Not to be missed – what to see and do in New York City, USA

In response to numerous appeals from first-time visitors to various destinations we’ve caved in to the pressure and decided to publish a series of articles highlighting the popular sights actually worth your time in a given city.

The tourist traps, you mean?

Well, yes and no. Many of the places we cover will be the best known attractions but there may be also be a few that were originally lower down your list which we think should be given a higher priority. For the more unusual things to see and do – especially for cities you’ve visited before – refer to our very cool ‘Been there, haven’t done that’ series.

So this is more like ‘Haven’t been there, everyone says I should do that – but should I?’

That’s right, but we decided on a slightly less clunky title. We also decided it was time to cover some cities in North America since we have been spending a lot of time on that side of the Atlantic this year. Having just returned from the self-styled ‘capital of the world’, the Big Apple seemed the most logical place to start, too…

New York City

Let’s get one thing straight right from the off – you’re not going to be able to see all the sights in New York on your first visit and you shouldn’t try to, either. You’ll be back, trust us. For this article we’re assuming you’re visiting for a short break and want to make the best of your time in the city. To kick things off we’ll share our best piece of advice – don’t try to do more than one or two of the things on this list each day. Leave yourself plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere, stop for a coffee or a beer or pop into that interesting-looking shop or art gallery you just discovered.

Since food and drink play a major part in the travel experience I normally decide where I want to eat that day and book a table if necessary (which it often is in New York). You may also need to reserve a specific time slot for some of these attractions and plan accordingly but other than that leave yourself as much wiggle room as possible. This is an extensive (but not exhaustive) list of NYC experiences that Grown-up Travellers will enjoy – so take your pick and let us know what you think.

Looking for the perfect hotel for your trip to New York? Trivago will get you the best deal!

Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal Clock

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Stand out from the rest of the tourists by not referring to it as Grand Central Station but by its proper name and enjoy the spectacular terminal building even if you have no intention of catching a train. There’s enough to see, do and eat here to make this New York landmark the place to go to rather than to leave from.

Happily saved from demolition back in the day by preservationists including one Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, it is estimated that over three quarters of a million people enter Grand Central each day but not all are in transit. Many do so in order to visit some of its 50 shops, gaze at the starry ceiling in the main concourse building, meet by its famous clock or lunch on seafood at the Oyster Bar & Restaurant.

There are other good dining options but you shouldn’t turn down the chance to join the throngs at the latter venue and see what all the fuss is about. Check the website for details on the excellent tours available to learn more about the station that is more like a small city and yes, it is 100 years old this year as you may have gathered from the photo above.


9/11 Memorial

9_11 Memorial

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

The 9/11 Memorial remains a work in progress (the museum will open next year) but is an essential stop on your visit to Manhattan. Built to commemorate the 2,983 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993 the Memorial consists of two pools where the Twin Towers once stood. Thirty-foot high waterfalls cascade into each pool with the water then disappearing into a black void in the centre.

The names of the victims are carved in bronze around the pools and the site has been planted with oak trees. One World Trade Center towers over the area and has now reached its final height of 1776 feet, making it the tallest building in the USA and providing some idea of the scale of destruction when those planes hit. We will be publishing a more detailed report about the Memorial soon but if you only do one thing in downtown Manhattan, visit this place.


Staten Island Ferry

In a city where money talks, most museums are in private hands and charge accordingly for entry and you get a lot less bang for your buck when booking a hotel room than in most other places on the planet, it’s quite a surprise to find anything for free. Yet not only will the Staten Island Ferry not cost you a cent, it is also one of the best ways to spend half an hour in the Big Apple. An hour, if you come back. The journey to the ‘forgotten borough’ will take you past Governors Island and Brooklyn on one side, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on the other and give you a picture-postcard view of the Manhattan skyline as you leave the South Ferry terminal.

On the return journey you’ll have a good chance of being able to watch a huge container ships making its way under the Verrazano-Narrows bridge en route to the high seas. The ferry runs 24 hours a day and about twice an hour and is a good alternative to a boat tour of the bay if time (and/or money) is short.


Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Of course seeing Lady Liberty from the water is one thing, getting up close and appreciating just how huge she is is quite another. Despite the fact that the statue was originally intended for Egypt it has become perhaps the most famous symbol of the American Dream since it was unveiled in 1886. For the mass of immigrants arriving by ship Liberty was a beacon of hope after an exhausting voyage; the hope of a new life in a new country.

You will need to take a Statue Cruises ferry to get to Liberty Island; you can decide if you just want to visit the island or climb the monument itself. The crown level is now open again but access must be reserved way in advance (two months out when I last checked) on the Statue Cruises website. If you make the journey to Liberty you should definitely continue to Ellis Island afterwards on the same ticket (it’s about fifteen minutes further). Do check the current security process in advance and allow enough time for screening.

Website: Statue Cruises:

Ellis Island

During its years of operation the reception centre at Ellis Island received over 12 million immigrants until it closed in 1954. These days most new arrivals come via JFK or La Guardia, but it is estimated that over 100 million Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island. The main building is now an excellent museum which tells some of their stories and many visitors use the database of the American Family Immigration History Center to find their ancestors. Free tours are run every hour and audio versions can also be purchased.

Website (museum):

The High Line

The High Line

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

One of New York’s most successful new attractions, the High Line is also a fine demonstration of people power. When a disused railway line running 30 feet above the streets of their neighbourhood was threatened with demolition, two locals decided to suggest a radical alternative. The Friends of the High Line proposed using the land to make an elevated public park with walkways, art installations and viewpoints – all the while preserving many of the original features from the defunct industrial railway. Two sections have now opened and the High Line currently stretches from Gansevoort to 30th Street – further extensions are underway.

The riotous colour of the plant life and paintings provide a surreal contrast to the urban sprawl all around. Great for an early morning walk with that first cup of coffee.


Times Square

Times Square

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

It’s definitely a tourist trap, and most certainly a crazy place where you are just as likely to be accosted by a manic street preacher as you are to be hassled by Mickey Mouse as you are swept along in the tide of bewildered faces staring up at the acres of neon and LCD screens. The addition of the terraced area above the TKTS booth (from which this photo was taken) has certainly helped as there is now a place from which to watch the madness without stopping the traffic – or more likely being run over by an irate taxi driver.

There’s not really that much to do in Times Square (which isn’t a square, and is no longer the home of the New York Times) but that’s not really the point – just get down here after night has fallen and you’ll get the idea. Oh and you’ll likely have the phrase “Stand-up comedy show guys?” ringing in your ears for a couple of days afterwards.

Central Park

Central Park

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Central Park provides much-needed breathing space and the chance for New Yorkers to reacquaint themselves with green things like trees and grass. It is also one of the few places where you can see quite a lot of the sky, too. Joshing aside, Central Park is enormous and the best way to enjoy it is to hire a bicycle and explore.

If you are only in town a few days you may not feel the need to do so but those in New York for a little longer will appreciate the contrasts between the urban jungle of Times Square and the almost rural vistas of Central Park.


Top of the Rock

View from the Top of the Rock

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Until One Trade Center opens its top floor viewing gallery to the public there are two skyscrapers vying for your attention – and your cash. Basically if you want less queueing and a slightly (note that I said slightly) more relaxed experience and you want to visit during the day, Top of the Rock is probably the best bet. It is of course very popular but not as well known as its arch rival the Empire State Building.

Its location further north means fantastic views over Central Park and of course a great angle on the Empire State Building itself – as the latter is the more attractive building of the two you are going to want to see it from the outside. The viewpoint is just a small part of the Rockefeller Center which is worth a visit in itself – especially when the ice rink is in use during winter.


Empire State Building

View from the Empire State Building

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

On the other hand, it’s the Empire State Building, right? It has a fantastic Art Deco lobby and when you finally make it to the top the views are of course stunning. You get charged for just about everything including altitude (it costs extra to go to the very top deck on the 102nd floor) but the history of the place, the speed at which it was built and of course a certain film about a giant ape will probably win you over.

The ESB’s ace up its sleeve is that it is open until 2am (last lifts up 1.15) – and after 10pm the queues are often non-existent. A post-dinner visit is highly recommended.


Museum of Modern Art/Metropolitan Museum of Art/Guggenheim Museum

Art lover? Take your pick. These are probably the top three museums for you in New York and some of the greatest collections in the world. Instead of trying to rush just pick one and give it some serious attention. You can see another one next time…personally I’m all about the modern art so MoMA would be my first choice. Get your tickets online in advance to jump the queues; admission is free on Fridays from 1600 to 2000 but obviously it is jam-packed then so better to pony up and have a little breathing space. Note that MoMA is closed on Tuesdays.

The Met houses over 2 million works of art so you will need a little time to do the place justice – a tour is a good investment.

The Guggenheim is an amazing building worth walking past (after the Met and a stroll through Central Park, for example) even if you don’t go in – you can understand why Frank Lloyd Wright caused controversy with his design in 1959 although most people love it now. Most of the building is taken up with temporary exhibitions so check the website for details.


Brooklyn Bridge

Even though at least part of the structure seems to be perpetually covered in scaffolding, the Brooklyn Bridge is an amazing piece of engineering and a real New York landmark. You might have to make do with a postcard if you want a photograph of the entire construction in all its glory rather than partially obscured by tarpaulin (unless your Photoshop skills are highly advanced) but make sure you walk over to the other side for superb views of the Manhattan skyline. If the weather is good Brooklyn Bridge Park is ideal for a picnic (grab a slice from Grimaldi’s – see below) and/or a snooze in the sun before heading back over.

The Chrysler Building

Chrysler Building

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

You can’t go up to the top of the Chrysler Building (although you might get a peek at the ornate lobby) but it’s the exterior of this skyscraper that is the main attraction anyway – you’ll see it all the time and especially when the sun shines off its silver spire. It’s not far from Grand Central and you’ll get a good view of it from outside the station entrance. Still my favourite building in New York – although it must be said I have a few more to see before I can give my final vote…

The Flatiron Building

Flatiron Building

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

As with the Chrysler Building the Flatiron Building is famous for its design. It was in fact the first steel-framed skyscraper in the world but its modest 20 storey height is nothing compared to its remarkably thin, triangular shape. It’s best appreciated from across the road in Madison Square but be very careful crossing over to take a closer look – the road junction on which it fits perfectly is one of New York’s maddest.


For the feeling that you’ve been magically transported several thousand miles away from New York take a stroll in Chinatown. If you like Asian food you’ve come to the right place – as well as just about every region of China the cuisine of many other countries can be found in one of the eateries here – the street food is good but if you have the time seek out Dim Sum Go Go to choose from 24 types of dumpling. The menu offers some help in choosing but a platter of 10 items is the way to go – prices are a little higher here but the quality is too.

Dim Sum Go Go, 5 East Broadway (between Catherine and Oliver Streets)

Grab a bagel and a ‘cawfee’ – to go!

New Yorkers love their bagels, and visitors should seek out the authentic variety rather than the bland mass-produced imitations which have sadly taken over. Every local will have their own personal favourite and arguments about which is best can quickly reach the same intensity as those over pizza; personally I found that Best Bagel and Coffee ticked all the right boxes. The place was walking distance from my hotel in Midtown, opened at 0600 (don’t ask) and had a queue of locals forming at 0645 – all good signs. Fresh, tasty and authentic bagels at low prices – what more could I ask for? Oh and there is a small seating area, so you can eat in if you so desire.

Best Bagel and Coffee, 225 W 35th St (between 7th & 8th Ave), New York, NY 10123

Sample a slice of New York Pizza

There’s always something new on the pizza scene – Naples pizza, sourdough pizza and so on but one New York institution never changes its winning formula – Grimaldi’s. Unless you come at lunchtime (and often then too) you’ll be able to locate the legendary Italian restaurant by the line of hungry customers waiting outside for some thin-crust heaven. Service is brisk though so don’t give up; and don’t expect to pay with anything other than cash. “Credit card? Fuhgeddaboudit!”

Grimaldi’s, Under the Brooklyn Bridge, 1 Front Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 and other locations.  Website: 

Katz’s Deli

We couldn’t leave out Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. It is hugely popular with visitors and milks its status as the location where Meg Ryan performed ‘that’ scene in “When Harry Met Sally” for all its worth, but don’t let that put you off. The whopping pastrami sandwiches will keep you going all afternoon and the wisecracking service is sure to make you smile. Just don’t think you’re the first to ask for “what she’s having”…

Katz’s Delicatessen, 205 E Houston Street (at Ludlow Street)  Website:

Binge on a big breakfast at Junior’s

What, were you expecting Tiffany’s? This is a Brooklyn original restaurant that has spawned additional branches on Manhattan and for my money the best place to go for breakfast. What’s more this one is only spitting distance from Times Square and the subway. Most of the the usual American suspects are on the menu and even a few healthy alternatives too. We ate here three out of the four mornings we had in New York and loved everything they put before us. Prices are reasonable, portions are huge and service is friendly and efficient.

For breakfast you need to be there before 1045 after which they serve lunch, then dinner, so theoretically you could spend all day and all of the night here (yes, they serve booze too). But it’s probably wisest to visit Junior’s to fill up before sightseeing. Shamefully we didn’t even get round to the legendary cheesecake – so make sure you try it and let us know how it is. Don’t bother with a table, sit at the counter (the bar) if you can and say hi to Gus and the guys from us.

Junior’s, West 45th St. between Broadway and 8th Ave and other locations  Website:

Have a drink in one of the oldest bars in town

Now there seem to be about ten bars claiming to be New York’s oldest; but this one has a more specific tagline: “Pete’s Tavern is the oldest continuously operating restaurant & bar in New York City.” While actually relatively modern compared to many pubs in Europe it is a landmark establishment in the Big Apple and serves great beer, good food and is an excellent place for a nightcap before heading off to bed. Or to the next bar…

Pete’s Tavern, 129 East 18th Street, New York, NY 10003-2401  Website:

We hope these suggestions will help you plan and enjoy a trip to New York. If you think we’ve missed something or have tips of your own please tell us in the comments section below! Stay tuned for more coverage of this great city coming soon…

Andy Higgs
Andy Higgs

I know what it's like to go from being a crazy backpacker without a care in the world, via being a vaguely sensible parent to being an adventurer once more. In other words, evolving into a Grown-up Traveller.

Like everyone else, I love to travel, have visited a lot of countries and all that but my big thing is Africa.

I also own and run The Grown-up Travel Company as a travel designer creating personalised African itineraries for experienced adventurers

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