The Ultimate Guide to NYC for first timers
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The Ultimate Guide to New York City
The ultimate guide to NYC for first timers! Enjoy learning what to do, how to get there, what you can’t miss, and what broadway shows to see.
This city is so amazing it needs many names to describe it: The Big Apple, Gotham, The Center of The Universe, The Empire City, etc. (I always wondered why “The Big Apple” and found that it was named after a book on horse racing, but the name didn’t gain popularity until a 1970’s campaign.)
No matter what you call it, New York City has something for everyone and can easily be a family friendly destination with a little planning. The city can be overwhelming for kids and grownups as well, the subway is confusing to some, the noise of traffic is a lot for little ears, the difficulty of finding a place to sit and eat, etc. But with some prior planning we can make sure that you get enough information to find the city as enchanting as I do.
I have lived near New York City for the past 20 years and have availed myself of its nearness. I count myself lucky to be able to go as often as I do and share it with my kids as well. I have braved it with small babies in strollers, toddlers who want to run ahead of you and recently a teenager who wanted to figure out the subway so he can go by himself. Don’t be intimidated! You can do this.
Normally I list attractions that I have found to be the best for the entire family. I will strive to do the same here but will throw in a few just for mom and dad if they need a little break!
Want to know where to stay during your trip to NYC? Click here for my guide on the best hotels in NYC.
How New York City is laid out
New York has 5 boroughs: Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.
Manhattan is what most people think of when they think of New York City. It has most of the major tourist attractions. It is home to Times Square, Grand Central Station, The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Wall Street, 1 World Trade Center, and more. Now, please don’t think that the other boroughs aren’t worth a visit, they all have great things to do. However, if you are planning a trip to New York that is less than a week long, you honestly won’t have enough time to discover Manhattan, let alone another borough. For the sake of this article, we are going to focus on Manhattan.
The Manhattan Grid Layout
Manhattan is laid out in a grid pattern with numbered avenues running north and south and number roads running east to west. As a result, things are quite easy to find even for a new visitor. If someone tells you they live on 65th street between 10th and 11th avenue, you will look for their home between those coordinates. If someone says something is downtown it is south while uptown is north. For a more in depth explanation of this click here.
Neighborhoods in Manhattan
To help you group together your plans for each day, it is helpful to know the big neighborhoods in Manhattan. This maps shows the neighborhoods in relation to each other. While you can certainly visit the Statue of Liberty downtown and travel back to the Guggenheim in the Upper East side, it makes more sense to plan your days around certain neighborhoods. That way you spend more time seeing New York and less time on the subway.
How safe is New York City
New York is the largest city in the United States, it is also one of the safest. Despite movies that portray muggings, murder and other mayhem, New York’s crime rate is lower than the national average. My safety tips for you are the same as in any large city. Be careful crossing the streets, be aware of your surroundings, make a plan in case you and your family get separated, and don’t leave your belongings unattended.
Navigating New York City
Taxis and Uber in NYC
The least stressful way to get around is by taking taxi’s or Ubers. They will both take you to your destination without you having to do any navigating.
The best way to get a cab in the city is to stand on the side of the street and step into the shoulder with your arm up. If the number on the top of the cab is lit, it is available.
An Uber is helpful if you are not near a main road or there don’t seem to be any cabs nearby. Most of the time, I find Ubers to take too long and I prefer cabs, but you can make your own decision.
The main con of both is cost. To get into a cab costs $2.50 which is almost the cost of a subway ride. Uber is sometimes a little cheaper but it changes.
Taking the NYC Subway as a beginner
If you don’t want to spend your life savings on taxis to get everywhere, you are going to need to take the subway. It isn’t as intimidating as you might be led to believe.
Here is my very favorite guide to the subway for beginners. Getting around New York is so much easier since Google maps! You can put your destination in Google maps and it will tell you what subway to take.
Tips for taking the subway with kids:
- Up to 3 kids under 44 inches ride free with an adult.
- The stairs to the subway are awful with a stroller, if you have the option of using an umbrella stroller, do it! It’s much easier to pick up.
- Hold hands with your kids when getting on and off the train. There is a gap.
Lower Manhattan Things to Do
The Statue of Liberty
1 Battery Place, New York, NY 10004
If this seems like a tourist trap, it is. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t amazing anyway. If you have grown up in the United States this is an iconic symbol of our country. I put this first because it is a crowd pleaser, and there is no better way to begin a vacation.
Travel by subway or taxi to Battery Park to purchase tickets and board the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The Ferry will take you to Liberty Island first and then to Ellis Island. Both have a very different feel and both are really worth taking your time to visit. The ferry to each island took 15-20 minutes and both had great view of the city and of the Statue of Liberty.
Tips for the Statue of Liberty:
- Arrive by 9:30 to beat the crowd at Battery Park and have a smaller crowd at Liberty Island. Or if another time is more convenient buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid the long line.
- If you have ancestors that arrived on Ellis Island, bring their information with you and tell your children their story while in the Ellis Island facilities. It will tug at your heartstrings.
- The Crown on the statue is open at the time of this writing. You can get tickets online to go into it, but you will need to get them 2-3 months ahead of time.
- The New York City Pass allows you to see the Statue of Liberty and other attractions for one fee.
- Want to climb the Statue of Liberty crown? You can do that too.
Plan on 3-5 hours.
180 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10007
This is truly hallowed ground and a very moving experience. In the place of the fallen towers are two reflective pools with waterfalls going into a 30 foot hole. This memorial is to commemorate those lost in the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. When you are standing by the pools the gentle sound of falling water drowns out the sounds of the city, including those around you.
There is the 9/11 museum nearby but you need to be aware of how sensitive your kids are. I could barely handle it without sobbing, so most families would be better off staying at the memorial. If you want to go, get tickets before hand to avoid the line. Click here for tickets.
Plan on 1-2 hours.
108 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002
This tiny shop is covered from floor to ceiling in all kinds of candy. As its name suggests, this is not a boutique shop, but a good place to buy an insane variety of candies at a good price. Economy Candy stocks the basics, but you also find some fun nostalgic candy, and candy form around the world. They have lots of candy from Europe, South America and the Middle East. I was so excited to see Lion Bars, Yan Yan, Apple O’s, and Guylian shell chocolates. These were the flavors of my youth and are hard to find treats. You will enjoy this one as much as your kids!
Plan on 30 minutes.
205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002
Katz Deli is a restaurant and attraction at the same time. This NYC institution has the best pastrami and corned beef you have ever tasted in your life. It was also the setting for the infamous scene in “When Harry Met Sally.” Even if you aren’t a fan of cured meats, you will be drooling for this stuff, it truly melts in your mouth.
Katz is an experience and their process is a little confusing, so here are some tips.
When you enter you will be given a ticket, which you need to hang on to until you pay. It is your ticket out of Katz Deli. go to the shortest line you can find and order your sandwich or entree. While they are slicing your meat, send someone in your party to hunt for seating. This serves two purposes: seating can be a little bit of a wait, and you will get a delicious slice of pastrami to taste while they are making your order, this way you don’t have to share!
Eat your delicious meat and pay on your way out while handing in your tickets.
If there is anyway you are still hungry head to Russ and Daughter bagel shop just a few doors down for some of the best bagels with smoked fish in the city!
Plan on an hour to order and eat.
The Tenement Museum
103 Orchard St, New York, NY 10002
This experiential museum covers NYC’s immigrant past. This is another museum, even museum-hating rugrats will enjoy.
The tenement museum is set up as multiple different apartments decorated to belong to a certain time in the 19th-20th centuries. Costumed actors tell what life is like for them in their era of NY, and they interact with the items surrounding them in the apartment. My kids have been a number of times, and their favorite tour is Hard Times, which talks about different families in the late 1800s and 1930s. They talk about their struggles to make ends meet and the creative ways they managed. The tours are recommended for kids 8 and up, but my kids have visited as young as 5 with the understanding that we would take them out if they were disruptive.
Plan on an hour and a half.
Things to do in Greenwich Village
Washington Square Park
2 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10012
This is a very recognizable park to anyone who has ever seen a movie. The Washington Arch looms over the park and was built in honor of the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. The park is great place to let your kids run around and get their wiggles out.
In the summer, you will find kids running through the fountain in the park; it’s a great way to cool off.
There is a fabulous Christmas tree to visit in December.
This is a great instagram spot!
Plan on 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Good Eats in the Lower East Side
401 Bleeker Street, New York, NY
This is the place that started the cupcake craze! You will find Magnolia Bakery all over the city, but this is the original location. I remember standing in a line for over an hour in the early 2000s. The cupcakes here are simple and delicious. However, my very favorite thing to get at Magnolia Bakery is the banana pudding!
Things to see in Chelsea
The High Line is a newer attraction than most in NYC. It is a pedestrian park and walkway built on the bones of an elevated train. It is 1.5 miles long and runs along the west side of Manhattan between Gansevoort Street and 34th Street.
The High Line is a great place to let your kids walk without worrying about cars at every intersection. Plantings throughout the park make the whole area feel like it was picked up out of the city and deposited in a rural space.
There are elevators at the 30th, 20th, 16th and 14th street entrances for strollers.
Plan on an hour.
75 9th Avenue, New York, NY
If you are walking on the High Line you will pass right by Chelsea Market. Don’t pass it without a stop, especially if you are hungry. This food market has some of the best casual dining in New York City. The market is housed in a former Nabisco baking facility and has so much old NY charm. Some of my favorite eats in Chelsea Market are: Tacos at Los Tacos #1 and ramen at Mok Bar.
Visit at 11:00 am or after 1:30 pm as the lunch crowd is really big and it will be hard to find somewhere to sit.
Plan on an hour.
Midtown Manhattan Attractions
Broadway and West 42-West 47 streets, New York, NY
This is the tourist hub of NYC and it feels like it. Blinking billboards, people dressed up like superheroes, music, and the smell of hotdogs in the air. It is exhilarating and overwhelming. It is an assault on the senses! But it is also the most iconic thing about New York. Look at the place where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, sit on the red stairs, and stroll down the street taking it all in.
Plan on 1 hour.
42nd Street and Park Avenue, New York, NY
Grand Central might be my favorite architectural landmark in New York City. It is the train station for commuter trains from the suburbs.
I love the enormity of the space. The ceiling is painted to look like constellations and large chandeliers hand from the domed ceiling.
The basement of Grand Central has some iconic New York restaurants. The most well known is the Oyster Bar, which is featured in the opening of Saturday Night Live. My favorite snacks in Grand central are Ciao Bella Gelato, Shake Shack and Junior’s Cheesecake.
If you want an unusual experience, take the Grand Central audio tour. You go at your own pace and learn some really amazing history.
Plan on 30 minutes.
Between 5th and 6th Avenues and 48th and 51st streets
This popular New York City destination is on the list of most people and is an easy walk from Times Square. Rockefeller Center was built in the 1930s and features Art Deco buildings surrounding a plaza with an ice rink, the Channel Gardens, flags, and sculptures. Although the big draw is Christmas at Rockefeller Center, it is still a lovely place to walk and enjoy at any time of year.
Plan on 30 minutes.
Empire State Building
20 West 34th Street, New York, NY
The Empire State building is an iconic landmark and it will be one of the busier attractions you will visit. The line is long, but the view is fantastic! When you enter you will stand in line to pay for your admission and then you will stand in a much longer line for the elevator to the 86th floor. The reward for that line is a spectacular 360 degree view of Manhattan. Bring change so you can look through the binoculars.
- Buy your tickets online at least a week ahead of your visit and eliminate one of the lines. Click here to buy skip the line tickets.
- Go early in the day. You will find much shorter lines, and a weekday is less busy than a weekend.
- Kids 5 and under are free.
Plan on 1-3 hours depending on the time of day.
This is what gets me into the city. I have a degree in musical theater, and this is my happiest place on earth. If you have a musical or play you really want to see you may need to book months in advance, but if you aren’t picky I would suggest using the concierge service TodayTix. You can buy last minute tickets at really reasonable prices. You won’t find Hamilton on TodayTix, but there are enough choices to keep you entertained. To check out what Todaytix is offering right now click here.
Related: Don’t know what to see? Check out my post on the best Broadway shows to see with your family!
Tips for seeing Broadway Shows:
- Most Broadway theaters don’t allow children younger than 6.
- There is always a very long line for the bathroom in Broadway theaters. Go before you get to the theater or at the theater before the show begins.
- Matinees and weekdays are often less expensive than evening and weekend performances.
Plan on 3 hours.
12th Avenue West 46th Street, New York, NY
If you have boys (or really cool girls), you will be here for most of the day. The Intrepid is a sea, air and space museum that is centered around the WWII aircraft carrier the Intrepid. Your kids will love exploring the interior of the Interpid, visiting a submarine, and looking at or climbing into more airplanes and helicopters than they have ever seen.
Plan on 2-4 hours.
Good Eats in Midtown Manhattan
620 8th Avenue, New York, NY
This is a good inexpensive option near Times Square and one I often stop at on my way to a musical. Burgers, great salads, shakes, and refillable Diet Cokes (which are something of an anomoly in the city). Lines aren’t as long as Shake Shack and food is just as good.
Tony Di Napoli
147 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036
This is a real deal, yummy Italian restaurant. The have pasta that even the pickiest of kids will love and be familiar with. My favorite is fettuccini Alfredo with fresh peas.
The plates are big enough to share and it is fun to try a few things with a large group.
It’s a very convenient place to eat prior to seeing a show.
Things to see in the Upper East Side
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Avenue, New York, NY
The Met, as the Metropolitan Museum is called, is an enormous museum that would take days to see from top to bottom. Fortunately your ticket will allow you to come and go for three days. This is especially great if you have kids who won’t last very long at a museum. You can visit for short periods of time each day and still make the admission price worth it.
My kids love the ancient Egyptian wing, the armor and gallery of weapons, and musical instruments. I love the costume exhibits and the sculpture garden.
Tips for visiting the Met:
- The ticket to the Met will allow you to visit the Cloisters as well. Make sure to visit the Cloisters in the three day window.
- The Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, The Frick and others are all located very near to the Met. If you have the stamina to do a day of museums they are nice and close.
1071 5th Ave, New York, NY
The Guggenheim Museum is probably the most famous modern art museum in the world. It is definitely one of the most unusual architecture. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959. The museum was designed as a cylinder that is widest on top and narrow on the bottom.
There is a permanent collection in the Guggenheim, but I tend to enjoy the changing exhibits the most. Before you go, check on the website to see what exhibit is ongoing.
This may not be the best museum for kids, but my kids have enjoyed certain exhibits very much.
Plan on 1-3 hours.
Dylan’s Candy Bar
1011 Third Ave at 60th Street, New York, NY
I think this is what heaven must look like to kids. Every kind of candy imaginable beckons you upon entering. The air actually smells sweet as more than 7,000 varieties of candy decorate the store. It is a real life Willy Wonka factory. My favorite thing is finding candy I haven’t seen since I was little or new candies I have never seen.
Be prepared to drop your life savings if you bring kids with you.
This Upper East Side location is the best in terms of size and on the same block as Serendipity 3, if you want to get a sugar buzz. The line for Serendipity is generally hours long, but if you don’t mind the wait, the frozen hot chocolate is delicious.
Things to see in the Upper West Side
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West and 79th Street, New York, NY
Have your kids seen Night at the Museum? This is where it all took place. The huge dinosaur in the entryway alone will make kids take notice.
The Natural History Museum is so large you could spend your entire visit here, but I would recommend visiting the dinosaurs, the heads from Easter Island, the hall of ocean life to see an enormous whale on the ceiling, African animals, and the hall of gems.
Tips for visiting the Natural History Museum:
- The Natural History Museum has a suggested donation for an entrance ticket, but you can decide what it is worth to you. The ticket machines will charge you the suggested donation, so go see a human to pay a different amount.
- Use bathrooms before you go, they are hard to find.
- Eat at the Shake Shack across the street rather than the cafe in the Museum. It will be cheaper and much tastier.
Alice’s Tea Cup
102 West 73rd Street, New York, NY
This charming restaurant in the Upper West side is convenient to the 72nd street train station and convenient to my favorite…Levains Bakery. (And in case you are wondering, it is totally cool to grab a scone and a cookie in the same hour!)
Alice in Wonderland is the theme of Alice’s Tea Cup. The walls have charming murals, and the menu has so many references to the story. They really shine in their afternoon tea. I recommend the high tea with kids. It includes a pot of tea, a scone, and a goodie or sandwich. The pumpkin scone with spicy caramel topping is the standout. My kids like the ice cream sandwich, which is enormous! Their teas are really unique. I have about 6 different flavors in my cupboard at home, but my favorite has to be the mint tea with rose.
167 West 74th Street, New York, NY
This may be my number one favorite thing in all of NYC! These cookies are enormous mounds of goodness with a slightly under cooked center. The line is almost always long, but you won’t regret waiting in that line!
The story is that the owners created the cookies as high calorie fuel after long runs. After watching the NYC Marathon last year we decided to stop in to get a cookie, but the line was all the way down the block. There must be something to that story!
My favorite is the chocolate cookie with peanut butter chips, but I would happily eat any of them, even the oatmeal raisin.
These also make great gifts for people at home if you can keep from eating them yourself.
The Harlem location tends to have a much shorter line, but it is a little out of the way for most tourists.
110th street to 59th street and 8th Ave to 5th Ave
If you stay in the upper west and upper east side of the city, Central Park is never very far away. This enormous green space makes Central Park a great place to visit with your kids. There are multiple playgrounds in the park, a zoo, lakes, lots of rocks to climb, and plenty of room to run around. All of this is in a city where it is sometimes hard to find elbow room.
Be warned, Central Park is huge! It would take days to explore all of the park. I suggest that you decide what you want to see and combine it with another activity in the Upper West or Upper East sides.
I recommend Belvedere Castle, Victoria gardens, and Heckscher playground for the kids. There are always activities going on in the park. Check out this info about Central Park and its activities
One of our favorite activities is to ride bikes in Central Park. It’s a great way to see a lot and enjoy the park feeling in the middle of this huge city. Here is the best place to rent bikes.
Plan on an hour or two.
Things To Do Uptown Manhattan
Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park
99 Margaret Corbin Dr. New York, NY
The Cloisters is an art museum built in a medieval Italian style. The art here is partly what is on the walls and pedestals and partly the museum itself. The two flow together so harmoniously it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. (The name The Cloisters comes from the locations of the art finds in Europe, not the building itself.) The art collection was sold to John D. Rockefeller in 1925 (see Kykiut), and The Cloisters was built in Fort Tryon Park in the most Northern part of Manhattan.
The Cloisters is personally my favorite museum in New York, and the only art museum that has interested my kids. They like the labyrinthine aspect of The Cloister’s and the fact that when they are done with art they can run around in Fort Tryon Park.
Plan on 30 minutes with kids or an hour or two without.
Do any of you love the musical Hamilton? Well his NYC home is open for daily tours and best of all . . . it’s free!! Hamilton Grange is a National Park (albeit a small one) in upper Harlem. This is his home where he lived with his wife Eliza and his children after the Revolutionary War. Only 3 rooms are open for visits, but there is a small museum in the basement teaching visitors about Alexander Hamilton. My kids were big fans of this little museum.
Plan on 30 minutes to an hour.
What to Pack For NYC?
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Looking for more NYC content? Visit my New York City page. It includes where to stay in New York City, day trips from NYC, Christmas in NYC, the best desserts in New York City and more!
For a great list of dont’s of NYC check out this article.
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