I’ve spent a lot of time in New York City, from living there to visiting as a tourist, so I thought it’d be easy to come up with the perfect itinerary for first-timers. But as I started writing things down, I had you doing so many things you’d probably need 40 hours in a day to get through them all! And let’s not even get started on the list of restaurants that you MUST go to. It’s about a mile long!
So it turns out making an itinerary for New York is actually really hard! There are just so many fun things to do and so many amazing restaurants to try that it’s impossible to fit it all in. This is a good thing though, and makes for reasons to come back!
As I slowly deleted out things from my very long list I did my best to come up with a good mix of tourist things and local things to do that should satisfy most of you on your first visit to New York. This itinerary is designed for the traveler who arrives to New York late on Thursday night and leaves late on Sunday afternoon, but you can move things around depending on what your travel schedule is.
A few things to know before you go:
- The entire city is very walkable, but if you need to get from one end of town to the other a cab or the subway is a great option. If it’s raining I wouldn’t even attempt to try to hail a cab. Just find the most direct route to the subway. Which brings me to my next tip.
- Download a subway app. It will quickly become your best friend as you make your way around the city. There are quite a few, but I like HopStop best. The subway is safe, but I wouldn’t go by yourself late at night. Wear layers. It can get really hot really quickly underground and depending where you’re going you could be down there for 20-30 minutes. The weekend schedule is different for a lot of the trains, so listen to the announcements carefully.
- New Yorkers generally dress up more than the average American. They also eat dinner much later. 8, 9, and even 10pm are common dinner times! This probably isn’t too different for most European visitors.
- Bring COMFORTABLE walking shoes. And don’t pack your favorite pair! The streets are absolutely filthy! I can’t even tell you how many pairs of shoes I went through in that city!
- Look up a map of New York and familiarize yourself with the Neighborhoods/Areas before you go.
Let’s get on to the itinerary shall we?! For your first visit I think it’s easiest to split Manhattan in half into the upper and lower parts of the island. On day one we’ll focus on the lower half and day two we’ll tackle the upper half. If you have time on Sunday we’ll get our toes wet in Brooklyn.
*I have two options for the morning. Option 1 is touristy and Option 2 is more of a typical day in the life of a New Yorker.
Morning – Option 1
- Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island (leaves from Battery Park) – This will take up most of your morning so get there early. (For a free option, hop on the Staten Island Ferry. You can’t get off at the Statue of Liberty, but you will get a nice view of it as well as downtown NYC)
- Make your way up the island and stop at the 9/11 memorial & museum
- If Wall Street interests you, check out the NYSE and take a picture with the bull (Trinity Church is nearby if you’re into old churches)
Morning – Option 2
For those of you interested in a less touristy and more ‘New Yorker’ experience, here’s what I would do.
- Stroll through Chelsea market
- Window shop through the Meatpacking district
- Finish the morning with a walk on the High Line
- When you get hungry you can stop for lunch or brunch at Balthazar, Jack’s Wife Freda, or Cafe gitane (try the avocado toast!), or Buvette.
- For the afternoon I suggest you wander through SoHo and The Village to get your shopping fix. Take in the low buildings and winding streets. Chinatown is right off SoHo on Canal Street and is where you’ll find knockoffs.
- When you’re ready for a break grab a slice from Joe’s pizza (the best slice in the city!) or if you’re looking for something sweet hit up Magnolia Bakery (go for the banana pudding or the cupcakes)
- Head back to your hotel, put your feet up, and get ready for dinner and the evening.
Dinner tonight is in the West Village. A few options to try are OTTO Enoteca, Waverly Inn (if you want an extra special meal), or a slice at Joe’s for something cheap (mentioned above). There are a million other great restaurants in the area if these options don’t work for you.
- Comedy Cellar (Must get tickets ahead of time) – Mike and I love the Comedy Cellar and go back almost every visit.
- Once the show is over you’ll have lots of bars nearby to continue the party or you can head back to your hotel to get some zzz’s.
- Brunch is definitely a New York experience, so make reservations at Sarabeth’s. If you want something quick grab a bagel on the go (Black Seed Bagel (Nolita), Absolute Bagels, Zabars or Barney Greengrass (UWS), Murrays (West Village), Ess-a-bagel (Midtown), Freds (inside Barney’s department store)
Time to explore Central Park and Upper Manhattan.
- You could spend hours wandering through Central Park, so if there are certain things you want to see you may want to map it out. Some of the highlights for me are The Mall, Strawberry Fields (a tribute to John Lennon), Bethesda Fountain, the Zoo, the Boathouse, and the Bow bridge.
- Stop for a treat at Levain bakery (the cookies are to die for) or Milk Bar (famous for cereal milk and amazing cookies and cakes!)
- As you make your way down from the Park you can scope out the shopping on 5th Ave and take a looksie at diamonds in Tiffany’s flagship store.
No trip is complete without a stop at a Shake shack. The original is at Madison Square park and is probably the best one, but they are all over the city now.
- New York has great museums, and most first-time visitors want to see the MoMA, The Met, and the Guggenheim. Unless you’re a real museum aficionado visiting one or two should be enough for the weekend. On this itinerary we’ll go to the MoMA. (If you prefer to go to the Met or the Guggenheim you can hit up the Shake Shack in Upper Manhattan for lunch rather than the Madison Square Park location)
- Top of the Rock vs Empire State Building – the Top of the Rock is less expensive and you’ll get to have the Empire State Building in your photos, so in my opinion going up the Top of the Rock is the better option. (If you don’t plan to see a Broadway show tonight then you may want to see the Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building at sunset)
- If you have extra time you can pop into Grand Central Station.
- Don’t forget to get a picture of the Chrysler Building–my favorite in the city!:)
- Walk through Times Square (Keep your eye out for the “Naked Cowboy”)
- Broadway Show (Next time I’m in New York I want to see Hamilton but some of my favorites are Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, Les Miserables, and Phantom of the Opera)
- There are plenty of options for after show drinks or if you want to go out head back down to the Meatpacking district.
- Grab a quick breakfast so there is time to walk (or bike) over the Brooklyn Bridge. While there isn’t enough time to give Brooklyn a proper visit, this is a good time to scope out the Dumbo area.
- Stop for lunch at a Brooklyn style pizza joint Grimaldi’s or Juliana’s or treat yourself at one of these locations Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, Lizzmonade, or Jacques Torres for chocolate chip cookies.
- If you do have a little more time you could hit up the Brooklyn Flea Market or walk the Brooklyn Heights promenade. If you don’t feel like walking or biking back you can take the East River Ferry.
Sadly it’s time to go home, but don’t worry I’m sure you’ll be back again for a visit!
If you’re planning a trip with your family or kids, check out my list of kid-friendly recommendations here. If you’re visiting over the holidays, check out my “Christmas in New York” travel guide here.