If you are planning a trip to New York and have limited time and limited finances, these are the essential sights to see. These are the places I take my own out-of-town visitors (or, at least, I suggest them). If necessary, you can pack all 12 into a single long, busy day if you wear comfortable shoes and visit them in the order listed.
By the way, if money is no object, feel free to take me to B&H Photo for a shopping spree. It’ll be fun, honest!
1. Empire State Building
King Kong went all the way to the top and so should you. Lines for the elevator to the observation deck can be veeeeery long, so make this your first stop of the day. You can buy tickets online in advance. Paid admission.
2. Rockefeller Center
An Art-Deco masterpiece in the heart of midtown, this is a giant complex of office buildings, theaters, underground pedestrian passageways and shops, created by John D. Rockefeller in 1929. Almost 300,000 people work in or visit the Center every day. In winter, an outdoor area functions as a skating rink; during the summer, the rink is transformed into a cafe. Free admission.
3. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
You don’t have to be Catholic to visit this magnificent church, located directly across the street from Rockefeller Center, which was built as “an honor to this great city.” Free admission.
4. The New York Public Library
Yes, the library. No, I’m not kidding. It is an amazing place, and free tours are sometimes available. Go inside the main branch at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street and climb the stairs to see the main reading room. Look up at the painted ceiling; you’ll never forget it. While you’re there, take a peek at the Guttenberg bible and the original Winnie the Pooh bear. Free admission.
5. Grand Central Terminal
A fantastic commuter train station crowned by a beautiful Beaux Arts structure. 500,000 commuters pass through here daily. Note the ceiling, which depicts the constellations. Don’t miss the tourist information window in the Main Concourse and splendid dining concourse on the lower level. Free admission.
6. Times Square
It isn’t a square, but it is a tourist mecca and few places are as exciting and overwhelming. The glittering, animated signs rival those in Las Vegas and, if you’re looking for tickets to Broadway shows, cheap souvenirs, pricey fast food and aggressive hucksters, this is the place to go. Many well-known brands operate massive, multi-story shops here, including McDonald’s, MTV, Swatch, Sephora, Hard Rock Cafe, Hershey’s Chocolate and Disney. Free admission.
7. The Tribute Center (plus the National September 11 Memorial & Museum)
The World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists on February 26, 1993 and destroyed on September 11, 2001. The National September 11 Memorial honors all of those who died in both terrorist attacks. The adjacent Museum explains the history of the World Trade Center, portrays the events of September 11, and displays notable artifacts salvaged from the ruins. About a block away, at 120 Liberty Street, the privately-run Tribute Center offers a guided tours of the area led by volunteers who have personal connections to 9/11. Paid admission.
8. St. Paul’s Chapel
Located directly across from the World Trade Center site, this church, built at the time of the American revolution, St. Paul’s served as a shelter for recovery workers during the extraordinary eight-month volunteer effort after the attacks of 9/11. It now contains a moving exhibit about what happened there. Free admission.
9. Staten Island Ferry
A ferry boat that goes from lower Manhattan to Staten Island and back. It is a great way to get a wonderful view of the harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Free admission.
10. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Not to be missed, the finest art museum in the US. Contains everything from a complete ancient temple (transported directly from Egypt) to stunning European paintings to a 14,000-piece collection of armor to a fantastic fashion collection. Ask at the information desk for a free tour of the highlights (takes about an hour). Paid admission (on a pay-what-you-wish basis).
11. Central Park
Adjacent to the Metropolitan Museum, this is the city’s backyard and passion. Highlights are the lake and Strawberry Fields (with its “Imagine” mosaic), built by Yoko Ono as a memorial to John Lennon. It is easy to get lost among the winding paths, so take a map with you. If you lose your way, just keep asking people how to get to Fifth Avenue. Free admission.
12. Apple Store Fifth Avenue
Yes, an Apple computer store, but what a place! The glass cube that forms the entrance was inspired by I.M. Pei’s pyramid entrance to the Louvre, and the store space itself — entirely below ground — is breathtaking. The store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Free admission.