Ah, New York City. How do I even start? It’s always been a goal to visit, and I was lucky enough to do it in my 20s—and in autumn. Fall in New York City is just so beautiful it felt like I was in a dream. It definitely was the highlight of my year as I got to spend a week getting lost in the city with the love of my life.
So, here are some of the best things to do in New York City.
Visit Some of the World’s Best Museums
It’s no secret that New York City is brimming with arts and culture, and its museum count is just one of the reasons why. If you’re only staying for a couple of days, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) are highly recommended.
MoMA is home to almost 200,000 artworks, with highlights including Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night; Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory; and Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans.
Other famous artists to look out for include Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and Joan Miro.
Meanwhile, it’s best to save at least half a day for The Met. There is a lot to uncover, as its permanent collection includes more than two million works, ranging from paintings to historical artifacts from all over the world.
My favorite might be the painting collection, which includes works by Van Gogh, Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet, to mention a few. In fact, one of Van Gogh’s famous self-portraits is here.
It was such a surreal moment seeing all the works by prominent artists that I only used to see in books during my Arts class in college.
The Guggenheim Museum is also another popular museum in New York City, although I’d say Bilbao’s Guggenheim is still my favorite architectural-wise.
Located on the Upper East Side, expect changing exhibits as well as a permanent one, the Thannhauser Collection, which includes works by Van Gogh, Picasso, and more.
Other museums to visit include the American Museum of Natural History, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Admire the City’s Architectural Landmarks
It’s hard to pinpoint and enumerate New York City landmarks when you’re looking at the skyline as a whole, but the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are some of my favorites.
One of the city’s first skyscrapers, the century-old Flatiron Building is another must-see. The unique, triangular structure is made up of 22 floors.
Walking around Midtown Manhattan will give you more opportunities to admire the city’s architectural beauty.
Picnic in Central Park
Central Park might be the absolute best thing to do in New York City for free. With over 800 acres, it is the largest park in New York and is also the first public park ever built in America.
Some of the park’s popular spots include the Bow Bridge, Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, Belvedere Castle, and Strawberry Fields.
Tip: make sure to wear comfortable clothing. Depending on when you’re visiting, it can be too hot or cold. If you’re visiting in the fall, better wear some layers or at least bring a windbreaker.
Ride the Subway
After all the movies you’ve seen about New York City trains, you might be scared of taking the subway. It is daunting, yes, but the key really is to mind your own business.
There are times when you’d see drunk people going from one car to another, or a band serenading you, but this is part of the culture.
Also, as with any other train in the world, there will be times when it’s too busy. During the weekdays’ work hours (around 9 am to 3 pm) before and after the office rush, most of the stations are completely empty.
Explore Manhattan’s Neighborhoods
Exploring Manhattan’s neighborhoods is one of the best things to do in New York City. The popular ones include West Village, Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Little Italy, Chinatown, SoHo, and Tribeca.
The Greenwich Village might be my favorite. The cobbled streets lined with quaint townhouses and boutique shops are so pretty. Plus, this is also the location of Taylor Swift’s Cornelia Street.
The next street houses what might be one of the best donuts in New York City (more on that below).
Shop Along 5th Avenue
It is just impossible to not spend a couple of bucks when walking down 5th Avenue, known as one of the best shopping spots in the world. You can expect to see high-end shops such as Tiffany, Chanel, Saks Fifth Avenue, and more.
The whole stretch is also one of the best spots for street photography in New York City.
Go on A Food Trip
Everything from hot dog stands to up-and-coming restaurants, it is impossible not to want to try everything. For pizza, John’s of Bleecker Street and Joe’s Pizza are some of the highly-recommended ones. John’s is easily my favorite.
For a quintessential NYC meal, Shake Shack. The original one is in Madison Square Park, which is quite pretty in the fall. There is also a dog park nearby for that post-meal walk.
For coffee, an alternative to Starbucks is Blank Street Coffee. I love their Caramel Latte with almond milk, and for a switch, you can also give their Pistachio Latte a try.
With its minimalistic, modern interior with nothing but the smell of fresh coffee and pastries, this is really where you’d want to pick up your cup of Joe to-go.
Another unforgettable food that I tried in New York City is The Doughnut Project’s Pumpkin Spiced Latte donut.
And Ess-a-Bagel’s Everything Bagel with Smoked Salmon. I swear when I go back it’d be my first meal.
If you’re staying at an Airbnb, you can also ask your host to suggest some restaurants for you to try or even speakeasy bars.
Channel Your Inner Potterhead
The Harry Potter Store is located on Broadway, right across the Flat Iron Building. It’s recommended to do this on your last day for souvenirs and gifts for friends.
Aside from the merch, the store itself is very interactive.
For Potterheads, set aside a couple of bucks for this store as you’d really want your own wand and letter from Hogwarts.
Don’t miss out on the Butterbeer, too.
Ride the Ferry
If you want to go up close with the Statue of Liberty—but not quite close that you have to pay $$$ for it—I suggest taking the ferry to Staten Island. It’s one of the best things to do in New York for free and has schedules every 30 minutes.
However, if in case you miss the ferry, you can also walk to Battery Park just in time for sunset to enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty.
See the City from Above (At Night)
I know it’s ideal to go to an observation deck in the morning, but I don’t regret doing this at night. It was magical, and the best part is that there are not many people around, too.
Make sure to pack a (very) thick sweater if you’re visiting New York City in the fall or winter.
And if you’re in the city during the holidays, the annual Christmas tree decoration in Rockefeller Plaza is a must-visit.
Walk the High Line
The High Line is an elevated park located on what used to be a freight rail line. While benches and spaces might be limited, the views from here are enough to want to visit.
For those interested in street photography, walking the High Line will give you tons of opportunities to capture beautiful buildings from above.
The stretch ends along the Fifth Avenue Mall, which is also across one of the city’s landmarks, The Vessel. It is currently closed but you can admire the beautiful architecture from below.
It’s also near Little Island, which is a recently-opened, artificial island park with unique sections and a cozy amphitheater. Up its trail provides great views of the city’s skyscrapers along the Battery.
Again, if you’re visiting in the fall, better wear some layers.
More Shopping at Chelsea Market
More food and shopping? Yes, please. Located near the High Line and Little Island, Chelsea Market is a haven for anything local, with brands selling all sorts of souvenirs from food to antiques.
There is also a small food court inside when you want to take a break from all the shopping.
Night Out at 230 Fifth
We’re not really the party couple, but we enjoyed going out to 230 Fifth for a drink. In fact, we did this on our first night in the city. It was lively and wild.
Apart from the crowd, however, the view from the rooftop is also amazing. It’s one of the best spots to view the Empire State Building.
230 Fifth is only a block away from Madison Square Park.
Catch a Broadway Show
Watching a Broadway show is a quintessential thing to do in New York City. Tickets start at $80, depending on the show and seats.
Some of the most popular shows include Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, Wicked, and Cats.
Times Square at Midnight
A lot of people say it’s better to skip Times Square as it’s known for being a tourist trap, but come at night and you’d actually see that it’s worth it. It’s undoubtedly one of the best things to do in New York City for free.
True, it’s crowded, as it’s a popular NYC landmark, and can be too loud for people who want to go off-the-beaten path, but the lights and the ambience is something else as far as street photography goes.
I was able to do a countdown to Taylor Swift’s Midnights launch here.
Marvel at the Grand Central Terminal
The beaux-arts landmark is one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, and is also a hub for shopping and dining. For fans of Gossip Girl, The Campbell is an easy pick. With a 1920’s vibe and old-fashioned cocktails, it’s a perfect date spot.
The Grand Central Terminal is only a 3-minute walk from the Chrysler Building.
Step Inside the Corner Bookstore
The Corner Bookstore first opened in 1978, and has since been a booklover’s haven for people around Carnegie Hill in the Upper East Side. They have everything from fiction to non-fiction, including children’s titles, history, poetry, travel, cookbooks, and more.
The brick-and-brownstone facade of this intimate bookshop is as pretty inside, screaming elegance and timeless beauty.
Personally, we are very fond of the address—1313 Madison Avenue—because our anniversary is the 13th, and as with any other bookstore I’ve been to from my travels, I was able to buy a Romeo and Juliet book for my collection.
Sightsee from the Brooklyn Bridge Park
Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of the best viewing points in New York, where you can see the Manhattan skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge right across the water. The park offers biking, fishing, and kayaking opportunities, among others.
Nearby is the Time Out Market, which houses some of the best food in the city, including Ess-a-Bagel. Its rooftop also offers great views.
Capture Dumbo’s Washington Street View
Dumbo neighborhood is one of the most beautiful places in New York City, and a very popular street photography shot here is located on Washington Street, less than a 5-minute walk from Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Seeing the street with the beautiful Manhattan Bridge felt surreal, but I suggest coming in early to avoid tourists.
Stroll Brooklyn’s Parks and Gardens
Brooklyn’s Prospect Park is the place to be for a less crowded alternative to Central Park. It’s home to a zoo, horseback riding trails, picnic spaces, ice skating rinks, and fishing areas, among other facilities.
Like any other park in New York City, Prospect Park is very pretty in the fall, and with it having fewer people when we visited, we actually enjoyed some peace and quiet in most areas.
The park is adjacent to the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which is another must-see in New York City.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden features over 14,000 plants from all over the world. If you plan your visit, their website shows what’s in bloom.
Their cherry trees are the highlight of spring, and it’s known as one of the best sites to see cherry blossoms outside of Japan.
While there is an entrance fee for tourists, you can enjoy free admission during winter, Tuesdays to Fridays of December to February.
People-Watch in Coney Island
The Manifest show, Taylor Swift’s Coney Island—surely this is also on my list of the best things to do in New York City.
The boardwalk is nice to stroll in, and you can easily sit on one of the benches to people-watch or see the sunset. About three miles of sandy beaches, namely Coney Island Beach and Brighton Beach, are also to be enjoyed in the summer. Note that you can’t swim on the beach if there are no lifeguards on duty.
The beach and boardwalk aside, another main attraction here is Luna Park, where you can channel your inner child with its action-packed rides such as the Cyclone, Thunderbolt, and more.
You will also find New York City’s only aquarium on Coney Island. I’ve read the New York Aquarium issues free tickets on Wednesdays from 3 PM onwards. See more information here.
For food, meanwhile, Nathan’s has long been known to have the best hot dog in New York City.
Take the Roosevelt Island Tramway
The New York City tramway is the first and only commuter aerial tramway in North America. For only $1.50 one way, you’ll see the city from a different perspective, crossing the river and onto Roosevelt Island.
The secluded Roosevelt Island is also a historical stop on its own, being home to a former smallpox hospital, prison, and insane asylum. I’d say this is one of the city’s best kept secrets, and also provides a unique view of the Manhattan skyline.
Even if you're the type who doesn't want to see the touristy places in New York City, I still highly suggest you visit them. It's one thing to see them in the movies, and it's another to see them in person. But don't hesitate to go off-the-beaten-path—do your research and make sure you stay safe.
Exploring the parks will always be one of my favorite free things to do in New York City. Strolling Manhattan's neighborhoods is an adventure on its own, too. And if you don't want to pay at least $30 to admire Manhattan's skyline, visit Brooklyn Bridge Park or go up Time Out Market's rooftop. I also enjoyed people-watching in Coney Island.
Some of the top attractions to visit in New York City include Central Park, the MET Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the High Line, Rockefeller Center, the Statue of Liberty, Top of the Rock, the Empire State Building, the Battery, Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, and more.
Realistic answer: no. I recommend spending at least two weeks in the city.
What are some of your favorite things to do in New York City? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!