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The best things to see and do in New York

Off to the Big Apple? Stop everything and read our ultimate travel guide. In a city so big and so iconic, it’s hard to know where to begin. We’ve rounded up the top sights plus a few you won’t have heard of, hotels for every budget and some of the best restaurants in town.

What do I need to know about the Big Apple?

Photo credit: Robert Bye
  • First things first, New York runs on Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) which is four hours behind GMT. You’ll have a little bit of jet lag when you arrive but use this to your advantage and be at the main sights bright and early.
  • Talking of jets, New York has three main airports that accommodate UK flights – JFK International, LaGuardia and Newark. LaGuardia is the closest to New York City and a taxi to Times Square will set you back $30 (£23). Taxi prices from JFK and Newark get closer to $60 (£46) but JFK and Newark both benefit from having public transport links into the city – your budget will thank us.
  • For the best New York deals, you can search flights to all of New York’s airports using Skyscanner’s flight search from your home airport.
  • For the cheapest flights to New York you’ll often end up flying into one airport and out the other (usually a mix of JFK and Newark) so keep an eagle eye on which terminal your departing flight is leaving from.
  • The local currency is, of course, US dollars. Keep some bills handy at all times for the tips you’ll be expected to give to everyone from your taxi driver to your bartender *insert money-bag emoji*

When is the best time to visit New York?

Photo credit: Sean Pavone
  • For the perfect trip to New York, you’ll want the weather to be on its best behaviour and luckily across the pond it’s (a little bit) more reliable.
  • Winter is cold and often comes with a bucketful of snow – but it does make the run up to Christmas extra festive (and gives you an excuse to drink mulled cider in the markets).
  • Summer on the other hand is hot and can reach the 30ºC mark. June to August is deemed the high season and brings the most crowds.
  • That leaves spring and autumn as the optimum choice – the weather is pleasant and there are fewer crowds.
  • However, if you want to do New York on a budget, travel from late January to February when hotel prices are often lower.

What are the sights I absolutely HAVE to see?

Photo credit: Mihai Andritoiu

These are the landmarks you’ve seen in the movies, the ones everyone tells you to visit and the places you want on your Insta feed. We’ve even thrown in a few insider tips and tricks to help you avoid all the normal tourist pitfalls.

This busy intersection feels like the advertising centre of America – it also claims the spot as the most visited place in the world (131 million people a year and counting). To soak in the atmosphere, find the red stairs above the TKTS ticket booth and take a seat. We’d recommend doing this at night when the famous lights are at their most dazzling.

This 102-storey art deco building was completed in 1931 when health and safety most certainly did not exist. There are two observation decks on the 86th and 102nd floor (although it’s worth noting that the 102nd floor is closed for refurbishment until 29 July 2019). Everyone is keen to catch golden hour at the top, which makes sunset a particularly busy time of day. For photos without a strangers’ head in frame, midday is often quieter. Tickets start at $36 (£28).
If you want to look over New York’s skyline with the iconic Empire State Building in view, visit the Top of the Rock instead. The Rockefeller Center’s 70th floor observation deck ticket costs $32 (£25).

For a free – yes free – boat ride, which takes in Lady Liberty, a gift given to New York by the French 130 years ago, take the Staten Island Ferry from Whitehall Ferry Terminal over to Staten Island. Ferries depart every 15-20 minutes.
For a trip that includes access to Liberty Island, take the Statue Cruise Ferry from either Battery Park in New York or Liberty State Park in New Jersey. After you’ve visited the iconic statue, it’s also worth hopping off at Ellis Island. Between 1892 and 1954, the island saw 12 million immigrants pass through and enter America. You’ll want a couple of hours here to explore the museum and take in a different view of Manhattan’s skyline.

Ferry tickets include both islands and start at $18.50 (£14) if you want to climb to Liberty’s pedestal, and $21.50 (£17) to reach her crown. But be quick, tickets to the crown sell out fast. Plus, you’ll have to be willing to trek up 162 “narrow and tight” steps to the top.

A green oasis in an otherwise glass city, Central Park has various walking trails and paths, statues and fountains. Aim for the lake, roughly along the line of 74th Street, and hire a boat for a different take on the park (a rowing boat cost $15 (£12) plus a $20 deposit and can fit four adults). Or for something a little different, take an open-air yoga class alongside the New Yorkers. There are morning and evening classes dotted across the wee. You’ll need to book online for your preferred slot. Cost: $20 for 75 minutes of yoga.

The Met is so big it requires three locations. An adult ticket may seem steep at $25 (£20) but you’ll have access to The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer and The Met Cloisters – you can pop by any of them within three consecutive days of buying your ticket. Current exhibitions range from Art of Native America to Instruments of Rock & Roll. That’s the cultural side of your holiday sorted.

Opened in 1883 and standing 84.3 metres above water, Brooklyn Bridge is almost a synonym for New York. To get that picture for your Insta grid start at DUMBO (no, not the Disney film but ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’) where you’ll find a crowd of camera-holding tourists and a postcard-worthy view. You’ll spy Manhattan’s lights by night and the Statue of Liberty by day. For photos without heaps of tourists in the background, arrive in the early morning.

This was once a lesser-known attraction, but the word is out and the High Line is now a must-see sight. Built on a historic elevated freight line, the High Line is a public space set across 2.3km showcasing the best in food, design and unique outdoor performances. There are free guided tours every Tuesday evening (6.30pm) and Saturday morning (10am). Simply turn up 15 minutes beforehand to join in. Or for something more unique, you can take part in a stargazing session on Tuesdays at dusk between April and October. Meet the star crew on the High Line at 14th Street. If you need a snack en route, grab an ice cream sandwich from Melt Bakery on the High Line at 22nd Street.

Just like the West End, Broadway shows are notoriously expensive. If you’re flexible on which show you’d like to see, you can grab a more budget-friendly option by visiting the TKTS ticket booth stand in Times Square for discounted on-the-day seats. Or, if you don’t fancy queuing, download the TodayTix app where you can book cheap seats or enter lotteries for any performance in the next week – that’s much more 21st century.

What about some other under-the-radar sights?

Photo credit: Dai Lopez

Looking for something a little different? These lesser-known sights will help you avoid the crowded hotspots and make you feel like a proper New Yorker.

If you’re spending a weekend in New York, you might not have time to see all the sights… so it’s a good job the Queens Museum have put them in one place. The impressive panorama of New York City is built on a 1:1200 scale (100 feet is condensed into each one inch square) i.e. it’s tiny! You can even adopt a building and take home the miniature title deeds of your investment (a.k.a the best souvenir ever). Donations start at $100 for an apartment and go above $1,000 for more iconic buildings. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-5pm with a suggested admission of $8 (around £6) for adults while under 18s go free.

Considering New York’s block-lined grid, a hidden street is quite the feat. The Mysterious 61/2 Avenue runs between 6th and 7th from 51st to 57th Street. It’s a fully pedestrianised section that’s a secret even to most New Yorkers.

For a break from the sightseeing, grab a chair and sit beneath the low canopy of trees in this city-centre park. It’s a quiet oasis away from the chaos of Manhattan, with a 6-metre waterfall and an impressive tunnel behind the water. Once upon a time, you would have found five sections of the Berlin Wall on display here. To protect it from wear and tear, this piece of history has been moved. Now you can find it inside the lobby of the building that surrounds the park. Don’t miss it on your visit – it’s been painted by German artists Thierry Noir and Kiddy Citny too.

Aside from appreciating the architecture of Grand Central Terminal, another reason to visit is to hear the Whispering Gallery in action. The low-arched design allows whispers to be carried across the ceiling and arrive clearly at the corner diagonally opposite you. You’ll find this secret spot opposite the Oyster Bar & Restaurant in the station’s basement dining area.

Where should I grab a bite to eat?

Photo credit: Junior’s Restaurant

From an ideal brunch date to the iconic New York cheesecake, these are the restaurants you’ll want to get a reservation for.

Location: 25th East, 18th Street

Thanks to Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, ABC Kitchen offers the freshest menu around. As strong supporters of the slow food movement, there are no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers in sight. All the ingredients are locally sourced, none more so than the herbs grown in their own garden on the roof. Even the interior is created out of reclaimed and recycled building materials.

Location: 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue.

This is a first-class restaurant and a New York landmark in its own right. Visitors come from across the city to pose in front of the famous meat locker, a glass enclosure where you can see your dinner hanging before you even set foot inside. The menu may be simple, but with a focus on the meat, it’s effective and one of the few steak houses still using traditional hickory coals to cook steak.

Location: 9th East Street,1st Avenue

“Everything is vegetarian. A lot is accidentally vegan” is the tagline of this specialist restaurant with a short but sweet menu which changes daily. Google ‘Superiority Burger’ and you’ll be met with endless comments on the ‘Best Veggie Burger in New York’. Now you’ve discovered the best, if you can’t bear to leave the mouth-watering burgers behind, you can always take them home in the form of the Superiority Burger Cookbook.

Location: 112 Lincoln Avenue, Bronx

Exposed brickwork and a dark wooden interior combined with a strong menu – this is where to brunch in NYC. Embrace your inner millennial and add a side of avo to any dish for $5. We’d recommend pairing your brunch choice with a Henry from the block cocktail – for a morning glass of OJ with a holiday twist (and a slosh of Hennessey, lemon juice, ginger and mint for good measure). Brunch is served Saturdays and Sundays from 11am–4pm.

Location: Brooklyn (386 Flatbush Avenue) 45th Street (1515 Broadway) 49th Street (1626 Broadway)

Junior’s has been making its world-famous cheesecake since 1950. There are three restaurants all with that old-school American diner vibe in the New York area still run by the same family. Once you’ve picked a restaurant, deciding on your cheesecake is where the fun begins. There’s the Famous No1 Original Cheesecake or the more intriguing Devil’s Food Cheesecake (but it’s the Brownie Explosion variety that has caught our eye). Alongside the bakery they also have a full breakfast and restaurant menu – but we’d come for the cheesecake alone.

Where should I stay?

Photo credit: The Wagner Hotel

We’ve found the best hotels for every budget and in the best locations to make sightseeing a breeze. The main sights are either within walking distance or a few stops on the subway.

Location: 230 East, 51st Street

Situated in midtown Manhattan and in walking distance of Times Square, the Rockefeller Center and the theatre district. POD 51’s rooms (or pods) offer budget-friendly options on standard rooms with a shared bathroom. Or why not upgrade to an ensuite for a little more privacy. Regardless of your bathroom choice you’ll have excellent views of this glass city from the rooftop terrace. Rooms start from £71.

Location: 228 West, 47th Street 

Sat only 400 metres from Times Square, this hotel is full of swinging art-deco features. Named after American inventor Thomas Edison, the man himself turned on the hotel lights back in 1931 by remote control from his New Jersey home – how modern. Rooms start from £106.

Location: 457 39th Street, Brooklyn

Situated in the heart of Brooklyn and close to Sunset Park, this trendy eco hotel works to conserve natural resources and reduce its carbon footprint. For New York’s tourist hubs you’ll have plenty of public transport options to get you over to Manhattan, with the N, R and D subway lines in easy reach. Rooms from £183.

Location: 216 Duffield Street, Brooklyn 

This contemporary styled hotel is in downtown Brooklyn where Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Brooklyn Heights are all within walking distance. Plus, it’s only three subway stops from New York’s financial district. Here you’ll find the glittering skyscrapers that make up Wall Street, the new World Trade Centre and the September 11 Memorial Museum. Rooms start from £187.

Location: 2 West Street, New York 

This is without a doubt an impressive hotel. Located in the southern tip of Manhattan, rooms can include views of the Statue of Liberty and towards Upper Bay (a.k.a New York’s harbour). You’ll be a stones-throw away from Battery Park, Wall Street and the September 11 Memorial Museum. Plus, the hotel offers free Manhattan bike tours every Friday at 2pm with the hotel manager at the helm. Rooms start from £374.

Now you know the Big Apple like the back of your hand, book your adventure to the States:

All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 14 May 2019.