During high season, one of the main time-eaters while sightseeing is standing in line. In fact, at big-name sights like the Empire State Building, waiting to get in can take up your entire afternoon. But, a smart approach can alleviate the wait.
The weather matters
When it’s raining or snowing outside, your first impulse may be to focus on indoor attractions. Think again. Everyone else will have the same idea, which means huge crowds and lines. Our suggestion: instead of visiting the big-name museums on a rainy day, seek out lesser-known ones, like the Paley Center for Media, which explores the history of media in the U.S.; El Museo de Barrio, covering the art and culture of Puerto Rico, Latin America and the Caribbean; and the Studio Museum of Harlem, showcasing works by artists of African descent.
The time of year matters too
If you don’t mind a little of chill in the air, then come in January and February, which is typically the slowest time of year for New York tourism — and therefore lines and crowds are very light. Plus, there’s no better time than winter to embark on a Central Park Sightseeing Horse and Carriage Tour (from $111pp), when you can bundle up under blankets as the carriage travels down snowflake-strewn paths. The other quieter times of year are after the summer, around September and early October. But, if you do decide to brave the crowds at the height of summer, keep in mind that weekdays are always less busy than weekends.
Buy tickets online before you visit
The most effective way to avoid a wait is to buy tickets online before you arrive. This applies both to sights that have timed visits, such as 9/11 Memorial Museum (from $24pp) and those that don’t, such as the American Museum of Natural History (from $19.25pp). With your advance online tickets, you can arrive at the sight and bypass those waiting in line to buy tickets, which is often very long at the top museums, like the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Modern Art (from $22pp) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (from $22.50pp). Also, buying tickets online guarantees entry. At some high-traffic sights, like the Top of the Rock (from $24pp), if you arrive at the ticket office late in the day without a reservation, there may be no openings until the next day. How long in advance should you purchase tickets? It never hurts to get tickets a month or more in advance, but plan to buy at least 1-2 weeks before your visit.
Purchase a multi-attraction pass
Multi-attraction passes are well worth it if you plan to see at least three to four sights during your stay. You’ll save money but perhaps just as importantly, you’ll save time, because many of these passes have separate entry lines for pass holders. Among the top picks are the New York Pass (from $90pp), with fast pass priority access and free entry to over 80 attractions; and the Gray Line City Sightseeing All Loops Double Decker 48-hour and 72-hour Passes (from $53pp), with VIP access to various sights.
Buy VIP/express tickets and tours
Skip the line at top attractions by taking a special tour or purchasing VIP/express passes. The Empire State Building Express Pass (from $50pp) allows guests to bypass all lines to and from the 86th floor observatory. Upon arrival, you’ll be guided to the designated express lanes, where you’ll bypass the security line. Once through the security screening, you’ll be taken to the front of the queue at ticketing to redeem your voucher. For the rest of your visit, show the Express Pass to uniformed attendants, and you’ll always skip the line; the Express Pass also allows you to bypass all queues as you exit. The 9/11 Memorial Guided Tour and Museum Tickets (from $38) includes a guided tour around the 9/11 Memorial, and then you’re led to the front of the line to enter the museum, which you can explore at your own pace. The new One World Observatory (from $26pp) offers several different options including a Priority Access and Express Admission (from $54pp), which will get you to the front of the line. The American Museum of Natural History has a VIP Tour, which is offered at 9am, before the museum opens (from $600 for up to five people; each additional person $100). Another way to bypass lines? Come when the museum is closed. The Night at the Museum (from $123pp) invites kids to experience the night of their lives — a sleepover under the gaze of massive dinosaurs.
Early morning or dinner time are the best times to visit museums
New York is not a morning town, but that’s a big advantage for early risers. When you visit, aim to be up and out of your hotel by 9am, so that you can grab breakfast and arrive at the museums by the opening hour of 10am. Museum crowds are lightest within the first half hour of opening; the tour groups start streaming in later in the morning. Another good bet is to visit between 6pm and 8pm, when many visitors are busy eating dinner. In general, note that weekdays, especially midweek, are considerably less busy than the weekends. Also, check schedules for museums with extra-late hours. The newly opened Whitney Museum in the Meatpacking District is open until 10pm on Thursday evenings, and the crowds lessen in the last couple of hours before closing.
Plan to visit skyline sights and outdoor attractions between noon and 4pm
Keep in mind that busy times vary by the type of attraction, so it’s key to plan a daily itinerary that takes this into account. For example, though visiting in the early morning and during dinner is a good rule for museums, it’s different for skyline views or other outdoor attractions. The Top of the Rock Observation Deck (from $24pp) and the Empire Building Observatory (from $32pp) for example, are often busiest just before sunset, since many travelers time their visit to see the sun sink into the horizon and the stars start twinkling overhead. To avoid crowds, a prime itinerary should target museums in the early morning and early evening, and skyline sights around midday. The High Line elevated park is also busiest around sunset, when locals are getting off work and visitors are timing their stroll with the golden glow of sunset. For fewer crowds, head to the High Line in the early morning or midday and early afternoon. Also note that Mondays are traditionally when Broadway shows are “dark,” so the Theater District is a tad quieter during that time. So, too, are nearby attractions like Madame Tussaud’s (from $30pp), since many folks will often visit Times Square and its attractions before they head to their evening Broadway show.
Even if you have a planned entry time, arrive early
Even if you have a planned entry time, such as at the 9/11 Memorial Museum (from $24pp), the One World Observatory (from $26pp) or the Statue of Liberty (from $25pp) you should arrive early. The attractions that offer timed entry have very tight schedules with strict capacity numbers. If you’re even just a few minutes late, you may be penalized by having to wait until the next planned entry time — or even the next day. To that end, note that getting around New York always takes longer than you think. From delayed subways to traffic on your tour bus route to just getting lost on the winding streets of Greenwich Village, it’s imperative to build time into your schedule for unplanned delays. Also, note that many NYC attractions require detailed security checks. For example, even if you have reservations for the boat to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, you have to go through security before getting on board, and that can take up to a half hour or more. Show up early, so you don’t find yourself running for the boat as it pulls away.