The Big Apple is a city of “wows,” and although I’d seen Times Square, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on previous trips to New York City, I had missed several other important sites, including the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and the Empire State Building. This time, I promised myself I’d catch them. Armed with a CityPASS, I set out to discover the best wow moments in New York City.

Best wow moments in New York City

The lights of Times Square. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The Basics for Discovering the Best Wow Moments in New York City

I received a complimentary CityPASS, but even if I hadn’t, I would have purchased one. Why? While the pass isn’t cheap ($126 per adult), it does save you $88 per person if you visit six attractions—well worth it, in my opinion, because you are going to want to see them all anyway. The attractions include:

  • Empire State Building
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Top of the Rock Observatory or Guggenheim Museum
  • Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
  • 9/11 Memorial & Museum or Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Granted, if you are only visiting for a few days, it’s hard to spend enough time at each attraction to make the pass worthwhile (and enjoyable). Instead, you can purchase a 3-attraction pass for $79 that allows you to select three of the above attractions.

Save 40% or more on New York's 6 best attractions with CityPASS. Shop Now!

Best wow moments in New York City

One of the reflecting pools at the 9/11 Memorial. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is a must-see even without the CityPASS, but there’s an advantage (besides the savings) to have a pass. General admission allows one visit, but with a CityPASS, you can go twice in one day. Plan to go once during the day to see the skyline and once after dark to see the city lights.

Day or night, you’ll stop first at the 86th-floor observation deck. Because it’s enclosed, you don’t have to worry about the weather (including the wind and cold), but smudges and glare can distort your photographs. Continue to the 102nd floor for outdoor views.

Best wow moments in New York City

The amazing view from the 102nd-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. Photo by Teresa Bitler

The Empire State Building can get very busy, especially midday and when the weather is good. At those times, expect Disneyland-sized lines snaking to the elevators. To avoid the crowds, go right at 8 a.m. when the observation decks open or between midnight and 1 a.m. The attraction closes at 2 a.m.

Best wow moments in New York City

Empire State Building at Sunset. Photo courtesy CityPass.

American Museum of Natural History

Built in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest natural history museums in the world. I explored the second (main) and third floors and am surprised by how much of this 4-story museum I actually missed.

Best wow moments in New York City

American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy CityPASS

Permanent exhibits include the halls of Ocean Life, African Animals, Asian Animals, Reptiles and Amphibians, Minerals, and Planet Earth, to name a few. My favorites were the halls relating to human culture, including the halls of African Peoples, Mexico and Central America, and Asian Peoples.

Best wow moments in New York City

A dinosaur skeleton towers over visitors at the American Natural History Museum. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Fun Fact: The movie Night at the Museum was filmed at the American Museum of Natural History. Go the museum’s website for information on your own self-guided tour to all of the locations featured in the movie.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like the American Museum of Natural History, the 2 million-square-foot Metropolitan Museum of Art is massive. It has also been named the TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Best Museum in the World for three consecutive years. Plan to spend at least half a day here.

Best wow moments in New York City

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy CityPASS

Highlights include galleries dedicated to Egyptian Art, Greek and Roman Art, Modern and Contemporary Art, and European Paintings. There’s also an American Wing, Musical Instrument Exhibit, and the Egyptian temple, the Temple of Dendur.

Best wow moments in New York City

You can get up close to an Egyptian Temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo courtesy CityPASS

I especially enjoyed the Arms and Armor exhibit. The intricate workmanship on the knights’ armor and soldiers’ weapons was amazing.

To learn more about the art you’re seeing, rent an Audio Guide player ($7), or join a free public tour. Go to the museum’s website to find a list of tours ranging from Masterpieces of the Middle Ages to Museum Highlights.

Guggenheim Museum

You have a choice between visiting either the Guggenheim Museum or the Top of the Rock Observation Deck with CityPASS. I chose the Guggenheim because I had visited the Empire State Building earlier in my trip. However, if you got your fill of art at the Met, the Top of the Rock offers views of Central Park, which you can’t see from the Empire State Building.

Best wow moments in New York City

The views are breathtaking from Top of the Rock. Photo courtesy CityPASS

The Guggenheim is located a short walk from the Met on Fifth Avenue and contains an impressive collection of modern art by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Jackson Pollock. For me, though, the real “wow” was the building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Best wow moments in New York City

The impressive Guggenheim Museum was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo courtesy CityPASS

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

CityPASS also gives you a choice between visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or embarking on a cruise with Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises. As I mentioned earlier, I had already visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time for the cruise this time.

Best wow moments in New York City

The Statue of Liberty. Photo courtesy CityPASS

If you are visiting New York City for the first time, definitely opt for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Your pass includes a round-trip cruise from Battery Park to Liberty Island (where the statue is located) and Ellis Island as well as admission to the Ellis Island immigration museum. Tickets to the statue’s pedestal or crown must be purchased separately.

While the 151-foot-tall statue is jaw-dropping up close, I was equally fascinated by the museum. Allocate at least half a day to visiting both. (You’ll probably end up spending most of a day at these attractions, though.)

9/11 Memorial & Museum

For your last attraction, you have a choice between either the 9/11 Memorial & Museum or the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. If you are traveling with younger children or military craft enthusiasts, go to the air and space museum. Otherwise, don’t miss the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

Best wow moments in New York City

On the flight deck of the Intrepid. Photo courtesy CityPASS

The 9/11 Memorial & Museum was the biggest “wow” of the trip for me, not in a “this is awesome” way but in a “pull your heart out, leave you breathless” way. You’ll see debris, artifacts and live footage, and you’ll hear survivor’s accounts, messages left on phones by those who didn’t make it and recorded communications between first responders.

Best wow moments in New York City

A fire truck damaged by falling debris on 9/11. Photo by Teresa Bitler

It can get emotionally overwhelming, but it is an incredible story of heroism, resilience and how we as Americans can unite in trying times. I recommend taking the Understanding 9/11 Museum Tour ($20 in addition to your CityPASS admission) for insights into the day and the objects you are seeing.

Best wow moments in New York City

The 9/11 Museum Pavilion. Photo courtesy CityPASS

I definitely discovered some of the best wow moments in New York City during my time and know there will be more waiting for me on my next trip to The Big Apple. You can find details on purchasing your CityPASS for New York City on their website. Be sure to check out more suggestions from Wander writers about what else there is to see and do during a visit to New York.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary CityPass for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.

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