Posted: 8/26/21 | August 26th, 2021
First settled by the Dutch as “New Amsterdam” in 1624, the city came under English control in 1664. The city was a major trading center thanks to its location at the mouth of the Hudson River. After the American Revolution, New York became the seat of America’s power and government, officially becoming the nation’s capital in 1789 when George Washington was sworn in.
While it’s no longer the nation’s capital (it moved to Philadelphia the following year and then to Washington, DC in 1800), NYC is still the beating heart of the country.
Home to around 10 million people, NYC has tons of things to see and do. You can barely scratch the surface on a typical four- or five-day visit. (But, then again, I don’t think even a four-month trip would be enough to see NYC! The city is constantly changing too much.)
New York is impossible to “see” in one visit. This city is home to thousands of restaurants, hundreds of museums, attractions, plays, and quirky things to do. You just have to resign yourself to that fact, unless you move here (and maybe not even then), you’re only going to see a fraction of what you hope to see. It takes a while to get around town.
As a traveler, how do you visit NYC? What are the best things to see and do here? What is the best itinerary for NYC? How do you make the most of your time here?
There are ways to make the most of the limited time travelers have in New York. You need at least three days to really see the main highlights (though a “quick hits” tour could be done in a two-day NYC itinerary). However, I suggest 4-5 days to see the main sights without rushing too much.
Since I’ve written a guidebook to this city, lived there for over five years, run tours there, and explored as much as I could in pursuit of knowing the best things to do in NYC, I want to share the best itinerary for New York City. This suggested itinerary can help you organize your trip and ensure you make the most of your visit.
NOTE: If you do everything on this itinerary, you’re going to be very, very busy. Don’t take this itinerary as a manual but more like suggestions. If you want to pack it in, you can do it. However, don’t rush. Meander. The itinerary here just groups things together to give you a sense of how days can be optimized but go at your own pace.
So, without further ado, here is my suggested five-day New York itinerary featuring my favorite things to do in the Big Apple:
What to Do in NYC: Day 1
Take a Walking Tour
Start your trip off with a walking tour. The city is home to dozens of walking tour companies (many of them free) offering tours in every niche possible. History, food, booze, TV/film — if you like it, chances are there is a tour revolving around it. Walking tours offer a unique look at the city that never sleeps from a local guide who can answer any and all of your questions. I always take my friends on at least one when they visit.
Three of my favorite walking tour companies not to be missed are:
But, for way more suggestions, check out my favorite NYC walking tours.
See the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island
Though the line for the ferry from Battery Park is long, if you get there early, you can avoid most of it. (Come late and you’ll have to wait a few hours.) The Statue of Liberty is spectacular to see up close (she’s as big as you imagine), but the real highlight of this combo is Ellis Island. This is where you can learn about the immigrant experience and get a sense of the people who helped build NYC (you’ll even find my family’s name inscribed on the wall). There’s such a great sense of history there that you can’t help but be impressed.
Tip: If the line’s too long and you don’t want to wait, take the free Staten Island ferry for photos of the statue and harbor instead. You won’t get up close but it’s faster and cheaper
Battery Park, +1 201 604 2800, nps.gov/stli. Ferries operate from 9am–3:30pm. Tickets are $23.50 for the ferry, which includes access the pedestal and Ellis Island’s Great Hall. Tickets (especially crown tickets) must be purchased months in advance.
Explore Battery Park
Located on the southern tip of Manhattan, this park is where the Dutch built Fort Amsterdam in 1625 to defend their settlement. The British took the area over in 1664 and, eventually, renamed it Fort George. While the fort was mostly destroyed during the American Revolution, the battery was expanded after the war’s end. You can wander around the fort and then stroll through the surrounding park and take in the beautiful waterfront views of the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island.
Visit Wall Street
Take a photo with the famous charging bull statue (which was created in 1989) and then walk to Wall Street and see where all those bankers destroyed the economy. There’s heavy security in the area, but you can sit and watch people whiz in and out of buildings on their way to cause some other financial disaster.
See Federal Hall
One of the most overlooked museums in the city sits across the street from the NY Stock Exchange (NYSE). Federal Hall, built in 1700, is where George Washington took his oath of office (you can see the Bible he was sworn in on). It was the site of the US Customs House in the late 1700s and the first capitol building of the US. Though the original facade was rebuilt, it’s one of my favorite attractions in the area. I especially love the old vaults. I highly recommend you visit. Admission is free.
26 Wall Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 825 6990, nps.gov/feha. Open Monday–Friday from 9am–5pm.
Tour the Museum of American Finance
Down the street from NYSE and Federal Hall is the Museum of American Finance. Housed in a historic bank building on Wall Street, it has permanent exhibits on the financial markets, money, banking, entrepreneurship, and Alexander Hamilton (the founder of the US financial system). If you want to understand the workings of what happens on Wall Street, this is a perfect place to start.
48 Wall Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 908 4110, moaf.org.Open Tuesday–Saturday from 10am–4pm. Admission is
See Trinity Church
Built in 1698, the original Trinity Church was a small parish church constructed by the Church of England. When the British seized New York after George Washington’s retreat, it was used as a British base of operations. After the war, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton regularly worshipped here. The graveyard dates back to the 1700s and has many famous Americans there, including Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth, Francis Lewis (signatory on the Declaration of Independence), John Alsop (Continental Congress delegate), Albert Gallatin (founder of NYU), and Horatio Gates (Continental Army general).
74 Trinity Place, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 602 0800, trinitywallstreet.org. Open daily from 7am–6pm.
Visit the World Trade Center & 9/11 Memorial and Museum
On September 11th, 2001, almost 3,000 people were killed in a series of terrorist attacks in NYC and elsewhere. Visit the somber memorial (which is free) and then take in the view from the new “Freedom Tower.” On the elevator up, you can see pictures of the historical development of the city and how it’s changed over the years. To get a deeper understanding of 9/11 and the events that unfolded, visit the museum. It’s home to moving exhibits that illuminate the scope and significance of the tragedy.
180 Greenwich Street, Financial District, Lower Manhattan, +1 212 266 5211, 911memorial.org. Memorial open daily from 10am-5pm. Museum open Thursday-Monday from 10am-5pm. The memorial is free to visit; museum entry is $26 USD. Free entry Mondays from 3:30-5pm (tickets must be booked online).
DINNER OPTION: Eat at Ellen’s Stardust Diner
Since 1987, this diner is home to an incredible waitstaff of singers and dancers. Between tours and musical performances, actors and actresses wait tables at Ellen’s, where they belt out songs as they serve you slightly pricey, very American diner food (think shakes, burgers, and lasagna) in uniforms from the 1950s. It’s incredibly cheesy, which makes it incredibly fun!
1650 Broadway, Times Square, +1 212 956 5151.
What to Do in NYC: Day 2
See City Hall
New York’s City Hall is a great piece of historic architecture and has a beautiful little park that’s filled with office workers during lunch (as well as a circular tablet about the site’s history). To learn about the building’s history, art, and architecture, take one of the tours. This way, you’ll be able to see the landmarked rotunda, city council chamber, Governor’s Room, and the City Hall Portrait Collection.
City Hall Park. Pre-reserved tours are typically offered for groups (10–20 people) on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10:30am and for individuals on Thursdays at 10am. There are also first-come, first-served tours on Wednesdays at 12pm.
Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Right near City Hall (see below), the Brooklyn Bridge offers an easy 25-minute walk into Brooklyn and the waterfront park on the other side. Stopping to take photos and meandering along the way will make the walk about 40 minutes. You get a lot of wonderful views of downtown as you make your way across (and especially from the park). I enjoy doing this walk at night when downtown Manhattan is all lit up. Otherwise, come early to beat the crowds.
Relax in Prospect Park
Once you get out of Manhattan, you can explore Brooklyn’s version of Central Park, which spans almost 600 acres. While you’re here, don’t miss the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Spend the afternoon discovering its vast collection of both historical and contemporary art and artifacts (there are over 1.5 million items in its collection). It has art exhibitions highlighting ancient Egypt, medieval Europe, colonial USA, and more. Tickets to the museum are $16 USD.
Wander Rockefeller Center
This area is always filled with hustle and bustle. Wander around Rockefeller Center to see where they film The Today Show, shop, snack, and take the elevator to the “Top of the Rock” for another bird’s-eye view of the city, which I personally think is better than the Empire State Building, since from the top of here you can get that building in your picture too. (Tickets to the Top of the Rock are $38 USD).
Tour Radio City Music Hall
Is there a more American theater than Radio City Music Hall? This timeless testament to entertainment has captivated visitors since the 1930s (at the time, it was the largest auditorium in the world). It’s the home of the precision dance company The Rockettes, who have been performing here since 1932. It’s also been the venue for all kinds of award shows, including the Tonys and the Grammys.
Rockefeller Center, +1 212-465-6741, msg.com/radio-city-music-hall. Tours run daily from 9:30am-5pm and cost $31 USD.
Play tourist at Times Square
No matter when you go to Times Square, it will be packed with people (usually other tourists). There are pedestrian areas where you can sit and hang out. If you aren’t shopping or eating or seeing a show, there isn’t much to do in the area (and no New Yorker hangs out there), but it’s still a fabulous place to people-watch for a few minutes from the top of the red steps of the TKTS kiosk. Try to come at night when it’s all lit up. That’s when it looks the best.
What to Do in NYC: Day 3
Stroll around Central Park
The perfect way to relax in the city and leave the crowds behind is to spend the day in Central Park. It’s free, there are lots of paths to walk (or run), bike lanes, lakes to row in, and a zoo. Since the park covers over 150 square blocks, it’s easy to spend hours wandering around. During the summer months, there are often free concerts and theater productions (line up early for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park). From the late spring to the early fall, there are free guided walks run by the parks service on Saturdays at 11am. I’m a big fan of laying out in Sheep’s Meadow on a hot, sunny day with a book, some food, and a bottle of wine.
Several excellent museums can be found in or on the edges of Central Park too (see below).
Visit the The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Met is one of the biggest museums in the world, and if you only see one museum in New York, I recommend this one. It has a wide array of art, historical artifacts, photographs, and other exhibits. I like its expansive Impressionist and Greek exhibits. It’s chaotic and filled with people, especially on the weekend, but since it is so big, you can usually find some quiet spots away from the crowds. Budget at least a half-day here as a few hours won’t do this place justice.
1000 5th Avenue, Central Park, Upper East Side, +1 212 535 7710, metmuseum.org. Open Sunday–Thursday from 10am–5pm. Admission is $25 USD (includes same-day entrance to the Cloisters).
Visit the American Museum of Natural History
Made even more famous by the Night at the Museum movies, this museum also requires a lot of time. The exhibits on nature, human history, and marine life are interesting and detailed, so I wouldn’t try to rush your visit. My favorite is the one on the origin of humans. Learning about how we came to be is fascinating. Also, don’t skip the section on space (because space is awesome) at the Hayden Planetarium, which is run by Neil Degrasse Tyson. They have really detailed exhibitions on the origin of the universe.
Central Park W. at 79th Street, Upper West Side, +1 212 769 5100, amnh.org. Open Wednesday-Sunday from 10am-5:30pm. Admission is $23 USD (special exhibitions not included).
Take in the Museum of the City of New York
This museum can tell you everything you ever wanted to know about New York City. Architecture, parks, streets, as well as its people, culture — it’s all covered! There are multiple rooms that highlight various time periods in NYC history featuring interviews, maps, interactive exhibits, profiles of historical figures, and various artifacts. It’s the best history museum in the city. There’s a cool exhibit here where you can create the future NYC a la Sim City style. (Great for kids or people who are childlike!)
1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St., +1 212-534-1672, mcny.org. Open Friday-Sunday from 10am-6pm. Admission is $20 USD.
See a Broadway Show
You can’t go to New York City, the theater capital of the world, without seeing a show. Make sure you squeeze in an evening show somewhere while you are here! Current highlights and my favorites include:
- The Lion King
- The Phantom of the Opera
- Dear Evan Hansen
- School of Rock
- Come From Away
Ticket prices vary greatly by show. However, you can find discounted theater tickets at the TKTS offices around the city (Times Square, South Street Seaport, and downtown Brooklyn) for shows that day. They also have an app where you can see what they offer too.
What to Do in NYC: Day 4
Visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)
Head over to the MoMA for lots of beautiful (and weird) modern art and some vivid impressionist art. I dislike modern art. I just don’t “get” it. How is shovel on a wall art? While I’m not a fan, this museum does have Van Gogh’s Starry Night as well as other post-impressionist art so I can’t hate it completely. If you love modern and contemporary art, this (I’m told) is one of the best in the world.
18 W. 54th Street, Midtown, +1 212 708 9400, moma.org. Open daily from 10:30am-5:30pm (7pm on Saturdays). Admission is $25 USD. The MoMA’s Sculpture Garden is free of charge to the public daily from 9:30am–10:15am.
See the Frick Collection
This collection features paintings by major European artists (lots of Dutch masters here) as well as 18th-century French furniture and Oriental rugs. You have to really love Dutch artists to want to spend time here (I do) but be sure to visit their website because they host a lot of wonderful temporary exhibits featuring famous works of art.
1 East 70th Street, +1 212-288-0700, frick.org. Open Thursday-Sunday from 10am-6pm. Admission is $22 USD. The museum is currently closed, however, you can still see many of its items at the temporary Frick Madison (945 Madison Ave).
Wander the Guggenheim Museum
This museum is home to a renowned collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, early modern, and contemporary art. The cylindrical museum (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) is considered one of the 20th century’s most important architectural designs. It’s one of my favorite buildings (and museums) in the city.
1071 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, +1 212 423 3500, guggenheim.org. Open Thursday-Sunday from 11am-6pm. Admission is $25 USD. Pay what-you-wish is available on select Saturdays from 4-6pm.
Visit the Cloisters
Few people make it up to the Cloisters (it’s all the way up near 204th Street), a branch of the Met devoted to medieval Europe. It took me years to finally see it, and I kicked myself for waiting so long. It was built with Rockefeller money from parts of five European abbeys between 1934 and 1939. They even stipulated that the land across the river would forever remain undeveloped so the view would be unspoiled.
The building and its stunning cloistered garden are very, very peaceful and beautiful. It’s one of the best things to do in the city. There are free tours each day that explain the history of the museum and the paintings and exhibits.
99 Margaret Corbin Drive, Fort Tryon Park, +1 212 923 3700, metmuseum.org/visit/visit-the-cloisters. Open Thursday-Monday from 10am-5pm. Admission is $25 USD and includes same-day entry to The Met.
What to Do in NYC: Day 5
Walk the High Line & Whitney Museum
The High Line is a converted train track that is now an urban walking park. It goes from 34th Street down to the Meatpacking District (and vice versa). Lined with overlooks, gardens, public art, food stalls, and greenery, this walk is one of the best things to do in the city, especially on a nice day. Go for a walk, sit with a book, people-watch — the High Line is a must-see and a true favorite among locals.
Next to it, in the Meatpacking District, there’s the new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art (a museum that collaborates with the Met). Even if you don’t go inside, the building is worth seeing, as it is a work of art in itself. But I would recommend going inside as there is a wonderful exhibit of American art.
99 Gansevoort Street, Chelsea, +1 212 570 3600, whitney.org. Open Mondays 10:30am-5pm, Thursdays 10:30-6pm, Fridays from 10:30am-10pm, Saturdays from 10:30am-7pm, and Sundays from 10:30-6pm. Admission is $25 USD and pay-what-you-can on Fridays from 7pm-10pm.
Enjoy the view from the Empire State Building
After you finish up with lower Manhattan, jet up to this historic landmark. Standing 1,453-feet (443m) tall and completed in 1931, the 1930s art deco interior of this building is absolutely beautiful and the view from the top is breathtaking. It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the city and you can get a real feel for how densely populated New York is as you take in the view. Get here early or during lunchtime to avoid the lines and tour groups.
350 5th Avenue, Midtown, +1 212 736 3100, esbnyc.com. Observation deck open daily from 1pm-10pm. Admission is $42 USD.
Marvel at Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal is the city’s historic train station. It was going to be torn down in 1975 but was saved by Jacqueline Kennedy, who raised money for its preservation. I love coming to the main concourse and looking up at the “stars” in the ceiling as everyone races to and fro. There’s also an amazing eatery in the basement called the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant. And for fancy (and expensive) cocktails, visit The Campbell and step back into the 1920s (dress code enforced). It was once the office of John W. Campbell, a member of the New York Central Railroad’s board of directors and finance tycoon from the 1920s.
89 E. 42nd Street, Midtown, grandcentralterminal.com. Opening hours: Daily (5:30am–2am). Tours are available daily for $25 USD via mas.org/tours.
See the Lower East Side Tenement Museum
This museum highlights how immigrants from around the world lived during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they tried to make it in America. It’s a good follow-up to what you see on Ellis Island. You can only visit this museum via guided tours, and they need to be booked in advance. I like that live actors are used to portray and share the stories of newly arrived immigrants as it makes the experience much more memorable.
103 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, +1 877 975 3786, tenement.org. Open Thursday-Monday from 10:30am-5pm. Admission is $30 USD.
Other Options for Your Itinerary!
There’s a lot of things to see and do in NYC. You will literally never run out of things to do here. It’s impossible. Some other options to add in if you’re not into museums or walking around as much:
1. See a TV Show – NYC is home to tons of TV shows that film here regularly. TV shows like Saturday Night Live, The View, Late Night with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon all offer free tickets to their tapings. Tickets need to be reserved long in advance so you’ll need to plan ahead.
2. Explore the Bronx Zoo – Opened in 1899, the zoo spans almost 300 acres and sees over 2 million visitors each year. Home to over 650 different species, it’s a great place to visit with kids. Gorillas, birds of prey, bison — there is a huge assortment of animals here and you’ll definitely learn a lot during your visit!
3. See a Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Knicks Game – Like sports? NYC has some world-class sports teams. I’m not a big sports fan (the Yankees play soccer, right?), but games are fun when you have friends to share the experience with. If you have a chance and the desire, don’t miss a sporting event, because New Yorkers are serious about their local teams!
4. Take a Food Tour – NYC is a foodie city and there are tons of amazing tours that can introduce you to the best food the city has to offer. Here are a few tours worth checking out if you want to eat your way around the Big Apple:
- Scott’s Pizza Tours
- Foods of NY
- Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tour
- Secret Food Tours
- Beyond the Plate
New York City is a big place with a lot to do and this list barely scratches the surface. Four days is barely enough to squeeze these activities in, let alone find time to visit boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn. If you have the time, I recommend staying for at least five days. But if you’re pressed for time, following these tips will give you four days full of fun and excitement in the city that never sleeps.
Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to New York City!
For more in-depth information and tips on NYC, check out my 100+ page guidebook written for budget travelers like yourself! It cuts out the fluff found in other guides and gets straight to the practical information you need to travel and save money the city that never sleeps. You’ll find suggested itineraries, budgets, ways to save money, on and off the beaten path things to see and do, non-touristy restaurants, markets, and bars, and much more!! Click here to learn more and get started.
Book Your Trip to New York City: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Use Skyscanner or Momondo to find a cheap flight. They are my two favorite search engines because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is left unturned. Start with Skyscanner first though because they have the biggest reach!
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the biggest inventory and best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. My favorite places to stay are:
If you’re looking for more places to stay, here my complete list of favorite hostels the city. Additionally, if you’re wondering what part of town to stay in, here’s my neighborhood guide to NYC!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
- World Nomads (for everyone below 70)
- Insure My Trip (for those over 70)
- Medjet (for additional repatriation coverage)
Looking for the Best Companies to Save Money With?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel. I list all the ones I use to save money when I’m on the road. They will save you money when you travel too.
Need a Guide?
New York has some really interesting tours. My favorite company is Take Walks. They have expert guides and can get you behind the scenes at the city’s best attractions. They’re my go-to walking tour company!
Want More Information on NYC?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on New York City for even more planning tips!