Are you heading to New York City for the first time? You’ll definitely want to check out these 10 tips plus my ultimate New York City 4 day itinerary!
First Time to New York City
My husband and I love to travel. We spent our honeymoon in Hong Kong and Thailand. We’ve explored Europe with (and without) our kids.
But, when it comes to the U.S., we really haven’t been too many places. New York City has been on my travel bucket list since I was in high school.
So, when my Mom offered to watch the kids so my husband and I could go on a kid-free getaway, I started planning our New York City 4 day itinerary! May contain affiliate links.
Where to Stay in New York City for the First Time
Since this was our first trip to New York City, we wanted to stay somewhere convenient. We only had 4 days to explore NYC and we wanted to make the most of our time.
Because I love to research before our trips, I heard to avoid Times Square (too noisy) and anywhere outside Manhattan (too far away.)
The SoHo area sounded like the best bet for us. There are lots of restaurants there and it’s so close to many New York City attractions. So, after looking for hotel deals in NYC, I landed on the Arlo SoHo.
We got to the Arlo SoHo hotel around 5:30pm and made our way to our room. I’d been warned that hotels in NYC are very small, so I wasn’t surprised to see the tight space. I mean, I had to slide next to the TV to get to the other side of the bed.
We’ve had hotel rooms in Europe that seemed spacious compared!
But, the view from our room was awesome! While we didn’t see the NYC skyline, we did get to see the gorgeous patio of the Meat + 3 restaurant, complete with tents! And there was a cool mural on the wall. We definitely got the New York City vibe at the Arlo SoHo.
Oh, and the coffee we got in the lobby is possibly the best latte I’ve ever had. And I’m from Seattle.
Where to Stay in New York City with Kids
When we bring our kids to New York City, my husband and I will probably stay in Brooklyn. It definitely has a family-friendly vibe.
Our thought is that we’d go into the “city” for morning adventures and then head back to Brooklyn to relax and play.
New York City 4 Day Itinerary
DAY 1: PHOTO SHOOT, WALKING TOUR + TV SHOW TAPING
FLYTOGRAPHER PHOTOSHOOT IN DUMBO
I’m a huge fan of Flytographer. It’s a company that connects travelers with local photographers. It’s awesome for families, couples and solo travelers.
Last year, we worked with Olga for a family photo shoot in Paris and Marie for a multi-generational photo shoot in Maui. So, when they had a Black Friday deal, I quickly bought one to use on our first trip to New York City.
We went through the portfolios of the New York City photographers (and there were a lot!) and chose Armando. He liked to shoot in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn.
After looking through his portfolio of photos in DUMBO, we realized that’s where many of the classic NYC photo spots are. So, that’s where we wanted our photos, too!
Armando was amazing! We texted the day prior. The morning of, he was stuck in traffic, so we talked on the phone a bit and met up with him at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. That’s just one of the many amazing ice cream shops in New York!
We took some photos there, then walked around a bit to get closer to the water. There were a ton of brides doing photos all over Brooklyn.
At one point, Armando stopped to show us a photo he’d taken that included Jason Sudekis and Olivia Wilde and family in the same spot we were standing.
Then, we hit up an popular intersection for an iconic shot of the Manhattan Bridge. Since Armando shoots there all the time, he knew exactly where we should stand for the ultimate photo.
While other tourists were waiting in line to get a selfie, we were in and out of there in mere minutes.
He asked us if we wanted any graffiti shots. We thought, why not? Expecting spray painted scribbles, we were shocked when he brought us to a beautiful, brightly colored mural.
Since he knows the area so well, he knew exactly where the street art is and is up to date when new work appears.
And, we even spent extra time here so he could try to get a taxi in our shot to round out our New York City photo shoot!
Check out this great service and we both get $25 if you use my Flytographer coupon code CODE7872 or simply use this link.
BIG APPLE GREETER WALKING TOUR OF BROOKLYN
One of the coolest things we did on our trip to Paris last year was a Paris Greeters walking tour. We got to meet Patrick and he walked us around his neighborhood while entertaining our little boys. It was a very memorable activity for our family.
So, when I saw there was NYC version, I jumped at it. And since there are so many things to do in Brooklyn, we figured it would be best to explore with a local.
Big Apple Greeter runs free, private walks all over New York City. They don’t consider what they do an official “tour.” It’s more like when a friend takes you around their city when you visit.
And their greeters aren’t professional tour guides. They are just people who are passionate about NYC and welcoming visitors to their city.
You can find out how to request a Big Apple Greeter walk here.
We found out about 2 months before our trip the date/time of our tour. Unfortunately, we had already booked a tour during that time frame.
So we were thrilled that we were re-matched for a date/time that worked better for our schedule.
Our greeter Jeff started emailing with me about a month before our trip. He was really flexible about where to meet us and what we’d like to see.
Then, he created a custom walk for us to do after our Flytographer photo shoot.
After we sat down with Jeff to talk about the Brooklyn Bridge and the history of the area, we decided to get some lunch. We had our first taste of NYC pizza at Juliana’s Pizza.
He told us the funny backstory of this place while we ate. And then we talked about our families and our lives.
With our bellies full, we headed to the promenade and walked around Brooklyn Heights. He told us about a lot of the historical homes and buildings.
And he also talked about what’s going on in Brooklyn today. It was a great mix of history, current news, and amazing scenery!
Since Jeff knew we had tickets to Late Night with Seth Meyers, he rode the subway back with us so we could head to our hotel and drop off our cameras.
LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS
After attending a taping of The Late Late Show with James Corden in Los Angeles a few months ago, I was determined to get tickets to a New York City taping.
Since we love Seth Meyers, we decided to see if we could get tickets to Late Night with Seth Meyers. I did the same process of logging into 1iota and requesting tickets as soon as they were released.
Yes, I set an alarm on my phone so I could be first in line.
I have no idea how they select who gets tickets. We were put on a wait list as soon as I requested tickets. Then, a couple weeks before our trip, I got the email that our tickets were confirmed!
The whole experience was really fun! The show is taped at Rockerfeller Center. So, all the waiting happens indoors (yay!) and the waiting area features plush couches and fun video clips.
We played a few games and then headed into the set.
We sat on the right side of the audience about halfway up. Seth Meyers came out and did a mini monologue for us that was hysterical! And after a quick song from the band, the show started taping.
The coolest part is that Seth Meyers came into the audience and answered questions for about 10 minutes off-camera. His answers felt really sincere and it seemed like he was genuinely excited that he got to meet new people every night.
We left feeling like this was such a hip way to end our first full day in New York City!
DAY 2: NEW YORK CITY IN A DAY TOUR + BROADWAY PLAY
If you don’t already have theatre tickets booked, head to the TKTS booth early in the morning or use an app like Today Tix to get discounted Broadway tickets.
REAL NEW YORK TOURS
We chose do to this New York City in a Day tour because it featured most of the classic New York City sights that we wanted to see on our first trip to New York City.
While we could have done it on our own, I figured this would save us time and stress. I was right!
This New York City sightseeing tour had about 12 people total. It was all adults, but I know they allow kids.
But, if you are visiting New York City with young children, this tour might move too quickly and be too long for you. I’d suggest this one instead.
In this 6.5 hour tour, we trekked all over Manhattan by walking and using the subway. We buzzed through Times Square, SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, Wall Street, the World Trade Center site, Greenwich Village, and Central Park.
Our seasoned New York City tour guide told us interesting facts and showed us details on buildings we wouldn’t have noticed on our own.
I’m glad we did this early in the trip because we had the energy and stamina to keep up! We ended up walking almost 10 miles during the tour.
By the end of the tour, we were very comfortable using the subway on our own and definitely felt like we saw a lot more than we would have on our own.
The tour ended in Central Park, which is a nice spot to explore on your own. But, we had tickets to a Broadway play. So, we hopped on the subway back to our hotel so we could rest and change our clothes.
BROADWAY SHOW: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
We booked tickets on the Today Tix app and met the Today Tix staff member right in front of the theatre about 45 minutes before the show to pick up our tickets.
He was easy to find and the whole process took less than a minute.
This may be the funniest play I’ve ever seen. The show starts as the audience makes their way to their seats. You’ll see some stage hands fixing up the stage and walking through the audience asking questions.
As it gets closer to curtain, it’s clear they are all part of the production.
So, the plot of The Play the Goes Wrong is simple. It’s a play within a play. It’s opening night of The Murder at Haversham Manor and everything that can go wrong, does.
The leading lady is knocked unconscious in the first act and the stage manager has to step in and play her part. The corpse won’t stop moving. The actors forget their lines. And the set keeps falling apart.
It’s perfect for theatre enthusiasts as well as people who don’t usually enjoy plays.
We were actually telling our 4 year old about The Play That Goes Wrong while Facetiming him on our trip and I loved that he “got” why it was so funny!
I’ve been taking him to the amazing productions at Seattle Children’s Theatre and he understood why it was funny that things were going wrong.
I’m crossing my fingers it comes to Seattle so we can see it again!
DAY 3: MET MUSEUM, KATZ’S DELI, BROOKLYN BRIDGE + BROADWAY PLAY
The only thing we had planned when we woke up was The Metropolitan Museum of Art tour.
Since we had so much fun at our Broadway play the previous night, we went back onto Today Tix and got tickets for another one. Then, we grabbed coffee in our hotel lobby and took the subway to The Met.
MUSEUM HACK TOUR OF THE MET
When I originally planned our New York City 4 day itinerary, I purposely left off all museums. I knew we’d be back with our kids and we’d probably hit up a bunch of museums as a family.
But, then I heard about Museum Hack.
Basically, they lead tours that show the “un-highlights” of New York City museums. You know, the pieces that most people would walk right past. And these pieces have some crazy stories behind them!
We did The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The “Un-Highlights Tour” and it was AMAZING!
After explaining everything wrong in the painting, our tour guide Kevin had us re-enact “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
Then, he emailed it to us after the tour with a link to review them on Trip Advisor. This was a brilliant marketing move!
I don’t want to give away too much about the content of the tour. It’s really better if you go in not knowing the backstory of the pieces or what games you might play.
But, I will say that we loved the tour so much that my husband and I immediately sat down to see what tours were offered the next day.
Then, we signed up for The American Museum of Natural History: The Un-Highlights Tour right on the spot.
If you are looking for a quirky museum tour, this is it! Just make sure you understand that it truly is the “un-highlights” and not the famous museum pieces.
But, I’d encourage you to stay after this 2 hour tour to see some of the highlights!
LUNCH AT KATZ’S DELI
You know that famous diner scene from When Harry Met Sally? Yep, THAT one. It takes place here at Katz’s Deli. I’m not a huge fan of the movie, but my husband is a huge fan of pastrami, so this was on his NYC bucket list.
When we entered Katz’s Deli, we received a yellow ticket. This is so they can take your order at the counter. Then, it’s cafeteria-style seating.
However, there’s also an option to be seated at a table and have a server take your order. We chose this option. They sat us next to the nicest mother/daughter duo who were visiting from France. We were literally at the same table.
It was the best thing because we chatted while we waited for our food. They had actually spent the morning at The Met, just like us!
So, one of the reasons we trekked out to Katz’s Deli is because my husband’s parents get pastrami shipped from Katz’s Deli at least once a year.
It’s an excuse to get the family together and we all eat big pastrami sandwiches and usually watch the Seahawks play.
Since we’ve only ever tasted it heated up in the oven, we figured we should see what it tastes like fresh.
I was really happy to get the matzo ball soup. I’m not Jewish and I didn’t grow up eating matzo ball soup, but it’s basically the only clear soup that I crave. It always hits the spot. The matzo ball soup at Katz’s deli is no exception.
And I got to try Egg Cream for the first time. It’s one of those drinks that is very regional to New York. Basically it’s a fizzy chocolate milk and it was incredible!
WALKED THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
If you tell a New Yorker that you are visiting NYC for the first time, chances are they will ask you if you are planning to walk the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s one of the top free things to do in New York City.
The trick is to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan, so you can see the iconic NYC skyline.
Years ago, I remember watching an episode of “Making the Band” where P. Diddy had the band members walk the Brooklyn Bridge at night as a bonding activity.
They made it look like it took all night and they seemed so exhausted. So, naturally, I was a bit intimidated to think about it.
In reality, it was much shorter and took much less effort than I expected. And it was TOTALLY worth it! We saw a ton of tourists, but we also saw New Yorkers walking home after work. And lots of cyclists.
In hindsight, we should have done this in the morning so we wouldn’t be facing the sun as we walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan. This is especially important if you are planning on taking photos.
My Instagram feed always has at least one fashion blogger posing on the Brooklyn Bridge every day and I’m sure they are there early in the morning for the best lighting.
BROADWAY PLAY: PUFFS
My husband and I just binge-watched all the Harry Potter movies on HBO before our trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.
We tried to get tickets to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway, but tickets are very difficult to get AND it has 2 parts (that you can watch either during the matinee and evening or two consecutive evenings.)
So, we opted for the next best thing: Puffs!
Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, is a parody of Harry Potter. I like to think of it as Harry Potter fan fiction.
It’s the story of some kids who also happened to be at Hogwarts at the same time as Harry Potter. They are in Hufflepuff and they also have adventures, romances and are trying to make their mark in the world.
And don’t worry, you’ll still see Harry Potter from time to time. I mean, he’s constantly saving the school from evil. But, it’s done in a very clever way!
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you MUST see Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic! I think it’s only scheduled to run through November 2018, so see it while you can.
DAY 4: CENTRAL PARK, AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, SOUVENIR SHOPPING, STATUE OF LIBERTY + GRAND CENTRAL STATION
For our last day in New York City, we only had our American Museum of Natural History tour scheduled. We knew we wanted to hit up some bakeries for food souvenirs and then see where the day took us.
WALK THROUGH CENTRAL PARK
After grabbing coffee at the hotel, we arrived at the American Museum of Natural History much earlier than we expected. Luckily, it’s located right across the street from Central Park.
So, we took advantage and did a leisurely stroll through the park before our tour.
While we had seen a small section of Central Park on our New York City in a Day tour, we barely scratched the surface. The area across from the American Museum of Natural History is simply stunning!
I recommend bringing a camera and doing a photo walk in the morning light.
My husband pulled up a map of Central Park on his phone and we headed toward a few of the bridges. From one of the bridges, we were able to see lots of turtles swimming and sunbathing on the rocks! And we also saw people rowing boats.
UNHIGHLIGHTS TOUR OF THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Since we had such a fun time at The Met the previous day, we wanted to do another Museum Hack tour. For us, it really didn’t matter where.
So, while we hadn’t originally included exploring the American Museum of Natural History on our New York City 4 day itinerary, we quickly added it in.
I didn’t know much about the American Museum of Natural History, except that it was the setting for the movie Night at the Museum.
My kids and I watch it together and I knew it had some display cases featuring famous historical figures. Oh, and some taxidermy animals.
The American Museum of Natural History: The Un-Highlights Tour was entertaining. We found out about a lot of crazy characters involved in the museum, played a few games, and saw a lot of museum “mistakes.”
To be blunt, I think we would have been bored doing this museum on our own.
Our tour ended with our guide taking photos of all the tour guests posing as a T-Rex in front of the skeleton. I think this photo sums up the vibe of Museum Hack! We can’t wait to do more of their tours in other cities!
LUNCH AT BARNEY GREENGRASS
We really wanted to eat at a New York City bagel shop. My husband did a quick search on his phone and came up with Barney Greengrass.
It’s a smoked fish shop that’s been around since 1908. They have an extensive menu featuring smoked fish platters, sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts, and more.
My husband did the traditional bagel and lox and holy moly was it flavorful! I wasn’t as hungry, so I did the cream cheese and jelly bagel, which was also tasty.
There were a lot of locals eating lunch around us and the place had an “authentic NYC” aire.
SHOPPING FOR NYC FOOD SOUVENIRS
I’m a huge fan of bakeries. When ever I travel, I always want to try local desserts and pastries. New York City bakeries are legendary for having specialty items only found in NYC.
Being the planner I am, I did hours of research before our trip to find the top bakeries and what to order.
William Greenberg Desserts
Our first stop was William Greenberg Desserts. They are known for their black and white cookies. Having only tasted chocolate dipped shortbread cookies from Costco, I was sure they wouldn’t be my thing.
I have never been more wrong in my life!
We ordered the mini black and white cookies and they were the perfect size. The cookies are quite rich, so I wouldn’t have been able to eat a regular size. We brought back a dozen and I was able to freeze half.
They still taste amazing after being frozen. Next time, I’m bringing home even more!
I happened to be scrolling through Instagram a few months ago and came across a photo featuring the thickest chocolate chip cookie I’d ever seen. It was tagged at Levain Bakery and I immediately added it to my food souvenir list.
Ok, their walnut chocolate chip cookie is the size of a large scone! It’s one of those cookies where it takes all day to eat when you break off a piece at a time. It’s also pretty rich, but very tasty!
We ordered 4 and I froze 2 of them. They tasted pretty good after being frozen, but I did have to warm them up to soften them.
Our last stop was Recolte Bakery. In all my NYC foodie research, their Pink Lady bread kept popping up. When I read the ingredients and saw that it featured lychee, my mouth instantly watered.
Lychee is one of my favorite fruits and it’s rarely featured in anything, especially baked goods.
So, we cleaned them out of their large and mini loaves. It’s a breakfast-type bread that has strawberry, lychee, and rose flavors. I like to toast it and spread butter and eat with my morning coffee.
We froze 2 large loaves and they have thawed quite nicely.
STATEN ISLAND FERRY TO SEE STATUE OF LIBERTY
I’m a hobby genealogist and many of my ancestors immigrated through Ellis Island. The Statue of Liberty is such an iconic symbol of America.
I really wanted to do the whole Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island experience, but I knew we would do that when we came back with our kids.
But, we found out that the Staten Island Ferry cruises right past the Statue of Liberty. And it’s a free thing to do in New York City! So, we headed to the ferry terminal and took the next boat to Staten Island.
The trick is to immediately head to the right side of the boat as you enter. The ferry fills up quickly and the right side is where you’ll see the Statue of Liberty, coming from Manhattan.
You won’t get as close to the Statue of Liberty as you would with an official tour, but you’ll definitely see her in all her glory!
DINNER AT BENJAMIN STEAK HOUSE
My husband loves a good steak house. Our friend is a native New Yorker and he recommended we try to get reservations at Peter Luger in Brooklyn about 2 months before our trip.
We called and called and kept getting busy signals (who knew that was still a thing?) When we finally got through, we were told to call back in 2 weeks. But then we were never able to get through again.
When we told this to Jeff on our Big Apple Greeter walk, he recommended we try Benjamin Steak House. It’s a Peter Luger derivative located somewhat near Grand Central Terminal.
I’m not normally a huge steak eater, but holy moly was this place incredible! They also had the best seared brussels sprouts I’ve ever tasted! If you are looking for a memorable (and spendy) date night dinner, this is the place to go!
GRAND CENTRAL TERMINAL
During dinner, we realized that we had a few souvenirs for our 4 year old, but hadn’t picked up anything for our toddler. I knew he’d love a little NYC taxi toy. The Mom Guilt set in and we decided we needed to find a souvenir shop.
We asked the staff at Benjamin Steakhouse about the nearest place that sells New York City souvenirs and they suggested Grand Central Terminal. So, we walked over there.
I’d seen Grand Central Terminal in movies but was not prepared to be in awe of the sheer massiveness. I felt like a movie star walking down the staircase into this historical landmark.
Besides it being an actual train station, there are lots of restaurants, shops and even a produce market.
By the time we got there, most of the shops were closed. It was a pity because there were quite a few I wanted to explore!
So, we hopped on the subway to Times Square and found a little yellow taxi car for our toddler. It is a HUGE hit and I’m so happy we brought it back for him!
10 Tips for Visiting New York City for the First Time
1. STAY IN MANHATTAN
While we enjoyed exploring Brooklyn, it’s about a 25 minute subway ride into Manhattan. And if you want to go during rush hour, the subway will be packed.
It’s a lot easier to stay in Manhattan, especially if you are short on time and want to see as much as possible.
2. MAKE A PLAN
Before your trip, think about what you want to see in New York City. Then, figure out where everything is located.
Even though you can get just about anywhere on the subway, it can still eat up some time. Instead, focus on one area at a time and do all the activities that are nearby.
And come up with a few alternate plans just in case the weather doesn’t cooperate or you don’t have the energy for your original plan.
Even if you aren’t a planner, jot down some general ideas. New York City is HUGE and the possibilities are endless. You don’t want to waste time trying to figure out where to go next.
And don’t feel like you have to try to see everything (or attractions you aren’t interested in.)
3. GET A SUBWAY PASS
While we used taxis from time to time, we mostly relied on the subway. It’s easiest to just get a pass so you don’t have to buy tickets each time you want to use the subway. You can buy them at the subway station.
4. GO TO A SHOW
I feel like NYC has a Broadway show for everyone. You don’t have to be a theatre enthusiast to enjoy the shows. And I learned that you don’t have to dress up to attend (although I think you should try to look nice.)
5. HIRE A PHOTOGRAPHER
If this is a special trip, or you just want some nice photos in New York City, hire a photographer. We had good luck with Flytographer, but you can also find some good ones online or through Instagram.
My husband and I both enjoy taking photos on our trips, but we wouldn’t have known where to go for the best photo ops in NYC.
6. BOOK A TOUR (OR TWO OR THREE!)
I think the easiest way to explore New York City is with a tour. Guides can quickly navigate the subway system and give you a lay of the land.
If you like group tours, I recommend doing the New York City in a Day tour on your first full day. You’ll see most of the main NYC attractions in Manhattan quickly. Then, you can decide if you want to go back and spend more time at any of them.
Plus, you’ll get a lot of experience with the subway system so you can do it on your own.
If you have some lead time, try to get a Big Apple Greeter walk. These are free, private, guided walks with volunteer “greeters” who are passionate about NYC.
You can choose to see the top attractions in New York City, or take time to really explore a neighborhood. Either way, it’s an amazing opportunity to explore the city and really get to know a New Yorker.
And if you are planning on visiting The Met or The American Museum of Natural History, I highly suggest you book a Museum Hack tour. It’s a fun, energizing way to explore the museums while learning more interesting things than you would with a simple tour.
They even have tours that involve wine!
7. EAT EAT EAT
New York City has some of the best restaurants in the world. I urge you not to waste a meal at McDonalds or Pizza Hut. Instead, grab a slice of authentic NYC pizza, enjoy a bagel, and check out the bakeries.
And if you MUST eat fast food, at least pick one you can’t find at home.
8. SEE TIMES SQUARE AND THEN LEAVE
For a first trip to New York City, it’s worth standing in the middle of Times Square and looking around at the flashing signs and tall buildings. But, it’s one big tourist trap.
I love touristy things, but I hated every moment of being in Times Square. It’s full of other tourists and people trying to sell things to tourists.
And if you are planning on seeing a Broadway show, you’ll already be in the area so there’s no need to plan an additional trip here.
9. LEAVE ROOM FOR SPONTANEITY
While I am a thorough planner, I also wanted to make sure we had some breathing room in our New York City itinerary.
I’m glad we had room to add in another Museum Hack tour, walk the Brooklyn Bridge, see the Statue of Liberty, and get discounted Broadway tickets.
10. UBER TO THE AIRPORT
While we had no problem taking the train and then a taxi from Newark Airport with our luggage, going back was another story.
If you have an early flight, you won’t want to be in the train station. It can be a scary place. And even if your flight is later in the day, you will probably be so wiped from all the walking that you won’t have the energy to haul your luggage on public transportation.
We found that Uber was cheaper than a taxi and it saved us a lot of stress!
Thanks to Museum Hack and Real New York Tours for providing tickets for review purposes. All opinions are my own.
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