Edited by Lesley Marchant
Home to so much that travel dreams are made of, trying to decide what to do in New York in 3 days is an ask that’s taller than the Empire State Building. In fact, trying to explore New York City in 3 days is like trying to taste all the food at a buffet by licking the corner of the tablecloth – it’s hard to get the full experience. The city lights, the shows, the people, and the world-famous attractions that you’ve likely seen ten times over on the movie screen – everything in NYC will make you feel like you’ve stepped into your favorite sitcom.
So many of the Big Apple’s attractions are international icons, but the city has a few secrets hidden up its sleeve for visitors who like to keep things a little more low-key, so we’ll try to recommend a mix of both. With millions of people from vastly diverging backgrounds, all living alongside each other in dense conditions, you can expect an abundance of variety in what the city has to do, see, and experience. Not even veteran New Yorkers would dare to claim that they’ve experienced all that New York has to offer, but with the help of one of these veterans in this 3 days in New York City itinerary, there is hope that you’ll at least scratch the surface!
We’ve tried to make this list as accurate as possible, but with many COVID-19 restrictions still in place, some of the places recommended might still be closed to the public. Be sure to click on the links for updated info, and take a look at the NYC Travel Advisory to find out more about the current state of travel.
Day 1 - Morning
Start your Empire City explorations with a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Gifted to the US by the people of France, this giant sculpture embodying the Roman goddess Libertas has been a universal symbol of freedom and democracy since 1886 and was declared a National Monument in 1924. If you’ve dreamed of a trip to NYC, you’ll agree that no 72 hours in New York City could be complete without a visit to this iconic statue.
If you don’t mind the hordes of tourists, you could also start your discovery of New York City in 3 days with the famous ferry trip straight to the Statue of Liberty. The great thing is it doubles as the chance to gain perspective of the city that will be your home for the next three days, with the Manhattan skyline laid out behind you all the way to Liberty Island.
But, as any native New Yorker will be quick to warn you, the area around the Big Apple’s most iconic landmark can get a little – okay, a lot – crowded. Instead of joining the bustle, head to Governors Island just south of Manhattan, a green oasis where you can get a fantastic view of Lady Liberty minus the crowds.
Day 1 - Lunch time
If you made your way to Ellis Island, then go grab a quick bite at the Ellis Island cafeteria – I suggest skipping the queue by going straight to the refrigerator case to choose from the selection of ready-to-go eats on display. The kiosk food is not going to make it to any top 10 foodie lists in my lifetime, but it’s quick and convenient for travelers who, like you, are on a budget when it comes to time!
Find a shady spot in the shadow of the statue where you can enjoy a breathtaking panorama of New York Harbor while you snack on a sandwich or salad (picnic-style) and re-energize for the next stretch of your trip!
If you chose to avoid the other tourists at Governors Island, then I definitely recommend you go grab some scrumptious “carnitas tacos” and a thirst-quenching cocktail from Taco Vista and go enjoy one of the best panoramic views of New York City!
Photo: South Street Seaport
Day 1 - Afternoon
It can be tempting to skip straight to the city center where NYC’s famous attractions congregate, but don’t leave Ellis Island just yet. Head over to the often-overlooked Ellis Island museum to discover the emotionally moving tales of the 12 million immigrants who entered the land of dreams by way of Ellis Island and went on to become a large portion of modern day America.
It’s a sobering experience, particularly for Americans who might take their birthplace for granted, to learn of the hardships and turmoil faced for a place in the sun and the possibility of a better life. You’ll connect quite vividly with the experience by walking the same path followed by immigrants upon arrival in New York, and on top of an educational and emotive stroll, you’ll get to experience architecture that is nothing short of stunning.
If instead, you opted to spend your morning at Governors Island then make your way back to Manhattan to walk along cobblestone streets and explore the historic South Street Seaport. A favorite destination for New Yorkers, the newly transformed Seaport not only offers unparalleled views of Brooklyn but you’ll also be spoiled for choice of cultural and shopping activities.
Day 1 - Evening
For dinner, head back to the mainland if you’re coming from Ellis Island for what is undoubtedly a quintessential New Yorker experience: Pizza!
Your plans for what to do in New York in 3 days just have to include a hefty slice of New York-style pizza pie, and you can be pretty darn sure that any food guide to NYC worth its salt will include a decent cheesy slice. When planning your food itinerary for 3 days in NYC, be sure to put Joe’s Pizza high up on the list. After a day of exploring Liberty Island, a melt-in-your mouth slice of Classic Cheese from this award-winning Greenwich Village institution will go down a treat! After 37 years of serving an authentic New York slice, you can bet your bottom dollar that this right here is the real deal.
Day 1 - Night time
Head to the Meatpacking District for the night – despite its unglamorous name, it’s fast becoming a favorite within the New York nightlife scene thanks to its quirky vibe and some of the city’s most exciting bars.
There’s also Chelsea Market, where you’re going to find a ton of really top-notch food vendors selling all kinds of good stuff if you’re still feeling snacky. Look out for the industrial-styled bar hidden underneath called The Tippler, which I’d say is one of the most outstanding bars to visit in New York City at night due to its awesome cocktails.
It’s worth mentioning that, at the time of writing this article, many of these establishments have temporarily closed due to COVID, so be sure to check the opening hours before heading over.
Day 2 - Morning
Three days in New York – and 3 perfect days in New York City, at that – could be spent right here in the gargantuan Central Park, the most visited urban park in the US and one of the most filmed locations in the world. It might surprise you to discover that, in terms of surface area, Central Park is only the fifth-biggest among New York’s green spaces, but for more than 150 years, visitors have flocked to the green heart of Manhattan bringing the most recent number of annual visitors to around 38 million!
Central Park is unmissable, so we’ll get there, don’t worry! But why not start your morning stroll somewhere a little less crowded? The High Line, just two miles south in the Lower West Side of Manhattan, is a gorgeous floating garden set on an elevated railway track, lined with sculptures, shallow pools, and showing off with uninterrupted views of the Hudson.
From here, grab a coffee and head through Times Square. A sound installation in the center of the square, installed by Max Neuhaus in the 1970s, can be easy to miss, but the morning is the perfect time to hear it. Stand in the pedestrian triangle between 45th and 46th streets and wait for a quiet moment to hear the installation for yourself.
From here, stroll towards Strawberry Fields in Central Park (a memorial to the late John Lennon), visit the Alice in Wonderland statue or simply take in the horse drawn carriages, food carts and joggers to get a real New York slice-of-life. Even if you only have 2 days in New York I would highly recommend adding this iconic place to your itinerary.
Day 2 - Lunch time
Once you’ve made a reinvigorating turn around your desired portions of the park, you could head to the Central Park Loeb Boathouse for some legendary crab cakes.
A visit here, a spot high up among New York City attractions, will have to be planned out well in advance with a booking made to secure a spot. The two-story boathouse was designed in 1874 by Calvert Vaux as a place where visitors could enjoy refreshments while watching the boats or even taking boat rides themselves. The original boathouse burned down to be replaced by the current Loeb Boathouse of today. The modern-day version remains a great place to enjoy a meal in any season on the dining deck overlooking the lake.
If you’re up for a quick bite away from the bustle instead of a sit-down meal, head to Empanada Mama just outside Central Park. It’s one of those unassuming spots that have become a local institution – ask any New Yorker. Grab an empanada (or several), some plantain chips, and the best guacamole in NYC.
Day 2 - Afternoon
Once you’ve gotten your fill of food and fresh park air, make your way back into the city for a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City's most visited museum, where you’ll have the privilege of viewing over 5,000 years worth of art – a better cross-section of the human condition you cannot hope to find!
The Met is an inspiring, insightful journey where – with over two million works – you will be able to witness (and in some cases even interact with) some of the best examples of human creativity from around the globe. The collection and exhibitions are free with museum admission, and offer the added bonus of the audio guide, as well as some dining and shopping options.
Day 2 - Dinner
For dinner, head into the heart of little Brazil to feast on the best Brazilian fare at Ipanema Restaurant, arguably the best Brazilian restaurant in New York City.
The trendy, relaxed vibe and authentic cuisine – served on this spot for the past 40 years – more than live up to the restaurant's namesake, the famous beach in Rio De Janeiro. Prepare yourself for all the flavor you might expect from Portuguese cuisine with that colorful Brazilian twist served in hearty portions and with service and passion equally generous of heart.
Once you’ve had your fill of shrimp (served in a coconut), or the feijoada stew with beans, sausage, and bacon, stick around for a caipirinha that will transport you directly to a stretch of sandy Brazilian beach!
Day 2 - Night time
Let your food settle with a casual stroll up to the three-floor observatory on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors of the Rockefeller Center for some spectacular views of New York’s impressive skyline, including the iconic Empire State Building.
Many will tell you that the view from the “Top of the Rock” is the best in the City – you’ll simply have to visit to judge for yourself! With indoor and outdoor decks, as well as plenty of seating space with breathtaking panoramic views year-round, there’s plenty of comfort to allow for long hours of gazing leisurely at the twinkling city lights.
Day 3 - Morning
Begin the last day of your iconic NYC adventure with a walk across the famous Brooklyn Bridge and along the Brooklyn Promenade. A prime photo op, this pedestrian walkway is just stellar view after stellar view, with lower Manhattan, Governors Island, Staten Island, and the waterfront as your gorgeous backdrop.
Once you’ve taken enough new profile pics for the next two years, head down to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a sustainable waterfront park popular among runners, cyclists and outdoorsy types with facilities like a roller rink, a pop-up pool and soccer fields on offer as well as several notable annual festivals, restaurants, and more to look forward to!
Since you’re in the area already, break away from the masses to explore one of the city’s best-kept secrets – the abandoned City Hall station. Closed down in the 20th century, this historic subway station’s stained glass and opulent arches harken back to the glamorous NYC of yore. Tickets to walk through the actual station are some of the hottest in the city (and they only go on sale a couple of times a year), so it can be difficult to secure a tour. But if you hop on the 6 train and wait until it turns around, you might just catch a glimpse of this Romanesque masterpiece.
Day 3 - Lunch time
After an active outdoor morning, stop in for some lunch at Umberto’s Clam House on 132 Mulberry Street.
Just about every second suburb of New York represents a larger global cultural group: Chinatown, Little Brazil and, of course, Little Italy, where you will likely encounter some of the best Italian fare this side of the North Atlantic! Umberto’s Clam House is an excellent example, serving up Italian seafood that is nothing short of to-die-for. The calamari, scungilli, and mussels are firm favorites, with the homemade lobster ravioli an irresistible draw-card – but strangely enough, it’s not the food that put this spot on the map, but rather that fact that weeks after opening it was the site of a sensational Mafia murder!
Heck, it doesn’t get more authentic than that! If you’re really lucky you might bump into “Tommy The Nose”, likely enticing you into the restaurant with the lure of free wine or sangria!
Day 3 - Afternoon
Is a trip to any metropolis the world over complete without at least one excursion into Chinatown? The answer is no. It’s not. NYC is no different, and Chinatown on the Lower East Side – full of excessively addictive pork buns, piles of dirt-cheap fried dumplings, bubble tea and ceramics – is a must on your New York travel list.
Local eateries, bustling bars and pocket-friendly shops are just a few of the reasons to visit, and if you happen to time your trip right you might be rewarded with one of the special holiday events like Chinese New Year. Be sure to stop in at the nearby Tenement Museum, which provides visitors with a unique historical insight into the immigrant experience, with stories that celebrate what it means to be American.
Day 3 - Dinner time
Much like pizza, a trip to NYC wouldn’t be complete without at least one decent hamburger; and where better to get this than at the mouth-watering Paul’s Da Burger Joint on 2nd Ave? Another family run New York institution, Paul's has been around since the 80s and is to this day run by the very same people, in exactly the same manner – down to the retro 50s decor and uniforms!
The friendly, cozy vibe is exacerbated by the warm hospitality and string of regulars sitting at the counter conversing with the cooks. You can’t really go wrong with anything you order here, but sinking your teeth into juicy cheeseburger and washing it down with a cold beer or shake is a classic combo.
Day 3 - Nighttime
A melodious and fitting encore to the perfect 3 days in New York City itinerary, this jazz bar overlooking Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village will have you missing the city before you’ve even left! Terra Blues NYC hosts some of the best jazz music in New York with local (and sometimes even international) blues aficionados on the menu.
Apart from great acoustics and truly cream-of-the-crop performers on rotation, the space also offers a great selection of whiskey and bourbon and highly knowledgeable wait-staff. Sip away on a whiskey sour while basking in bluesy tones, and perhaps mentally compiling a list of all the things you plan to do on your return visit to the city – let’s be honest, you will be back! If you do find yourself down this inevitable road or jump the gun and decide to extend your stay, or if you simply want to swap out some of the attractions you might have already seen be sure to check out this great guide to NYC hidden gems!
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