Writing a guide for a first time visit to New York City is about as daunting as the visit itself. How do you whittle down the millions of possibilities in this amazing city? How do you recommend “must do” things in a city that has so many? This post has taken me a while, but I have tried.
My guide is skewed toward Manhattan, although I hope by now everyone knows that New York City comprises of five boroughs. The simple truth is that you cannot experience all of them during one trip, so I recommend focusing on Manhattan and Brooklyn if you have time.
When to Visit
My personal favorite times in the city are the Fall (late September – early November) and Spring (mid April – mid May). Temperatures are mild, the air is fresh and there is a relatively smaller swarm of tourists.
Here is a breakdown of seasons with pros and cons –
- Fall – in my opinion, the best time to visit! The city looks gorgeous and smells wonderful. The only con is that the weather can be unexpected at times.
- Winter – the tourists have definitely left the city, but it can also be achingly cold. While it might be a good idea to visit and gain a perspective of actual local life in New York City, it might not be the best season for a first time visit. The exception is December – the city is extremely delightful at Christmastime – enough to forget the cold!
- Spring – the city is has a renewed sense of energy, walking around in the mild temperatures, watching the flowers bloom around you is very lovely. Cons are that it could be rainy, temperatures are unpredictable
- Summer – hot, sticky, smelly and full of tourists, this is the season to absolutely stay away from the city. The only pros are long days and restaurant week
Where to Stay
I firmly believe that the area you stay in during your first visit to the city will influence your opinion on New York City forever.
Avoid staying in Times Square and Midtown at all costs. The hotels are subpar at best, it is extremely crowded and you will be hard put to get a good night’s sleep. Also, you won’t be able to look past the tourist experience in New York City, and your first visit might end up being your last.
Note that Airbnbs are illegal in New York City unless you book a shared room in a place with your host around. A good rule of thumb while booking an Airbnb is that if it is cheaper than average, it is too good to be true.
If your visit is more than five days, I suggest staying in two different neighborhoods to get more of a feel for the city! We did this on our first visit, and I was amazed at the differences in our experience.
I recommend staying in a hotel in Manhattan or Brooklyn (specific neighborhoods listed below). Expect to pay premium prices, but adjust your stay accordingly.
My top hotel pick is The High Line Hotel, Chelsea
We stayed at The High Line Hotel for four days before our move to NYC and it was an incredible experience! The High Line Hotel is a historic building in the quiet part of Chelsea, but right by the High Line. It is still a convenient walk to the trains on 8th Ave. Their rooms are gorgeous, the service is impeccable, and the coffee shop in the lobby serves the best cappuccinos in the city! Seriously, this is the Intelligentsia coffee shop, frequented mostly by locals. In the summer and fall, the front garden transforms into a delightful cocktail spot.
Other Good Neighborhoods to Stay In –
- Financial District – not very neighborhoody but gets quiet in the evenings and is close to a lot of the major attractions. Very well connected via the Subway.
- Brooklyn Heights – there are a couple of nice new hotels in Brooklyn Heights (ex: 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge). It is a lovely neighborhood and very well connected by the subway, literally minutes to Manhattan. A huge plus is that you get amazing Manhattan Skyline views!
Beware of the neighboring Downtown Brooklyn – it might be cheaper but is generally dirtier and less salubrious.
- Williamsburg – Similar explanation to Brooklyn Heights except that you have to rely on the L train and connectivity can get wonky on the weekends. I would generally recommend Williamsburg to a younger crowd. Check out the Hoxton Williamsburg, or the Wythe Hotel.
- Near Central Park – if you have a very large budget, splurge on one of the grand hotels at the southern edge of Central Park! Stunning views and an elevated experience, for example at The Four Seasons, The Plaza or slightly more affordable, the 1 Hotel Central Park.
- SoHo – SoHo can get a bit crowded, but it is well connected by subways, has excellent food options and is a fun neighborhood to walk around in. James Hotel seems like a great pick with their gorgeous rooftop.
How Long to Stay
My answer to this question is forever! <3
In all seriousness, I recommend planning at least a 5 day trip to NYC if you want to hit everything on this list. This will give you enough time for the “must-dos” as well as time to spend on eating, drinking and soaking in the local life.
If you can’t spare five days, visit anyway! It is never a bad idea to hang out in NYC – just do as much as time and sanity permits.
How to Get Around
Foot : One of my favorite ways to explore New York City is to just walk. Most of the areas you end up in are going to be safe, so don’t worry. Of course, weigh the pros and cons of walking versus how much time you have to spend. Everything in the city looks close by, but distances can get pretty long.
Subway : The most convenient way to get around New York City is the Subway. Yes it is dirty, it can get crowded, it is almost never on time, it is much worse than the London Tube or the Paris Metro, but it exists and can take you from most Point As to Point Bs. Use it!
Should you buy a 7 day Subway Pass? A one way subway ride costs $2.75, while a 7 day pass currently costs $33. If you expect to take more than 12 rides, definitely get the pass. Or, as a rule of thumb, if you are in the city for 3+ days, definitely get the pass! You can use the pass on the buses as well. However, be aware that for the Select Bus Service, fare is collected prior to boarding via machines at the bus stops.
Taxis : While in Manhattan, I prefer hailing taxis instead of using Uber / Lyft for shorter rides. Two main reasons are that taxis are ubiquitous so can get you to your destination quicker, and that taxi drivers are in general safer than Uber drivers in the city.
General Tips for First Timers
- Stick to exploring neighborhoods to save time – for example, do everything in Midtown on the same day, do everything on the Upper East Side + Central Park on the same day etc.
- Use Google Maps! Save all the spots you want to hit and group the ones close by. Use more of your time seeing and experiencing New York City rather than traveling from one tip of the island of Manhattan to another.
- Don’t stop in the middle of sidewalks where tons of people are walking
- Navigate the Subway sensibly – don’t enter empty cars when the rest of the subway is packed (these are empty for a reason), don’t stick your hand to stop the subway door from closing, know which direction you want to go (Uptown and Queens versus Downtown and Brooklyn) etc.
- Don’t spend more than an hour in Times Square. Please remember that Times Square is NOT New York City, it is a loud, crowded square in the city popular with tourists.
- Skip the tour to visit the Statue of Liberty unless it is a bucket list item for you to set foot on Liberty Island. See the Statue of Liberty from the free Staten Island Ferry instead.
What to do
I tried my best to pare down to twenty must do things for your first time in New York City. Of course, how much of this you can do will depend on when and for how long you visit. Don’t try to cram everything in, take it slow so that you will leave wanting to come back!
- Check out Brooklyn Bridge Park and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Tip : The views walking from Brooklyn to Manhattan are more stunning. Go early in the morning to beat the crowds.
This photogenic spot in DUMBO is very famous with the tourists – it’s definitely worth a visit earlier in the morning when it is not packed!
- Explore historic Lower Manhattan – Stone Street, Wall Street, The Oculus and the 9/11 Memorial
Don’t spend too much time at the Oculus, I love it for its unique architecture rather than the run of the mill shops you find at any mall in the USA.
- Take the free Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. Note, please do not ride it during the morning or evening rush hour. Or, if you don’t mind splurging, book a cruise on the river with views of the Statue!
- Go shopping at the lovely boutiques in SoHo. My favorites are Sezane and McNally Jackson books followed by a stroll through Elizabeth Street Garden.
- Explore the gorgeous West Village, my absolute favorite neighborhood in NYC! I will write a neighborhood guide soon, but meanwhile look through my Instagram story highlights for West Village.
- Check out a speakeasy or a jazz bar – lots of suggestions below for speakeasies!
- Listen to the live music and/or protests in Washington Square Park. A man brings his piano to the park on summer Sundays, it is lovely!
- Check out the Saturday morning Farmers Market in Union Square Park for some local life and fresh food
- Take a walk on the High Line – try to go on a weekday! Start from the south and walk north all the way to Hudson Yards to finish off at the new Vessel. Stop at Chelsea Market on the way if you get hungry.
- Admire the Flatiron Building, and depending on the season, the cherry blossoms in Madison Square Park. Note – the Flatiron is currently under scaffolding at least until the end of 2020.
- Depending on the season, check out the ice skating rink and Christmas Market in Bryant Park. In the Summer, there are free plays and performances some evenings.
- Times Square of course, you have to go once (and hopefully only once)
- Watch a play on Broadway (here is a guide to scoring cheap tickets) and then eat dinner in Hell’s Kitchen OR experience the interactive play Sleep No More
- Admire Grand Central Station
- Walk or bike around Central Park – check out my Instagram story highlights on Central Park for the spots you should check out there. Go boating on The Lake on weekday evenings (fewer crowds) or enjoy Shakespeare in the Park in the summer.
- Spend a few hours at the museums on the Upper East Side (the Met of course, the Guggenheim or my personal favorite, the Frick Collection). Also a great way to wait out bad weather.
- Eat cookies and visit bookstores on the Upper West Side (+ cherry blossoms at the Natural History Museum in the Spring). Walk along the quiet streets of the upper 70s and 80s and admire the gorgeous architecture.
- Catch a Comedy Show at the historic Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village
- Drink in the views from the Top of the Rock, or else literally drink + get stunning views from one of the many rooftop bars (suggestions below). I have been to the observation decks at both the Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building. The ESB is more gorgeous but I prefer the views from the Top of the Rock. Both get very crowded, so go early in the morning or late at night. Either way, have lots of patience!
- Check out one of the many lovely bookstores in the city or the delightful Morgan Library and Museum. The Reading room at the New York Public library is stunning as well!
Bonus Spot : Governor’s Island is a delightful escape in the summer. A quick ferry ride takes you to an island sans cars, but with amazing views of the Lower Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. You could take a picnic, rent bikes and easily spend a whole day here!
Where to Eat & Drink
There is so much amazing food and drink in New York City that it is hard to know where to start to recommend. I think it makes sense to break it into sections so you can pick what type of food you like the best and choose a spot in the neighborhood you are currently in!
Note that these are some of my favorite spots, but you CANNOT hit them all in your first visit. Choose the ones that you are close to and enjoy those. If you are planning a date, head to this post for recommendations for romantic restaurants.
- Lucali – the best pizza in NYC but a very involved process, take a look at this Instagram Post for a guide on how to get in
- Emily – has locations in both Clinton Hill (original) and the West Village
- Rubirosa in SoHo – I haven’t been but heard great things
- Juliana’s in DUMBO – a good stop before / after the Brooklyn Bridge, the line can get very long so go in off hours
- Paulie Gees in Greenpoint – might be out of the way, but good to keep in mind.
- Bleecker Street Pizza in the West Village – both for slices and delivery
- Joe’s Pizza near the West 4th Street station – a slice on the go
- Price Street Pizza in SoHo – a slice on the go
- Gotham Pizza on 9th Ave – delivery
- Sadelle’s in SoHo (their takeout counter is excellent)
- Russ & Daughters in the Lower East Side
- Ess-a-Bagel in Midtown
- Tomkin’s Square Bagels in East Village
- Aux Merveilleux de Fred, La Maison du Macaron for amazing croissants
- Lady M Cakes for their lovely light crepe cakes. I especially love the Upper East Side location near the Met
- Two Little Red Hens Bakery for their Chocolate Cake and/or cheesecake
- Levain Bakery for the most delicious chocolate chip walnut cookies
- Harbs for Japanese style cakes (love their chocolate cake and strawberry shortcake)
- Molly’s Cupcakes for delightful flavored cupcakes in West Village
More Food (in no particular order)
- Uncle Boons, Somtum Der, Thai Villa for Thai food
- Cafe Mogador in the East Village for falafel and chicken kebabs
- Baar Baar, GupShup for Indian gastropubs
- Mala Project in the East Village or Bryant Park for spicy Chinese dry pot
- Lilia in Williamsburg for gorgeous fresh pastas (make reservations at least a month in advance)
- Omar’s for their to-go kebab counter near Bryant Park
- Kathi Roll Company for quick Indian kathi rolls
- Authentic Indian food at countless restaurants in Jackson Heights, Queens or Murray (Curry) Hill
- Frankies 457 or La Vara if you head to Lucali in Caroll Gardens and don’t get a table
- Cheeky Sandwiches for late night, hole in the wall New Orleans style sandwiches
- Eataly near the Flatiron for a variety of Italian food. I especially love their pasta counter
- Rosemary’s in Greenwich Village, very cute + great pastas
- Palma for a lovely dining experience in their garden
- Buvette in the West Village for breakfast and evening wine
- Via Carota in the West Village for Italian (go at an odd time, always packed and no reservations)
- Tartine in the West Village (byob, excellent food)
- Cafe Cluny, St Tropez or Osteria 57 in the West Village for date night
- Sofreh in Prospect Heights for an innovative take on Persian food (might be too far of a trek into Brooklyn)
- Fausto for excellent Italian food in Prospect Heights (if you are already in the neighborhood)
Michelin Star Restaurants
New York City is overrun by Michelin Star Restaurants. Here is the 2020 list. Some of the two or three star restaurants might be on your bucket list, if so, make reservations far in advance. In fact, I would almost recommend securing your reservation before booking your flight.
I haven’t been to any of the two or three star restaurants, but here are some one star restaurants I personally recommend (this does not mean I don’t recommend the others, I just haven’t tried them)
- Uncle Boons
- Le Coucou
Speakeasies & Craft Cocktails
New York City had a very healthy drinking scene during the Prohibition a hundred years ago. So even now, you can find plenty of “speakeasies” around the city (obviously most of these are not historical)
Here are some fun speakeasies and cocktail bars with excellent drinks!
- Angels Share – if it is too packed, they have an annex next door
- Blue Quarter in the East Village
- Little Branch in the West Village
- Apotheke in Chinatown
- Patent Pending in NoMad
- Raines Law Room in Chelsea
- Le Boudoir in Cobble Hill – live Jazz music on Mondays
- Ice Cream Shop in the Upper East Side
- Elsa in Cobble Hill (not a speakeasy)
- Clover Club in Carroll Gardens (not a speakeasy)
- Dear Irving in Gramercy Park (not a speakeasy)
New York City has a healthy coffee scene and some incredible coffee shops! Check out my list of ten best coffeeshops in Manhattan for more information!
Please do not go to one of the thousand Starbucks or Pret that litter every corner in Midtown, Manhattan.
- Gallow Green – gorgeous in Summer and Winter, it transports you to a different world.
- The Met Rooftop (open from May to late fall) – my personal favorite rooftop bar, gorgeous views over Central Park and pretty good drinks!
- The Top of the Standard – fancy views and club like atmosphere
- Mr Purple – a Lower East Side favorite, there is a pool on the rooftop. Beware that lines to enter get very long if you aren’t staying at the hotel
- Lemon’s at the Wythe Hotel – Views of midtown Manhattan from this Williamsburg rooftop
- Harriet’s Brooklyn – there is a $20 cover for non hotel guests
- The Rooftop at Eataly Flatiron – decorated differently for each season, the ambience and drinks are delightful but the food is subpar.
Honestly, this is just a small taste of what New York City has to offer. If I did my job right, you will fall in love with the city and vow to return many more times. Check out my New York City focused Instagram page for tips on what to do in the city if you want to get a more local experience!
Here is a handy map of everything I mentioned in this guide. Save it to your own Google Maps so you can access it during your trip! Don’t know how? Read this.
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