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24 hours in NYC: Can you conquer the city’s highlights? Let's find out!

In New York, 24 hours might seem like a mere heartbeat, a fleeting glimpse into a world of towering skyscrapers, world-class museums, and iconic landmarks. With the range of things to do here, it's no wonder New York City is one of the most visited cities in the world. You’ll need at least a full week to explore all of the city's corners. But if you’re only stopping by for a day, here’s your ultimate one-day guide, jam-packed with must-sees, must-eats, and everything you must experience to capture the essence of the city that never sleeps.

Our suggestions here lean towards the more popular attractions, the crown jewels of NYC tourism, and are definitely worth a visit, especially if it’s your first time in the Big Apple. And trust us, the photos will be epic! If you prefer to explore beyond the usual tourist spots, check out our 'Mix it up' section. This 24-hour itinerary is yours to personalize, so feel free to pick according to your interests, budget, and pace.

Travel logistics simplified

Hotel stay
The smart way to travel

Your hotel will primarily serve as a base camp for dropping off your luggage and catching some rest. Your best bet is to pick a budget-friendly, centrally-located hotel with basic amenities like Wi-Fi, a clean bed and bathroom. Here are our top picks you can consider.

American Dream Bed and Breakfast

The Central Park North

Wingate by Wyndham Bronx

To get around the city in a hassle-free and affordable way, book New York hop-on hop-off buses. These buses provide transit to several attractions, allow unlimited hops, are more economical than taxi rides, and let you skip the stress of navigating the city's public transportation which can be daunting.

For a quick city highlights tour, stay on the bus for the full loop. To explore attractions further, hop off at any stop and spend some time there. Planning your must-sees beforehand will maximize your day.

Recommended tickets: 

  • Big Bus: 1/2-Day New York City Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
  • Big Bus: 2-Hour Night Tour of New York

Consider investing in New York City passes like the Go City pass which covers many attractions in a single purchase. Buying combo passes saves you money and makes your trip more convenient.

Here are a few worthwhile combos: 

  • New York Explorer Pass by Go City: Choose 2 to 10 Attractions
  • New York Sightseeing Flex Pass: Choose 2 to 12 Attractions

Morning 8am to 11am

Be prepared to rise and shine early, fuel up on a light breakfast by 7:30am, and get ready to choose your first adventure. You could go on exploring the Statue of Liberty which is usually crowded regardless of the day of the week, so take the more peaceful first ferry to Liberty Island that departs at 8:30am. Alternatively, visit Central Park if you want a more relaxed start to your day. Or, if you're looking for a taste of classic New York City, head to Grand Central Station.

Statue of Liberty, New York
Central Park, New York

Central Park

Central Park is your escape from the concrete jungle. Skip the tourist traps and rent a bike to explore the park's many winding paths like a true New Yorker. Pedal past the iconic Bethesda Fountain, a popular spot for photo ops, and head north towards Belvedere Castle, a whimsical structure perched on a hilltop offering stunning city views. If you're feeling peckish, grab a snack from a vendor near the castle and enjoy a picnic on the expansive Great Lawn, a favorite spot for sunbathers and people-watching. For a leisurely experience, rent a rowboat on the Central Park Lake and soak in the picturesque surroundings.

Highlights:

  • Belvedere Castle
  • Central Park Lake
  • Central Park Zoo

Pro tip: Many bird species are most active in the morning, so visit some of the quieter areas like 'The Mall' which is lined with American elm trees where many birds gather.

Grand Central Station, New York

Grand Central Station

More than just a transportation hub, Grand Central Station is an architectural marvel and a cultural landmark in its own right. Step inside the magnificent main concourse and be awestruck by the soaring vaulted ceiling adorned with a breathtaking celestial mural. The meticulously restored constellations twinkling above add a touch of grandeur to the bustling atmosphere. Explore the variety of upscale shops and restaurants lining the concourse, or marvel at the engineering feat that is the information booth, designed to project sound throughout the vast space.

Highlights:

  • The main concourse with its celestial ceiling
  • The Campbell Apartment (reservations required for tours)
  • The Whispering Gallery

Pro tip: Take some time to appreciate the intricate details of the architecture and snap some photos before grabbing breakfast at the bustling Grand Central Market, a haven for gourmet food options.

Noon 12pm to 3:30pm

After ticking off the first attraction on your list, escape the midday heat and immerse yourself in NYC's world of art and science! Most museums in New York open at 10am which means that spending the afternoon hours at any of the museums will let you enjoy the exhibits with smaller crowds. The Met, MoMA, and American Museum of Natural History are all located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, so pick one that piques your interest most!

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA in New York
T-Rex skeleton in the American Museum of Natural History

American Museum of Natural History

Shawn Levy’s famous movie, Night at the Museum starring Ben Stiller was primarily filmed here at the American Museum of Natural History. Here you can get face-to-face with a towering T-Rex skeleton in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, or explore the dioramas showcasing diverse ecosystems from around the globe. AMNH is particularly known for its Hall of Human Origins, which takes visitors on a journey through human evolution.

Highlights:

  • Milstein Hall of Ocean Life
  • Hall of Human Origins
  • The Dioramas

Pro tip: Tickets are timed entry, so book yours online beforehand, especially on weekends. AMNH offers a variety of dining options, from cafes to grab-and-go kiosks. Consider packing a picnic lunch to enjoy in the museum's outdoor spaces.

Evening 4pm to 7pm

Light up your evening with a breathtaking view of NYC! As the sun dips below the horizon, choose from these three iconic observation decks, each offering a unique perspective of the city skyline bathed in the golden hues of dusk. If you choose to visit the Empire State building, be sure to keep some time to check out the Art Deco-Styled Lobby and the exhibits on the 2nd & 80th floors.

Empire State Building, New York
Edge NYC
One World Observatory, New York

Late night 8pm to 12am

Embrace the electrifying energy of New York City after dark! This late-night itinerary offers distinct choices and throws you into the heart of the action. Go to Times Square if you want to be in the midst of street performers, costumed characters, and the constant throngs of people. Or, head to Rockefeller Center for a more sophisticated atmosphere. If you're looking to catch a world-famous musical or play, Broadway’s Theater District is perfect for you.

Times Square, New York

Times Square

Lights, Camera, Action! Immerse yourself in the thrilling chaos of Times Square. Stroll through the pedestrian plazas, gawk at the massive electronic billboards, and take in the street performers vying for your attention. It's a sensory overload in the best way possible! Grab a slice of New York-style pizza from a street vendor to fuel your exploration. While souvenir shops abound, resist the urge to splurge unless you find something truly unique. Instead, capture the essence of Times Square with photos and videos that will become cherished memories.

Highlight:

  • Street performances
  • Ripley's Believe It or Not!
  • The LEGO Store

Pro tip: Be mindful of your belongings in the crowds. Cash may be useful for some street vendors, but credit cards are widely accepted.

Rockefeller Center, New York
Performance at Broadway, New York

Mix it up!

While the classic itinerary offers a taste of NYC's iconic landmarks, the city's energy is best felt in its diverse neighborhoods. If you crave a less crowded experience and a deeper dive into the real New York, here are some ideas to shake up your plans:

  • Trade Lady Liberty for Governors Island: Hop on a ferry to this car-free island for a breath of fresh air. Explore public art installations, stunning cityscapes, and a relaxed atmosphere – a perfect escape from the city's buzz. 
  • Escape the Central Park crowds at the Brooklyn Bridge Park: Enjoy breathtaking panoramas of the Manhattan skyline without the crowds of tourists. Stroll along the waterfront promenade, or take a whimsical ride on Jane's Carousel, a charming historic landmark.
  • Ditch the crowds at Grand Central and find serenity at St. Patrick's Cathedral: This iconic landmark boasts magnificent architecture and stained-glass windows, offering a peaceful escape from the city's hustle and bustle.
  • Savor the global flavors of Hell's Kitchen: Embark on a culinary adventure through this neighborhood known for its diverse international restaurants. Sample delicious cuisines from around the world and discover hidden culinary gems off the beaten path.
  • Explore Harlem's vibe: Immerse yourself in the vibrant history and culture of Harlem with a visit to the National Jazz Museum or the Studio Museum, which showcase the artistic legacy of African American artists.
  • Catch a free concert under the sky: New York City comes alive with free outdoor concerts throughout the summer. Check local listings on newspapers for events in Bryant Park, Central Park, or various neighborhoods, and enjoy live music under the open sky.
  • Dive into bustling local markets: Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and aromas of a bustling New York City market. Explore the historic Grand Bazaar on the Lower East Side, or savor the ethnic food stalls and fresh produce offerings of the Union Square Greenmarket.

NYC basics

Transportation
Food
Shopping
Tips

New York City boasts one of the most extensive public transportation systems globally, making it easy to get around without a car. Here's a rundown of your options.

From airport to city: 

  • AirTrain (JFK & Newark): This is your most budget-friendly option. It connects directly to subway lines for seamless transfers. To avoid delays, purchase a MetroCard ($2.75 per ride) before boarding the AirTrain. Aim for the E line to reach Midtown Manhattan quickly.

Getting around the city: 

  • Subway: The subway is your best friend for navigating long distances and different boroughs. Download a subway app like MTA Map NYC or use Google Maps to plan your route. Aim for central lines like the E, F, M, or R for major attractions. Buy a MetroCard for easy swiping ($2.75 per ride).
  • Buses: Buses are a slower option but offer a more scenic experience. Consider them for shorter distances within Manhattan or exploring specific neighborhoods like Greenwich Village or Soho. Have your exact fare ready ($2.75) as some buses might not give change.
  • Taxis and ridesharing (Uber, Lyft): Perfect for late-night journeys, heavy luggage, or tight schedules. They are generally the most expensive option, but can be lifesavers when time is of the essence.
  • Ferry: While not the fastest, the NYC Ferry offers stunning views of the city skyline. If you have extra time, consider taking it for a scenic ride between Manhattan and Brooklyn or Midtown and Governor's Island.
  • Walking: Manhattan is surprisingly walkable. Exploring neighborhoods like Chelsea or the Flatiron District on foot allows you to soak up the local vibe and discover hidden gems. Invest in comfy shoes, as distances can add up quickly!
  • Hop-on hop-off Buses: These tours are ideal for a quick overview of major landmarks, especially if you're short on time. These double-decker buses offer narrated tours with designated stops. You can also hop on and off the buses, which loop the stops at regular intervals throughout the day to stop and explore any of the attractions in depth.

New York City's food scene is a whirlwind adventure. Conquer your cravings in a day with these must-try bites at restaurants you won’t find anywhere else.

Breakfast on the run:

  • Bagel and schmear: Start your day like a true New Yorker with a classic bagel and schmear (cream cheese) from Ess-a-Bagel in Midtown. This iconic bakery has been serving fresh bagels since 1976 and offers a variety of flavors and toppings to choose from.
  • Breakfast burrito: For a heartier option, grab a breakfast burrito overflowing with scrambled eggs, sausage, cheese, and salsa from Rosa Mexicano, which has multiple locations throughout the city.

Lunch like a local:

  • Pizza by the slice: No NYC trip is complete without a slice of New York-style pizza. Head to Joe's Pizza in Greenwich Village, a New York institution since 1919, famous for its thin crust and delicious sauce. Alternatively, head to John's of Bleecker Street, another legendary spot established in 1929, known for its coal-fired oven pizzas with a crispy crust.
  • Food cart frenzy: Explore the global options Midtown's food carts offer. A popular choice is The Halal Guys, famous for its chicken and rice platters with white and yellow sauce.

Light bites in the evening:

  • Soft pretzel: For a cheap and filling afternoon snack, grab a giant, doughy soft pretzel from a street vendor throughout the city.
  • Dirty water hot dog: For a true NYC experience, try a dirty water hot dog from a street vendor. What?... Don’t worry, it's not actually boiled in a puddle (despite the name!). These hot dogs are boiled in water flavored with onions and spices, giving them a deep, savory flavor.

Dinner with a view:

  • Tom’s Restaurant: This restaurant referenced in Suzanne's hit song, Tom's Diner, is a must-visit for any New York City foodie. Featured in countless movies and TV shows, Tom's Restaurant offers a quintessential New Yorker experience perfect for reflecting on your day's adventures.
  • Rooftop Bar: Splurge on dinner and drinks with stunning city views at 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar. This chic bar offers breathtaking views of the Empire State Building and a delicious menu of cocktails and upscale bar bites.

New York City is a shopper's paradise, offering everything from high-end fashion to quirky souvenirs. Here's how to hit the highlights without getting overwhelmed:

Department store delights:

  • Macy's Herald Square: An iconic landmark and a must-visit for any shopaholic. Explore endless floors of clothing, accessories, and home goods.
  • Bloomingdale's: Another iconic department store experience on the Upper East Side, known for its luxurious brands and designer collections.

Boutique bonanza:

  • SoHo: Stroll through SoHo's cobblestone streets and discover trendy boutiques showcasing local and international designers.
  • Nolita: This trendy neighborhood near SoHo offers a mix of established and up-and-coming designers with a focus on unique and independent labels.

Vintage vibes:

  • Brooklyn Flea: Hunt for unique treasures and vintage finds at this massive weekend flea market in Williamsburg.
  • Chelsea Market: While not exclusively vintage, this historic market offers a variety of shops focusing on antiques, collectibles, and one-of-a-kind finds.

Souvenir stops:

  • Museum Shops: Many museums offer fantastic gift shops with unique souvenirs and locally-made crafts.
  • Strand Bookstore: Bibliophiles will love this massive independent bookstore in Union Square. It offers new and used books, perfect for a unique New York City memento.
  • Start early: The city comes alive early, so consider an early breakfast to maximize your exploration time.
  • Wear comfortable shoes: A must for exploring the city on foot. Opt for sneakers or sturdy shoes that can handle all-day wear.
  • Dress in lightweight layers: Pack clothes that can be layered, as the weather can change quickly.
  • MetroCard: Purchase a MetroCard for navigating the subway system. Consider a multi-day pass if you plan on using it frequently.
  • Cash is king (Sometimes): While credit cards are widely accepted, having some cash on hand is useful for street vendors, hot dog carts, and smaller shops.
  • Respect the rush: New Yorkers are known for their fast pace. Be mindful of this on sidewalks and when using public transportation.
  • Keep shopping for the end: Schedule shopping sprees for the afternoon or later when you're less likely to carry heavy bags around all day.
  • Tipping: Tipping is expected in sit-in restaurants (around 15-20% of the bill). But don't feel pressured to tip for bad service and only tip an amount you are comfortable shelling out.
  • Show tunes & street performers: Embrace the vibrant street performers and the energy of Broadway by catching a short show or impromptu performance.
  • Local delights: Explore delis, bodegas, and ethnic restaurants for a taste of authentic New York City food culture.
  • Stay flexible: Things may not always go according to plan, and that's okay! Be open to adjusting your itinerary if needed and embrace the unexpected detours.

Frequently asked questions

What can I do in NYC in one day with kids?

Start your day with a fun activity in Central Park, like renting a rowboat or exploring the playgrounds. Head to a museum like the American Museum of Natural History for dinosaurs or the Children's Museum of Manhattan for interactive exhibits. To end the day, take a scenic ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty or catch a family-friendly Broadway show.

What are some romantic things to do in NYC in 24 hours?

Pack a picnic lunch and explore Central Park together. Rent bikes or take a gondola ride for a unique experience. Enjoy a romantic dinner cruise on the Hudson River at sunset, followed by breathtaking city views from the Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building.

Which are the top museums I can visit in NYC in a day?

Purchase a Go City Pass for discounted entry. Start your day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) and explore iconic works of art. Head to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the afternoon to see modern and contemporary masterpieces. If you have time, squeeze in the Guggenheim Museum for its unique architecture and impressive collection.

Should I include the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on my visit?

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum is a powerful and moving experience, but it can also be somber. If you're drawn to learning more about 9/11 and its impact, the museum is a worthwhile experience. However, we recommend skipping it if you’re looking for a more upbeat day trip.

How safe is NYC?

NYC is generally safe, but like any major city, it's wise to be cautious. Stay in well-lit, populated areas, be mindful of your belongings, especially on crowded subways, and use reputable transportation options like taxis or ride-sharing services at night.

What is the best time to visit for cheaper rates?

Aim for the shoulder seasons (April-May or September-October) to balance affordability with decent weather. Accommodation and flights tend to be cheaper compared to that in peak summer and winter holidays.

Can I see NYC with a 7-hour layover?

Seeing NYC with a 7-hour layover depends on what you want to see and do. It's possible to get a glimpse of the city with careful planning, but it will be a whirlwind tour. Take the AirTrain from the airport and grab a pre-purchased hop-on, hop-off bus pass. This will allow you to see the major landmarks within a short time frame.