Three life-changing words: New York City.
Millions are drawn to it; some never shake it. Monumental, artistic, cultural, commercial, cosmopolitan – this city is everything. You'll never be bored here; the problem is narrowing down what to do. To help you get started, here's our list of inspirational highlights that are perfect experiences for your next trip.
A few things to bear in mind before you go: Popular sights get very crowded, so brace yourself. The “outer borough” (beyond Manhattan) things to do mentioned below will generally be less crowded. Ticket costs can also be substantial, so consider purchasing a New York CityPASS, which offers good discounts on top attractions.
1. Visit the iconic Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The dramatic, iconic and copper-green Statue of Liberty dominates a small island in New York Harbor and casts its protective shadow over neighboring Ellis Island, the site of a stirring Immigration Museum. Still symbolic today, they together served as an uplifting gateway through which over 12 million immigrants passed from 1892 to 1924.
Planning tip: Both monuments are often visited on a combined ticket and best booked well ahead, especially for time in Liberty's pedestal or crown.
2. Soak up the views from the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings
The tallest building in the world when it opened in 1931, the 1454ft Empire State Building has lost none of its prominence in the NYC skyline. Vistas from the outdoor, 360-degree view, 86th-floor deck and indoor 102nd-floor observatory are breathtaking, particularly at sunset. Look northeast at the art deco Chrysler Building, another spired, once-world-tallest wonder (dethroned by the Empire State).
Planning tip: Buy tickets in advance and give a moment to the second-floor Story of an Icon museum.
3. Go up One World Trade Center to the One World Observatory
The journey begins on the ground level of One World Trade Center, also known as Freedom Tower, which at 1776ft is the tallest building in the western hemisphere. Sky Pod elevators with LED walls depict time-lapse animations of NYC's 500-year evolution during the 47-second, 102-story ascent to One World Observatory. Up top, three levels of distraction, including a restaurant, bar and interactive guided tours, are no match for the truly incomparable panorama.
Planning tip: Timed-entry tickets should be bought in advance.
4. Pay tribute to lost lives at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum
The National 9/11 Memorial is located where the World Trade Center Twin Towers once stood. It features sobering tributes to the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most poignantly two sunken pools with cascades of water pouring into the fallen towers' footprints. Adjacent to the memorial is a profoundly moving museum with remnants and reminders of the tragic day.
Planning tip: The memorial is free; museum tickets are best bought online in advance.
5. Tour the vast collections at NYC's major museums
The Met is NYC's most visited museum for very good reasons: 5000 years of art from all over the world, two million individual objects and 17 acres of exhibition space. It's massive, astounding and seemingly inexhaustible. Frequently but unfortunately bypassed, the Met's uptown Cloisters were cobbled together from authentic sections of European medieval monasteries. Tickets cover three-day admission to both branches, as well as the new Met Breuer.
Directly across Central Park from the Met is another significant museum with broad scope (34 million artifacts!): the American Museum of Natural History, where your ticket grants you access to more than 50 exhibits.
Art lovers will find modern masterpieces from Warhol, Pollock and more in the Museum of Modern Art but should book ahead to skip the line, particularly at weekends. Somewhat smaller and less crowded, though definitely comprehensive, is the Brooklyn Museum. For something much more contemporary and free of hordes, try Brooklyn's Bushwick Collective Street Art.
6. Have family-friendly seaside fun at Coney Island
Jutting like a Brooklyn thumb out into New York Harbor's Lower Bay, Coney Island boasts a wide beach, seaside boardwalk and lively amusement park, all easily reachable by subway about an hour from Midtown Manhattan. Popular attractions include the family-friendly New York Aquarium, Nathan's Famous hot dogs, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and thrill-filled Luna Park, featuring the wooden Cyclone rollercoaster, a city and national historic landmark.
Planning tip: Walk to nearby Brighton Beach for classic Russian/Ukrainian eats.
7. Hang out in Central Park
Hemmed in by buildings, Central Park has 843 acres of green space – meadows, groves, gardens and lakes, as well as restaurants, theaters, concert venues, fountains, rinks, ballfields, playgrounds and much more. Park Drive, although often crowded, is a favorite of runners, skaters and cyclists.
Planning tip: Want some green space with fewer people? Brooklyn's Prospect Park, also created by Central Park's landscapers, has all the same charm with far less throng. Cyclists should consider the 31-mile Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, especially the Hudson River Greenway segment.
8. Walk across Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge Park
Undoubtedly NYC's most beautiful river crossing, the 1596ft-long, stone-towered Brooklyn Bridge was a world-first steel suspension bridge when it opened in 1883. Today, a walk along its pedestrian passageway delivers delightful Manhattan and Brooklyn skyline views.
Brooklyn Bridge Park, the 1.3-mile, 85-acre green space on Brooklyn's East River shoreline, prolongs the pleasure (and the Manhattan views, see below). Check out the waterfront, glass-enclosed Jane's Carousel and multiple revitalized pier-based leisure and activity areas.
9. Gaze upon the Manhattan skyline
Manhattan's tumble of buildings is a mesmerizing spectacle, changing in natural and artificial light, particularly at dusk and night. Harbor cruises are a fantastic way to enjoy it, but there are also numerous land-based vantages along the East River.
In Brooklyn, head for Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Heights Promenade, East River State Park in Williamsburg and Transmitter Park in Greenpoint. And in Queens, go to Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City and Astoria Park.
Planning tip: For a once-in-a-lifetime splurge and unbeatable views, take a helicopter tour.
10. See art and architecture on the High Line and at Hudson Yards
The 1.5-mile-long High Line is an art-filled, community green space – featuring gardens, events, and amazing city outlooks – crafted from an abandoned elevated railway. It can be packed on warm evenings when the unique surrounding modern architecture lights up.
Its northern terminus is at the Hudson Yards, Manhattan's newest luxury development, with gourmet restaurants, upscale shops and singular attractions like Vessel, a multilevel public landmark, and The Edge, the city's highest (101st-floor) open-air observatory.
11. Visit the landmark Rockefeller Center
Perhaps best known for its winter backdrop – a world-famous ice-skating rink and New York's giant ceremoniously-lit Christmas tree – art deco Rockefeller Center is a busy, art-filled national historic landmark all year round. Still named after its America's-first-billionaire developer, John D. Rockefeller Jr, it claims highlights such as the 70th-floor Top of the Rock observation deck, Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studios Tours, as well as plenty of Midtown shopping and dining.
12. Be dazzled by the lights of Times Square and the Theater District
The neon lights really do shine bright on Broadway, especially in Times Square at the heart of the world's most celebrated Theater District. Day and night, it's billboarded sensory overload. In the area: dozens of marquee-fronted playhouses hosting box-office hits, Madame Tussauds, Ripley's Believe It or Not!, National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, Bryant Park (Midtown's small but activity-filled green oasis) and the lion-flanked entrance of the New York Public Library, a national historic landmark.
13. Ride the New York City Subway and Staten Island Ferry
The wheels never stop turning in NYC, aided by its sleepless subway, one of the world's biggest. Another iconic part of its transit system is the free, orange Staten Island Ferry, the cheapest way to grab pics of Lady Liberty.
For NYC urban transport history, the kid-friendly Transit Museum has climb-aboard NYC subway cars from all eras. There's a museum annex and shop in Grand Central Terminal, the Midtown beaux-arts wonder with an unforgettably grand main concourse.
14. Support conservation at Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Gardens
Who'd have thought the US's biggest and oldest zoo is in NYC? The conservation-minded Bronx Zoo hosts 6000-plus animals on 265 acres of specially designed habitats. Adjacent to it is the New York Botanical Garden, a 250-acre, year-round nature showcase with dozens of indoor and outdoor gardens included in your ticket.
Planning tip: Smaller but impressive alternative zoos can be found at Central Park, Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows Corona Park (Queens). The 50-acre Brooklyn Botanic Garden is famous for its seasonally blossoming cherry trees.
15. Find art and entrepreneurs in Brooklyn
In a city that places a high premium on space, Brooklyn now claims three trendy and exciting rehabilitated industrial areas commandeered by entrepreneurs, artisanal makers, retailers, artists, start-ups and nonprofits. Industry City occupies six large warehouses on the Sunset Park waterfront. Further south, 100-plus companies fill the vast and storied Brooklyn Army Terminal. And east of Downtown Brooklyn, the expansive, historic Brooklyn Navy Yard is a modern made-in-Brooklyn manufacturing hub.
16. Go to a game at one of the city's stadiums
New Yorkers take outsize pride in their sports teams, so how better to absorb the city's energy than at a game? The Bronx's Yankee Stadium and Mets' Citi Field in Queens are grand open-air stadiums, while Manhattan's Madison Square Garden, home of Knicks and Liberty basketball and Rangers hockey, and Brooklyn's futuristic Barclays Center, where the Nets basketball and Islanders hockey teams play, are enclosed.
Planning tip: If you're going to the Giants and Jets football arenas, they are in nearby New Jersey.