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New York City first-timer? Recommendations from an experienced NYC lover!

by Flitter Fever
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Are you a New York City first-timer? Did you finally decide to go to New York City soon? Great plan! I am sure you will love it. I have been to New York five times now and I am determined to go again next year. This city is addictive you know!

Manhattan skyline seen from Staten Island Ferry
Manhattan skyline seen from Staten Island Ferry

In this blog

Read on if you are interested in:

  • Mobile friendly map
  • The best must-see highlights (including ticket links)
  • Free things to do/see
  • Shopping
  • Fun tours
  • Where to eat
  • Roof top bars
  • Out of Manhattan
  • When to go
  • How to get there & around
  • Where to stay (link to next blog)

Map NYC

Highlights

It makes sense that if you visit this city for the first time, you want to see at least the main highlights, right? But what are the most interesting ones? Let’s start with my favorite highlights in NYC that require an entrance ticket. Tip: get your e-tickets in advance to skip the longest waiting lines. Click on a colored word/sentence for more info and tickets.

Personally I am not a museum type really. However, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and the American Museum of Natural History are worth seeing if you have the time, especially on a very cold or rainy day.

Ground Zero memorial New York City
Ground Zero
The Met NYC
The Met

Free stuff in NYC

If you would continuously visit paid highlights in Manhattan, you could easily spend around 300 dollars a day just on entrance fees alone. Luckily there is lots and lots to see without paying anything for it. A smart idea is to combine the best of both. As a New York City first-timer you don’t want to get bankrupt, right? So here is some free stuff to do in New York City.

Parks

I love strolling around the park, escape the buzz of the city for awhile. New York City has a lot of parks to explore. These are my favorites, most in Manhattan.

  • Central Park including Strawberry Fields (John Lennon Memorial)
  • High Line
  • Battery Park
  • Hudson River Park
  • Union Square Park
  • Washington Square Park
  • Prospect Park (Brooklyn)
Imagine mosaic at Strawberry Fields in Central Park
IMAGINE mosaic at Strawberry Fields in Central Park
Rowboats in the Lake and the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park
Rowboats in the Lake and the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park

Churches

Trinity Church, Cathedral Church of Saint John the divine and St. Patrick’s Cathedral are the most famous churches in Manhattan, for a reason. Go and check them out for free!

Bridges

Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge… All photogenic! So check them out. Joining a Brooklyn Bridge Bike Tour is also great fun (but not free any more).

Tip: take a ride to the first metro station on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge called High St. and go back walking over the bridge towards Manhattan. Great view!

Landmarks

New York is full of landmarks and other beautiful buildings, squares, etc. that you can admire for free by foot or on a Hop-On Hop-Off bus. Times Square, Broadway, Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, Flatiron Building, Trump Tower, famous luxurious 5 star hotels like The Plaza and Waldorf-Astoria, etc.

I also liked visiting the campus of Columbia University in the Upper West Side. There was a graduation going on. Once I even looked into applying, but the 55K tuition was a bit above budget…

Graduation at Columbia University, NY
Graduation at Columbia University
Taxis and billboards at Times Square at night NYC
Times Square at night

TV shows on the street

NBC’s TODAY and several other TV programs are recorded right on the streets of Manhattan. And you can join the excitement for free! Just go there and check it out! The same can be the case for some movie premieres. In this way I saw the Backstreet Boys and the full cast of Sex & The City 2, right in front of my nose, for free!

Woman at the premiere of Sex and the City 2 movie
At the premiere of Sex and the City the movie 2
Backstreet Boys performing for a TV show recorded on the streets of New York
Backstreet Boys TV performance recorded on the streets of NYC

Staten Island Ferry

You can take the free ferry to Staten Island from the Whitehall Ferry Terminal in Manhattan. THE opportunity to sail pass Miss Liberty without having to stand in line for hours or pay anything!

Neighborhoods

New York City first-timer or not, exploring the neighborhoods of Manhattan is always a good idea! I would suggest to explore one or a few neighborhoods each day to get a good impression of the daily life in New York City. The main neighborhoods are the following. You can also check them via the map above (it’s the last category, marked by hearts in the map). From north to south:

Harlem  –  Upper West Side  –  Upper East Side  –  Hell’s Kitchen  –  Midtown  –  Garment District  –  Murray Hill –  Chelsea   –  Gramercy  –  Greenwich Village  –  East Village  –  SoHo  –  Little Italy  –  Lower East Side  –  TriBeCa  –  China Town  –  Financial District

East Village, Manhattan
East Village, Manhattan
The western part of Greenwich Village is also known as West Village
The western part of Greenwich Village a.k.a. West Village

Shopping

Not for free but really a must-do when in New York City: shop till you drop! There are tons of department stores to scour, such as Saks 5th Ave, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Loehmann’s and Century 21, and shopping centers like the Rockefeller Centre with more than 100 stores and 40 eateries. You will see everyone walking around with the bags! Oh and of course Victoria’s Secret and the M&M’s World on Broadway!

Personally I love all the shoe shops in New York, there is so much choice! Here is your chance to finally see (and – if you can afford it – buy) a pair of Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo! Aldo and Steve Madden usually have lovely shoe collections too! One time I saw so many great shoes I decided to take photos of them on my feet as it would be impossible to take them all home!

Most of the shops mentioned are located between 6th Ave W 48th St and 3rd Ave E 63rd St, see also the map at the beginning of this article.

Macy's New York
Macy’s New York
Saks 5th Ave and St. Patricks Cathedral
Saks 5th Ave and St. Patricks Cathedral

Fun Tours

A good, experienced, local guide can be of great added value and learn you a lot about the city. Short in time? Special interest? Consider one of these tours. Click on a colored word/sentence for more info and tickets.

It may also be worth checking whether there are any good concerts or other live shows going on at Madison Square Garden or Radio City Musical while you are in NYC. Or take an all-access tour there.

Helicopter ride in New York
Helicopter ride in New York
Radio City Music Hall NYC with taxi in front
Radio City Music Hall

Where to eat in New York

There are so many restaurants in Manhattan that you will die before you can try all of them. From Russian to Jamaican to Polish to Nepalese, pretty much all kitchens from around the world are represented in Manhattan. Check Tripadvisor to find a restaurant of your choice. Or go to China Town or Little Italy if you are in the mood for Asian or Italian food. To me, always good places for a quick bite or refreshing snack in NYC are: Hard Rock Cafe, Shake Shack, Jamba Juice, Pret-A-Manger and a roof top bar/restaurant (see below).

Roof top bars in Manhattan

Going for a drink, lunch or dinner at a roof top bar is always a good idea! Unless you are unlucky with the weather or try to get in at NYE without a reservation… Check these out (see also the map in this blog post):

Rooftop bar in New York
Magic Hour (photo credits MOXY NYC Times Sq)
Salon De Ning
Salon De Ning

In anyways, make reservations for any roof top bar/restaurant in time. During the week you might be able to get a spot a few hours in advance, but during the weekends, around the holidays, etc. you better make reservations earlier in advance, some places even months (NYE). Better safe than sorry! Also, if open at NYE, expect ticket prices for a NYE roof top party between US$75 and US$450 per person that night.

Are you alone and rather join a group? Then go for a guided rooftop bar tour! Or join a NY Pub Crawl downstairs!

Out of Manhattan

If there is a Yankees Game it’s pretty safe to travel to the stadium in the Bronx by subway and foot. Join the Boroughs Tour: Harlem, Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Coney Island if you also want to safely see something more of Queens and the Bronx.

Across the Brooklyn Bridge, in Brooklyn, check out Prospect Park. Brooklyn is hip and happening. There are also a bunch of nice roof top restaurants and bars in Brooklyn that offer great Manhattan view, such as Northern Territory, Westlight and 1 Roof top Garden Bar.

You can visit Coney Island and Little Odessa on your own ocassion by train. From Manhattan to Stillwell Avenue it takes app. 1 hour (D and Q lines are the fastest). Breathe some fresh air on Brighton Beach.

If you want to get out of New York to go somewhere different and have the time: take a day trip to Philadelphia! I did this once. It’s only a 1.5 hours train ride away (from Penn Station).

Walking the streets of sunny Philadelphia
Walking the streets of sunny Philadelphia
Faternity house in the center of Philadelphia
Faternity house in the center of Philadelphia

When to go to New York

My favorite times to visit NYC are the first half of May and the second half of September. Moreover when you are a New York City first-timer, timing is important to enjoy the city as much as possible. Pleasant temperatures, parks in full bloom or in beautiful autumn colors, not too crowded, perfect!

In the summer months NYC can also be fun but it often gets too hot (35°C+). Then at least make sure you book a hotel with air-conditioning and go ice cream shop hopping! Nowadays, New York has four months a year when the temperature does not drop below 30 degrees Celsius so a hotel room without air-conditioning is simply unbearable during summer.

Autumn can be a great time to go to New York as well, especially the parks are beautiful with yellow, orange and red colored leaves. Mid-September, early October, it’s not so hot and not so cold any more, I’d say: go for it!

Going mid-December, before Christmas starts, is a special time in New York too. Magical with everything lit up and festively decorated. The downside is that outside it can get terribly cold and the leaves have fallen off the trees. Luckily the shops and restaurants are warm. A great way to get into the holiday spirit. Just make sure you go home at least a few days before Christmas, before it becomes one big madhouse in NYC. Read more about why I would not recommend to go to NYC with NYE.

It's totally acceptable to walk around like Santa on Times Square
It’s totally acceptable to walk around like Santa on Times Square
Me on Broadway
Me @ Broadway

How to get there & around

A convenient way to get around in NYC is by metro and/or double-decker bus. To start with, get yourself:

You will walk around a lot any way. Unless you can afford a Private Chauffeured Escalade tour?! LOL

You can use the map above on your mobile phone to find everything easily. Before booking book a hotel, check out in advance how far the closest metro station is and whether it’s a central line or not. This can save you a lot of time getting somewhere in the morning. You can easily download a map of the metro system at MTA (PDF) and safe it on your phone or download an app.

After midnight take a taxi. Simply hail an available taxi (sign lit up) by raising your hand from or just off the side walk. Pay the ride cash or check whether there is a credit card sign on it (before stepping in). Uber is another convenient way to get around NYC.

Guided tours are a great way of seeing and learning more about a city than you ever thought you would. Especially for a New York City first-timer! Or get at least (skip the line) tickets in advance not to waste any time. Check out Get Your Guide and Viator for lots of options to choose from.

Lush green trees in Central Park in May
Lush green trees in Central Park in May
The San Remo at The Lake in Central Park
The San Remo at The Lake in Central Park

From/to the airport

As a New York City first-timer you may wonder the best way to travel between the airport and your accommodation in Manhattan.

  • From/to JFK airport most of the times I took a yellow taxi Manhattan. Nowadays we have Uber, which is usually cheaper (US$35-45) than a regular yellow taxi (US$50-60) to Manhattan. Taxi is convenient unless you get into a traffic jam, but somehow I never did.
  • Booking a (shared) shuttle from/to the airport is a relatively cheap option that I used a few times and it’s great yet usually a little more time consuming than taxi or Uber. If you are lucky, you are the one the shuttle drops off first or picks up last. I prefer shuttle above public transport from/to the airport as it’s door-to-door service.
  • Traveling by public transport (AirTrain) from JFK is the cheapest (under US$8) but requires multiple transfers which is inconvenient with suitcases. However, if road traffic is bad, public transport ain’t such a bad option after all.
  • From Newark airport I usually take the NJ Transit train to Penn Station in Midtown, Manhattan and then walk, take the metro or a taxi from Penn Station to my hotel.

For flights to NYC check out Skyscanner for example. There are basically three airports you can use: John F. Kennedy (JFK), La Guardia and Newark (in New Jersey). See also the map in this blog post.

Waiting in line at JFK to get a taxi to Manhattan
Waiting in line at JFK to get a taxi to Manhattan
Manhattan in sight from the taxi in Queens
Manhattan in sight from the taxi in Queens

1st time in NYC

Are you a New York City first-timer? Then please take some basic advise from me, a fellow NYC lover with some experience:

  • Come as long as possible, there is sooooo much to see! 3 days is really not enough…
  • Take the list of all you want to see and cut it into half. Take it easy. You will come back anyway.
  • Bring some good walking shoes, clothes matching the forecasted weather and a thick wallet.
  • Read this article and book the activities/tours that you want to do in advance.
  • Copy the map in this article to Google Maps on your smartphone via Google Drive.

I still remember the first time I went to New York City. Yay, so exciting! Skyscrapers, parks, taxis, hot dogs, billboards, all the things that you saw on TV, you will see for real! This is what you dream about, right? I had just turned 21, honestly, I was still such a travel baby back then. Taking my first steps into the big world.

Reality check: after an eight hour flight, 6 hours of time difference, cold and windy mid-December days, overwhelmed by first impressions. New York City is fabulous, there is no other place like it. However, walking miles and miles, waiting in lines, soaking it all in – it takes a toll on your energy level, whether you like it or not. The first couple of nights I spontaneously fell asleep before 8pm! What a party pooper.

So do yourself a favor and try to take it easy. I know, I know. Not an easy thing to do. Yet essential to really enjoy it. Hopefully this blog post will help you to make choices yet get the most out of your NYC trip. You will come back anyway.

More NYC info

Please also check out my two other articles definitely interesting for any New York City first-timer:


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I hope you find this article useful. Have you ever been to New York City or are you a New York first-timer? Please feel free to leave a question or additional tip in the comment box below.

Last Updated on 01/25/2021 by Flitter Fever

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2 comments

Marcia Crissman 05/11/2019 - 03:52

Hi, I will be traveling to Princeton NJ , this is my first time and I want to go to New York for site seeing, want to go to a Broadway show and just do as much as I can, but staying in Princeton I’m concerned about transportation and what is the best way to get to New York from Princeton and then back, if we wanted to do things at night will there still be away to get back to Princeton, what will be the best and easiest way for three women to get around from Princeton to New York, I would appreciate any advice you could give me, thank you. Marcia

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Flitter Fever 06/10/2019 - 21:27

Dear Marcia, sorry for my late reponse as I was traveling. I think the journey from Princeton to Manhattan is comparable to mine from U Penn (Philadelphia) to Manhattan. During the day, the trip is reasonably safe, you should be OK, just listen to your guts and common sense. Try to avoid trains after sunset, unless you have (preferably male) companion and can afford to take a taxi from the station to/from your room at the univeristy or the theatre for example. To be honest I would spend at least one night in Manhattan to maximize your sightseeing time there, not waste too much time traveling back and forth and not having to worry about getting home alone after your Broadway show. Hotel rooms are not cheap and I am not sure about your budget but places like Hotel 31 are reasonably affordable for at least a night, especially if you book in time: https://www.booking.com/hotel/us/31.nl.html?aid=1447421 Maybe yoru parents can help out, as it may give them some peace of mind? Wish you a great trip, please feel free to contact me should you have any further questions, you can always message me via Facebook Messenger for example facebook/com/flitterfeverpage Kind regards, Elisa from Flitter Fever

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