Visiting New York City for the first time? Got a few days to fill, but no idea where to start? Uh huh, I get it. The ‘city that never sleeps’ certainly has a lot to offer and you want to make the most of it! This guide shares our ULTIMATE New York itinerary, featuring the top attractions, hidden gems, secret visit tips AND even the chance to squeeze in an adventure to the world-famous Niagara Falls whilst you’re there. Sound good? Alright then, let’s go!
Jump straight in with a Hop On Hop Off bus, taking you around all the local attractions so that you can pick and choose where you spend your time at! It’s perfect for the first day to get you straight into things, without having to worry where you’re going. The tour also has a guide on the bus, which gives you an insight into the history as you go along. We decided to go for the Downtown Route which featured Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, World Trade Center site, Battery Park (departure point for Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island ferry), South Street Seaport, Times Square, Rockefeller Plaza, Radio City, United Nations, Fifth Avenue and more.
The highlight of the day definitely had to be stopping at the World Trade Centre for a Ground Zero Tour, given by the locals who had lived through the events and could share their first-hand experiences. Starting outside St. Paul’s Chapel, just a block away from the 9/11 attacks, this building was special in the fact that it was one of the few to survive and therefore became a rescue centre at the time. We then took a loop around, hearing stories on the way, until finally reaching the Memorial Grounds themselves, paying respects to those who lost their lives and hearing the meaning behind every aspect of the design. It was honestly one of the most emotional, moving experiences of my life, but touched our hearts deeply. Our tour then finished with a trip up Freedom Tower, for the highest panoramic views in the city.
You can’t come to New York City without having a day of shopping right?! Which is exactly what day two was all about for us! Kicked off with a Full English Breakfast to fuel our day- we then ventured out. Top shopping spots include: Macy’s, 5th Avenue, Century 21, Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn Flea Market (if you’re over that way), Chelsea Market, SoHo and Madison Avenue.
We then finished the day by heading over to the Empire State Building for sunset. Please note: the queue’s here get super super long, very fast: even in the week. So to ensure you get up to the top in time 1) Pre-buy your tickets, it will let you ‘skip the que’ faster later down the line. See more here. 2) Allow extra time- I’d recommend heading over there at least an hour before. We were lucky enough to see not only the sun set, but also the night sky come alive! It was incredible. Honestly one of the greatest moments of the trip. As you can see from my photos below, we stayed quite a while (snapping like crazy) to really be able to appreciate the full transition. Couldn’t recommend it more. We then headed ,mkjlout for dinner and cocktails to celebrate such a special day!
The mid-way point, so what better day than to take a trip to Niagara Falls?! Because we were short on time, we decided to use a tour company to fly us over and take us around. It was far faster, hassle-free and although you pay potentially a slightly more premium price- it actually works out better value because you get to see everything in a day (sights on both the American and Canadian sides) without needing a stop overnight. 100% worth it. For full details, visit this post on Your Guide to Niagara Falls.
Essentially Niagara Falls is made up of the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. You can see, hear and feel the falls from below on board the legendary Maid of the Mist boat tour. You can also get up close and very, very wet(!) as you stand less than 20 feet away from Bridal Veil Falls on the Cave of the Winds tour. Or you can stride to the edge of an observation tower extending out into the Niagara Gorge to view all three spectacular falls from a single site. There’s plenty to see and experience here; making your New York adventure all the more memorable!
It’s time to get those cycling shoes on! We kicked off the day by heading over to Central Park for a few hours of bike-hire to cycle around it. Now, if I’m going to be totally honest at this point- we was originally going to go for a Cycle Tour but thought bike hire would allow more freedom. Recommendation: if you want it easy, GO FOR THE TOUR!! Central Park is absolutely massive, so although it was stunning to cycle around- we did get lost and ended up being practically rescued by a helpful stranger who helped us re-find our way! That being said, it did make it more of an adventure and depends what’s more your thing.
Top things to see around Central Park include the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, mid-park lake, the loch, cherry hill, the iconic centre reservoire, the bethesda fountain, shakespeare garden, strawberry fields, the old carousel, conservatory garden and -believe it or not- so much more! Yep, it is a mighty place, taking up it has 843 acres with a length of 2.5 miles and a width of half a mile. Pretty impressive huh?
After an active morning, we then grabbed some lunch (fresh pasta- delicious!) before spending the afternoon at the Central Park Zoo. It was pretty small, but very well looked after. With over 130 species to choose from, Betty & Veronica the grizzly bears, Amaya & Biru the beautiful red pandas and the swarm of penguins (who were such little characters) probably had to be my favourite. A lovely, relaxed way to spend the afternoon.
With over 80 museums across New York City, we decided to spend the final full day with a trip to the American Museum of Natural History for a step into ‘Night at the Museum’! It’s impossible to see it all there in one day, with over 45 Museum halls inside! So, it was certainly a case of seeing what takes you fancy and heading over to those specific sections… and yes, it did feel like a little bit of a maze at times! We went for the dinosaurs, and pre-historic history, but also opted for an experience in The Butterfly Conservatory: a seasonal exhibition letting you step into rooms with thousands of beautiful creatures. One little butterfly actually landed on my head, so it certainly gets you up close with nature!
In the afternoon, we then stopped off at a Cheesecake Store (yep, there is such a thing!)- and grabbed a couple of slices with a milkshake. It would be rude not to have one there right?! Delicious!
Kind of a travel tradition: we then ended tour final night in New York by getting dressed up, having a couple of drinks and heading out to watch a show! But this time, it wasn’t your normal theatre trip… After great reviews from my family when visiting Boston, we decided to see the Blue Man Group; ‘taking you on a journey bursting with music, laughter and surprises!’ It was totally different, very funny and actually quite mind-blowing. By the end it had everyone standing up on their seats. Epic! A big contender for you guys when considering how to spend your final night, for sure.
The next day, we also had a little extra time before flying back, so we did a spot of extra shopping and visited the National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. Maybe not one that will immediately spring to mind when looking at New York, but it was an experience to remember! Insightful, interactive and really quite fascinating: it used cutting edge technology to transport you on an extraordinary underwater journey! Play with sea lions, get up close with a majestic life-sized humpback whale and learn more about our deep-sea oceans. It certainly made me leave feeling ready to tackle our biggest environmental problems to protect the beautiful world we live in! But honestly- a different attraction I would really recommend.
Let’s Round It Up…
Where we stayed:
We stayed in the Cassa Hotel in Times Square for a City Centre location simply for ease! The last thing you want is getting lost heading INTO New York (and trust me: it’s easy to do!)
Our favourite highlights:
Now this is a real tricky one, but if I was to pick three of my ‘best bits’, I’d say it would have to be the trip to Niagara Falls (well worth it guys, trust me), the sunset into nightfall on the top of the Empire State Building and the moving experience at the World Trade Centre: 100% made by the tour company we went with and the personal accounts.
If you’re looking to make your New York Itinerary super packed like ours, I’d highly recommend checking out the Explorer Pass, which gives you access to 60+ top attractions, saving up to 45% compared to regular admission.
Other key attractions:
Aside from the things already covered in our itinerary, you also might want to take a look at:
- Rockefeller Center and Top of the Rock Observation Deck (the views are supposed to be out of this world!)
- Brooklyn Bridge (this is one to do as a day trip: it was originally on our itinerary but we swapped it for ease!)
- Grand Central Terminal (world-famous if that sort of thing is up your street!)
- The High Line (this is a new thing! It’s a renovated rail line and was recently ranked as one of the world’s top 10 places to visit. Very cool place to explore & chill; or combine with a tour within other local areas)
- New York Botanical Garden (for all things pretty and sweet!)
- Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island (climb aboard and get ashore to explore the island for yourself!)
- New York Helicopter Experiences (arguably one of the best ways to see the city! What a way to remember it!)
- Harbour Lights Night Cruise (a great way to make the most of the night and see the city from another angle!)
- Coney Island (an adventure park just off Brooklyn bay)
- Washington Square Park (a beautiful area to watch street entertainment, relax, take everything in and do some good-quality people watching!)
Then there’s all your famous streets, historic architecture, masses and masses of museums to choose from (the Museum of Modern Art is alway a popular one) and of course some pretty awesome shopping areas. Aside from this, there are so many great places to eat and drink: that alone is worth going for! I guess the key to planning your perfect itinerary is to know what kind of thing interests you the most and then work your time around that. Even with five solid days, you won’t be able to see and do it all, but- that’s all the more reason to come back again… Because I guarantee it will end up being a place you will want to re-visit!
Unlike a lot of the trips we feature on A World Within Reach, this one -unfortunately- is not massively budget-friendly, but if you can do it- 100% do it. Save like crazy if you need! Because this itinerary doesn’t just get you exploring NYC but ticking off one of the greatest natural wonders in the world! And that my friends, makes it all the more worth it.
I’d love to hear your New York travel plans and stories. Who’s going next?!