New York City is not for the faint of heart, and the towering skyscrapers and famous buildings in NYC are living proof. This is a city where dreams are considered decrees, immune to reality.
I’ve spent the better half of my 10 years in the Big Apple in search of the most fascinating buildings in New York City and the equally fascinating history behind each of them.
In that time, I’ve curated my personal list of the 20 most iconic buildings in New York City. These are the buildings I often show out-of-town visitors, even if they require a detour. They’re all steeped in wild architectural beauty and rich history, par none.
So without further ado, let’s cover the most interesting and famous buildings in NYC!
Visiting New York City? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our helpful guide on Where to Stay in New York City (The best neighborhoods for first timers +2 to avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s our favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.
Famous Buildings in New York City
New York is where you prove if what you think in theory makes sense in life.Miuccia Prada
#22. Madison Square Garden
Madison Square Garden is synonymous with famous buildings in New York City. Having served as host to some of the biggest icons in music, comedy and even two popes, the place where MSG truly shines is in regards to sports.
Athletes by and large have named the Madison Square Garden as their favorite place to compete. Having hosted historic sporting events such as the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier, MSG is the pinnacle of competition. It is not without reason that it’s affectionately known as the Mecca of Basketball.
And after a recent and major remodel in 2013, Madison Square Garden has continued their commitment to serving as the go-to venue for international stars when they visit. A truly iconic New York City building for generations to come! If interested, they offer guided tours here. If you’re lucky maybe you’ll run into Spike Lee before a New York Knicks game.
#21. Apollo Theater
Inaugurated in 1913, this famous New York City building didn’t hit their stride until they opened their doors to black performers and patrons in 1934.
The stage at the Apollo has been graced by legendary icons such as Louis Armstrong, the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye to name a few. I find it increasingly difficult to list any quantity performers because I always feel like I’m leaving someone off. I could be here for days telling you about the talent that’s walked across that stage.
The City of New York designated both the interior and exterior of the buildings as official landmarks in 1983. It’s also listed in the National Registry of Historic Places. After the city bought the Apollo in 1991, they established the Apollo Theater Foundation to manage it.
The Apollo Theater still hosts performances today. Their famed Amateur Night is still thriving and serving as the launching pad for the superstars of tomorrow. Who knows, one of these visits might introduce you to the budding career of the next Lauryn Hill or H.E.R.
#20. Cathedral of St. John the Divine
I’ll let you in on a little known fact about an underrated building in NYC that deserves more attention than it gets: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the fifth largest church in the world!
Construction started in 1892 but St. John the Divine is still technically an unfinished church. (a popular nickname for it is St. John the Unfinished).
Most famous for its commanding size and well-executed Gothic architecture, there’s a reason Columbia students flock to the steps like moths to a flame. Simply being in the presence of this church feels important.
The church is grand inside, with ceilings reaching impressive heights of 232 feet. Make sure to tour the garden as well because it’s beautiful and well curated.
What’s more, this masterpiece of a building is often overlooked because it’s located further north (near Columbia University) on the Upper West Side.
Please Note – This is one of the only churches in New York City that charges an admission. Be sure to check current prices and purchase tickets here.
#19. General Grant’s Tomb
Ulysses S. Grant was a decorated General and the 18th President of the United States. Grant’s wish was to be buried next to his wife when he passed. The request seems simple enough, but it wasn’t. His options for a final resting place were limited because women were not allowed to be buried in notable military cemeteries at the time.
When Grant died from throat cancer in 1885, the mayor of New York offered to have him buried in NYC. His wife, Julia Grant, supported the offer and a large fundraising initiative took place to build what would become the largest tomb in North America.
Today, visitors can pay their respects to President Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant by visiting his tomb in the Upper West Side.
Grant’s Tomb is undoubtedly one of the most famous buildings in New York City due to its significance, especially with history buffs. You can get free tours of the mausoleum through the National Park Service.
Further Reading: 25 Thought-Provoking Facts About NYC (You May Not Know, Yet)
#18. New York Stock Exchange
It’s no coincidence that New York City is synonymous with financial power and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) deserves most of the credit.
Located in the heart of the Financial District (the oldest neighborhood in NYC), the New York Stock Exchange is one of the most iconic buildings in New York City because it stands as a symbol for capitalism.
Visitors are no longer able to tour the interior of this famous NYC building (after the 9/11 terrorist attacks), but, honestly, even just seeing the building from the outside is worth a trip. If you show up at 9:30am or 4pm, you may even hear the ringing of the bell, which marks the start and end of the day’s trading.
When we’ve had your fill of this grand building, try to find the Fearless Girl statue (located right across from the building) or head around the block to see the famous Charging Bull.
#17. Trinity Church
Trinity Church was originally built in 1698 before being destroyed by the Great New York City Fire of 1776. The second building went up shortly thereafter before, ultimately, succumbing to serious damage from the severe snowfall in 1838.
Alas, the church you see today is actually the third building, which was completed in 1846. You can see this church from the NYSE building.
When construction was completed, this church was the tallest building in the country (holding the title for 23 years, until 1869) and the tallest building in NYC until 1890.
Any Hamilton fans out there?
If so, Trinity Church may ring a bell. This is the church where Alexander Hamilton and his son, Phillip, are buried. You can see Hamilton’s tombstone from the sidewalk, it’s definitely worth a quick stop if you’re a fan of this founding father.
#16. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is arguably the most beautiful building in New York City.
Located on trendy 5th Avenue, this Neo-Gothic style cathedral has been stopping people in their tracks since its completion in 1879. This impressive church took 21 years to build because construction was halted during the Civil War.
With a seating capacity of 2,000+, this is one of the largest cathedrals in NYC. Touring the interior is a no-brainer and completely free, so swing by if the doors are open.
The cathedral was recently renovated to the tune of $177 million, so you can bet it’s a sight for sore eyes. Plus, it offers a great reprieve from the bustle of the city.
#15. The Plaza
When most folks think of New York City, they romanticize a stroll through Central Park (preferably in the fall when the foliage is bursting with color) while the striking Plaza Hotel looms in the background.
Originally opened in 1907, The Plaza is the epitome of luxury and prestige. Today is serves as both a hotel and condos, but as you can imagine, the price tag is steep.
If you’d like to tour the interior (and budget isn’t a concern), make reservations for afternoon tea at the Plaza. You’ll get to experience one of the most elaborate dining halls in NYC.
#14. Manhattan Municipal Building
Completed in 1914, the Manhattan Municipal Building is one of the largest government buildings in the world. It’s impossible to visit NYC without noticing this impressive towering structure, especially if you plan to cross the Brooklyn Bridge at one point during your visit (which you absolutely must do).
It was built to accommodate an increased need for space after the consolidation of the city’s five boroughs. Today it stands as an architectural feat that seems to defy gravity.
The beautiful building incorporates Italian Renaissance, Roman Imperial and French Renaissance styes of architecture and was the first building in NYC to incorporate subway stations at its base.
#13. New York Life Building
Most folks that visit New York City for the first (or fiftieth time) can’t help but wonder about the tall gold capped building in NYC. Well, my friends, today we spill the beans.
The famous New York Life Building was erected between 1926 and 1928 and the gold pyramid roof ensured it would become one of the most famous buildings in New York City.
Wondering if the roof if made from real gold? Originally, yes but the gold eroded over time and was replaced with gold-colored tile.
In any case, the New York Life Building is a striking sight to behold, especially from afar, where it becomes clear that the epic NYC skyline wouldn’t be the same without it.
Further Reading: 18 Jaw-Dropping Views of NYC (for all budgets)
#12. The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History has been a beloved Upper West Side landmark long before the movie Night at the Museum brought it to the mainstream.
The museum is a treasure trove of fascinating exhibits for children and adults alike, but the interior isn’t the only thing worth seeing. The exterior of the building is beautiful and worth a visit while you’re exploring the Upper West Side.
Check out the incredible Rose Center for Earth and Space, which includes Hayden Planetarium (considered one of the best planetariums in the world).
When you’re done gawking at the outside structure, head inside to browse the expansive collection. There’s more than 33 million specimens housed within the museum, but only 3% are on display. Honestly, even that amount can get quite overwhelming!
#11. Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET)
Founded in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) is often considered the best museum in New York City and it’s not hard to see why.
With more than 2 million pieces of art spanning 5,000+ years, the Met is the largest museum in the country and the fifth largest museum in the world.
In fact, the MET is the most visited museum in New York City (receiving more than 6 million visitors per year). But the glorious facade you see today is not original to the museum, it’s an extension!
Thankfully, the portions of the original building can be seen from inside the museum, head to Carroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court to see the red-brick splendor.
Further Reading: 15 Exciting Museums in New York City
#10. Ellis Island National Immigration Museum
Opened in 1892 and in operation until 1954, Ellis Island was the nation’s principal immigration station. It processed more than 12 million immigrants in that time and the main building was recently restored after 30 years of desertion.
The Ellis Island National Immigration Museum was opened to the public in 1990 and is a must-visit for any history buff. The building is beautiful and the history within those rich walls is immeasurable.
The building was designed in a French Renaissance style and is a beauty to behold.
#9. The Woolworth Building
Soaring an impressive 792 feet, the Woolworth Building’s claim to fame is that it was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930.
Not only was it the tallest building in the world at that time, but it was also the second-tallest structure in the world (after the Eiffel Tower).
Can you imagine walking by this monolithic skyscraper in those days? It dwarfs everything around it! The building was commissioned by Frank W. Woolworth, to be designed in the Beaux-Arts style with elaborate Gothic detail.
When it was completed in 1913, this iconic NYC building set a record for fastest build of a skyscraper. Effectively setting the stage for future skyscrapers in New York City, like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
During the grand opening ceremony, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button from the White House to light up the interior floors and exterior floodlights. To the shock and delight of the crowd, it worked!
#8. 30 Rockefeller Plaza
Home to one of the most famous observation decks in New York City, 30 Rockefeller Plaza is one of the most visited buildings in New York City.
The brainchild of one of the wealthiest men in the country, John D. Rockefeller, 30 Rockefeller Plaza was constructed during the worst years of the Great Depression and employed more than 40,000 people.
In fact, it was the only major commercial building in New York City to be constructed at that time.
The entirety of Rockefeller Center feels like NYC’s living room, made evident by the large groups of visitors that congregate here every day of the year, but especially so during Christmas to see the beloved Rockefeller Tree.
Further Reading: Best Viewpoints in New York City
#7. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
The iconic architectural feat that houses the Guggenheim Museum in NYC was Frank Lloyd Wright’s most notable achievement. Unfortunately, Wright passed away six months before the museum opened to the public in 1959.
This monolithic distinctive concrete structure is considered a work of art itself and attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.
Once inside, visitors slowly make their way up a spiral ramp to observe world-famous modern art. The entire length of the ramp is equivalent to 1/4 mile walk and naturally passes through the exhibits on each floor.
Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that this epic structure is one of the most famous buildings in New York City.
#6. Grand Central Terminal
Stepping into Grand Central Terminal feels like stepping into a European train station. The Beaux Arts design transports visitors into an intricately detailed main hall that boasts a celestial ceiling and a famous four-faced clock.
Today the Grand Central Terminal is one of the most iconic functioning buildings in New York City and sees an average of 750,000 daily visitors.
#5. The New York Public Library
The New York Public Library is housed in one of the most iconic buildings in New York City. Designed in a Beaux-Arts style, this building stands in stark contrast to the glass and iron it surrounds.
When it opened to the public in 1911, the New York Public Library was officially the largest marble building ever built in the country. No small task, considering it took 16 years to construct this monolithic structure, but the wait was worth it — more than 50,000 people showed up on opening day.
Fun fact: The two lions in front of the library are called Patience and Fortitude, here’s why.
#4. The Flatiron Building
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get real: the Flatiron Building needs no introduction. The intriguing triangular shape makes this one of the most beloved and famous buildings in New York City!
Built in 1902 at the bustling intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, this is one of the most photographed spots in the city today.
Boasting French and Italian Renaissance influences, this iconic NYC building was first met with hesitation from New Yorkers.
They were convinced the between the odd triangular shape and building height, it would fall down. Heck, even the New York Times originally called it a monstrosity.
But alas, the Flatiron Building has not only withstood the test of time, but the test of adoration as well. This has become one of the most beloved buildings in NYC and most New Yorkers can’t imagine the Big Apple without it.
#3. The Chrysler Building
At the time of construction (early to mid 1900’s) everyone was vying for the honor of building the tallest building in the world, the architects behind the Chrysler Building were no exception.
Impressively, the goal was achieved and the Chrysler Building officially became the tallest building, at 1,046 feet, in the world when construction completed in 1929.
The kicker? This iconic NYC building only held the title for less than two years, thanks to the Empire State Building 1931 opening.
Regardless, the Chrysler Building is often regarded as the most interesting and famous building in New York City, largely thanks to the intriguing Art Deco architecture.
#2. One World Trade Center
The One World Trade Center is the tallest building in New York City and the 6th tallest in the world. In my opinion, this is also one of the prettiest buildings in NYC due to its unusual shape and full-glass facade (it seems to disappear into the sky.)
The building caps out at 1,776 feet and the towering height is no coincidence — 1776 is the year our nation declared its independence.
Today, the One World Trade Center stands as a symbol for American resilience and pays tribute to the lives lost on 9/11.
Visitors are welcome to gawk at this famous New York City building from the ground level. However to truly appreciate its size, I suggest visiting the observation deck for panoramic views of NYC.
#1. The Empire State Building
They don’t call New York City the Empire State for nothing! Soaring to dizzying heights of 1,454 feet, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world for 40 years (from 1931–1971).
More impressively, the construction of this iconic New York City building took only 20 months from start to finish. More than 3,400 men worked on the building daily.
They were able to build the skeleton of the building at an unimaginable pace of 4.5 stories per week.
Fun fact: The mast at the top of the Empire State Building was designed as a docking station for blimps, however none ever did actually dock there.
You don’t come to live here unless the delusion of a reality shaped around your own desires isn’t a strong aspect of your personality. ‘A reality shaped around your own desires’ —there is something sociopathic in that ambition.Zadie Smith
Roundup of the most famous buildings in New York City
- The Empire State Building
- One World Trade Center
- Trinity Church
- The Chrysler Building
- The Flatiron Building
- The New York Public Library
- Grand Central Terminal
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- Ellis Island National Immigration Museum
- The Woolworth Building
- 30 Rockefeller Plaza
- Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET)
- The American Museum of Natural History
- New York Life Building
- Manhattan Municipal Building
- The Plaza
- Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
- New York Stock Exchange
- General Grant’s Tomb
- Cathedral of St. John the Divine
- The Apollo Theater
- Madison Square Garden