Your ultimate resource for planning the first visit to the Big Apple.
Close your eyes! What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of New York City? For me, it’s a sound of sirens, a tint of bright yellow flowing through the streets like a blood in the veins, the glassy pinnacles touching the sky, the extravagant luxury of the Fifth Avenue, the smell of hearty cheesy pizza fresh from the oven, the fast paced bustle of the pedestrians, the electrifying energy of Times Square that makes your heart beat faster, the green spaces that create pockets of calm in the midst of urban mayhem. Oh, and me standing on the 5th Avenue holding designer shopping bags waving to a yellow cab (forgive my little vain Sex-And-The-City moment here ;) ).
Backdrop of countless movies and home to iconic landmarks, New York rumbles with energy, ambition and gusto. The city is a true melting pot of cultures attracting millions of visitors around the world. Visiting New York City for the first time is a lot like walking into an all-you-can-eat buffet at dinner when you’ve only had breakfast—everything is enticing and you want to fit as much as you can on your plate. As the city constantly reinvents herself, conquering New York in one visit is impossible. I have been there twice and there are still tons I haven’t seen and done. In fact, you could probably live here for years and still not be able to fully explore all the nooks and crevices of the metropolis. However, here is a list of “the best of the beaten track” which starts from Upper Manhattan and guides you through NYC’s most iconic attractions.
Tip: make sure you pack comfortable shoes, there is a lot of walking to do; carry a phone and its charger at all times, because Google Maps app will be your lifesaver. My trick was to stop by a coffee shop for a quick break as they all have abundance of charging outlets, plus offer a free wi-fi!
Let’s get started!
Upper East and West Sides. Browse the affluent residential neighborhoods and ogle around the nicest Victorian brownstone townhouses. The Upper West Side has the reputation of being home to New York City’s cultural, intellectual hub and artistic workers, whereas the Upper East Side is traditionally perceived to be home to commercial and business types.
Central Park. Lush and green oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle is a perfect escape from the urban grit and daily grind of the city. Don’t miss highlights like Strawberry Fields (the John Lennon Memorial), the lively Bethesda Fountain (my fav!), The Loeb Boathouse (Carrie and Big moment, anyone?), the ah-so lovely Bow Bridge, and the Sheep Meadow. Tip: for the epic views of the skyscrapers head to the South-East corner of the park, near the boulders by The Pond.
Plaza Hotel. The hotel’s illustrious history includes a pantheon of famous guests and starring roles in a number of movies. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were regular guests in the 1920s and some scenes in The Great Gatsby are set there. Also… The Bride Wars, anyone? Whether you fancy chick-flicks/classics or not, this century-old luxury hotel and its imposing French-chateau-like exterior is definitely worth checking out.
Stroll down to Sixth Avenue, a.k.a. Avenue of Americas and take photos by the iconic Love Sculpture (had to make it red!) on the corner of West 55th Street.
Rockefeller Plaza. This is truly an inspiring location and a definite must-see. Oh boy, where do I even begin?! Wander underground passages of the Shopping Concourse for countless stores, quick bites, and fine dining options. Enjoy beautiful Channel Gardens and stroll to the Prometheus Golden Statue and Sunken Garden. Visit the famous Radio City Hall. Last but not least, you MUST climb on “Top of the Rock” for absolutely astounding views of the city.
Instead of posting a cliche photo of the famous skyscraper, here is a little hidden gem that I recently learned about. Did you know that Rockefeller Center is home to rooftop gardens, a.k.a. heaven with impeccably manicured shrubs, flowers, and lawns? Just look at this beauty. Here is more about these hidden urban treasures.
Patrick’s Cathedral and The Fifth Avenue. Explore vaulted interior, chapels and crypts of one of New York’s finest examples of Gothic Revival erected in 1879. Afterwards, window-shop lavish designer boutiques along the 5th Avenue.
Times Square. A neon wonderland, a tourist hotspot like no other, this bustling triangle is undeniably New York’s beating heart. Tip: Every night at 11:57PM, 15 screens in Times Square shut down at the same time and display digital art for three minutes. It’s called the “Midnight Moment.” Here is an interesting source for more off-the-beaten-track activities around Times Square.
The NY Public Library, which is loyally guarded by ‘Patience’ and ‘Fortitude’, the famous marble lions overlooking the Fifth Ave. Tip: a free guided tour is available for visitors and leaves from the information desk in Astor Hall.
From the Library, take E 42nd Street to Madison Avenue and you’ll find yourself at The Grand Central Terminal. One of the nation’s most historical landmarks has beautiful architecture and gorgeous interior. On your way to the Station it will be almost impossible to miss The Chrysler Building showing off her beauty to the world.
The Empire State Building. Do I even have to write anything? There it stands, in all its glory… I personally love admiring it from afar, although a climb on top offered unforgettable commanding views.
Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park. Lively and vibrant neighborhood is home to the remarkable triangular architectural landmark as well as a relaxing green space with food stalls and farmer’s markets. You can also brave the long line to one of the most sought after burgers in New York at the Shake Shack.
The High Line Park and Chelsea. Chelsea is one of the artsy and exciting neighborhoods of New York. Buzzing with culture but maintaining a residential feel, it packs a punch in terms of things to do, see and eat. It houses many of New York City’s great art galleries, as well as the famous The High Line Park. This elevated recreational area was built on a section of a former railroad. The greenway offers a vantage point of Chelsea, much of New York’s skyline and the Hudson River. Chelsea Market is probably the area’s most famous shopping mall / food court. The huge market is located in a building that used to be a factory for the National Biscuit Company (which, incidentally, invented the Oreo cookie here) on 9th Avenue & 15th Street. Learn more about what to see and do in Chelsea here.
9/11 Memorial and One World Trade Center. Definitely a soul touching experience. The memorial is a fitting tribute to all those souls who lost their lives in 9/11. While I was unable to visit the actual museum, I spent some time at the two fountains. Make sure that you pay your respects, even if you did not lose anyone in 9/11/2001.
Financial District. While meandering the narrow, winding streets of Lower Manhattan, don’t forget to see world-famous financial landmarks such as the New York Stock Exchange, Federal Reserve, and Wall Street.
The Statue of Liberty is another must-see for first timers. An icon of the American Dream attracts millions of dreamers who come to try their luck in the Alphabet City. Battery Park is your primary destination if you want to see the statue from shore, as it sits on the southern tip of Manhattan and affords great views of New York Harbor and the glorious lady Liberty. From here visitors can also catch the ferry to the statue and Ellis Island.
The Brooklyn Bridge and DUMBO. One of the most famous of all the bridges and an American landmark that has inspired generations of poets, songwriters and painters, the Brooklyn Bridge is definitely a sight not to be missed. In addition, exploring Manhattan is undoubtedly an exhilarating experience; however, if you decide to escape the hustle and bustle of the Island make DUMBO your primary destination. Not only does this tiny cute neighborhood grant spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, but the noisy cobblestone streets here are also a hub for numerous art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. The nearby Brooklyn Bridge Park is another great place for spending a relaxing afternoon admiring spectacular Manhattan views.
Museums to chose from:
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- Museum of Modern Art
- The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
- American Museum of Natural History
- The Museum of Mathematics (attn.: my geek readers)
- Bodies: the Exhibition (experience like no other!)
- Broadway Show. Get immersed in the glitz, glamour and bright lights of Broadway and enjoy one of world’s best live musical and theatre performances. Tip: for cheaper tickets, either book months in advance or head to the TKTS counter for 50% discounts on same day tickets on a long queue.
- Free Shakespeare in the Park performances run for intrepid theatre lovers who wish to brave the multi-hour wait for tickets.
- Don’t you dare leave NYC without savoring a bagel, a burger and a pizza!
If you have little more time, include these sites on your travel itinerary:
- Washington Square Park is a historic concrete-&-green park in Greenwich Village known for its stately arch & prime people-watching.
- Washington Mews in Greenwich Village. It doesn’t get much more quaint and tiny than this street. The secret’s long been out on this row of former stables that have since been converted into twee, two-story residences and offices.
- The South Street Seaport, Seaport District. The South Street Seaport was New York’s port during the 19th century. Today, it is brimming with stores, restaurants, historic buildings and museums, the Fulton Fish Market, and views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the East River. Historic ships dock alongside the piers and a nineteenth-century paddle wheeler offers harbor cruises.
- Soho is prime shopping and dining territory. Walk along the cobblestone streets and find great New York restaurants, bars and things to do in this downtown neighborhood.
- Pomander Walk. A secret world in Upper West Side, this little residential nook will make you think you stepped into a gas-lit, bygone era. It is lined up with cute little houses built in 1922 alternating between stucco, brick, and half-timber in design.
To conclude, I want to go back to the beginning and ask you about your thoughts or memories connected with New York. What do you imagine when you think of the Big Apple? Which senses does the city of dreams awaken in you?