One of the most recognized skylines in the world, US-immigrant history, the epicenter of US theater and an energy of its own- visiting New York City should go on any traveler’s bucket list. Blessed to live just three hours from New York City, I get to visit it three or more times a year. There is so much to do that I find new and exciting things to explore each time. My first visit to The City happened when I was 12 years old. I was charmed by the lights in Times Square and got to see my first show– Cats on Broadway! In my early 20s I spent New Year’s Eve in Times Square (that is the perfect, and only age, to deal with the craziness of that). I can imagine how hard it is to narrow down what to do on your first trip to New York City. Read on as I cover the basics of the NYC and make some recommendations and tips for first time visitors to New York City. Even if this won’t be your first visit to NYC, it may give even a veteran tourist a few ideas of new things to do and see in NYC.
- 1 New York for Beginners
- 2 How to Get Around NYC
- 3 Things You Don’t Want to Miss on Your First Time Trip to New York City
- 4 Things to do in Midtown Manhattan
- 5 Things to do Downtown Manhattan
- 6 When to Visit New York City
- 7 How Long Do I Need to Spend in New York City?
- 8 Where to Stay in New York City your First Time
New York for Beginners
First let’s get an idea of what New York really is. New York has the largest population of any city in the United States–that’s over 7 million people! The area of all 5 boroughs is only 301 square miles.
What is a borough?
New York is separated into boroughs, or city districts. They are Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. Most everything that you have seen or heard about New York is in one borough- Manhattan.
Manhattan is on island, often referred to as The City. It is bounded by the East, Hudson and Harlem Rivers. The island is connected to the other boroughs by many bridges, a funicular and the subway. It is only 23.7 square miles, but is 13.4 miles long. 1.6 million people live in that amount of space. My point being– it is crowded, expensive and there is a lot of traffic.
New York has a strong immigrant history which has made an incredible and unique culture to experience. You can read more about its immigrant history here.
Manhattan has a palpable energy which is exciting to be part of. It is a major reason I love to visit, but also why I only stay for a long weekend.
How to Get Around NYC
There are three main ways to get around NYC- cabs, walking and the subway.
Walking around NYC
If where you are going is within walking distance, this is my preferred method of travel. If you are going to be in the city, be in the city! It is a hugely pedestrian city. While you are walking you can see all the restaurants, landmarks and people. Obviously, be aware of your surroundings, but there are generally enough people out at most hours of the day or night that it is pretty safe. Do hide your valuables, so you don’t get pick-pocketed, a concern in any big city.
Cabbing it Around the City
NYC has Uber and Lyft, but cabs are so ubiquitous, they are generally easier to get. If a cab’s center light is on and the outer lights are off, he is ready to take a fare. Most cabs hold 4 people and take credit cards. There are some vans that can hold more people.
Advantages of cabs: You can sight-see from the cab. They are a straight-forward form of transportation, not requiring any navigation from you.
Disadvantages of cabs: There is a lot of traffic in NYC. The cab has to wait in the traffic. Subways or walking will often be much faster.
Why I didn’t even suggest driving in NYC- If you aren’t used to the aggressive driving, randomly-timed one way streets and extortionate parking prices, why bother driving in a city with so many better options?
New York Subway Guide
If I am not walking, I choose to take the subway. There are stops all over NYC. Although not clean or fancy compared to some of the world, it is pretty clean and cheap. It is even entertaining as there are often street performers in the tunnels or on the trains. New York subways are efficient and easy to follow.
I have a free app on my iPhone called NYC Subways. It has all the maps and will give you directions to where you need to go. There are generally also staff in the subway stations that will help you navigate your way around.
There are electronic kiosks in the subway stations where you can buy your ticket. At present time each trip will cost $2.75. Each person is supposed to get a card, which has a small fee. Once you enter the subway, you can transfer to other buses or trains for 2 hours. I have never taken a bus in NYC, as the trains have always taken me where I need to go.
I started my first trip to Paris with a tour guide who explained the subway system to me. It made all the difference for my family easily navigating the system in a foreign language. There is a full day tour in NYC ending with a ride to the top of One World Observatory, but beginning with a tutorial of the subways! Book it here.
Kids on NYC Subways
Kids under 44 inches tall ride free with an adult. They just duck under the bar at the entrance.
How long does it take to get around Manhattan?
Even taking the speedy subway, it takes longer to get around Manhattan than you would expect. For example it takes 25 minutes to get from Midtown to Chinatown. Look at a map– they don’t seem that far apart!
Things You Don’t Want to Miss on Your First Time Trip to New York City
The first thing you need to do when you get into The City, is to get an overview. The best way to do that is with a Hop-On, Hop-Off bus. Not only can you get off wherever you would like to explore, you can will also get an audio tour.
Manhattan can be broken into a few sections for simplicity: Uptown, Midtown and Downtown.
Things to Do in Uptown Manhattan
This area feels more upscale and calm to me than the rest of the island.
The main feature of uptown Manhattan is the glorious 1.37 square mile Central Park. It is so important it divides the city into the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. There is so much going on in it there are whole articles written. I generally like to stroll through it and relax on a sunny day. The zoo is near the foot of it. On my bucket list is rowing a boat around the basin. You can also rent a bike to explore it or splurge on a handsome cab (horse-drawn carriage). You will find those waiting at the south end of the park. The Central Park Conservatory offers guided tours. Many of the city’s best museums are nestled near it.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
American Museum of Natural History
Harlem is a neighborhood in north Manhattan, with a rich African American, as well as Jewish, Italian and Puerto Rican history. If you want to explore it, you may want to do it after exploring uptown.
Things to do in Midtown Manhattan
Midtown is where the action happens- the heart of the city, if you will.
5th Avenue is just south of Central Park. It is often considered the most expensive street in the world. Here you can find the ritziest stores, like Tiffany’s, Sax Fifth Avenue and Bvlgari.
Empire State Building
If you can’t afford a helicopter tour over the city , the next best thing is to see the view from the highest open-air observatory in the city. The Grand Canyon and NYC are the two US spots I would most like a ride over, my one in Newport, RI was amazing!
Definitely buy your tickets ahead of time, as the lines are super-long.
Building-sized billboards, hoards of people, neon lights as far as you can see… that’s Times Square! This is also where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve– you can see the large crystal orb atop One Times Square.
A definite must-see in the winter to view the tree and skate at the rink, but even in the summer there are many things to see near here- Top of the Rock (book your tickets ahead of time), Magnolia Bakery (I recommend the Snickers Refrigerator Pie, although they are most famous for their banana pudding), Radio City Music Hall and NBC Studios.
If you are a fan of theater, you have to visit Broadway. It is one of my favorite spots in the city and what I remember most from my first visit. If there is a show that you really want to see, be sure to book early. There are some shows that sell out years in advance.
Many of the theaters on Broadway are fairly small, so most of the seats, even in the rear of the theater are good.
If you would like to see a show, but don’t want to spend a ton of money, here are a few tricks. All are ways to buy same day tickets that the theaters are trying to get rid of. You are not likely to get in-demand shows. They are usually shows that are already touring, but Broadway casts are phenomenal.
- Download the app, TodayTix.
- Visit a TKTS booth in Times Square, the South Street Seaport or Lincoln Center.
- I have gotten tickets to hotter shows by visiting the box office right before a show. Sometimes they sell handicap tickets when they are not needed.
Some of my favorite shows still playing on Broadway: Dear Evan Hansen (an amazing show about anxiety and teenage angst) and Aladdin (Read more about it here. We got the Aladdin tickets at a discount by asking right before show time.
Grand Central Station
Even if you aren’t travelling into the city through the station, it is beautiful, centrally located and definitely worth a visit.
The High Line
Rubble turned to an oasis in The City– The High Line is a garden built on raised train tracks. Read Exploring New City’s High Line. This is right near the Meat Packing District, which has fun bars and restaurants.
Grab a drink at a roof top bar, like the one of top of The Roosevelt Hotel or the many in the Meat Packing District.
Things to do Downtown Manhattan
Chinatown is a great place to shop, eat and get a massage! When I visit with the girls, we always stop by. My kids actually love it too. Our favorite place to grab dim sum is Wu’s Wonton King. For foot, or even regular massages, we love Foot Heaven. For much less than anywhere else in the US, you will get a great, strong massage. The last time we were there we tried a spot new to us- Renew Spa. It was way cheaper, but very strong. If you love a deep foot massage check it out.
Canal Street is the place where you can get knock offs. As soon as you get off the subway, people will whisper for you to come follow them to negotiate.
A street full of restaurants with patios and a lot of life, also one of my favorite spots in the city.
On my Tenement Food Tour, the guide spoke about this museum. I haven’t been, but plan to go soon.
One World Trade Center/ 9-11 Memorial
The last time I was in the World Trade Center, it was standing. I haven’t gotten in the right frame of mind to visit again, but friends say the memorial is wonderful.
I am a bit obsessed with bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge is one of my favorite bridges to walk across. It is secure and stable and makes me feel safe.
You can read more about it and Brooklyn in Exploring Brooklyn NYC. Brooklyn is one of my favorite spots in NYC.
Down at the tip of Manhattan is Battery Park with its Sea Glass Carousel and gardens. It faces Ellis Island and is where one can catch a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and the island.
Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty
These two places are quintessential stops for American immigrant history. My great-grandfather came through Ellis Island from Italy in the 1920s.
Plan far ahead if you want to climb up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. The tickets sell out months in advance.
Book tickets to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Warning: This is many steps and is not air-conditioned. There is no elevator.
If you don’t have time to go to the Statue itself, the free Staten Island ferry will take you right by it.
When to Visit New York City
Like most touristy places, there will be fewer crowds and things are cheaper in shoulder seasons– spring and fall. There will also be more locals around and more charm. NYC gets both cherry blossoms and red fall colors (not like fall in New England, but still nice.)
Christmastime in New York is magical. Read all about it here. It is also extremely crowded. Think wall-to-wall people by Times Square, 5th Avenue and Rockefeller Center.
Summer in NYC is hot and often a bit smelly. The locals are mainly gone. That being said, I usually go into The City at least once a summer to see Tennis’ US Open (Of course, I have written about it) and always have a great time exploring for a few days.
How Long Do I Need to Spend in New York City?
There is so much to see in New York City, it would take months to scratch the surface. A week is probably a good start. You can get a good taste with a long weekend, knowing you will need to return.
When planning, consider how much energy this city has. It does have respites, such as museums, the High Line and Central Park, but if you get drained from too much commotion, planning a shorter visit may be better.
If you are staying for more than a few days, the NYC Explorer pass (discounts on NYC attractions) may help you save money. Explore it here.
Where to Stay in New York City your First Time
When I stay in New York City, I always stay in Midtown or near Times Square. It is an easy spot to access any other place in the city. It is also near Grand Central Station, the transportation hub.
Here are a few hotels I have stayed in and been happy with:
The Roosevelt Hotel— small rooms, but very convenient with a nice lobby and fairly inexpensive. Book your room here.
The Hilton Midtown— A 4-Star hotel, a bit more upscale, with beautiful rooms. Book your room here.
The Westin Times Square— in spite of being right in the middle of the action, it is quiet enough to get a good night’s sleep. Book your room here.
I will also mention one dream spot for me to stay in, The Mandarin Oriental, a 5-star hotel and spa overlooking Central Park… If you are lucky enough, you can book your room here.
There are obviously many more things to do in New York City, but hopefully this is a helpful Beginner’s Guide to NYC for you. Be sure to read all of my New York City articles.
If you have any questions, comments or recommendations, please leave them in the comments.
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