As a 30th birthday present, my wonderful girlfriend presented me with tickets to New York City in February 2018. Being from the UK, neither of us had ever been and I had always been convincing her to go but by the end of the trip, I think she could easily see why it had always been top of my travel bucket list.
So after a delayed flight, a rather undignified moment of some guy’s rancid sock poking me in the ear from behind my seat and a rather long queue at border control, we finally made it to the Big Apple and boy was it worth it!
Despite having some amazing European cities on our doorstep, we were not used to big skyscraper cities, and nothing could prepare us for the towering Juggernaut buildings that consumed us. So here we go, I’ve crammed this article with everything you need to prepare and enjoy a first-time visit to this magnificent city.
First Time New York Visitor Itinerary
So Many Activities!
New York City has five amazing borough’s to explore, each of which has its own personality and culture.
- Staten Island
We stuck to Manhattan for the majority of our trip. As first timers, we were tourists wanting to see those famous sites and get our Instagram fix (I know, I know but embrace your inner tourist).
On our first day, we were just roaming around and that’s the great thing about this city, you’ll just be walking aimlessly around and then stumble upon something really cool and famous like Times Square.
This area is loud, manic and a real commercial overload but it is definitely something you have to experience, even if it is just once. With its giant advertising billboards and screens in every direction, it feels like it’s been designed by an advertising mad genius.
I was happy enough to have seen it and avoid it after but the thing is you tend to stray back to it at some point, especially on foot as it’s so central to a lot of the other sights and main avenues you pass.
Tip: Embrace your inner tourist and go into one of the many ‘I love NY stores’ – yes they’re a bit tacky but you want to bring something back to prove you went there, right?
The Empire State Building
The Rockefeller Centre and The Empire State Building are breathtaking – they sum up the perfect NYC experience in my opinion – gobsmacking views and the feeling like you’re actually on top of the world for a split second make it well worth it.
Many people argue which is better but in my opinion – do both! But do one at night and one during the day. We opted for the Empire State Building on our first day and although a little grey in the sky, this magnificent 102 story skyscraper will simply take your breath away.
Plus the lobby downstairs and the whole way leading up to the top floor are very grand and give you a real historical breakdown of how it was built and eventually finished in 1931.
Top of the Rock
The Rockefeller Center on the other hand or ‘Top of the Rock’ as the vantage point is well known was actually my highlight of the entire trip. We went around 11 pm at night and it was less crowded and if you get lucky like us, on a clear night you get great views of the Empire State building which make this a must-see.
Perhaps you could argue that this view is better for the Instagram account, as you get the Empire State in your picture, but both are good.
Tip: Embrace the guys in Midtown trying to sell you a city pass – they are well worth it. They give you discount on two major NYC attractions and you by-pass the queues when you enter each one. I heard a few people say ‘I wish we’d done that’ when queuing so don’t be petty, take advantage!
There are so many museums to see in NY but we only visited one and that was also a major highlight for both of us: The American Museum of Natural History.
Wow, this place is incredible and if you have kids, take them here.
They’ll get lost in this amazing world from seeing great North American mammals to the dark universe. We spent about 3 hours in here and we probably only saw a third of it – my inner geek was truly revealed here.
Tip: Get there early to avoid the crowds. Pay for the dark universe show which is like an all-around cinema above your heads, you’ll feel like you’re in a galaxy far far away. Also, the hall on the history of mankind is full of cool and pretty geeky bits of info about how we transformed from Apes to our current form today.
Broadway is astonishing. I’m no major theatre fanatic but whether you are or not I’d push a Broadway show nearer to the top of your list of things to do. We watched Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre (between 7th and 8th Avenue) which was built in early 1900’s, reportedly haunted but still, the place had charm and history coming out of its rooftops.
And the show itself was simply brilliant; from the amazing genie to all the props and the rest of the cast I’ll be singing ‘Arabian Nights’ for a long time to come.
Lion King, Wicked and Chicago are amongst the other popular choices while book adaptations like ‘The Curious Incident of the dog in the night time’ might warm others’ tastes. And to my amazement I got my beer served in an Aladdin beaker with a straw – how delightful.
Free Things To Do
The best things in NYC are free!
Another great thing about NYC is that most of the really cool stuff is actually free such as walking along Brooklyn Bridge. Completed in 1883, it is one of the oldest roadway bridges in the United States, connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, spanning the East River.
When we walked across here it was around 20 odd degrees and very busy but it’s amazing, you just keep looking back at the towering skyscrapers behind you to the joggers and cyclists coming at you, and it’s here it really sinks in where you actually are. It’s brilliant and we walked all the way along to Brooklyn then hopped back on the subway so we only had to walk one way!
Admittedly, despite staying so close to it we didn’t see a whole lot of central park during our visit but we did walk through a decent portion of it on our walk to the museum. One thing I wasn’t a fan of was the number of people trying to sell the horse and carriage tours of the park – the horses looked a bit unhappy, to be honest, and it just put us both off.
We strolled through the Strawberry Fields which is a 2.5-acre landscaped section in the park that is dedicated to the memory of former Beatle John Lennon and named after the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever” written by Lennon.
It’s a nice touch and worth seeing. We also got a few photos of the boathouse and the lake before heading off. There is plenty more to see and even just people watching during the summer months I imagine is probably worth it plus it’s free to walk around one of the most famous urban parks in the world so why wouldn’t you.
I’ve seen the Wolf of Wall Street and I laughed all the way through. But when I think back to how greed has affected the world I was a bit miffed about seeing the financial district in lower Manhattan. But still, walking through Wall Street is another free experience that one simply cannot avoid on an NYC trip.
Get a coffee and watch the traders in their Gucci suits walk by, get your picture next to the raging bull and look around the fine shops like Tiffany’s – I almost got talked into buying a $15,000 watch – the shop assistant must have noticed I was wearing £70 walking shoes and thought ‘this guy’s got taste’!
Chelsea market is another amazing option to do for free (unless you spend a lot of money in the actual place) but we just enjoyed roaming around. This space is effortlessly cool – an enclosed urban food court, shopping mall, office building and television production facility located in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
It’s near the Google office too if you’re a major tech fan. My girlfriend enjoyed the quirky boutique clothing shops and handmade jewelry and poster stalls.
Tip: If you do decide to visit the market, visit The High Line nearby which is a 1.45-mile-long elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail. It’s well worth a stroll along where you get some fantastic alternative views of the old meatpacking district of Manhattan.
Chinatown is also worth a visit – its home to the highest concentration of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere with an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000 people.
You come out of one neighborhood and then suddenly feel like you’re actually in China itself, it’s amazing it really is. Fresh fish is aplenty on sale here as is pig brains which to our delight was on the menu of a restaurant we decided to try.
We were being adventurous but the idea of the brains put us off instantly and we have to admit we just made a run for it. However, this remarkable mini-world within New York is a must-see for anyone.
Grand Central Terminal
The Grand Central Terminal is a commuter and intercity railroad terminal at 42nd Street and Park Avenue in Midtown but is no ordinary station with its grand lobby and lower ground food court, it’s worth a visit.
We went at night when it was less busy which was good but I hear it’s worth coming here in the morning rush hour, just to see the daily commuters and thousands of people going about their business.
Hotel & Accommodation
Read: How to Find Budget Accommodation in New York City (detailed blog post)
As it was a present, she did splurge out quite a bit on this one – so although this was probably one of the bigger costs of the trip it was well worth it. We stayed at the Park Lane Hotel which was old-world New York at its very best.
With its well-dressed frontage opening into a grand lobby, it had that old New York service feel and charm and the size of the bedrooms were fantastic. But it’s what’s outside the hotel that first wowed us – we were staying right along Central Park, one of the city’s most iconic attractions.
There are probably far cheaper options in a similar location but if you want a big, comfortable bed, spacious room and views over the central park to come back to every day, this hotel hits all the right notes.
We opted for a classic yellow cab to get us to and from the airport – it is reasonably expensive as the two main airports Newark & JK are both around 15 miles outside the city.
Read: Our Guide to Getting Around in New York City (detailed post)
You’ll expect to pay around $85 there and they can charge anything on the way back so just double check. We jumped in with a Rastafarian guy from Brooklyn. He’d never been to England so I think he struggled to understand us and asked: “Are you Australian?”
I knew my days watching Home & Away would come back to haunt me. Anyways, once we got through the Lincoln tunnel, we found you can really save money on travel – we just walked and walked and walked.
Honestly, the moment you arrive in Manhattan you feel like you’re going to get lost in this 24 hour, non-stop metropolis, but here’s the thing – you don’t at all.
See Manhattan works on a grid system so you can easily navigate your way around, as long as you know your East from West and up or down you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Tip: Download the New York City Subway map to your phone before you go and use the subway – honestly, it’s fantastic! For 3-4 days I’d say you only need to put around $20 on a metro card each and you’ll be fine. We mainly walked around Midtown but when you want to go further uptown or downtown, the subway is a godsend!
Eating & Dining
Food is my second language!
For anyone who knows me well knows I like my food – a lot! And it was also one of the main reasons I’ve always wanted to come to New York City. Here, you have an abundance of cool coffee culture, cozy breakfast sit-ins, exquisite high-end restaurants, world famous pizza, grab me shakes and a whole lot more.
This post could’ve been just about the food we ate alone because in between all the stuff above, we went and tried a crazy amount of cuisine!
Just grab and go!
We heard the grab and go culture in NYC is damn good and you have to try it. There’s something urbanely cool about standing in a small hectic pizza place, getting in amongst the regulars and city goers and embracing the chaos but damn is the food good.
It might be messy and you’ll eat quickly but the experience is great nonetheless. It’s also a cheap way of keeping to a reasonable budget.
My tip: Gray’s Papaya is a flagship hot dog chain located on 72nd street and Broadway. They do the most amazing tasting hot dogs. Just don’t wear a white t-shirt as you’ll undoubtedly have onions and mustard down it! Pizza-wise you can’t go wrong with Ray’s pizza – not the most famous of pizza but we grabbed a whole one and took it back to our hotel around midnight and that was awesome!
Breakfast of champions
Another reason to skip the monotonous hotel food every morning is the NYC breakfast scene. Oh boy oh boy where do I start on this one – we tried bagels and coffee, juice bars and French-themed cafes. Just go and do it – walk around, find a busy place and you’ll know you’re doing something right!
Tip: Try George’s at the corner of Greenwich and Rector Streets, three blocks south of the World Trade Centre. This place opened its doors in the 1950’s and was what I imagined a total NYC breakfast experience to be – just make sure you can put away the drizzly blueberry pancakes.
Also, check out ‘Pick up a bagel’ (right) on 8th Avenue – this was our first NYC breakfast experience and it did not disappoint. Opt for a bacon and egg on the sesame bun or crème cheese and salmon washed down with a classic coffee.
Joe and the Juice
Joe and the juice should get a special mention here. They are popping up now in the UK but here in NYC, they were a bit of a savior for us as we often felt a bit flagging at times so we’d stop by one of these on 6th Avenue most mornings. Try a ‘pick me up’ blend of raspberry and banana to really perk you up!
There are probably loads of high-end, expensive restaurants to dine at but we preferred to keep our budget for this low as we opted to spend money on other things so if you’re looking to save money I would do the same.
Most people here eat pretty late so if you want to join them, go for dinner around 8 pm or later. We usually got back to our hotel for a few hours to rest our feet from all the pavement pounding and then headed out to see if anything caught our eye.
Tip: Bill’s Bar & Burger on West 51st was a great burger spot known for its delicious disco fries (with gravy and cheese). It’s also one of many cool places to chill and have a beer. Just DON’T order a Coney Island root beer…unless you like the taste of germolene (yes, germolene).
So what are You Waiting For?
If you’re planning a trip to NYC or are just starting to think about it, do it! It’s an incredible place, full of diverse culture, food, shopping, and attractions.
We only barely scratched the surface and there are so many other areas to explore such as Harlem, upper Manhattan, the Bronx Zoo, the Yankees Stadium, Brooklyn Heights, Queens and if you are there even longer, why not try slightly further afield like Long Island and New Jersey City.
Don’t let anyone tell you this place is not worth a visitor it’s too expensive, it’s simply not true from our experience. We came back almost depressed that we weren’t there for longer!
He loves the food in Sorrento, Italy, has enjoyed sledding down snowy hills near Oslo in Norway, embraced the casinos in Las Vegas and has always appreciated the scenery of the Venice of France, Annecy. However, his favorite place in the world is the Jurassic coastline in his native England. The scenery, the English seaside charm form his best childhood memories.