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Things to Do in New York Before a Cruise

Dori Saltzman

Last updated
Oct 10, 2019

Time Square
Time Square at Night (photo: PRILL/Shutterstock)

The borough of Manhattan in New York City is dominated by a skyline of cloud-high towers and an unparalleled array of historical landmarks, cultural attractions and first-rate dining.

Its diversity shines as bright as the high-voltage hues of Times Square, and its busy streets are dusted with an urban mix of museums, restaurants, shopping districts and more than a generously irresistible amount of compelling chaos.

With so much to see and more than enough activities to choose from, why not consider a adding a couple of days in Manhattan before or after you set sail?

If you've never been to The City (as it's lovingly called by those who live in and around it), we've put together a sample two-day itinerary, with three different options for the first day, which will take you to most of the must-see sites, as well as a few of our slightly off-the-beaten-path favorites.

Editor's note: Although the suggested itineraries are jam-packed, they come nowhere near hitting all of the City's must-visit sites.

Breakfast: Whether your hotel is in Chelsea, Hell's Kitchen or the Upper East Side, there's a deli within walking distance -- and we mean a two-minute walk, tops. Do as many of the locals do, and order a toasted bagel with your favorite cream cheese for breakfast. Then squeeze into a seat (stools and chairs are at a premium in this city of sky-high rents), and watch while the kaleidoscope of New York City locals rushes in and out on its way to work.

Day One

Hop-on, Hop-off/Empire State Building/Fifth Avenue/Broadway

Morning: Get your bearings via a hop-on, hop-off double-decker bus tour. You've got several choices, including City Sights NY, Big Bus New York and Gray Line, but they all pretty much run the same routes. Spend the morning on the bus, seeing Manhattan from top to bottom. (You might have to change buses to get from an uptown loop to a downtown loop.) Pre-purchase your tickets, or buy them in Times Square and start there; once you've seen it all, get off at the Empire State Building.

Empire State Building
Empire State Building (photo: Manuel Hurtado/Shutterstock)

Lunch: When you've disembarked your bus near the Empire State's Building, you'll want to grab some food. If you don't want to wait any longer before getting up to the top of the Empire State Building, you can eat at the (overpriced) cafe on the observation deck, but keep in mind it could take 30 to 45 minutes to get to the top, even with the Express Pass. We recommend waiting just a bit longer and visiting a nearby restaurant. Choices include Stella 34 Trattoria on the 6th Floor inside Macy's (34th St. between 6th and 7th aves. -- just don't stop to shop!), Parker & Quinn inside the Refinery Hotel (W. 39th St.) or The Breslin gastropub (W. 29th St.).

Afternoon: Give yourself two to four hours to visit the Empire State Building. To save a little time, skip the ticket line by buying your tickets online. You also can skip the elevator line (which takes up the most time) if you're willing to shell out 25 extra bucks for an Express Pass. Head straight to the top for stunning 360-degree views of the city. For a steep admission fee of $42 per person (or buy a combo ticket directly from SkyRide for less), you can also check out the SkyRide, a virtual helicopter tour that takes you high above New York City. (Your seats move as the helicopter swoops and turns.) You'll find SkyRide on the second floor of the Empire State Building.

When you're ready to move on, head up on Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Plaza (starts at 48th St.). You'll pass by the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library. Stop to take photos with the big lions (dubbed Patience and Fortitude), and head inside for a brief look at this architectural gem. Take a short detour to the east to step inside Grand Central Terminal (between Lexington and Vanderbilt aves.). Look up at the constellation-adorned ceiling, or stand at either end of the Oyster Bar ramp (also known as the Whispering Gallery), and whisper into the wall; you'll hear each other all the way across on the other side. If you chose to head straight up the Empire State Building without grabbing lunch, this is where you should stop to eat. Near Rockefeller Plaza, you'll also find St. Patrick's Cathedral (5th Ave. and 51st St.).

After walking around and exploring this part of Manhattan, you might like to reward yourself with a chocolatey treat from Serendipity 3 (E. 60th St. between 2nd and 3rd aves.). Made famous in the 2001 film of the same name, this small eatery can get quite crowded; if you're not up for risking yet another wait, skip it.

Dinner: Head to the Theater District for dinner. ( can help you decide where you want to go, there are just too many great choices for us to recommend just a few.) If you want a full-on tourist experience, wait for a table at Carnegie Deli. It's quintessentially New York.

Evening: If this is your first time in New York City and you've only got one or two nights, you really must see a Broadway (or off-Broadway) show. For most Broadway productions you'll need to purchase your tickets well in advance of your visit. Some concierges at the highest-end hotels are able to get last-minute tickets, but don't count on it. Even Off-Broadway tickets aren't always available for the night of, though you've got a better chance of snagging a last-minute ticket. Many theaters' ticket booths offer student discounts or standing room tickets for discounted prices on the day of each performance. If you don't mind waiting in line, you can also check out the TKTS booth (Broadway and 47th St.) for discounted same-day tickets.

Empire State Building/Fifth Avenue/Art Museums/Lincoln Center

Morning: Don't want to waste time on a hop-on, hop-off bus? Go straight to the Empire State Building. You'll find it's less crowded between the hours of 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Don't forget to check out the exhibits about the building of this iconic structure and its sustainability efforts.

Plan about two hours for your visit to the Empire State Building. When you're ready to move on, head up on Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Plaza (starts at 48th St.). You'll pass by the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library; head inside for a brief look at this architectural gem. Take a short detour to the east to step inside Grand Central Terminal (between Lexington and Vanderbilt aves.). Look up at the constellation-adorned ceiling, or stand at either end of the Oyster Bar ramp (also known as the Whispering Gallery), and whisper into the wall; you'll hear each other all the way across on the other side. Before you stop for a bite to eat near Rockefeller Plaza (or right after), stop in at St. Patrick's Cathedral (5th Ave. and 51st St.) for a peak at this marvel of Gothic Revival architecture.

Lunch: Restaurants inside Rock Center tend to be a bit pricey, so we recommend a few surrounding places for good eats that won't break the bank. Choices include: the usually crowded Menchanko-Tei for cheap but tasty Japanese noodle and dumpling dishes (E. 45th St.) and the unpretentious Burger Joint inside the Le Parker Meridien hotel for simple but satisfying burgers. There are also plenty of food trucks/carts around; grab your favorite dish and a bench in Rock Center, and just watch the crowds go by (or all the slipping and falling at the Rock Center Ice Rink if you're visiting in winter).

Afternoon: After a morning spent exploring some of New York City's architectural treasures, it's time to see what all the art buzz is about. Sticking to Fifth Avenue, head uptown for your choice of several of New York City's bests museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (at 53rd St.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at 82nd St.) and the Guggenheim (at 89th St.). Choose one, and browse some of the world's finest modern or classical art until you can't stand anymore.

Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center (photo: Mike Liu/Shutterstock)

Dinner: While you'll find a huge selection of restaurants within just a few square blocks of the Theater District, it's not the only neighborhood in town with delicious eats. From Fifth Avenue, head west to the Upper West Side. or can help you decide where you want to go. While you're in the area, check out one Zabar's, one of the city's most famous groceries (Broadway and 80th St.). They've got a small cafe, but it closes at 7 p.m. most days.

Evening: What's better after an afternoon of museum hopping than an evening of fine performing arts? After dinner, head over to Lincoln Center, where you'll find the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, among several others. As with Broadway, you'll need to purchase tickets for any performance well in advance of your arrival to New York City. Summer visitors might want to check out Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night Swing, a series of five to seven inexpensive outdoor dance parties, featuring everything from salsa to disco.

Roosevelt Island Tram/Art Museum/Central Park/Greenwich and East Villages/Clubbing

Morning: The Empire State Building does afford some of the most magnificent views of New York City, but it is touristy. You can get similar views at the Top of the Rock Observation Deck in Rockefeller Center or -- and this is our favorite alternative -- head over to 59th St. and 2nd Ave., and hop on the Roosevelt Island aerial tram. The tram spans the East River, connecting the small, residential Roosevelt Island with Manhattan. You'll get great views of the city, and it only costs as much as a subway ride. Once on Roosevelt Island, you can either hop back on the tram and return to Manhattan or go for a walk along the island to see the Four Freedoms Park and the Gothic lighthouse at the island's northern tip. You won't need more than an hour on Roosevelt Island if you choose to explore.

From Roosevelt Island, head over to Fifth Ave. for your choice of several of New York City's best museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (at 53rd St.), the Frick Collection (70th St. between 5th and Madison Aves.), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (at 82nd St.) and the Guggenheim (at 89th St.). Choose one, and browse some of the world's finest modern or classical art until you're ready for lunch.

Lunch: If you're planning on spending the rest of the day museum hopping around Fifth Avenue, you might want to just pick one of the museum cafes. They're a bit overpriced, but they are convenient. Grabbing a bit to eat outside of the museums will require an up-to-15-minute walk to the east. Bistango (E. 50th St. between Lexington and 3rd Aves.) is an Italian eatery that has a nice gluten-free selection. Fans of Greek cuisine can try Ithika (E. 86th near 2nd Ave.).

Afternoon: Keep on exploring art -- you really can't see it all in a day -- or head over to Central Park to explore New York City's outdoor wonderland. Rent a paddleboat on Central Park's Lake, check out the larger-than-life Alice in Wonderland statues, visit the critters at the Central Park Zoo, relive your childhood on the Friedsam Memorial Carousel, marvel at the Great Lawn, take in the full Central Park vista from Belvedere Castle, or go bird-watching in the Ramble. You can also take a variety of free or for-fee tours of the park. We highly recommend the tour of Seneca Village, which was a community of predominantly African-American property owners in the 1800s.

Dinner: You'll find few restaurants along Central Park West or Central Park East. We recommend heading to the Upper West Side or Theater District for a large selection of options. Or, if you're ready for a bit of New York City's famous edginess, head downtown to Greenwich Village or the East Village for dinner with a side of people-watching. One option is Gotham Bar & Grill, a West Village institution for 25 years. It was named as Zagat's Best American Restaurant in NYC and Best (overall) Restaurant in Greenwich Village for 2015.

Evening: Now that you're hanging in Manhattan's funkiest neighborhoods, it's time to check out the nightlife. You'll find some of the City's most legendary clubs there, particularly in the East Village. Every Thursday and Saturday night, the iconic Pyramic Club (Avenue A between 6th and 7th sts.) spins the best 80s tracks. Webster Hall (11th St. between 3rd and 4th aves.), another famous East Village dance club, is open most nights for concerts; regular club nights are Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Multiple floors provide for a variety of music styles, though house music dominates. Also in the East Village, you'll find the notorious Coyote Ugly, made famous in the film of the same name. Put aside all inhibitions, and be prepared for women dancing on the bar, throwing bras and singing karaoke.

Day Two

We're leaving you with a little more flexibility for day two. We've got one suggestion for the morning and then several suggestions for how you can spend the rest of the day. We'll leave finding lunch and dinner up to you, depending on where you've decided to spend your afternoon., and are your go-to resources for finding eateries that meet your needs.

Breakfast: After a full day of touring, we wouldn't blame you if you just wanted to order in room service or hit the hotel's restaurant (especially if breakfast is included), but don't forget that delis make a mean egg and cheese on a bagel. Or try a New York City diner for an omelet or pancakes.

9/11 Memorial
9/11 Memorial (photo: MISHELLA/Shutterstock)

Morning: Head downtown for a somber visit to the 9/11 Memorial and 9/11 Memorial Museum (three entrances at Liberty and Greenwich sts., Liberty and West sts. and West and Fulton sts.). The memorial is located on the site of the former World Trade Center complex. It features two large waterfalls and reflecting pools, each about an acre in size, set within the footprints of the original Twin Towers. Admission to the memorial is free.

The Museum provides a growing collection of photographs, artifacts, video and audio tapes, personal effects and so much more to tell the story of that tragic day. Divided into several exhibits, the most difficult one is the Memorial Exhibition, which features portraits of almost 3,000 men, women and children who died. There is a charge for the museum; tickets are for a specific date and time. You must, must, must (we really can't stress that enough) purchase your tickets ahead of time. The furthest in advance you can buy the ticket is three months, and they sell quickly; don't wait.  Allow around two hours for visiting the Memorial and Museum.

While you're in the area, don't forget to stop into St. Paul's Chapel (Broadway near Vesey St.), where you'll find a small tribute to the rescue workers who came to New York City to help. The 9/11 Tribute Center (on Liberty St. near Church St.) also is in the area. This Center provides a visual timeline, honors the first responders and those that spent months cleaning up the site and shares personal tributes from families of those who died. You'll often find volunteers on hand to tell stories of survival, rescue and loss.

The Rest of Your Day:

After visiting the 9/11 memorials and museum, you've got a couple of options for the rest of your day.

Battery Park/Statue of Liberty/Staten Island Ferry: Stay downtown, and walk over to Battery Park. There you'll find 25 acres of landscaped park with beautiful waterfront views, as well as numerous monuments and memorials, some dating back as far as 1817. It's a peaceful place to contemplate the world after your heavy visit to the 9/11 Memorial and Memorial Museum.

From there, you can also catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The wait for the ferry can be pretty long, so you might want to grab some food to go from a gourmet deli near the current World Trade Center or a street vendor, as you'll most likely be waiting through the lunch hour. (You can pre-purchase your tickets to cut down on the wait.) Trips to the Statue take about two to three hours (without the wait). Free ranger-led tours are always available at the Statue of Liberty; look for signs at the base of the Statue. If you want to do both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, that'll be the rest of your day, as it'll take a good five to six hours.

If you don't want to spend time in line and don't feel the need to go inside the Statue, you can take the Staten Island Ferry instead. It's the same price as a subway ride, and it'll take you an hour to an hour and half to go across and back. The benefit of the Ferry is that it goes right past the Statue of Liberty, making for great photo ops. For the rest of the day, see what else we suggest below.

Shopping: Hit the shops in SoHo, Nolita, Greenwhich Village and the East Village for single-designer showrooms, trendy accessory boutiques and one-of-a-kind home furnishings and artwork. For upscale department shopping, head to Fifth Avenue (around 57th St.) or Madison Avenue (from 57th to 79th sts.).

High Line/United Nations: Head north from Battery Park to the Meatpacking District and the elevated High Line (starts at Gansevoort and Washington sts.) for a 1.5-mile-long walk through gardens of wildflowers high above the busy traffic zipping along below you. You'll descend at W. 34th St. not far from Macy's.

From there, we recommend jumping on the subway and heading east to Grand Central Station, then walking over to the United Nations (46th St. at 1st Ave.) for a visit. Don't skip the 45-minute tour.

Downtown/South Street Seaport Stay downtown, and head to the South Street Seaport, adjacent to the Financial District. (From Battery Park, walk along Water St. to get there.) The historic harbor features some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan and is home to the former Fulton Fish Market, the Seaport Museum and lots of stores and restaurants.

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