The cultural and financial capital of the USA, if not the world, New York City is an adrenaline-charged, history-laden place that holds immense romantic appeal for visitors. Its past is visible in the tangled lanes of Wall Street and tenements of the Lower East Side; meanwhile, towering skyscrapers serve as monuments of the modern age. Street life buzzes round the clock and shifts markedly from one area to the next. The waterfront, redeveloped in many places, and the landscaped green spaces – notably Central Park – give the city a chance to catch its breath. Iconic symbols of world culture – the neon of Times Square, the sculptures at Rockefeller Center – always seem just a stone’s throw away. For raw energy, dynamism and social diversity, you’d be hard-pressed to top it; simply put, there’s no place quite like it. Visiting New York should be on every traveller's bucket-list.
New York City comprises the central island of Manhattan and the four outer boroughs – Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Manhattan, to many, is New York; certainly, this is where you’re likely to stay and spend most of your time. Though you could spend weeks here and still barely scratch the surface, there are some key attractions and pleasures that you won’t want to miss. These include the different ethnic neighbourhoods, like Chinatown, and the more artsy concentrations of Soho and the East and West villages. Of course, there is also the celebrated architecture of Midtown and the Financial District, as well as many fabulous museums. In between sightseeing, you can eat just about anything, at any time, cooked in any style; you can drink in any kind of company; and enjoy any number of obscure movies. The more established arts – dance, theatre and music – are superbly presented. For the avid consumer, the choice of shops is almost numbingly exhaustive. When you're visiting New York, it can feel hard to catch your breath.
Manhattan is a hard act to follow, though Brooklyn is a worthy rival: there’s the ragged glory of Coney Island, the trim brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, the foodie destinations in South Brooklyn and the hip nightlife of Williamsburg. The rest of the outer boroughs also have their draws, namely the innovative museums of Long Island City and Astoria, both in Queens; and the renowned Bronx Zoo and adjacent botanical gardens in the Bronx. Last but not least, a free trip on the Staten Island Ferry is a sea-sprayed, refreshing good time.
The first European to see Manhattan Island, then inhabited by the Lenape, was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, in 1524. Dutch colonists established the settlement of New Amsterdam exactly one hundred years later. The first governor, Peter Minuit, was the man who famously bought the island for a handful of trinkets. Though we don’t know for sure who “sold” it (probably a northern branch of the Lenni Lenape), the other side of the story was that the concept of owning land was utterly alien to Native Americans – they had merely agreed to support Dutch claims to use the land. By the time the British laid claim to the area in 1664, the heavy-handed rule of governor Peter Stuyvesant had so alienated its inhabitants that the Dutch relinquished control without a fight.
Renamed New York, the city prospered and grew, its population reaching 33,000 by the time of the American Revolution. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 facilitated trade farther inland, spurring the city to become the economic powerhouse of the nation, the base later in the century of tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and financiers like J.P. Morgan. The Statue of Liberty arrived from France in 1886, a symbol of the city’s role as the gateway for generations of immigrants, and the early twentieth century saw the sudden proliferation of Manhattan’s extraordinary skyscrapers, which cast New York as the city of the future in the eyes of an astonished world.
Almost a century later, the events of September 11, 2001, which destroyed the World Trade Center, shook New York to its core. Yet the Financial District bounced back, and the former Ground Zero site continues to develop, with the incredible Oculus housing a fancy shopping mall while new digs for the 9/11 Tribute Museum opened in 2018.
What to do in New York City
1. Visit the Empire State Building
The Empire State Building is still the most original and elegant skyscraper of them all.
2. Breathe in the Statue of Liberty
There's no greater symbol of the American dream than the magnificent statue that graces New York Harbour. Those with deep pockets can see the lady from a whole new angle by booking onto a New York helicopter tour.
3. Explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art
You could easily spend a whole day (or week or month) at the Met, discovering everything from Egyptian artefacts to modern masters.
4. See a baseball match
A summertime treat: enjoy a hot dog, a cold beer and America's pastime in the Yankees' or Mets' homes – or for a more intimate experience, see a Cyclones game in Coney Island.
5. Walk across Brooklyn Bridge
Take the less-than-a-mile walk across the bridge to see beautiful views of the downtown skyline and Harbor views.
6. Pause at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum
The pools in the buildings' footprints and museum artefacts including the "Last Column" can't help but stir emotion.
7. Discover the Museum of Modern Art
Simply put, the MoMA holds the most comprehensive collection of modern art in the world, curated in a breathtaking setting of glass atriums and statuary.
8. Smell the flowers at the High Line
This plant-lined Chelsea walkway offers a unique perspective on the city below and on the power of progressive urban renewal.
9. Roam Central Park
The city's beloved swathe of green: take a boat ride, watch Shakespeare in the Park or enjoy a picnic after a morning spent museum-hopping. Alternatively, join a Central Park Ice Skating and Walking Tour, or book onto a romantic Carriage Ride.
10. Take the Staten Island Ferry
Savour Manhattan's skyline and the Statue of Liberty from a boat's-eye view – absolutely free.
11. Experience some thrills on Coney Island
Ride on classics like the Wonder Wheel or Cyclone, or on the newer Thunderbolt coaster, high above the boardwalk, for a seaside thrill.
12. Marvel at modern art at the Whitney Museum of American Art
As the anchor of the High Line, this Meatpacking District museum shows off modern American art, with a healthy dose of terrace views.
13. Explore the Tenement Museum
A Lower East Side apartment dwelling turned museum, this local treasure brilliantly captures the lives of three generations of immigrants.
14. Feel the beat at live jazz
New York's jazz scene is vibrant, but Harlem is first choice for characterful venues and late-night jam sessions. Some great jazz talent is showcased at the Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Harlem.
15. See a show
Taking in a Broadway play or musical is a must for theatre-lovers; any venue will suffice, as long as the show is up to standard. Try Frozen, Aladdin, the Lion King, Moulin Rouge or Tina Turner.
This page contains affiliate links; all recommendations are editorially independent.