New York City makes a strong case for being called the center of the world, and it knows it, too: it’s an economic and cultural powerhouse, where just about everything you could dream of seeing, doing, and eating can be found somewhere in the five boroughs. It’s easy to stay busy here during your three-day stay. You’ll find Michelin-starred restaurants and dollar-slice pizzerias, historic sights and just-built high-rises, world-class museums and basement galleries, neighborhoods everywhere on the spectrum from glitzy to gritty. You’ll smell the open-air fish markets of Chinatown, hear the roar of the Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium, and feel the reverberations of the subway cars beneath your feet. There are a million ways to experience the Big Apple, and if you have 72 hours to spend here, this itinerary can help you get the most out of your stay.
Hit up one of New York City’s many museums and take in the architecture in Grand Central Station.
Morning: Get your (natural) history on
The American Museum of Natural History is a zoo, and not just because of its extensive, terrifying taxidermy collection—it’ll seem like every eighth grade class in New York decided to check out the fossils the same day as you. There are two main ways to experience this ginormous museum (it’s two-and-a-half times the size of the Louvre): you can take the “pay- what you wish” seriously and slip the cashier a few bucks to see the main collections, or ball out and pay full price to get access to all the special exhibitions and the planetarium. It’s easy to get lost in the dioramas-on-steroids showcasing the world’s creatures and the appropriately massive dinosaur halls. Pro tip: the “Cultural Halls” are decidedly dated (and tellingly lacking a European wing), but newer exhibitions on biodiversity and evolution are more visually arresting and less problematic.
Of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is another great—albeit touristy—option if a museum full of animals doesn’t really float your boat.
Lunchtime: Grab an arepa at Chelsea Market
Arepas might be the food world’s closest equivalent to a hug. Eating one fresh from the griddle won’t actually fix all your problems, but for a blissful ten minutes, it’ll definitely seem like it can. Head to Chelsea Market for one of these magical corn concoctions—it might look like an omelette, but we promise, it tastes like heaven.
Afternoon: Walk around inside Grand Central Station
New York is flush with places to make a grand romantic gesture, but perhaps nowhere is better to live out your rom-com dreams than Grand Central Station—just arrange a flash mob to his favorite song, or loudly declare your love from the staircase balcony, or chase her through the terminal just as she’s about to board that midnight train to Georgia. Or, if you’re single, it isn’t a bad place to grab a bite and marvel at some fine Beaux-Arts architecture. The basement food court has a vast array of decent counter-serve fare (and free Wi-Fi), but the Scandinavian food hall on the first floor is the real foodie destination—pickled herring, sunflower-seed rye bread, and sea buckthorn berries are all in supply. Try not to bump into commuters as you gaze at the (inaccurate) constellation-dotted arched ceiling.
Admittedly, this won’t take all afternoon. If you find yourself with some time to spare during your first day in New York, go check out the grand lobby and cool gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, too.
Evening: Nosh on some falafel in Tribeca
Hebrew for “snack,” Tribeca is home to come of the best falafel in the city. Bring a friend (or just your appetite) and sample the variety of flavors these fried chickpea balls offer. With a belly full of their yummy goodness, you’ll be super-satisfied for the rest of the night, no matter what you decide to do.
Just in case you thought you were running out of things to do in New York City, visit the MoMA, Empire State Building, and, of course, Statue of Liberty.
Morning: Visit the Museum of Modern Art for some mind-bending exhibitions
The Guggenheim may be more daring, the Whitney more hip, and the Met Breuer more nightmare-inducing, but the Museum of Modern Art still comes out on top in the critical metric of most Iowan families per square foot. Located conveniently on a main tourist drag near Rockefeller Center, the once-edgy MoMA has become a destination on a par with Times Square and the Met. And for good reason—it’s full of crowd pleasers, from Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory (the melting-clocks one) to Van Gogh’s Starry Night (the swirly sky one) to Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (the soup ones). The wackier stuff pops up in the exhibitions: an Adrian Piper retrospective makes performance art shockingly relevant, while a show on mid-century Yugoslavian architecture is so niche it’ll probably be incredible. Buy your tickets beforehand so you can spend more time exploring and less time waiting in line.
Afterwards, once you’ve had your fill of modern art, grab some tickets to see the NYC skyline from the top of the Empire State Building.
Lunchtime: Grab a slice in Greenwich Village
Pizza is one of those iconic New York City foods that can either be amazing or pretty meh–it all depends on if you know where to go. Greenwich Village is home to its fair share of pie joints, and it’s a safe bet that your ‘za in this neighborhood will be everything you hoped it would be. Snag a slice (or a whole pie if you’re sharing) as fuel for your afternoon activities.
Afternoon: Take a guided tour of the Statue of Liberty
Today, the Statue of Liberty serves as a beacon to boatloads of New York tourists, welcoming them to the most basic tourist attraction the city (not short of basic tourist attractions) has to offer. If you’re just now deciding to visit Liberty Island, it might be too late; tickets for the stair-intense ascent to the crown and the slightly less intense pedestal sell out months in advance, and you’ll have to snag one for early in the morning. Still, you’ll always be able to get a ticket for a ferry and grounds-only access to our national emblem (including the adjacent Ellis Island), or take a guided tour for a more in-depth history of this famous landmark. If you don’t need to get up close and personal with Lady Liberty, the views from Battery Park on a clear day or from the free Staten Island ferry should be sufficient to get your fill of freedom.
Dinner: Pasta in the Upper East Side
So you’ve packed your most arch-supportive shoes, done some quad stretches, and are planning a full day of sightseeing. (Good luck with that!) Before you go, you’ll want to make like the real marathoners do and carbo-load—preferably on the cheap, since those “pay what you wish” cashiers at the museums are really good at the shame glare. Enter the Upper East Side’s pasta shops offering steaming servings of fresh pasta for way less than you’ll find at a checkerboard-tablecloth establishment. Eat in or take out—whatever you choose, this neighborhood offers plenty of place to satisfy your craving for carb-y Italian goodness.
Evening: Take a nighttime bus tour
There’s nothing like seeing all of New York City’s most popular attractions at night. Take an NYC at Night bus tour and explore High Line Park, Greenwich Village, the Chelsea Piers, and more, all from the comfort of your bus.
On the last day of your New York City itinerary, stretch your legs with a walk around Rockefeller Center and an afternoon stroll through Central Park.
Morning: Visit Rockefeller Center
How much you spend at Rockefeller Center depends on how high you want to get. If you’re okay slumming it at sidewalk-level, it’s free to roam around noted rich person John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s 22-acre Art Deco masterpiece—take a seat among the 200-plus flagpoles that line the plaza in front of 30 Rock and settle in for some good people-watching (or ice-skater-watching, in the winter). If you need more elevation, you can go highbrow with an art and architecture-focused circuit of the complex or lowbrow with an NBC Studios tour. Those really determined to get high, though, can splurge on a Top of the Rock ticket—you’ll shoot up 70 floors to a three-tiered observation deck where you can finally get that #nycviews panorama you’ve seeking.
Lunchtime: Grab some coffee and pastries in Times Square
Your level of enjoyment in Times Square is all in the mindset. If you go into it with the right attitude, it can actually be pretty entertaining. For lunch, find a cute cafe serving up coffee and pastries (you’ll find plenty in this area), grab a treat. and find a window seat for people watching. The blend of tourists and hedge fund managers you’ll see going about their day, all with a completely different agenda, is what New York City is all about.
Afternoon: Take a walk through Central Park
“So we’ve got this new park here. Right in the center of Manhattan. What should we call it?” someone probably once asked. “Central Park?” somebody probably once responded, half-jokingly. The name stuck. The 843-acre rectangular green space takes up a whole lot of super-valuable real estate, so it’s a good thing that it’s so pleasant: you’ll find trim gardens alongside hilly meadows, idyllic spots for picnicking and canoeing, and tourist hubs as well as secluded, quiet spots. We don’t have the space to list all the park’s attractions—though they include a zoo, an ice rink, a castle, several theaters, “one of America’s most pathetic boulders,” a John Lennon memorial, and a grassy knoll named for the many pugs that frolic there—so perhaps your best path of exploration is to spend a half-day taking a guided tour or just meandering the park. You can’t get too lost in the middle of Manhattan.
Evening: See the last remnants of daylight on the Brooklyn Bridge
Some questions that might occur to you during your sojourn across the Brooklyn Bridge: was this 135-year-old bridge built to support the weight of these 4,000 tourists? Is that Midwestern family getting a good deal on that I HEART NY tote bag? Can my iPhone fit between the gaps in this creaky pedestrian bridge? The answers are yes, no, and maybe (we weren’t willing to find out). In any case, the slightly-over-mile-long bridge is today a popular tourist thoroughfare, so watch out for wayward selfie sticks. With cars whizzing below you, the bridge offers both fine views of the Manhattan skyline and an opportunity to photobomb some poor couple’s wedding pics (bad choice of venue, guys). At the end, you’ll join a crowd of tourists awkwardly milling around Dumbo—we’d suggest strolling around Brooklyn Bridge Park or grabbing a pie at Juliana’s instead of starting the trek straight back.
Dinner: Grab dinner in Chinatown
Nothing worth having comes easy, they say, and so it is with the xiao long bao, that impossibly delicious soup encased in a skin-thin dumpling wrapper. One wrong move and you’ll scald yourself or squirt your dining companions and, worse, waste some dumpling. You’ll want to brush up on your poke-and-suck skills before going to Chinatown, because you won’t want to waste a single drop. Supplement your dumplings with an order of chewy stir-fried rice cakes and a jiggly mound of ma po tofu, and wash it down with a Tsingtao beer to round out your three day New York City itinerary.