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Best Things To Do in New York

AOL PICK from our Editors
Whether you’re on a New York City vacation for two days or an entire week, taking a decent bite out of the Big Apple involves some pre-trip prep work. We recommend starting on one end of the city and each day working away from that starting point, such as starting in southern Manhattan and going northward, with pit stops in Brooklyn and other boroughs. You may not be able to make a completely straight line—some crisscrossing and backtracking will be inevitable—but it will help you make efficient use of your site-seeing time.

Empire State Building

Neighborhood: Midtown
The lobby of the Empire State Building is coated in Art Deco artwork, including a relief sculpture of the Seven Wonders of the World. But we’re going to go out on a limb and guess that’s not why you want to visit the world’s most iconic skyscraper. It’s all about going to the top. There probably won’t be a giant ape up there, but there will be literally breathtaking views from the 86th-floor observation deck. Completed in 1931 and consisting of 60,000 tons of steel, the Empire State Building was the tallest skyscraper in the world until the Twin Towers were erected in 1970. Today it may seem tiny compared to newer buildings, but it’s still one of the most gorgeous. Be sure to make plenty of time for waiting to get up to the top; the lines can be long (waits can be up to three hours long).

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Times Square

Neighborhood: Midtown
Go to Las Vegas today and you can spend an afternoon in New York or Big Apple-themed casino. Step into Times Square, especially at night, and you’ll quickly realize that New York has returned the favor. This “square” (which is really just the convergence of Seventh Avenue and Broadway) flashes and pops with enough lights to induce a seizure. But the square wasn’t always so bright. After the Depression, the area was the most dangerous part of town and in the 1980s the area's strip clubs and peeps show houses became infamous. All that’s gone now in the new Disney-fied version of the space, where mega-stores compete with fast-moving news tickers and flickering billboards for your attention. The latest development, though, is a good one: tables and chairs have replaced parts of the street, making Times Square a much more comfortable place to spend a couple hours.

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The High Line

Neighborhood: Meatpacking District
Who knew this swath of industrial wasteland would one day become a top New York City attraction? It all began with a long stretch of abandoned elevated railroad track. Built in the 1930s, the track was used to transport cargo from the piers along the Westside at 34th Street to downtown Manhattan until 1980. But the track fell into disarray and a movement to turn it into a park picked up steam, aided by the support of celebrities. And finally in June 2009, the High Line officially opened, becoming only the second elevated park in the world (after Promenade Plantée in Paris). Only a small section -- from Gansevoort to 20th Streets is accessible at the moment (the final stretch will be open in 2011) but since opening, the High Line has fast become New York’s latest wonder, wowing visitors with its cool design (it goes right under the Standard Hotel) and incorporating much of the natural surroundings.

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Whitney Museum of American Art

Neighborhood: Upper East Side
One of the most overlooked of the major New York City art museums, the Whitney presents an 18,000-piece collection of mostly 20th-century art from such artists as Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe, Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois, Max Weber, and Jackson Pollock. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a successful sculptor and serious art collector, founded the museum. It has occupied its current space since 1966, but recently announced it would move to a bigger, Renzo Piano-designed space downtown in the Meatpacking District (starting in 2015). info@whitney.org

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MoMA—Museum of Modern Art

Neighborhood: Midtown
Van Gogh, Rousseau, Picasso, Dali, Mondrian, Warhol, Monet, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Jasper Johns, Warhol. These are just a few of the names you’ll see printed on a placard next to fantastical works of art at this museum. Arguably the best New York City attraction for modern art and possibly one of the best modern art museums in the world, MoMA, as it’s often referred to by its acronym, has even gotten better in the last decade. The museum was redesigned by relatively unknown Japanese architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, who opened up the spaces and created more natural light flows. The in-house restaurant, The Modern, headed in the kitchen by chef Gabriel Kreuther, serves up edible art that is as delicious as it is attractive.

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Brooklyn Bridge

Neighborhood: Brooklyn
One of the best New York City things to do might just involve walking across, rather than selling, a bridge to Brooklyn. Arguably the most famous bridge in the world (okay, perhaps second to that orange-hued one in San Francisco), the Brooklyn Bridge is not only aesthetically pleasing, it makes for a great work out. The 271-foot-tall neo-gothic arches are certainly the bridge’s trademark, but strolling along the elevated pedestrian walkway (starting in Brooklyn and walking toward Manhattan) is a must for any visitor. When it was completed in 1883, it not only united Brooklyn and Manhattan for the first time, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at almost 6,000 feet. The bridge’s construction was overseen first by John Augustus Roebling and then his son Washington. But after the latter suddenly died, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, took over and finished the job. Yes, a woman oversaw the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, a fact that has been largely lost to history.

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St. Patrick's Cathedral

Neighborhood: Midtown
It’s not New York’s biggest cathedral (that honor would go to St. John the Divine), but St. Patrick’s is the city’s most famous and arguably it’s most beautiful. This bewitching neo-gothic structure makes for a nice architectural contrast with the Art Deco-clad Rockefeller Center across the street. Completed in 1879, the cathedral is one of the country’s most identifiable churches. Up to 2,200 people can fit inside and the interior has been packed to take part in requiem masses for notables such as Babe Ruth, Celia Cruz, Robert F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, and Andy Warhol. Be sure to check out the Pieta, three times larger than Michelangelo’s version in the Vatican, and sculpted by Araldo Perugi, an immigrant from Carrara, Italy.

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Ground Zero

Neighborhood: Financial District
It may look like a 16-acre construction site today, but there are few spots in New York City as emotionally and politically and patriotically loaded as this spot in lower Manhattan. A memorial is planned at the site, but for now there are a few references to the September 11, 2001 attacks that brought down the buildings. One of the most powerful is inside the St. Paul’s Chapel. The diminutive church from 1766 across the street from Ground Zero houses photos, fliers, and mementos related to the attacks. When all the construction is finished, a new tower will rise to 1,776 feet and there’ll be a Santiago Calatrava-designed subway station and several memorials.

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Central Park

Neighborhood: Midtown
Look at this 843-acre patch of greenery today and it would be understandable to assume the city simply built itself around the natural environment, preserving a part of the original landscape of Manhattan. Not so. Central Park is the genius of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who also helped create Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco). Olmsted’s objective was to give city dwellers a reprieve from the blights of urban life, to make them forget —if only for a couple hours —that they were in one of the most crowded and busy cities in the world. It worked. Even today, one finds New Yorkers and New York visitors taking advantage of the park’s many elements: from ponds to orchards to rock formations to meadows. Twenty-five million people visit the park each year and it still does a fine job of absorbing urban dwellers.

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The Cloisters

Neighborhood: Upper West Side
A little bit of medieval Europe in Manhattan, the Cloisters look like a stone anachronism (old world meets new). This gorgeous structure is exactly what the name suggests: cloisters, or a monastery. You won’t find any monks here though. Today the structure is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s center of medieval art, appropriately enough. It’s creation is owed to endowment by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The interior is filled with Madonna and Child sculptures, paintings, and tapestries showing a unicorn getting slaughtered. Locals and visitors take the 40-minute subway ride (and subsequent 10-minute stroll through Fort Tryon Park) to get to the Cloisters because the peace and tranquility it affords. It’s a rare retreat from Manhattan without leaving Manhattan. cloisters@metmuseum.org

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Guggenheim Museum

Neighborhood: Upper East Side
An architectural game changer? That’s one way of describing this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, which sits like an eloquent inverted coil on the periphery of Central Park on the Upper East Side. Built in 1959, the Guggenheim Museum set the standard for inspiring museum buildings, creating a new paradigm: that the building in which the art is viewed should be an artistic object in and of itself. So while the building is one of the chief attractions here, the great art inside just seems like a bonus. There are 700 works of art by over 300 artists, including Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Picasso, among others.

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Chrysler Building

Neighborhood: Midtown
They sure don’t make them like they used to. The 102-story Empire State Building may get all the oohs and aahs from out-of-towners, but the “little” Chrysler building (at 77 floors) is a stunner. Look close enough and you’ll notice the grills of automobiles at the top (the name of the building should be a clue as to why it’s car themed). But there are more than just car parts going on here: gargoyles jut out at floor 59 and eagles perch two floors above that. Made with stainless steel, this striking skyscraper gleams in the sunlight during the day and reflects the city lights at night. Most of the exterior of the building is off limits, but pop into the lobby, open to the public during the day, to get a taste of the marble-clad Art Deco insides.

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Washington Square Park

Neighborhood: Greenwich Village
It might be hard to envision it today, but this well-manicured swath of land in the center of downtown Manhattan was once murky marshland, a cemetery, and then a military parade ground. Of the city’s 1,900 or so parks, Washington Square is one of the most memorable, not only because of the giant arch that stands where Fifth Avenue begins; nor for the recently revamped and re-manicured landscape of the place. But because of the people who frequent the park. Bohemians and beatniks, street performers and students from nearby New York University give the place a groovy and fun vibe. On hot days, children play in the fountain and jazz musicians thump out tunes.

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Ellis Island

For more than 60 years starting in 1892, Ellis Island served as one of the primary immigration processing centers in the United States. It’s estimated that 40 percent of living Americans today can trace at least one ancestor whose gateway to America was through this island just off the coast of Manhattan. Germans, Poles, Czechs, Italians and many other Europeans all made the arduous journey to Ellis Island, nearly all were escaping war and famine. America, for them, was a last gasp of desperation and Ellis Island was a new beginning. Today the place is a fascinating monument to human immigration. Visit the restored Main Arrivals Hall and the museum, which runs a self-guided tour through the complexes history. At the American Family Immigration History Center, visitors can do multimedia searches through the archives. Who knows? You just might turn up a lost ancestor.

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Grand Central Terminal

Neighborhood: Midtown
What is this…Grand Central Station? We’ve all asked this question when we’re in a suddenly and unexpectedly busy place. Now go see where it originated and you’ll catch the true meaning of this bustling transportation hub, as a whopping 750,000 people pass through the station every day. Yes, you say, it’s only a train station. But it’s quite a majestic one, indeed. Roman-style vaults may impress, but visitors are awed by the starry sky of an arched ceiling in the main ticket hall. Built in 1913, Grand Central is the dream of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Unlike once-glorious, now decrepit Penn Station, Grand Central still shines, fresh as the day Vanderbilt conceived it.

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Rockefeller Center

Neighborhood: Midtown
Fourteen buildings in all, this Art Deco masterpiece of a complex was the world’s first mixed-use business and retail development. There’s plenty to see and do here that will occupy even the most ADD-riddled visitor for hours. There’s a sunken roller/ice skate rink, a backdrop of countless New York movies; there are high-end shops (especially along Fifth Avenue) and there is the Top of the Rock, an observation platform 70 stories from the ground on the top of the 1933 GE building. Many will testify that because of the building’s position smack in the center of Midtown, the view from here is much better than from the Empire State Building. There are tours of Rockefeller Center every two hours between 11AM and 5PM.

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American Museum of Natural History

Neighborhood: Upper West Side
This vast museum of artifacts and taxidermed animals, dioramas and dinosaur bones is one of New York’s most popular. As staid some of it may be, the dinosaur skeletons and the famed gigantic blue whale hanging from the ceiling will make just about anyone’s jaw drop: young or old, modern or ancient. Names associated with the museum include such famed anthropologists as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead and Roy Chapman Andrews, the apparent inspiration for the character Indiana Jones.

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Statue of Liberty

Neighborhood: Liberty Island
It would be impolite to take a New York City vacation and not pay a visit to the lady. The permanent first lady of New York (if not the entire country), this gargantuan 305-foot-tall, French-made sculpture (and symbol of freedom to the entire planet), is one of the world’s most identifiable icons. She’s been standing out on Bedloe’s Island (renamed Liberty Island in 1956) —facing France —since 1886 and has been attracting hordes of people ever since. Don’t miss the second-floor museum dedicated to all things Lady Liberty (and includes the original torch). Make a reservation at least two days in advance for access to the top of the statue’s crown by calling 1-877-523-9849. Visits to the statue are free, but visitors must get a time-stamped ticket.

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Metropolitan Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Upper East Side
Two million art objects. Five million visitors per year. Thirty special exhibitions per year. Two million square feet of space. Seventeen curatorial departments. And over 1,800 employees. Welcome to the Met, one of the largest, most reputable, and most eclectic cultural institutions on earth and one of the top New York City attractions. The permanent collection contains many household names and works of art, including works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, El Greco, Raphael, Breugel, as well as wings dedicated to Islamic, Egyptian, Asian, and Greek art. It’s enough to take up a day or two if you want to see it all. So plan ahead so you can see what you want to see and then skip the wings that don’t interest you. As if the vast collection was not enough, the gorgeous Beaux-Arts building housing this huge collection is a site in itself. You haven’t really visited New York until you’ve lounged on the front steps licking an ice cream cone.

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Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Neighborhood: Lower East Side
It may not seem like a likely place for a top New York City attraction. With the cool bars and hip boutique clothes stores now overtaking the Lower East Side, it’s easy to forget this neighborhood was crammed with ramshackle tenement houses where recent immigrants (mostly from Central and Eastern Europe) lived in squalid conditions. This intriguing better-than-you-expect museum is an excellent primer on neighborhood’s past, as well as an excellent general history of immigration in New York City, reminding us all that we all come from somewhere else. Rooms have been recreated to resemble a typical Lower East Side tenement building and staff operates as beacons of knowledge on the subject matter.

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