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Top Things to Do in New York City for First Time Visitors: A Local’s Guide to NYC

  • March 7, 2023
  • 14 min read
Top Things to Do in New York City for First Time Visitors: A Local’s Guide to NYC

The United States is technically the fourth biggest country in the world. And from a holistic standpoint, it’s safe to say that it is more developed than the three which precede it, which are respectively Russia, China and Canada. 

So, it stands to reason that there are a number of exciting cities in the US, each with their own respective attractions and draws. But at the end of day, come hell or high water, New York City remains at the top of the list.

Even if you’ve never been to NYC, there’s a good chance you already know about must-see sites like the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. But the Big Apple is so much more than that, which is the reason why it is able to maintain its status as one of the most visited cities on earth.

New York City, aka “The Big Apple” © Yiannis Kalliantas

In fact technically speaking, all of the five boroughs – Manhattan as well as Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx – constitute New York City. But NYC proper is for the most part considered to be the island of Manhattan. So in this article, that’s where I’ll by and large relegate my ventures to, though Staten Island and Brooklyn also pop up on the list.

And also remember that this compilation is with the first-time visitor in mind. So maybe the next time around, I’ll get to some of the remote places, like Queens and even Long Island. But in the meantime, here is Greetings from Abroad’s list of the top thing to do in NYC during our initial visit to the city.

1.  VISIT THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING

As far as landmarks go, you can’t really think of New York without the Empire State Building coming to mind. This structure, which is 102 stories high and stands at roughly 1450 feet (440 meters), is almost a century old by this point. But it is remains of major commercial and cultural significance. And the best thing about the Empire State Building, from a tourist’s perspective, is that it boasts a couple of observation decks which can be used to get a panoramic view of the city.

Furthermore, the thing about this site is that even if you aren’t into buildings, it is so tall, prominent and world famous that it’s likely to be a part of your NYC travel experience nonetheless. For instance, it is viewable from various parts of the city. And sometimes, the top floors are lit up in different colorful ways, thus making the landmark even more eye catching.

2.  THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

The Statue of Liberty, which has been around for roughly 150 years now, has to be the most famous statue in the entire world. As with the Empire State Building, whether or not you visit Ellis Island (i.e. the small landmass where the sculpture is situated) and go inside the 150 foot (46 meter) structure itself doesn’t matter in a manner of speaking. And why? This is because from certain angles of the city, you can’t miss it nonetheless. 

But if you’re the type who prefers tours of educational and historical value, you would definitely want to visit the site in person, with the Statue of Liberty long standing as the symbol of America’s diverse background and multiculturalism.

The Statue of Liberty
The iconic Statue of Liberty towering over New York City. © Yiannis Kalliantas

3.  RIDE THE STATEN ISLAND FERRY

While we’re on the subject of the Statue of Island, one of the best views of the structure is actually offered from riding the Staten Island Ferry. As its name implies, this boat is used to ferry passengers from Lower Manhattan (to be exact) to the nearby borough of Staten Island. Taking the ride really can be a scenic and relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle that defines New York City. And one of the best things about the entire experience is that it’s absolutely free.

4.  VISIT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN

Madison Square Garden, aka “the World’s Most Famous Arena”, is conveniently found smack-dab in the middle of Manhattan. This is the place where, most regularly, the New York Knicks of the NBA and the New York Islanders of the NHL ply their trade. It is also where a number of other events are also held, including concerts by A list musicians whenever they perform in NYC and even, up until recent years, the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Based on my personal experience, the best time to visit Madison Square Garden is then there’s a big Knicks’ game or concert in town. During such events (big concerts especially), you can even hang out around the exits and witness a number of celebrities going in and out. But the MSG experience is best enjoyed if you’re actually able to book a ticket to an event that interests you.

Also, what many outsiders may not know is that directly under Madison Square Garden lies Penn Station, which is one of the city’s major subways stations and has even been described as “one of busiest rail hubs in the world”. 

Via Penn Station, you can travel to various parts of the city, New York state or even out of state. But the best thing about it from a tourism perspective is that besides encapsulating the tireless spirit of NYC, it’s also basically a mall where you can most notably enjoy a number of delicious foods, including some good ol’ fashioned New York pizza, which is arguably the best in the world, sans Italy.

5.  VISIT TIMES SQUARE

MSG also happens to be within walking distance of Times Square, which is the true heart of New York City. Whenever you see pictures of New York City with those giant billboards and television display that are multi-stories in height, that’s actually Times Square. 

This is the one part of NYC, more so than any other, all of tourist must see. As such, there’s regularly tour buses going to and fro. But my personal recommendation is that you spend some time there on foot, soaking in the sights and sounds and in the process more firmly coming to understand why New York “the city that never sleeps”.

Being that this is the tourism hub of the metropolis, there’s a number of venues, both high-end and casual, found therein. This is also the part of the city where you’re most likely to come across diverse goods from various parts of the world. The caveat in that regard though is that sometimes, if the seller knows you’re a foreigner or not overly familiar with the product, they may try to overcharge you. But again, these knickknack shops and even the street vendors are all part of the New York experience.

Also, it should be pointed out that Manhattan’s world renowned Broadway districts, where various live plays and musicals are performed, does in fact run through Times Square. There are also a number of conventional movie theatres found in the area as well as, most frankly put, adult entertainment venues. So there really is something here for everyone, especially the likes of first timers who may not be familiar with other parts of the city.

6.  EDUCATIONAL VENUES

Broadway shows, professional sports and strip clubs aside, New York City is actually one of the best places to visit if you’re the intellectual or artsy type. In that latter regard, the premiere institutions are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, aka the MET, which for instance hosts the star-studded MET Gala annually. 

But my personal favorite is the Museum of Natural History, which is absolutely humongous and in my opinion arguably the most-interesting place on Earth. Have you ever seen that movie “Night at the Museum” starring Ben Stiller? Well actually being inside the Museum of Natural History, especially as a first timer, is a thousand times better than that. And to note this museum is also adjacent to the Hayden Planetarium, which is a worthy visit in its own right.  

Also found in Manhattan is what is known as the Grand Central Library, i.e. the main branch of the New York Public Library system. If you’re a bibliophile this is a place that you’d have to visit, no exceptions, as it even houses large rooms of rare books and things of the such.

Or if you’re someone who views education as a form of entertainment, you may opt to visit the likes of New York University or Columbia University, which rank amongst the most-recognized higher-educational institutions in the entire world. These schools are actually found embedded within the city itself, so it isn’t as if you need to purchase a ticket or anything to tour or even sit in a class.

7.  HELLO, BROOKLYN

In recent years Brooklyn has increasingly become a more viable tourist destination. Well actually parts of the borough, such as Coney Island, have always been.

Coney Island is home to New York City’s most-famous beach and amusement park. In fact when I think of my childhood in NYC, visiting Coney Island ranks amongst the fondest memories. I, personally, am not really a beach person. But the place is very colorful and exciting, complete with exhilarating rides, unique foods (such as cotton candy, candy apples, Nathan’s Famous franks, etc.) and large videogame arcades.

People walking on New York’s famed Brooklyn Bridge. This bridge happens to be one of the most famous suspension bridges in the world. © Yiannis Kalliantas

While we’re at it, it should also be pointed out that the New York Aquarium is likewise in Coney Island. Visiting museums and planetariums is one thing, but being up close with the likes of sharks, manta rays and seals is an unforgettable experience in and of itself.

And going back to Brooklyn as a whole now being considered more touristy, that’s in large part due to opening of the Barclay’s Center about a decade ago. Unfortunately the Brooklyn Nets, i.e. the NBA team who calls that venue home, no longer has the star power it enjoyed for the past few years. But the Barclay’s Center is basically Brooklyn’s equivalent to Madison Square Garden, being less renowned in general but a lot more modern. As such, many A list celebrities and musicians, such as Rihanna, rather opt to use Barclays to do their thing rather than MSG.

DON’T FORGET PROSPECT PARK (:

And not too far from the Barclays Center is also found Prospect Park, which is Brooklyn’s premiere park, as well as the adjacent Brooklyn Public Library, which is an exceptional facility also. And Downtown Brooklyn is general is also one of the city’s premiere shopping districts.

8.  VISIT THE WORLD TRADE CENTER

The Barclays Center is actually found in Downtown Brooklyn, which is a fact I’m pointing out for two reason. First is Downtown Brooklyn being directly adjacent to Lower Manhattan. So if you’re in the walking mood, you can actually trek from Manhattan, on foot across the Brooklyn Bridge and to the Barclay’s Center or other surrounding areas itself.

But the second reason I’m pointing this out is because back in the old days, the Brooklyn Pier which faces Manhattan used to be one of my favorite places to hang out at night. That was when the World Trade Center dominated that part of the landscape. After its destruction, the beauty of the landscape decreased so much that it almost became unbearable. Well, that is until they erected the new One World Trade Center, aka the Freedom Tower, in its place which now, on top of being a sleek and attractive structure, stands as the tallest building in all of NYC.

So the World Trade Center is still worth visiting in its own right. For instance, as with the old structure, the new One World Trade Center also has its panoramic observation deck which towers above the rest of the metropolis. 

The One World Trade Center from a distance. © Yiannis Kalliantas

Also, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum stands where the Twin Towers were formerly situated. Yes, visiting this site would be a solemn experience, in contrast to the other venues mentioned on this list. But 9/11 has become an integral part of New York, nay, even world history. So visiting NYC for the first time without paying proper respect to the memorial would be like doing yourself an injustice as a tourist.

9.  CENTRAL PARK

Honestly I was never really big on Central Park, but I understand its value to the city and also recognize why it is a place that first timers should visit. Most of NYC and Manhattan especially is what some may refer to as an urban jungle. But Central Park offers a large, nature-based and much-needed respite from that norm. Also, the surrounding area is where you find some of the city’s prime real estate.

Central Park comes complete with its own lake, zoo, etc. A number of the city’s premiere venues, such as the aforementioned MET and Museum of Natural History, are adjacent to it, and overall it is probably the most-famous park in the world. Chances are you aren’t visiting New York City for the first time to see big buildings and bright lights. But Central Park is a worthy, huge and diverse site in and of itself, and even if you don’t go there specifically you’ll probably find yourself in the area nonetheless.

Greetings from Abroad’s Yiannis enjoying a game of basketball with some New Yorkers in the heart of the Big Apple. © Yiannis Kalliantas

10.  RIDE THE SUBWAY

It’s already been alluded to in a previous post that I’m not particularly keen on the idea of newbie outsiders riding the New York City subway, especially to some of the more remote parts of the metropolis. But I also know that if the situation were reversed, i.e. if I were visiting NYC for the first time, that’s definitely something I would want to do. 

Doing so in some of the more remote areas, especially if you’re visibly a stranger, can be a lot more dangerous than riding the subway within Manhattan, where foreigners are more common. But it also on the outskirts where the New York City Subway becomes elevated (in some areas) and can offer a really intimate glimpse of the boroughs.

So in this case, I’m going to say that you shouldn’t ride the subway alone. What I would strongly recommend though is doing so alongside someone who is already experienced in that regard, who would also know the safest lines upon which to travel. And this piece of advice is particularly pertinent if you plan to venture far outside of Manhattan.

New York City is truly fascinating. © Yiannis Kalliantas

CONCLUSION

Even though I grew up in New York City and accordingly became accustomed to its sights and sounds, I’m also constantly reminded of why it is America’s most-visited city. For example, no matter how many times I visited Times Square, every time I entered therein my heart would jump with excitement. 

And as exhilarating as being directly in the heart of the city may be, finding a nice, quiet place to perch and enjoy the skyline at night can be equally edifying.

The good thing about being a first time tourist in NYC is that you’re actually on a mission to experience the best the city has to offer. For us natives who always have these venues available, it may take years or even a lifetime to visit all of the sites on this list. But with a proper itinerary, an outsider can partake all of the above within the timespan of a couple of weeks. That’s the good thing about having so many world class attractions within a single metropolis and why New York City itself is must-see if you’re visiting the United States.

About Author

Aaron Malcolm

I’m a writer and digital nomad who was born and raised in New York City (Brooklyn to be exact) but am currently residing in the beautiful West African country of Ghana.  I have a B.A. in Anthropology from the prestigious Hofstra University, which is also found in New York.

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