge, it spans the East River linking Brooklyn Bridge Park and Lower Manhattan.
Stroll to Jane’s Carousel, a vintage 1922 fairground ride housed in a glass pavilion, and through the BBP’s delightful flower gardens.
Walk back to Manhattan and admire it from one of the benches beside South Street Seaport, or hop on one of the public ferries which will deliver you conveniently to Wall Street.
New York Transit Museum
The New York Transit Museum is housed in the decommissioned Court Street subway station in Brooklyn. Opened in 1936, the station the expected traffic never materialised and it closed just ten years later.
It still has the ability to function as a station, however, making it a favourite of location scouts such as those working on both versions of the movie The Taking of Pelham 123.
Since 1976, it’s also been a museum, with vintage railcars, retired buses and other transit-related paraphernalia. Practice your strap hanging before treating yourself to a souvenir in the gift shop.
Amid the high rises of Manhattan it’s easy to forget that New York has plenty of beachfront too. The best known of its resorts is Coney Island, an hour by subway from downtown and one of my favourite NYC places to visit in summer.
It’s worth the commute to ride the Cyclone, a wooden rollercoaster that’s been thrilling visitors since 1927.
When your stomach has settled, call in at Nathan’s for one of its famous hot dogs, best eaten on the go as you stroll along the wooden boardwalk en route to your own little patch of white sand.
One for summer, this: there’s nothing better than hopping on a weekend ferry to swap the heat of the city for somewhere a little more bearable.
This tiny island is less than a kilometre off the southern tip of Manhattan but feels like a world away from the hubbub and bustle.
Hire a bicycle and loop the island’s flat pathways, pausing to take in the views of the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty across the water. Pack a picnic: this is the perfect spot to while away a summer’s afternoon.
Museum of the Moving Image
The up and coming neighbourhood of Astoria is still off the beaten track, but if you’re keen to get off Manhattan and explore the borough of Queens, it’s where you’ll find one of the best museums in NYC for popular culture.
Headlining is the unmissable Jim Henson Exhibition, but when you’re done with Kermit and Miss Piggy there’s a quirky collection of artefacts covering everything from CGI to familiar costumes from the big and small screens.
To give this place its correct name, this architectural gem on NYC’s Upper East Side is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Its elegant white curves, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1950s, grace the edge of Central Park and host some of the most important cultural events in NYC.
Climb to the upper levels of this “temple to the spirit” via its looping ramp to fully appreciate this wonderful building.
New York Public Library
A public library might seem an odd choice for a visitor attraction, but this is New York, and this is no ordinary library. The Main Branch, more correctly named the Stephen A.
Schwarzman Building, is famed for its elaborate Beaux-Arts style and the stone lions which flank its 5th Avenue entrance. Go in and have a look – you don’t need to be a member or even an avid reader.
Grand Central Terminal
A commuter railway terminal is, on the face of it, an unlikely contender for a tourist attraction. But this is no ordinary station.
Grand Central might not be the city’s busiest railway station – that accolade goes to Penn – but it’s easily its most beautiful and one of the essential things to see in NYC.
Crepuscular shafts of light stream through its windows, illuminating a concourse topped by a magnificent vaulted ceiling with a mural of the constellations.
Duck downstairs and you’ll find an extraordinary whispering gallery worthy of any church.
New kid on the block, The Oculus train station has delighted architecture fans since it opened in 2016.
Located in the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, this $4 billion grand design is at once a thing of beauty and a place which invokes a sense of being in the belly of a whale.
The clean lines of its white ribs form the ceiling of a station which looks set to rival Grand Central Terminus for the wow factor.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
A round up of NYC attractions would not be complete without a mention of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met is the largest art museum in the United States, and the third most visited of its kind in the world – almost 7 million visitors stepped across its threshold in 2018.
Highlights include “Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat” by Vincent van Gogh and “Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies” by Claude Monet.
Before you wrap up your visit, ask someone to direct you to the rooftop garden. After all, the city is a masterpiece itself, don’t you think?
It’s not hard to see why so many people return to New York City over and over again. Where you visit first is up to you.
Arrive on a winter’s afternoon, and the bright lights of Times Square are hard to beat; on a summer trip, a stroll through Central Park is the perfect place to stretch your legs after all that travelling.
One thing’s certain, with so many visitor attractions on offer, one visit just isn’t enough to do this city justice. But don’t take my word for it – come and see for yourself.