If there's one rule to your first visit to New York City, it's this: Don't try to see it all in one trip.
New York City is packed with more people than any city in the country, and arguably more sites, too. That makes it a lively vacation spot no matter the time of year.
But the top attractions, sites, and tourist traps of the city aren't created equally – or priced equally, either. It can be hard to decide what's worth the time or where to start. We're going to help you navigate the chaos – and hopefully save you some money in the process.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
No matter how long you stay in NYC, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum should be at the top of the list.
You can spend more than an hour just walking throughout the memorial itself, appreciating the magnitude of loss in this place. Many just walk through the museum at their own pace.
But I highly recommend booking a guided tour through the 9/11 Tribute Center. Every tour is guided by someone personally affected by the tragedy at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They are highly personal and emotional testimonies that include heartache and miracles. It's well worth any extra cost, but certainly not for the faint of heart.
Thrifty Tip: After your visit, head over to Kesté for some amazing Neopolitan-style wood-fired pizza. It's my favorite spot in the city, and while there are two locations, the Fulton Street branch near the monument is the only one that accepts reservation. Gluten-free eaters are in luck: My husband couldn't even tell the difference from a normal pie!
American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bordering Central Park, both of these museums are fantastic.
But art is personal, and it won't appeal to everyone. So if you have to pick one, the American Museum of Natural History would be my first choice. With the expanse of exhibits, there is something for everyone.
There's no feeling quite like staring up at a sperm whale suspended above you, and the height of a life-size tyrannosaurus rex is absolutely humbling. This place is certainly a must see for all ages, and it's perfect for kids.
Thrifty Tip: Posted admission prices are suggested donations, so you can pay what you think is fair to get in. Just simply go to the counter and say something like, “I'd like to do $20 for two tickets.”
Even if you've never set foot in New York City, you've seen Central Park. This iconic fixture surrounded by skyscrapers and apartment buildings lives up to the hype.
It's amazing how the sounds of the city seem to vanish while walking through this vast park. It's a welcome break from the chaos of the city.
Better yet, it can cater to any budget. Whether you are just going to take a stroll or rent bikes, boats, or go for a carriage ride, it doesn't matter. Go for a run, enjoy a picnic, or partake in the variety of changing events and concerts – you can't go wrong!
Shop (or Window Shop) Along Fifth Avenue
You won't have to venture far to make it to New York City's next must-see spot.
Bordering Central Park, perhaps no street better captures the city than Fifth Avenue. If you ask me, it's the best way to get a full blast of the New York City vibes – forget Times Square. The shops are endless. And while many iconic shopping destinations worldwide welcome only big spenders, you'll find a nice blend of price points across Fifth Avenue to meet all shoppers' needs.
Take in a Show
The city that never sleeps will keep you entertained. Whether you're interested in Broadway or a live studio taping, there are so many options that it's difficult to pick a place to start.
We've got you covered.
If your heart isn't set on a particular show on Broadway, check out the list of Broadway Digital Lotteries. Enter the ones that interest you for a chance at discount tickets.
Most recently, my husband and I entered the lottery for Secret, and we BOTH won! We wound up with four tickets in the fourth row for just $40 each – down from the original price of $100 a pop. As an added bonus, we spotted a few celebrities in the audience.
Looking for something more budget-friendly? Join a live studio audience. Shows like Dr. Oz, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Good Morning America, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and countless more offer free tickets for the studio taping. Although, how you get tickets varies by show, so do a little research to get the best results and guarantee tickets ahead of time.
For the last-minute crowd or diehard fans, you can “camp out” to get tickets on the day of taping as well. If there's poor weather on your trip, you may be in luck for a short line. Thanks to some sleet and cold temperatures during our latest trip to New York City, we knew many fans wouldn't brave the elements in the ticket line. An umbrella, one coffee, and an hour later we snagged free tickets to The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It was such a unique experience and well worth the wait (well, within reason.)
Take It Or Leave It
Statue of Liberty vs. Staten Island
Choosing between these two landmarks of the city can be tough.
Both options will give you a beautiful view of the New York City skyline during your ferry ride. On a tight budget? The Staten Island ferry is free to the public, and you'll get a close look at the Statue of Liberty on the ride.
If you can handle just over $20 per person, then the Statue of Liberty should be your first choice.
That includes the few extra dollars to climb to the crown of Lady Liberty. Just keep in mind there are no elevators inside to get to the top. You'll get the same skyline views on the ferry, but also get up close and personal with an iconic monument.
It's not necessary to take both ferries – they can consume a decent part of your day. And unless the weather is perfect, these sights might be worth skipping altogether.
It's perhaps New York City's most famous and popular attraction for tourists. And it's popular to a fault.
The screens are massive, and the energy is crazy. A mass of people means you're getting bumped and shoved constantly. Many stores are overcrowded to the point that doing any actual shopping is impossible.
Don't even think about taking a cab through the bumper to bumper traffic. Make sure you grab those just outside of Times Square, or just use the city's subway system. A visit earlier in the day could mean fewer crowds, but you'll miss the energy of the night and lights.
If your bucket list includes Times Square, it's worth a visit. Personally, it's a quick walkthrough spot for me.
Thrifty Tip: If you need a bite to eat on your way to or from Times Square, look for Urbanspace. There are a handful of these food halls across the city, but don't expect to see a bunch of chain restaurants. Instead, they offer an array of artisan yet affordable cuisine from across the globe, from burger joints to Filipino and Thai food to even a s'mores bar at one location!
Grand Central Terminal
There's no denying the architecture inside the city's most famous train station is phenomenal.
The station's towering arches have been captures in countless movies, TV shows, and so many personal stories. It's a neat walk through, but unless you're taking the train, there's not much else to do. The food court has a neat atmosphere, though the food itself left something to be desired. If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth a quick walk through to witness the grand beauty of Grand Central. But that's about it.
Thrifty Tip: Going through Grand Central at night? Stop into The Campbell for a great cocktail in a swanky setting that feels like a time warp.
The Empire State Building
Arguably the most famous skyscraper in a city full of them, the Empire State Building has lost some of its mojo.
Sure, it's an iconic building with insane views soaring above the city. A trip to the top can be an unforgettable experience.
But in my opinion, there are plenty of other spots that can give you an amazing view of the New York City skyline, like One World Trade Center, Brooklyn Bridge Park, or even the Staten Island Ferry. This stop is ripe for cutting if you're short on time for money.
To buy a pass or not to buy a pass? That's the question.
There are a handful of different sightseeing passes available, including different attractions at different price points. Check out this great comparison of your different options.
Whether you'll come out ahead by buying a sightseeing pass depends on how much you want to see – and how expensive single passes would be. Do the math like we did, and you may find you're better off sticking to a “pay-as-you-go” approach.
Don't be overwhelmed but the vast list of possibilities in New York. Prioritize your must-sees and you really can't go wrong.