How to Visit New York: The Must-Sees

After yesterday’s look at the basics of visting New York City, it’s time to move on to some more ambitious, and more contentious, topics. I’m going to start with my short list of the sights you simply must see if you get to the city. Knowing already that this isn’t even a complete list of my own recommendations (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some), I am certain you’ll all have your own must-see additions — let me have ’em!

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of visiting New York City is that there is so much to see. That means a truly definitive “must-see” list is pretty much impossible, and depends on your preferences and interests. But there are a few signature places in the city that are unique in the world, and so broadly appealing they should offer something to just about anyone who visits. If you’ve only got a short amount of time in the city, or you want to make sure to get the most indispensable stuff first, here’s a good list to begin with.

  • The signature skyscrapers. The Empire State Building may be the most famous building in the world, and it’s well worth its reputation. However, it was built primarily as an office building for the garment trade, so it’s better to look at than to look out from, though the owners have done an admirable job of retrofitting it with all the necessary tourist trap/gift shop accessories. If you’re trying to make good use of your time, don’t go up the Empire State Building, just get a good look at it from Top of the Rock. If you’ve got time to wait, you certainly won’t regret seeing the view from the ESB. The Chrysler Building is the prettiest peak in Manhattan’s skyline, with its distinctive hubcap spire. There’s really no easy way to go up there as a tourist anyway, so just make a mental note to look out for it when you get to the Top of the Rock. Which of course brings us to Top of the Rock itself. This is the newest skyline viewpoint for tourists, having been completely refurbished after sitting in mothballs for three decades. Top of the Rock is a great vantage point for looking out at the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Central Park, and it’s at the top of 30 Rockefeller Center, which means you can check out one of the city’s great plazas on the way in. If you go to the top of only one skyscraper, this should be it, and if you can time it right, get there a little before sunset and linger until after the sun goes down, so you can get both a great look at the city and the magic of the city’s lights at night.
  • Grand Central Terminal. You probably know this one as Grand Central Station, the “Terminal” name is technically correct because it’s the end of the line for the commuter rails that bring hundreds of thousands of people to work in Manhattan every day. Sadly, most of them trudge through the train station on their way to work without looking up at the most beautiful indoor space in the city. The building was lovingly restored to its original lavish condition a decade ago, and anybody who loves architecture, transportation, history, or just people should find something to love in the space. If you can, check out one of the free walking tours (more on that later), poke your head into the mini Transit museum on the western side of the building, and maybe even stop for some food; Between the Oyster bar, the food court downstairs, and a few other pricey but pleasant dining choices, it’s not a terrible place to grab a meal. It’s also got a great secret place for drinks that are worth the exorbitant price.
  • The Museums. It’s impossible to narrow down the full list of New York’s great museums, but the most prominent ones in the city are world-famous for a reason. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The American Museum of Natural History. The Museum of Modern Art. The Guggenheim. Any one of them can easily take up a full day. I’m the kind of guy who didn’t go to college and rolls his eyes at pretentious “experts”, but these places are mesmerizing. Approachable without being dumbed-down, fun without being frivolous, they’re all worth a visit, but if you want to start with a sure crowd-pleaser, or you’ve got kids who are finicky, the Natural History Museum, home of The Whale and The Dinosaur Skeletons and The Planetarium, is just one of the most satisfying places in the world. The Met is its slightly more serious sister, across Central Park, and I’ve found the exhibits there so simple and smart that they’re just plain profound. If you don’t check out at least one of the great museums of the city, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Or at least until you come back to New York.

Thanks to Tom Karlo for the beautiful photo of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center at the Natural History Museum. To see all of the posts in this series, check out the archive of How To Visit New York.