New York City is one of a kind. The energy, architect, history, and beauty are all infectious, which makes the city addicting. My husband and I went in December for just three nights and I’m already planning another trip back because it’s just that good.
My first time in Manhattan was with my family back in 2011 and we got to spend a full week exploring the sites, indulging in good food, and just doing it all. As I planned our December weekend six years later, I had to decide what the highlights would be for my husband’s first time in New York City. The holidays add an extra special flair to the city, so many of the must-do’s revolved around the festive season.
The hard part? We didn’t get to do everything we wanted to in one weekend. But we did leave feeling mesmerized by the city and its glory. I pulled together a list of the best weekend highlights from my perspective, from my husband’s perspective, and then added in some of the things we missed that I can’t wait to go back and see.
The list of highlights below are my “must-do’s”, but fair warning, it’s a lot to do in a weekend. When planning your first trip to NYC (or anywhere), make sure to prioritize your plans so you’re not overwhelmed with an endless list of things to do.
1. See a Broadway Show
I don’t care if you’re in NYC for a weekend, two weeks, or just one night, make time to squeeze in a Broadway show if it’s your first time in New York City. The shows in New York City are the best of the best and there’s something for everyone. In 2011, I attended The Lion King and in December we saw Aladdin. A little Disney obsessed? Yes. But Hamilton, Waitress, Dear Evan Hansen, The Book of Mormon, and so many more are still on my list. I could take a whole weekend just hopping from one Broadway show to the next.
- But tickets online in advance, or find deeply discounted tickets on the day of the show at TKTS (under the red steps of Times Square). Not every Broadway hit is on sale here, but it’s a great, affordable option.
- You can also try your luck with same-day rush tickets right at the show’s box office (go as soon as they open) or enter the daily lottery for a particular show.
- A Broadway show is typically between 90 minutes – 2 hours, but can vary.
2. Spot the Statue of Liberty
You’re in one of the most famous cities in the world, so you need to check out the most statue in the world! This was at the top of my family vacation “must-do’s” in 2011 and I think it should stay at the top of any first-timer’s visit to the city. And with that said, my husband did not get up close and personal with her in December, but keep reading to find the alternative option for getting a glimpse when you’re cutting it close with time or unable to make the trip to Liberty Island.
- If you do not want to get off at Liberty Island and you’re just looking for a boat ride to get closer to the Statue of Liberty, take the Staten Island Ferry (it’s free!).
- Leave yourself about 2 hours, round-trip, for the ferry.
- To experience Liberty Island and/or Ellis Island, look into a boat cruise like Statue Cruises.
- A boat tour and getting off at the islands will take up much more of your day.
3. Take a Stroll through Central Park
Whether it’s covered with a thick blanket of white snow or flourishing with new greenery in the Spring, Central Park is the natural beauty of the city. And it’s huge! You could spend hours walking through the 800+ acres. So many magical movie moments have been created in Central Park and for good reason. You don’t want to miss spending some time here, no matter how many times you’ve visited the city.
- In the warmer months, take a walking tour through the park (or self-guided).
- In the winter months, enjoy ice skating on Wollman Rink. It’s much larger than Rockefeller or Bryant Park.
4. Visit Times Square
The chaos of Times Square can be overwhelming, but being in Times Square is so much different than seeing it in photos or movies. The energy is vibrant and even at night, the bright lights can make it feel like daytime. Luckily, this is a tourist spot that you don’t have to spend a ton of time in. For your first time in New York City, snap your photos, grab a souvenir, and move right along.
5. Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge
I did not get a chance to check out the Brooklyn Bridge with my family in 2011, so it was really fun to experience it for the first time with my husband. It’s now one of my absolute favorite things to see/do in New York City. It was amazing to not only be on this world-famous bridge but to take in the city views around us. Give yourself a couple of hours to casually walk the bridge and back. If you have time, go to Brooklyn Bridge Park and DUMBO to get some Insta-worthy photos down by the water.
- Statue of Liberty sighting
I’m adding in the Statue of Liberty here because if you don’t have time to take the Staten Island Ferry or visit Liberty Island during your weekend trip (like us), you’ll actually get a view of the iconic monument when you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s far away and you won’t get good photos, but it made up for us not being brave enough to get on the ferry in 28-degree weather.
6. Go to the Top of the Rock
With our limited time, we needed to choose between Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building. I wanted to see the Empire State Building, so we chose the Top of the Rock and we’re so happy we did. Next time, we’ll switch it up and go to the top of the Empire State Building. I remember doing it with my family and we saw a gorgeous lightning storm while we were looking out. Picking between Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building is totally personal preference. For your first time in New York City, you can’t go wrong with either one.
- Consider purchasing a City Pass if you plan on visiting Top of the Rock, Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial + Museum, etc. This pass saves you quite a bit of money on the top attraction’s fees.
- Check out places like Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building earlier in the day. We went around 9:00am on a Saturday and we didn’t have to wait in lines or battle crowds at the top.
7. National September 11 Memorial & Museum
If it’s your first time in NYC, do not miss this historical and emotional experience. I wasn’t prepared for the wave of heavy feelings to hit me like they did, but it was worth it. Give yourself plenty of time if you’re heading into the museum. We spent over 2 hours in the museum and could’ve spent a lot longer, but we had our flight to catch.
- If you have time, check out the Oculus next door to the the memorial. The architecture is amazing.
8. Check Out Grand Central Station
This can be another quick stop on your weekend itinerary, but it’s a famous location that’s fun to experience during your first time in New York City. Grand Central has more railway platforms than any other station in the world. Grab a milkshake at Shake Shack and enjoy some people-watching or head to the pop-up shops for some quality gifts. Hop on the subway from here to head to the Brooklyn Bridge!
9. Pick a Museum + Pop into New York City Public Library
My husband and I only visited the 9/11 Museum in December and I’m sad we missed out on the other museums. Instead, we took advantage of the winter weather and the seasonal highlights like ice skating, but I highly recommend at least one museum for first-timers! On my family vacation in 2011, we visited the MET and the MoMA which are both incredible and memorable. Museums can easily steal several hours of your time without even trying, so be sure to give yourself a time limit. We did spend a little bit of time to walking through the New York Public Library and it’s absolutely worth it.
TWF Top Museum Recommendations:
- MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)
- American Museum of Natural History
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)
- Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum
- Frick Collection
10. It’s All About the Little Things for Your First Time in New York City
So I didn’t hit on specific restaurants, bars, or bakeries in this post because they can change all the time and there are so many delicious places to try. But what first-timer’s should do:
- Dig into a slice of New York-style pizza.
- Indulge in fresh pastries at a local bakery.
- Splurge on a really nice meal. We ate at Gallagher’s Steakhouse on our last trip and loved it. Benjamin’s Steakhouse is a favorite in my family, too. If there’s a restaurant you’re dying to check out, try to get a reservation far in advance.
- Pop into the touristy stores for a magnet or postcard.
- Check out the “hole in the wall” bars or restaurants.
- Head to a rooftop bar for stunning city views.
Want to skip one of the highlights above & do something else? All of the following are on my list for my next weekend trip to the city:
- See the bull on Wall Street or take a walking tour.
- Walk the High Line park in west Manhattan.
- Shop on 5th Avenue and embrace your inner child at FAO Schwarz (we also did this during our holiday weekend and it was so fun to see all of the window displays!).
- Go see the Flatiron Building.
- Get more Insta-worthy photos at DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).
- Check out the energy, food, and fun of Chinatown.
Related: Heading to New York City with the girls?!
Check out A Weekend Guide for a Girls Getaway in NYC!
Don’t forget to check out our thoughts on visiting New York City during the holidays!
What’s your favorite spot in NYC or what would you love to see?! If you’re a New York City expert, help me add to my list!