New York is one of the most amazing cities in the world and there are many incredible things to do when you visit. It is impossible to see everything in a single trip, so the sooner you accept that fact, the easier time you will have planning your visit. You won’t see everything you want to. We recently visited the city for 4-days, and while we did as much as we could, the list of things we didn’t do is still much longer than the list of things we did. The best way to explore New York is to pick a few key neighborhoods that you want to focus on, and leave lots of time to improvise.
The city is incredible and there are thousands of things to keep you occupied, so don’t worry if you can’t accomplish everything. We had an amazing time visiting the city, and are excited to share some of our favourite things. Most tourists will spend their whole trip in Manhattan, which is understandable, because most of the most iconic attractions are located. We tried to balance our time between Manhattan and the other Burroughs, especially Queens and Brooklyn. If you don’t leave the island, you’re missing out on 4/5ths of the city. Hop on the subway and explore somewhere different.
The city has an incredible buzz, unlike anywhere else in the country (or the world!). New York is the largest city in the United States, with over 8.5 million residents in the “city”, and is part of one of the largest mega-cities in the world. It is one of the financial, entertainment and cultural capitals of the US and it exports this culture around the world. The city is surrounded by water – with one of the world’s largest natural harbours – and the city is made up of five Burroughs; Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx.
Rob had been lucky to have visited the city several times in the past, but this was Norma’s first trip, so we wanted to make sure we saw many of the classic attractions, while also going off the tourist radar. This meant that we would spend time in Midtown (Times Square, Central Park and Grand Central Terminal) and Lower Manhattan, while also visiting places off the beaten track in Brooklyn and Queens.
We were staying with friends in Brooklyn, which made it easier for us to explore off the beaten track. We are extremely lucky to have friends who live here, so it makes visiting New York easier (and a lot more affordable). Not everything in New York costs a lot of money – there are plenty of free attractions to visit – but you will find your bank balance slowly shrinking during your visit.
We’re not trying to tell you what the “best” things to do are in New York; everyone who travels will have their own goals and expectations, so it is up to you to find your own path. With that being said, we did a lot of great things during our trip, so we wanted to share some of the attractions that we really enjoyed on our recent trip. As we mentioned before, you will never do everything, so don’t try.
We broke our trip down to the “9 Incredible things we did in New York”, which we have collected here for your enjoyment. We hope this post will help inspire you to take that trip to the Big Apple, and that you’re able to help plan your adventure with some of these suggestions.
9 Incredible things we did in New York:
1 The Empire State Building (Midtown Manhattan)
To really get a sense of how big everything is in New York, you have to go up to see everything from above, as it really puts the city into perspective. While planning our trip to New York, we knew we wanted to go up one of the buildings for the view. New York has three options for high altitude viewing platforms; the World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center and the Empire State Building. We obviously chose the latter.
This was Norma’s first trip to the city, so we left it up to her to choose, and she chose the iconic Empire State Building, which rises 103 stories above the streets below. Normally you can travel to a small viewing area in the spire at the 108th floor, but this was closed for renovations until July. The view from the 86th floor was still amazing.
From 1931-1970 (nearly 50 years!) the Empire State Building was the tallest in New York City and the world! Today, the Empire State is still the 4th tallest building in New York, despite being nearly 90 years old. The building is designed in the Art Deco style famous from the 1930’s, and is still an iconic building that stands out against the sea of Manhattan Skyscrapers.
The Empire State building is a part of New York. It has always been an impressive building, a landmark known around the world, and once you get on top you get one of the best views of the city surrounding you. This outdoor viewing platform offers up amazing views in all directions; north towards Midtown Manhattan, east towards Brooklyn and Queens, south towards downtown and Lower Manhattan and west towards Madison Square Garden and New Jersey.
This was one of the bigger attractions we did during our recent trip to New York, and its not cheap either. It will cost you $36 a person to go to the top. It’s a high price to pay, but honestly, it was worth it. It is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and something you will never forget. It’s really fun to try and pick out other landmarks and neighborhoods on the ground that you’ve already been to, or are planning to visit later.
2 Jim Henson Exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image (Queens)
There are several museums in New York worth dedicating an afternoon to explore during your trip to the city. The Museum of the Moving Image is a lesser known New York museum located in Astoria, Queens, and is dedicated to the art, history, technique and technology of the moving image.
Located in the former east coast studio of Paramount Pictures – part of the historic Kaufman Astoria Studio – the studio has been in use since the 1920’s, with a wide variety of projects, from Goodfellas to Seasame Street, has been filmed here.
There were two exhibits we specifically came here to see; the Jim Henson Exhibition and their current feature – “A whole different ball game” – which examined the history of sports and video games over the last 60 years. They also have many different interactive exhibitions – where you can do your own voiceover work for classic films like the Wizard of Oz – and over 1400 artifacts from the history of film. This included many old televisions, film cameras, recording equipment and sets from the history of film and television.
The top floor was dedicated to the moving image, and their feature exhibit “A whole different ball game” was located. This featured over 40 playable sports video games, from the original “Tennis for two” to the modern day sports franchise games like NFL, NHL and FIFA. It examines the impact these games have had on the history of sport, even examining how these games have become sports on their own, with professional leagues having emerged in recent times. We got to play some of these games from the 70s, 80s and 90s, on consoles such as the Commodore 64 to the Original Nintendo. Does anyone else remember “Basewars” from the original NES?
The next floor down is where their best ongoing exhibit – the Jim Henson Exhibition – is located, dedicated to the impact that Jim Henson left on the entertainment industry, and how his craft became known around the world. Alongside a team of people, Jim Henson helped to create iconic shows like the Muppet Show, Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, as well as movies such as The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.
On display here are 47 of the original muppets used by Jim Henson including Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, the Swedish Chef, Elmo, Rowlf and Miss Piggy. It includes sketches from some of his original ideas and early work. We spent several hours wandering around the exhibits, until we were kindly asked to leave at closing time around 4:30. This was definitely worth the trip into Queens.
3 The Staten Island Ferry & 9/11 Memorial (Lower Manhattan)
New York has been inhabited since the 1600’s. Lower Manhattan today is the heart of the financial district, but buried underneath the massive skyscrapers, is where the first walled fortification once stood. Some of the old features are memorialized – such as Canal, Water and Wall Streets – built along where the old fortress once stood.
This is the heart of American capitalism; you will find Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve here in the financial district. There are many historic buildings along Water Street, known as Fraunces Tavern Block, where you can enjoy a world-class cocktail at either Dead Rabbit or Lovelace.
If the Staten Island Ferry isn’t one of the best tourist attractions in New York, we’re not sure what is. Leaving from the southern tip of the island, the ferry makes a 15 minute crossing of the Upper Bay to Staten Island which allows for incredible views of the Lower Manhattan skyline, and if you sit on the east facing side of the boat, you can snap some great pictures of the Statue of Liberty.
While there are things to do on Staten Island – there were two breweries within a 20 minute walk that tempted us – we got back onto the next boat and went back to Manhattan to explore more of the city. Since we had already snapped some pictures on the way there, we grabbed a beer and finished it on the 15 minute ride back to Manhattan. Oh, did we forget to mention they serve beer? Like we said, best attraction in New York.
Once you make the return journey to Manhattan, there is still lots to see and do. Visit the South Street seaport or walk up towards Chinatown and Little Italy.
We also made sure to make one last stop in Lower Manhattan, with a visit to the 9/11 Memorial. Located just across from where the Twin Towers once stood, is Firehall/Ladder #10, which would have been the first to respond to the events of 9/11. In 2006, the FDNY Memorial Wall was placed here to remember the 343 firefighters that died trying to save lives on 9/11. While most people were trying to escape the disaster, they charged straight into the buildings in an attempt to save lives. Alongside the memorial is a picture of each of the firefighters who lost their lives on a fateful September morning in 2001.
The actual Ground Zero site has been transformed into a living and working space in New York once again. The memorial is a sombre reminder of the events that took place on 9/11 and the two public reflecting pools is a fitting memorial to those who were lost. The two pools – which are built in the exact footprints where the twin towers once stood – are lined with the names of all the victims of that day. The Museum here is supposed to be quite moving, but it was too late in the day for us to visit.
We finished our tour by going in to the Oculus, a massive white structure that looks like the rib cage of a giant whale. Underneath is one the 5th busiest transit station in New York, with connections to the PATH train to New Jersey and many Subway lines.
4 Cross the Brooklyn Bridge (Brooklyn)
You can’t visit New York without walking across the famous Brooklyn Bridge, which includes incredible views of the city and a free trip to Brooklyn. This is one of those “classic” tourist attractions that most visitors will check out on a visit to New York.
It’s touristy, its crowded and it’s cliche, but i’m sure 90% of you that have been to New York have done it. We’re all guilty. It’s just one of those things you do when you go to New York. If you want a similar experience, but want to avoid the crowds, walk over the neighboring Manhattan Bridge instead; this route is much less crowded, and gives you the same great view of Lower Manhattan but with the Brooklyn Bridge as well.
The Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1869 – a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge in New York City that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn – is still a major transportation route today, and the walking path through the middle is a convenient way to cross the East River. As we mentioned, it has also become a popular tourist attraction.
It takes about 30 minutes to walk along depending on how many people you have to dodge along the way – while watching out for bikes that will hit you – while you try to capture the perfect picture of the city. Since you should probably leave Manhattan and explore parts of Brooklyn anyways, this is the perfect excuse to do so. Spend some time in Brooklyn; where the bridge ends is close to both Dumbo and the revitalized Brooklyn Piers that are easy to walk to from the bridge.
This is one of the most visited attractions in the city – and it’s definitely an “instagram photo spot” – but its hard to argue with the great views of the city you get from here. We were lucky to visit when there was no visible scaffolding on the bridge, which was a bonus.
5 Long Island City Craft Brewery Tour (Queens)
Long Island City is up and coming, and there are several Craft Breweries that have opened in the last few years which makes this a good place to spend a few hours.
On our most recent trip we ended up visiting 3 different breweries here, and if you’re a beer lover, we highly recommend putting Long Island City, Queens on your list.
Long Island City is located at the westernmost point of Queens, just across the water from Midtown Manhattan. It is a quality mix of industrial and residential areas, with many artist studios popping up all over the place. Some great breweries have begun to open up in the industrial areas.
We had a list of 6 breweries we wanted to visit in the area – thanks to a blog post from fishoutofmalbec.com, “A DIY Queens Craft Brewery Tour” – and we were able to visit half of them on our trip.
Craft brewery #1 was the LIC (Long Island City) Beer Project, which was only about a 20 minute walk from the Museum of the Moving Image in nearby Astoria. We ordered a few small beers to create our own tasting board, and each of them was delicious. They had several different IPA’s on draught, so it was fun to taste the different hops side by side. This small tasting room was starting to fill up with the afterwork crowd, and the brewery operations were shutting down for the day.
A few nights later, we returned to Queens, ready to knock off Craft Breweries #2 and #3. We took the subway one stop over from Manhattan, and found our way to Transmitter Brewing, located just across the train tracks in a warehouse district. The night we visited was their last night before shutting down operation; they had a sign posted that assured us that they were closing temporarily, relocating to the nearby Brooklyn Naval Yard. Their beer was fantastic, so we wish them the best on their next endeavour.
Our final stop in Long Island City was 5th Hammer Brewing, which was only about a 15 minute walk from Transmitter. This place was absolutely rocking on a Saturday night, and the brewery has obviously struck hit a chord with the locals. They have been open for less than two years, and you could tell that a lot of hard work has gone into making this place a success. They’re definitely doing something right; not only did they have some incredible beers on tap, the tasting room was beautiful. We got to meet the owners who let us take a quick behind the scenes look at their brewing operations.
6 Brooklyn Bridge Park / Brooklyn Piers (Brooklyn)
We recommend that you spend as much time in Brooklyn as possible, as it is one of the most diverse and exciting parts of New York. We know most tourists will spend most of their tourist time in Manhattan, but don’t neglect Brooklyn.
A good place to start is the Brooklyn Bridge Park – located along the East River – especially if you just walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. From here, you will find some of the best views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the towering skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan.
The Brooklyn Bridge Park covers 85 acres, and has an incredible seawall that follows the course of the East River. Since 2008, the city has begun to renovate this waterfront, and piers 1 and 6 opened to the public in 2010, and they have slowly worked on each former pier to transform the waterfront into a pubic place.
The old docks and piers have been transformed into basketball courts, public parks and public gardens. We really enjoyed the views of the city from here, and spent an hour walking along this peaceful part of the city. We definitely could have spent another hour our two here exploring the waterfront area. Consider renting a Citi-Bike for a few hours and allow yourself to cover more territory.
While you should find a way to explore as much of Brooklyn as possible – more than just the part facing Manhattan – the Brooklyn waterfront is a good place to start. While you’re here, wander up towards Brooklyn Heights or head towards Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where many trendy restaurants and shops have recently opened. Brooklyn is full of incredible restaurants and under the radar attractions, so find something else to do before you return to Manhattan.
7 MoMA – Museum of Modern Art (Midtown Manhattan)
There are several great museums in New York, so you have many options for places to visit. The list of incredible places is long – including The Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of New York (the Met), the Frick Collection and American Museum of Natural History – and are all worthy of your visit.
We made the “tough” decision to visit the MoMA, which is located in Midtown Manhattan. The MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) has some of the best and well-known paintings in the city, with famous pieces from Van Gogh and Picasso being highlights of the incredible 5th floor display. There are thousands of art pieces on display located in this 6 story museum, and some consider this to be the best collection of Modern Art in the world.
“Modern Art” includes artwork produced roughly between 1860s to 1970s, and is usually associated with artwork that has spurned traditional methods and attempted more experimental techniques. These artists trended away from the narrative style, focusing on more abstract and experimental styles.
Originally opened to the public in 1929 – 9 days after the stock market crash – it was the first Museum dedicated to the Modern Era. It is located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th avenues.
This is one of the best museums in the world, and their 5th floor display has artwork from Andy Whahol, Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse. Some of the most famous pieces of artwork that you will find here include Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Time”, Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” Pablo Picasso’s “Girl before a mirror” and Claude Monet’s “Water Lillies”.
The museum is massive, and your legs will get tired long before you’ve had a chance to appreciate their entire massive art collection.
8 Prospect Park & Grand Army Plaza (Brooklyn)
Prospect Park is Brooklyn’s equivalent to Central Park in Manhattan. Here you can find the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Zoo and Botanic Garden, as well as many paved and natural trails through the forested park.
Prospect Park is a hidden gem in New York City, and one of the highlights of our time spent in Brooklyn. It is the second largest park in Brooklyn (behind the Marine Park) and was first opened in 1867.
On a sunny day, this is where New Yorkers will flock to enjoy the outdoors. You will find both locals and tourists throughout the park, and even if you only spend 2-3 hours here, you will not have a chance to see everything. There are many different aspects to the park, from wide open park areas, sports fields, lakes and ponds, and forested areas. They have a large bandstand where they do concerts in the summer.
We were visiting friends who live near Prospect Park in Brooklyn, so it was the perfect place to start exploring this side of the city. We picked up a coffee to go, and wandered into the park. On our way, we walked past the site where the original Brooklyn Dodgers stadium was located – now home to a park and high rise apartments – where a plaque remembers the former baseball stadium that once stood there.
In the 1980s, this was one of the most dangerous places in the city where you were likely to get stabbed, but the city has been revitalized since then, and today this is a beautiful public space with many different places to explore. We walked for about 2 1/2 hours and only saw a small fraction of the park. There are many paths that weave there way through the park, and without much effort, we wandered past an old carousel and found the beautiful Prospect Park Boathouse.
We exited the park at Grand Army Plaza, a massive “Arc de Triumph” replica which built in the late 1800’s to commemorate the “The defenders of the Union 1861-1865”. The site was also a major battle during the Revolutionary War as part of the “Battle for Long Island.” On Saturdays, they do a farmers market that was fun to wander through, checking out the local market.
9 Times Square & the Entertainment District (Midtown Manhattan)
Midtown Manhattan is home to some of the most important entertainment corridors in the city. You will discover Grand Central Station and Central Park, be wowed by the flashing lights of Times Square and Broadway.
Especially if it is your first visit to the city, you will inevitably end up here; this is the quintessential New York for the tourist. Midtown Manhattan is New York’s “other” downtown center, and here you will find a second financial district and the living breathing heart of the entertainment district, including the famous theaters that make up Broadway.
Times Square is the most famous destination located here and is New York’s major tourist destination. Over 360,000 pedestrians (both tourists and locals) visit here every day, which adds up to an estimated 131 million people a year, making it the most visited place on the planet. Times square is where Broadway meets 7th Avenue, it stretches between 42nd and 47th streets and is surrounded by flashing billboards. This is where the annual New Years Eve celebration takes place.
I can see why locals would try to avoid this place, as it is a sea of people wandering around taking pictures and bumping into each other. As a tourist, it’s at least seeing with your own eyes. After surviving this hectic mess, head north past the Ed Sulivan Theatre towards the Columbus Circle and enter Central Park at it’s south-west corner. Central Park is the counterbalance to Times Square, and instead of being surrounded by flashy billboards, nature has it’s place in the city. Find your way to the Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon Memorial or any of the incredible sights located in here. It’s another good place for a bike ride.
After spending some time in the park, make your way back to Midtown, wandering along the high end shopping street, 5th Avenue. Eventually you will find St Patrick’s Cathedral, the Rockefeller Center outdoor ice rink, NBC Studios and eventually make your way east towards Grand Central Terminal, where you can admire the incredible transportation hub before catching the Subway to your next destination.