A visit to New York City offers almost unlimited possibilities for any traveler, so suffice it to say – it’s New York. There is something for everyone. Here is our selective guide to visiting New York on a savvy budget.
With a wealth of options – the famous sights, art, history, architecture, shopping, dining – it would be impossible to give visitors more than a cursory glance at all of New York’s attractions. Kind of a spiritual home for much of the world, New York is also a bit of an enigma – densely packed in places and quiet in others, extremely diverse in its population but segregated by area, holding some of the world’s architectural treasures as well as some of the worst architecture ever wrought. People teem into New York from around the world to find jobs, go to school or just experience it firsthand. That gives the city a perpetual buzz that is contagious. But as easy as New York is to love, it can be a demanding relationship to maintain over the long run due to everything from overpriced accommodations to horrific traffic to the relentless pace of life.
For years New York was all about Manhattan, the island at the center of it all. But the city’s recent boom times have diversified its offerings, now spread to the outer boroughs (what New York calls its counties) of Brooklyn, Queens and, somewhat surprisingly, the Bronx. Staten Island remains the quiet island to the south that is famous mostly because people take its free eponymous ferry to get views of the Statue of Liberty and New York harbor.
Visiting New York
Manhattan, which has numerous distinct neighborhoods, is undoubtedly where it is at for most visitors. Nearly completely accessible by subway, it is also eminently walkable with the added bonus of many attractions being free – Central Park, Rockefeller Center, New York Public Library, Times Square, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Staten Island Ferry, the 9/11 Memorial, just to name a few – and with lots of great food options along the way.
Lower Manhattan, site of the former World Trade Center, is the city’s historic heart (link to Footsteps article) as well as the home of Wall Street. Here you can grab a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or take ferries to Governors Island (weekends in summer) and Staten Island, both free. To the north is ritzy Tribeca, a formerly industrial area turned residential and now packed with restaurants and celebrities. Crowded Chinatown is centered around Canal Street and overflowing with knockoff goods and cheap food.
Soho stands for south of Houston (pronounced How-ston) and is full of gorgeous cast iron buildings from the 19th century. Soho almost didn’t survive as a highway was planned to cut straight through its heart, but thankfully the area was preserved and, during the 80s, it became home to artists and galleries. The galleries eventually became victims of their own success as the cleaned up area became a kind of outdoor shopping mall as high rents brought in chain stores to fill the storefronts. Walking down Broadway in Soho today is akin to walking through any upscale shopping center in the country and that has meant some of the area’s character is lost to crowds of shoppers. East of Broadway is Nolita, part of the former Little Italy, and now home to dozens of tiny boutiques. Little Italy lies south of Nolita, especially along Mulberry Street, and is only now on the upswing after suffering through decades of mediocre food, Chinese encroachment and a general lack of authenticity.
North of Soho is Greenwich Village, though New Yorkers just call it the Village. Its heart is Washington Square Park, where Fifth Avenue gets its start. Almost finished with a multi-year renovation project, the park has gotten a new lease on life. From here, addresses get very easy – streets west of Fifth Avenue are labeled “West” and east of Fifth are labeled “East.” In the same vein, west of the Village is the West Village and to the east is, you guessed it, the East Village. The West Village is full of charming streets and brownstones, as well as cafes and restaurants. A stroll through the streets is highly recommended, whether Christopher Street with its famous Stonewall Bar and thriving LGBT scene, or west of Hudson Street down to the river where you will find the island-long Hudson River Park, a favorite of cyclists and joggers. However, you may get lost as the grid system of much of the rest of the island breaks down west of 7th Avenue South, with 4th Street making a right angle and crossing 10th Street, for just one example.
The East Village (and Alphabet City beyond) used to be off the tourist radar but since the ‘80s the area has been substantially cleaned up. It is now a twenty-something paradise, with bars on every corner and tons of cheap food options, from pizza to falafel to Japanese. Take a walk down St. Marks for what is left of punk New York or visit the numerous Japanese restaurants on East 9th Street. Head further east and you will wind up at Tompkins Square Park, a large park between Avenues A and B.
At 14th Street and Broadway, the revitalized Union Square features a nicely renovated park and lots of shopping options, most notably the famous Union Square Greenmarket. The market is open year round on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from roughly 8am to 6pm. All the merchandise is from local farmers, producers and purveyors, meaning it is the freshest around. During the holiday season, mid-November through Christmas, there is a Holiday Market on the 14th Street side as well.
To the West of Union Square is Chelsea, now known for its art galleries and as the new center of gay life in the city, especially around 8th Avenue in the 20s. Sandwiched between Chelsea and the West Village is the Meatpacking District, home to high-end designers, sceney restaurants and pricey hotels like the Gansevoort and Standard Hotel. The cobblestone streets are charming but the designer boutiques tend to be very expensive. Take a stroll on the Highline or visit at night, when the lounges and restaurants swing into action.
Wandering north, you come across the broad swath of Manhattan known as Midtown. Here you have everything from Times Square to Macy’s to Penn Station to the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center. Tons of offices, restaurants and shopping make it a busy place to be. A popular walk is up Fifth Avenue, passing Saks Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, 57th Street, FAO Schwartz (58th and Fifth) and the Plaza Hotel, to Central Park. Another option is to start at Grand Central Station, where you can grab some oysters at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and then gaze up at the glistening constellations on the ceiling. Walk west on 42nd Street to Fifth and visit the Main Branch of the New York Public Library (Fifth Avenue between 40th Street and 42nd Streets, free entrance) guarded by the lions Patience and Fortitude. Take a peek at the main reading room, upstairs, with its 52 foot high ceilings. Then stop off for a rest or snack in Bryant Park, once home to New York’s fashion week and now the setting for ice skating in winter and free movies in summer, before trekking through the masses on West 42nd Street to Times Square. Times Square is worth a peek but be warned, it is very busy and full of tourist traps like the M&M store and Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, not to mention dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway Theaters. To the north is the revitalized Columbus Circle, at West 59th Street and Central Park West, which is anchored by the impressive retail and restaurant complex known as the Time Warner Center.
Central Park cuts the island into the Upper East Side and Upper West Side and runs all the way to Harlem. The park is treasured by New Yorkers and is home to miles of paths, lakes, a Children’s Zoo, skating rink, Shakespeare in the Park and more. In summer, peaceful areas of the park are in short supply but it’s worth a stroll no matter the time of year.
The Upper East Side and Upper West Side are mostly residential areas though not without tourist attractions – Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History on the West and Museum Mile on the East. Further north is Harlem, which has undergone a tremendous revitalization in the past decade. Generally safe now, especially in the southern parts, it is also mainly residential except for the commercial area around 125th Street, home to the Apollo Theater. North of Harlem are Morningside Heights, Columbia University and Washington Heights. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Grant’s Tomb are the major draws of the area. The northern tip of the island is interesting for its parks, the wildest of which is Fort Tryon Park, home to the Cloisters Museum, which is part of the Metropolitan Museum. You will be amazed to find this area untouched by human development and looking much like it would have hundreds of years ago.
Visitors to New York often make a trek out to Brooklyn and there are many neighborhoods worth exploring. Williamsburg, once known mainly as the home of Peter Luger’s Steakhouse, is kind of East Village east and Dumbo is up-and-coming, but there is not much to see there besides restaurants and nightlife. If you walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, you will descend the stairs at Cadman Plaza. To the right, through the park, is Brooklyn Heights, which has a promenade featuring stunning views of lower Manhattan. Down the hill is a relatively new area known as Dumbo. Smith Street in Carroll Gardens has lots of places to eat and drink. Perhaps the biggest attraction is the Prospect Park area. This large park was designed by Frederick Olmstead, designer of Central Park. While there are numerous entrances, the best known is Grand Army Plaza. The Brooklyn Museum was recently renovated and often hosts major exhibitions. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has acres of plants and flowers, including a rose garden and cherry blossom trees that bloom in early spring. Further south, scruffy Coney Island has seen better days, though there are plans to re-develop the area.
Many places are quieter but still home to interesting restaurants and shops, especially those run by recent immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. It just takes a bit of exploring. The Bronx is still mainly known for the New York Yankees and the Bronx Zoo. Close to the zoo is Arthur Avenue, an Italian area that will provide a lot more authenticity than Little Italy. Queens is the city’s most diverse borough, home to everything from the New York Mets to Flushing Park to the vibrant Chinatown in Flushing to Greek Astoria. Both LaGuardia and JFK airports are located in Queens.
What New York Is
New York is large but manageable – research the neighborhoods you want to visit and then use the subway to get around as it is often faster and cheaper than taxis, especially if you use the express trains.
New York is the ultimate walking city. Much of Manhattan is compact enough to walk and New Yorkers take a special pride in the amount of walking they do. Comfortable shoes are a must.
The city is, unfortunately, home to extremely expensive hotels. For an average room in a mediocre hotel, you can spend hundreds of dollars a night. If you are willing to sleep in a slightly less convenient area of Manhattan, the West 30s for example, you can save a few bucks on a room. Don’t expect space or comfort, however, unless you pay a premium.
What New York Is Not
New York today is a very safe city with one of the lowest crime rates per capita of any large city in America. Don’t believe every crime show you see on TV.
New York is not the most expensive city in the world. There are bargains to be had on almost anything. The city is a food capital and its huge variety of ethnic restaurants means you can save money to splurge on those not-quite-fancy hotel rooms.
True New Yorkers are not rude to visitors, unlike their reputation. If you need help or directions, just ask. People will be happy to help you find your way.
Time to Visit: New York is best from April to June and September to December. January and February can be quite cold with heavy snow. The spring is unpredictable, with a rainy and cool day followed by a day in the 70s or 80s. Fall is generally sunny and warm, with the least precipitation. Summer is predictably hot and muggy but hotels are a bit cheaper and restaurant reservations are easier to come by. Holiday time is fun but keep in mind finding a hotel room at a reasonable rate for a December weekend in New York is difficult, to say the least.
Transport: New York has the most extensive public transport system in the United States and the subway will cover nearly every place you would want to visit except the very far west and east sides of Manhattan. Subways run 24 hours and are extremely safe compared to even a decade ago.
You will need to buy a MetroCard, mainly from machines as station agents in most token booths now only provide information. The machines sell single, multiple or unlimited rides (weekly and monthly). Each ride is $2.25, though in practice you pay less if you buy multiple rides. Spend more than $10 and you get 7% free. You also get a free transfer from bus to subway, bus to bus (not returns but connections) or subway to bus within 2 hours of swiping your MetroCard. Keep in mind that any unlimited weekly or monthly ride card cannot be re-used for 18 minutes after it is first swiped. MetroCard machines accept cash, credit cards and debit cards. Agents will only accept cash. Bus drivers do not make change and do not take dollar bills only coins and MetroCards. MetroCards are refillable up until the expiration date printed on the back.
Other options are numerous – to and from New Jersey you can take the train or PATH subway, on Staten Island there is a rail line, MetroNorth connects Connecticut and Westchester County to the city and the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) will take you from Penn Station to Long Island, including wine country and the beaches.
NOTE: Train routes are subject to alteration or may not run late nights and weekends due to ongoing construction projects. Watch for signs on subway walls indicating service changes and alternate routes or visit MTA.info.
From the airports: It is possible to take the subway from each airport, with a bit of patience. If arriving at JFK, take the Air Train to the subway and catch the A train to Manhattan. Time is about 1 hour to 1½ hours. Cost is $7.25 – $5 for the Air Train and $2.25 for the subway. The Air Train also goes to Jamaica, Queens where you can take the LIRR to Penn Station or Long Island. The Air Train is also handy for getting between terminals at JFK, parking and rental cars, for which there is no charge. At LaGuardia, you can take the M60 bus to Astoria where you can catch the N train to Manhattan. If arriving at Newark, take their Air Train to the NJ Transit trains at Newark Station to Penn Station.
The ubiquitous yellow taxis have been upgraded in recent years and many now take credit cards. Unfortunately, cab drivers can range from professional to new arrivals with limited English. Rates to/from JFK are $45 plus an MTA $.50 surcharge toll and tip. If you are headed downtown, direct them over the bridges, which have no tolls, as opposed to the Midtown Tunnel. The trip can be extremely slow in traffic as can any trip in Midtown during the day. Another option from the airports are the Airport Buses from the airports, which will deposit you at Grand Central, Penn Station or Port Authority Bus Terminal. (Website)
New York has numerous dining options and some of the most unique restaurants in the world. Check out our Manhattan Neighborhood Eats guide for some recommendations.
Subway schedules can change drastically on weekends or after midnight due to construction. This is especially true for trains to Brooklyn, Queens and Downtown Manhattan. If you are visiting an outer borough, try to do it on a weekday so you don’t have to navigate the numerous service changes.
New York is quickly becoming more handicapped accessible. Every bus will accommodate wheelchairs and the subway system is being rebuilt with elevators in most stations. Stores are accessible and many restaurants tend to be too, except ones in older and historic buildings.
Since tax in the city is 8.875%, to tip many diners just double the tax on the bill, sometimes rounding up a dollar or two. 20% of the pre-tax total is considered a good tip.
New York banks have very high ATM fees, often $3 or more for non-network transactions. Do not use ATMs in delis, bars or on the street as they are not always secure.
Many restaurants will allow you to bring a bottle of wine for a corkage fee as long as that wine does not appear on their list. Inquire when you make a reservation. A few BYOB restaurants do exist, mainly in the East Village, and they don’t charge corkage.
Many Broadway shows make tickets available for half-price at TKTS booths in Times Square and near South Street Seaport. The Times Square booth tends to have very long lines so plan to go by South Street. Tickets are easiest to get in the dead of winter or summer. Shakespeare in the Park is sponsored by the Public Theater with free shows in the summer. Line up at the theater early for a chance to get in. (Website)
Where to Stay
There is no getting around the fact that New York hotels are obscenely overpriced, cramped and sometimes in dire need of renovation. This will be your biggest expenditure while staying in the city and a good deal of web research will be needed to find a reasonably priced room. The peak periods of late spring and the fall are especially difficult – and the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is prime price gouging season. If you’re not looking for a chain and are on a budget, here are a few more quirky options
The Jane Hotel (113 Jane Street, website) is located in the far West Village along the West Side Highway and the location is both a blessing and a curse. The area can be rowdy on weekend nights but it does give you access to the West Village’s bustling restaurant scene. The rooms are called cabins and some are miniature with communal bathrooms but with a price as low as $79 a night plus tax, they’re a steal.
Chelsea Pines Inn (317 W. 14th Street, website) is well located on West 14th Street and attracts a mostly, but not exclusively gay clientele. Rooms are decorated with care and are reasonable for New York, as low as $199 per night plus tax if booked well in advance. Continental breakfast included.
On West 23rd street, not far from the run-down Chelsea Hotel, rumored to be getting a makeover and not recommended unless you are into rock history and grungy surroundings, stands the Chelsea Savoy (204 W. 23rd Street, website), which is a reasonably priced alternative to the chains. Doubles start at $145 and include daily continental breakfast. The hotel is easily accessible but can be loud since it sits on a busy intersection.
Washington Square Hotel (103 Waverly Place, website) is a family-run hotel right on Washington Square Park, in the heart of Greenwich Village. Rates start at $234 a night.
North of Central Park is Harlem, which has undergone a remarkable resurgence in the last twenty years. Easy Living Harlem (website) is a friendly b&b in a restored townhouse with four bedrooms, a garden, kitchen access and free wi-fi. Rates for a double room with queen-sized bed and shared start at $140 ($110 for a single).
Almost too many to mention, New York’s sights run the gamut from the iconic to the surprising. New York certainly has something for everyone and any list of sights is bound to exclude dozens more. Here is our list of the top must-sees and a few clichés to avoid.
If you have time for only one museum, you are not in New York long enough. If you must choose, flip a coin between the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). The Met spans all of human history and has the famous Temple of Dendur, while MoMA has filled out its new building with the best in modern and contemporary art. The Guggenheim is an iconic space but generally devoted to one major exhibition at a time so depending on what’s on display, it may or may not be of interest. To read more about New York museums and galleries, visit our Art Trail New York piece.
Many of New York’s best sights are free. World famous Grand Central Station, with its now sparkling ceiling and food market, is worth walking through. Rockefeller Center hosts the famous skating rink as well as the Christmas Tree. Thousands of visitors walk over the Brooklyn Bridge every year – enter across from City Hall Park. Central Park has rolling hills and lakes, not to mention a skating rink more accessible than Rockefeller Center, bicycle paths, restaurants and free theater in the summer. For Shakespeare in the Park tickets, visit the website and register for Virtual Tickets. You can also get in to some of the country’s hottest TV shows with some planning. The Daily Show (Website), Colbert Report (Website), David Letterman (Website) and Saturday Night Live (Website) all give away tickets for free. You will need to plan far in advance or try to cue up for standby tickets day of.
Parks are making a comeback in New York. The Highline (Website), built on a stretch of elevate railway track, instantly became the newest and coolest city park when it opened. A second section is scheduled to open in Spring 2011. Along the western edge of Manhattan, a newly built park called Hudson River Park is taking shape with bike lanes, jogging paths and more. Washington Square Park is undergoing renovations while Madison Square Park and Union Square Park were both recently renovated. Brooklyn is anchored by Prospect Park, which also hosts the recently renovated Brooklyn Museum. Across from Prospect Park is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Website) In Queens, Flushing Meadows Park awaits its own renovation. The former World’s Fair Site is in need of help but the Tennis Stadium is new and the home of the U.S. Open. Nearby is the new home of the New York Mets, Citi Field, directly accessible by the 7 train.
New York’s skyline begs to be admired from above. The Empire State Building (350 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, Website) is currently the place to see the city and lines can be long. Tickets to the 86th floor are $25 + tax and $19 + tax for kids. For the 86th and 104th floors combined, tickets are $42 for adults and $36 for children. They can be bought and printed online but a $2 per ticket surcharge applies. Be aware that bags may be searched and you cannot bring up glass or bottles. Hours: Open daily 8am – 2am (last elevator up 1:15am)
If you have children, New York is surprisingly kid-friendly. FAO Schwartz is a shadow of its former self due to hard economic times but still a fun stop on the way to the Central Park Zoo. In summer there is an amusement park at Wollman Ice Skating Rink that will please the kids and a carousel runs year round nearby. In Times Square, there are a plethora of kid friendly restaurants as well as Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and Toys R Us, complete with a three-story Ferris Wheel. The Bronx Zoo (Website) is one of the standout zoos in the United States and quite an experience.
Sadly, some places are New York clichés that add little real flavor to a visitor’s trip. Times Square is home to the theater district and every tourist trap chain restaurant you can think of. The area is worth a walkthrough but no more represents the true New York than a zoo represents the wild. Central Park, while beautiful and a New York treasure, is just a large park. If you are short on time, take a quick stroll across it or leave it for your next visit. South Street Seaport is another tacky tourist atrocity best avoided unless you have an undying love of tall masted ships or you are visiting the seasonal New Amsterdam Market on Sundays (April – December).
Lastly, while we understand the emotion behind 9/11, the area known as Ground Zero is a large construction site now and very congested, not to mention difficult to navigate. You can visit the 9/11 Memorial to pay your respects (admission free, advanced reservation required) but please don’t buy knockoff merchandise from street vendors in the area. Actually, that is a rule to follow throughout Manhattan.
New York is rightfully known as a shopping mecca. It has everything from famous department stores to funky boutiques to sample sales. Seemingly every day there is another sample sale (or three). Check out Daily Candy or Top Button.
New York has the most famous department store in the world in Macy’s, the hip Barneys, the upscale Bloomingdales and the chic Bergdorf Goodman. Fifth Avenue is designer heaven, stretching from Saks Fifth Avenue north to 57th Street. If you are into Gucci, Prada, et al, then that is the place for you. The Time Warner Center is basically an upscale mall with both shops and restaurants, as well as a basement Whole Foods where you can stock up for a Central Park picnic. On the other end of the scale, Century 21 across from the World Trade Center site is the most popular spot to dig for bargains. The complex is spread over several buildings, with everything from home and accessories to clothing to shoes.
For funky, the East Village has tons of boutiques on its quiet streets. Walk down East 9th or East 10th for hip designers. Nolita’s streets, mainly Elizabeth, Mott Streets and Mulberry Streets, are full of tiny little boutiques. Herald Square, Broadway in SoHo and Lower Fifth Avenue (15th – 22nd Streets) are the places for mid-market chains, although the city is littered with Banana Republics and Gaps.
Another option is to visit a flea market such as Brooklyn Flea for food, fashion and knick knacks (two different Brooklyn locations, Saturday and Sunday, Website), The Market NYC for contemporary designers (268 Mulberry, Saturday and Sunday only, Website) and Hester Street Fair (Hester & Essex Streets, Saturday and Sunday, Website).
Canal Street in Chinatown is littered with knock-offs of famous designers not to mention bootleg CDs and DVDs. We strongly suggest you do not patronize these establishments.