Early morning sightseeing in NYC helps visitors beat the crowds and make room for more touring time later in the day. Good thing these experiences are best in the morning, anyway.
New York City’s cool kids have always slept in until late, or so popular entertainment would have you think. For example, I can remember exactly one episode of Sex in the City that took place in the early morning—and unsurprisingly, it was actually about a one-night-stand that lasted past dawn.
The TV version of Manhattan centers on the night, but the truth is that some of Gotham’s best attractions and experiences should be experienced before the sun is high in the sky. Here are a few things to do that are worth setting the alarm clock for.
Yes, you too could be among the people enjoying free concerts by the Jonas Brothers, Olivia Rodrigo, Jon Batiste, or Carrie Underwood in the plaza outside the Today show studio—all of those acts took the stage for the TV program in 2023. For the best view, you’ll need to get there around 6:30 am; go to 35 West 48th Street to be in the right place. The atmosphere outside the studio windows is Disneyland-level ebullient, even on the days without music. The NBC program broadcasts six mornings a week and takes Sundays off.
But the Today show hoopla is just the beginning of early-morning things to see and do in the iconic Art Deco complex of Rockefeller Center.
On most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the official NBC Studio Tour begins guiding visitors around the indoor studios starting at 8am. Led by earnest, puppy-ish pages (they’re a lot like Kenneth from 30 Rock, no joke; see two of them pictured below), the tour takes visitors to the network’s control rooms, through hallways festooned with broadcast mementos, and into two famous studios per tour.
So you might get to see 8H, the massive sound stage where Saturday Night Live has happened since 1975, or the network’s news studios, or The Tonight Show stage. A lot depends on what’s going on at the time of the tour, which lasts 90 minutes, and ends with an interactive session during which tour participants can do their best Jimmy Fallon impressions and play guests, announcers, camera operators, and producers during a mock talk show on a facsimile set. Your souvenir is an emailed copy of the video that’s created through this silly, kid-friendly exercise.
The NBC Studio Tour was shuttered by the pandemic and was one of the last temporarily closed attractions to reopen—it only started operating again in November of 2023. The organizers took the time off to update the video segments of the tour, making them more informative and less like one long commercial for NBC than they were before.
I’ll note that walking around the outside of Rockefeller Center, which you can do 24/7, is most pleasant in the early morning because, with the exception of the Today show plaza, you’ll be able to see the buildings’ artful details without having to fight crowds.
(Pages at NBC; photo by Pauline Frommer)
The Statue of Liberty
The sight of Lady Liberty’s torch silhouetted against the dawn-streaked sky may be one of the most rapturously beautiful in the Tri-State area.
You can’t see that from Liberty Island itself (it doesn’t open until 9am). But you can catch the sunrise—and the spectacular views—by hopping the Staten Island Ferry. It’s a free ride. On weekdays, the ferry will be crowded with commuters on the way into Manhattan, but Saturdays and Sundays are calmer. No matter when you go, seeing the statue and the Financial District aglow in the early morning light is a very special experience.
The view from Valentino Pier, a public park in Red Hook, Brooklyn, located directly across the harbor from the statue, is also fabulous.
(The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Bumble Dee / Shutterstock)
“Before Hours” Tours at the Museum of Modern Art
Have you ever been on a New York City subway at rush hour? Then you know what the galleries of the world-class MOMA can feel like during peak periods.
But for people who love art but hate crowds, the museum now offers private tours with staff art historians that take place an hour before the museum’s doors open to the hoi polloi. The cost is significantly higher than a standard entry ticket, but you’ll be able to ask lots of questions of your guide, and for some, the special access may be worth it. Here’s a link to inquire about advance booking, which is required.
The 9/11 Museum and Memorial
As one of the most-visited museums in the United States, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum keeps longer hours than most other places. That means entry begins at 9am, which is 60–90 minutes earlier than many of the city’s other big attractions open. Visiting is a rewarding, if sobering, start to a day, and doing it first thing in the morning, when other places are closed, leaves the rest of your day for the city’s other must-see attractions.
These are so popular they take place daily, year-round. They take runners past the beauty spots of Central Park, or across the Brooklyn Bridge, or (on certain days) on the High Line Park and around Hudson Yards.
City Running Tours is the most established company leading these jaunts, and it promises that its tours are appropriate for runners of all experience levels. They stop a few times along the 4-mile routes so that runners can hydrate and hear more about the sights they’re seeing. Most of the tours depart at either 7 or 8 am.
A few of the city’s restaurants with the hardest-to-get lunch and dinner reservations are open for breakfast, when getting a table is a breeze. These include French wonder Buvette, where they expertly steam eggs using the wand of the espresso machine; Koloman, which specializes in Austrian fare, so your frühstück (breakfast) may include a side of bratwurst; and Balthazar, which may well be one of the most beautiful eateries in the city, and serves a hearty Full English breakfast, along with fresh pastries, benedicts, bloody marys, and more.
This being New York City, gourmet doesn’t have to be expensive. You can also grab the best bagel of your life, top it with a schmear of cream cheese, and feast for less than $5. Click here for our picks for the best bagels in the city.
Or simply wander
No experience makes you feel more like an insider than watching the city wake up as you stroll the sidewalks. You’ll see deli workers lifting folding metal gates to get their businesses ready for their first customers, you’ll spot bleary-eyed partiers emerging from clubs that rage til dawn (so Sex and the City got that part right), and watch street vendors setting up their carts, and you’ll still have plenty of breathing space.
As steam rises from the subway grates and cops take their posts at crosswalks, children in school uniforms will troop by you, and you’ll get a peek at life in a city that has more residents than 40 of the 50 U.S. states—a glimpse that shows you what it’s like to call New York City home.
In the “city that never sleeps,” early mornings are just another exciting chapter in the colorful cycle of daily life.