Visiting a city like New York, with a population surpassing 8 million and a seemingly endless array of sightseeing possibilities, can be overwhelming. Even as a resident of the Big Apple, I often have trouble deciding where to go and what to do in my free time — there are just so many options! But fret no more. Like a true neurotic New Yorker, lists always make me feel more organized and less overwhelmed. So, here it is: the top 10 things to see and do in New York City, as selected by the team at Babbel’s NYC office. These suggestions are sure to make your next trip a fun and memorable experience.
1. Visit a museum
New York City is one of the world’s greatest cultural centers. And where there’s culture, there are museums — a lot of museums. In fact, NYC is home to hundreds of them, covering every artistic medium, ethnicity and type of history imaginable. Though I would recommend doing a search based on your areas of interest when deciding which museums to visit, there are a few that everyone should see.
Perhaps the two most famous are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, better known by their respective nicknames the Met and MOMA. The Met is enormous, housing an extensive collection of art ranging from ancient Egyptian temples to contemporary paintings. Pick up a map on your way in to help you navigate the Met’s labyrinth of rooms. Pro tip: because the museum is publicly funded, all entry prices are suggestions. Did your sandwich at lunch cost you a shocking $20? That shouldn’t stop you from visiting the Met’s collections for whatever price you think you can afford. MOMA displays the world’s finest collection of modern and contemporary art. It’s a must-see for art lovers. Not into art? You have plenty of other options. The Museum of Natural History is a good choice for families with children, while the Museum of Sex can be a fun couples activity.
2. Stroll through a park
A number of beautiful green spaces break up the sea of buildings and endless stream of traffic in New York. The most popular of these urban oases is Central Park, which spans more than 840 acres in the center of Manhattan. Rent a rowboat at the Loeb Boathouse and paddle leisurely around the Lake, get sketched by a caricature artist or have a picnic in a sunny meadow.
Other NYC parks worth a visit include Washington Square Park, a lively little green space in the heart of the charming West Village; Battery Park, a tourist hotspot overlooking the water at the southernmost tip of Manhattan; and Pelham Bay Park, NYC’s largest park, made up of 2,700 acres of hiking trails, golf courses and views of Long Island Sound.
3. Shop at a market
One of the best ways to get to know a city and its culture is to explore one of its markets. Chelsea Market is the most beautiful (but also most crowded) indoor market in New York City. The food can be pricey, but it’s worth seeing for the interior design of the building itself, which is open year-round, seven days a week. For something smaller and less touristy, check out the nearby Gansevoort Market — a no-frills collection of food stalls inside a former warehouse in the city’s Meatpacking District. If the weather’s nice, head to Union Square for a farmer’s market featuring locally grown produce, fresh baked goods and wine from vineyards around the state. The market is open all year on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
4. Take a ferry boat ride
New York is surrounded by water, so a boat ride is a natural choice for an outing. On a nice day, there’s nothing better than sitting on the deck of a boat, feeling the cool breeze and taking in the view of the awe-inspiring NYC skyline. Take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry for a relatively quick (and free!) way to get out on the water. The ferry crosses New York Harbor, connecting Lower Manhattan to Staten Island. Another option is the New York Water Taxi’s IKEA Express, which ferries passengers from Manhattan to IKEA’s own dock in Brooklyn. It’s free on weekends and only $5 on weekdays. Whether you want to do some shopping or just go along for the ride, it’s an easy and affordable way to do so.
5. Explore an island
Once you’re on a ferry, the logical next step would be to visit an island — and New York has no shortage of those. Ellis Island and Liberty Island are popular destinations for visitors. Take a ferry to Ellis Island, and step back in time to learn about the experiences of immigrants arriving in the U.S. between 1892 and 1954. The Immigration Museum provides a fascinating glimpse into a crucial part of American history. Follow this visit with another short ferry ride to neighboring Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands tall, welcoming immigrants to our shores.
My favorite island in NYC, which is much less popular (and therefore less crowded), is Roosevelt Island, located in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens. You can travel there by train, bus or car, but for a more exciting experience, hop on the Roosevelt Island aerial tram for a sky-high view of the island and its surroundings. Once you arrive, you’ll notice how quiet and peaceful the island is compared to the rest of the city. Soccer fields and playgrounds overlook the river, and quaint shops and ice cream parlors line the main street. The small-town feel is a respite from the crowds and commotion of Manhattan.
6. See a performance
A diverse and impressive performing arts scene is one of New York’s greatest claims to fame. Seeing a Broadway musical is on the to-do list for many of the city’s visitors, and it’s certainly a rewarding experience. But if musicals aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other shows to fit a variety of tastes. NYC theater is excellent, so an alternative to a musical would be to see a play instead. Broadway has a number of non-musical shows, but some of the best dramatic and comedic plays are “off-Broadway” or “off-off-Broadway” — terms which actually refer to the theater’s seating capacity (the more “off”s, the smaller the theater) rather than its distance from Broadway. These shows tend to be more intimate and less over-the-top.
NYC is also home to several renown comedy clubs, if that’s your cup of tea. The Upright Citizens Brigade, The Comedy Cellar, Caroline’s and numerous other venues host famous stand-up comedians and hilarious improv shows on a regular basis. If you’re looking for a drink and a laugh, you can’t go wrong with these clubs.
You can also find incredible live music shows, dance performances, poetry readings and more any night of the week. Check an online events calendar to see what’s happening when you’re in town!
7. Get a bird’s-eye view
Who doesn’t love a great view? No one, that’s who. And some of the best views of New York City are from above. I would argue the best spot for a bird’s-eye view of the city is from one of NYC’s many rooftop bars. This is ideal for nice weather, but several of the bars have heat lamps or enclosed patios for colder months as well.
Another great way to see the city from above is from an observatory at the top of a tall building. The “Top of the Rock” is a popular tourist attraction made up of indoor and outdoor observation decks on the top floors of a skyscraper in the center of Manhattan’s famed Rockefeller Center. The observatory at the top of One World Trade is another option for those seeking stunning views of the city. Tip: If you visit One World Trade, be sure to stop at the nearby reflecting pools, which serve as a powerful memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attacks.
8. Marvel at the architecture
Part of what sets a city apart is the architectural style of its buildings and attractions. Much like its people, New York features a diverse array of architecture, from gothic to art deco to modern. You’ll have the opportunity to see these different styles as you explore the city, but there are a few sites that are worth a special visit. One of these is the elegant Grand Central Terminal, an enormous commuter train station in midtown Manhattan built in the neoclassical Beaux-Arts style. In addition to numerous train platforms, the building — unveiled in 1913 — is home to a large dining concourse, an indoor market and plenty of shops.
A few other architectural wonders include the Flatiron Building, a triangular skyscraper constructed in the Renaissance revival architectural style; the main branch of the New York Public Library, another Beaux-Arts building, grandiose inside and out; and the High Line, a former elevated light rail line converted into a public walking path and plant landscape.
9. Enjoy a diverse array of delicious eats
You can’t truly get to know a city without trying the best of its culinary offerings, and NYC has an abundance of delicious food from every corner of the world. Each neighborhood has something to offer, so keep your eyes peeled for interesting restaurants when you’re out and about. But if you’re looking for inspiration, there are a few spots that are sure to please your palate.
Manhattan’s Chinatown is an impressively large and vibrant neighborhood (containing the largest ethnic Chinese population in the Western Hemisphere), and a great place to sample extraordinary Chinese cuisine at an extremely affordable price. If you’re feeling fancy, head to the Theater District to what’s known as “Restaurant Row,” where you can find dozens of upscale eateries, including several scrumptious Brazilian restaurants forming “Little Brazil.” One final suggestion: make the trek to Brooklyn for Smorgasburg, an incredible collection of food vendors from around NYC, serving up their best menu items in a bustling paradise for food-lovers.
10. Brave the outer boroughs
Speaking of Brooklyn, the outer boroughs of NYC — Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and even Staten Island — have some really cool things to see and do that may be worth a side trip. The boroughs can generally be reached in less than an hour, depending on where you are coming from, and are easily accessible via public transportation.
Besides Smorgasburg, Brooklyn has a number of attractions, including its own edgy art and music scenes, several interesting museums, and some very unique bars. Queens, home to two of the New York metro area’s major airports, also has an abundance of delicious food — particularly from Greek, Hispanic and Asian cultures. Astoria, Queens is home to the city’s oldest beer garden and the famous Kaufman-Astoria studios, where movies and TV shows like Orange is the New Black are filmed. The Bronx has incredible green space, providing a surprising amount of recreational activities, including hiking, boating, and the beloved Bronx Zoo — the largest metropolitan zoo in the U.S. In addition to residential neighborhoods, Staten Island hosts beautiful nature preserves to explore.
Between the five boroughs, there’s something for everyone in New York City!