Last Updated: 02/04/20 | February 4th, 2020
When my friends visit New York City, they want to see it all. They have laundry lists of places to visit, things to do, restaurants to eat and bars to drink at! It’s a frantic schedule even for this New Yorker! The city, home to over 8.5 million people, contains so much to see and do, you can barely scratch the surface on your typical four- or five-day visit. (But, then again, I don’t think even a four-month trip would be enough to see NYC!)
NYC, a city forever in flux, is impossible to “see” in one visit. You just have to resign yourself to that fact, unless you move here (and maybe not even then), you’ll only barely scratch the surface! By the time you leave, new places will have cropped up. This city is home to thousands of restaurants, hundreds of museums, attractions, plays, and quirky things to do. Last weekend, I was walking down the street and stumbled into a (delicious) Japanese food festival. It was just there! You never know what you will find in NYC.
As a traveler, how do you visit NYC? What are the best things to see and do here? What is the best itinerary for NYC? How do you make the most of your time here?
There are ways to make the most of the limited time travelers have in New York. You need at least three days to really see the city, though a “quick hits” tour could be done in a two day NYC itinerary.
Sice I’ve written a guidebook to this city, have lived here for close to five years, run tours here, and, overall, just been everywhere in pursuit of knowing the best things to do in NYC, I want to share the best things to do in New York City and help you organize everything the city has (and it has a lot) into an easy to follow itinerary to help you make the most of your visit!
So, today, here is a suggested four (or five or six or seven) day New York itinerary featuring my favorite things to do in the Big Apple:
Day 1: Statue of Liberty, Battery Park, Trinity Church, World Trade Center, & more!
Day 2: Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Empire State Building, Time Square, & more!
Day 3: Central Park, Museum of Natural History, The Guggenheim, Broadway Show, & more!
Day 4: The Cloisters, MoMA, The High Line, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, & more!
What to Do in NYC: Day 1
Take a Walking Tour
Start your trip off with a walking tour. The city is home to dozens of walking tour companies (many of them FREE) offering tours on every genre possible. If you like it, chances are there is a tour revolving around it. Be sure to take one of the many, many walking tours the city has to offer to get a unique and cultural look at the city that never sleeps from a local guide. I always take my friends on at least one when they visit.
A few walking tour companies worth checking out are:
- Take Walks
- Free Tours by Foot
- Bowery Boys Walks
For more suggestions, check out my favorite NYC walking tours.
Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island
Though the line for the ferry from Battery Park is long, if you get there early, you can avoid most of it. (Come late and you’ll have to wait a few hours.) The Statue of Liberty is spectacular to see up close (she’s as big as you imagine), but the real highlight of this combo is Ellis Island, where you can learn about the immigrant experience and get a sense of the people who helped build NYC (you’ll even find my family’s name inscribed on the wall!). There’s such a great sense of history there that you can’t help but be impressed.
Tip: If the line’s too long and you don’t want to wait, take the free Staten Island ferry for photos of the statue and harbor.
Leave from Battery Park, Lower Manhattan, +1 201 604 2800, nps.gov/stli. Ferries to Liberty Island go daily (9am–3:30pm). Price: $18.50 for the ferry, free to access the pedestal and Ellis Island’s Great Hall, +$3 to access the crown. Tickets (especially crown tickets) must be purchased well in advance! Discounts for seniors and children.
Named Battery Park for the old batteries (cannons) that defended the city, stop here for music and street performers, people-watching, relaxing, and all other park-related activities. You can also explore the ruins of the old fort that kept watch over New York City. Battery Park is large and hectic, but I still love walking through here. There are tremendous views of the harbor, too.
Take a photo with the famous bull and then walk to Wall Street and see where all those bankers destroyed the economy. There’s heavy security in the area, but you can sit and watch people whiz in and out of buildings on their way to cause some other financial disaster.
One of the most overlooked museums in the city sits across the street from the NY Stock Exchange (NYSE). Federal Hall, built in 1700, is where George Washington took his oath of office (you can see the Bible he was sworn in on!), was the first capitol building of the US, and was the site of the US Customs House in the late 1700s. It’s one of my favorite attractions in the area. I especially love the old vaults of Customs House. I highly recommend you visit, plus it’s small and doesn’t take long.
26 Wall Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 825 6990, nps.gov/feha. Opening hours: Mon–Fri (9am–5pm), Sat–Sun (closed). Also open on Saturdays (9am-5pm) in the summer.
Museum of American Finance
Down the street from NYSE and Federal Hall is the Museum of American Finance. Housed in a historic bank building on Wall Street (of course!), it has permanent exhibits on the financial markets, money, banking, entrepreneurship, and Alexander Hamilton (the founder of the US financial system). If you want to understand the workings of what happens on Wall Street, this is a perfect place to start.
48 Wall Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 908 4110, moaf.org. Opening hours: Tue–Sat (10am–4pm). Price: $8, discounts for students and seniors. Note: At the time of writing, the museum is currently closed due to damages. Reopen date is TBD.
Trinity Church is one of the oldest churches in America. The original building burned down in 1776, but the current church is still beautiful, with an ornate Gothic style structure. The church is most famous for its colonial graveyard, where you’ll find many famous Americans, including Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers.
74 Trinity Place, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 602 0800, trinitywallstreet.org. Opening hours: Daily (7am–6pm).
World Trade Center & 9/11 Memorial and Museum
The recently opened “Freedom Tower” gives you a panoramic view of the city, and there is also a lot of information about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On the elevator up, you can also see images of the historical development of NYC. At the bottom of the tower is a park commemorating the victims of the attacks along with an extensive museum. The museum houses moving exhibits about the significance of 9/11. For an additional fee (on top of the entrance fee), there are guided tours.
180 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 266 5211, 911memorial.org. Opening hours: Daily memorial hours (7:30am–9pm); daily museum hours (9am–8pm; last entry permitted at 6pm, closes one hour later on Fri–Sat). Note: I highly recommend pre-booking your tickets. Price: Memorial is free to visit, museum entry is $24, discounts available; free entry Tuesdays after 5pm (first come, first served).
Ellen’s Stardust Diner
Since 1987, this diner is home to an incredible waitstaff of singers and dancers. Between tours and musical performances, actors and actresses wait tables at Ellen’s, where they belt out songs as they serve you slightly pricey, very American diner food (think shakes, burgers, and lasagna) in uniforms from the 1950s. It’s incredibly cheesy!
1650 Broadway, Times Square, +1 212 956 5151.
Click here to get my huge, detailed insider’s guidebook to NYC and plan your ultimate visit there!
What to Do in NYC: Day 2
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Right near City Hall (see the next entry), the Brooklyn Bridge offers an easy 25-minute walk into Brooklyn and the waterfront park on the other side. Stopping to take photos and meandering along the way will make the walk about 40 minutes. You get a lot of wonderful views of downtown as you make your way across (and especially from the park). I enjoy doing this walk at night when downtown Manhattan is all lit up.
Once you get out of Manhattan and explore Brooklyn’s version of Central Park and the cool Brooklyn Museum right near it. Opened in 1867, the park covers over 500 acres and is a great place to have a picnic, read a book, people watch, or lounge in the sun when the weather is nice. Come here for a stroll or to rest your legs after crossing the bridge.
New York’s City Hall is a great piece of historic architecture and has a beautiful little park that’s filled with office workers during lunch (as well as a circular tablet about the site’s history). To learn about the building’s history, art, and architecture, take one of the tours. This way, you’ll be able to see the landmarked rotunda, city council chamber, Governor’s Room, and the City Hall Portrait Collection.
City Hall Park. Pre-reserved tours are typically offered for groups (10–20 people) on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10:30am and for individuals on Thursdays at 10am. There are also first-come, first-served tours on Wednesdays at 12pm.
Empire State Building
After you finish up with lower Manhattan, jet up to this historic landmark in New York City. The 1930s art deco interior is beautiful, and the view from the top is breathtaking. You can get a real feel for how densely populated New York is as you stare out at the city. Get here early or during lunchtime to avoid the lines and tour groups.
350 5th Avenue, Midtown, +1 212 736 3100, esbnyc.com. Price: $36 to visit the observation deck once, $50 to combine that with a tour of Rockefeller Center, $54 to visit the observation deck twice in 24 hours. Discounts available for children and seniors.
Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal is the city’s historic train station. It was going to be torn down in 1975 but was saved by Jacqueline Kennedy, who raised money for its preservation. There are free historical tours on Wednesdays. I love coming to the main concourse and looking up at the “stars” in the ceiling and people-watching as everyone races to and fro.
All those people — where do they go? What do they do? Also, there’s an amazing eatery in the basement called the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. And for fancy (and expensive) cocktails, visit the Campbell Apartments and step back into the 1920s (dress code enforced). The space was once the office of John W. Campbell, a member of the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors and finance tycoon from the 1920s.
89 E. 42nd Street, Midtown, grandcentralterminal.com. Opening hours: Daily (5:30am–2am). Tours daily (12:30pm). Tour price: $30, discounts available. Purchase at mas.org/tours or at the ticket windows.
This area is always filled with hustle and bustle. Wander around Rockefeller Center to see where they film The Today Show, shop, snack, and take the elevator to the “Top of the Rock” for another bird’s-eye view of the city (which I personally think it better than the Empire State Building, since from the top of here you can get that building in your picture too!).
No matter when you go to Times Square, it will be packed with people (usually other tourists). There are pedestrian areas where you can sit and hang out. If you aren’t shopping or eating or seeing a show, there isn’t much to do in the area (and no New Yorker hangs out there), but it’s still a fabulous place to people-watch for a few minutes from the top of the red steps of the TKTS kiosk.
See a Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Knicks Game
Like sports? NYC has some world-class sports teams. I’m not a big sports fan (the Yankees play soccer, right?), but games are fun when you have friends to share the experience with. If you have a chance and the desire, don’t miss a sporting event, because New Yorkers are serious about their local teams!
Click here to get my huge, detailed insider’s guidebook to NYC and plan your ultimate visit there!
What to Do in NYC: Day 3
The perfect way to relax in the city and leave the crowds behind is to spend the day in Central Park. It’s free, there are lots of paths to walk (or run), bike lanes, lakes to row in, and a zoo. Since the park covers over 150 square blocks, it’s easy to spend hours wandering around. During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions (line up early for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park). From the late spring to the early fall, there are free guided walks run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11am. I’m a big fan of laying out in Sheep’s Meadow on a hot, sunny day with a book, some food, and a bottle of wine.
Several excellent museums can be found in or on the edges of Central Park:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is one of the biggest museums in the world, and if you only see one museum in New York, I recommend this one. It has a wide array of art, historical artifacts, photographs, and other exhibits. There’s even a real Egyptian tomb in here! I like its expansive impressionist and Greek exhibits. It’s chaotic and filled with people, especially on the weekend, but since it is so big, you can usually find some quiet spots away from the crowds. Budget a lot of time as a few hours won’t do this place justice.
1000 5th Avenue, Central Park, Upper East Side, +1 212 535 7710, metmuseum.org. Opening hours: Sun–Thu (10am–5:30pm), Fri–Sat (10am–9pm). Price: $25 (includes entrance to the Cloisters and Met Breuer for three consecutive days). Pay what you wish for N.Y. State residents and students in N.Y., N.J., and C.T. Free for kids 12 and under.
American Museum of Natural History
Made even more famous by the Night at the Museum movies, this museum also requires a lot of time. The exhibits on nature, human history, and marine life are interesting and detailed, so I wouldn’t try to rush your visit. My favorite is the one on the origin of humans. Learning about how we came to be is fascinating. Also, don’t skip the section on space (because space is awesome!) at the Hayden Planetarium, which is run by science god Neil Degrasse Tyson. They have really detailed exhibitions on the origin of the universe.
Budget tip: The “fee” here is also suggested donation so you can pay what you wish.
Central Park W. at 79th Street, Upper West Side, +1 212 769 5100, amnh.org. Opening hours: Daily (10am–5:45pm). Price: Suggested donation of $23 ($13 for children ages 2–12). Note: Even though this museum only technically asks for a suggested donation, be prepared to pay to go into any special exhibitions and/or movies.
The Frick Collection
This collection features paintings by major European artists (lots of Dutch masters here) as well as 18th-century French furniture and Oriental rugs. You have to really love Dutch artists to want to spend time here (I do) but be sure to visit their website because they do a lot of wonderful temporary exhibits featuring famous works of art.
Budget tip: Visit Wednesdays between 2pm and 6pm and the entrance fee is “pay what you wish.”
1 East 70th Street, +1 212-288-0700, frick.org. Opening hours: Tues-Sat (10am-6pm), Sun (11am-5pm). Closed on Mondays. Price: $22 USD, with discounts available to students and seniors.
The Guggenheim Museum
This museum is home to a renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, early modern, and contemporary art. The cylindrical museum (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) is considered one of the 20th century’s most important architectural designs. It’s one of my favorite buildings (and museums) in the city. Admission is steep ($22 USD).
Budget tip: Saturday nights (5:45–7:45pm) you can pay what you wish.
1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, +1 212 423 3500, guggenheim.org. Opening hours: Sun–Wed, Fri (10am–5:45pm), Sat (10am–7:45), Thu (closed). The last ticket is issued 30 minutes before closing. Price: $25, discounts for students and seniors, pay what-you-wish Saturdays (5pm–7:45pm).
The Museum of the City of New York
This museum will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about New York City, including its architecture, parks, streets, as well as its people, culture, and various sights. There are multiple rooms that highlight various time periods in NYC history featuring interviews, maps, interactive exhibits, profiles of historical figures, and various artifacts. It’s the best history museum in the city. There’s a cool exhibit here where you can create the future NYC a la Sim City style. (Great for kids or people who are childlike!)
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St., +1 212-534-1672, mcny.org. Opening hours: Daily (10am-6pm). Price: $18, with discounted rates for students and seniors.
You can’t go to New York City, the theater capital of the world, without seeing a show. Current highlights and my favorites include:
- The Lion King
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Dear Evan Hansen
- School of Rock
- Come From Away
You can find discounted theater tickets at the TKTS offices around the city (Times Square, South Street Seaport, and downtown Brooklyn) for shows that day. They also have an app where you can see what they offer too!
Click here to get my huge, detailed insider’s guidebook to NYC and plan your ultimate visit there!
What to Do in NYC: Day 4
Few people make it up to the Cloisters (it’s all the way up near 204th Street), a branch of the Met devoted to medieval Europe. It took me years to finally see it, and I kicked myself for waiting so long. It was built with Rockefeller money from parts of five European abbeys between 1934 and 1939. (They even stipulated that the land across the river would forever remain undeveloped so the view would be unspoiled!).
The building and its stunning cloistered garden are very, very peaceful and beautiful. It’s one of the best things to do in the city. There are free tours each day that explain the history of the museum and the paintings and exhibits.
99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, +1 212 923 3700, metmuseum.org/visit/visit-the-cloisters. Opening hours: Daily (10am–5:15pm), closes at 4:45pm November to February. Price: $25 (includes entrance to the Met and Met Breuer for three consecutive days), discounts for students in N.Y., N.J., and C.T., and free for kids 12 and under.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Head over to the MoMA for lots of beautiful (and weird) modern art and some vivid impressionist art. I hate modern art. I just don’t “get” it. How is shovel on a wall art? I dislike modern art BUT this museum does have Van Gogh’s Starry Night as well as other post-impressionist art so I can’t hate it completely. If you love modern and contemporary art, this (I’m told) is one of the best in the world. On Fridays after 4pm, the museum is free (and I like seeing Van Gogh for free)!
18 W. 54th Street, Midtown, +1 212 708 9400, moma.org. Opening hours: Sat–Thu (10:30am–5:30pm), Fri (10:30am–8pm). Price: $25, discounts for students and seniors. The MoMA’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is free of charge to the public daily (9:30am–10:15am).
The High Line & Whitney Museum
The High Line is a converted train track that is now an urban walking park. It goes from 34th Street down to the Meatpacking District (and vice versa). Lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, food stalls, and greenery, this walk is one of the best things to do in the city, especially on a nice day. Go for a walk, sit with a book, people-watch — the High Line is a must-see and a true favorite among locals.
Next to it, in the Meatpacking District, there’s the new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art (a museum that collaborates with the Met). Even if you don’t go inside, the building is worth seeing, as it is a work of art in itself. But I would recommend going inside as there is a wonderful exhibit of American art.
99 Gansevoort Street, Chelsea, +1 212 570 3600, whitney.org. Opening hours: Wed–Thu, Sun–Mon (10:30am–6pm), Fri–Sat (10:30am–10pm), Tue (closed). Price: $25, discounts for students and seniors. Fri (7–10pm) pay what you wish.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
This fascinating museum offers visitors the opportunity to visit former tenement apartments on the Lower East Side. You’ll learn how immigrants from around the world lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they tried to make it in America. It’s a good follow-up to what you’ll see on Ellis Island. You can only visit this museum via guided tours and they need to be booked in advance. I personally like the “Meet the Residents” tour, where live actors portray and share the story of newly arrived immigrants.
103 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, +1 877 975 3786, tenement.org. Opening hours: Fri–Wed (10am–6:30pm), Thu (10am–8:30pm). Price: $25, discounts for students and seniors.
The Bronx Zoo
Head north for a look at one of the oldest and biggest zoos in the United States. Opened in 1899, the zoo spans almost 300 acres and sees over 2 million visitors each and every year. Home to over 650 different species, it’s a great place to visit with kids. Gorillas, birds of prey, bison — there is a huge assortment of animals here and you’ll definitely learn a lot during your visit!
2300 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, +1 718 220 5100, bronxzoo.com. Opening hours: Mon–Fri
(10am–5pm), Sat–Sun (10am–5:30pm); limited hours November to April. Budget tip: This isn’t a cheap activity, with tickets starting at $22.95 USD, but go on pay-what-you-want Wednesdays to save money.
See a TV Show!
NYC is home to tons of TV shows that film here regularly. TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon all offer free tickets to their tapings.
Tickets need to be reserved long in advance so you’ll need to plan ahead but if you do, you’ll be rewarded with a pretty cool and unique expreince. For taping details, see each show’s website for specific details and information on making reservations.
New York City is a big place with a lot to do and this list barely scratches the surface. Four days is barely enough to squeeze these activities in, let alone find time to visit boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn. If you have the time, I recommend staying for at least five days. But if you’re pressed for time, following these tips will give you four days full of fun and excitement in the city that never sleeps.
Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to New York City!
For more in-depth information and tips on NYC, check out my 100+ page guidebook written for budget travelers like yourself! It cuts out the fluff found in other guides and gets straight to the practical information you need to travel and save money the city that never sleeps. You’ll find suggested itineraries, budgets, ways to save money, on and off the beaten path things to see and do, non-touristy restaurants, markets, and bars, and much more!! Click here to learn more and get started.
Book Your Trip to New York City: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
- HI NYC Hostel
- Jazz on Columbus Circle
- Pod Times Square
If you’re looking for more places to stay, here my complete list of favorite hostels the city. Additionally, if you’re wondering what part of town to stay in, here’s my neighborhood guide to NYC!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Need a Guide?
New York has some really interesting tours. My favorite company is Take Walks. They have expert guides and can get you behind the scenes at the city’s best attractions. They’re my go-to walking tour company!
Want More Information on NYC?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on New York City for even more planning tips!
Photo Credits: 6 – Erik Drost, 10- Phil Guest, 22 – massmatt, 24 – apasciuto, 26 – Christopher John SSF, 29 – edenpictures