New York’s Top Attractions in 48 Hours


The bright lights and buzzing atmosphere of New York holds a fascination with many people. Whether you’re big on the shopping that the city is well known for, or you just want to experience the atmosphere for yourself, New York draws hundreds of thousands of visitors annually from all over the world. Many tourists opt for a long weekend but is it possible to see all of New York’s top sights in just 48 hours?

I’ve never found the allure of New York as appealing as others. I wasn’t sure why, so, given a spare 36 hours on a self organised tour of the East Coast a couple of years ago, I thought I should try and see everything I wanted to see in the short amount of time I had available. Read on to see how its possible to see New York’s top sights in a weekend.

Pulling into Penn Station a couple of blocks west of the Empire State Building on the Northeast Regional train, a very popular service run by Amtrak between Boston and Virginia, the noise was jarring. Having spent the previous 10 days exploring Boston, New York felt a world away. The city of New York has an area of over 300 square kilometres compared to Boston’s paltry 48 square kilometres and a population of over 8 million compared to just over 625,000 for it’s northern neighbour.

Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn

The impressive Manhattan skyline view from a boat on the Brooklyn side of the East River. The Brooklyn Bridge is also in view but had started a multimillion dollar renovation.

I didn’t have time to sit and reflect on the differences though. I had some serious sightseeing to get done and not an awful lot of time to do it in. The price of accommodation in Manhattan is as high as the ground rent, so in an effort to keep my bank balance happy, I stayed in the cheaper suburb of Newark just over the water of the Hudson River.

Getting into Manhattan in the mornings is easy enough using the commuter service like thousands of people do daily between Newark and Penn station on Manhattan Island. And getting around is easy enough once you get used to the express or stopping service lines. Chances are you will be needing the stopping services to see most of the main sights so don’t accidentally get on an express service thinking it will be quicker, then shooting straight under Central Park without stopping like I did. Twice! 45 minutes lost and only the inside of a subway tunnel to show for it.

Key to maximising your time is to group sights by area. Manhattan may seem compact until you actually come to walk between attractions and if you only have a couple of days you are going to need to prioritise what you would like to see. Top of my list was the Empire State Building followed by the World Trade Centre then Grand Central Station. I also wanted to try and get to the UN Building but ran out of time, however I did manage to squeeze in a couple of hours in the Intrepid Sea & Air Museum (an unexpected highlight) and a brisk stroll around the lower half of Central Park as dusk fell. A magical way to end a day in one of the worlds busiest metropolises.

You can loosely class the main sights into the following areas. Concentrate on one area at a time before moving on and where its practical walk between the points of interest, you don’t want to be spending all your time looking at the inside of a dark tunnel. Walking between destinations leads to unexpected surprises and wonderful stops where you may only have time for a quick coffee but they will add to your experience no end.

Lower Manhatten

  • Battery park
  • World Trade Centre
  • Wall Street
  • Pier 16
  • Brooklyn Bridge

Midtown

  • Empire State Building
  • Rockefeller Centre
  • Intrepid Sea & Air Museum
  • Radio City Music Hall
  • Chrysler Building
  • UN Headquarters
  • Times Square
  • Grand Central Station
  • Carnegie Hall
  • Central Park

Now a little more in depth info on some of the top sights

Empire State queue line

An informative sign in the queue line for the lifts.

Empire State Building

One of the most central attractions to start with and easily walkable, you should allow 2 hours if you are planning on going to the 102nd floor observation deck. The ticket price now includes a multimedia tour (download for free from your respective App Store before you arrive to save a little time) as well as displays on the history of the building and the new sustainability initiative. To read everything there is here will take longer than 2 hours so if you want to see more of the city you’re going to need to skip some of the finer details and, like me, you are going to take longer at the top that you first think. The views on a clear day are incredible.

south Manhattan view from Empire State

Looking down over south Manhattan from the Empire State. You can make out the cranes still working on 1 WTC and the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island and Ellis Island in the distance.

With the building being an icon of the world, security to get in is unprecedented and, on the face of it, more thorough than airport security. If thats what it takes to keep everyone safe and the building standing then so be it but be prepared to empty your pockets more than once as you snake your way around the well thought out queue to the lifts.

Empire State building view, Empire State observatory, New York skyline

Looking out over north Manhattan with the green of Central Park peeking through the sky rise towers on a glorious spring day.

Stepping outside on the Main Deck of the 86th floor you soon realise, along with the immediate gust of wind, you are on the highest open air observation platform in NYC. The app will tell you about what you are looking down upon as you search for Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the Hudson River and many more. When you’ve had enough you can go even higher. 16 floors to be precise to the Top Deck enclosed observation deck for the most spectacular views in New York. On a clear day you can see for up to 80 miles.

World Trade Centre

The new WTC complex covers 16 acres of Lower Manhattan but most visitors will only be interested in the 8 acre Memorial and newly opened Museum. Access to the memorial is free for everyone while there is a charge for the museum. You can take a virtual tour on the museum website to see if it’s something you would like to see.

911 memorial, world trade centre memorial

One of the twin tower memorials. A quiet place of contemplation.

Walking around the memorial evokes different emotions from every visitor. Mirroring the original footprints of the towers, the twin 1 acre reflecting pools also feature the largest man made fountains in North America while the names of every victim are etched in the bronze rims as you stroll around. You will walk away with your own impressions of this area. Is it a fitting memorial for the victims and their families? Only you can decide for yourself once you visit. One thing I did notice here (apart from the crowds) is that time seems to race by. If you only want to see the memorial you could easily snap a couple of photos in 10 minutes and be on your way but once you stand on the corner of one of the waterfalls your heart will take over and you find yourself taken back to that fateful day on Sept 11th 2001. I would say leave an hour for the outside, double it if you want to visit the museum as well.

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Formed in 1982 with the purchase of the legendary USS Intrepid Aircraft Carrier which served in WWII and Vietnam conflicts before becoming a recovery vessel for the Gemini and Mercury space programs, the museum now welcomes over a million visitors a year.

USS Intrepid, Intrepid Sea & Air Museum

The impressive USS Intrepid. Home to the wonderful USS Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

You are going to want to give this grand old lady the time she deserves. If you have children then you can easily spend a day exploring the decks of the ship getting to know about life on the waves before you even get to the 28 aircraft (including a Space Shuttle, Endeavour, in its own pavilion on deck).

Intrepid flight deck

Looking down on the flight deck from the control tower

Where else are you going to get a chance to see a Space Shuttle, Lockheed A-12, Harrier Jump Jet and Concord in the same space? Then there is the neighbouring Growler Submarine to explore. It’s the only American diesel powered strategic missile sub open to the public. You will easily lose time here but the Intrepid should form part of your travel plans. I petty much ran around it in just under 3 hours but do yourselves a favour and keep a minimum of 4 hours spare.

Statue Of Liberty

Statue Of Liberty New York

Possibly the quietest Liberty Island has ever been because it was closed on my visit.

On my visit the Statue was still off limits after some seriously bad weather requiring repairs to make her and the island safe for visitors so we could only sail around the island. Now back open to the public, this icon of the New York skyline will need around 3 hours to see including the 20-25 minute sail out and back.

Central Park

We all know that Central Park is the largest city park in the world but its not until you start walking around it that you realise just how damn big this place really is. Looking east and west you will see towers of apartments and office reaching skywards but look north from the entrance, not far from 57th Street station (or the Metro stop) and all you will see is green open spaces and trees. Lots of trees!

Central Park New York

Looking out over the skate park from a natural formation in the southern section of Central Park

In the summer I can see why this place is a magnet for so many New Yorkers but on my visit in a chilly March evening it was too cold to sit and reflect even if i did have the time. After 90 minutes of frantic power walking I had made it up to the large reservoir and with the sun setting and temperatures taking a nosedive, I needed to get back for one last sight. Do yourselves a favour and leave at least a couple of hours to just wander and take in the serenity of Central Park in the middle of one of the busiest places on the planet. You wont be sorry.

Belvedere Tower Central Park, New York

The view from Belvedere Tower in the middle of Central Park. Its now home to the New York Meterological Society.

What everyone wants to see is a personal choice, so for your 48 hours you need to make a decision on what that is for you. With only a weekend to squeeze everything into there is no time for winging it. Seeing a city the size of New York in just 2 days needs planning. Before you leave decide what it is that you want to see and make sure you know how you will get to all the disparate parts. Research the metro maps that are freely available online, scour Internet forums to discover other peoples favourite travel hacks. In short get to know the place before you arrive. After all, learning about our chosen destinations is as much a part of travel as the travelling itself.

manhattan skyline New York

Looking towards the Manhattan skyline on our way out to the Statue Of Liberty

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