New York is the city that never sleeps, but, as a visitor, if you try to keep up with the stereotypical NYC pace, you’ll be passed out on top of your hotel bed covers come eight o’clock. As a New Yorker, with a family that loves to do the tourist thing when they come visit, I know this first hand.
New York is a wonderful city, with too much to see. I’ve found that the most successful visits to New York are the thoughtfully planned ones. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be a bit spontaneous—I’ve seen amazing things in cities just by wandering around without an agenda. What I mean by “thoughtfully planned” is taking the time to think about what the most important sights are to you, doing those, and then leaving room for those spontaneous moments. Thoughtfully planned is loosely scheduled, not a mad dash around the city cramming in every listing in the guide book.
To help you plan your next New York trip thoughtfully, I’ve written out some tips on what to see and what to skip, from a local’s perspective. Not all tourist sights are worth your time and skipping those will free up your schedule for stumbling across the unexpected gems.
1. Statue of Liberty: Skip It. Staten Island Ferry: See it.
Let me put a disclaimer here: The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island is an absolutely wonderful trip. However, if your emphasis is seeing the statue and taking a picture, rather than reading the historical plaques and wandering the grounds for awhile, there’s a much faster and cheaper way to get a great view of the Lady of the Harbor: take the Staten Island Ferry from Downtown Manhattan. Ferries leave every thirty minutes and are completely free. You’ll pass right by the statue and you’ll get some great pictures, without waiting in long lines or paying for a tour ticket. Bonus of the Ferry: On the Staten Island side you can walk across the street from the terminal to Downtown Pizza for some of the best and cheapest garlic knots you’ll ever taste.
2. Fifth Avenue: Skip It. Brooklyn Flea: See It.
The stores on Fifth Avenue are featured in pretty much every New York City movie montage or episode of What Not To Wear that you’ve ever seen. And for good reason—they’re famous. But unless you can afford a Cartier watch as your vacation souvenir, I recommend skipping the window shopping and taking the subway over to the Brooklyn Flea. Held outdoors in the summer and indoors in Crown Heights during colder months, the Flea is a great place for a unique momento—whether it’s a vintage album cover, a piece of handmade jewelry or even a canvas print of the NYC skyline.
3. Central Park Zoo: Skip It. Coney Island Aquarium: See It.
Central Park is another New York City icon, and if you’re staying in the area and it’s a nice day, definitely spend some time walking around the reservoir, or visiting Belvedere Castle. But there’s no need to spend an afternoon at the Central Park Zoo, especially in colder months. If you absolutely must visit a New York City zoo, take the subway up to the Bronx Zoo (and walk across the street to the Botanical Garden while you’re there!) However, I suggest taking the orange line subway down to Coney Island, Brooklyn, for an afternoon at the New York Aquarium. Not only does it vastly undercut the CP Zoo on ticket prices ($11.95 vs $18.00) but the Aquarium sits right on the Coney Island boardwalk, which provides tons of other entertainment options. If it’s summertime, spend a little time on the sand. Or head to the amusement park and ride the famous Cyclone roller coaster. Take in a minor league Brooklyn Cyclones game. Coney Island will give you a lot of bang, not only for your buck, but for the travel time as well. Just be sure to have lunch at Famous Nathan’s Hot Dog stand!
4. Street Vendors: Skip It. Smorgasburg: See It.
Food vendors have been covering NYC streets for years, hawking stale soft pretzels, boiled hot dogs and overpriced cans of soda. In the last few years, though, the gourmet food truck culture has exploded—you can now eat lobster rolls, waffles and dinges, and “Asia dogs” (hot dogs with Asian food-inspired toppings) all from the back of a truck. The best place to sample numerous gourmet food truck cuisines is Smorgasburg, in Brooklyn. An offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasbord is an outdoor, weekend fair held in warmer months in Williamsburg and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, a convention of the best gourmet food trucks in the city. Stop by when you hit the Brooklyn Flea on the way out to Coney Island.
5. Clubs in the Meatpacking: Skip It. Pubs in Hell’s Kitchen: See It.
If you’re on an adults-only trip, it may be tempting to head out to the clubs in the Meatpacking District, or one of New York’s other trendy neighborhoods. If you love wearing high heels and pretending to understand what other people are shouting to you over the music, by all means, hit the clubs. But, as you may have experienced already, clubs in one city can often be the same as clubs in any other city. My recommendation? Skip the clubs, see the pubs. Head to Hell’s Kitchen, the Upper West Side, or any neighborhood-y area and do some bar hopping. Drink where the locals drink, meet some new friends where you can actually follow the conversation. If you’re a dancing fool, don’t worry—there are still pubs where you can get your groove on, whether it’s to a DJ or live music.
6. Times Square: See It. Times Square Restaurants: Skip It.
Most New Yorkers probably hate Times Square. It is one of those places they avoid at all costs because there is never a time of day when it isn’t loud and crowded, and once you’ve been there a few times, the excitement kind of wears away. I definitely recommend a visit to Times Square on your first visit to NYC though, because, whether you like it or not, it is an iconic place. The best thing to do in Times Square is see a show. Whether you love musicals or not, seeing a show on or off Broadway is a completely unique experience, and with organizations like TKTS, it is completely within reach for most vacation budgets. Once you get your tickets, though, head west of Times Square for your pre-theater dinner. Times Square is full of chain restaurants—Red Lobster, Hard Rock Cafe—that are in the “seen one, seen ‘em all” category. Unless you can score a table at Sardi’s, head over to Ninth Avenue, where you’ll find tons of tiny family-owned eateries. Italian, Greek, pubs—it’s all there. The best part is, many of these restaurants have only a few tables, providing the perfect intimate atmosphere for a pre-show meal.
7. Double Decker Bus Tours: Skip It. Walking Food Tours: See It.
If you spend any time at all in midtown, you’ll encounter dozens of barkers trying to convince you to buy a hop on/ hop off bus ticket for a double decker bus around town. These tours can be cool, and maybe worth the money, if you prefer to hear facts about specific buildings, as opposed to discover new things on your own. What I much prefer to do, though, is take a walking food tour of a neighborhood. One of the best ways to get to know New York is by eating your way through it—the cuisine is unbelievable, and not only in the Zagat-rated restaurants (see #1 on Downtown Pizza!). A food tour helps you find the flavors of a neighborhood, all while walking around with a tour guide who can talk not only about food and restaurants but also the neighborhood’s history and interesting facts or sights to see.
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