New York – one of the most iconic cities in the world. Over my next few posts I’m going to bring you some NYC guides, starting with the perfect 2 day itinerary in New York for first timers. If you have longer than 2 days in the city, check out my extension recommendations at the end of the post below.
Now let me start by saying – there is absolutely no way you can see everything New York has to offer in 2 days. But you can get round the majority of the main sites if you pack some really comfortable shoes and plan for full on long days sightseeing.
A great plan to try and maximise your time is to minimise your time travelling between destinations in Manhattan – I therefore suggest splitting your days in to two areas – Day 1 in Midtown and Day 2 in Lower Manhattan. It may also be worth buying an Explorer Pass which can get you up to 50% off some major sites in this itinerary including The Empire State Building and Top of the Rock.
New York can be pretty overwhelming for anyone, let alone on the first time visit. There are so many people, and so much noise, and it’s just XXL on everything. It takes a patience, positivity and lots of deep breaths to tackle this mega city head on. But here we go…
Day 1 (Midtown Manhattan)
A. Central Park (1 hour)
Start your day at the most northern point on this itinerary, and start it in style! Central Park is one of the main destinations on anyone’s list when visiting New York. As you only have two days in the city, I recommend a round walk to the main area of the park – in the direction of Bethesda Fountain and back again.
If you want a bit of extra time here (and to scrap something else on the list), you could rent a row boat out across the lake, take a horse and carriage ride through the park, or even visit the park’s zoo.
B. Stroll down 5th Avenue (1 hour)
From the south east corner of Central Park, you can exit directly on to 5th Avenue – the world famous shopping street. Stroll down past Trump Tower, browse in Tiffany’s or drool at handbags in Michael Kors.
C. St Patrick’s Cathedral (30 minutes)
On 5th Avenue, you will reach St Patrick’s Cathedral – the last thing you expect to come across on this street! Considered one of the most visibile symbols of Catholicism in the USA, it’s neo-gothic architecture is impressive and well worth a visit.
D. Rockefeller Center (1.5 hours incl. lunch)
Right opposite the church, you will see the Atlas Statue at the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. This New York icon is home to the iconic Christmas tree and ice skating rink in winter, and houses hundreds of shops, eateries and art. If you’re particularly interested in the Rockefeller, you can even take a guided tour with a historian to learn all about the art work and architecture. For me though, the highlight here is the observation deck – Top of the Rock.
The Rockfeller Center is also a great place to grab something to eat – and if you’re not hungry just yet, you can always do Top of the Rock first and choose any restaurant to take your fancy around the area.
E. Top of the Rock (2 hours)
Top of the Rock is the location of the absolutely iconic Manhattan skyline view with the Empire State Building in it. This was one of my favourite experiences on my first trip to New York.
The entrance to TOTR is on 50th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and it’s open from 8am to 12am (last lift up at 11pm). The queues can get quite long so I do recommend booking tickets in advance given you’re on a tight time frame! That said, not too far in advance (as I made the mistake of doing for a misty, low visibility day and had to re-visit). The views are absolutely stunning.
F. Times Square (1-2 hours)
Times Square comes with a warning. As someone who doesn’t always like crowds, this was a really intense and stressful experience for me. I went with the pre-conception I’d look in the Disney store, and get some M&Ms and see all the billboards and fairy lights and sparkles. Forget that image and prepare yourself for carnage.
I could barely get in the Disney shop door, let alone to any of the displays; the M&M world queue was out of the door and I gave up, and I was accosted to buy things by more people than I could count. In the end, I ended up spending 2 hours visiting Gulliver’s Gate – an amazing miniature world which had barely anyone in it and lots of space. Perfect.
I also think there is an argument that Times Square is more beautiful illuminated at dusk and night than in the day – if you want to see it like that, perhaps instead of doing the Empire State Building (below), you could instead choose to come to Times Square at dusk, then head to Boradway to watch a show as the perfect end to the day.
G. New York Public Library (1 hour – optional if you have time/energy)
From Times Square head to the New York Public Library. Depending on how much time you have at this point, touring the library is well worth it. They offer guided tours twice a day, or an audio guide which takes you through the building’s incredible history.
Did you know the real life Winnie the Pooh was here? I don’t know if he’s big in the US, but he’s huge in the UK – and I couldn’t visit New York without seeing him. Another highlight was the Rose Reading Room which was just stunning.
H. Grand Central Station (1 hour)
Another stunning piece of architecture is Grand Central Station. This beaux arts landmark is absolutely lovely to stroll around – the terminal is beautiful, even the platform signs are a treat. And it’s more than just a station – it’s also home to lots of shops and fine eateries. Shout out to Frankie’s Dogs for the amazing, authentic NYC hot dogs.
I. Empire State Building at night (2 hours)
After picking a spot for dinner, it’s time to visit another New York landmark – the Empire State Building. If you’ve already done Top of the Rock, then you’ll have seen the famous skyline so it’s not strictly necessary – but the skyline can be even more magical at night, and in my humble opinion no first time trip is complete without coming here.
Again if you do choose to go, I recommend buying a ticket online to skip the queues. Like TOTR, even with a pre-booked ticket the queues to enter can get pretty long, so be prepared to wait a bit. I timed my visit to watch the sunset and then see the night lights of NYC – but was still queuing at sunset and just got the night lights! Still pretty beautiful though, don’t you think?
After all of that, you will be ready for bed – so sleep well. It’s another jam packed day tomorrow!
Day 2 (Lower Manhattan)
A. Battery Park (1.5 hours incl. breakfast)
Today, the day starts right in the southern tip of Manhattan – Battery Park. This is the area where you can catch the ferry over to Ellis Island to see the Statue of Liberty up close. Unfortunately, this also takes about 5 hours, so on a two day time frame, there just isn’t time if you want to take in some of the other sites. Battery Park is the compromise as it offers a nice view out to Lady Liberty from a distance. It’s also home to some good places to grab breakfast or some juice.
That said, I do think the Statue of Liberty is the main New York icon this itinerary doesn’t do justice, and if you do have an extra day, my suggestion would be to take to the water – either visiting Ellis Island itself if you can spare significant time, or by jumping on a Circle Line Cruise (please see my Chelsea post HERE for more information) which takes about 1.5 hours and enables you to see Liberty up close from the water.
B. Charging Bull (30 minutes)
The charging bull is just north of Battery Park. If you can get a photo of yourself with the bull, you’re doing better than me. He’s a Wall Street icon, but he’s also a tourist magnet and hoards of people pile off and on coaches all day just to touch him. I couldn’t even get near! And settled for the other statue there – Fearless Girl. I liked her more anyway.
C. Wall Street and NYSE (30 minutes)
Home to the Federal Reserve and the Stock exchange, Wall Street is a must walk along street on a first time visit to New York. There are guided tours of the area which cover its history, but again unless it’s a particular interest – there probably just isn’t time to do it in depth if you’re on a time budget.
D. 9/11 memorial and museum (3 hours)
This museum had me lost for words. It tells the story of the build up to, events of, and consequences of, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I was so incredibly moved, I cried (a lot), and I left with an experience that will always stay with me. The memorial pools, at the location where the twin towers previously stood, is an area for reflection and commemoration. Both the memorial and museum are beautifully done and I don’t think you can visit the city without coming here.
E. The Oculus and One WTC (1.5 hours incl. lunch)
By now, you will be needing lunch and the The Oculus, one of the newest sights in Lower Manhattan, is a must see as it operates as the World Trade Center Transportation Hub and includes over 100 eateries and shops. Alternatively if you want a more local, cheaper eat, Pisillo is an amazing sandwich shop in the area and a perfect lunchtime location.
If you have the energy, and want more endless views, you can also visit the observation deck at One World Trade Center.
F. Brooklyn Bridge (1.5 hours – there and back)
About a 15 minute walk away, you will find the Brooklyn Bridge – another of my favourite experiences in New York. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge takes about 30 minutes (plus photos) – and remember to turn around to look back at the Manhattan skyline you’re leaving behind.
G. Brooklyn Bridge Park (1 hour)
If you have the energy, Brooklyn Bridge Park is a lovely area and is a nice place to sit and admire the views back across the water to the Lower Manhattan skyline before crossing back on the bridge. You may not have the energy by this point though, as you will have covered absolutely miles following this itinerary.
Either way – at the end of this, head back to your hotel, freshen up and treat yourself to a great meal with lots of wine, enjoying your final evening in this amazing city.
If you have longer than 2 days in New York, then these would be my personal recommendations for extensions:
- Do as above, but at a more leisurely pace and in more depth. Spread the above over 3 days – spend more time doing activities in Central Park, take the tours of the Rockefeller Center, New York Public Library and Wall Street – as well as having more drink, food and rest stops. You could also add in Macy’s, the Flatiron building, or more shopping. This may then also give you enough energy to spend one evening catching a show, and the next at The Empire State Building to enable both.
- Add on a day in Chelsea (post here), which would cover taking to the water on a Lady Liberty Cruise for some great shots of the statue, grabbing brunch, exploring Chelsea Market, walking the High Line, and visiting Chelsea Piers.
- Add on a laid back day in the Lower East Side (post here), which would absorb more of New York’s culture by exploring its history of immigration at the Tenement Museum, and browsing China Town, Little Italy and other New York icons like Katz’s deli.
- Add on a day exploring some of the amazing museums New York has to offer (post coming soon) – from art, to history, to culture – this city has them all. A lot of these museums are on ‘Museum Mile’ in Uptown, so can also be combined with a more leisurely few hours in Central Park taking in more activities there.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this post helpful if you’re planning on visiting New York and don’t know where to start. Stay safe and happy travelling!