NYC for First-Time Visitors

This post lists the top 18 must-see sights for a first-time visitor to New York City. We include brief summaries and essential information that will help you plan your time in NYC.

Be sure to look at our comprehensive guide of things to do in NYC for even more ideas.

 

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TOP 18 THINGS TO SEE FOR FIRST-TIME VISITORS

First-time visitors to NYC can feel overwhelmed by the number of sights to see in NYC. This post can help you narrow down your choices to what we think are the ‘must-see’ sights in New York City.

Many of the below items are completely free, and those that are not are maybe included for free with the purchase of a tourist attraction discount pass.

Some popular activities to consider are:

To find out what other things to do in New York City, see our master post on things to do in NYC, and our specialized posts on what to do at night, family-friendly activities and things to do for free.


Visit an Observation Deck

For spectacular views of NYC and beyond, be sure to visit one of the city’s observation decks. 

You can choose from the Empire State Building, One World Observatory, Top of the Rock, and Edge at Hudson Yards.

 

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Not sure which one to go to? Our post comparing NYC’s observation decks breaks down the pros and cons of each to help you choose which view is right for you. 


Experience Times Square

Recognized around the world, Times Square is a must-see part of NYC. In addition to seeing the giant LED billboards, there are quite a number of things to do in the area. 

There is no shortage of things to do in Times Square. If you are traveling with kids, there are plenty of family-friendly activities in Times Square

 

 

Times Square is included in our pay-what-you-wish Midtown Manhattan walking tours. In fact, we start in Times Square so come out and join us!


Go to the Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island

Seeing Lady Liberty up close is one of the top things to do in NYC, if not the world!

Our post on visiting the Statue of Liberty includes information on how to get tickets, the best times to go, and how much time to set aside for your excursion there.

 

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If you’re here for just a day, this might not be the best choice of activities since it will eat up a lot of your time.

For a quick and free view, our post on where to see the Statue of Liberty for free from lots of locations throughout NYC.


Stroll Through Central Park 

You’ve probably seen the park in movies and pictures. Visit the park and see for yourself that it’s every bit as lovely as you expected.

There are so many things to do in Central Park. Because it is so large, we recommend that you take a guided tour so you go right to the best spots instead of wandering around, or even getting lost as even locals do sometimes! 

 


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We offer several different pay-what-you-wish Central Park tours, and also have a GPS-enabled audio tour for you to explore at your own pace.


Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

Walking over the Brooklyn Bridge should be high up on any first-time visitors’ list.  Even locals never tire of the bridge’s majesty and sweeping views of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the harbor.

It is also rich in history and the story of how the bridge was built is part of what makes the Brooklyn Bridge so special. Learn about the bridge on our pay-what-you-wish guided tour of the Brooklyn Bridge.

 

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You can also cross the bridge on your own. Use our guide to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge which has helpful tips to make your walk easy and fun. 

Check out our GPS-enabled audio tour of the Brooklyn Bridge that you can use any time day or night.


See New York City From the Water

New York City is surrounded by water and there are many ways to get out onto the water where you can relax and take in spectacular views.

Popular options are taking a sightseeing cruise or a Hop-on-Hop-off ferry. Check out our post on which New York boat tour or cruise is best.

 

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If you are on a budget, there are also free boat rides and tours, including the Staten Island Ferry. It is one of the best free things to do in NYC!


Be Dazzled by Grand Central Terminal 

Grand Central is one of the most stunning train terminals in the world. Visitors are mesmerized by the celestial ceiling, regal marble staircases, tiled archways, and chandeliers. 

 

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Besides its beauty, Grand Central has a fascinating history, and a few secrets as well. The best way to explore Grand Central is to do so with some sort of guide.

You can find a listing of free and paid tours by reading our post on Grand Central Terminal.

If you prefer to visit on your own, check out our GPS-enabled audio tour or our self-guided tour.


Enjoy a Broadway Show

Though tickets are generally expensive, don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the best things NYC has to offer.

Luckily, there are a few ways you can get discounted tickets, such as buying them from the TKTS Booth.

 

 

Be sure to read our posts on how to get discount Broadway tickets. You may also want to try for Broadway Rush tickets or enter a Broadway ticket lottery.


Pay Tribute at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum

This beautiful memorial is located in a wide-open plaza in Lower Manhattan and is free to visit. 

The National September 11th Museum does charge an admission fee, though on Tuesday nights you can go for free.

 

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We offer several pay-what-you-wish tours that include the 9/11 Memorial as a part of or as the main focus of the tour.

Our guide to visiting the 911 Memorial and Museum provides all the details you need to plan your visit.


Visit Wall Street 

Wall Street has been the epi-center of the economy for over 225 years. Not only is the New York Stock Exchange there, but it is also the location of National Federal Hall, one of the most significant historical locations in American history.

Our pay-what-you-wish Lower Manhattan Walking Tour includes a visit to Wall Street and the Financial District.

 

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For an in-depth experience, take a Wall Street tour including our self-guided tour of Wall Street.


See Rockefeller Center

This complex of art-deco era buildings is like a city within a city, and there is plenty to do here.

You can learn about Rockefeller’s Center’s history, architecture, and sculpture by taking a tour of Rockefeller Center.

 

 

Also, you can visit Radio City Music Hall, tour NBC Studios, be part of the live taping of NBC’s Today Show or get a bird’s eye view of NYC from the Top of the Rock


Go to a World-Class Museum

There are several museums that a first-time visitor can choose from depending on your interests.

For contemporary art, there is no better museum in the world than the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The museum charges admission, but there is free entry during MoMA’s Free Fridays program.

 

 

For a bit of everything, you cannot beat the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While entry is never free, there are ways you can save money on entry. For example, the Met is included in most tourist attraction discount passes.

If you are on a tight budget, see our list of free museums.


Walk the High Line

The High Line is a park built on an abandoned elevated railroad. It has beautiful landscaping and spectacular views of the Hudson River and also Midtown Manhattan.

Our post on things to do on the High Line can help you plan your visit to this unique park.

 

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We offer several variations of pay-what-you-wish High Line walking tours, but if you can’t make one of our tours, check out our GPS-enabled audio tour or our downloadable self-guided tour of the High Line.


Explore NYC’s Neighborhoods

NYC is a patchwork of many neighborhoods each with its own culture, history, cuisine and sights to see.

For insight into some of the best neighborhoods in NYC, consider taking one of our many pay-what-you-wish guided walking tours led by knowledgeable and personable guides.  

 

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If you prefer to explore on your own, see our post on NYC neighborhoods that can help you decide which areas you would like to visit.

Keep in mind that we have over 40 free self-guided tours and also many GPS-enhanced audio tours narrated by our guides.


Eat Real New York Food

In our post on must-try New York City foods, we offer suggestions on where to find the best versions of iconic New York foods, such as pizza, bagels, pastrami or knishes.

 

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You might also consider taking one of our pay-what-you-like food tours to combine your NYC food experience with some history and culture provided by our guide.


Discover NYC’s Street Art

NYC is one of the best cities in the world to see top-quality street art. You can find giant murals by world-renowned street artists throughout the city.

You don’t need to hunt it down though. Our Street Art Tours of Manhattan and Brooklyn take you to the latest masterpieces. 

 

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To discover some great works, go to the Bushwick Graffiti Collective to see many murals in one centralized location.


Ride the Subway

Not only the subway an easy way to get around the city, but it is also a quintessential New York experience. 

Our guide on how to use the NYC subway system will get you acclimated quickly, so all you have to do is sit back and relax. Well, maybe not relax, but immerse yourself in the life of a native New Yorker.

 

 
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Keep your eye out for musicians performing on platforms and in the subway cars themselves. Use our post about where to find New York City’s subway performers to find them.


Save on Popular Attractions

If you’re looking to see and do as much as possible, using a New York City tourist attraction discount pass can help you save money and time.  

These passes bundle dozens of popular attractions and tours into one discounted ticket. Rather than buying separate tickets for each attraction, you pay one flat fee and can save up to 55% off regular prices.

 

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They can also save you time by allowing you to skip the ticket lines at many attractions. 

There are several different types of passes, so be sure to read our comparison post to learn about how you can save the most money on your trip.

 


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About the author

Courtney is a lifelong New Yorker fascinated with the city’s history, culture and cuisine. She loves exploring the world, as well as sharing her travel expertise with others.

She joined the Free Tours by Foot team in 2011, first as a guide and then as a writer. She has a law degree, a teaching degree and a worn-out passport. Her motto is “Have backpack, will travel”.