I remember the first time I got to NYC, my friend and I had traveled down from Boston, the first thing I remember was seeing the Empire State Building. A silhouette against dark rain clouds. We drove through the Bronx and Harlem and then down the western flank of Central Park and through Times Square. Looking through the glass roof of the coach I was already taken by the shear size of the buildings. I had never experienced anything like it. I had read in my Lonely Planet guide book that you can always tell the tourists from the locales because the former are always looking up. Turns out, just like the author of that comment realized, is that, in fact everyone is always looking up; or down or around or every which way they can. It can be mind boggling the amount that goes on in NYC. So after getting to our stop not far from Penn Station, we walked across 34th Street to get to the Hostel we were staying in. I have family that live in the city and we spent that first evening atop the small roof of the apartment building that they lived in admiring the sounds below and the sights around us. But New York City is not just about big buildings it has a huge amount to offer to all walks of life from the foodies who want gigantic pizza (not to be missed) to those who like a good bar, those who enjoy the outdoors, to museum geeks, sports fans and those that like to get down and boogy at the club. Don’t ask me about the last one, I rarely boogy so haven’t really got the faintest clue which club is the best. Museums on the other hand? Well now you’re talking. Spend hours choosing which one to visit, and then even more hours walking around them. Art, History, Science, you name it and it exists. My personal favourites include MoMA (and it’s smaller cousin PS1 in Queens) which showcases some of the finest modern art in the world and the 9/11 Memorial – be prepared to have something cheerful lined up for after your trip here, it’s emotional to say the least. While another small gem is the City Museum of New York located in the Upper East side which recalls the development of New York City from indigenous times through to its modern day madness.If museums aren’t your thing and you enjoy being outside then explore some of the very cool parks that NYC has to offer. The big daddy at 880 acres is Central Park, but don’t forget about the others; Riverside which is a dog lover’s paradise, the industrial underdog that is the Lower East Side Park, Well groomed Battery Park, Sprawling Prospect and also dockyard turned Brooklyn Bridge parks. All are a little different, and all are excellent. Lower East Side can feel a little rough but there are some cool sights to be seen along it’s length. These parks can give excellent views of the mega structures that dot the Manhattan skyline. I found pier 15 in Lower Manhattan (east side) to be an excellent place to see the sun set behind glass and steel. But if you prefer to look down rather than up, make a trip to the observation decks at either the Empire State Building (good), the World Trade Center (better) or Rockefeller Center (best) to experience being on top of the Big Apple. The views are crazy, the photo opportunities plentiful and the wait times in queues extensive. You’ll find yourself in a lot of queues while in New York but never fear! There is a solution!The New York Pass
If you wish to reduce those queue times either pre-book your tickets online or better yet, invest in one of the New York Passes. These are brilliant inventions and will save you a truck load of money if you’re intending to do some serious touristy travelling in NYC. These guys know what they are doing and have recently included more attractions than ever before while also increasing the options of validity. Choose either a 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 or 10 day pass, and if the website is to be believed then save up to a whopping $749 dollars per person on attraction entrances. I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to visit everything in 10 days; but still, I had a week long ticket bought on discount (they often have sales so keep your eyes peeled) and saved well over $100 AND got to jump most of the queues. Empire State is still a headache no matter what so just don’t get your hopes up about soaring past the crowds on that one. Purchase the passes online on the New York Pass website and then collect them from a designated tourist information center when you’re in NYC; there’s one near Times Square. You’ll get a handy booklet that details your discounts. It’s not just on attractions; there are shops, restaurants and bowling alleys also getting in on the act. Something to be aware of though is that when the clock strikes midnight the day you activate it, then one day of your pass is gone, regardless of whether you activated it at 11 am or 11 pm. Bare that in mind when planning your visits. Activation occurs when you first use your card at an attraction not when you collect it. Consult the site for a full list of attractions, savings and discounts – free bowling at All Star Lanes anyone?Below I’ve outlined some of my top attractions and things to do many of which you can use the NYC Pass on. There is so much more than this but it is a starting point for those who want some ideas. I’ve blocked attractions by region so as to help plan your days. Alternatively if you’re in New York only briefly then check out my Top 10 for NYC.
Midtown is big daddy of New York City. Situated on the island of Manhattan, it is the iconic image of NYC. The Empire State, Top of the Rock, Times Square and most of the other famous attractions can be found here. Midtown incorporates all the areas from Hudson to East River from 14th to 49th streets. The smaller districts contained within Midtown would be Hell’s Kitchen, Midtown East, Murray Hill, Garment District, Chelsea and Stuyvesant Town.
MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) is located at 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019 and is chock-a-block full of cool art some of which you’ll get, others which you won’t but all of them interesting to look at. It has cool and frequently changing exhibitions and shops to boot and makes for a good few hours of walking. Make sure you stop by and see the famous Starry Night. You’ll know you’ve found it because you’ll see the gaggle of people before you see the painting. For more off the wall (no pun intended – you’ll see what I mean when you get there) and quirky art by lesser known names then take the metro to Queens and take a look around MoMA PS1. Keep hold of your MoMA ticket as this gets you free entry to PS1 (with or without the NY Pass). PS1 is located at 22-25 Jackson Ave, Long Island City, NY 11101. For MoMA head to 7th Av for B, D and E lines, 5 Av/53rd St for E and M lines. If you’re using the F line then head to either 57th St or 47-50 Sts – Rockefeller Ctr.
Top of the Rock and the Rockefeller Center
Rockefeller Center (30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112). I like being up high in cities like NYC and if you do too then make sure you head to the Top of the Rock. Rockefeller offers 360° views of NYC and looks pretty sweet at dusk when the sun is setting, casting shadows over the city. When it gets dark you get to see the buildings flood with electric light and get a whole different perspective. Don’t miss the Rockefeller tour which you can get for free on the NY Pass. The lobby of 30 Rock is really quite interesting and the intricate symbolism is easily missed if you don’t know what you’re looking at. This is personally my favourite of the three decks in the city. Go at sunset for the best views, but be prepared for queues. As such I’d advise getting your tickets well before you intend to ascend. The nearest stations are 47-50 Sts Rockefeller Ctr for lines B, D, F and M and 5 Av/53rd St for lines E and M.
Empire State Building
The Empire State Observation Deck (350 5th Ave, New York, NY 10118). The most famous building in NYC and one of the most famous in the world, it was, until the WTC surpassed it in height the tallest observation deck in the city. The NY Pass grants you free access to the 86th floor. For an additional $20 (at the time I last went) you can go the 102nd. The latter is enclosed, the former is not, so hold onto your hat! Good views to be had, but the views are better at the other two decks because you can see the iconic Empire State when you’re not standing on it! Be prepared for two to three LONG queues and airport style security. I’ve found any time of the day at the Empire State is a good time for views. It’s open until 2 am so late nights and early mornings may be better for less crowds. The nearest stations are 34th St – Herald Sq for the B, D, F, M, N, Q and R lines and 33st – Lexington Ave for lines 4 and 6.
Murray Hill Diner
If your looking for a decent breakfast and you’re in Midtown then look no further than the Murray Hill Diner (222 Lexington Ave, New York, NY, 10016). It’s small, reasonably priced and for the most part has excellent staff. The food is good and the proportions were just perfect for me. It’s a solid all rounder and it’s clear that locales come here regularly – I always take that as a good sign! I’d recommend the breakfast wraps which contain your choice of fillings such as egg, bacon (various types) tomatoes and all manner of other fillings. You can view the menu on the website. Coffee refills are free. Nearest subway is 33 st, Lexington Ave for the 4 and 6 lines.
Quite possibly one of my favourite places in NYC. The Highline has something for everyone and it’s free! To get there take a walk from W 34th street towards the river and enter on the path that goes over the train depot; nearest subway will be either 34th St-Hudson Yards for the 7 line or 34th St-Penn Station for the A, C or E lines. Follow the Highline down to Greenwich Village on the old train tracks towards the old Meat Packing District. Alternatively enter at the other end at on Gansevoort St; nearest subway 14th St/8th Ave for the A, C, E and L lines and work your way up to 34th St. Make sure you sit at the glass window and watch the traffic rush past below you on 10th Ave or chill on the rolling chairs. There is public art dotted along it and if your lucky there may be performance art occurring in one of the nearby buildings. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see it. There are plenty of exits and entrances as you walk along if you want to hop off and explore NYC at street level. The art work dotted along its length takes the form of street paintings and graffiti with a few commissioned art works thrown in and cover many of the surrounding buildings – it’s very cool stuff and changes every time you go!
It’s busy, it’s manic, it’s full of people – lot’s of whom are dressed in costume. It’s got to be seen to be believed. Take some time to people watch at the plentiful seating areas, listen to the traffic rumble past on 7th Ave and Broadway, enjoy the lights that adorn all the buildings and get some touristy gifts from the shop Grand Slam. Come back at night for a truly ethereal experience. There is often large pieces of work on display here such as the full size X-wing fighter made of Lego that was on display when I was there. Other attractions near here include All Star Lanes bowling, Madame Tussauds and the Bodyworks. The nearest station is Times Sq-42nd St which services the 1, 2,3, S, 7, N, Q and R lines.
Intrepid Air and Space Museum
Take a jaunt to a real aircraft carrier and experience what life aboard was like for the sailors who fought and died in various campaigns. Most decks can be visited from the bridge down to the living quarters. The main decks have a tonne of interactive exhibits and games that will keep adults and kids alike entertained. There are several aeroplanes on the main outer deck as well as a NASA space shuttle. Once you’ve had your fill of planes and space shuttles head down and enjoy the Growler – a decommissioned nuclear submarine which is a lot of fun to explore. There are often extra events going on here. I’ve got lucky both times I’ve been to experience May Day Parades (and Fleet Week) and an orchestra playing at the main internal decks of the carrier. Entry to the carrier and submarine are included with the NY Pass. The space shuttle is extra. The nearest stations are 42nd St – Port Authority Bus Terminal Station or 50th St Station. Just head head west 4 blocks along the respective streets to 12th Ave and then either head north (42nd St) or south (50th St). You can’t miss the Intrepid it’s pretty darn big. Both 42nd and 50th St stations are served by A, C and E lines.
Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
A great way of seeing NYC is by boat. As part of the NY Pass you can get boat trips with Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises. I’d say go for the 3-hour one for value for money, unless you just want a shorter trip. The 3-hour one takes you right round Manhattan so you can get a good look at pretty much everything. I’d check the Circle Line website for when services are operating as they are seasonal. I do believe that some of the NY Pass attractions come with restrictions. For example I think if you go for one of these boat tours you can’t then use the pass for the Statue of Liberty. What I would say is look at the cost of each attraction and decide. In this instance it was a simple choice. The boat cruise was around $42 and the Statue of Liberty was only $18 including the crown. I’ll leave you to do the maths. The nearest station is 42nd St – Port Authority Bus Terminal for the A, C and E lines. Walk west along 42nd Street a few blocks and you’ll come out right on top of it at 12th Av. It’s a good idea to do Intrepid Air and Space Museumon the same day as they are practically next to one another.
Grand Central and the Chrysler Building
Head to Grand Central Station (4, 5, 6, 7 and S lines) and explore the surrounding area to see the world famous and, I feel, most beautiful skyscraper in NYC, the Chrysler Building. Take a note of the silver art-deco gargoyles on the outer corners. The lobby is occasionally open to go in and view. Grand Central itself is pretty immense. There are many iconic photos of Grand Central where shafts of sunlight are streaming in through the windows. Apparently this is no longer possible due to the huge buildings outside that now block the light. Take note of the ceiling and the largest Star Spangled Banner you’ll probably ever see. If you’re heading out of NYC for day trips by train then chances are this is where you’ll leave from.
The financial hub of NYC and the home of the famous World Trade Center. Downtown Manhattan is quieter than it’s Midtown brother and far more corporate around the edges. However, what it lacks in character it makes up for with things to do and see. Downtown runs from 14th Street and covers the whole lower part of Manhattan. The smaller districts of Downtown include, East village, Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, Two Bridges, Civic Center and Tribeca.
World Trade Center
The World Trade Center site is the location of one of the worst terrorist attacks in living memory. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives that day and the new WTC is a testament to the fortitude of the American people. It consists of three major attractions now. The Memorial Park, the Museum and the Observation Deck. All are fantastic and I feel are one of the best memorials I have ever seen for its design, its message and ultimately its simplicity. The 9/11 Memorial Museum located at 180 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10007, is a culmination of all the work to restore the World Trade Center to it’s former glory prior to the attacks on 9/11. It’s situated on the Memorial Park between the new WTC buildings, some of which are still under construction. I shan’t say much about this as it is difficult to put into words, but I feel as far as memorial tributes go, this is one of the most poignant; striking yet subtle in its nature. Every victim is named and the original building footprints remembered by the reflecting pools that have taken their place. Even though it’s in the middle of one of the busiest cities on Earth there’s a somber silence that hangs over the place. You get a real feel for the size of the construction effort of the original WTC – much of the museum is based on the original construction, but be prepared there are some shocking bits of footage, images and audio from that infamous day and personally I wouldn’t take children to see it. Be aware that there are (understandably) areas of the museum that do not allow photography of any kind. The museum is pretty vast and I failed to see everything in the few hours that I was in there and I would have stayed longer had the museum not been closing. I’d say come early to give yourself enough time to appreciate all that the museum has to offer. One note I’d make about this museum is that it’s central focus was not 9/11 itself, it was about the original buildings from their inception to realization; about the strength and resilience of the people involved on that fateful day and of the forward journey that the world at large faces moving on from those events. I’d have something lined up after as some of what you see can be harrowing.
For a more lighthearted activity here head to One World Observatory (285 Fulton St, New York, NY 10006) which is the name of the observation deck located in Freedom Tower of the World Trade Center on the 100-102nd floors which provide a view of NYC that hadn’t been publicly seen since 2001. I shan’t say much though. The views when you’re there will speak for themselves. I do distinctly remember my jaw hitting the floor when I saw it though! Head there at night for a shot of 40,000 twinkling buildings across 4 states – enough said. Oh and enjoy the elevator ride – it’s pretty darn cool! I spent several hours up here just admiring the view. I eventually got kicked out since it was closing. To access the WTC head to the station at World Trade Center (E line) or Cortlandt St for the N and R lines.
When I last went the Park was free to enter and the museum wasn’t included on the pass nor was the observatory. It is my understanding that they are now included but I’d still advise checking just to be sure.
Lower East Side Park
Lower East Side is not so much a park as an industrial area undergoing (very slow) urban regeneration. It does make for a nice change though. Watch the inhabitants of China Town fish along the river, guys beasting a workout at one of the many riverside open air gyms and watch as the sun sets over Brooklyn and stare in awe at the scale of the adjoining bridges which soar overhead. It can feel rough at times but it was good nonetheless. The sound of the cars rumbling overhead is also quite cool. Look out for the long abandoned Fulton Fish Market and Piers (inaccessible but still interesting to see). I found the park by heading towards the Williamsburg bridge (I was intending to cross it). I missed it and found myself at the river and under the bridge. I later came out of the park near the Financial District by Pier 15, where I watched the sun set over the river.
Battery Park, The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Head to Battery Park, built by excavating land from sites such as the original WTC. It’s got some stellar views of the Hudson and further afield to the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey. There’s a lot of places to relax here and it’s a popular site for tourists and locales alike. There are a few museums worth checking out here as well, namely the Skyscraper Museum which is included in the NY Pass. There is also the Museum of Jewish Heritage but I have not yet been in so cannot comment fully. Stand on the Castle Clinton National Monument for the best views. From here you can also get the ferry to Liberty and Ellis Islands. If you enjoy tight spaces and lot’s of stairs then by all means head to the top of Lady Liberty for a unique view of the city. However, this is not really needed, the museum in the base of the statue and the island themselves are nice to walk around with plenty to see. I would thoroughly recommend that you also head over to the Ellis Island Immigration Museum that turns you into an immigrant arriving in the USA for the first time and puts you through the procedures they went through. frankly one of the best and most engaging museums I’ve ever been into. Make sure you collect the free audio tour to get the most immersive experience. The best stations to access Battery Park would be Bowling Green (opposite the National Museum of the American Indian) for service on lines 4 and 5 and the station at South Ferry for line 1. South Ferry is also an excellent place to head to get the free ferry to Staten Island and back. Service runs every half hour. It’s well worth doing for some cracking views of lower Manhattan. Remember it’s free! Not much is in NYC!
Brooklyn Bridge and It’s Namesake Borough
Brooklyn Bridge is quite possibly one of the most famous bridges in the world. It’s a nice walk across with some brilliant views of both sides of the river. When you reach the Brooklyn side of the bridge come off and head round and down into Dumbo and look for the cool shot of Manhattan Bridge between buildings. Dumbo is an acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. When you’ve got your shots head into the park for the old carousel in a glass box and a small ‘beach’; if it can be called that. Before heading off further, stop by and grab some ice cream at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and then head round the coast of Brooklyn to admire the views of Lower Manhattan and to watch people play sports on the old docks-turned-sports pitches. Look out for the pieces of art work-cum-benches and the mirrored mazes which if you’re into your photography provide some excellent photo opportunities. From here you can either head back to Manhattan the way you came, grab the metro or get a water taxi. Alternatively you can head further south and explore Prospect Park. If you’re in this area, definitely check out the Botanical Gardens for a little green R&R away from the urban grime. Further on still is a proper beach. Beaches in NYC I hear you cry? Yes they exist and no they are not dirty or dodgy. Head down to Coney Island and enjoy the fair ground and the sand. Eat at Nathan’s, the home of the hot dog and it’s corresponding international eating competition and walk down the Broadwalk and enjoy the sun, the sea and the endless people playing sports or working out at the open air gyms. I think these open air gyms must be a big thing over here. Best station for the beach and hotdogs is located at Coney Island – Stillwell Av with service on lines D, F, N and Q.
Chinatown and Little Italy
While there are is not much in the way of attractions in these areas, they are fantastic to walk around and just experience. The Chinatown in Queens may be more authentic in some ways but this is still a treat and very much like being in China. Keep an eye out for the street art that dots the place and sample some of many eateries that are everywhere. Little Italy has a year round Christmas shop as well, so if that is your kind of thing then head there too!
Upper West Side and Harlem
Bordering the west flank of Central Park and the River Hudson, Upper West Side begins to gradually remove the tallest buildings in the city and replaces them with a more modest terraced system. Here the city feels a little rougher around the edges but it still has plenty of charm. The UWS runs from 59th St to 110th St.
American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West & 79th St, New York, NY 10024) caters for all, with exhibits as far ranging as dinosaurs, indigenous North American populations, Pacific Islanders, all the way to the space age at the Planetarium. There is full sized T-Rex to admire and also things to keep those who like environmental, biological, geological and pretty much any other scientific and natural exhibits entertained. Make sure you get in on the free interactive video at the planetarium. There’s plenty to keep kids here entertained in wet weather. Head to 81st St – Natural History Museum with service on A, B and C lines.
Riverside Park, Columbia University and St. John the Divine
Riverside Park located on the Upper West Side is a dog lover’s paradise. River on one side, city on the other and lots of green space in between. It’s long and snakes several blocks. I entered near 103rd St and came out near the top at around 125th street in Harlem and went on to explore the grounds of Columbia University and the Ulysses monument. Truth is the park starts nearer 72nd St so there is plenty to see here. The park itself has a multitude of places to sit and watch the dogs go mental, jumping in puddles and the like or perhaps you can take some time to watch people play soccer. The university is well worth a wander around. From here you can head to St. John the Divine; a rather grand cathedral that is free to enter. Take note of the small park to the side of the cathedral as it contains art work and sculptures from children and teenagers from across the city. To access Riverside Park use Line 1 at stations 72nd St, 79th St, 86th St, 96th St (express station), 103rd St, 110th – Cathedral Parkway and 125th St. Line 1 is preferable as although Lines 2 and 3 service some of these stations they divert to other routes before 125th St.
Upper East Side and Central Park
The Upper East Side starts on 5th Avenue and runs across to the East River. Here you’ll find plenty of designer shops including the famous Apple Store. The main entrance to Central Park is located just opposite. There’s a Zoo and plenty of space to chill in decent weather. If it’s a little wet or cold head to Museum Mile and partake in some cultural R ‘n’ R.
Central Park was designed and landscaped by the same architects as Prospect Park and Central Park represents the largest green space in the city. If you’re in Central check out the ‘castle’ at Belvedere for excellent views of the Upper East Side, you can go boating if you desire, join the local New Yorkers on a run, grab a bike and cycle round or perhaps leave the work for the horse drawn carriages. I’d recommend taking a stroll around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir or sitting upon Sheep’s Meadow and looking at the wall of skyscrapers that just stops abruptly at the end of the park. I promise you won’t be disappointed with the view. Other than that enjoy the buskers, street hawkers, artists, runners, dancers and anyone else out to enjoy the green space that NYC has to offer.
Museum of the City of New York
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 5th Ave, New York, NY 10029. It is a small museum that occasionally hands out free ice cream and details the rise of New York as one of the most striking and recognizable cities in the world. It’s nice to see what underlies the city and what it used to be. The video is particularly interesting. They are also various artifacts and pieces of art to peruse. 103rd St Station on Lexington Ave with service to lines 4 and 6 is the best way to get there.
The Guggenheim and The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Guggenheim (1071 5th Ave, New York, NY 10128) is housed in a Frank Lloyd Wright designed building, and is incidentally in the city that Frank Lloyd did not want the building placed. The museum itself contains a strange array of art work mostly modern and abstract (there is a trend for my recommendations for art galleries. No need for second guesses for my preferred art style!). The museum is small but is nonetheless worth the visit. My advice is to get there early to avoid the queues for the lift. The idea is take the lift up and explore the art as you walk back down. It becomes obvious why when you’re there. The Met on the other hand is simply vast. You need to really think ahead for here as there are 17 acres of gallery’s to explore. Try the bar on the roof and explore the Egyptian ruins. Lines 4, 5 or 6 to 86th St Station on Lexington Ave are best to get to both of these museums.
Obviously to see lots of things in NYC you’ll need accommodation. I’m not much of a hotel kind of man so if I were to recommend where to stay then look at hostels which are pretty reasonably priced all round. The New York Budget Inn is located on the corner of East 34th and 3rd and is only a few blocks from the Empire State. Hi Hostel New York is located on Amsterdam Avenue at 103rd street with easy access from 103rd St station (Line 1, local stop. Change at 96th street for the express). You’ll get used to the local and express trains if staying here as you’ll need both to get into Manhattan quickly. I’ve stayed at both hostels and while the latter offers more in terms of facilities, the former is unbeatable for location. Alternatively, stay in a hotel if that is more your scene or perhaps AirBnB it. I did the latter and stayed in Queens over the New Year period for around £800 total for two weeks for two people and we had a WHOLE apartment to ourselves. For a decent breakfast find a diner and sample the waffles and wraps – Murray Hill is good place to start! For lunch grab some delicious street food from one of the Avenue markets (if they’re on).
This is just a taste of what NYC has to offer and these are just some of the things that I love about it. There are far more things to see and far too much to talk about. I cannot recommend enough that you go and try it even just once. I believe that New York offers something for everyone and no two people will come back with exactly the same feelings about it. That is why you should visit because you never know what effect it will have on you. I will no doubt be going back at some point and I will have to create a post on what has changed and what I gained from that trip. But in the meantime If you have any questions about my time in NYC or anything else Big Apple related then just drop me a message and I’ll be happy to answer them.
Cover Photo: The view from the Top of the Rock.