New York City is one of my favorite places in the world! There is SO MUCH packed into that 33.5 square mile island that you cannot see it all unless you move there, so don’t feel bad when you miss…a lot. NYC is a place you have to prioritize your stops or you’ll end up missing something you really wanted to see/do. This post will tell you about the major attractions, why they should or shouldn’t make your must-see list, and some off-the-beaten-path places that you might want to squeeze into your trip. Let’s get some of the biggies out of the way…
Empire State Building
Go to the top…once. This is arguably the most iconic building in NYC and has an open air observatory, which is a rarity anymore. You get an amazing view of downtown Manhattan, but note that One World Trade Center is really far away and will be just a spec in your pictures. Try to go early to beat the crowds or, if you’re okay with waiting, go late at night when the saxophonist is playing (9PM to 12AM from Labor Day through Memorial Day and 10PM to 1AM between Memorial Day through Labor Day). There are three different floors you can buy passes to, so you have different view/pricing options. The problem with going to the top of the Empire State Building is that the most photographed building in the city is under your feet instead of in your picture, which brings me to my next recommendation…
Rockefeller Center (30 Rock)
Top of the Rock also has an outside observatory (as well as a couple inside floors you can look out over the city from if the weather is bad). The best part about Top of the Rock? Your pictures will have the Empire State building in them! Also, as of the post date, going to the top of Rockefeller Center is significantly less expensive than the Empire State Building.
If heights/observatories really aren’t your thing but architecture is, then I highly recommend the Rockefeller Center Tour. You’ll learn about all the intricate details of the WW2-era plaza and fascinating information about the Art Deco building – trust me, the guide will keep you very entertained.
If you’re in town anytime in the fall or winter, check out The Rink at Rockefeller Center, the iconic ice skating rink with the Rockefeller Christmas Tree nearby. Stand and watch the ice skaters – chances are good you’ll see an engagement. I’ll admit I’ve never skated there, mostly because it’s a bit pricey (and crowded with very long lines).
While we’re on the subject of 30 Rock…
The Tour at NBC Studios
Are you enthralled with what happens behind the scenes of television shows? Then this is the tour for you! I absolutely love to see the production of TV and The Tour at NBC Studios (inside 30 Rockefeller Plaza) gives you an awesome behind-the-scenes view of how shows are made. On my tour, we saw Lester Holt’s studio where he does the NBC Nightly News, the Late Night with Seth Meyers studio, and my favorite, studio 8H where Saturday Night Live is taped. You also get to see a production room where all the TV magic happens. At the end of the tour you got to “make your own TV show” which was campy and kind of annoying, but don’t let that discourage you from this tour! I must note that you cannot take pictures inside the studios though, which is a bit of a bummer.
Attend a Live TV Show
As a celebrity-obsessed creeper, this is one of my absolute favorite things to do in NYC (and LA). I’ve attended the taping of the Late Late Show with James Corden (LA), the monologue rehearsal for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (NYC) and Live with Kelly and Ryan (NYC). How/where do you get tickets? 1iota. 1iota gives away free tickets to most big television shows with studio audiences and a lot of award shows, concerts and even movie premiers. Jump on their website and see what’s happening while you’re in town. The key is to find out when tickets will become available. For really popular shows like The Tonight Show, you’ll need to follow their twitter page (@FallonTix) and they’ll announce when they’ll become available. But BE READY because I’ve been online and ready to go well before Jimmy Fallon tickets were available and have struck out twice, but was able to snag monologue rehearsal tickets, which were still great since we got to see Jimmy. Tickets usually become available the first week of the month for the following month. I was able to snag Live with Kelly and Ryan tickets pretty easily and got upgraded from General ticketing to Priority the day before the show, which meant I was guaranteed a seat. Show options in NYC include: Good Morning America, The View, Late Night with Seth Meyers, Megyn Kelly Today, Live with Kelly and Ryan, The Chew and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (which is actually offered on its own site). Make sure you read the fine print about how long it will take to tape the show because you could be there for several hours. Live With Kelly and Ryan is great because it’s a live show, so you’re only there for the time you stand in line (which can be a couple hours if you want
really good seats) and the hour-long show. But pre-taped shows like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers can take quite a bit longer to tape. I’ll also note that if you go to Live With Kelly and Ryan, make sure you’re in the right line (read the instructions very carefully) because we stood in line for about a half hour for The Chew before we realized our mistake. Another fun thing about Live with Kelly and Ryan is on Thursdays they tape TWO shows (the Friday show, funny enough, isn’t actually live) so you can go outside and come back in and watch another show and have the chance to get your picture taken with Kelly, Ryan or a guest.
Your Favorite TV Show or Movie
One of your favorite TV shows or movies was set in New York City…I know it was. So Google it and find out where they filmed your favorite parts and visit! For example, the outside shot of the apartment building on Friends is located at 100 Bedford Street Corner Grove in Greenwich Village. Or any one of the dozens of locations in the best rom-com ever, You’ve Got Mail, such as The Shop Around the Corner, Zabars, Cafe Lalo, Fox & Sons Books, and of course Riverside Park where Shopgirl and NY152 finally meet. I digress…
There are some iconic scenes that were filmed in NYC and it’s a lot of fun to find them. Also, it’s great to have an excuse to walk through the burrows and neighborhoods that you normally wouldn’t and leave the hustle and bustle of NYC behind. What about Ghostbusters? Or maybe Home Alone? Watch the movie before you go on the trip to add to the excitement.
The High Line
The High Line is one of NYC’s best kept secrets. Built on an elevated freight rail, the public park is a beautiful and fun way to stroll around the city with less crowds and no stop lights slowing your pace. It runs from the meatpacking district to West 34th Street through Chelsea. You lose the shade of the buildings since you’re elevated, so I recommend walking the High Line in the evening or at night. There are several access points, so you don’t have to walk the entire line. It’s very well maintained and has lots of benches and areas with great views to take in the city from above.
Central Park is NO JOKE. It is HUGE! I’m convinced you could spend days wandering around, so it’s very important to figure out what you want to accomplish before you head that way. It is exactly what the name suggests…a park. There are miles and miles of pathways, horse drawn carriages, fountains, lakes, a zoo, statues, gardens, a carousal and even an ice skating rink (when the weather is appropriate). You can check out animals at the zoo, rent a paddleboat for the lake, lounge in the grass, find the Alice in Wonderland statue, or just meander through the park taking it all in. But remember, if you walk and hour INTO the park, you’ll have to walk an hour OUT of the park, and on summer days it can get quite hot (but there are plenty of vendors selling water). Just have a game plan before you get there so that you see what you want to, but don’t waste valuable time.
Can you even count a trip to NYC if you don’t eat some street meat? I don’t think so. Ask a friend who has lived in New York City or traveled there a lot and they’ll have their favorite. Mine? The Halal Guys. I crave it (and now my husband does too). I will eat it multiple times, even on a short trip. It’s inexpensive, great quality and a huge serving! Head to one of their many locations (they even have brick & mortar restaurants now, but getting it on the street is part of the experience) and grab a chicken or gyro platter (or a combo platter with both meats). It will come with some lettuce and tomatoes, rice, naan and the meat(s) of your choice…but what makes this meal my favorite is the white sauce. THE WHITE SAUCE. Yes, that’s what it’s actually called. They’ve abandoned giving you packets of white sauce with your meal because IT’S NOT ENOUGH. Now they have vats of it where you can serve yourself, so smother the top of your platter, find a place to sit, and bask in the glory that is The Halal Guys. The food itself is not spicy at all and the white sauce adds no spice, so if you enjoy spicy food they also have a hot sauce that is quite popular. But beware! There are plenty of red and yellow umbrellas all around NYC hailing “Halal Food,” but there is no substitute for The Halal Guys, so make sure you’re at one of their official carts. I usually go to the original at 53rd & 6th Avenue. It’s near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Radio City Music Hall. Speaking of…
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
If you’re a museum/art fan, then MoMA is a must-see. MoMA focuses on modernist art, and includes such famous works as Claude Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair, Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. If none of those tickle your fancy, then perhaps this is an attraction you should skip. It’s not a cheap stop ($25 at the time of this post) and can take up a considerable amount of time as you try to appreciate room after room of art.
Radio City Music Hall
It’s more likely than not that you’re going to walk past Radio City Music Hall. If there’s not an event going on that you want to attend, then take your picture and move on. But if you’re there while the Rockettes are performing, then I highly recommend you get tickets to the show. Their show runs from about mid-November through the first part of January. I was skeptical when I friend convinced me to go and we ended up having a great time and were absolutely amazed at their talent. Fun fact: All the girls appear to be the same height, but it’s an illusion. The tallest girl is in the middle and then they go out to the shorter women (you have to be between 5’6″ and 5’10.5″). They do over 300 kicks in a show and their foot has to be eye level. Just trust me…go see them…it’s highly entertaining.
Cookie Dough Confections
It is your responsibility to find a NYC specialty dessert and devour it. Scour social media and Yelp and find what speaks to you and INDULGE! From unique cupcakes to frozen hot chocolate, New York City knows desserts. My favorite? Cookie Dough Confections, hands down. It’s safe-to-eat cookie dough. Let me say that again; it’s cookie dough that you can eat without your mother’s voice in the back of your head reminding you that you’re eating raw eggs. They offer five classic flavors and eight signature combinations, and even have a few seasonal options (review all available flavors here). My favorite? Signature Chocolate Chip. Yup, very basic, but absolutely amazing. It’s not too rich or sweet. You can get your cookie dough in a cup, cone, or milkshake, or create an ice cream sundae. AND IT’S AFFORDABLE! One scoop in a cup is $4. They also offer ice cream sandwiches, which is their Signature Chocolate Chip cookie dough with ice cream in between. “Raw” cookie dough not your thing? Have no fear! They offer baked cookies, fudge, cookie sandwiches, cookie dough ice cream pie and on and on. You’ll be hard pressed to NOT find something here that you’ll enjoy.
But be prepared! They only have one location at this time and there will be a line (it’s across the street so that you aren’t blocking other storefronts nearby). But while you’re in line they’re passing around a menu so that you can be ready to order when you’re allowed inside. It’s worth the wait! I’ve been twice and never waited more than 30 minutes. You’ll be waiting under shade trees, so it’s not miserable. Also note that they are not open on Mondays and there’s the possibility they could run out of one, or all, flavors and close early. Keep an eye on their social media for details. Go here. I don’t care if it’s out of the way. You won’t regret it.
You don’t necessarily have to choose the Brooklyn Bridge, but find one of the major bridges and walk across it. You’ll get a great view of the city once you get to the other side. I enjoy the Brooklyn Bridge the most because it’s the most iconic bridge in the city, gives you a great view of the skyline and you’re walking in the middle of the bridge above the traffic rather than on the outside (this helps if you’re at all uneasy about
bridges or heights). Another reason I love the Brooklyn Bridge? It was completed by the first female field engineer, Emily Warren Roebling! The bridge was designed by John Roebling (who also designed the suspension bridge between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky) but he injured his foot while conducting surveys for the bridge and eventually died of tetanus. His son, Washington Roebling, took over the project, but was afflicted with decompression illness not long after ground was broken, keeping him from physically supervising the construction firsthand. Emily Warren Roebling was the only person to visit her husband during construction and communicated his directions to the team. During this time, she became well-versed in mathematics and took over much of the Chief Engineer’s duties. There is a plaque on the bridge dedicating it to the memory of Emily Warren Roebling and the quote, “Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.” Where did I learn all of this about the Brooklyn Bridge? At One World Trade Center…
One World Trade Center
If you’ve read my post about Willis (Sears) Tower you know I’ve been to most of the great observatories in America. I had really high expectations for the OneWorld Observatory and I can’t say that they were met. It’s a phenomenal building with a neat “reveal” of the view, but I felt like it was lacking a bit in the uniqueness department. The view are amazing – you can see for forever – but other than a few stations where you can learn fun facts about the city (like my Brooklyn Bridge nuggets above) there isn’t much at the top. I don’t know what exactly I wanted, but I left wanting more. Perhaps if I had bought something other than the standard ticket I would have gotten more of whatever it was that I was looking for, but at $34, I wasn’t really willing to pay much more to go to the top of a building. It has over 17,000 reviews on Trip Advisory and most of them are positive, so go see for yourself! Perhaps my expectations were just too high. I don’t regret going, but it isn’t something high on my list to do again.
National September 11 Memorial
There’s no need to go into much detail about the 9/11 Memorial because chances are very good that it’s near the top of your must-see list…and it should be. The two massive water features are where the twin towers once stood and the names of the 2,983 victims (2,977 killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks and 6 killed in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) are around the outside edges. The first time I went to the Memorial, you had to have tickets and there was intense security. Now it’s open and you can walk in and out of the area with ease, allowing for little to no advance planning. Don’t forget to find the Survivor Tree, a tree found in the rubble of the twin towers. It was cared for in a Bronx nursery and was even blown down by a storm in March 2010, but was planted at the memorial in December 2010. Note that you are extremely close to Wall Street and the financial district, so if you have any interest in exploring that area, it’s best to do it at the same time (see the Alexander Hamilton Tour and Financial District section below for additional details).
National September 11 Museum
This is something everyone should go to at some point. September 11, 2001 will remain fresh in our minds forever and is one day that completely changed the world. There are over 10,000 artifacts. Since the attack happened in the age of 24-hour news, there are plenty of videos to take you back to that fateful day. You’ll hear voicemails left from people stuck in the World Trade Center, you’ll see Matt Lauer and Katie Couric on The Today Show live receiving information about the attacks. It can be an emotional experience. There’s a room where a recording plays continuously of family members reading the names of love ones they lost and the room is filled with pictures of those who perished in the attacks. I highly recommend purchasing tickets in advance. If this is your first trip to the city and don’t have a lot of time, I would put this off for another visit because you will spend a long time wandering through the museum and reflecting on the events of September 11, 2001.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Ohhhh, the Statue of Liberty. I have a feeling when you step foot onto Manhattan you’re going to already have a strong opinion about whether or not this will be a priority. I have
a friend who has been to NYC a dozen times and has yet to visit Lady Liberty, yet I’ve been thrice in half as many trips. A couple thoughts about this excursion: 1) It takes some advanced planning. If you’re going to be in the city during peak travel season, buy tickets online before you leave home. 2) It’s time consuming. If you don’t get off the boat at Liberty Island or Ellis Island, the trip will take an hour and fifteen minutes. Therefore, depending on how much time you spend at each stop, it could easily take up half of your day. 3) It’s smaller than you think it is (that’s what she said). I remember being distinctly disappointed the first time I visited the Statue because from Battery Park (where you get on the boat) she looks very underwhelming. It gets better once you’re actually on Liberty Island.
Ellis Island is very interesting and focuses on the immigration process. If you read all the information signage, you’d be here for days. The last time I visited, the building had been badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy so some of the exhibitions were closed and I still spent well over an hour there. If you do the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, allot enough time to do them properly. Also, hike the 377 steps from the main lobby to the crown of the Statue. But be advised that advance reservations are required for crown access.
Chances are good that you’re going to pass through Times Square whether you want to or not – it’s right next to Broadway. Don’t go out of your way to visit this crowded area, but I will say that it’s a pretty cool site at night. Don’t forget to look high in the sky and find the Waterford Crystal ball that helps everyone in the Eastern Time Zone ring in the new year! It’s a permanent feature.
I believe Broadway is a must during any visit to NYC! However, if you’re not much into the theater, I can understand why you wouldn’t want to waste your time (and money) on such an activity. I believe Broadway can be done in one of four ways…
- Plan in advance. Perhaps one of your favorite actors/actresses is going to do a stint on the big stage and you want to catch them! Buy tickets in advance and plan your trip around your Broadway experience. In April 2017, my friend and I went to NYC for the sole purpose of seeing Sara Bareilles star in the musical she wrote the music and lyrics for – “Waitress.” We purchased our tickets months in advance and it was worth every penny.
- See what’s available when you get there that fits your schedule and budget. I once took a trip to NYC and we discovered that Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer were starring in the musical “Finding Neverland” so we went to the box office to inquire about tickets. We learned that it was completely sold out except for standing room only. The tickets were MUCH cheaper than seats (I think we paid $35?) so we jumped at the opportunity. It wasn’t bad at all and we were able to sit during intermission. Also, we ran into Chris Colfer (Kurt in the TV show “Glee”), which was a fun experience.
- TKTS. There are TKTS ticket booths all around the city, the most popular being in Times Square. There’s a giant sign that shows what shows are available that day, but you have to go to the ticket counter to find out prices and seat location. I saw the musical Beautiful by purchasing tickets through TKTS and it was probably the best decision I made on that trip. It was a wonderful show and tickets were quite a bit less than face value. But note that big shows don’t offer their seats through TKTS…because they don’t have to. You won’t find “Wicked,” “Lion King,” “Aladdin,” “Hamilton,” “Book of Mormon,” or “Dear Evan Hansen.”
- Take a chance on the lottery. Most lotteries are online now, but there are still a few that are in-person. Basically, the lottery started in the 1990’s when “RENT” was insanely popular and people were upset that they couldn’t afford tickets. “RENT” started allowing people to purchase deeply discounted tickets in the front row if their name was drawn in the lottery. It has become a broadway tradition and is actually a lot of fun. “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon” are done in person, which means you show up two hours before the show and write your name on an index card and how many tickets you want to buy (1 or 2). The lottery will be open for 30 minutes and then names are drawn and you get a fun button that says “I won the lottery”. I believe the Wicked tickets were $20 each and were excellent seats. I’ve won the Wicked lottery twice and paid full-price to see the show once. There are also rush tickets available for several shows, which means you get to the box office super early and wait around until they open to snag a discounted ticket. The online lotteries are very simple to enter, but that means your chances of winning are very slim. Check out the lottery guide link and figure out what works best for you.
Now that I’ve told you every possible way to snag a ticket to Broadway, I’ll tell you my favorite part of Broadway: the stage door. After almost every performance, the stars of the show will come to the stage door and sign playbills and take pictures. If there’s a ginormous star like Matthew Morrison or Sara Bareilles, prepare for the crowds to be insane. We usually jet out during curtain call to beat a lot of the crowd, but there will be people there already who didn’t attend the show. That’s how we got to meet Matthew Morrison; we saw “Finding Neverland” and then went back the following night about 30 minutes before the show was over and waited by the stage door to be the crowd. A little creepy? Yes. But my playbill is autographed by a huge star and I have a picture with him, so it was totally worth it.
Alexander Hamilton Tour and the Financial District
The hottest show on Broadway right now is “Hamilton”, but if you don’t want to mortgage your house for tickets then head out on your own Alexander Hamilton tour – it will not disappoint. Start your self-guided tour at Hamilton Grange in Harlem. It’s open Wednesday-Sunday until 5pm. The best part? It’s free! The bottom floor includes a gift shop and lots of informational material, including a video. The Grange was actually moved twice, originally to make way for Manhattan’s new street grid. It has now been completely restored and even has some of Hamilton’s original furniture inside. It’s easy to get to with the A, B, C and D trains stopping at nearby 145th Street or 135th Street. Oh, and for those of you who still think Harlem is a scary place…it’s not. It’s really a charming area with the beautiful City College of New York nearby.
Now jump on the train and go to Trinity Church (the closest stop is the 4 or 5 train stop at Wall Street). Trinity Church is absolutely beautiful, but it’s also the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton, his wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, his sister-in-law (Eliza’s sister) Angelica Schuyler Church and his oldest son Philip Hamilton. If you’re looking at the front of the church, the Hamilton’s are buried on the left side and Angelica is buried on the right near the back. Please note that you are just a seven minute walk from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum while at Trinity Church.
If you’ve already been to the 9/11 Memorial then cross the street and walk down Wall Street (yes, THAT Wall Street) to Federal Hall – you’re now in the Financial District. Federal Hall served as the first capitol building of the USA and was the site of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States. Unfortunately the original building was demolished in 1812, but the Federal Hall National Memorial was built in 1842 on the same site and includes a fancy statue of George Washington out front. You were going to come by here anyway because the New York Stock Exchange resides nearby (you can see it from Federal Hall). Note that you’re just a five minute walk from the Charging Bull statue, but this is probably only for the big finance nerds like me.
Up next go to the Museum of American Finance. This won’t be for everyone, but if you have any interest in the history of our financial system, then pay the $8 and take a look around. The museum has a room dedicated to Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and includes documents signed by Hamilton and even replicas of the guns used in the duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, which took Hamilton’s life. As a banker, I enjoyed my time here perusing the exhibits, but some may find it a bit of a bore.
The Compromise of 1790 took place at Thomas Jefferson’s home at 57 Maiden Lane with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton present. There was a deadlock in Congress and Hamilton was able to convince Jefferson and Madison to vote for the national government to take over the states’ debts in exchange for moving the US Capital from New York City to Washington, DC (known at the time simply as the District of Columbia). The home is now gone, but there’s a plaque on the wall marking the site of the former President’s home. It’s a quick seven minute walk from the Museum of American Finance. Please note that the plaque is easy to miss and is to the left of the main entrances of the building, near a fountain and benches.
Lastly, there’s Hamilton Park where both Hamilton and his son Philip were shot and killed in separate duels. This stop is only for the hardcore Hamilton fans and people who have been to NYC a couple times because it’s all the way over in Weehawken, New Jersey (and to quote the musical…”Everything’s legal in New Jersey!”). You have to take the bus (bus 128, 165 or 166) from the Port Authority Bus Terminal (a five minute walk from Times Square) to the Boulevard East at Bonn Place stop (it takes about 20 minutes). When you get off the bus, walk down the street towards the Hudson River and you’ll come across Hamilton Park. However, the memorial for Hamilton and the duel is (if you’re looking at Hamilton Park) to the right and up the street a little. You’ll eventually see a bust of Hamilton and a rock with engraving on it. It is believed that they rested Alexander Hamilton’s head on this rock after he was fatally wounded by Aaron Burr. But the best part of making the trek to Hamilton Park? The AMAZING views of the New York City skyline! Please note that we asked the bus driver as we exited which way Hamilton Park was and he had never heard of it (or he was just a douche, which is completely possible…we were in New Jersey), so don’t expect any help. Use your trusty Google Maps and you’ll find it.
Where To Stay
This is tricky. New York City is pretty spread out, so you’ll have to familiarize yourself with public transportation, specifically the subway. The subway is quite confusing and my most recent trip was the first time I didn’t end up on a train going the wrong way, which I will wear as a badge of honor. I’ve stayed everywhere from lower Manhattan to a few blocks from Times Square all the way to Harlem. It is nice being able to go back to the room in the middle of the day, so staying somewhere centralized is nice, but not absolutely necessary. A 20 minute train ride will get you to Harlem, so my recommendations would that no matter where you stay, make sure it’s near a subway station.