10 Best Things to do in New York City (for a First Timer)

I didn’t quite get it at first. What was all the hype about New York City (NYC)? Spending most of my time in a fast-paced, high density, economic driven city, I generally yearn for a holiday that takes me to vast expanses of mountains and fields – something to slow down the pace of life for a week out of the 52 in a year.

But during my travels in the North American region, missing out on New York wasn’t in the equation, I had to go and experience the city for myself. And I’d must say, the buzz of New York was infectious and undeniable. Once you’re there, you’ll understand that there truly isn’t another city in the world quite like it.

Exploring the behemoth of a city can get expensive, so here’s a tip that will save you some money. You can opt for the New York Pass or New York Explorer Pass which will grant you access to the various world-class attractions sprawled across NYC. While these passes are not cheap, up front the sheer number of admissions they provide at substantial discounts makes the passes well worth the price.

Well, without further ado, here are the top 10 things to do for that quintessential New York experience.

1. Catch A Broadway Show

Photo by Sudan Ouyang on Unsplash

Really, if you go to New York City and don’t catch Broadway, did you really go to NYC?

Theatre in New York City has a storied past, stretching back to the 18th century. Broadway, as it’s now called, has evolved to become almost synonymous with New York, an important linchpin of society that forms the city’s identity.

From crowd-pleasing hits like Wicked to Hamilton, and the more recent Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the Broadway scene in New York is as vibrant as ever. With 41 large and small theatres concentrated in the Times Square area alone, Broadway is one of the main reasons why Times Square never stops buzzing.

2. Visit The Empire State Building

When it comes to iconic symbols of NYC, nothing beats the Empire State Building, the 102-storey building that seemingly pierces the heavens.

Officially opened in 1931, the Empire State Building has been featured in countless TV shows and movies since appearing on the big screen in 1933 in King Kong. While it has risen to become a defining cultural icon of America, the Empire State Building was actually built as part of a race to create the world’s tallest building.

You can also head up to get unobstructed panoramic views of New York City to enjoy among the world’s most breathtaking views.

3. Museum Hopping

When you’re in New York, I highly suggest carving out some time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and the American Museum of Natural History, regardless if you’re a museum lover or not.

Cultural institutions that are famed across the world, both museums are wonderfully designed with exhibits that are entirely engaging, not the least boring and dull that museums have generally come to be associated with. From the iconic large skeleton of T-Rex to floor-to-ceiling artworks from the Renaissance, you’ll spend hours exploring before you know it.

If you have more time, the Whitney Museum of American Art is an art museum that focuses on American art through the ages, showcasing a whole set of different artworks from the MET.

4. Remember the Fallen at the 9/11 Memorial

While the New York of today is the epitome of a glitz and glam cosmopolitan society, it holds a painful scar of the 9/11 disaster.

When visiting “Ground Zero” as they say, you’ll notice two large square wells, with names of those who lost their lives during the terrible attack engraved along its four sides. These two wells are constructed upon the very spots the Twin Towers once stood.

Don’t miss out on the 9/11 Memorial Museum which honours the memory of those who have fallen and those who were lucky to survive.

I managed to join a guided walking tour, and the tour guides were people who had lost loved ones during the nightmare attack on the city. The tales they told were haunting and powerful, leaving an indelible impact in my New York experience.

5. Times Square

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Two sides of the same coin // Times Square

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“The Big Apple” is perhaps New York’s most famous nickname, but it’s not the only one. Right in the heart of Manhattan is Times Square, which is the living embodiment of “The City That Never Sleeps”.

When it comes to Times Square, it’s difficult not to get swept up in all the action and liveliness that happen. From cosplayers to musicians, every street had something different to offer, and it made Orchard Road back home seem like a dead town.

I caught a play in the Helen Hayes Theatre (with Chris Evans acting in fact!) and was slightly worried about being out in a foreign city so late at night. To my surprise, when I left the theatre, Times Square was still beating fast and loud, exactly like it was four hours ago (the play ended at 11pm).

Bright lights were illuminating the streets, performers were out and about, and the shops didn’t seem like they were going to close any time soon. Times Square man, it truly never sleeps.

6. Central Park

Now, I don’t consider myself a park person, if there is even such a thing.

Central Park, however, is truly one of the most beautiful parks that I have ever been to, and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a park, but you cannot miss it. Even if it’s just a simple stroll through to get from point A to point B, I’d highly recommend it.

Maybe it’s the people flying kites or just lazing on the grass, it was whatever I imagined the typical park scenes from the movies coming to life. The foliage was lush and beautiful, from the trees right down to the shrubs.

7. Architecture of NYC

From the Chrysler Building to the Flatiron Building, there is no shortage of monumental architecture that form the skyline of New York City. A walk through Manhattan will inevitably lead you to the various towering skyscrapers and famous architecture throughout the neighbourhoods.

From the billboard-laden streets of Times Square to the up-and-coming trendy neighbourhood of SoHo, each district of New York has its own flair that is distinctive, giving you a different experience as you traverse through the many streets and avenues of the city.

Wedging itself right on the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway is the Flatiron Building, another iconic building of New York. The unique triangular shape and design of the Flatiron Building has gained renown all over the world, with a reputation not far behind the acclaimed Empire State Building.

You’ll soon find that each neighbourhood tells a different story and period of NYC, and you should take the time to uncover what makes each district unique.

8. The Brooklyn Bridge

Photo by Lerone Pieters on Unsplash

Talking about monumental architecture, the Brooklyn Bridge is a popular sight on Instagram feeds. A feat of architectural ingenuity of the 19th century, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most iconic bridges in the world.

Connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and taking roughly 20-25 minutes to cross, the Brooklyn Bridge remains one of the busiest stretches of the entire city. From cyclists to joggers, and a whole bunch of tourists, there’ll be no shortage of people commuting up and down.

If you want some good shots without grappling with the crowd, I’d suggest going early in the morning.

9. Try the Signature Food of NYC

No visit to NYC would be complete without tasting some of the best food the city has to offer. New York is a rather racially and ethnically diverse state, and that has given birth to a culturally diverse culinary foodscape that encompasses everything from pizzas to bagels.

Talking about bagels, Absolute Bagels along Broadway Street is heaven-sent. With hand-rolled and freshly baked bagels every day, expect snaking queues that start right when they open at 6am. The bagels are substantial in size but not overly big, and with various flavours to choose from, go hand-in-hand with a cuppa joe.

If you’re looking for something a little more hearty, The Halal Guys is a solid choice. A popular halal fast food casual restaurant franchise, The Halal Guys started out as a hotdog pushcart at the southeast and southwest corners of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in 1990. Today, with its famous white and red sauces, it has grown to be one of America’s favourite fast food joint. And trust me when they say the spicy option (red sauce) is spicy, hot damn it’s spicy.

And hey, don’t forget about Shake Shack, the fast food wonder that has enthralled many around the world was founded right here in the city.

10. Take a Boat to See the Statue of Liberty

Unfortunately, during my visit, I was unable to visit the Statue of Liberty, long considered the world’s symbol of freedom and democracy.

Originally a gift from France to America to commemorate the alliance of both countries during the American Revolution, the Statue of Liberty has grown to become one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks.

The Grounds Only tickets are the most widely available and you’ll be able to get up close and personal with the inspiring statue. The ticket will also grant you access to the National Museum of Immigration on the neighbouring Ellis Island which is served by the same boat that ferries you to the Statue of Liberty.

But if you want a truly memorable experience, purchase the Crown ticket which will grant you access to the top of the statue to get some of the best views of mainland New York. Do note that the Crown tickets are limited daily so you have to book early and fast!

The article was originally published on 26 February 2020. Last updated by Discoverist Team on 3 July 2023.

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