New York City is one of my absolute favorite places in the whole world. I don’t care how many times I have been, within one year of my last visit, I am always itching to get back. There are always new things to discover and places to explore. You can’t ever “finish” seeing and experiencing New York in my opinion.
When people say they don’t like New York or they’ve already “done” it, I know they haven’t fallen in love. In my mind, that must mean they must not have experienced it the right way. I can never get enough of NYC.
A friend of mine recently asked me for some NYC recommendations for an upcoming trip she has planned with her husband. Immediately, I started thinking of all my go-to recommendations for first-timers or those who haven’t been in a long time. In the past, I have written these down in emails, or rattled them off to whomever is asking. I figured it was time to get them down in a post.
Places I Generally Avoid:
I hate to start with a negative, but it seems like many people go to New York City only to visit a dozen or so sights, all within a (very crowded) 10 block radius. St Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, the Today Show, and the Southeast corner of Central Park are common stops on the list.
I am always baffled as to why people go to these places just crawling with tourists when there are so many other lovely places to explore. It seems like the goal is to get a picture at these places so you can post them on social media and other people can recognize that’s where you are. That’s my guess. But are you actually enjoying it? Or enjoying the idea of it?
Times Square deserves its own mention as the worst part of Manhattan. The bad chain restaurants, the swarms of tourists, the giant mega stores. I avoid it all cost. The only hiccup in this plan is when you have tickets to a Broadway show and there is no getting out of being there.
With that being said, the rest of Manhattan is definitely changing and becoming “Disney-fied” so the chances of uncovering the “real” New York will be more likely in one of the other boroughs.
My Go To NYC Recommendations
Despite the pockets of crowds and cheesiness, I still love this city more than any other. With each visit, I like to repeat some tried and true favorites, and of course explore & discover more. Certain experiences stand out among all the trips. And these are the ones I have recommended over and over again with great feedback.
Foods of New York Tours – If I could only recommend one activity I would say this is it. These food tours are awesome. I’ve done all of the Manhattan ones except for the Gourmet Chinatown tour which I would love to try on my next visit. You can’t go wrong with any of them. The reason I love recommending these walking tours is not only because you get to try such a variety of foods in one fell swoop, but the tour guides really make it special. The guides are extremely knowledgeable on the history, culture and architecture of whichever neighborhood you are exploring. Walking, learning and eating. What better combo is there?
Sunset Sail Aboard Schooner Adirondack – Another one of my very favorite NYC experiences. This is a 2-hour sail on a beautiful replica of a 1890’s sailboat. It takes you down the East River with the skyline of lower Manhattan on one side and New Jersey on the other. Your destination? The Statue of Liberty. If you want to see the Statue of Liberty in all her glory (at sunset nonetheless) but are not interested in standing in a line to do so, this is the way to go. The boat seats only about 20 people which adds to the intimate experience. Your crew sails the boat and serves drinks while you are soaking it all in. I highly recommend!
Get Up and Ride Bike Tour – A bike tour is always an awesome way to see and experience a city. I posted about our experience on a Brooklyn Bike Tour with Get Up and Ride on THIS post. Although I am sure there are other good bike tour companies in NYC, we were very happy with this one.
Get Up and Ride tours max out at 10 people, which is so nice. In our case, we happened to be the only ones on the tour, so it felt like a private tour. Each person is outfitted with a headset and microphone so not only are you learning about what you are seeing, but you can also ask questions as you ride. Our specific tour explored graffiti art in the neighborhood and made a few stops for pizza and beer. We didn’t do the Manhattan tour, but I would totally be interested in giving it a try next time.
Chelsea Market & The High Line – I like to combine a visit to The High Line and Chelsea Market together. The High Line was built onto an elevated train track on NYC’s west side. It runs north-south with beautiful gardens and tons to look at along your way. If you are interested in checking out the High Line, this map outlines where it starts and ends, plus some of the highlights. Towards the south end of the park is Chelsea Market – a food hall with some pretty darn amazing eating options. On our last 3 or 4 visits, we’ve managed to always carve out some time for Chelsea Market.
If you take the Chelsea Market / Meatpacking District Foods of New York Tours I mentioned above, they will give you the history & behind the scenes scoop of Chelsea Market, plus they will take you on the High Line too. So that might be a good option if you have limited time and are interested in both. Another good option to consider if you are interested in the Sunset Sail which takes off a few blocks north of Chelsea Market, is to pick up your picnic dinner from Chelsea Market to enjoy while you sail.
A few “go to” shops:
I never really go to New York City with the purpose to shop the whole time. Too much to see and do to waste it inside. Especially in chain stores. But, there are a few places that I enjoy popping into whenever I visit:
ABC Carpet & Home – I can’t remember exactly, but this mega store has 7or 8 stories filled with everything you can imagine for the home. Even if you are not planning on buying anything, I highly recommend you visit the first floor just to see the amazing merchandising. It’s always an inspiring stop.
Fish’s Eddy – while you are at ABC Carpet & Home you should definitely pop into the much much smaller Fish’s Eddy. What? You say you didn’t come to NYC to look at plates? You have to check these out. They have the quirkiest designs you just don’t see everywhere. In fact, I dare you not to pick up something here to take home.
John Derian Company – I had been wanting to visit John Derian on several visits before I actually got to go. You see, it’s located in the East Village, an area that we seemed to never make it to. But on our last visit, we combined it with a visit to Morgernstern’s (the most amazing ice cream experience ever). John Derian is famous for his eclectic decoupaged plates and decor. His work is sold all over, but it is created in New York. Visiting his store is almost like visiting a museum of curiosities. Picking up one of his pieces would be a much cooler souvenir than a Big Apple coffee mug.
Museums & some alternatives:
New York City has some of the best museums in the world. Whatever you’re into, there is probably a world-class museum there you can visit. If you love museums, you have hit the jackpot for sure.
If you are not a museum person, and your time is limited, there’s no need to force it. Most likely you will find yourself with art installations and special cultural experiences everywhere you go.
If you do go to one of the “big” museums in New York, I recommend either booking a tour or selecting one exhibit to dive deeper. Trying to “do” the Met will surely leave you dizzy and overwhelmed. One tour company I am dying to check out is Museum Hack. Apparently, they take a fun and irreverent approach to sharing the stories behind the art.
Here are a few other ideas if you want to have a museum-like experience without the time commitment :
Grand Central Terminal – Grand Central is a quintessential Manhattan landmark that you can soak in like a museum. It’s perfect for a family visit because you can eat and be loud. Get on one of the staircases in the main hall and watch the travelers going in every direction under the beautiful constellation ceiling. Then, head downstairs to the whispering gallery. Stand facing one corner of the bustling intersection and get someone else to stand at another corner. Whisper into the wall and you will actually be able to hear the other person in the middle of the chaos. It’s fun!
NY Public Library – If you went to Grand Central, you will be super close to the main headquarters of the New York Public Library. This landmark building is definitely worth a visit. Made of pure marble and flanked by two regal lions, the architecture and grandeur of the library is one of a kind. You can pop in the Rose Reading Room or even visit the original Winnie the Pooh characters from the 1920’s. Read more about this special branch of the New York Public library HERE. Then go visit!
Rooftop Sculpture Garden at the Met – If you want a place to slow down with great views of Central Park, make a stop at the rooftop sculpture garden & cafe at the top of the Metroplitan Museum of Art. All you have to do is take the elevator to the top floor and enjoy the sculptures and the vistas. There are usually not too many people up there, and they serve drinks as well. This could be a great late afternoon stop before heading to dinner or a show.
When choosing where to stay:
There are hundreds of hotel and AirBnB options in New York City. All expensive and some of the smallest rooms you ever did see. I could never say this is “the” perfect hotel because there are just so many great options.
With that said, my main goal these days is to avoid staying in midtown. It might seem counterintuitive. Staying in the “middle” should make everything closer, right? Well, remember the list of places I steer away from? They are all in midtown. Along with all the tourists who want to stay near those places.
An approach that has worked well for us lately is to go uptown or downtown. As long as you are near a subway stop, you can go up or down quickly wherever you need to be.
We’ve recently really enjoyed staying at the Courtyard Marriott in Soho and the Hotel Beacon in the Upper West Side. Both are situated in great neighborhoods. We also stayed in a good AirBnB in Little Italy, but it is no longer available. Again, I am sure there are a bunch of great places, I’ve just found that as long as they’re not in midtown, you will experience a bit more of the special New York vibe you probably went for.
- Don’t eat at places just because they are “famous”. You’ll most like only see other out-of-towners there getting a picture by the sign. Not usually the best places to eat. So how do you find interesting places to dine? One option is to ask your guide on the food tour. They will give you suggestions in whatever neighborhood you want. Also, I jot down ideas from blogs I read on a regular basis (like THIS one and THIS one), and then save them on my NYC Pinterest board.
- If you like the idea of Central Park, but not the hoards of people: Go in further and deeper into the park. Most tourists only visit the fringe. Or, visit the other parks in Manhattan, like Riverside or Rockefeller Parks. They are on the water and so much quieter. Even better, make an afternoon of it and go to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Designed by the same person who designed Central Park, Prospect Park is just as big and beautiful.
- If you do happen to be in Times Square to watch a show and want to eat dinner beforehand, do not eat in Times Square. Instead, go to Hell’s Kitchen, one block over for much better food options. Just do a quick Zagat’s search for whatever you are in the mood for and I guarantee it will be way better than any places in Times Square.
So there you have it. My “go to” NYC recommendations and more advice than you ever wanted. I could do a whole post on visiting with young kids and finding great restaurants. I will save that for another time.
Have you been to NYC lately? What are your favorite neighborhoods or experiences in the city that never sleeps?