New York City
Check out the Empire State Building -- completed in 1931 after just over one year of construction -- for a dramatic King Kong perspective on classic city views from the 86th-floor observation deck, where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan had their fateful soppy meeting in "Sleepless in Seattle" and where Cary Grant waited for Deborah Kerr in "An Affair to Remember." The Empire State Building gives you up-close-and-personal views of other enduring landmarks like the Chrysler Building. To avoid lines, come when the building first opens at 8 a.m. or purchase a VIP ticket online from services such as Viator.
A great way to familiarize yourself with the city is with a free tour from Big Apple Greeter. Knowledgeable, volunteer New York City residents will meet you at your hotel and guide you around the neighborhood(s) of your choice. These personalized experiences are available for groups of one to six people, and requests are required at least three weeks in advance. But we recommend up to eight weeks of advance notice to increase your chances of landing a greeter. The program is swamped with requests -- especially in the summer. There is a no-tipping policy, but you can donate to the organization.
The American Museum of Natural History has one of the largest collections of dinosaurs, fossils and skeletons in the world. A life-size replica of a blue whale, which towers over the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, is not to be missed. Ditto for the 563-carat Star of India sapphire and the 34-ton Ahnighito, the largest meteorite ever retrieved from the earth's surface; it is 4.5 billion years old. Of course, the Hall of Dinosaurs is a hands-down favorite for many. Definitely include the Rose Center for Earth and Space -- located next door -- in your visit; it's home to the Hayden Planetarium, which offers space shows that take you to the outer reaches of the universe.
Chinatown is a sprawling blend of tiny, winding, cobblestone back streets -- most of which are dotted with family-owned restaurants, ready to serve silky stuffed dumplings, Peking duck and crispy shrimp any time of day. Head over to Division Street and East Broadway, both slicing under the Manhattan Bridge, for a part of Chinatown where tourists seldom tread. Some of the food you see for sale will be a complete mystery. Want a guide? Check out Chinatown tours from Viator.
Ellis Island was the gateway through which more than 12 million immigrants passed between 1892 and 1954 (including Irving Berlin, Bob Hope and the von Trapp family) in their search for freedom. You can hear oral history interviews, see films and live theatrical productions, and view hundreds of photos of immigrants and exhibits of items they brought with them. The American Immigrant Wall of Honor lists the names of some 700,000 immigrants. A computer allows you to see if your family name appears anywhere on the wall. You will also have easy access to the ships' passenger manifest records through a searchable database. You can only get to Ellis Island via Statue Cruises, which offers regular service from Battery Park.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift of international friendship from France, commemorating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. The statue, which was completed in 1884, first arrived in 350 individual pieces packed within 214 crates. The dedication took place in 1886 -- 10 years after the centennial. Like Ellis Island, it's only accessible by taking a Statue Cruises ferry, departing year-round from Battery Park. Be prepared for airport-style security and long lines during the summer holidays. Crown access is limited and requires advance reservations. See Statue of Liberty tours and tickets from Viator.
The Financial District is home to high finance, power breakfasts and most of Manhattan's history. Head up the steps to the Federal Hall National Memorial, across from the Stock Exchange, to see where George Washington accepted his presidency. In an area defined by skyscraper towers and narrow, cobblestone streets, standout American icons are the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, Trinity Church, St. Paul's Chapel, the Canyon of Heroes (a section of lower Broadway, home to the famous ticker-tape parades) and -- perhaps the most recognizable -- the site of the lost World Trade Center. Visitors can read the names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks at the 9/11 Memorial, with its twin pools; the 9/11 Memorial Museum is also well worth a visit.
The Astors developed Times Square in the 1830s as a silk-stocking neighborhood, but its current name is a result of the New York Times moving there in 1905. The grime and grunge of this area were washed off by the early 1990s, making it a family destination and headquarters for the likes of Conde Nast and Reuters, along with hundreds of other companies. Times Square is most famous for its flashy neon advertising signs and the New Year's Eve ball drop. "Good Morning America" is televised from Times Square every weekday morning as a competitor to Rockefeller Center's "Today Show." With more pedestrian traffic than anywhere else in North America, it can be wall-to-wall people.
If you can stand to wait in line for a while, the TKTS booth at Times Square is an excellent source for discounted same-day tickets to Broadway and off-Broadway shows, as well as some dance and music events. Discounts are 20 to 50 percent, depending on the show or event, plus a small service charge. For shorter lines, try the South Street Seaport or downtown Brooklyn booths.
Home to one of the finest collections in the world, the Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts a wide range of artwork that span 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptian art rivals anything outside of Cairo, and the restored Greco-Roman galleries are filled with some of the most important pieces in the world. Don't forget to see Rembrandt's sketch of DaVinci's "Last Supper," Botticelli's "Annunciation" and even a living room designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Your kids will love the Arms and Armor collection, as well as the magnificent 15 B.C. Temple of Dendur -- both on the first floor. The American Wing is graced with paintings by James McNeil Whistler, Georgia O'Keeffe and John Singer Sargent; it's also where you can see the massive "George Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze.
The Frick Collection consists of a series of interconnecting galleries, housed in a fabulous setting -- the elegant former mansion of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The furnished rooms opened in 1935 to exhibit works by Constable, Gainsborough, Goya, El Greco, Rembrandt, Turner and Whistler. Also featured are French porcelains, Italian bronzes and period furniture. The audio guide is excellent.
The Guggenheim Museum is the only remaining New York City structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, though he died before it was completed in 1959. Vaguely funnel-shaped, like a modernist tornado, the museum is best experienced by taking an elevator to the top and then strolling downward, along the spiraling gallery corridors. As you descend, you'll pass Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, modern and avant-garde paintings and sculptures. Don't miss Chagall's "Green Violinist," Picasso's "Woman Ironing" and Kandinsky's "Composition 8."
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offers one of the world's best collections of 19th- and 20th-century paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, architecture, photography, film and industrial design. Artists represented include Chagall, Klee, Magritte, Dali, Stieglitz, Wyeth, Pollock and Mondrian, among others. Famous works include Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d' Avignon."
The Titanic's maiden voyage was scheduled to end at the Chelsea Piers on April 16, 1912. After the ship struck an iceberg, the 675 passengers who were rescued did arrive here on Cunard Line's Carpathia on April 20. Today, the pier's waterfront features a 28-acre sports and entertainment complex that includes a 40-lane bowling facility, a golf club, a matching set of ice rinks open year-round and more.
Set on 843 acres of city land between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and 59th and 110th Streets, Central Park is a grassy, wooded stretch of pastoral splendor. Park highlights include a zoo, Belvedere Castle (perched above Turtle Pond), Wollman Rink (a skating rink that morphs into a Victorian amusement park in the summertime) and, of course, Yoko Ono's ode to John Lennon -- Strawberry Fields. (For those who wish to see where Lennon was slain, just head out from Strawberry Fields to the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West, where you'll find the stunning Dakota apartment building where he lived.) Concerts are held in various sites throughout the park. Check CentralParkNYC.org for an events calendar.
The city's oldest residential neighborhood is Gramercy Park. From 24th Street to Union Square between Third and Fifth Avenues, it's a walking paradise -- particularly along Irving Place. The neighborhood is famous for Teddy Roosevelt (he was born at 28 East 20th Street), the Gramercy Park Hotel (11-year old John F. Kennedy lived there) and the National Arts Club, which is the city's largest Victorian mansion. Pete's Tavern also holds a place of honor as the city's oldest bar, and O. Henry is said to have written "Gift of the Magi" there.
Greenwich Village is divided into the East Village and West Village. These days, you'll find cool shops and 20-something haunts in the East Village. In the West Village, you'll stroll narrow streets dotted with 19th-century brick Federal, Greek revival and Italianate buildings. Don't miss Bleecker Street for antique browsing and Bedford Street to see the neighborhood's narrowest house at No. 75 1/2. Christopher Street's Stonewall Inn (No. 53) was the site of the Stonewall Inn uprising in June 1969 -- considered the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Check out Greenwich Village tours from Viator.
Between Chelsea and the West Village is the 150-year-old Meatpacking District. This style-setting neighborhood overflows with "Sex and the City" types, drawn like magnets to the dozens of establishments that have opened there -- including some of the latest, most trendy places to shop, dine and drink. The High Line, a popular new park built along an elevated rail line, runs from the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street.
The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1914 by Gertrude Whitney after the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined her 500-piece art collection. This well-respected institution offers frequently changing exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, film and video. The museum moved into a new Renzo Piano-designed building in the Meatpacking District in April 2015.
At the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, housed aboard an aircraft carrier, you can see two dozen planes on its flight deck, as well as the space shuttle Enterprise. Visit the adjacent U.S.S. Growler submarine -- the only guided missile submarine open to the public -- and visit the cockpit and cabin of a British Airways Concorde.
Built in grand style in the 1930s, Rockefeller Center is a marvelous Art Deco shopping and office complex, sited from 48th to 51st streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. It is perhaps most famous for its annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in early December, the Promenade with its changing plant and flower displays, and the ice skating rink, topped by a famous Paul Manship gold sculpture of Prometheus. Tours are offered of Radio City Music Hall -- or you can catch a performance.
For equally spectacular and different views than those at the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock allows you to see across the tri-state region and gives an excellent view of the city, including the Empire State Building and Central Park. Lines are shorter than those at the Empire State Building.
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is home to a number of arts organizations including the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet and the Julliard School, among others. The complex is packed with special events year-round. Tours of the center might include in-progress rehearsals.
Little Italy's streets are lined with 19th-century tenements and long-held traditions -- and Mulberry Street is considered its heart. The hugely popular Feast of San Gennaro, which begins the first Thursday after Labor Day and lasts for 10 days, is a city favorite wherein Mulberry Street is transformed into fairgrounds filled with rides, games, music and great food. Check out Little Italy tours.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum brings the immigrant story to life in restored living quarters of a tenement building on Orchard Street. The rooms belonged to Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, German Jewish and Sephardic Jewish families at different time periods. Hear their poignant tales of survival on guided tours that leave from the museum shop. Advance reservations are highly recommended.
The Morgan Library & Museum houses the vast and valuable collection -- which rivals great libraries of Europe -- that financier Pierpont Morgan began assembling in 1890. The collection includes medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, printed books (including three copies of the Gutenberg Bible), and various bindings, drawings and prints. You can check out fascinating temporary exhibits and see Pierpont's beautiful 1906 library.
The mission of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust is to educate people of all ages and backgrounds about the 20th-century Jewish experience before, during and after the Holocaust. There are thousands of photographs, artifacts and documentary films.
The Paley Center for Media is best known for its enormous video and audio library. Nearly 150,000 radio and television programs and famous commercials are available for listening and viewing. You can watch "I Love Lucy" episodes or look up more obscure relics of pop culture.
The Neue Galerie is in a 1914 Carrere & Hastings Louis XIII-style mansion that was once the Vanderbilt home. It's an opulent, world-class showcase for German and Austrian art, furniture and design from 1890 to 1940. Also offered are chamber music concerts and cabaret performances, along with the usual lectures and films.
We all know George Washington slept around, and his real-life army bed, along with thousands of other treasures, is on display at the New York Historical Society -- the city's oldest museum in continuous operation. You can also see dozens of Tiffany lamps and one of the largest collections of miniature portraits in the nation.
A wonderful place to shop, stroll and eat, the once-Bohemian area of SoHo has been gentrified into one of the most expensive and chic neighborhoods in the city -- keep your eyes open for incognito celebrities who live here. Architecturally, however, SoHo is quite distinct. Of particular note are historic, pre-Civil War, cast-iron buildings and sidewalks made of Belgian bricks (not cobblestone) and bottle glass. High-end furniture stores and fancy fashion boutiques -- especially on West Broadway, Prince, Spring and Mercer Streets -- are great for browsing, and some of the city's most elegant restaurants can be found along West Broadway and Spring Street. Check out SoHo tours.
Adjacent to SoHo is Tribeca, where cobblestone streets are lined with smart shops, glorious art galleries and some of the city's best food stops, as well as cavernous, cast-iron-fronted warehouse loft apartments. The nightlife is nearly nonstop, plus the neighborhood has its own world-class film festival -- the brainchild of actor Robert De Niro.
For fantastic views (and photo ops!), walk or bike across the Brooklyn Bridge. If you only go in one direction, we recommend going from Brooklyn to Manhattan for the best skyline views. Pedestrians have their own dedicated walkway.
If setting sail on a 19th-century schooner sounds appealing, the 11-block, historic, cobblestone South Street Seaport is the place for you. Yes, it's a bit touristy, but it's home to a world-class maritime museum with galleries and a collection of historic vessels, amid scores of restaurants and shops. The view from Pier 17 of the Brooklyn Bridge and Brooklyn Heights, across the East River, is breathtaking.
The Moorish-Romanesque 1908 Temple Emanu-El, with its vaulted roof, is one of the largest Jewish houses of worship in the world. The 2,500-seat sanctuary has a marvelous bronze ark in the shape of a Torah, decorated in spectacular mosaics by Hildreth Meiere. Be sure to note the stained-glass windows, one of which is an original work by Tiffany & Co.
Located in northern Manhattan on a four-acre stretch with stunning views of the Hudson River, it's definitely worth the trip by bus or subway to see the Cloisters. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it's devoted to the art and architecture of the European Middle Ages. See medieval French cloisters, plus a 12th-century chapter house and a Romanesque chapel. Also on display are some 5,000 works of art, including priceless unicorn tapestries and stained-glass windows.
Another branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the Met Breuer, displaying works from the 20th and 21st centuries. It's located on the Upper East Side at 75th and Madison Avenue.
The enormous and ornate Gothic-style St. Patrick's Cathedral seats up to 2,400 people. The building was designed by James Renwick and built between 1858 and 1879.
Much older than Trinity Church down the street, the English-style St. Paul's Chapel -- completed in 1766 as part of Trinity Parish -- received George Washington after he was sworn in as the first American president. Visitors may enter to see memorabilia left by police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and ordinary citizens from around the world after 9/11. (St. Paul's survived the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings across the street with no physical damage.)
Trinity Church, a Gothic-Revival structure tucked away in the heart of Manhattan's Financial District, is one of the oldest church parishes in the city. First built in 1696 and 1697, it was then considered the tallest building in America. After fires there destroyed two churches, Richard Upjohn built the current structure -- including the flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings and doors modeled after Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" in Florence, Italy -- in 1846.
The home of the world's largest international governmental organization, the United Nations, was donated by John D. Rockefeller in 1946. Made of three connecting buildings -- the boxy Dag Hammarskjold Library, the glass-walled Secretariat tower and the low-slung General Assembly -- the United Nations is considered international territory. Colorful flags of nearly 200 countries fly along First Avenue and present one of New York's best photo opportunities. Guided tours last about an hour and include a visit to the famous General Assembly Hall.
Harlem is a combination of stylish cool and spirited visuals where gentrification is old news. The atmosphere along 125th Street is Maya Angelou meets Starbucks and Old Navy. During the 1920s, Harlem enjoyed its first golden age -- the Harlem Renaissance -- when jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie played in nightspots like the Cotton Club, Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theater. Today, Harlem's historic enclaves are still beautiful and are a constant reminder of the glory of the 1920s. Don't miss Hamilton Grange (once the country estate of Alexander Hamilton) or the rowhouses in Sugar Hill, where Count Basie, Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall and boxing champ Sugar Ray Robinson made their homes. Other draws are historic churches such as Abyssinian Baptist Church (where Adam Clayton Powell once preached). Check out Viator's Harlem tours.
Everything inside Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is founded on the private collection of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a black Puerto Rican scholar and bibliophile who died in 1938. Over the years, the books, manuscripts, art objects, and even film and sheet music have grown to more than five million items -- all detailing the history and culture of people of African descent.
Historical New York comes to life through period furniture, miniatures and antique toys at the Museum of the City of New York. It covers New York from the Dutch settlers to the present day and will teach you about the city's streets and buildings. Permanent collections include New York Toy Stories, a reinstallation of the museum's beloved toy gallery that's home to more than 10,000 toys used by New Yorkers from the colonial period to present.
The construction of St. John the Divine began in 1892 and still isn't finished. It is the largest cathedral in the world and is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, as well as the seat of its bishop. Inside, you'll find priceless tapestries by Barberini and Mortlake.
The Brooklyn Museum is one of New York City's largest art museums. Specialties include Egyptian antiquities, American art and a wing dedicated to feminist art. Don't miss "The Dinner Party" by Judy Chicago, a striking long-term installation featuring plate settings for 39 noteworthy women from history. It's right next door to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; joint admission tickets are available.
The Bronx is best known for the Bronx Zoo, one of the largest zoos on the planet, but there are other attractions to check out in this less-traveled borough. These include the colorful New York Botanical Garden, the famous Yankee Stadium (tours are available) and the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage, where the writer composed "Annabel Lee."
The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens holds the country's largest permanent collection of artifacts related to motion pictures, television and digital media. It's an absolute must for film buffs. The museum hosts screenings, classes and lectures that are always well attended by area film students.
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.