You're finally visiting New York City. But there's a catch: you have only one day. (Hey, you've always heard that things move fast here—why not you?) You won't get to everything—that would take years. But with the right plan, a one-day visit can be a terrific introduction to NYC.
For the best day trip, it's wise to keep your adventure focused in Manhattan. While each of the five boroughs has its own personality and plenty to offer, Manhattan is centrally located and densely packed—so you can see the most there in a single day. The neighborhoods in this itinerary offer several activities clustered closely together—because we want you to get the most out of every minute.
Start at Rockefeller Center, a familiar NYC location even for many who have never been to the City—it constantly appears on TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and Today and during TV specials like the center's annual Christmas tree–lighting ceremony. If you get here early enough, you can stand outside the windows of the Today studio and wave hello to your friends back home—a perfect way to start your whirlwind tour through Manhattan and simultaneously immortalize the experience.
After your morning-show cameo, take the elevator to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck. This vantage spot opens at 8am, and you'll beat the biggest crowds if you get there at breakfast time (late at night works, too, as it closes at midnight—the elevators go upstairs until 11pm). The deck provides one of the best views of New York City's legendary skyline and cityscape, which features more than 100 buildings measuring 500 feet or taller—not to mention the Statue of Liberty, the classic American icon. When you're back down at street level, head three blocks north to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to visit one of the world's finest collections of contemporary art, ranging from painting and sculpture to film and live performance.
Next, head uptown to Central Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the massive common space is a green oasis in the middle of the big city—and perhaps the world's most famous public park. Its 843 beautifully landscaped acres host meadows, bodies of water, 20,000 or so trees, 58 miles of walking paths, 36 bridges and arches and every kind of outdoor recreational activity imaginable: picnics, ice-skating, concerts, baseball, lawn bowling, nature walks and more. It's a sight every NYC visitor should see.
East of Central Park is the Museum Mile, which may have more culture per square foot than anywhere else in the universe. Limited time means you won't be able to enjoy all seven museums on this stretch of Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side—but you should browse through at least one to get a sense of the unparalleled collection of art housed in the City. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at East 82nd Street, you can view limited-time exhibitions as well as objects in the museum's permanent collection, which consists of more than 2 million works of art that span the breadth of human history. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum features scores of modern and contemporary masterpieces (not the least of which is the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building itself). And El Museo del Barrio, at East 104th Street, showcases Caribbean, Latino and Latin American art. (Note that the Upper West Side also offers a plethora of worthy options too, including the kid-friendly American Museum of Natural History and the New-York Historical Society, the City's oldest museum.)
Subway Ride and Lower Manhattan
Next, take part in another quintessential New York City experience—a subway ride. Catch the nearest downtown train, traveling the way locals do. Find the stop closest to City Hall (one or two stops past Canal Street, depending on the subway line), where you can view the beautiful architecture of the structure, one of the nation's oldest still-functioning civic buildings. From the City Hall grounds, glance eastward at the Brooklyn Bridge, still an inspiring architectural marvel at more than 130 years old.
Harlem is the world capital of African-American culture.
Then drop by Federal Hall National Memorial, the site where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States and where the Bill of Rights was passed. (The original structure was demolished in 1812; the building standing here was built as a Customs House in 1842.) Heading a few blocks west, you can visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum: twin pools in the outline of the original World Trade Center towers serve as a preface to a museum that tells the story of the September 11 attacks. Adjacent to the site, the new One World Trade Center soars to a height of 1,776 feet, which makes it the tallest building in the western hemisphere. A hundred floors up is an observatory, with far-reaching views. Your final downtown stop is the National Museum of the American Indian, located within the historic Alexander Hamilton Customs House, where you can explore the rich history and culture of Native people in the Americas.
The last (but certainly not least) item on your one-day NYC agenda is an evening uptown in Harlem—one of the City's most vibrant neighborhoods and a world capital of African-American history and culture. If you get there early enough, drop by the Studio Museum in Harlem (it stays open till 9pm Thursdays and Fridays, and closes at 6pm on weekends). The museum highlights black artists from the United States and around the world.
Settle in at one of Harlem's eminent performing arts venues. The Apollo Theater's Amateur Night (Wednesdays at 7:30pm) is a long-standing institution that has hosted luminaries such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Harlem is also home to numerous restaurants serving delectable cuisine, helping you to recharge near the end of your fast-paced NYC primer. Among our favorites are the acclaimed Red Rooster Harlem, from celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, and The Cecil, Esquire magazine's 2014 pick for best new restaurant in America.
Your Next Visit
Now that you've been to New York City, it can't be long before you're back. For suggestions for things to in NYC on longer trips, see our three-, five- and seven-day itineraries. Before you return, check out nycgo.com's Must-See NYC and dining primer for more details on what the five boroughs have to offer.