I'm so proud to be a native New Yorker and I love to help first timers plan their first trip to New York City. I've made a five day itinerary for NYC with advice on what to see and eat mostly in Manhattan for all budgets. This is a local guide, so although I cover the famous sites, I encourage you to see the smaller neighborhoods/places that make New York special. The Big Apple has so much to offer year-round, so most of these tips can be also used over the holidays. There's a FREE downloadable map with all the best places to see in New York City in 5 days.
FYI: This is a suggested itinerary for five days, so not everything may be your cup of tea. Feel free to pick from the days (and activities), but keep in mind that New York City is BIG, so you change up this itinerary, you might have a lengthy train or taxi ride between places.
How long to spend in NYC? 5 days in NYC is actually the perfect amount if it's your first visit. You can spend 3 days in New York City, but it's cutting it close--and you'll need to come back again.
Before you go: Download Google Maps & the FREE map at the bottom with all mentioned places as well as Yelp for food.
Note: This post uses affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.
How to get to NYC
If you're on the East Coast, you can take Megabus directly to Manhattan. Otherwise, you will fly into JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark. JFK is easily accessible via the Airtrain & A train and/or LIRR. LaGuardia requires a bus and a train, but it's a quick hop to Manhattan. Newark International AIrport is in New Jersey, so plan on 30 minutes on NJ transit.
Where to Stay in New York City & How Much Spending Money You'll Need
New York is expensive. If you're not on a tight budget, you're best off staying off in Midtown or the Village if you can afford it since both locations make sightseeing easiest. However, for those seeking a more alternative experience and/or lower price tag with a short train ride to the sites, stay in Astoria or Long Island City in Queens. In Brooklyn, look in Williamsburg, Dumbo, or Clinton Hill.
For budgeting tips, read my master NYC on a budget post with all activities are under $10. Plan on spending at minimum $50+ per person on food, $20 per person on activities, $70-100 on hotel (for one room), and extra if you plan on going out (cocktails are usually $10-15).
Keep reading for what to see in NYC in 5 days!
Day 1: The Must-Sees with a Twist
This day is all about experiencing New York City at it's best: pizza, history, and iconic views.
Visit 9/11 Memorial ($2 Reservation Fee). Note: Please be respectful of those who passed away here and don’t remove the flowers or take smiling selfies. Walk a few streets over to see the Woolworth Building, one of New York's prettiest early skyscrapers dating back to the 1910s.
Walk up towards Chinatown. Be sure to bring cash and trust me when I tell you that the bags offered to you on the street are not real Chanel bags. My favorites budget lunch places in Chinatown:
After you eat, consider visiting the Tenement Museum to learn about New York's immigrant past--and what living in Chinatown was like barely 100 years ago.
Walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Stop in for a coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company for some brooklyn vibes and a good cup of coffee before walking to the Brooklyn Promenade for a panoramic view of Manhattan.
Have Grimaldi’s Pizza for dinner. (Cash only). This famous pizzeria has delicious, affordable thin crust pizza cooked to perfection. Its location under the Bridge makes it even better around sunset.
Get drinks in trendy Williamsburg at Union Pool or Night of Joy to enjoy the view of Manhattan from the roof, especially in summer. Not into the hipster scene? Head back to Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge to enjoy the view of lit-up skyline before walking down to Battery Park to catch the free Staten Island ferry for amazing views of the Statue of Liberty.
Day 2: The Intellectual / The Partier
This day involves walking through some historic neighborhoods before taking in some culture via films and books. For those into partying, you'll still want to walk the High Line, experience Greenwich Village as well as explore Chelsea, which has some of New York's best nightlife.
Walk the Highline for an amazing view of Manhattan’s skyline from above in a modern green space that used to be train tracks. Stop in Chelsea Market for a delicious brunch in any of the stalls before walking around chic Chelsea. This area, which used to be the meatpacking district, has great boutique shopping and antique shopping.
Walk down Greenwich Avenue or West 4th Avenue for scenic houses and interesting shops in Greenwich Village. Pass the Stonewall, the birthplace of the gay rights movement. There are many great cafes and coffee shops in this area. Walk towards the iconic Washington Square Park (next to New York University). People watch & play a chess game before walking up to Union Square, which has a great weekend farmer's market in addition to normal shopping. Stop in the Strand, one of New York's best independent bookstores.
Note: It shouldn't take long to walk (maybe 1 hour from Chelsea market down to the Union Square), so you should have plenty of time left for museum-going or must-sees (e.g. Top of the Rock) if you set out early. Personally, I'd skip the Top of the Rock if you go to a rooftop bar.
At night, head back to the Village to visit one of New York's many (pricey) speakeasy bars, including Employees Only or Please Don't Tell. Reserve ahead and dress well. Chelsea/the Meatpacking District is one of the main area for going out in New York (if that's your thing). The Standard is famous for its rooftop bar although it's difficult to get into.
If chic cocktail bars aren't your thing, New York has a lot to offer in terms of alternative culture. Check out the IFC movie theatre for rare indie movies or Comedy Cellar for late night laughs (beware of the drink minimum). Need a late night snack? Veselka has delicious 24-hour Ukrainian borscht and perogies.
Day 3: The Iconic
Start your day off in the beautiful Grand Central Terminal. Find the whispering gallery.
Head to the New York Public Library and pass the landmarks (the Flatiron, Chrysler & Empire State Building) to take in the architecture.
For lunch, eat at Shake Shack with the rest of Manhattan in Bryant Park. (Dress warm in winter since there’s no seating!). In Bryant Park, you can watch people ice skate in winter while you eat! Nearby, I have a soft spot for browsing the giant Macy's in Herald Square.
If you’re an art lover, visit the Museum of Modern Art. If not, enjoy shopping along Fifth Avenue. This is one of the best areas to visit in late November, and December. Read more tips about New York over the holidays.
Dinner doesn't need to be expensive to be good. Go to Halal Guys for cheap/delicious take-out chicken and rice, Pio Pio for fantastic Peruvian food, or Empanada Mama for empanadas. After dinner, watch the sunset and take in the incredible skyline (with a cocktail in hand) at the Pod 39 Rooftop.
Enjoy the bright lights of Times Square at night. (Trust me, it’s like daytime.)
Day 4: The Classic
In good weather, you could spend the whole day in Central park lounging, but the Met is one of my favorite museums in the world with an world-class collection and suggested admission. The American Museum of National History is also a fantastic museum and better suited to families/dinosaur lovers.
Pick up a bagel with lox from Zabar’s or get a boozy brunch at Calle Ocho.
Head to the American Museum of Natural History if you’re with kids OR the Met for a few hours! Hint: Both have suggested admission. In the Met, I love the Egyptian temple, Musical Instruments, Armor, and pre-20th century art. Don't miss the rooftop garden for amazing views. Bring your own yogurt for a Gossip Girl photo. (XOXO)
Head to Central Park. I recommend finding the Belvedere Castle, the Bethesda Terrace, Sheep Meadow for lazy picnics, and the Boathouse. If you’re a runner, I strongly recommend trying to run the Reservoir one morning. In summer, check the Summerstage program ahead for free music shows!
For a nicer modern meal, visit the Thalia or the Russian Tea Room. For a casual, very New York meal, try a (famous) NYC hot dog? Don’t buy it from a cart; Only buy from Gray’s Papaya with a smoothie like a local. Have the real New York famous cheesecake at Junior’s for dessert.
Day 5: The Culture Lover (Queens)
Queens is where I grew up. (Yes, not everyone lives in Manhattan.) It was named Lonely Planet's #1 destination in the world in 2015 due to its amazing food and culture. Really.
Take the train to Astoria to visit the Museum of Moving Image in the morning. For anyone who is a movie buff or has kids, this museum will be heavenly. They have old prop sets from classics, such as Seinfeld, interactive exhibitions, and a lot of movie props (even from Star Wars).
Lunch: visit nearby Jackson Heights for the best Latin American food in NYC or Indian food. (Yelp!)
Rest of the Day:
A) Stop off at Flushing Meadow park (especially in summer!) to see the iconic Unisphere and check out the NYC Panorama, which is a miniature version of New York City in the modern Queens Museum of Art.
B) Into art/sculptures? Visit the Noguchi museum for beautiful Japanese sculptures and a zen garden, PS1 for avantgarde exhibits, or the free Socrates Sculpture Park for free sculptures.
C) Into beer? Head to the Bohemian Beer Garden to relax or one of the many microbreweries popping up all around NYC (Singlecut Beersmiths / Rockaway Brewing company).
D) For shopping, catch the LIC flea market on the weekend. Don’t miss the gorgeous retro-chic Sweetleaf coffee shop if you’re in the area, which turns into a bar a night.
For dInner, head to Flushing (Stop on 7 Subway: Main St). Decide what kind of Asian food you’re seeking and check on yelp. (It's going to be a hard decision.) After dinner, stop for bubble tea or Chinese pastries. You can even do private room karaoke if you look for KTV signs.
Last thoughts: Plan Ahead.
New York is HUGE. I sometimes joke that you need about two weeks to just cover the major sights, which is true since I didn't even include Coney Island (Brooklyn), but 5 full days is a perfect start to feeling at home in New York. Below, you'll find a free offline map with all the places mentioned here that you can download for offline use!
Need more info? Here's my master NYC Budget guide with EVERYTHING under $10. I swear. Getting around by subway? Helpful tips on how to take the NYC subway and subway hacks here. Click here for my guide to NYC over Thanksgiving, Christmas, the holiday season, & New Year's Eve!
Have you been to NYC? How many days felt right? What was your favorite place?
Karen & Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Then, Paris. (Confusing, we know!) Now, we're living in The Hague, the Netherlands.
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