Nov 28, 2012 8:05:52 AM
New York City for first-timers
Baffled by the Big Apple, or hoping to glimpse the stranger side of NYC? Check out Lonely Planet’s essential guide for first-timers, or for a peek at New York’s oddities, our friends at BBC Travel have all the secrets.
No question stumps a New Yorker more than the most common one from a first-time visitor: what should I do in New York City?
There is no right answer. What to do in New York? For some, it’s seeing familiar cinematic scenes like taking Melanie Griffith’s Staten Island Ferry commute from Working Girl, or peeking into Tiffany’s window on Fifth Avenue. For others, it’s eating a hot dog in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, or just experiencing the diversity of neighborhoods (after moving here from Oklahoma, I’d walk to Chinatown for Saturday dim sum every week for a year). And for some it’s just theater, theater, theater.
You already carry a few imprinted images of New York City – start by making them real, then be open to wherever the city takes you. Just know that understanding the Big Apple at all will mean, at the very least, coming back for a second and third time.
Where to stay?
No matter where you go, expect less space and higher prices for hotels in New York – it’s just the way it is. There’s no set high season, and the price for a hotel room regularly exceeds $300 a night (but don’t be deterred, there are cheaper ways to stay if your budget is tight – see below).
Most first-timers understandably want to be near attractions and restaurants in Manhattan (the most popular of the five boroughs), and in particular the Broadway theater district around Times Square, the only part of Midtown with much life after dark. A block off the square, Casablanca Hotel’s Moroccan theme and comfortable rooms are big for visitors, with rooms starting at a slightly reasonable $249.
Just north, the Upper West Side is a good, safe choice for a more ‘neighborhood’ feel with plenty of theaters, restaurants and bars, plus it’s right on Central Park. A great choice is the Country Inn the City, set in a 1891 limestone townhouse on a tree-lined block; rooms have kitchenettes and start at $220. To the south, Chelsea, the Meatpacking District and Greenwich Village offer more bustle and nightlife, easy access to everything, but fewer hotel options and often higher rates.
Many visitors will take a trip to the Statue of Liberty and visit the 9/11 Memorial and Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, but – to be honest – there’s nothing happening at night. It’s best to go by day and base yourself elsewhere.
Find a spot to rest your head among the many Lonely Planet author reviewed properties around New York.
When to go?
I’m going to say it: summer can be just horrible in New York. Sidewalks are crowded, and those used to air-conditioned lives will be shocked at how 90°F (32°C) feels on a humid day when getting to and fro means more footfall than usual.
Spring and fall are simply the best times to go to New York City. For spring, time a trip to see the superb Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in April. For fall, there are oodles of fun events including the New York City Marathon in early November, with a rare five-borough scene of good cheer on the sidewalks. And don’t forget winter – it’s cold but the city lights up around Christmas and New Year.
Four biggest NYC first-timer myths
1. Myth: NYC is way too expensive
There’s so much to see for free or cheap in New York that I’ve put together a list of 40 free attractions, and despite all the swank restaurants, there’s no more classic New York meal than taking a sandwich or street vendor falafel to Central Park on a nice day.
Accommodation-wise, consider skipping a hotel and renting a private or shared apartment with locals through a dependable site like Airbnb.com; you save more if you’re willing to stay in nice neighborhoods of Brooklyn or Queens as opposed to central Manhattan. I’ve found comfortable apartments with kitchen access and private bathrooms for under $100 in Brooklyn and Queens.
2. Myth: NYC taxi drivers are con artists
There are organized taxi lines at all airports with flat rates into Manhattan. Take those and ignore the harmless-looking guys offering car service as you exit the luggage carousels. Taxis will use a meter, which starts at $2.50 then rises by $4 for every 20 blocks or so. It can help to pre-plot out a route on your smart phone, or in advance, just to give yourself the comfort that you’re going the right way. See www.nyc.gov/taxi for more information.
3. Myth: New Yorkers are rude
This little myth is debunked as soon as you ask directions. Everyone will help you. Everyone. That said, New Yorkers, especially during commute hours, have less patience for sidewalk dawdlers or (worse) sudden-stoppers, so expect a few exasperated grunts if you opt to do that. Or – please, please, please – walk to the side.
4. Myth: ‘I have to see…’
No you don’t. There’s too much to do to mandate any particular thing. Be open, and try not to repeat the same routes every day. The first time I went to New York, I walked along 42ndSt, took the subway to the East Village, shopped for t-shirts and random sushi, walked to the West Village, looked at a guitar shop and former beatnik clubs, then shops in SoHo and Chinatown. Just looking, mostly. And that was about it. It still strikes me as the perfect introduction.
Four classic NYC experiences
If you’ve always wanted to see the ancient Egyptian tablets at the Met, or a Jackson Pollock at MoMA, by all means go. But you really don’t have to do either. Ultimately New York is more about experiences than any individual sight. Try these four classic New York experiences:
1. Walk from Times Square to Grand Central
Only have one hour to do something in New York? This is it. Yes, locals roll their eyes over ‘touristy, Disneyfied Times Square,’ but all are still secretly amazed by it anyway. Go see it (and return to see the difference when lit up at night). By day, just sit on the chairs or bleacher steps and stare. Then walk east along 42ndstreet, past the beloved Bryant Park, to Grand Central Terminal at Lexington Ave. Inside are free tours, and glam lunching at the Oyster Bar downstairs. Best is just watching commuter rush.
2. Get at least one glorious view
Everyone loves the iconic Empire State Building, but if you’re short on spare 20-dollar bills, note what most locals will tell you: the view from Top of the Rock at 30 Rock is better. The art deco NBC building has a better view, with multiple open-air decks, looks over Central Park and you can actually see that Empire State Building from up there too.
A view with less vertigo can be had from the walkway across Brooklyn Bridge, with stellar views of the famed bridge, and across the New York Harbor and Lower Manhattan skyline.
3. Eat street or take-away food
Many locals grab lunches from the many mobile street vendors around the city. Keep an eye on winners of the Vendy’s, an annual street vendor competition – and plan a day around trying one or two champs, ideally if you can take them to the sit on the giant glacial rocks on the southern part of Central Park. Other take-away musts include a bagel, such as the city’s most beloved from Ess-a-Bagel.
Then there’s the slice. New York has many opinions about the best pizza slice – never call it a ‘piece of pizza’ here – but distrust anyone who hasn’t yet tried them all (ie, everyone). Watch for a line, and get a slice for $2.50 or $3.50 each. There is no single best slice, even though everyone has their fave – finding your own fave is part of the fun.
4. Ride buses and the subway
Many first-time visitors opt for the double-decker bus tours, such as those offered by Gray Line, where you can hop on/off at key points around the city on various overlapping circuits. It’s a handy introduction to the layout of the city, particularly on your first day. Views from open-top seats on nice days are another bonus. But it’s not cheap. A day runs from $55 per person. Compare that to an MTA pass on New York subways and buses for $29 – for one week.
More first-timers should really treat the subway as an attraction in itself. Do try to take the subway at least once. Agents hand out free subway or bus maps. Be sure to know if you’re going ‘uptown’ (generally, not always, to the north of Manhattan) or ‘downtown’ (to the south). Express trains stop only at only select stations marked with a white circle, as opposed to a black dot. Ask people what line to take and where to get off.
Seriously, just ask – everyone in New York will help you.
Robert Reid is Lonely Planet’s US Travel Editor based in New York City. His favorite pizzas all come from Brooklyn, but he won’t turn up his nose at a Manhattan slice.