New York City is a destination that holds as much allure for Americans as it does for international travelers. They come for Ellis Island, for sales at Century 21 and for red bus tours of all the city’s sights like Times Square and Central Park. But any real New Yorker will tell you the Empire State Building, Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty aren’t what make this city so great. Rather, it’s the energy, diversity, culture and intensity that make the Big Apple a place worth visiting. Stay five days or a lifetime and still never do the same thing twice—unless, of course, you want to. Here’s our insider guide to New York City:
Where to stay
Travelers seem to flock to the bright lights and huge crowds of Times Square. But New York City is more than this once gritty and now sterile big-billboard wonderland. It may be the first place new comers look, but it’s the last place returnees want to go. Because the city is home to such rich diversity and character, it makes sense to stay in a neighborhood that caters to both your interests and your personality. There’s the trendy Crosby Street Hotel in chic SoHo, where models sipping champagne cocktails at rooftop lounges has become almost commonplace. East Village and Chinatown, home to great live music and dive bars, offers the small but affordable East Houston Hotel on the Lower East Side. Artists who want to wander galleries and explore the work of local artists should stay at the boutique Standard Hotel in Chelsea, where rooms offer floor to ceiling windows and boast beautiful views of the High Line and Hudson River.
Hotels in New York are generally small and pricey, so travelers looking to save money can stay in nearby New Jersey or just north of the city in West Chester County and take mass transit to midtown daily. Larger groups, or those looking to have a real “life in New York experience,” should consider renting an apartment outside of Manhattan, some of which you can check out, as in a tour of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It’s a five-minute subway ride from the city, walking distance to dozens of independent restaurants, bars and boutiques, and apartments tend to be a lot more spacious than the usual New York City hotel room.
What to do
Part of what makes New York so great is also what makes it overwhelming: there’s a lot to do, a lot to see, and a lot to experience. Between subways and buses, the city has an efficient transportation system. Still, it’s best to plan your day around specific New York City tours and activities and immerse yourself in the neighborhoods that surround them to avoid wasting time.
Chelsea, the city’s trendy and artistic gay neighborhood, is home to some of the most expensive real estate in New York. It also boasts the largest number of galleries in Manhattan, showcasing art from around the world. Their close proximity to one another, as well as their budget-friendly admission cost (free) makes for an easy afternoon of wandering. Afterwards visitors can dine on gourmet snacks from nearby Chelsea Market before heading west to relax on the High Line, an elevated railroad track that was recently renovated and has since become one of the city’s most unique public parks.
Spend time in Manhattan but don’t neglect the city’s other boroughs; rent bikes and ride down the Westside Highway bike path across the scenic Brooklyn Bridge to DUMBO, where old abandoned boat docks have since become beautifully landscaped community parks. Return to childhood with a cone of hand churned ice cream from Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory or a steaming cup of hot chocolate from Jacque Torres, then go for a ride on the newly refurbished Jane’s Carousel. Afterwards, catch a quirky show at St Anne’s Warehouse, where puppeteers gather monthly to perform. Then hop the ferry to Williamsburg for the food, art and antiques at Brooklyn Flea followed by a tour and beer sampling at Brooklyn Brewery.
Eating and drinking
Standout restaurants like Le Bernadine, Per Se and Gramercy Tavern will always dot the elite culinary landscape of New York. If you love good food and the theatrics of fine dining, they are well worth the cost. However, this city serves up delicious food and drink regardless of price point, with a diversity of cuisine that you can experience through taking NYC food tours.
Pastry lovers will fall for the massive, soft and doughy creations at Donut Plant, where flavors like vanilla bean and fresh blueberry change regularly to reflect seasonal ingredients and everything is 100 percent natural—which means you can feel a little less guilty eating these sinful breakfast treats.
Brunch is a New York institution and no one does it better than Five Points, nestled between the East Village and Greenwich Village. The made-to-order churros provide a warm, sweet start and the baked egg dishes are hearty enough to keep you full ‘til dinner.
For a late-night nosh, try the 24-hour Great NY Noodletown where traditional Cantonese food is served up in a sparse dining room. What the décor lacks these noodles make up for in flavor. Brooklyn Farmacy in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn serves up hand-dipped ice cream sundaes and traditional New York egg creams with a retro soda fountain feel. And for the best Thai food outside of Thailand locals know it’s worth the trek to Queens. SriPraPhai in Woodside doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early or be prepared to wait. Order the hot and tangy Tom Yum Kung and wash it down with a sweet Thai iced tea.
The city that loves to eat also loves to drink, and whether its ice-cold beers or hand-made cocktails a thirst-quenching libation is never far away. In warmer months head to the rooftop bar of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where drinks are served above the treetops of Central Park. Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Brewery offers daily tours for beer fanatics and rows of picnic tables that offer plenty of space for communal drinking. If classic cocktails are more your style, the Kings County Sour, named after the Brooklyn borough at Henry Public in Cobble Hill will remind you what makes this borough so great.
The best free thing to do in New York… If walking through the city streets leaves you longing for green and eager to pick up the pace, join dozens of urban athletes at Niketown for guided group fun runs through Central Park on Tuesday or Thursday evenings and on Saturday mornings. It’s a great way to stretch your legs, experience the largest green space in New York City and get in that training run.
If a leisurely stroll is more your speed, wander through the galleries of some of the country’s greatest museums instead. Find out which day of the week you can visit for free here.
If you only have one day in New York… skip the taxis and make use of the city’s efficient mass transit system. It can get you from borough to borough in less time (and for far less money) than a pricey yellow cab. If the weather is nice, grab coffee and bagels for an early-morning picnic in one of the New York’s 1,700 city park, then check out the life-size dioramas and biology class oddities at the Museum of Natural History. Afterwards walk through Central Park and window shop along Manhattan’s wealthiest stretch of Fifth Avenue stores before heading downtown for a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry. You’ll cruise past the Statue of Liberty and catch picturesque views of the city skyline. Then hop the train (or take a walking tour across the Brooklyn Bridge) for coal oven pizza at the original Grimaldis. If there’s time, catch up and coming comedians at an improv show at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea and top off the night with old fashion cocktails at nearby Flatiron Lounge.
The best thing to eat in New York… The “City that Never Sleeps” also knows how to eat. Don’t miss the fried watercress salad from SriPraPhai. And be sure to drink all the coffee you can, because you’re definitely going to need it.
For up-to-date info on only-in-New York happenings… check out Nonsense NYC. And for an easy-to-use list of great shopping check out Go NYC.