The City that Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. The Empire City. Gotham. It's the city that has come to be known in a number of ways to the world. Countless monikers later, its most endearing name will always be the original - New York City. It is one of the most captivating cities in the world and with good reason. It is the most populous city in the United States, by a long shot, with 8.6 million residents. If you want to include the New York metropolitan area (NYC plus the surrounding metros), that number balloons to 20.3 million people. By that measure, it's no surprise that the things to do and see are never-ending.
With so much to do and so much to see, planning a trip can get overwhelming. What sights should you choose to visit? Which ones are worth it and which ones are overrated tourist traps? How many days do you need? What hotel should you stay at and where should it be located? How can you plan each day to make your trip as efficient as possible accounting for the locations of each attraction you're visiting? There's so much to plan for to ensure that you aren't missing out on anything and that you're accounting for all the things no one warns you about. These are the 25 must-knows to make the best of your NYC vacation!
25 There are 5 Boroughs and Manhattan Isn't the Only One
The city of New York is broken up into five boroughs, otherwise known as divisions or districts. They include Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Most people have seen all of these boroughs through pop culture (King of Queens, A Bronx Tale, Saturday Night Fever) at some point in their lives, with the possible exception of Staten Island, often the forgotten red-headed step child of the five. This is simply because it's mostly made up of residential homes and small businesses, while being secluded from the rest of the city. Getting to Staten Island takes a bit of effort with limited options to travel there. Your choices are limited to riding the ferry from Manhattan or crossing through the Verrazano Bridge via the southern part of Brooklyn. It's no wonder that tourists scratch Staten Island off their to-do list and stick to the other four boroughs.
Most visitors center their travel plans around Manhattan, the most popular of the five and it's mostly justified. So many of the attractions that tourists want to visit are in the heart of Manhattan, including Times Square, The Empire State Building, Central Park, The World Trade Center, Rockefeller Center, and so many more. But don't forget,
Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have so much to offer in the way of authenticity that can sometimes get lost in the popular Manhattan, often overrun by tourists.
Brooklyn, the up-and-coming borough with an influx of young professionals is full of things to do on any given day. There's always the world renowned Brooklyn Bridge, featured in countless movies and the perfect experience to get unparalleled views of the city while sharing a romantic moment with a significant other. There's also the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, which cannot be missed during the spring time, for New York's infamously beautiful cherry blossoms. Queens, with so much history, is home to the hidden treasure, Queens Museum. Here you can get lost for hours in the breathtaking exhibit, The Panorama of the City of New York, which offers an aerial view of the city in model form, scaled down to a size that fits in an exhibit, but still awe-inspiring nonetheless. Be sure to account for the unconventional days and hours the museum opens. You can always head over to the Bronx and catch a Yankees game at Yankee Stadium or take in the sights at the Bronx Zoo. Most of your time will likely be spent in Manhattan, but be sure to visit the other boroughs, as they are filled with endless activities for all visitors.
24 Manhattan is an Island
Manhattan, the most beloved and famous of the boroughs in the Big Apple is where most tourists spend their time simply because of the sheer number of things always taking place at any given time. In order to ensure things go as smoothly as they can in a city that is anything but, understand the layout. Manhattan is an island. It is surrounded by bodies of water on all sides. To the west of the island is the infamous Hudson River, separating New York City from New Jersey. To the east of Manhattan is the East River, separating the island from the other boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens. It's over this river that you will find many of the city's well known bridges such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Queensborough Bridge. To the south, both of these rivers feed into a gulf located in the Atlantic Ocean.
It's important to understand the distinction of Manhattan's layout, as you will likely be traveling in and out of the city to go back to your hotel (if you aren't staying in the city) or visiting the other boroughs for fun activities. This helps you navigate your way throughout the city with ease, understanding if you should take an Uber or a subway or if that's not even an option in some cases (if you are going to Staten Island, for instance).
23 Understand the City Layout to Make Walking Easier - North To South Versus East To West
New York is one of the most walkable cities in the country. It's one of the few that don't require any driving to get around. You can essentially complete your entire trip without ever getting into a car. Using the subway and walking everywhere is not only realistic, but probably the smarter way to travel.
In order to move around on foot, be sure to understand how the city is designed. It's really as simple as it gets. City blocks are almost always perfect squares/rectangles that are all similar in size.
Traveling north to south and vice versa means you are traveling the shorter length of the block which usually takes the average person about one minute. The streets that run perpendicular to this direction are all in numerical order (42nd St, 43th St, 44th St, etc.). If you want to walk north from 32nd St. to 48th St., it's one minute per block, give or take, so you can account for a 16 minute walk.
If you are traveling from east to west or vice versa, you are now traveling the longer length of the block. These tend to take about 4 minutes to traverse. These avenues (not streets) are a bit trickier as they don't always follow a numerical order. There are certain streets that run parallel and can throw off the count. For instance, if you are traveling west from 2nd Ave to 5th Ave, you will cross 3rd Ave, followed by other streets like Lexington and Park before hitting 5th. Although a bit more unconventional, rest assured that they run parallel and it's rather difficult to get lost. If you are walking 5 blocks west, for example, account for about 4 minutes per block, putting you at around 20 minutes.
The thing to remember is that walking can be a great source of transportation. In a simple 15 minute walk across several blocks, it is not uncommon to cross paths with famous buildings, celebrities and talented street performers. But be sure to account for distance as you don't want to overdo it. Subways and Ubers are always available.
22 'Don't' Use Taxis
The myth is true. Taxi cabs in NYC rip you off. They are becoming an antiquated way of traveling with the emergence of Uber and other ride sharing apps. They are priced significantly higher than their competition. It's also not uncommon for cabbies to take you on a detour while racking up the charges on the cab fare.
Everyone has heard the horror stories, and although some are probably exaggerated, it's no secret that cabbies can spot a tourist from a mile away. This is open season for them to let that meter run while unsuspecting customers are getting ripped off. If walking or using the subway isn't an option, the surer bet is to use Lyft or Uber, where you can follow your route on your phone and have peace of mind.
Yes, the NYC yellow cab is a staple of the city, often glamorized in films with the infamous "hailing of the cab with a whistle" in so many scenes. Carrie Bradshaw and any character in a Woody Allen movie have given us memories that sadly, will soon become a thing of the past.
21 'Do' Use the Subway
There are countless reasons to take a trip into the underground and use the most convenient form of transport. When one thinks of the subway, images of Chicago or Boston don't come to mind. New York does. The subway is as New York as it gets. Which means you are in for an interesting ride. The things you see down there are well worth the price of admission.
For starters, the savings are great and you get to explore the city in ways you can't quite do otherwise. The MTA (responsible for public transportation in the city) offers a 7 day pass for a little over 30 dollars, that gives you unlimited subway rides. Be sure to check for small exclusions, but for the price, it's hard to beat the value. Once you have found that the subway is THE way to get around, you're going to have to familiarize yourself with how it works. Admittedly, the underground system of trains can get rather confusing (not nearly as straight-forward as walking above ground).
There are 27 different subway lines (train routes) stopping at over 450 different stations. It's the most comprehensive subway system in the world, so you will get lost from time to time. Trains run late, making sure you walk to the correct platform, identifying which direction the train is going in, you might get on a route that is an express rather than a local, making you overshoot your stop by several stations, etc.
It's hectic and a bit intimidating, but once you get the hang of it, you will focus on how much fun it can be.
The world underneath the City That Never Sleeps is one unto itself where you’ll be sure to witness things you won't see anywhere else. Musicians that are good enough to perform at Carnegie Hall, dancers who could make it onto So You Think You Can Dance and emcees locked into a freestyle battle good enough to put most mainstream rappers to shame. Heck, you'll even see celebrities on a pretty regular basis down there. You name it and you'll see it. It's not rare to miss your train because you have become enthralled with one of the many amazing performers or characters in the subway. Once on the train, prepare to stand because sitting is sometimes not an option, especially during rush hour times. It's definitely an experience and one you won't soon forget.
20 There Are 3 Airports in the Surrounding Area; Make Sure You Know Which One You Are Using
Most people are not fans of airports. They are hectic, huge, and confusing. Missing your plane is one of the greatest stresses of traveling. It doesn't make it any easier that when planning your trip to New York, you have to account for the 3 airports that feed into its metro area.
Knowing where you're staying for your trip will help you decide which airport you should be selecting for your flights. Other factors will obviously come into play like dates, flight times, price and airline preference, but knowing where each airport is situated makes planning easier.
JFK Airport is located in Brooklyn, the largest of the 3. LaGuardia is in Queens, the smallest, while Newark Liberty is situated across in New Jersey. To get to Manhattan, a ride into the city from JFK will run you about $45. It'll cost you about $30 from LaGuardia and close to $60 from Newark. Each airport has its pros and cons with some being on the nicer end (Newark/JFK) and others being more convenient to the city (LaGuardia). Be sure to account for where you are not only landing, but where you are departing from in case your flight going back home is with a different airline.
19 There's More To Do Than You Can Pack Into Any One Trip, So Choose Wisely
It's incredibly cliché to say that you have so much to do and so little time. But when it comes to visiting New York, that saying holds plenty of truth to it. Beyond the typical sightseeing attractions that the city has become famous for (which can take an entire trip), there are still so many other activities to do. There are food walking tours in Brooklyn exploring the best pizza in the city, bus tours that take you to visit some of the most iconic locations in film history for movie buffs, countless bars, comedy clubs, the best restaurants in the world, etc. The list goes on. You could live in New York and still never come close to seeing everything the city has to offer.
With so much to do, it's important that you plan ahead and choose the activities that fit your vacation type best. If you are going on a romantic getaway with your significant other, be sure to visit the Brooklyn Bridge, visit one of the many towers with sprawling views of the skyline and make reservations to some of the finest dining the world has to offer. If you are traveling with a group of friends, make plans to take advantage of the city's incredible night scene with some of the trendiest and most popular clubs in the country. Try Top of the Standard, atop the Standard Hotel for a great night out with friends at one of the city's most lavish lounges with an unmatched view of the skyline. If you are traveling with family, be sure to visit one of the city's many zoos, parks and festivals taking place.
The trick is to plan ahead so that you don't feel your trip was wasted on activities that aren't suitable to your vacation.
18 The Temperatures Drop At Night, Even During the Warmer Months
New York is cold. It’s a common fact. During the winter months (November – March), temperatures can drop into the single digits and snow is a regular occurrence for New Yorkers. If you plan your trip during these months, be sure to pack accordingly. Beyond the obvious (jackets, sweaters), don’t forget articles such as scarves, gloves and hats that cover your ears.
It’s easy to pack correctly for the colder months, but don’t forget, you need to pack warm even during months that are typically t-shirt weather for the rest of the country. During the spring and fall months, temperatures drop at night and being without a sweater can make for a miserable night.
It is fairly usual for it to drop into the 40’s when the sun sets during months like April, May, and October. Being in the 50’s overnight is not uncommon for the summer months either.
Be sure to check the average lows during your trip’s dates so that you aren’t left shivering at night while walking through Times Square.
17 There’s More to Do Than Just the Tourist Hotspots
It’s easy to get trapped into visiting all of the places that make New York so New York. And as fun as those places are, remember that the city has so much more to offer than what you see in movies and on TV.
New York is home to the largest variety of food in the world, so there are restaurants serving foods from around the planet at your every turn. You can choose any type of food from any region of the world in the city, often found side by side. You can find New York’s infamous hot dog and pretzels on a street cart, falafels on any number of sidewalks, the most upscale steakhouses run by the world’s most respected chefs, New York style pizza in Brooklyn, and chic, hole in the wall joints serving up the tastiest menu items from across the globe. Make it a point to explore the many options and distance yourself from the chain restaurants you can have on any given night back home.
With only Los Angeles vying for contention in the arts, more artists call the Empire City home than anywhere else. This means you are sure to find your pick of comedy shows throughout all five boroughs, concerts in venues of all sizes playing music of all kinds from indie rock to underground hip hop to symphonies specializing in orchestra. Actors are sure to give visitors a plethora of plays and musicals to choose from, whether on the world famous Broadway, Theatre Row or the smallest production stages found in hidden warehouses, where some of the most talented performance artists can be found.
Don’t forget to support the local talent from musicians, actors, artists and chefs while visiting the city. It would be a shame to overlook what makes New York the hub of the artistic world.
16 You Have to Try All The Touristy Places at Least Once
With all that said, there’s no shame in accepting your inner tourist and visiting all of the tourist traps at least once. So many of these are bucket lists items and contrary to popular opinion, they can still be incredible to visit.
To a name a few that are places you probably shouldn’t overlook as they are essential to the city itself, make sure to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. Arguably one of the most famous landmarks in the city, popularized in countless movies, literature and art, she is as beautiful in person. Her size might be somewhat underwhelming when stacked up next to New York’s other behemoth architecture, but up close, it’s still a breathtaking experience when floating by her in any number of boat excursions that usually pass by the monument.
Another staple of the city that cannot be passed up is the Empire State Building. Popularized in movies like King Kong, its size is still impressive, even though it has long been passed as the tallest building in the city, although it still ranks 3rd in the city at 1,250 feet and 5th in the country. The building’s Art Deco style makes it unique and the most recognizable tower in the city. Taking a trip to the observation deck on the 86th floor will give you some of the best views of New York’s impressive skyline.
Glamorized in more movies than you can count, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is a necessity on anyone’s essentials list of things to do in NYC. Iconic and stunning, visiting the city’s most famous bridge will be an event you won’t soon forget. Many start with the intention of walking across the bridge’s impressive length of over one mile, but often stop at the midway point and turn back. Be sure to marvel at the towers and their beautiful arches. Dress warm as the water from the East River into the bay can bring strong winds and drop the temperatures immediately over the bridge. As you are crossing and taking pictures of the wondrous structure, remember to stay out of the bike lanes as cyclists come zipping down at rapid speeds.
15 The City Passes Are Worth It… If You’re Committed
Like many major cities throughout the country, there are companies that specialize in passes that group several of the most popular attractions and activities into one convenient pass with some pretty major discounts. New York has a couple different ones to choose from with the City Pass and New York Pass being the most popular.
These passes can be completely worth it, but you have to plan carefully to ensure you aren’t flushing money down the toilet. The trick with most of these passes is the time limit you have on them. For some, you select a number of attractions and get a discount, but ensure you can visit all of them during your stay. For other passes, you purchase a certain number of days and can visit as many attractions.
Be sure that you can pack as many into your trip because you don’t start to see the effects of the discount until you have visited a certain number of landmarks. In other words, the pass pays for itself after you have gone to a number of locations, so be sure that you can hit that number. Otherwise, you might be better off paying for each individual location you visit.
Most of these passes have entries into New York’s most visited spots – Empire State Building, Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center, Bus Tours, 911 Memorial, Boat Tours and different museums such as MoMa.
14 Time Square is a Tourist Trap (Especially the Comedy Shows)
It’s the City That Never Sleeps. And no other part of the city gives its nickname more meaning than the world famous Times Square. It’s exactly like you see it in pop culture, only bigger, more glamorous, more lit up and more awe-inspiring.
It’s true that Times Square has to be experienced at least once. It’s simply a bucket list item all travelers should complete. But after you’ve checked it off, you might want to bid it farewell and spend your time in other parts of the city.
Times Square, with all its allure and larger-than-life appeal, is also beyond overcrowded, hectic, and worst of all, the quintessential tourist trap. At every turn and corner, there are residents looking to make a pretty penny off of unsuspecting tourists. You have to pay big bucks just to take a picture with the local Spiderman or Batman. All of the stores lining up Broadway under the bright lights have skyrocket prices because they know tourists are willing to pay. This includes gift shops, clothing stores and restaurants.
It’s best to visit, marvel at the overwhelming nature of its charm and captivating frenzy, take your photos and selfies, check in on social media and then move toward a different part of the city to eat and shop.
13 The City is More Diverse Than You Realize, So Be Prepared for the Culture Shock
There are over 800 different languages spoken in New York. That’s a lot of different people with a lot of different backgrounds. It’s no wonder that NYC is known as the “melting pot” of the world. It’s the one city that attracts more people from all over the world than any other because of its inclination to accept diversity on a grand scale.
Combined, Hispanics, African Americans and Asian Americans make up over 60% of New York’s population. Over a third of the city’s residents are foreign born. New York is not your typical American city. When you visit, be prepared for the cultural differences that will be immediately noticeable as you leave the airport and begin to see the city.
People from all over the world live together, speak hundreds of languages, practice different religions, eat exotic foods and engagie in varying customs. It's simply the norm. You can walk into a bodega run by Puerto Ricans in the Bronx, or eat at an Indian restaurant in Queens, or shop at a record store owned by African Americans in Brooklyn. Remember that this melting pot of ethnicities is what makes New York America’s greatest city.
12 The Pace is Hectic and Even More Crowded Than You Think
As stated earlier, there are almost 9 million residents in the city. If you go a bit further out and visit Long Island or Jersey City or any of the surrounding areas, that number doubles to over 20 million. That’s by far the most populated region in the country and ranks up there with the highest in the world. When you walk through the streets of New York, you can feel how busy the city is. Everyone seems to be moving at a frenetic pace and no matter what time of day, there always seems to be someone out.
When traveling, be prepared for the chaos that is New York, whether you are walking down Broadway, taking pictures in Times Square, visiting China Town or riding the subway to Queens. New Yorkers are on the go and are so used to tourists, they tend to ignore them entirely. Be sure to keep up or move out of the way! If you are traveling on an escalator, always move to the right side if you are simply staying put. The left is for those in a rush to get to their next destination. Same goes for bike lanes and walking on sidewalks.
Don’t fret, although New Yorkers are famously known for being rude, it is pretty common for them to stop and help lost tourists. Just ask and chances are they will give you a helping hand as long as they have time.
11 People From All Walks of Life Live On Top of One Another
When you visit the subway, you’re going to see the prime example of how different everyone in the city is. Beyond the diversity of its people's ethnicities, New York is also known for how different its residents are. It is not uncommon to see a white businessman in a suit reading the newspaper, a teenage Hispanic kid listening to music on his boombox, a homeless man eating, and an elderly Chinese woman carrying groceries all sitting side by side on the subway.
Unlike many other cities, people are not nearly as used to interacting with others so different from them. It’s pretty common for people, even at a subconscious level, to feel uncomfortable when next to someone who is so fundamentally different than them. As you explore the city, be prepared to walk side by side with people who look completely different than you, someone dressed in a cartoon costume, or even a celebrity.
Embrace the uniqueness of the city which can be deemed weird or unusual. Chances are you won’t see anything like it again, unless of course, you plan to go back in the future.
10 Find The Right Hotel For You
There are hundreds of hotels in the city, with over half of them in Manhattan. Finding the right hotel is key to making your trip a success. The first thing you have to account for when choosing where to room is deciding if you want to stay in Manhattan or in one of the surrounding areas. This is important because it will affect price, travel times into the city, convenience, etc.
Most tourists opt to stay in Manhattan, since that’s where they will be spending most of their time anyway. The one downside to this is price. Manhattan is easily the most expensive borough of the city and as such, the price of a room is fairly expensive. Sometimes visitors choose to stay in Brooklyn, Queens or even across the Hudson River in New Jersey to save a bit. The con to this is making sure you are fully aware of the time it takes to travel into and out of Manhattan everyday as well as the accessible routes available and how convenient they are (or aren’t). One great perk to staying in Brooklyn or say, Hoboken, NJ, is the incredible panoramic views of the city’s incredible skyline you get from the comfort of your room. That’s often worth it enough.
9 Christmas in NYC is As Magical As They Say
It’s been done over and over in every form of popular fiction you can think of. The Big Apple during the holiday season. New York City during Christmas time. You’ve seen it in Home Alone 2. You saw it romanticized in Serendipity. You laughed at the magic of it in Elf. I can go on, but you get the picture.
Christmas in New York, according to pop culture, is magical. Well, the truth is, it’s even better in reality.
There’s nothing quite like it. A stroll down 5th Avenue at night with all of its boutique stores and high end shops lit up with Christmas lights and the street lined with trees is a sight to see. Walking through midtown Manhattan past the 115 year old flagship Macy’s in Herald Square during the holiday season is like something out of a movie. Central Park during the winter time, with its beautifully lined trees covered in snow is captivating. Probably the most famous of all its holiday sights, is the iconic New York City Christmas Tree in front of Rockefeller Center at 30 Rock situated right in front of its famous ice skating rink.
Even after the holidays come to a close, New Year’s Eve in New York is just as big with a celebration in Times Square, unlike any other. Planning a trip to the Big Apple during the holiday season is a big deal and if you can weather the cold, it’s one you won’t regret.
8 If It’s In Your Budget, Look Into a Helicopter Ride
Aerial views of the city are unlike any other. There’s no better way to take them all in, than from the sky. Although a costly venture, if it’s in your budget, it’s definitely worth it to look into paying for a helicopter ride over the city.
You can get sprawling views from many of the city’s observations decks in its monstrous towers, but none can compare to the scenery from the heavens. Your average helicopter ride lasts about 15 minutes and typically gives you terrific views of all of the famous landmarks the city has to offer. A ride in the air usually takes you over the Hudson River and flies along the edge of midtown Manhattan where you can get a bird’s eye view of Times Square, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and more. From here, you would typically travel south to Lower Manhattan where you can enjoy downtown including the World Trade Center and its majestic Freedom Tower towering over the city. You usually end the ride with a fly over the Brooklyn Bridge toward the Statue of Liberty and back to your starting point.
These magnificent tours usually run you about $200 - $400 per person depending on the day of week and the length of the ride. If you’re feeling really adventurous, splurge and go for the nighttime fly for a truly beautiful view of the most magnificent skyline in the country.
7 There are Beaches to Enjoy
New York is often referred to as the Concrete Jungle and with good reason. When you think of the city, images of skyscrapers and cars come to mind. But make no mistake, there are a number of beaches to choose from, many of which are perfectly convenient. If you are willing to leave Manhattan, you can take your pick of family-friendly locales in Brooklyn and Queens and even further east.
Brooklyn is home to the famous Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach. If you’re in Queens, you can relax at Rockaway Beach or at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. Staten Island is the borough with more beaches than you can pick from with its family-friendly vibe. If you’re willing to make a full day trip of it, you can visit the infamous Hamptons in East Long Island or even go to the Jersey Shore, the beach popularized by the show of its namesake.
Often overlooked as a beach destination, but with the right planning, you can enjoy a day at the beach during the summer time at a number of spots.
6 Food Tours Can Be Totally Worth It
As stated earlier, so many cultures meshing together often result in some of the best cooking you can find. Chances are you can find whatever your stomach desires at any given time. No matter what you’re craving, you can find any kind of food, often times, without much effort.
Arguably the best pizza in the country, you can find a number of pizzerias serving up New York style pie. If you’re craving fine dining, some of the most renowned chefs are serving their best dishes at their restaurants. If you want street cart food, you can find whatever you’re in the mood for at any given vendor lined up along any street.
With NYC being home to the largest population of Chinese people outside of China, you are sure to find some of the most authentic dumplings. The list of food at your fingertips is endless.
One of the most convenient ways to enjoy so much food is to take one of the city’s many food tours. If you do your research and find a bargain, you can really come across some treasures. Many of these are walking tours in which you are guided through certain neighborhoods and try out some of the local cuisine. Others are driven tours where you make pit stops to try out the dishes. There are also tours that specialize in a specific food. Try the one that takes you through a tour of Brooklyn while stopping off at some of the best pizzerias serving up the city’s best slices.
Either one you choose, there are many options. But for the love of all that is holy, do not stop at a fast food joint or chain restaurant. It’s simply offensive to the city’s culinary senses.