In July 2019, I poured a glass of rosé and turned on Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind. Belting it out like I was Ms. Keys herself, I paused to laugh as my husband washed the floors of our not-as-pristine-as-we-hoped Airbnb in Midtown Manhattan. We had arrived for my third trip to the concrete jungle – 4 days in NYC to celebrate our good friends Tracy and Scott’s 40th birthdays.
I’m not good at relaxing when I visit exciting big cities, so on each of the three visits, I returned home highly satisfied with all we were able to see and do. I’ve picked seven epic and unique things to do during your 4 days in NYC for this blog. And since we know there are a zillion attractions there, I’ve followed them with six more “iconic” sights, if you want to squeeze in as much as you can. All can be done in one full morning, afternoon, or evening, so mix and match to your heart’s delight.
Unless otherwise noted, all of the below are in Manhattan.
1. Bike Central Park
Going to NYC and not visiting Central Park would be like going to Peru and skipping Machu Picchu. No 4 days in NYC would be complete without a visit. The silly thing is, I made the mistake of trying to walk it the first two times I was there. The park is friggin’ 50 blocks long and 843 acres in size! We rented bikes on my third visit, which allowed us to see every spot in Central Park that interested us, in a much quicker fashion. There are multiple bike rental shops near the park – we used Bike Rental Central Park and were happy with it.
In less than three hours, we covered most of Central Park’s highlights. My favourite area starts at the Mall (as seen in movies), which is an iconic spot to take photos or buy art. The Mall leads into Bethesda Terrace and Fountain, another picture-perfect area. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear talented musicians playing in the arcade or around the fountain. Continue on the path to The Lake, where you can rent a rowboat. You’ll also recognize this area (including the Boathouse Restaurant) from movies.
Other highlights of Central Park are Strawberry Fields and the “Imagine” mosaic, Sheep Meadow, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir (with a great 1.5 mile loop path to walk or run around), the Carousel, the Central Park Zoo, the Pond, and Belvedere Castle.
2. Visit the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum
The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum is an amazing tribute to the lives lost on September 11, 2001, during the single deadliest human terrorist attack in history. Factor in at least a full morning or afternoon for this area. Within the Memorial Plaza, view the two enormous waterfalls and reflecting pools, set within the footprints of the original twin towers. You’ll also see the Survivor Tree, pulled and restored from its damaged state, and the One World Trade Center (the new world trade center).
You’ll need at least two hours for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, unless you’re fine with skipping parts. I’m not a huge museum person, but this one was incredible. It’s interactive, detailed, and thoroughly impressive. As you move through, you’ll hear audio from 9/11 and see video footage from that dreadful day. There is a a beautiful tribute room with a photo of each of the 2983 people who lost their lives, parts of the wreckage on display, photos, tribute art installations, and more.
While you’re in the area, check out the architectural showpiece that is the Oculus. It’s essentially a shopping mall disguised as a train station, but looks more like a massive dragon skeleton.
3. Maximize SHOW time: Broadway, comedy, live music, or late night talk shows
High-quality live entertainment can be found everywhere you turn, so even the most un-artsy people can enjoy shows with 4 days in NYC. Broadway shows are plentiful – I’ve seen Wicked, Book of Mormon, and an off-Broadway show that is no longer playing. They were all fantastic. Wicked is a classic that takes you to another world, while Book of Mormon is a highly innapropriate, but HILARIOUS satire.
If comedy is more up your alley, check out the Comedy Cellar (friends saw Judd Apatow there) or Caroline’s Comedy Club, where we listened to Charlie Murphy talk about sex and other vulgarities (RIP my hilarious friend).
Live music is plentiful. An awesome venue is Rockwood Music Hall in the East Village, which has multiple bands or artists every day. I found Songkick to have the most thorough listing of live music events in NYC.
If you plan ahead, you may be lucky enough to score tickets to a late-night talk show such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, or Seth Myers. Getting Saturday Night Live tickets is tricky, but you can try for standby tickets early Saturday morning outside NBC Studios. We got tickets to David Letterman in 2008 by signing up well in advance online and answering a simple skill testing question over the phone.
4. See a New York Yankees Game (the Bronx)
I say the New York Yankees over any other professional sports team in NYC because travelling to and from the Bronx is half the fun. Take the subway; both Yankees games I attended featured wildly entertaining subway experiences. The first was a hilarious fight between an old lady New York Mets fan (the other professional MLB team) who kept telling a young Yankees fan to “draaaaap deeaaaaad.” The second was a group of amazing parkour/breakdancer dudes flipping and dancing in the aisles.
Yankee Stadium is massive. Even though I’m not much of a baseball fan, it’s a cool experience to order an expensive drink and some gross, deep-fried (but delicious) food, then watch some of the world’s best baseball players do their thing. So if you are a baseball fan, don’t miss out.
5. Attend a Gospel Service in Harlem
If you’re an atheist, scratch this off your list. But if you have a religious or even agnostic bone in your body, this is a unique, goose-bumpy experience, featuring incredible music. Take the subway to Harlem on a Sunday morning and get there at least 30 minutes prior to the service. If you’re not in NYC on a Sunday, some churches have services other days and times.
There are large, impressive churches that tourists flock to – like the Abyssian Baptist Church or the First Corinthian Baptist Church – so the line-ups are long and experience is less authentic. We didn’t realize how popular it was for tourists to attend these services (and this was 2013), so arrived late and didn’t get into the Abyssian. Someone mentioned another church that was close by, so we walked to it.
It didn’t disappoint. The Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was smaller with minimal tourists. It felt authentic and the singing and energy in the room were incredible. I’ll never forget how passionately the pastor said, “Can I get an AMEN!” over and over.
Consider your NYC partying sins forgiven with this one.
6. Walk the Highline
Honestly, this isn’t the most epic activity to do (in an enthralling sense), but it’s certainly unique. The Highline is a 1.45 mile-long park/greenway and rail trail elevated 30-feet above street level. Created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan, it’s an easy walk, with attractive landscape architecture and unique urban design. There are views of Manhattan on one side and the Hudson River on the other, mixed with art installations and plenty of photo opps.
Chances are you won’t have it to yourself (the Highline receives about five million visitors annually), but the exercise, scenery, and Instagram potential will keep you happy.
7. Shop, shop, shop
You may be thinking, why waste time shopping in NYC? The answer to that is simple: because it’s EPIC. You must squeeze it into your 4 days in NYC.
Want designer? Head to 5th Avenue. Prefer artsy and unique? Peruse Chelsea Market. Fancy a knockoff handbag or wallet? You’ll find them in Chinatown. Looking for trendy and cool? Stroll the streets of Soho to pop into shops. Like department store deals? Century 21 near Wall Street has you covered. Craving a mega mall? There are plenty (Hudson Yards is a new and beautiful option).
On each visit to NYC, I’ve carved out time to shop, because I love shopping, and NYC has the best.
4 days in NYC: if you have more time
Yes, I know – I’ve missed many of NYC’s iconic sights. If you are like me and can go, go, go, you’ll have time in your 4 days in NYC to fit in a few. Here are more experiences I enjoyed, but they didn’t leave the same lasting impression as the above.
- The Brooklyn Bridge: an architectural pleaser, this impressive bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn is worth a walk over to snap photos and explore Brooklyn.
- Empire State Building or Top of the Rock (at Rockefeller Plaza): yes, they have amazing views of Manhattan, but they’re expensive and come with long line-ups. If you don’t want to pay and/or wait in lines, book accommodations with a rooftop patio. The views will be almost as good.
- Grand Central Terminal: this massive and iconic train station seen in multiple movies is worth a stop.
- Staten Island Ferry: an experience I felt I had to do, but it wasn’t the most epic. The pros are that you get to see the Statue of Liberty (which looks exactly like you’d expect) and great views of Manhattan.
- Times Square: crazy busy, dirty, and hyper touristy, with people trying to sell you drugs left, right, and centre… but a sight to behold indeed.
- Other Museums: if you’re into art (I’m not really), check out the Metropolitan Gallery or the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). There are multiple other museums of course – such as the Museum of Natural History and even the Museum of Sex.
I hope these epic, unique, and iconic experiences are perfect for your 4 days in NYC. It’s a city where you feel like you can never do it all, because as Alicia Keys says, “there’s nothing you caaaaaan’t do…” It’s best to leave knowing you’ll be back.
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