Last Updated on September 4, 2023
New York City is one of those cities where you can spend days just running from one attraction to the next, and basically never run out of things to do. But what are best New York attractions, the ones that you MUST see? Most people don’t have time to see them all.
I must admit that the first couple of times I visited New York I barely got to experience the city beyond its sights because I was trying to tick off as many as possible from my list: the MoMA, the Met, the Statue Of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Guggenheim, the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building, Central Park, Greenwich Village… The list is endless.
However, I realized that just focusing on the sights didn’t give me the chance to experience the city itself – I left the city having seen the things New York is famous for but not knowing anything about how the city itself ticks. Luckily I have rectified this now that I have spent many months in the Big Apple, and whenever I advise first time visitors on what to do on a visit to New York I make sure to recommend a good balance of attractions and city life / neighborhood exploration.
Of course you will want to visit the iconic New York attractions when you come to this amazing city – but you should choose wisely which ones you really have to see. Read on for what I think are the sights worth paying for and which ones I think you should skip in favor for some meandering, people watching and street cafe relaxation:
The Empire State Building vs the Top Of The Rocks vs One World Observatory
You should definitely do one observation deck, or even two. Seeing New York from above is something truly special and well spent money and I’d consider all of the observation decks among the best New York attractions. Now the question is: which observation deck in NYC is the best? I wrote a detailed article comparing all three, but in short: in my opinion, the Top Of The Rock is the better deal. Not only do you get to see the Empire State Building (and it looks great in photos from above, doesn’t it?) but you also get to see Central Park from up here, and seeing how giant New York’s green lung actually is puts it in a completely new perspective.
Another advantage of Top Of The Rock? It’s the rooftop of the Rockefeller Center of course, home to NBC and 30 Rock! Plus, since every tourist on the planet is obsessed with going on top of the Empire State Building, the lines there are much longer. Admission is now for $40 for the Top Of The Rock, tickets for the Empire State Building start at $45 per person; and One World Observatory is slightly cheaper at $39.
The museums – Guggenheim vs Met vs MoMA
If you are a fan of modern art, the MoMA is a museum you should definitely NOT miss – it is one of the top ten art museums in the world, if not even one of the top five! This is one of the best New York attractions, in my opinion. Admission is $25. You can, however, get a better deal and skip the crowds with the multi-attraction passes I mention further on.
The Metropolitan Museum Of Art is another iconic art gallery in New York, focusing on the old masters and ancient exhibits, ranging from famous American painters to European masters like Vermeer, Monet and Van Gogh. There are some contemporary exhibits here, but in its core, the Met is the place to see the classics. There’s no free admission day/hours here, except for a few museum days every year (check their website to find out when they take place) and admission is $30.
The Guggenheim is the third well-known NYC museum, and houses another outstanding collection of contemporary art. If you are a modern art aficionado, you should visit either the Guggenheim or the MoMa while you’re in New York. Admission is $30, but if you’re on a tight budget, there’s a pay-what-you-wish admission period on Saturdays between 5 and 8pm.
Hop-on hop-off tours
If you ask me, you can skip them. Yes, you get to see a lot of the city while riding around in them, and go past some of the best New York attractions, yes – but you’ll be stuck in traffic a lot. And taking good photos while moving is nearly impossible. It is much better to walk in the city, especially Manhattan is very walkable. There are some great audio guide apps for self-guided walking tours which I highly recommend! Safe the money for the hop-on hop-off bus and invest in a Broadway show instead. The TodayTix app /website offers discount tickets for all the major plays and musical every day – for as little as $49 (the same price of the hop-on hop-off bus) – and it’s Broadway!
What you might want to skip: The Statue Of Liberty
The ferry out to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty has some of the longest waiting lines – especially in the summer months. Now, if you’re a total history buff and are dying to visit the Ellis Island Immigration Museum to learn more about the European settlers who arrived in New York in the late 19th century, these lines might be worth the wait for you.
If you, however, just want to catch a glimpse of the lady, you might just settle for the Staten Island Ferry, which doesn’t stop at Liberty Island or Ellis Island but passes the Statue Of Liberty and is completely free. If you are planning to visit Liberty Island, note that you have to reserve a ticket in advance to be able to access the crown of the statue ($24.50 incl ferry). A ticket without crown access is $24.80.
What attractions in NYC to skip:
Any of the ‘attractions’ around Times Square. Did you really come to New York to spend time in a wax museum? If that’s your thing, sure go ahead, but you could do that in plenty of other cities as well. New York has way more awesome stuff to offer than Madame Tussaud’s or Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
The best way to save money on the best New York attractions: An attractions pass
Get a multiple attractions pass! There are a number of different passes, what differs is the number of attractions that’s included, so depending on how many sights you’re planning to hit up, you can choose what’s best for you:
- NYC Attractions Pass with over 100 activities (US$129)
- NYC Attractions Pass with 85 attractions (starting from US$65)
- NYC City Pass (6 attractions at 40% off, starts at US$136)
The last pass, the NYC City Pass, is the most popular one, and includes the
- Empire State Building (plus night admission)
- the American Museum of Natural History (including the Hayden Planetarium Space Show or a giant-screen movie in 3D and 2
- the Metropolitan Museum of Art (general admission for three consecutive days at the Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters, plus audio guide on your first visit),
- the Guggenheim Museum OR Top of the Rock
- the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (flex ticket for one Statue Cruises ferry ride to and from Liberty Island and Ellis Island and admission to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum) OR Circle Line Cruises (either a Landmark Cruise, Harbor Lights, the Liberty Cruise, or The BEAST Speedboat Ride)
- Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (general admission and Space Shuttle Pavillion) OR 9/11 Memorial and Museum
These passes are all cheaper than paying each for each attraction individually, and often also include a hop-on hop-off bus (if you get it for free, you might as well take it – at least for some parts of your day). If you want to see New York’s iconic museums and one of the rooftops plus Ellis Island, buying a multi-attraction pass is definitely the most economic choice. Note that prices vary depending on demand and time of your visit (high season / low season).