Best Things to do in New York City, New York

The 15 Best Things to Do in New York City

New York City truly is the city that never sleeps. You can always guarantee that the bright lights of this big city’s skyline will guide you to a wonderland of experiences and opportunities. 

Comprised of five boroughs that make up over 300 square miles of adventure, you’ll find there’s always something to do in New York City. No matter how many days you have in New York City, it’s impossible to do it all. And you can expect a totally different experience each day you spend in a different borough. 

In Manhattan, you’ll climb skyscrapers and see world-famous shows. In Brooklyn, you’ll find a vibrant art scene and equally vibrant green spaces to spend the day in the sun. See a Yankees game or the famous Bronx Zoo in the Bronx, or go thrift shopping and dine your way around the world in Queens. And in the too-often forgotten borough of Staten Island, you’ll enjoy a more residential feel, complete with beach access and botanical gardens. 

From the bright lights of Manhattan to the picturesque parks of Brooklyn, there’s so much to do and see in New York City. To help you get started, we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in New York City for you. From beloved favorites among visitors to unique things to do off the beaten path, if you stick to these New York City bucket list recommendations, there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring the Big Apple!

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1. Take a Harbor Cruise

Cool Things to do in New York City, New York: Harbor Cruise

Taking a harbor cruise is one of my favorite ways to see New York City, and there are so many options when it comes to picking the cruise that’s right for you.

Want to get your party on while you take in incredible views of Manhattan? Book yourself a cocktail cruise. With live DJ entertainment and cocktails galore, you’ll dance the night away as the sun sets over the iconic skyline.

Best Things to do in New York City, New York: Harbor Cruise

More into learning about the history of New York City’s famous skyscrapers? Take an architecture cruise where an expert will tell you all about these beloved landmarks.

Just hoping to see it all? Circle Line offers several different cruises throughout the day. Their Best of NYC tour provides you with picturesque views of Manhattan, while the slightly shorter Landmarks cruise gets you up close with New York City’s most well-known gems, like Lady Liberty. If you want to see the skyline with the moon and city lights illuminating your view, take the Harbor Lights cruise.

2. Ride the Cyclone at Coney Island

Fun Things to do in New York City, New York: Coney Island

When you’re in New York City, the ocean is just a subway ride away. Coney Island is home to the Amphitheater, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the New York Aquarium, and a 2.7-mile-long boardwalk along the Brooklyn shoreline. And while you shouldn’t skip any of these landmarks, the best way to spend a day at Coney Island is by visiting the world-famous Luna Park.

Luna Park is one of the best things to do in New York City. It’s the largest amusement park in New York City and has a long history of providing a place to play for locals and tourists alike. The original Luna Park was built in 1903, but it sadly was mostly destroyed in a fire in 1944. Even still, several of its rides, including the famous Cyclone, continued delighting guests. 

But the new Luna Park returned the area to its former glory in 2010. Nowadays, you can scream on the Cyclone, take in the views from the Brooklyn Flyer, get dizzy on the Electro Spin, and so much more. 

3. Climb the Empire State Building

New York City, New York Things to do: Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is one of the top tourist attractions in the world and one of the must-do things in New York City, and for a good reason. In my opinion, it offers one of the best views in all of NYC. 

Take the elevator (unless you really want to climb 1,872 steps) up to the 102nd-floor observatory for a view like no other, stopping off at the 86th-floor observation deck for even more opportunities to see the many sides of New York City. 

There are several ways to experience the Empire State Building, but you’ll have to book in advance regardless of which one you choose. You can book tickets for just the 86th-floor observation deck or for both the 86th-floor and the 102nd-floor observation decks.

You can skip the lines with the Express Pass or come by for early morning views with Sunrise @ ESB. And with the Premium Experience, you’ll get the views you’re looking for, plus a 90-minute tour of the building, including its unique art galleries.

4. Join the Audience of Your Favorite Late-Night Shows

Cool Things to do in New York City, New York: Late-Night Shows

Hollywood may be where more sets are, but New York is a haven for late-night television. And many of these late-night shows film in iconic New York locations, like the Ed Sullivan Theater and Rockefeller Center. Getting in the audience of one of these shows is one of the coolest things to do in New York because you’re getting live entertainment and a chance to step foot in a piece of New York history. I highly recommend it!

You’ll have to check the website of your favorite late-night show to ensure you’re reserving your spot the right way, but many of these shows now book seats through the app 1iota. Seats tend to fill up fast, so check the app frequently leading up to your trip to ensure you book as soon as something becomes available. 

5. See a Show On or Off-Broadway

When many people think of New York City, they think of Broadway. And while we’re not saying that you shouldn’t try to see an incredible Broadway show, we do know that getting tickets can be tricky and expensive.

If you’d really like to see a show on Broadway, you have two good options. The first is getting tickets far in advance. If a show is particularly popular, this will be your best chance to see it.

But if you don’t have a particular show in mind, you get in line at one of two TKTS Discount Booths to get a same-day, discounted ticket to a show. These lines can get pretty long, and the inventory can go quickly, so arrive early.

If you can’t get into the city early enough or don’t want to wait in line, you can also try an app like TodayTix. Both TodayTix and the TKTS booths have on- and off-Broadway shows.

Seeing an off-Broadway show can be just as exciting and sometimes even more so. Many future hit Broadway shows like Dear Evan Hansen and Rent got their start off-Broadway, so you may just end up seeing the next big thing before anyone else! 

For another opportunity to see a potential future Tony winner before everyone else, you can look into what’s in previews. Seeing a preview is usually a little less expensive than seeing a fully-formed Broadway show. Previews give the cast and crew time to make sure their production is going according to plan. So you may witness some missteps in a preview, but that’s all part of the fun.

6. Get a Rock Pass to See the Top of the Rock

Fun Things to do in New York City, New York: Observation Deck at Rockefeller Center

What’s perhaps the one view that may be able to match the Empire State Building? That would be the Top of the Rock, aka the observation deck at Rockefeller Center. Visiting 30 Rockefeller Plaza is one of the coolest things to do in New York City, and a trip there wouldn’t be complete without going to the Top of the Rock.

If you want just to take in the view, you can head straight to the Top of the Rock. But you can also pick up a Rock Pass, which will give you a tour of the Top of the Rock and the rest of Rockefeller Center, providing you with more behind-the-scenes secrets and chances to see many of the famous rooms in 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

7. Take in the Beauty of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

New York City, New York Things to do: Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Looking for a piece of paradise in the middle of New York City? Head to Brooklyn to visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This 52-acre urban botanic garden is one of the best things to do in New York City if you’re looking for a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden features 15 distinct gardens. See the flowering cherry and red oak trees of the Cherry Esplanade. Take in the peaceful beauty of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden.

Or enjoy the eclectic sights of the Shakespeare Garden, filled with more than 80 kinds of plants mentioned in The Bard’s famous works. Or explore one of six conservatories, like the Trail of Plant Evolution or the Bonsai Museum.

Spring is one of the best times to visit to see the cherry trees flowering. But the holiday season also brings about the annual Lightscape. You’ll walk along an illuminated trail of dancing lights after dark while you sip hot cocoa and sample seasonal treats.

8. Dine Around the World at Smorgasburg

Best Things to do in New York City, New York: Smorgasburg

What started as a pop-up in the Seaport District has turned into the largest open-air food market in America. If you’re a foodie, visiting Smorgasburg is one of the must-do things in New York City. Smorgasburg boasts tons of vendors all in one location, with an eclectic mix of foods from all different cultures to sample. 

When it comes to Smorgasburg, you have options. You can head to Williamsburg to grab a picnic table at the Marsha P. Johnson State Park. Or you could join the crowds at the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Cool Things to do in New York City, New York: Smorgasburg

But our favorite place to enjoy Smorgasburg is in the Brooklyn location at Prospect Park. Put down a picnic blanket on Breeze Hill, grab yourself a drink, and enjoy everything from bao to barbecue. 

These events operate seasonally due to New York’s climate, so you’ll have to skip Smorgasburg if you’re visiting in the winter. Their operating schedules also vary by location. The World Trade Center Smorgasburg occurs on Fridays, the Williamsburg Smorgasburg is on Saturdays, and the Prospect Park Smorgasburg is on Sundays. 

9. Take the Roosevelt Island Tram

Unique Things to do in New York City, New York: Roosevelt Island Tram

Looking for one of the best views in New York City? You’ll find it when you board the Roosevelt Island Tram. The Roosevelt Island Tram takes you from busy Manhattan to the beautiful residential area of Roosevelt Island. It glides about 250 feet off the ground at its peak, giving you an aerial look at the magnificence of New York City.

Then, spend some time exploring Roosevelt Island. Visit the historic Blackwell House, explore the stunning Chapel of Good Shepherd, and see the Blackwell Island Lighthouse. If you’re an art lover, be sure to stop by the RIVAA Gallery, aka the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association. This gallery showcases the work of its founding members as well as international artists.

10. Explore the History of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

Must do things in New York City, New York: Ellis Island and Statue of Library

Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are symbols of an America that welcomed the “melting pot” of cultures, providing immigrants with the American dream throughout generations. For many people in the United States today, Ellis Island is where their family’s American journey started.

In fact, if you visit Ellis Island today, you may just find records of your ancestors’ first entry to the United States. More than 12 million immigrants once came through Ellis Island.

On nearby Liberty Island, you’ll find Lady Liberty herself, the proud woman who told hopeful immigrants they were welcome on the American shores. To see both Ellis Island and Liberty Island, you’ll have to book a ferry through Statue City Cruises, the only vendor authorized to provide transportation between the two destinations.

11. Enjoy the View and a Good Book on the Rooftop of the New York Public Library

Best Things to do in New York City, New York: New York Public Library

Whether you’re a reader or not, visiting the New York Public Library should be on your New York City bucket list. There are several different New York Public Library locations, but the two most popular are the Midtown spots: the flagship Stephen A. Schwarzman Building and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL).

At the Stephen A. Schwartzman Building, you’ll find the famous Rose Main Reading Room, an architectural marvel decorated with intricate murals. You can also take in the Polonsky Exhibition, which showcases extraordinary items that the library has collected over 125 years. 

But if you’re looking for a quiet place to read while taking in an incredible view, you’ll want to visit the SNFL, which opened a rooftop terrace so you can enjoy the city from the comfort of a reading nook.

12. Explore the Treasures at Brooklyn Flea

Must do things in New York City, New York: Brooklyn Flea

The team that runs Brooklyn Flea also runs Smorgasburg, so when you go here, you can guarantee a good, authentically New York time. Located beneath the Manhattan Bridge in DUMBO, Brooklyn Flea is the biggest flea market in Brooklyn and one of the most popular in all of New York City.

With over 80 vendors, here you’ll find vintage hidden gems, collectibles, and so much more. From jewelry to paintings to furniture, the only problem you’ll have at this market is how you’ll bring all your new treasures home with you.

Brooklyn Flea operates on Sundays from April to October. If you’re visiting outside those months, head to the Atlantic Center for the Brooklyn Flea Winter Market. Although the winter version of this iconic market only boasts 20 vintage and antique vendors, you’ll find that the increase in food vendors more than makes up for it. If you find yourself over in Chelsea, you can also check out their sister market, Chelsea Flea. Chelsea Flea is open Saturdays and Sundays all year round.

13. Go Glamping on Governor’s Island

New York City, New York Things to do: Governor’s Island

Located in the heart of the New York Harbor is a 172-acre island that’s one of the best spots for New York City sightseeing. And spending an evening on this island is one of the coolest things to do in New York City if you love incredible views and an upscale experience. 

Governor’s Island is just an eight-minute ferry ride from Manhattan, but it’s a whole experience all by itself. Collective Retreats offers a one-of-a-kind glamping opportunity here. You’ll have your own private tent with luxury accommodations and wake up to views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. 

Grab a bike to ride through the natural beauty of this New York paradise, take a walking tour of Governor’s Island’s art exhibits and historical monuments, and make s’mores under the stars around the nightly campfire. Due to New York’s climate, this glamping experience is only available between May and October. Be sure to check the calendar to book your trip in advance.

14. Peruse The Strand

Best Things to do in New York City, New York: The Strand

If you’re a book lover, The Strand has to be on your New York City bucket list. This independent bookstore in Manhattan’s East Village is a New York City icon that’s been around since 1927. This family-owned business now carries over 2.5 million new, used, and rare books.

Cool Things to do in New York City, New York: The Strand

Once you step foot in here, you’ll find yourself getting lost in, as The Strand claims, “18 miles of books.” You’ll also find events happening here all the time, from talks between famous authors to readings from new releases. Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jacqueline Woodson, and Peter Shapiro are just a few of the famous authors and influencers who have done shows in The Strand.

15. Have Dinner and a Movie at Nitehawk Cinema

Fun Things to do in New York City, New York: Nitehawk Cinema

Grabbing dinner and a movie is a classic way to spend an evening, but how about doing it in the same spot? Nitehawk Cinema is an independent movie theater located in Williamsburg and Park Slope that serves up dinner and drinks to your seat. It’s also one of the coolest things to do in New York City if you’re looking for a low-key evening after a busy day of NYC sightseeing. 

From first-run films to classic favorites to international creations, this movie theater has it all. It even strives to be more accessible to different audiences by having screenings with captions and showings that are designed to be less over-stimulating for sensitive viewers and young children.

Unique Things to do in New York City, New York: Nitehawk Cinema

The menu is also highly inclusive, with many vegan and gluten-free options. You’ll also find dinner and drink specials tied to the theater’s current film selections.

Nitehawk hosts different film series throughout the year, from “Nostalgia, Ultra,” which shows your childhood favorites, to “A Few Goodman,” a collection of films starting the always incredible John Goodman. One of the best times to visit Nitehawk, though, is in March for its annual Short Films Festival.

There you have it—the 15 best things to do in New York City. What’s your favorite thing to do in NYC? Drop us a note and let us know!

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About the Author

  • Jacqueline Gualtieri

    Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.

    When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.

    Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.

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