Ooooh New York… I’m no big city girl. I come from a small town where 3 cars in front of a red light is called a traffic jam and nobody ever drives more than 15 minutes to get to work. I’ve lived and worked in Antwerp and in Brussels – some of the most congested cities in the world – and have slightly adapted my definition of heavy traffic since. But there’s no way I’ll ever like it, or even get used to it. I hate having to force my car in front of a honking driver that’s refusing to let me pass, even though NOBODY in the whole area is moving anyway. Taking public transportation in Belgium is such a challenge I get that weird sweaty feeling just thinking about it and I guess nobody would go biking through Brussels on a week day unless they’re suicidal.
But there’s cities you just have to visit. I mean, how can you go to China without visiting a place like Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai? How can you skip Paris when you’re on a trip through France? How can you even pretend to say “I’ve seen the world” if you’ve never been to New York? I’m not pretending I’ve seen the world, but I’m working on it 😉
So last summer I decided it was time to finally go to the Big Apple. To the “city that never sleeps”. To that “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” and where “there’s nothing you can’t do”. As I was standing there overlooking the city from the 70th floor of Rockefeller Center or admiring the skyline from inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty, I just knew it. This IS the place where everything is possible. This IS the place where dreams still come true.
New York had hit me in the heart, and it hasn’t let me go ever since.
Here’s everything I’d recommend for a 4,5 days’ first stay in New York, with my impressions and some practical information to help you plan your own visit, get around and find the best – or mostly cheapest – places to eat and sleep.
WHAT TO DO IN NEW YORK?
When I visit a city, I like to see typical things. Things that determine the place and that I won’t find everywhere else. I want to see the best places, not the ones only a ‘real traveler’ would go to. I like to stroll around the streets, buildings and parks and just absorb what’s happening around me. Sit down on a bench to watch the people go by.
There’s so many of them, from so many different cultures, all just living their daily lives. They don’t even seem to notice the grandness of the city they live in anymore. A stylish woman that seems to have walked out of an episode of Sex and the City calling a cab in her sky high heels and elegant skirt. A homeless guy begging for some money right across the street. Apparently, some dreams are still to come true…
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DAY 1, afternoon: Central Park
With its 340 hectares, Central Park (daily 6am – 1am) really is Manhattan’s green heart. You can walk for miles, come here to run, sit down quietly on one of the lawns, rent water bikes, … There are many quiet corners and the noise of the city becomes a soft humming sound when you’re inside the park. In other parts, there’s a lot more activity, but it’s all very pleasant and calm. So take some time to pass a few hours over here, you won’t be disappointed!
Oh, and check out these cool activities to do in the park!
DAY 2: Manhattan
Start your exploration of the city with a visit to Top of the Rock at Rockefeller center (daily 8am-11am, $30 pp for the basic ticket (you can stay as long as you like after sunrise and before sunset), but they have other formulas, too). Take the elevator to the 67th floor to visit the first observation deck. The balustrade has been replaced by large glass panels, to guarantee a full view (not ideal for pictures but you can go to the upper levels for this). An escalator leads up to the 69th and 70th floor, where the terraces are bigger and the views even more impressive!
ROCKEFELLER CENTER OR EMPIRE STATE BUILDING?
The big question everybody seems to be asking. I must say I hesitated for a long time but in the end I’m very happy to have chosen Rockefeller center. On one side of the building, you can see Central Park (which is the only way to realize how huge it really is!) and on the other side you have an amazing view on the Empire State Building. If you visit Empire State Building, you can obviously see Rockefeller center, but you won’t see Central Park that well because there’s a lot of buildings blocking the view. The price for both visits is almost the same.
Want to visit the Empire State Building as well? Order your tickets here.
Stay for a while (I stayed more than 2 hours) and when you’re finished, walk down Broadway until you reach Times Square. There’s not that much to see over here but since you’re in the neighborhood, it’s nice to pass by.
If you’re hungry, walk to 99 cent pizza (see below for information) and walk back to Grand central station. This building is all about prestige: the enormous staircases and windows and the outside of the building make it quite ‘heavy’ and impressive, while the bright green ceiling covered with paintings of the constellations and the old-fashioned ticket booths give the place kind of a nostalgic look. About 100m further is the Chrysler Building, which you can’t visit but which might be – from the outside – the most beautiful of the well-known skyscrapers of New York.
Not very far from there is New York’s Public Library (Monday-Saturday 10am-6pm (Tuesday-Wednesday until 8pm), Sunday 1pm-5pm, free entrance). You can walk in and out as you like, as long as you don’t make too much noise, of course. At the time of my visit, the main reading room was closed for renovation, which was too bad because this room looks impressive on pictures I’ve seen of it. There are however some smaller rooms that are worth a visit and there are temporary exhibits all the time as well. In the adjacent Bryant Park you can sit down at one of the tables for a picnic or just to recover from all the walking.
To finish the day, take the subway to Ground Zero and stand still for a while at the National September 11 Memorial. Visit the museum or join a tour to learn more about what happened.
DAY 3: Liberty & Ellis Island, Brooklyn
Start the day with a visit to the Statue of Liberty, a must-see attraction if it’s your first time in New York. Yes, there’s plenty of tourists, but there’s a reason for that… The whole experience is worth it: the ferry trip from Battery park to Liberty Island with its great views of New York’s harbor and the Statue of Liberty as you approach, the visit of Liberty Island with a view on Manhattan’s skyline and the climb up the steep stairway all the way to the crown. Only a handful of people visit the crown, and it’s actually very calm up there (well the crown itself is really small so it quickly gets crowded, but you will definitely not be waiting in line halfway up the stairs).
Once you’re finished, head to Ellis island for a visit of the fascinating Migration museum. At the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century, all candidate-immigrants had to pass through Ellis Island. They arrived here carrying all their belongings in search of a new life in the United States.
Both islands are open daily 9.30am-5pm. Basic tickets cost $18 and include entrance to both islands and access to the ferry. The ferry goes from Battery Park (Manhattan) or Liberty State Park (New Jersey) to Liberty Island and from Liberty Island to Ellis Island and from there back to the starting point. Reserve in advance if you want to be sure to have tickets. Battery Park is easily accessible by subway.
On Liberty Island, entrance to the pedestal is free, all you have to do is check this option while making your reservation online. There’s an elevator leading to the next to last floor of the pedestal, or you can use the stairs. To visit the crown, you need special ‘crown access’ tickets. It’s impossible to buy these at the desk, so book in advance (as soon as possible. I booked 3,5 months in advance and my date was already more than half full at that time). Tickets cost $21, so only $3 more than the basic ticket. You can’t take anything but a camera up to the crown but there’s lockers where you can put your belongings. Entrance to the Migration museum on Ellis Island is also included in the ticket.
The whole program will take you 5 to 6 hours. There’s a restaurant on both islands, where you can eat a simple meal for a correct price.
If you’re a sucker for a good sunset just like me, and want something a little more exclusive, the NYC evening helicopter flight and Statue of Liberty cruise is an amazing experience! Get on board and watch the sun set behind New York’s famous skyline and ‘Lady Liberty’.
Once you get back to Battery Park in Manhattan, take the subway to Brooklyn Heights. Wander around and enjoy the main attraction of this neighborhood: the streets themselves. Walk through the streets between Henry Street and the Esplanade to see the typical brownstone houses. Sit down for a while on a bench along the Esplanade and admire the view of the harbor and Brooklyn Bridge. Walk further to Fulton Street and follow the road signs for pedestrians to Brooklyn Bridge. Crossing it somehow made me feel like I was the queen of the world. Yeah, I know it’s JUST a bridge, but at the same time it isn’t. It’s special.
DAY 4: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET)
Daily 10am-5.30pm, Friday-Saturday until 9pm. Recommended price $25 but this is not an obligation, you can decide how much you want to pay yourself – some people pay as little as $2.
Do you like the Louvre? Are you in luuuuv with the British Museum? Than this one’s for you. The museum is so enormous that it’s impossible to visit it in 1 day. We chose our favorite sections and spent some extra time in these, in the other sections we only looked at the highlights of the audio tour. We were able to visit about 6 sections thoroughly.
DAY 5: Coney Island
At the south end of Brooklyn, you’ll find what probably is the most colorful part of New York. Coney Island, mostly known for its old-fashioned fairground attractions, might not be a cultural highlight, but it’s really nice for a walk along the beach. Nowadays many of the attractions have been replaced by modern copies but all in all it remains a nostalgic place. An ideal destination to pass a few hours walking along the wooden boardwalk, sitting on the beach or swimming. Coney Island is easily accessible by subway.
On the way back to your hotel, stop for a walk through Chinatown and SOHO with its industrial buildings and typical fire escape ladders.
For more ideas, especially budget friendly ones, check out the best of NYC on a budget by native New Yorker Karen.
HOW TO GET TO NEW YORK AND GET AROUND?
In Manhattan you can get a long way on foot. Everything is flat and the sidewalks are in good condition. For longer distances, the subway is the easiest and less expensive means of transportation. The stops are close to one another and there are many lines. A ride costs $2,75, no matter the distance. Transfers between lines are free, as long as you don’t leave the station. A hop-on-hop-off bus tour is an easy way to move around between sights.
For information about transfers from and to the airport (Newark or JFK), you can visit this website. E.g. at JFK you can take the air train to ‘Jamaica’ ($5, +-15min) and transfer to the subway over there (if you have a lot of luggage, try to avoid peak hours). Another option is to take a cab but this costs about $50 to $60. Need a cheap flight? Find tickets here.
The most important train station is Penn Station. Over here, you can e.g. take the Amtrak trains to Washington D.C. (3,5h, prices from $50 pp). The Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey PATH trains also leave from and arrive at Penn Station.
WHAT TO EAT WITHOUT BEING RUINED?
In New York you’ll have absolutely no problem finding whatever it is you want to eat. Dishes from all over the world and in every price-range. Whether you want to grab a quick bite or enjoy a 5-course menu, there is plenty of choice.
Below you’ll find a couple of cheap addresses, which all offer at least 1 vegetarian dish (+- $15 pp).
1271 3rd Avenue. Open 24/24.
Typical diner with according menu and good service.
119 W 56th Street (hotel Parker Meridien). Daily 11am-11.30pm.
On the menu here only 1 dish: burgers! Not 20 different versions, you can only choose how you want your meat baked and the toppings you like. The typical decoration completes the whole experience.
99 cent pizza
473 Lexington Ave. Daily 9.30am- 4.30pm.
The name says it all: you can by a slice of pizza for 99 cents over here. There’s also a menu with 2 slices and a soda for $2,75. No tables available but the taste is alright and the price unbeatable! Perfect for a quick lunch.
WHERE TO CRASH AFTER ALL THIS VISITING?
The prices for accommodation in Manhattan are high, so you might want to stay a little bit outside of the center, or check out these special hotel deals.
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