Things to do in New York: Top 10

by Eloise Barker for British Airways

Title photography by tobiasjo

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You haven’t ‘done’ New York until you’ve ticked off the classics. See the quintessential NYC sights. Whether you have a head for heights or a passion for fashion, read all about the best ten things to do in New York and start planning your trip to the Big Apple now.

1. Ascend the Empire State Building

A building so large 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 morning until late (exact hours depend on the season). While there’s no truly quiet time to visit, before 10.00am 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 and 102nd floor.

Top tip:

While it might seem like a cop out for the altitude-inclined, you can buy tickets for just the 86th floor and skip the higher deck. Tickets for the 86th floor are cheaper, the observation deck is out in the open air and the view is iconic.

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

2. Tick off the Top of 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:

Sunset is the most popular time to visit the Top of the Rock. Expect to pay a $15 surcharge if you book one of the coveted sundowner slots.

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! There is also a Statue of Liberty Museum on the island.

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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. You can also book to visit her crown – though you’ll have to climb 162 stairs to reach it.

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.

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 9/11 Memorial 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.

Top tip:

End your tour by ascending to the observation deck of the One World Trade Center. The tallest building in New York City has popular skyline views.

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.

  • 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).

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  • 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 pretty trees, whatever the season. In spring look out for blossoming trees on the avenues, ducklings on the lakes, and tulips opening in Shakespeare’s garden.

5. Sweet downtime in Central Park

In the centre of the world’s busiest city there’s a miraculously peaceful haven: Central Park. With 834 acres of green space to its name, it cuts a huge grassy swathe out of Upper Manhattan. Make like a local and cycle beneath a canopy of elms as tower blocks peer in on all sides, like spectators at a terrarium. 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 also permanent residents such as the statues of Alice in Wonderland and Balto the brave Alaskan sled dog. Don’t forget to seek out Strawberry Fields: a quiet corner of the park sitting below the former home of John Lennon.

Top tip:

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

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 pieces by Van Gogh and Monet among 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

One of the most visited places 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, Wicked and Six. 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 and galleries – including the new Gilder Center offering insight into nature’s hidden realms – that keep 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 you’ll find 34-tonne Ahnighito: the largest meteorite on display in any museum. There’s also a huge space devoted to… space: the Rose Center, which has an enormous planetarium.

Top tip:

Don’t leave without swinging by a felled 1,400-year-old Giant Sequoia (just try and count those rings!) in the Hall of North American Forests.

Visit the American Museum of Natural History

9. Cross Brooklyn Bridge

You haven’t seen the real New York until you’ve left Manhattan. Ten thousand 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, while Brooklyn Botanic Garden comes into its own in spring with the arrival of the cherry blossom.

Top tip:

Brooklyn Bridge Park is a waterfront park that comprises a series of piers – and even a small pebble beach (off Pier 4). The main reason to hang out here is to feast on a picnic – and a stupendous skyline view. For more great views, consider a sightseeing ferry tour.

Book a sightseeing ferry tour

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.

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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. Staying here feels like staying in a marble-clad resort: with shops, food halls, restaurants and a spa and salon all under one roof, it’s tempting to make like Eloise – the eponymous children’s book heroine who is said to live on the ‘tippy-top floor’ – and never leave.

Book a stay at The Plaza

InterContinental Times Square

In the heart of the hubbub sits the smart InterContinental Barclay. This modern hotel has a marvellous location – and you can make the most of it with your room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. The spacious bathrooms have luxurious rain showers – perfect after a stint in the hotel gym.

Book a stay at InterContinental Times Square