One of the most recognized skylines in the world, filled with US-immigrant history, the epicenter of US theater, and having unique 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 saw 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 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, as I find unique things to do in New York city each time I visit.
Table of Contents
New York for Beginners
First, let’s get an idea of what New York City really is. New York City has the largest population of any city in the United States–that’s over 7 million people! The area of all five boroughs is only 301 square miles, so it is densely populated.
What is a Borough?
New York City 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 City is in one borough- Manhattan.
Manhattan is on an island, often referred to as The City. The East, Hudson, and Harlem Rivers surround Manhattan. The island is connected to the other boroughs by many bridges, a funicular, ferries, and the subway.
Manhattan is only 23.7 square miles but is 13.4 miles long, with 1.6 million people living in that space. It is crowded, expensive and there is a lot of traffic.
New York has a strong immigrant history, which makes it an incredible and unique culture to experience. You can read more about its immigrant history here.
Manhattan has palpable energy, which is exciting to experience. It is a significant reason I love it and 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 you can, walking 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. 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 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 four people and accept credit cards; some vans fit more people.
Advantages of cabs: You can sight-see from the cab. They are a straightforward form of transportation, not requiring 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 aggressive driving, randomly-timed one-way streets, and excessive 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 fancy compared to some places in 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. Google maps will also tell you which trains to ride.
There are electronic kiosks in the subway stations where you can buy a ticket, or you can just swipe your credit card at the entrance turnstiles.
At present, each trip will cost $2.75. 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 brought 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 to easily navigate 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.
Following 9-11 the subways are less safe then they used to be. I only take
Kids on NYC Subways
Kids under 44 inches tall ride free with an adult. They 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, but you can also get an audio tour.
One of the best I have been on is through TopView Sightseeing NYC. We were hosted with a 48-hour pass which allowed us to choose from 4 bus loops throughout Manhattan, Harlem, and Brooklyn, as well as a Statue of Liberty Cruise. We didn’t use the Statue of Liberty Cruise this time because we did a whale watch through Event Cruises NYC, where we not only saw the statue of Liberty but humpback whales with the NYC skyline in the background.
We used our tours when we had a first-time visitor to the US from Spain. Emma said that the night tour through Manhattan and over the Brooklyn Bridge was her favorite thing we did in New York.
Manhattan is 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 vital it divides the city into the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side. There is so much going on in it that 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
Modern art in a building worth experiencing.
American Museum of Natural History
You can spend all day in this museum searching through the history of things such as mummies to mastodon skeletons.
Harlem is a neighborhood in northern Manhattan with a vibrant 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 helicopter ride over, my one in Newport, RI was terrific!
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! High above Times Square is where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve– you can see the giant crystal orb atop One Times Square.
A fun way to see this area is with the bus tour/show The Ride.
Come in the winter to view the tree and skate at the rink. In the summer there are many things to see near here. A few to see are Magnolia Bakery (I recommend the Snickers Refrigerator Pie, although they are most famous for their banana pudding), Radio City Music Hall, and NBC Studios.
Top of the Rock
Gong to the top of Rockefeller Center gives one of the best views of the city. Book your top of the Rock tickets here.
You can also get to the top by visiting the Bar SixtyFive, which has a dress code.
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. Some shows sell out years in advance.
Many of the theaters on Broadway are relatively small. 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 unload. 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 (a fantastic show about anxiety and teenage angst), Hamilton, and Aladdin (Read more about it here. We got the Aladdin tickets at a discount by asking right before showtime.
In 2020 a Broadway Pop-Up Museum is planned.
Grand Central Station
Even if you aren’t traveling into the city through the station, it is beautiful, centrally located, and 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. The garden is near the Meat Packing District, which has fun bars and restaurants.
Grab a drink at a rooftop bar, like at the top of the Roosevelt Hotel, or the many in the Meat Packing District.
Things to do Downtown Manhattan
Explore Greenwich Village
This arty village of the 1970s is becoming quite the fancy neighborhood. Explore “The Village” in one of my favorite ways, on a food tour with Secret Food Tours. They were gracious enough to let me try it out, and I had a wonderfully yummy time learning about this part of the city I didn’t know as a fun girls’ day. Book your Secret Food Tour. We also took a tour with them in Amsterdam, which was one of the best parts of our trip.
Chinatown is a great place to shop, eat, and get a massage! When I visit with the girls, we always stop by. My kids love it too. Our favorite places to grab dim sum is Wu’s Wonton King and House of Joy. For foot, or even regular massages, we love Foot Heaven. For much less than anywhere else in the US, you will get a great, intense massage. The last time we were there, we tried a spot new to us- Renew Spa. It was way cheaper but very extreme. If you love a deep foot massage, check it out.
Canal Street is the place where you can get knockoffs. As soon as you get off the subway, people will whisper for you to come to follow them to negotiate.
A street full of restaurants with patios and a lot of life, Little Italy is also one of my favorite spots in the city.
Walk by the famous New York Stock Exchange (You can’t go in it). See the Charging Bull statue, the Fearless Girl statue, Trinity Church and Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn into office as the first President of the United States.
On my Tenement Food Tour, the guide spoke about this museum. I haven’t been, but I plan to go soon.
One World Trade Center/ 9-11 Memorial
Plan at least half a day to explore the 9-11 Memorial. There is so much information to see. Buy your tickets ahead of time, because it sells out- especially the tour. Book your 9-11 Museum tickets here.
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. My favorite bridge in the world is the Golden Gate in San Francisco, but that is a scary one to walk across!
Battery Park with its Sea Glass Carousel and gardens are down at the tip of Manhattan. 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 has 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. You can get there by jumping off the last stop of the 1 train.
Take a Whale Watching Cruise
Although it sounds unbelievable, you can see humpback whales with the backdrop of Manhattan. Read about my experience.
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 lovely.)
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, and 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 calm areas, 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.
Should I bring my Kids to Explore New York City?
My kids love New York City, although my youngest can only handle it in small doses. Read on for ideas of what to do in New York City with kids.
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 a convenient 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 an elegant lobby and relatively 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.
Embassy Suites by Hilton Times Square— This is not right in Times Square, which is a positive to me but is just a few blocks away, so very well-located. The rooms are big for NYC, but not real suites like I expect from this brand. The stay includes a delicious breakfast, which includes custom-made omelets. 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.
Where to Eat in New York City
There are so many options, and you are bound to find something incredible wherever you are. Here are a few of my favorites:
Becco– In the Theater District featuring daily pastas. The Maiale Arista, a slow-roasted sweet pulled pork, is some of the best pig I have ever eaten.
Serendipity 3– Come for the frozen hot chocolate, but stay for the quirky decor and unique food with eccentric titles.
Halal Food- Get this from a street vendor. Be sure to get the white sauce for the chicken.
Taco Mahal- It may sound bizarre, but these Indian tacos may be one of the best things you have ever stuffed in your mouth.
If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations, please leave them in the comments.
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