New York day-by-day: Easy itineraries to maximize your visit

It's impossible to experience everything New York has to offer during a short stay. Even locals are always discovering something new in their native city! But we've pulled together what we consider to be the best itineraries for NYC visits from one to six days. Try them out, discuss them with your savvy traveler friends, and then add your own tips and tricks to help others get the most out of what's surely one of the most exciting urban areas anywhere.

If you have 1 or 2 days, you'll want to devote your time to visiting museums and iconic New York attractions, as well as that most New York of activities, shopping. I recommend bringing a comfortable (yet stylish – this is a fashion capital, after all!) pair of walking shoes.

Day 1

Since museums tend to open earlier than stores, grab a coffee and bagel near where you're staying and head to the mother of all New York museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Plan to spend at least three hours wandering through the halls and exhibits that interest you most.

You'll probably have had your fill of art by lunchtime, when it's time to continue your strolling outdoors. Choose between walking into Central Park, directly behind the Met, from which you can walk all the way through the park, or down Fifth Ave, which runs directly parallel to the park, and where you can gaze into ornate multi-million dollar apartments and ancient mansions patrolled by the ubiquitous NYC doormen.

For a real taste of New York ladies who lunch, exit the park anywhere on the east side and walk one block east to Madison Ave. At 61st and Madison you'll find one of the city's most fabled department stores, Barneys. Before you peruse the merchandise, head up to the ninth floor for a spot of lunch at Fred's restaurant.

After you have your fill of food and finery, cut back one block west to Fifth Avenue and two blocks south to where Central Park ends at 59th St. Here you'll run smack into the newly renovated Plaza Hotel. Take a peek inside to see the renovated lobby and beautiful chandeliers. Then either cross the street to the Apple store's glass tower and the mega toy store FAO Schwartz, or continue south down Fifth Avenue, where you'll soon come upon Henri Bendel, Trump Tower, Gucci, Tiffany, and every chain store imaginable.

When your shopping stamina wears out, head for an early pre-theater dinner (of course, you've made reservations at least a week in advance!) at Anthos, rated one of the top 10 new restaurants by The New York Times (the chef, Michael Psilakis, was also nominated for a 2008 James Beard Award). Then, depending on your time and the state of your feet, either walk or cab it over to a Broadway show (for which you either bought tickets in advance or made a detour earlier in the day to the Times Square TKTS booth to pick up).

Day 2

Today you'll be up bright and early to see the most famous of all of NYC's attractions, the Statue of Liberty. You will have reserved tickets in advance at www.statuecruises.com for 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m., which gives you access to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. (Get an early breakfast at your hotel or grab a coffee on the way; if you're really in a rush, there are concession stands on the ferries.) If you want to see both islands, you should allow about six hours; if this is your final day in the city, I recommend that you just see Liberty Island on this visit – which will still take about three hours, including time on the ferry – so that you can fit in some other New York attractions.

After returning to Manhattan at noon or 12:30pm, grab a cab up to the other must-see museum in New York, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The MOMA also contains one of the most-lauded restaurants in the city, The Modern, where chef Gabriel Kreuther prepares inventive seasonal American cuisine. After relaxing over lunch, spend a couple of hours admiring the contemporary art on display at this justly famous museum.

From the MOMA, it's a short walk over to Rockefeller Center (between 48th and 51st Streets and Fifth and Seventh Aves.) and Radio City Music Hall (if you so desire, you can take a tour, or just admire these iconic New York venues from the outside). It's another short stroll or cab ride to the Empire State Building. If you arrive around sunset, you can admire the transformation of the city skyline into a twinkling mass of lights from buildings and bridges.

The area around the Empire State is somewhat of a culinary wasteland, so walk four blocks west on 34th St. to Macy's department store, which tends to be open late, for either a peek at its famous window displays or some soothing retail therapy. When you've had your fill, head two blocks south down Broadway to 32nd St., where you'll find yourself in Koreatown, home of 24-hour Korean spas and delicious Korean barbecue joints. I recommend either Kum Gang San (49 West 32nd St.) or Gahm Mi Oak (43 West 32nd St.), and it's really hard to go wrong with the small side dishes (called "banchan") that come free with the meat, seafood or veggies that you often grill right at your table.

If you have any energy left over, go hear some cabaret in one of New York's famous venues. The Oak Room at the Algonquin (59 West 44th St., 212-840-6800) has shows at 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; celebrated songstresses such as Barbara Cook and Eartha Kitt strut their stuff at Café Carlyle (35 East 76th St., 212-744-1600); and well-known performers like Rita Moreno and Bebe Neuwirth display their vocal talents at Feinstein's at Loews Regency (540 Park Ave., 212-339-4095).

If you have 3 or 4 days, you'll need to get out of the city – but just across the bridge, all the better to marvel at a magnificent view of the city skyline. And, of course, New York isn't New York without cramming in more culture and consumerism.

Day 3

After breakfast or coffee at or near your hotel, it's time to head to a completely different part of the city – downtown. Take a train or cab down to Wall Street, which runs east from Broadway down to South Street. Though you can no longer enter the New York Stock Exchange building, it's an impressive site from the outside, as is Federal Hall (and don't miss the Charging Bull sculpture in Bowling Green Park).

After admiring the historic architecture of the financial district, walk east down Pearl Street to the cobblestone lanes of the South Street Seaport (Fulton and South Sts., Pier 17), once New York's shipping center between 1815 and 1860. Now a mixture of touristy shops, restaurants and bars, it's still worth seeing for its collection of historic ships, maritime museum and outdoor summer performances. Grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants within the Seaport, or for something a little more inventive, try one of the places in the blocks around the Seaport, such as Nelson Blue (235 Front St., at Peck Slip, 212-346-9090), which features hard-to-find New Zealand cuisine, or the historic (built in 1794) Bridge Café (279 Water St., 212-27-3344).

If you happen to be near the South Street Seaport on a weekend between April 26 and October 12, you can take a water taxi over to the Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn – a wonderful way to tour the harbor for very little money. See www.nywatertaxi.com/hop for current schedules.

If the ferries aren't running or you'd like a little exercise, you can walk off that lunch with a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. It takes about half an hour to cross the bridge into Brooklyn – and longer if you stop to ogle the fabulous views of Manhattan's and Brooklyn's shorelines. Once you reach Brooklyn, head toward the water until you hit the Brooklyn Promenade, another amazing vantage point from which to see the tip of Manhattan. Spend some time enjoying the scenery before strolling past the old mansions of tony Brooklyn Heights.

When you've worked up an appetite again, stop for dinner at the renowned River Café (1 Water St., 718-522-5200), a ritzy place with classic food that's worth it for the beyond-breathtaking view of downtown Manhattan. For something a little lighter on the wallet, order a pie at famous Grimaldi's pizzeria. If you still have room after dinner, try an ice cream cone or sundae from Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (2 Old Fulton St., 718-246-3963), thought by some to have the best homemade ice cream in all of New York.

Either walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge toward Manhattan to view the city lights, or take a train or cab back over. If you feel up for it, check out some of the trendy clubs and bars in the Lower East Side. The Living Room (154 Ludlow St., 212-533-7235) is always a good bet for local music in a cozy atmosphere (Norah Jones used to play here before she made it big).

Day 4

After a day taking a break from seeing art, it's time to hit another one of the big museums. Choose between the Whitney (where you can grab a quick breakfast at the restaurant Sarabeth's, located in the lower level) and the Guggenheim, depending upon which has an exhibition that strikes your fancy (look up the current ones on the museums' websites before you go) or what's open that day (the Whitney is closed Monday and Tuesday; the Guggenheim is closed Thursday).

After spending two to three hours browsing the museum of your choice, take a train or cab over to the majestic Grand Central Station. Marvel at the astronomical ceiling and check out the tempting foodstuffs in the Grand Central Market in the basement, where you can either stop for a quick bite or have a more formal sit-down meal in the historic Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant.

After lunch, hop on the 6 subway line directly from Grand Central to the Spring Street station, on the edge of the Soho shopping district. Wander west on Spring, Prince or Broome Streets between Lafayette and Sullivan Streets for scores of trendy boutiques and furniture stores; you can also turn south on Broadway (the Soho street with the largest concentration of chain stores) to check out the downtown branch of Bloomingdale's as well as Pearl River Mart.

When you've had your fill of browsing (or spending!), head south to Broadway and Canal Streets, at the northern entrance to Chinatown. You may be tempted to spend some more (but not much) for knockoff sunglasses or bags. Continue south into the heart of Chinatown's stores selling knickknacks, spices, candy, fish and baked goods. When you start to work up an appetite, stop for dumplings and bbq pork buns at Dim Sum Go Go (5 East Broadway, 212-732-0796). Reservations aren't accepted, so you may have to queue for a table, but the delicious food is worth the wait. Save room for dessert from the family-run Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St., 212-608-4170), which offers such unusual flavors as almond cookie, durian and taro, as well as old favorites like green tea and, yes, even chocolate and vanilla for purists.

If it's not too late, backtrack north through Chinatown, cross Canal and head up Mulberry Street, where you'll be smack in the middle of Little Italy. Once known for its large Italian population, the neighborhood is now better known for its touristy restaurants, but can still be fun to visit (if you have a high tolerance for crowds and fried foods) during the Feast of San Gennaro festival in September.

If you have 5 or 6 days, take time to check out Manhattan's charming downtown neighborhoods. (The problem is, you may never want to leave.) Also see more of what New York is famous for, music and/or theater.

Day 5

Start with a cup of coffee or chai from one of the local cafes in New York City's most charming neighborhood, the West Village. Most boutiques won't open till 11 a.m., so take the time to wander throughout the twisty cobblestone streets, admiring the gorgeous brownstones and perhaps wandering over to the Hudson River for a stroll along the water.

After checking out some stores on Bleecker Street (and lining up at Magnolia Bakery for a taste of their buttery cupcakes or addictive banana pudding), head north up Hudson, a charming street of stores, restaurants and residences, until you reach Gansevoort Street, the border of the Meatpacking District. Though this trendy neighborhood is crowded at night, especially on the weekends, lunchtimes are quite a bit calmer. Enjoy the steak frites or tuna Nicoise at French brasserie (and Meatpacking District pioneer) Pastis (9 Ninth St. at Little West 12th, 212-929-4844), where in nice weather you can eat outside and watch the beautiful people pass by.

Continue up Ninth Avenue until you hit the Chelsea Market between 15th and 16th Streets. Stop in for a sweet pick-me-up: a decadent Fat Witch brownie or Eleni's cookie or cupcake. Walk north on Ninth Avenue through the neighborhood of Chelsea until you come to 22nd St, where you'll walk one block west to 10th Avenue. Most of Chelsea's art galleries are between 22nd and 25th Sts. and Ninth and 10th Aves.; see chelseaartgalleries.com for the latest exhibitions and receptions.

After you spend the afternoon gallery hopping, backtrack a little to Ninth Ave. and 16th St., where you'll find the Maritime Hotel. If the sun is out, enjoy a cocktail on the roof cabana before heading down the stairs to Matsuri, a massive (and delicious) Japanese restaurant with more than 200 sakes on offer.

If you want to stay in Chelsea post-dinner, catch a world-class modern dance performance at the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Ave., 212-691-9740) or, from fall through spring, a play at the renowned off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company (76 Ninth Ave., 212-691-5919), founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy and housed in a former church.

Day 6

If today is your final day in New York, head to the Upper West Side to visit the always-fascinating American Museum of Natural History. After you tire of butterflies and dinosaurs, walk a few blocks west to Manhattan's famous food emporium, Zabar's (2245 Broadway at 80th St., 212-496-1234) where you can pick up some smoked fish or hand-sliced pastrami and bagels to-go.

(If natural history isn't your thing, visit one of the museums you didn't get to during the rest of your trip – the Neue Galerie can be fun if you're a Klimt fan, while the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum is a delight for design aficionados.)

Then catch a train or cab down to Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. After snapping a picture by the Washington Square Arch, if the weather's mild find a bench to enjoy your picnic while being entertained by the students, street performers and people from all walks of life who populate the park.

After you're finished people-watching, exit the park on the south side to West 4th Street, where you'll head east. Once you pass 3rd Avenue, you'll be entering the East Village (which runs roughly between 14th Street on the north, Houston Street on the south, Avenue D on the east and 3rd Avenue on the west). Though now chockfull of restaurants and boutiques, the East Village was the New York's center of counterculture not too long ago. You can still get a taste of its quirky side if you head north on 2nd Avenue until you hit St. Mark's Place, where gritty tattoo parlors sit alongside trendy frozen yogurt shops. Continue east on St. Marks until you run into Tompkins Square Park, which used to be known for vagrants and drug-dealers, but is now more frequented for concerts and a popular dog run.

If strolling through the East Village works up an appetite, stop in for an early dinner at Hearth (403 East 12th St., 646-602-1300) – a "New American" restaurant helmed by former restaurateurs from Craft and Gramercy Tavern – or a glass of wine and light fare at their new next-door wine bar, Terroir (413 East 12th St., no phone).

For your last night in New York, head back uptown to Lincoln Center to see an opera – both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera are headquartered here – or a performance by the New York City Ballet. (If you didn't buy opera tickets in advance, more affordable orchestra or family circle standing room tickets for the Met Opera are available at the box office, on the website or by calling the theater at 212-362-6000 starting at 10 a.m. on the day of the performance.)

Congratulations! You've made it through six event-filled days in New York – but you still haven't seen it all. Time to start planning your return visit.

Liz Humphreys is the author of USATODAY.com's New York City Guide.

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