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Things to Do in New York City: a 5-day Itinerary for First-time Visitors

Searching for fun things to do in New York City can be overwhelming. Not only is the city full of people, but it's also full of amazing things to do and see. First-time visitors often struggle to finish their "must-see" list. The busy streets, bustling subways, and a ridiculous amount of stuff to do in New York City makes it tough.

But navigating the city can be easy if you've got a strategic itinerary to follow. By bundling activities according to their location, you can maximize your time in the Big Apple. Use this easy-to-follow 5-day schedule to get the most out of any New York City visit.

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The Big Apple

New York City is made up of five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Although there are things to do in each of the boroughs, most popular things to do in New York City are found in Manhattan. Most people stay in Manhattan for their first New York City trip. They find it easier to access points of interest using the public transportation system.

While Manhattan is a relatively small island, the complexity of the transportation network can be difficult to navigate for newbies. So, to make things easier, I’ve grouped the best places to visit together according to the area of the city. By planning your visit to the various attractions in New York City you can save time and money, especially when it comes to transportation.

Getting Around

New York is very walkable, but you'll need to use public transportation to make the most out of your visit. You'll need to get a MetroCard ($5.50 for the card), but the amount of cash you need on the card will depend a lot on where you are staying.

Single rides on the subways and buses are $2.75 each. Connections are free for two hours after the introductory fare when you make changes.

If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, you may want to get the 7-day unlimited pass ($31). According to MTA.info, the 7-day pass may not be the best use of your money if you plan to use public transportation fewer than 13 times.

If that's the case, you may wish to add cash value to your MetroCard. Cards can be used by multiple people, unlike the unlimited cards. You can purchase your MetroCard at any subway station booth or vending machine. Both cash and cards are accepted.

Saving Money

Another way to save some cash is to buy the New York CityPass. You'll be sure to get your money's worth with this pass using my 5-day itinerary.

There are 2 types of CityPasses available. For $71 adults/$51 youth you can choose any 3 attractions from 10 of the most popular attractions in the city. Or you can opt for 6 attractions, 3 pre-selected and 3 of your choice, for $116 adults/$92 youth.

With savings ranging from 25-40%, the CityPass is worth it for anyone wanting to take a bite of the Big Apple's best tourist attractions. All attractions below marked with an * are included in the attractions featured by CityPass.

The Two Other Things You'll Need for NYC

a trusty guidebook
New York city guide - Understand New York City and Survival Guide (1.527Mb), 10th Edition Aug 2016 by Lonely Planet
a secure backpack

Day 1: AM

There's no better way to start your first day in New York than by taking in the breathtaking views of the skyline from the Empire State Building*. With sweeping 360° views, the Empire State Building is a great way to orient yourself to the Big Apple.

This Art Deco skyscraper was originally constructed in 1931 and stood as the tallest building in the world for nearly 40 years. It's a popular destination, so you'll want to get there early to beat the crowd.

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Just a half-a-mile north on Fifth Avenue, you'll find the Main Branch of the New York Public Library. The early 20th-century marble building is famous for the Rose Reading Room, a lovely turn-of-the-century (and newly renovated!) marvel. The room boasts gleaming wood features, glowing chandeliers, towering ceilings and softly lit spaces.

You'll have a Sex and the City moment when walking up the grand staircase. Do NOT miss the Library Shop. This small gift shop packs a big punch. Jewelry, NYC memorabilia, books and more line the shelves in this cozy little shop. Grab a snack from Amy's Bread Cafe or head down the street to your next stop if you're hungry.

Next, you'll visit nearby Grand Central Station for more FREE fun. Start by exploring the Main Concourse, taking in the arched windows, heavenly painted ceiling and gold-gilded clocks. Wander into the wonderful Grand Central Market with its fabulous shops and stalls throughout featuring gifts, treats, and more.

Be sure to stop by the Jacques Torres Chocolate shop for cool gifts, fine hot chocolate, and the best damn chocolate chip cookie ever. Splurge a little on lunch at the Oyster Bar, the oldest business in Grand Central to date.

Day 1: PM

Get discounted day-of tickets to your favorite Broadway musical or play at the TKTS booth in Times Square (47th Street and Broadway). Or head over to St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue if you've bought your tickets already. There you can admire the Gothic architecture and history of one of New York's most famous cathedrals (opened in 1879).

Download the St. Patrick's app for a self-guided audio tour to get the full effect. Or download and print the cathedral's map and tour guide directly from their website. When done, head back to the Theater District for a bite to eat before your show.

Day 2: AM

Begin your day exploring Wall Street and Federal Hall, also known as the birthplace of American government. It was on this site that George Washington was sworn in as the first U.S. President. Now preserved by the National Park Service, Federal Hall is FREE to explore for adults and children.

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From Federal Hall, it's a short walk down Broadway to Battery Park where you'll catch your next ride. Be sure to get a quick selfie with Charging Bull, the famous Arturo Di Modica statue designed to represent the "can-do" attitude of New Yorkers. From Battery Park, you'll catch one of many Statue Cruises headed to Ellis Island and Liberty Island, the home of the Statue of Liberty*.

Be sure to use your City Pass for ferry access to both Liberty Island and Ellis Island. In addition to your boat ride, the CityPass will give you access to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum as well as free audio tours on both islands.

Pro Tip: Crown Tickets and Monument Access aren't included. They can be purchased separately for those who want a more up-close-and-personal experience with Lady Liberty. But know that Crown Tickets are limited and should be purchased well in advance of your visit.

Take a few minutes to explore Battery Park when you return to Manhattan before finding a quick lunch. There's usually a few good street food vendors in this central business area, so be sure to look around.

Day 2: PM

What visit to New York would be complete without a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge? Now synonymous with New York City, the bridge has become a beacon, attracting thousands of visitors each year. From Battery Park, you'll head east toward the Whitehall St Station, where you'll catch the R train to City Hall.

Explore the lovely grounds of City Hall Park, admiring one of the oldest continuously-used city halls in the US. Head east through the park until you reach the entrance of the Brooklyn Bridge where you'll set out for an amazing stroll over the East River toward Brooklyn. Marvel at the structure and imagine the bravery and ingenuity it took to build what was then (the 1880's) the longest suspension bridge in the world. Stop for a few photo ops but watch out for runners and bikers.

When you come to the end of the bridge, head south to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, one of New York's newest public green spaces. This expansive park has several cool features and gives you the best views of the bridge and the Manhattan skyline from the east.

Stroll through the lovely gardens and take in the breathtaking views before heading north to DUMBO, short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. This hip neighborhood is filled with shops, restaurants, bars and excellent views of the Brooklyn Bridge. Find a spot for drinks and dinner where you can relax before catching a ride back to Manhattan.

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Day 3: AM

After having a morning cup of motivation, but skip breakfast because you'll pick it up along the route. Make your way to the West Village and the corner of Gansevoort & Washington Streets. Here you'll find the entrance to the High Line, another one of the city's newest parks. This West Side treasure now sits on an abandoned elevated freight rail line.

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The park features 1.5 miles of urban landscaping heaven. The line has transformed with the addition of various gardens, dramatic views of the Hudson and surrounding urban landscape, water features, and more. The High Line passes through Chelsea Market between 14th & 15th Streets. What this means is that you'll have the perfect opportunity to search for a tasty breakfast and a few unique souvenirs.

Constructed in the 1890's, the building that now houses Chelsea Market was originally the home of the National Biscuit Factory. It's now home to the sprawling compound of food stalls, artisan shops, restaurants, as well as the daily arts-and-crafts market known as Artists and Fleas. The Food Network occupies office space in the market, filming many favorite shows on the site. Foods of NY offers tours of the market for those looking for a more structured visit.

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After exploring, eating, and shopping, you'll be ready to venture back out onto the High Line to finish the remainder of the track. Amazingly, the park still manages to seem serene despite its popularity. You'll feel transported the second you step off the last step onto 34th St where the park ends. Walk west toward the Hudson, turning left onto 12th Ave. Walk about one block south to the bus stop at 12th Ave & 33rd St. You'll catch the M12 to 12th Ave & 46th St for a 10-minute ride to your next stop.

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Day 3: PM

Walk west toward the Hudson, turning left onto 12th Ave. Walk about one block south to the bus stop at 12th Ave & 33rd St. You'll catch the M12 to 12th Ave & 46th St for a 10-minute ride to your next stop.

You'll spend the rest of the day exploring the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum*, another attraction featured in your CityPass. The Museum is an interpretive experience, showcasing some of the finest examples of ingenuity in space, air, and sea travel. Housed aboard a retired WWII aircraft carrier, Intrepid, this maritime museum is also host to the USS Growler, a British Airways Concorde, and the space shuttle Enterprise.

Growler offers visitors a glimpse into life aboard a nuclear submarine, an experience only available at the Intrepid Museum. Admire the space shuttle Enterprise, the prototype for NASA's important space shuttle program. On display at Pier 86, the BA Concorde broke records in 1996 by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in under 3 hours. With impressive collections, interactive tours, and educational programming, the Intrepid should be high on the list of anyone interested in a slice of history.

Finish your day with an evening cruise under the twinkling Manhattan skyline on Circle Line Cruise's Harbor Lights Cruise. Enjoy picturesque views of the Big Apple's most famous attractions from the deck while sipping a cocktail from their fully-stocked bar. This two-hour cruise is one you'll never forget.

Pro Tip: If you've already enjoyed the Statue of Liberty cruise then you'll have to pay separately for your Harbor Lights Cruise. The City Pass allows you the choice between the two cruises, not both.

Day 4: AM

Next door to Central Park, you'll find the Metropolitan Museum of Art*. With its grand halls and sweeping staircases, The Met is one of the most iconic attractions in New York. Founded in 1870, The Met (as it's commonly known) houses thousands of years of art and history and millions of objects under one roof.

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The vast permanent collection ranges from the arts of ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, to modern and contemporary painting and sculpture. The museum is home to many of the most spectacular examples of European and American paintings, as well as a remarkable collection of Greek and Roman vase-paintings and sculpture. Plan to spend at least 4-5 hours wandering the halls of this massive museum. After all, it is the largest museum in the United States!

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Pro Tip: The Met offers individual audio tour guides for children, as well as a fun family map designed to engage children in the art experience.

After the Met, you'll want to spend some time outside enjoying the sunshine and spectacle of Central Park. But first, you'll need provisions. Walk a few blocks north along 5th Avenue to the Neue Galerie. While you're welcome to explore the gallery (including the famous painting of the "Woman in Gold," Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Gustav Klimt), you're going for the delicious sweets and eats at Cafe Sabarksy.

This sweet little spot serves traditional Viennese desserts, wursts, and more. The Professor highly recommends the Sachertorte, a delicious dark chocolate, and apricot cake. It's the perfect spot to refuel for your next adventure.

Day 4: PM

Now you're in need of a long walk. Luckily you're right next to Central Park, Manhattan's largest dedicated green space, where you'll spend the rest of your day wandering the grounds. With so many highlights it's hard to say what you'll want to do first.

If you're visiting from November through March, you ought to walk south to Wollman Rink, a popular spot for ice skating with a backdrop of skyscrapers. For a little whimsy and fun photo ops head west to visit Belvedere Castle.

With breathtaking landscapes, beautiful bridges, and delightful playgrounds, Central Park will charm you. During warmer weather, you can enjoy Central Park's boating activities available at the Loeb Boathouse. Beatles fans will want to see Strawberry Fields and the infamous Dakota building, the site of John Lennon's murder.

Stay put in the park for dinner, splurging on a little slice of history at The Tavern on the Green. Originally built in 1870 to house the sheep that grazed the nearby lawns, the Tavern on the Green has been hosting guests since 1934. End your day on a moonlit carriage ride in the Park with Central Park Sightseeing's Horse & Carriage Rides. With options ranging from $54-118 per carriage, this sweet little tour will make Central Park memories you'll never forget.

Pro Tip: For even more photos of Central Park, be sure to check out my photo journal: Visiting Central Park in Spring.

Day 5: AM

You'll start your day again in Central Park, finishing your New York vacation with another amazing museum. The American Museum of Natural History* features just about anything your heart desires: dinosaurs, butterflies, dioramas, and more.

Let your inner child run wild in the halls of this famous museum, better known as the set of Night at the Museum. Explore the Rose Center for Earth and Space and enjoy a Space Show screening, all included in your CityPass. Exit the museum onto Columbus Ave and hop on the M7 bus headed south toward Columbus Circle.

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Walk east along 59th St until you get to 5th Ave, where you'll turn south at the Plaza Hotel. Enjoy the window displays and grandeur of the famous 5th Avenue shops as you walk to your next destination.

Day 5: PM

You can't miss your last stop, Rockefeller Center, even if you tried. Explore the shops in search of that last-minute New York souvenir or splurge on a tour before heading up to the observation deck, Top of the Rock*, to enjoy the golden light of the afternoon sun. Stick around for sunset to get your last good look at the Manhattan skyline.

Drink in the intoxicating views before heading down to the streets for your last night in the Big Apple.

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xoxo

Carlie
Things to do in New York City | New York Things to Do | Places to Visit in New York | NYC Itinerary | NYC Things to Do | Manhattan Sightseeing | Fun Things to Do in New York | New York City Attractions | Week in New York | What to do in New York City | Where to go in New York | New York Vacation
  • Reply
    Karilyn
    November 17, 2017 at 10:09 am

    I’m so glad to read this! We are trying to get to NY either this winter or for spring. And i LOVE that photo with the little yellow taxi’s and the bridge. Such a great eye.

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