Things to do in New York: Top 10


by Eloise Barker for British Airways

Title photography by tobiasjo

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August 2018

Read our run-down of the top ten things to do in New York. Tick off the must-see sights – from the top of the Empire State Building to the Met. Read about all the best New York attractions – and pre-book your tickets.

1. Ascend the Empire State Building

A building so large that it has its own zip code, visiting the Empire State Building – with its long maze of queues and epic elevator journeys – is a feat of endurance. But everyone should probably do it at least once. Formerly the world’s highest building, you can still see five of the USA’s fifty states from this Art Deco giant’s observation deck – plus the whole of Manhattan island. The beautiful Chrysler building – once a great rival for the ‘world’s tallest building’ title – gleams, defeated, below.

The Empire State Building is open from 8.00 am ’til 2.00 am. Whilst there’s no truly quiet time to visit, before 10.00 am is your best bet, especially if you're bringing kids. Buying an express pass helps beat the long queues inside, though you’ll still have to go through airport-strict levels of security. Once you’re through, you can visit the 86th or 102nd floor.

Top tip:

Whilst the 86th floor might seem like a cop-out for the altitude-inclined, it’s cheaper, out in the open air, and arguably offers a better view than going higher up.

Book the Empire State Building Main Observation Deck (86th floor)

2. Tick off the Top off the Rock

When people refer to Top of the Rock (usually in some sentence like ‘we didn’t go up the Empire State Building, we went to Top of the Rock’), they are referring to the observation deck at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. This colossal skyscraper has one of New York’s most popular viewing platforms on the 70th floor. From here, you can see just how massive Central Park is, spread like a big green picnic blanket below the tower. Plus, you’ll actually get the Empire State building in your viewfinder (something number 1 on our list will never be able to claim). Like the Empire State Building, the most popular time to visit Top of the Rock is at sunset, when the light is best for photographs.

On ground level, the Rockefeller Center comes into its own in the holiday season, when you can see the famous Radio City Rockettes chorus line, inhale the evergreen scent from one of New York’s largest Christmas trees, and slip over the city’s most famous skating rink.

Top tip:

Download the Top of the Rock app. It scans the horizon and pulls up fun facts about some of the big buildings on your screen.

Book Top of the Rock New York

When you meet the Statue of Liberty, remember to say ‘Bonjour’; she’s French, built by famous French engineer Gustav Eiffel.

  • Aerial view of Statue of Liberty at sunrise. © Tetra Images.

    Size 879

    Lady Liberty wears a size 879 shoe – try those on for size! Visit the museum in her pedestal to find out more about how the statue was created.£399 pp

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3. Meet the Statue of Liberty, then go to Ellis Island

America’s First Lady in waiting, the beautiful Statue of Liberty, stands on an island in New York Harbor. You can reach her easily by ferry. Once you meet her, remember to say ‘Bonjour’; she’s French, built by famous French engineer Gustav Eiffel. To access the museum in her big pedestal, which is roughly the size of tower block, you’ll need to book prior to arriving on the Liberty Island. You can also book to visit her crown – though climbing up the 146-step spiral staircase is not for the faint hearted.

Liberty Island and Ellis Island are a short ferry ride apart. When Ellis Island served as an immigration inspection station, 12 million immigrants passed through its offices – including Bob Hope in 1908 and Cary Grant in 1920 – alongside countless forgotten others. The island’s museum is at once inspiring and heart-breaking – as immigration into the US remains resolutely difficult.

Top tip:

New York’s other islands provide a breezy escape from the city centre, whether you’re chugging over to Staten Island, relaxing on Governor’s or you’ve entered a hot dog eating competition over at Coney.

Tour the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

4. Contemplate at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum

It was always going to be difficult for New York to make a memorial to the victims and heroes of 9/11. The scale of the tragedy – and the enormous space left by the fallen Twin Towers of the World Trade Center – seemed impossible to fill. But now the footprints of the two towers have been turned into two sunken pools continuously filling with cascades of water. The ‘Reflecting Absence’ memorial – as it’s known – is a fitting, large-scale tribute.

Below this simple, but monolithic pair of monuments you’ll find the National September 11 Museum set in the foundations of the original Twin Towers. Tissue stations are provided – and often needed – around the exhibits, which include harrowing burnt-out artefacts and melted equipment from brave first-responders. Complete your tour of the area, and end with a ray of hope – by ascending to the observation deck of the One World Trade Center. The tallest building in New York City has popular skyline views.

Top tip:

Some still call this area ‘Ground Zero’, though it’s more correctly referred to as the ‘National September 11 Memorial and Museum’.

Tour the National September 11 Memorial

  • Cars and taxis in bustling Times Square. © ShutterWorx.

    Billboard bombardment

    Want to rent some advertising space on one of Times Square's billboards? Just for the year? That'll be $1–4 million dollars, please. It's an expensive place to be! Luckily, New York hotels are less pricy.£49 pppn

    Book a stay
  • The Giant Blue Whale at the American Museum of Natural History. © dleiva / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Look out for…

    Stand under the blue whale in the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life… can you see its belly button? (Head towards its tail to spot it).£264 return

    Find our cheapest flights
  • Woman sitting on a bench in Central Park. © Astrakan Images.

    Central Park

    A big city needs a big park: Central Park is 834 acres, and features lakes, wandering walkways – and snow in winter.

5. Sweet downtime in Central Park

In the centre of the world’s busiest city there’s one miraculously peaceful haven: Central Park. With 834 acres of green space to its name, it cuts a huge grassy swathe out of Upper Manhattan. Tower blocks peer in on all sides, like spectators at a terrarium. In the park, you’ll see New Yorkers at their most leisurely. Students lie on the grass, while tourists, Instagrammers and national press alike stand side by side to snap photographs of Bow Bridge. Pampered pooches are kept on tight leashes around the squirrels, but children run riot – with sleds in winter and with model boats at Conservatory Water in the summer.

There are permanent residents, too: statues of Alice in Wonderland and Balto, the brave Alaskan sled dog – plus Strawberry Fields – a quiet corner of the park dedicated to the Beatles’ John Lennon, which sits below his former home in Dakota Apartments.

Top tip:

In the summer, come here for Shakespeare in the Park – free evening performances of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays – put on by the Delacorte Theater.

Central Park bike rental

6. See masterpieces at The Met

It should come as no surprise that a city as culturally important as New York is full of museums. For the most comprehensive collection, make your way to the Met – that’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in case you didn’t know, and it’s one of the largest museums in the world. This massive collection has over two million works spread over several buildings. The main museum is on 5th Avenue. Most people head straight to the Egyptian rooms, which can be exhaustingly busy, though you shouldn’t miss the important Temple of Dendur alongside the usual morbid ranks of mummies.

You’ll see other blockbuster treasure in the arms and armour gallery – and from here you can easily transition into the America Wing for the museum’s prized ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Emanuel Leutze. It also houses more recent work by Georgia O’Keeffe. The Impressionists are upstairs. Spot Van Gogh and Monet – the most recognisable artworks in the museum.

Top tip:

Look out for the Met’s fashion exhibitions. These spectacular events attract the city’s Miranda Priestleys.

Purchase the New York CityPASS for access to six top landmarks, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Gorgeous galleries

    ‘Met’ and greet your favourite masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Look out for William, the museum's mascot: a 2000-year-old faience hippopotamus from Egypt.

    NYC Travel Guide

7. Capture New York’s essence in Times Square

The most visited place in the world, Times Square in the Theater District is a blaze of digital billboards and is usually filled with milling tourists. Many people are here to get cheap Broadway tickets – though some are just here to snap a selfie at the centre of the world.

The best way to get day seats at Broadway’s staple shows is to queue at a TKTS booth: there’s one right on Times Square, under the steps. Here you’ll get 50% off Broadway hits like The Lion King, Chicago or Jersey Boys. You can also book online or enter day seat lotteries for the biggest shows – Hamilton has the hardest tickets to snaffle up (but it’s always worth a shot).

Top tip:

Look out for a street performer known as the naked cowboy performing at lunchtimes (mercifully, he wears y-fronts).

Pick five attractions for your New York City Explorer Pass – including Ripley’s Believe it or not on Times Square

8. Amaze your kids at the American Museum of Natural History

Here’s one for the kids, the creature lovers and the Jurassic enthusiasts: the American Museum of Natural History. It might have found new fame in the Night at the Museum films, but it’s the exhibits – including a new and important climate change display – that keeps people returning.

This museum is home to some 33 million specimens – some adorable, some possessing far too many legs to be considered cute. There’s a T-Rex skeleton in the Saurischian hall on the fourth floor that will have kids screaming in delight. The dinosaurs are kept away from the hall of meteorites on the first floor, where the largest rock to hit the US from space has stood since 1906. There’s also a huge space devoted to… space: the Rose Center, which has an enormous planetarium.

Top tip:

Don’t leave without seeing the biggest animal on display: the blue whale in the Hall of Ocean Life or one of the most important: a small skull that belongs to the famous Lucy – one of the earliest known humans.

Visit the American Museum of Natural History

9. Cross Brooklyn Bridge

You haven’t seen the real New York until you leave Manhattan. 10,000 pedestrians cross Brooklyn Bridge every day to New York City’s famous Brooklyn borough. Be one of them on this 35-minute stroll across the Hudson. The bridge isn’t the only attractive sight. Take in great views of the Statue of Liberty, and Lower Manhattan through a fan of suspension cables. You can also make the journey on a Citi Bike – available for rent throughout the city. This makes the crossing much quicker but is harder to do with an ice cream in your hand.

Once you’re on the Brooklyn side, Williamsburg is your nearest hipster hangout. Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) has the Brooklyn Bridge Park, whilst Brooklyn Botanic Garden comes into its own in spring with the arrival of the cherry blossom.

Top tip:

There are two popular pizza joints under the bridge on the Brooklyn side: Juliana’s and Grimaldi’s. There are always people queueing to chow down on a calzone stuffed with meatballs.

10. Walk the High Line

Fed up of always looking up at skyscrapers? A walk on the High Line will sooth the crick in your neck. Formerly an abandoned railway viaduct, the High Line reopened in 2009 as a public park. Its long, thin walkway trails past inviting lawns, public art and flower beds – all raised several metres up from ground level. It’s free to visit. Enter and leave the park from a number of different points in Chelsea via elevators and staircases. Stroll along for views of West Manhattan and to observe hipsters in their natural habitat: lounging on the High Line’s deckchairs. Look out for Nabisco – the birthplace of the Oreo cookie – and Frank Gehry’s IAC building.

Top tip:

After a walk, pop into the nearby Chelsea Market: an urban food court selling mini doughnuts, gelato – and massive fried chicken sandwiches.

Where to stay

The Plaza

For classic glamour, it can only be The Plaza. This grand dame of the New York scene is set on Central Park and serves a lovely afternoon tea.

Book a stay at The Plaza

InterContinental Barclay

This popular hotel has emerged from a recent renovation looking fantastic and is situated near the Rockefeller Center.

Book a stay at InterContinental Barclay

The Roosevelt

The large Roosevelt is great value for money – and its rooftop bar has skyscraper views. You’re less than a block from Grand Central Station.

Book a stay at The Roosevelt Hotel