Where to stay: There’s no getting around the fact that staying in New York City is expensive, but there are ways to avoid paying hefty price tags for sketchy hotel rooms. Airbnb has recently sprung up in New York, and is offering budget travelers some great alternatives to the lack-luster hostel options and over-priced hotels. Staying in New York isn’t so much about what type of accommodation you’re in, but where in the city it’s located. New York is absolutely massive, and each neighborhood has its own unique personality, so knowing a bit about the neighborhood you’re staying in is key! If you have your heart set on staying in Manhattan, I would recommend finding a place north of Little Italy and south of Harlem, as you’re likely to be in a fairly safe neighborhood within that area. Make sure that you’re within a couple blocks of a subway stop, and you’ll be able to get pretty much anywhere you want to go. If you’re okay with staying outside of Manhattan, you might want to look just over the river in Brooklyn (not too far inland, stay close to the water) or on the other side of Manhattan in New Jersey. Hoboken is a great little city that’s sprung up across the river, and has some great bars and such in its own right, but the PATH train connects right to Midtown, so you’ll have no problems getting in to the city.
Where to eat: It’s so hard to create an exhaustive list of the all of the “good places to eat” in New York City, so I’ll list 10 of my favorites (in no particular order):
- The Harlem Public is an awesome bar in an up-and-coming area that has a killer menu and beer selection. They have a bunch of craft brews on tap, and this is also where you’ll find the famous peanut butter burger- definitely worth a stop if you’re looking to hit up a non-touristy watering hole. They have 2 sister restaurants now, At the Wallace and The Honeywell, which each have their own unique flavor. They’re all located on the same block, so this is a great place to spend an evening bar-hopping!
- Schmackary’s is a cookie bakery on 45th and 9th that’s known for being a favorite spot for Broadway’s actors to grab an intermission or rehearsal snack. The cookies are seriously incredible, so if you’re looking for a snack near the theatre district, this is the place to go!
- Ruchi is an Indian restaurant located very close to the World Trade Center. It isn’t crazy expensive, which is a nice break from the norm in NYC, so if you like Indian food, definitely check it out!
- Kilo is an American-style tapas bar with locally sourced food, interesting menu items, and a killer wine list. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat before a show since it’s fairly close to the theatre district. It isn’t the cheapest restaurant, but the dishes are meant to be shared so for a small dinner it definitely isn’t too bad!
- Grom is an Italian gelato shop located at Columbus Circle, and it’s seriously incredible. They have an amazing selection of delicious ice cream, as well as homemade hot chocolate that will blow your mind!
- Gotham West Market is a vendor-based gourmet dining space, and it’s really amazing. There are different vendors that each have different food options, but these are definitely up-scale culinary experiences presented in a fun way! This is a great spot to try something new (they have everything from a tapas bar to a ramen shop to a burger place), but will work especially well if you and your friends can’t decide on what you want to eat- there will be something for everyone!
- Juniors is a famous New York-style diner that has world-famous cheesecake. I mention it mostly because it’s a good spot to go if you’re looking for something remotely similar to “traditional” New York food, and there’s a location just off of Times Square. It may be a bit touristy, but it has pretty good food and it’s a way better option than Olive Garden or Hard Rock.
- Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory is a great local ice cream shop with delicious homemade ice cream. The best part about this place is definitely the location- the original shop is located on a pier just under the Brooklyn Bridge with awesome views of Manhattan on the other side of the river. There’s also a boat dock right off the pier, so after your ice cream you can take a ferry boat back across the river for an extra mini-tour!
- Grimaldi’s is a famous coal-oven pizza restaurant with excellent pizza. There’s a location right under the Brooklyn Bridge, making it a great spot to escape to if you want to get out of Manhattan. Be prepared for a bit of a line to get in, but it’s so worth it and the line moves super quick as they work pretty hard to get people in and out quickly. It’s quite the experience!
- Cafe Grumpy is an excellent coffee shop with several locations throughout the city. In a city with a Starbucks on every corner, I find it super refreshing to grab a good cup of coffee from an independent business, and this is a great place for it- they even roast their own beans in Brooklyn! Plus, their coffee cups have grumpy faces on them, which really just makes me happy.
The following is a list of restaurants, cafés, clubs and bars that have been suggested to me by friends, but that I haven’t personally tried. All of these suggestions have come from people who’ve lived in or spent significant amounts of time in the city, so I trust that they’re amazing!
- The Meatball Shop
- Pommes Frites NYC
- Spot Dessert Bar
- Think Coffee
- Lure Fish Bar
- Tao Downtown
- PhD Rooftop Lounge
- The Rocking Horse Cafe
- Ample Hills Creamery
- Four & Twenty Blackbirds
- Joe’s Shanghai
- Bagel Bob’s
What to do: New York is kind of a black hole of things to do, and it’s really almost impossible to see and do everything unless you’re there for weeks. Below is a list of some of my favorite things:
- Brooklyn Bridge. This spot tops my list because it’s one of the most iconic and beautiful things to see and do in New York City, and it’s totally free! I usually walk from the Manhattan side to the Brooklyn side, and then there are some great cafés, restaurants, and bars once you’ve crossed over to check out. If you want to continue your journey for beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, check out the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or take a ferry boat ride back across the river. The ferry leaves from the pier under the bridge, and you’ll get to see a cheap river view of the city!
- Times Square. If you’ve not been to New York City before, you definitely need to see Times Square. It’s probably what most people think of when they think of New York City, and again, it’s (mostly) free! There are now a huge set of bleachers (for lack of a better word) above the TKTS stand, which is a great place to sit and people watch. There’s also some decent shopping in this area as many of the major stores have started to grab space. Try not to find a place to eat too close to here, though, as you’ll pay triple the price for lack-luster food! Check out the list above for some decent options, some of which aren’t too far of a walk.
- Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island is a really interesting piece of American history, and it’s a very cool place to visit. The building and island have been turned into a museum that takes you through the history of immigration through Ellis Island. If you have some spare time and are a bit of a history buff, it’s definitely worth checking out! The ferry that goes to Ellis Island also goes to Liberty Island (the Statue of Liberty), and the ticket price for the ferry includes admission to both attractions- this is probably the best deal you’ll get in NYC.
- Rockafeller Center. Especially around Christmas time, this is one of the most beautiful places to be in New York. It’s also probably one of the most crowded, but what else can you expect? Ice skating at Rockafeller Center is an amazing experience, but it can also leave you waiting on line for hours as you can’t reserve a general admission spot to the rink. There are three ways to bypass these lines by making advanced reservations: signing up for the First Skate session at 7 am ($45 per person), purchasing a VIP Skating Package ($60-$120 depending on the dates), or booking an ice skating lesson ($35). The skating lessons aren’t very well promoted, but they’re certainly the cheapest way to get on the ice without waiting on a ridiculous line. Plus, you’ll then have an instructor to help you from falling in front of the hundreds of people standing above the rink.
- Broadway. Going to see a Broadway show is one of the best things to do in New York City. Theatre has long been a staple of New York City culture, and you’ll have the opportunity to see some truly amazing pieces of theatre that you likely won’t be able to see anywhere else. Check out Student Rush tickets to get a good deal just for students. Some of these shows will allow you to simply buy cheaper tickets at the box office before the show, while others will require you to line up before the box office opens to purchase one of the limited student tickets they have available. Some shows also sell discounted tickets by lottery, so you just show up (usually) 2 hours prior to curtain to put your name in. Check on the previously linked site to check the policies of the show that you want to see. Try to be flexible about what you want to see and you’ll likely have better luck getting cheap seats! Also be sure to bring your student ID with you, otherwise you won’t be able to buy student tickets- the box offices are pretty strict about this policy.
- Central Park. Relaxing in Central Park in the afternoon is one of the greatest joys if you’ve just spent a whole day walking around Manhattan. Being in New York City is a very exhausting experience, and spending some down time exploring Central Park is really amazing. Check out the Central Park Zoo if you want to see an attraction, or otherwise just find a bench or rock to sit on and enjoy the people watching and beautiful scenery. Please do not take one of the horse-drawn carriage rides- the horses are grossly mistreated, and tourists taking these rides only perpetuates the problems associated with this “attraction”.
- World Trade Center. Ground Zero and the new World Trade Center is a truly incredible place to visit. The memorial above Ground Zero is spectacular, and is definitely worth a visit. If you’re interested in learning more about 9/11, check out the brand-new September 11 Memorial Museum, which is underneath the memorial. You can book a guided tour of the museum, which is great to do if you’d like additional information about the artifacts shown, or you can go through the museum on your own. Either way, plan to book tickets in advance just to be sure that you can get them. Also plan some extra time to go through the security checkpoint at the entrance to the museum. One World Trade, or the Freedom Tower, will soon open an observation deck, and I imagine that this will be well worth going to as well! Check their website for updates on the upcoming opening date.
- Yankee Stadium. Whether or not you’re a baseball or a Yankee fan, seeing a Yankee game while you’re in New York is a must-do. The stadium is basically a museum to baseball history, so be sure to arrive early for your game! The food and drinks are pricey, but you can get cheap bleacher seats if you look around for them (I’ve paid $25 for a popular Yankees/Red Socks game before). If you’re not familiar with baseball, it’s very easy to follow, and it’s truly an “American” experience!
- Understandably, many tourists are keen to use the NYC Subway system; it’s convenient, and it’s an iconic piece of New York City, just like the yellow cabs. The MTA has devised ways to get you to pay more than you’ll ever spend on your metro card, so when you leave you’re left with a balance that you’ll never actually use. The first thing you should know is that you’re charged $1 for every Metro Card you buy, so save your card! If you finish one, refill it instead of buying new ones each time. Additionally, follow the advice of this website, which details how much you need to load onto your card to ensure you won’t be left with any unused funds when you leave.
- My last piece of advice is in regards to safety- many cities around the world have problems with crime, but for some reason, there seems to be more fear of New York City than of most other cities. NYC is a city just like any other, with great neighborhoods and questionable ones. You simply need to be aware of your surroundings while you wander around the city, and you’ll be okay! Be sure to try and blend in as much as you can, and try not to look too much like a tourist. Don’t carry a map of New York City around with you, look up things on your smartphone (or take screenshots of directions before you leave a wifi spot if you won’t have cell service). If you do need to look at a map, pop into one of the millions of Starbucks or McDonalds to do so, this way you’re not leaving yourself out in the open.
Overall Opinion: New York City is one of my favorite cities in the world, as it’s one that I’ve grown up right up the river from and one that I’ve visited countless times throughout my life. Obviously there are many things to see and do that I haven’t listed above, but the list I’ve shown explains some of my favorite things to do. Many of the ones described won’t cost you an arm and a leg, especially compared to the other attractions the city offers. Things like the Empire State Building are great to see from the outside, but in my opinion they’re overpriced to actually go inside. In the future, I think the Freedom Tower Observation Deck will far surpass the Empire State Building. If you’re visiting New York City and you have some extra time, I also highly recommend that you head north a bit to visit the Hudson Valley. Many NYC tourists don’t realize how beautiful some of the nature outside the city truly is- check out the guide on the Hudson Valley for more info on things to do in the region! If you’re planning on visiting New York City, please feel free to contact me to ask questions. The lists above are nowhere near exhaustive, and I’d be glad to help you plan your own visit to my home city!