20 x NYC must do’s for first-time visitors

Your first time visit to New York can be overwhelming as there is so much to see and do. New York is such a big city and you could easily stay here a few weeks to discover all of it. Hence, it can be quite challenging planning your trip to New York and ensure you’re getting the most out of your visit. This article will help you plan your first-time visit to New York and covers the following topics:

  • Best time to visit New York
  • Getting around in New York
  • Where to stay in New York
  • 20 x must do’s when in New York
  • How many days to spend in New York
  • Useful tips for your first time in New York

Best time to visit New York

The best period to visit New York is either in spring or fall – April, May, June or September, October. During these months the weather is perfect; in general it’s not so cold (yet) but also not too hot for a citytrip. However, keep in mind that prices go up during these months. New York in December is perfect if you want to explore New York during Christmas period but can be very cold and pricey.

The cheapest period to visit New York is end February, March and begin April. I went the first week of March and was very lucky as the weather felt like early Spring. We didn’t even have to wear a coat all the time, which was just perfect! Also, we paid only 260EUR per person for a return ticket and maybe only half the price for our hotel compared to prices in May or June.

Tip: Booking.com has great Black Friday hotel deals for bookings until the end of March so make sure to check it out in November.

Central Park in March New York
Central Park in March

Getting around in New York

There are many modes of transport to get yourself from A to B in New York, from metro and taxi’s to bikes and boats. And of course, by foot. However, as New York is such a large city it is impossible to explore this city just by foot. Hence, you’ll need a little help and the next best alternative is to take the metro.

Grand Central Station Balcony

The New York subway system is easy to use, safe and very cheap. For only 30EUR you can purchase a 7-day unlimited MetroCard that you can use during your trip in New York. A single metro ride costs 2,75EUR so if you use the metro more than 10 times it’s cheaper to buy an unlimited card. We were in New York for four full days and bought single tickets but ended up using the metro around 10 times. Hence, the next time I would buy an unlimited card as you’ll never have to worry about buying a ticket or topping up your card. You can buy an unlimited card at a ticketing machine at any subway station.

Another known and typical way of transportation are the famous yellow cabs (or Ubers). However, keep in mind that taxi’s are more expensive and chances of getting stuck in traffic are high. Exploring the city by bike can be fun but kind of hectic if you’re not used to it. If you’re unsure about this, then try using a bike to explore Central Park instead.

From the airport to New York

From JFK to Manhattan you can take a taxi for about 60EUR and takes about 40-60 minutes without traffic jams. However, if you want to save money you can take the Airlink Shuttle for 5EUR that takes you to the nearest subway station. From here you pay 2,75EUR to get to any part of New York and takes about 45 minutes. Hence, this is much cheaper, shorter and very convenient.

They offer a similar service from Newark Airport. Distances from Newark to Manhattan are also similar to those of JFK.

Where to stay in New York

New York is made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island. For your first-time visit in New York I’d recommend staying in Manhattan as most of the highlights are located in this part of New York. We stayed in Midtown Manhattan (in NoMad) which was perfect for exploring the city. However, there are a few other areas in Manhattan that are great options too. I’ve done extensive research on which hotels are relatively affordable and have great reviews. Below you’ll find a list with my recommendation for hotels in New York (including a few options in Brooklyn):

Book: hotels in New York

Booking.com

Read: 5 x Best areas to stay in New York

Arlo Nomad City View Room
Room view at Arlo Nomad

Must do’s

There are endless things to do in New York and it’s impossible to see everything during your first-time visit. However, there are definitely a number things you must see and do. These can be very typical and famous must do’s but also a little less known and original must do’s. I’ve listed 20 of my personal favorites for your first-time visit to New York that offer great variety and are spread over different areas:

20 x New York must do’s:

#1: Let’s get it over with straight away: visit Times Square (during night time). See it, embrace and never go back again. You either hate this place or love it. This is the only spot in New York where you truly feel like this city is jammed with people (read: tourists). However, it’s a must see for first-timers.

#2. Visit the Top of the Rock in the morning for the best views over New York (this one looks out on the Empire State Building). In the morning you can have it almost completely to yourself. We visited the Empire State Building during night time. Some might say one observatory deck is enough, but I thought visiting both was perfect and equally breath taking!

Top of the Rock view
View from Top of the Rock

#3: Explore Central Park by bike or foot. Make sure to listen to performers singing Beatles songs at Strawberry Fields, ride a boat at the Boat Pond, picnic at Sheep Meadow, visit Belvedere Castle and walk along The Mall promenade. Did you know there’s also a Zoo in Central Park?

#4: Eat in a typical American diner.

#5: Visit the 9/11 memorial and museum. Although not a “fun” activity, it’s a very interesting and impressive must visit when in New York.

#6: Eat at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. Bonus: this is right next to the Flatiron building so you might as well check this out too.

#7: Visit Grand Central Station and watch people from one of the balcony’s. Tip: take a time lapse photo for the coolest effect.

Grand Central Station New York
Grand Central

#8: Visit The Oculus. This is not only the new World Trade Center station but also a shopping mall.

The Oculus New York
The Oculus

#9: Visit Stone Street in the Financial District: This is an old, industrial street full of bars and restaurants. Especially during summer the streets are filled with picnic benches to enjoy some food and drinks.

#10: Walk the Brooklyn Bridge. If you walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn, don’t forget to look behind you for the Manhattan skyline.

Brooklyn Bridge New York Girl
Brooklyn Bridge

#11: Explore DUMBO in Brooklyn, located right after the Brooklyn Bridge. Perfect place to shoot a few Instagram worthy photos. Did you know that DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass?

Street view Manhattan Bridge
Washington Street lookout at Manhattan Bridge
Pier near Jane's Carousel
DUMBO pier near Jane’s Carousel

#12: Have breakfast at one of many great breakfast hotspots. Suggestions: Bubby’s, Five Leaves, Two Hands, The Smith, The Egg House or Jack’s Wife Freda.

Favorite breakfast ever @ Bubby’s

#13: Explore artsy Williamsburg in Brooklyn: look for the best vintage shops, drink coffee at hip coffee shops, look out for street art and have cocktails with the best views over the Manhattan skyline at The William Vale.

#14: Go shopping in Soho. So many great boutique shops, galleries and cool streets with their famous cast-iron houses. One of the best areas in Manhattan if you ask me!

#15: Have a drink at a so-called speakeasy (a hidden bar).

#16: Walk The High Line. This is a public park built on an old train track elevated above the streets of Chelsea. It’s a really cool place where you can experience nature, art and design all in one. Tip: not the best option when it’s cold or wet. Tip: have breakfast at the start of the High Line at Bubby’s.

#17: Have a bite at Chelsea Market afterwards. A really cool urban food court located in the old Oreo Factory.

#18: Wander through the Meatpacking District and West Village towards Soho. Such a cool and upcoming area just below The High Line and Chelsea area. Walk past the apartment of Friends and SATC, have cupcake at Magnolia’s and enjoy Washington Square Park.

#19: Visit a sports game. If you have the opportunity to visit a sports game in New York, do it! Check if The Knicks (basketball) or The Yankees (baseball) play during your stay and be amazed by how much of a show they make of it. It’s a unique experience that you shouldn’t skip.

#20: Try typical NYC food: bagels, pizza, donuts, cronuts, cupcakes, hotdogs and on and on. Even if you eat your body weight in food, it will still be “OK” with the amount of walking during your trip in New York. Have a slice of Pizza at Joe’s Pizza, Bleecker Steet Pizza or Artichoke pizza and make sure to try a cronut at Dominique Ansel or a regular donut at Dough.

There’s a lot more to do in New York during your first visit but you simply have to choose your personal must do’s. Many typical must do’s aren’t covered in this list but you here’s a few more to consider: take a helicopter flight, go to a musical at Broadway, visit an arts museum, see New York from a boat, have drinks at a cocktail bar or take a day trip to Coney Island.

How many days to spend in New York?

There are never enough days to spend your first time in New York. However, I’d advise you to have a minimum of four full days in New York to be able to see all the highlights. I think that 5-7 days would be perfect so that you have a bit more time to slow down and relax. We did it in four days, which was fine, but we were exhausted when we got back. You simply want to make the most out of your visit and this means that your days are full of exploring.

If you have limited time, make sure to research which areas are close to each other so that you can combine them in one day. For example, we explored Midtown Manhattan area in one day, Brooklyn in one day, Downtown Manhattan in a day and West Manhattan in one day. Moreover, save money by having a late flight home so that you’ll have the benefits of a spending a full day in New York without paying for another hotel night.

Extra tips for your first time in New York

ESTA

Be aware that you need an ESTA (travel document) to enter the USA. An ESTA will cost you 14USD and is valid for a period of two years (or until your passport is invalid). You can apply for an ESTA at the official website where you can pay either by credit card or PayPal. Note: it can take up to 72 hours for your application to be approved. Make sure not to apply for it last minute, otherwise you can’t enter the USA and have to return home.

New York Explorer Pass

Purchase a pass for the number of attractions you want to visit. If you’re planning to visit at least three or more attractions from the list of 90 attractions, you’re guaranteed saving money compared to buying tickets separately at each attraction. Moreover, for many attractions you can skip the line with this pass. We bought a pass with three attractions and this has saved us more than 35USD per person. You can purchase your pass online or in New York at a kiosk or ticket desk.

There are similar passes available such as The New York Pass or the New York City Pass. The difference is that you pay for unlimited use of the pass instead of a number of days. If you plan to stay at least a week and/or plan to visit many different attractions, then this might be a better option.

If you need more tips or information about visiting New York, feel free to ask away below and I’ll be happy to answer all of your questions!

5 Comments

  1. 31/08/2019 / 13:30

    This is such a thorough and helpful list! Perfect for any first-timer.

  2. 31/08/2019 / 14:40

    Nice guide to NYC! I’m local and it’s always curious to me to see the the city from another lens. I think you provided a good overview for a visitor, I would just add that there’s a ton of amazing food and culture in Queens, so I like to encourage folks to visit. Also glad to hear that you had good weather in March – it can go either way, for sure!

  3. 31/08/2019 / 18:07

    This is such a great guide full of details and tips! The pictures are all so beautiful! I’ll read your post even if I go back to NYC one day 🙂

  4. 31/08/2019 / 18:18

    New York will always have a piece of my heart. One of the most wonderful cities to explore. Thank you for such a detailed blog post.

  5. Nicola
    01/09/2019 / 11:35

    Thanks for this Im planning our itinary for January so you have certainly given me lots of food for thought

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