Let me confess it straight away… 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 sometimes those huuuuuge cities manage to surprise me. And New York sure did. The ‘city that never sleeps’. That ‘concrete jungle where dreams are made of’ and where ‘there’s nothing you can’t do’ surpassed my expectations. And 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.
Here’s everything I’d recommend for a 4 or 5 days’ first stay in New York City, with my impressions and some practical information to help you plan your own visit, get around and find the best – or mostly cheapest – places in New York to eat and sleep. Welcome to New York!
DAY-TO-DAY GUIDE TO WHAT TO DO IN NEW YORK
4 or 5-day itinerary
Do I even need to say it? New York is huge and you could probably spend a month here and still have things left to visit. But you gotta start somewhere, so here’s a list of ideas if you have up to 5 days, that covers a bit of everything and will give you a good introduction to the city. Don’t have that much time? Mix and match to organize your weekend in New York or any other New York City trip.
Day 1 (full or half day) - In and around Central Park
With its 340 hectares, Central Park New York (open 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, … the list is long. 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!
COOL THINGS TO DO IN CENTRAL PARK
When you feel like you’ve had enough of the park, go and explore the streets around it. Stroll through the streets of the Upper West Side. You don’t have to visit museums or whatever, just absorb what’s happening around you. 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…
Another great idea is to walk towards Harlem and see a side of New York that many tourists don’t take the time to discover. An awesome experience any day of the week, but my top tip is to go on a Sunday, to see everybody dressed up to go to church and maybe even join them!
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.
Keep walking 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.
VISIT 9/11 MEMORIAL
Day 3 - Liberty and 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 NY. 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.
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 - Museum time!
Suggestion: 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.
FIND YOUR FLIGHT
WHERE TO EAT AND CRASH AFTER ALL THIS VISITING
Food is everywhere! Literally. I had not one bad experience, so I suggest you just walk around, or check out these instagrammable food spots in New York if you want to satisfy your eyes as well. Prices for accommodation in New York can be sky high, so check out these hot deals for good affordable options!
This New York guide contains affiliate links. Whenever you buy something through one of these, I receive a small commission, without any extra cost to you. Thank you!
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Really great and thorough guide, Lili! I especially like your cheap eats recommendations – i spent more money on food in NY than I care to admit!
I know, it’s horribly expensive!! If you’re OK with eating burgers, pizza’s and stuff like that, you can find some cheap addresses, but don’t go and look for ‘real’ food in New York or you’ll come home broke! 🙂
Aah! New York! We also visited The NY High Line, great place to do some ‘peoplewatching’ as well 😉 Thanks for this little trip down memory lane!
You’re welcome dear!! We REALLY need to fix a date to see each other soon! I’ll message you!!
New York is my favorite city in the world. I even lived there for a year. I really like your blog, so I nominated you for the Liebster Award. Please participate, if you so desire.http://anydirectionwechoose.com/2016/02/22/the-liebster-award
Hi Lili, I grew up in NYC.
Re: Day 5, I think Brooklyn has so much more to offer and you don’t need to head to Manhattan after seeing Coney Island. There’s some really interesting neighborhoods close to there worth seeing.
Queens is not on this list, which makes me deeply sad as someone from there, as I strongly believe it’s one of the best parts of visiting NYC. Every friend that I take around Queens tells me that it was their favorite part–hands down. 🙂
I also don’t feel like the Top of the Rock or Empire State Building is necessary and feels like a rip-off to me ($32!?!). Instead, just visit a rooftop bar and get a drink instead. 😉
Anyways, I hope that you check my NYC guide since I was curious about yours!
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I am going to visit New York in one month, for the first time 🙂 I am glad I came across your post because it gives me some ideas on what to do while there 🙂 Thanks
We are flying to New York for our last few days of travelling, then flying home from there. We thought why not, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to go and cheeper flights home! I’m very excited even if it’s just for a few days to wander around the city!! Thanks for you tips.
Hi Jessie! I’m glad they’re helpful and wish you an amazing time in the Big Apple 🙂
Going to New York for Christmas for the very first time! I am so excited I cannot even believe it yet. Afraid that I’ll like it too much and would want to go back to Copenhagen. 🙂
You certainly hit all the high notes! Central Park is my absolute favourite. You can’t beat it if you’re a runner. It’s worth getting up early to go for a jog there with the hundreds of New Yorkers doing the same. Absolutely exhilarating!
Bedankt voor de tips! Ik ga met een vriendinnetje in maart naar New York en ben overal op zoek naar leuke adresjes om aan een redelijke prijs te eten. Ik ben vegetariër en dat maakt het soms wel wat lastiger… Jouw tips zal ik dus zeker opslaan!
Hi! What camera do you use ?
Hi Ashlee, for these pictures I used a simple point and shoot camera, nowadays I shoot with a Lumix LX100 (and VERY happy with it). Greetings, Lili
At the metropolitan museum of art you cannot pay what you want unless you are a New York resident.
Great Post. I loved the way you wrote this post. I will surely share this. cheers !!
Great Post. I loved the way you wrote this post. I will surely share this. cheers !!
This is the best travel tips I ever read. I love travelling too.
Such an inspiring post, it makes me want to visit everywhere! Never been to New York but it’s definitely a place that I want to visit. Also a cool idea on just sitting down and doing a bit of people watching, I can imagine that with the amount of people living in New York there really is a mix of cultures and styles.
Awesome article!! I am planning to visit New York next week, this blog gives more information. Thanks for sharing and would love to hear more from you!!
New York looks so big and complicated. Your travel tips are very helpful. Thanks for sharing.
Great ideas! My parents took me to NYC every other year growing up, but I haven’t taken my own kids yet. Like you I’m not a big fan of big cities, but I know I need to take the kids for a few days to explore. Thanks!
This is Krish from Hyderabad, India. I like travelling and exploring new places. But unfortunately I was unable to do the same due to my hectic work schedule. But kudos to you and your article that took me through a virtual tour of the USA. Keep up the good work.
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Hi Lili – I love the aesthetic of your blog! Having been to New York a handful of times now, I think this guide covers a lot of the must do’s for a first-time visitor. Your photography is seriously amazing and brings me back to some of those moments I spent visiting NYC. Looking forward to reading more of your guides!
Makes me feel so much more ready for traveling with my dog and know how great it is for her!
Really well detailed blog . New York has so many sights and it’s good that you got to see so many of them in just five days. You must have been busy.
Wonderful article. Fascinating to read. I love to read such an excellent article. Thanks! It has made my task more and extra easy. Keep rocking.
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Hi, Thanks for sharing this amazing blog. It is really informative blog.
New York is one of my bucket list. This information is very much helpful to me. Thank you for dropping this post.
That’s absolutely amazing content!!!Loved it!!
Keep the good work!!
Amazing destination! it has some Moroccan views
Thank you for sharing your tips . Your knowledge of the city’s top attractions is greatly appreciated, as many visitors are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to see and do in the Big Apple. Your tips are delight. Thanks again for sharing your expertise and helping visitors make the most of their time in NY!