Growing up in Texas during the early aughts, New York City felt like a world away until it was thrust onto our television the morning of September 11, 2001. Then, as the world watched in horror as the scene around the World Trade Center unfolded, New York City changed forever but also vowed to rebuild better than ever before. Now, 20 years later, it has done just that — and it’s also become my home.
Though they say it takes years to become a proper New Yorker, I can confidently say that I’ve felt the energy of the city vibrating through my body since the day I arrived. New York is a city of juxtapositions: honking horns down a busy avenue heard from the quiet, peaceful greenery of a park; the world’s most expensive sushi in chandelier-filled dining rooms above dollar-slice pizza shops; towering glass buildings casting shadows over centuries-old landmarks and cobblestone streets. It’s a place that has to be seen and felt to be truly understood.
Now, as we look back on the storms the city has weathered over the last 20 years — literal ones, like Hurricane Sandy and the devastating floods of Hurricane Ida, and figurative ones, like becoming the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s a perfect time for tourists and locals alike to come and celebrate the true spirit of New York City. From looking our country’s immigrant history directly in the face at the Statue of Liberty to paying respects to those lost on 9/11 at the memorial pools where the buildings once stood, there are countless ways to have a meaningful trip to NYC. Here, you’ll find 10 experiences in The City That Doesn’t Sleep to celebrate the best of New York and to commemorate its history, according to a local.
10 Must-Visit NYC Sights That Celebrate the City
Pay Your Respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Nowhere can the weight of September 11 be felt more than at the memorial and museum dedicated to the victims, located on the site of the former buildings. At the memorial, two acre-large fountains sit creating the largest man-made waterfalls in North America. Etched around the perimeter of each fountain are the names of all of the victims of the tragedy across the U.S., plus the victims of the 1993 bombing. In the museum itself, located underground, visitors will find a somber reminder of what exactly happened that day, the lives of those present, and information about the buildings themselves. Open five days a week, tickets are best bought in advance for a scheduled date and timed entry. Tickets start at $26 for adult admission or $46 for entry plus a museum tour, all of which can be purchased online.
Visit “The Little Chapel That Stood”
Located directly across the street from the World Trade Center, Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel are historic buildings that have survived the history of New York since the 1600s. Located on Broadway, the original Trinity Church was created in 1697, and the current building has been in place since 1846. Here, you’ll find the gravesite of Alexander Hamilton, plus the only set of 12 change-ringing bells in the U.S. A few blocks back toward the World Trade Center site is St. Paul’s Chapel, originally built in 1766. The home church of George Washington, the iterations of this building have seen some of New York’s most notable people and events, and even survived the terrorist attacks 20 years ago, becoming a “round-the-clock relief ministry to rescue and recovery workers for nine months,” according to its website. Though both are currently closed to the general public (except for religious services), the sites are worth visiting to see the exteriors of the building on a trip downtown.
Take a Trip to the Tenement Museum
Situated in the lively Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum honors New York’s immigrants by showcasing how they lived in the neighborhood throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Offering highly detailed tours and experiences, the Tenement Museum is a must-visit for anyone looking to get a feel for the real fabric of the city. Open Thursday through Tuesday, vaccinated guests can visit the museum by reserving tickets in advance and selecting from a handful of tour options, including Tenement Women: 1902, Hard Times: 1880s, or picking a neighborhood walking tour like Reclaiming Black Spaces.
See Lady Liberty Face to Face
One of the most iconic symbols of NYC, the Statue of Liberty has been shining her light on the city since 1886. There are many ways to experience the statue, though one of my personal favorites is taking the totally free Staten Island Ferry. On the ferry, which runs every 15-20 minutes during peak hours, guests don’t get off to visit the statue itself but glide past it for the perfect photo opp. After the trip, you can explore Staten Island or turn right back around and catch the next ferry back. If you want to visit up close, you can buy tickets from Statue Cruises, the operator authorized by the National Parks Service. Better yet, all tickets include the option to also visit Ellis Island, where more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States. Be sure to buy your tickets in advance, and remember to check for updated COVID-19 protocols before heading out.
Take In the Skyline From Brooklyn Bridge Park
For some of the absolute best views of the city, you need to head outside of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn. From City Hall, not too far from the World Trade Center Memorial, walk across the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and make your way to Brooklyn Bridge Park for sweeping skyline views and the perfect Instagram pic. From there, Brooklyn is your oyster. Go roller skating with the city as your backdrop at Pier 2, or head into the ultra-chic Dumbo neighborhood for the best almond croissant of your life at Almondine before stopping at the intersection of Water Street and Washington Street for another iconic photo stop in front of the Manhattan Bridge. In the morning, you can expect fewer crowds on the bridge and fair temperatures to get your day started, but the evening views are absolutely stunning.
Catch a Broadway Show
When COVID-19 changed the way the world works, the actors and musicians on Broadway were quickly shut out of performances as the city worked to keep people safe and healthy. While virtual shows and Instagram live broadcasts kept the music going, it was a sigh of relief when Broadway banned together to safely reopen this year. Now, tourists and locals can buy tickets to shows that have already reopened or have plans to reopen throughout the rest of the year as long as they are vaccinated and can show proof. With Broadway completely resetting, it might actually be the best time to get tickets to ultra-popular shows like Hamilton or Moulin Rouge. The best way to get Broadway tickets is by purchasing directly from the show or searching TodayTix, a third-party company, great for last minute deals. For me, snagging tickets to see Sarah Bareilles revive her role as Jenna in Waitress, a loveable, hilarious musical about pie and pregnancy, is an absolute must.
See the City From Above
Once you’ve seen the city from a new borough (and the best borough, if you ask me), it’s time to see it from a higher perspective. Home to a handful of dazzling, gravity-defying observation decks, there’s an experience for every type of traveler. If you want to visit the new World Trade Center, and the tallest building in the U.S., head to One World Observatory for unobstructed views in every direction. For a little more thrill, hit the Edge, an outdoor observatory with a glass-bottom floor jutting out 100 stories above Hudson Yards. And for a little more history, you can always check out the observation decks at the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, home to SNL and NBC. No matter which observation deck you decide to visit, book ahead as time slots fill up fast, and be sure to keep an eye on health and safety requirements.
Walk the Most Beautiful Path in the City
Located on the west side of the city, the High Line is a stunning public park built on an elevated freight rail line from a bygone era. Crossing the west side from Hudson Yards down to the Meatpacking District, the park is full of gorgeous greenery and snazzy new buildings plus food vendors, artisans, and lots of seating along the path. Though the High Line is free and open to the public every day, weekends and holidays sometimes require advanced reservations to enter from noon to 6 p.m, and can only be accessed at certain entry points. To make the most of your time, explore Hudson Yards mid-morning, hit the High Line, and after exiting at Gansevoort Street, head into the Meatpacking District or the West Village for lunch and people-watching.
Embark on a Food Crawl in Queens
While there’s plenty to see and do in NYC, eating your way around the Big Apple is a must. And to really get a feel for the tastes and flavors that make the city what it is, you need to make the trip to Queens, the largest of the five boroughs. A melting pot of people and cultures, you can essentially travel the world by spending an afternoon hopping around dumpling shops, noodle stalls, taco joints, and Colombian restaurants in neighborhoods like Elmhust and Jackson Heights. The best advice I can offer is to pick what types of foods you like, and do your own research on where to go, planning your own little food crawl along the way. Or, if you prefer to have your crawl planned out for you, there are plenty of official food tours you can join.
Visit the Apollo Theater
And of course, no trip to NYC is complete without a trip to Harlem, and more specifically the legendary Apollo Theater. Having hosted and discovered some of the biggest names in music, including Billie Holiday and James Brown, the Apollo Theater is a place where the magic really does happen. Join a backstage tour to hear some of the theater’s secrets and stand where the greats have stood. And, if you’re in town when a live show is taking place, sit in the audience and you might just be there to help discover the next big name in music.
Safe and happy travels!
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