NYC Weekend Itinerary for First Timers

New York, like most big cities, has two sides to it. There is the city full of tourist must-sees. And there is the city that real New Yorkers live in. It takes a few visits, or one long one, to see all of it.  Here is a primer on how to make the most of your NYC weekend itinerary and see all the essentials.

Start with our Immigrant Past

Everyone who lives in New York is from someplace else if you go back far enough. Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty celebrate our immigrant history and give you a sense of how earlier generations arrived in and viewed the city.

Kids in 3rd grade and up will be able to appreciate the history of Ellis Island, the diversity of people who came through this portal and the plethora of stories its walls can tell.

I find the climb to the Lady Liberty’s crown disappointing. The view from its tiny windows is nothing special and climbing up can take quite a while on a busy day.  Also, note that your best photos of this lady will be from shore. But Ellis Island and the statue are part of the same ferry ticket and most people stop off.

Skip the line:  Even if you’re traveling off-peak it’s worthwhile to buy your ferry tickets online ahead of time to avoid the lines at the dock.

Traveling with kids: If your kids are too small to appreciate Ellis Island or to deal with the statue’s crowds, walk a few blocks south to the Staten Island ferry.  It’s free and takes about 80 minutes round trip. You’ll get fantastic photos and your kids will like watching all the boats and ships in this busy harbor. Bring snacks for an onboard picnic and avoid rush hour when the ferry is packed with commuters.

Take in a view

New York City has 3 skyscrapers with viewing platforms. The Freedom Tower is by far the tallest and the newest and offers a neat time-lapse video of New York’s evolution during the long elevator ride up. The Empire State Building is the most iconic and the views uptown and downtown at night impress me after a lifetime living here. I really like Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center. The lines are usually shorter than for the other two buildings, it has brilliant views of Central Park, and your photos from up there will have both the Freedom Tower and the Empire State in them. The short videos they show you on the way in – about the building of Rockefeller Center and the Christmas tree are worth taking time for.

Budget option: The best views of the skyline that come for free are from the Brooklyn Bridge. The pedestrian path is one mile from end-to-end (stay out the bike lane). Views and photos from the middle and far side are impressive. You can make the walk a round-trip, catch the subway on the Brooklyn side or stay and explore Brooklyn’s beautiful waterfront park.

See a Show

Broadway is known for its big-spectacle musicals, and it offers compelling dramas too, and these are often where you find the big-name stars. TKTS and Today Tix offer last-minute discounts; longer running musicals are your best bets here (both have apps). offers discounts on longer running shows, high-profile off-Broadway shows, and shows that are in preview.  The latter are often dramas and can be worth taking a flyer on. We’ve seen Kevin Kline, Al Pacino, John Goodman Nathan Lane and Dan Radcliffe this way, more often than not in good productions. Even the so-so ones gave us plenty to talk about.

Hit a Museum

New York has TK museums. You have to visit at least one, ideally two or three. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is large and often very crowded these days. The can’t-miss galleries are the Egyptian and medieval collections. If 20th century modern is your thing you can’t miss with either MoMA or the Guggenheim

The city’s smaller museums are its real gems and worth seeking out, especially if you have a particular interest. American history buffs will like the New York Historical Society; European history fans, the Cloisters; and film buffs, the museum of the Moving Image. Then there are museums that specialize in German art, Art & Design, math, Latino culture, immigrant life on the Lower East Side, New York’s slave past and much more.

Budget Option: Many museums offer a free day or reduced prices at certain times. Here’s where you can see free art in New York City.

Eat in Chinatown

New Yorkers speak more than 140 languages and our dining reflects that diversity. I encourage any visitor to try at least one cuisine they’ve never had before (Chow Hound is a good source for under-the-radar places; Zagat for more mainstream options).

But to me no trip to the city is complete without a trip to Chinatown it’s classic New York. You’ll find food here from across China as well as from Malaysia and Vietnam. Dim sum will be fresh and good in any place that’s busy. Shanghai dumplings are fun (slurp carefully). Vietnamese or Chinese noodle joints are good budget options (look for the glazed ducks and chicken hanging in the window). Hunan is the choice for excellent seafood and the classic Chinese food most people know.

Dessert:  Chinatown bumps right up against Little Italy. So after your meal pop over to Mulberry Street and its offshoots for espresso and cannoli. Ferraro is our favorite place for both ambiance and fresh pastries.

There is plenty more to do in New York City, but this will have you off to a good start.

About Our Guest Blogger

Eileen Gunn is a native New Yorker, expert on family travel and the founder of FamiliesGo! You can follow her on PinterestFacebook and Instagram.