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Katie Sagal

New York Itinerary – 3 Days in New York City for First Timers

Planning to spend 3 days in New York City, but aren’t sure what to do?

To help make your trip planning just a little easier, we’ve put together a New York itinerary to help you make the most of your 3 days in NYC. From cruises and tours to museums and the great outdoors, you’ll get a real slice of New York life. Of course, with so many people claiming "you haven't really been to New York unless—" you may have difficulty deciding just what to do on your vacation.

That's where we come in. Not only will this itinerary save you time and eliminate stress on your trip, it will also save you money on your 3 days in New York. To help ease your trip planning woes, we've also included both indoor and outdoor options to make sure that this itinerary can work for you no matter what time of year you head to NYC.

This 3-day New York itinerary includes...

  • Big Bus New York Sightseeing Tour
  • Empire State Building
  • Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum OR Landmark Cruise
  • Double Decker Bus Tour
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Top of the Rock
  • Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
  • 9/11 Memorial & Museum
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • Guggenheim Museum OR Central Park Bike Tour
  • Whitney Museum of Art OR Brooklyn Bridge Tour

Only have a few days to visit? We’ve also put together a 1 day , a weekend in New York itinerary, and a full week in New York City itinerary.

DAY 1 Stop #1: Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Sightseeing Tour

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Begin your adventure by getting to know the city while on a hop-on hop-off double-decker bus sightseeing tour. It covers dozens of major sights and sounds that you must see when visiting NYC, all while providing informative and interesting narration. A few of the top sites you'll see include the Empire State Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street, Madison Square Garden, and many more.

The tour provides a great overview of the city's major landmarks and history while giving you the flexibility to hop on and off at any of the included stops along the way, making this a good option for those who like a little bit of freedom in their itineraries.

Getting In: Hop On Hop Off Big Bus New York Tours are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #2: Times Square (free!)

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It's about one of the most touristy things to do out there, but it's a must-see for a reason. The hustle and bustle of New York City life really converge on Times Square, and it's a unique chance to see some of the more bizarre figures in NYC pop culture.

It's also a great place to souvenir shop, with everything from iconic shops like the Disney Store to hole-in-the-wall trinket joints. You'll likely only want to spend a short time here unless you're shopping, so reserve between 30 minutes and an hour of your morning.

Check out our guide, Things to Do in Times Square, to make the most of your visit to this busy neighborhood.

Stop #3: Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum (indoor option)

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This science and history museum is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the history of American military craft across generations. They offer a variety of permanent and special rotating exhibits that highlight specific conflicts or vessels, all with real artifacts, authentic photographs, and behind-the-scenes info. The Intrepid itself is also a National Historic Landmark, so even just a quick walk across the ship is like stepping back in time.

Now, as an exciting bonus, our admission includes the Space Shuttle Pavilion! See the Enterprise, the shuttle which was responsible for so much of the progress made in early NASA spaceflight programs (Mercury and Gemini). There are also several photos and other artifacts as part of this exhibit, so be sure to stay for a while to scope the whole area out.

Getting In: Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum tickets are included as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #3: Landmark Cruise by Circle Line Sightseeing (outdoor option)

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This comprehensive two-hour NYC cruise is a perfect option for those looking for panoramic views of the New York City skyline. You'll see all the best features and landmarks of NYC, like the Statue of Liberty, Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, the United Nations, and more!

Tours run every couple of hours; be sure to confirm your desired cruise time and arrive around 45 minutes in advance to allow for ticketing and boarding. This tour runs only seasonally, so be sure to check on their website (or ours) to see when the cruise is available.

Getting In: Landmark Cruise: Circle Line Sightseeing tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #4: Guggenheim Museum (indoor option)

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Welcome to the work of art filled with works of art!

The fabulous, swirling white helix of a building it totally unique in it surroundings of townhouses on the Upper East Side, and within its walls you'll discover even more treasures. Home to the works of Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Renoir, and more, its an impressionist-enthusiast's dream and hosts the finest temporary exhibitions too.

Viewing priceless art always stirs up an appetite, and happily there is the fabulous Café 3 within the museum that has stunning views over central park to enjoy while you break for coffee and cake.

Getting in: Guggenheim Museum tickets are included with the Explorer Pass.

Stop #4: Central Park Bike Tour (outdoor option)

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If the weather is nice and you're not feeling roaming around inside, explore the great outdoors with a bike ride through the beautiful Central Park. A Central Park bike tour is an ideal way to get some fresh air and an eco-friendly way to tour one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.

It's also one of the best ways to cover a lot of ground in Central Park and really get a feel for what locals love about this vast green space. Some of the many of the top Central Park attractions you’ll see on your tour include the Cherry Hill Fountain, Strawberry Fields and Imagine Mosaic, Shakespeare Garden, Belvedere Castle, and the Great Lawn.

For more information about the Park, check out our comprehensive guide, Things to Do in and around Central Park. This bike tour lasts about 2 hours.

Getting In: Central Park Bike Tours are available as an option on the New York Explorer Pass.

Stop #5: American Museum of Natural History

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This attraction is a favorite with adults and kids alike and has something to appeal to every interest and taste. The American Museum of Natural History is filled with natural wonders, historic artifacts, and exciting, interactive exhibits that span a vast array of subjects. Some of the highlights of the museum include their impressive collection of dinosaur fossils, a beautiful room filled with gems and minerals, the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, and their detailed dioramas of various animal life.

Getting In: American Museum of Natural History tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Day 2 Stop #1: Empire State Building

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Begin your afternoon with a visit to one of the most iconic buildings in all of New York City – the Empire State Building. Ascend to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building of this architectural marvel for some of the best views and photo opportunities. In addition to being a fascinating structure, the Empire State Building is also steeped with historical significance.

There’s a lot to offer for architecture buffs, for example, with regards to its art deco décor. Don’t forget your camera! We recommend reserving at least 2 hours for this attraction. Keep in mind that elevator lines will add to your overall time spent at the attraction.

Read all of our Tips for Visiting the Empire State Building before you go to make the most of your visit.

Getting In: Empire State Building tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #2: High Line Park (Free!)

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By David Berkowitz from New York, NY, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The High Line is one of New York City's hidden gems. It's a beautiful green park made from the remains of an old elevated rail line that runs from the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street. Along the way, you'll pass through the artsy neighborhood of Chelsea. Visitors can choose to walk the entire 1.45 miles or get off at one of several descent points.

There are some excellent options for lunch in Chelsea (including the famed Chelsea Market) if your timing works out to find you in this area around mid-afternoon. The High Line is free for all! Visit the High Line website for more detailed information about what you can see and do along the trail.

If you like, walk the full length of the High Line all the way up to the glimmering new neighborhood of Hudson Yards where you'll find the stunning lattice-like structure and exciting outdoor viewpoint, The Vessel. This network of staircases reaches 150 feet into the sky and gives daring climbers a whole host of new perspectives to view the city in.

Getting in: Top of the Highline and Vessel tour tickets are available as an option with the Explorer Pass.

Stop #3: Top of the Rock Observatory

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For comparative purposes, you'll want to conclude your afternoon with the amazing aerial views of New York available from the Top of the Rock Observatory. It’s one of the most popular things to do in all of New York, and it’s truly a unique perspective on the city. The Top of the Rock has three floors of indoor and outdoor observation decks, plus 360-degree views of the city below.

Some of the landmarks you’ll be able to spot from this vantage point include the Chrysler Building, the Freedom Tower, Central Park, and more. We recommend reserving between 1-2 hours for this attraction, although visiting this late in the day will mean longish wait times. If you're only choosing one observation deck on your NYC itinerary, make sure to visit early in the day.

For more information, read all of our Tips for Visiting the Top of The Rock before you go. It will help you to make the most of your visit.

Getting In: Top of the Rock Observatory tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #4: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

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Spend the remainder of your afternoon in one of the best art institutions in the world – the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Located in an airy and contemporary space, their significant collections of painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and more are thought-provoking and inspiring.

The world’s greatest artists are all represented at this museum. You’ll see works by Monet, Warhol, Seurat, Dali, Picasso, Pollack, and more. Be sure to check out the gift store before you leave! We recommend reserving between 2-3 hours for this attraction.

Getting In: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

DAY 3 Stop #1: Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island

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Hop aboard a ferry to set sail for two of New York City's most famous attractions - the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Liberty Island features the iconic Lady Liberty statue, with tours of the grounds and access to different parts the statue available through the National Park Service. The Ellis Island Immigration Museum is another awesome attraction on a separate island, offering a chance for many Americans to explore their heritage, and for all to soak up the vibrant history of this once-hectic immigration center. Your pass provides round-trip ferry transportation only; some areas of the Statue of Liberty require separate tickets purchased in advance.

Getting In: Statue of Liberty Ferry Tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Stop #2: 9/11 Memorial & Museum

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The indoor option for your last day is one of the most important attractions in all of NYC – the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. It’s a poignant reminder of all that we lost in the tragic attacks on September 11, 2001, and reminds us all about the way the world changed after that fateful day. Explore the museum’s several exhibition galleries that study the attacks, honor the lives lost both in 2001 and 1993, and feature several artifacts.

Getting In: 9/11 Memorial and Museum tickets are available with the Explorer Pass.

Stop #3: Battery Park (free!)

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By Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Head down to the southernmost point of Manhattan and enjoy the lovely waterfront views available at Battery Park. There are a number of small attractions within the park, like the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Skyscraper Museum, as well as some public art pieces like the beautiful sculpture entitled "The Sphere."

Admission to the park is free for all, but some of the activities may require additional costs. We recommend reserving about a half hour for Battery Park if you aren't planning to visit any of the other attractions.

Stop #4: Whitney Museum of Art (indoor option)

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Another one for the art lovers is the beautiful Whitney Museum of American Art. This innovative museum has long been important to New York City’s arts scene for its dedication to living artists, both established and up-and-coming, and for their groundbreaking exhibitions of never-before-seen American art. Visitors to this Lower Manhattan mainstay will get to enjoy their full range of exhibits and programming, which includes everything from twentieth-century painting to works of art made just last year!

Getting In: Whitney Museum of Art tickets are included as an option with the Explorer Pass.

Stop #4: Brooklyn Bridge Walking Tour (outdoor option)

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This is another one of those can’t-miss landmarks you’ll want to make sure you get a chance to see before leaving NYC. Take a walking tour of the Brooklyn Bridge and the DUMBO neighborhood with experienced and insightful tour guides to get a real feel for the area. You’ll learn about the inspiring and exciting history of this iconic bridge, plus get a chance to explore the boutiques, shops, art galleries, and tasty restaurants in Brooklyn. Advance reservations are required. This tour lasts 1.5-2 hours.

Getting In: Brooklyn Bridge Walking Tour tickets are available as an option on the Explorer Pass.

Let’s Recap

So there are our suggestions for how to make the most of your 3 days in New York. Walk a little, cruise a little, tour a little, and explore a little – it’s all here. Visit the above attractions with a 7-Choice Explorer Pass and save big on combined admission prices. If you're feeling like you want more out of your vacation, pick up a 10-Choice Explorer Pass instead - this itinerary offers options for both!

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