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The best New York City Travel Guide by A Local 2020

by grace ashi
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New York City Travel guide and tips

This is an a extensive New York City Travel guide first time tourist for 2020. Everything you need to know before visiting the big apple this year. Comprehensive list of Top Things to do, where to stay, where to eat, what to pack, and tips on how to get around the city. 

New York City is the most populous city in the United States, and a perfect place to visit if you want to experience the melting pot of American culture. Famous sites, tasty restaurants, beautiful art and architecture, fashionable shops, and plenty of entertainment lie around every street corner.

You could live in New York for years as I did and not see all that it has to offer! This city has something for every traveler, from the foodie, to the history nerd, to the theater enthusiast, or the fashionista.  

14 Top things to do in New York City your first time

New York City can feel like a sea of faces and places, and it might seem overwhelming to plan a trip to such a vibrant, big city. Have no fear! The following list will give you a few great ideas to start planning for your visit to “The City That Never Sleeps.” 

  1. See the View from the Empire State Building
Empire State building
View Empire State building from 34th and 7th avenue

One of the most recognizable buildings in New York’s skyline is the Empire State Building. The 86th floor’s open-air observation deck is an absolute must for every visitor to NYC. If you want to get even higher, the 102nd floor also has an enclosed observation deck you can visit. If you’re visiting during a peak tourist season and want to avoid spending half of your day in line, you can buy a skip-the-line ticket online ahead of time. 

  1. Visit the Statue of Liberty

“Lady Liberty” – an icon, not just of New York City, but of the United States itself! For more than 100 years, she has stood in the city’s harbor proclaiming welcome to millions of immigrants and visitors alike.

statue of liberty new york
The stature of liberty
  1. Explore Ellis Island

Near the Statue of Liberty sits Ellis Island, an important location in the history of the United States. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, Ellis Island was the country’s busiest immigration processing station, welcoming over 12 million new Americans to their new home.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Ellis Island and the people who played a part in its story, a visit to the island and its museum is a great addition to your NYC itinerary! A visit to Ellis Island can be tacked on to your visit to the Statue of Liberty, and during peak season it would be helpful to purchase tickets in advance. 

  1. Stroll Through Central Park 

You can’t visit New York City without spending some time in Central Park, a beautiful, forested oasis in the center of the bustling city. Bike, roller blade, or simply walk along the park’s paths to discover all that it has to offer. You can visit the zoo, join a fitness class, enjoy an open-air concert, and more! 

water fountain
Central Park pond
  1. Catch a Broadway Show

If you’re a fan of the theater, you absolutely must see a play or musical performed on Broadway while you’re in New York. Perhaps a ticket to a popular show like Hamilton, Wicked, or Les Miserables has been on your wishlist? Or maybe you’d like to see something new? There are plenty of options to choose from, and an evening at the theater will be one very well spent. Be sure to purchase tickets in advance, especially for high-demand shows like the ones mentioned above. 

*Note: Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, all Broadway shows are cancelled until 2021. 

  1. Take a Walk Down Wall Street 

At the heart of New York’s Financial District is the famous Wall Street, home to the New York Stock Exchange, Federal Hall (the nation’s first capitol building), and several other NYC landmarks. While the NYSE is sadly no longer open to the public, you can still see the building the houses the world’s largest stock exchange. Nearby, you can visit the Federal Reserve Bank of New York if you’d like to learn more about the U.S. economy (tours are free!), or take a photo with the famous “Charging Bull” statue. 

  1. Shop on Fifth Avenue

A trip to New York for any fashionista has to include a shopping spree on Fifth Avenue! High end stores like Tiffany & Co., Bergdorf Goodman, Luis Vuitton, and Saks Fifth Avenue are joined by more mainstream shops like H&M and Zara to create a shopaholic’s paradise. Even if you’re not ready to break the bank on a new wardrobe, the Fifth Avenue shopping district is still a fun place to see and explore for visitors to the “Big Apple.” 

action america architecture avenue
  1. Discover the World Trade Center

Once the site of horrific events, the World Trade Center today offers visitors a chance to learn and reflect on the events of September 11, 2001 in the peaceful memorial plaza dedicated to the men and women who lost their lives during the terrorist attack. The 9/11 museum offers more details about this historical event. One World Trade Center, aka Freedom Tower, is the most eye-catching of the new buildings on the site.

curtain wall buildings under blue cloudy sky
word trade center

It’s the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and it offers a fantastic view of the city for anyone who wants to ride the elevators up to the observation deck on the 102nd floor. Tickets to the observatory, including options that allow you priority access in lines, are available for purchase ahead of time online. 

  1. Cross the Brooklyn Bridge

Connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn is the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. When it was completed, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, and today it is still one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City. Walking across the bridge is absolutely free!

There are options, however, to pay for a paid walking tour if you want to learn more fun facts about the city and its history, and some companies even offer bike rentals and tours to cross the bridge. If you want to save time and energy and don’t feel like walking the length of the bridge (a little over a mile), you can also drive across it, but it will be more difficult to take photos from your car windows. 

Brooklyn Bridge
  1. Visit Times Square

Famous for its New Year’s Eve celebration and many flashing billboards, a walk through Times Square is a must for any NYC tourist. There are plenty of shops and attractions in the area to visit as well, including Madame Tussauds wax museum or the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! exhibit.

lighted high rise buildings
  1. Check Out the Rockefeller Center

Just a few blocks from Times Square you can find Rockefeller Center. For fans of Saturday Night Live!, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, or even The Office, a tour of NBC studios has to be on your itinerary! During the tour you’ll be able to see the studios where several of the NBC live shows are filmed, as well as learn about what goes on behind-the-scenes. You can also stop by Radio City Music Hall for a tour or to watch a performance. The Rockettes call Radio City home! If you haven’t had enough of the Manhattan skyline, the Top of the Rock observation deck offers another stellar view from the 70th floor. 

aerial architecture blue sky buildings
View from top of the Rockefeller
  1. Relax in High Line Park

On Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line park is a unique green space that’s a perfect spot for resting your feet. The park is built on an old elevated rail line and today it is home to contemporary art installations and sustainable gardens. Periodically, events such as concerts, salsa dancing, or performance art pieces can be enjoyed by park visitors. Grab a coffee, hot dog, or slice of pizza and a seat on a High Line bench to relax amidst your busy sight-seeing schedule. 

  1. Tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art

If you’re an art lover, the Met should definitely be on your list of places to visit in NYC! The Met has two locations, the most famous being on Fifth Avenue, and the other, The Met Cloisters, being further north in Fort Tryon Park. Whether you choose to visit both locations or just one is up to you, but be prepared either way to experience a plethora of incredible art spanning hundreds, even thousands, of years! If you’re a student of the arts and want to be prepared ahead of time for what you will see and experience, the Met’s website offers educational articles and teaching tools for prospective visitors. 

*Note: Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, opening hours for the museum may have changed. 

  1. Experience a Musical Performance at Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall has long been the venue for classical, jazz, and orchestral performances. Seeing a talented musician in concert on one of the hall’s three stages is at the top of many a music-lover’s wish list. If you’re more interested in experiencing the music through your own performance, the Weill Music Institute offers classes and hosts educational events at Carnegie Hall that you can join, too! 

Where to Eat in New York city

New York City is home to people whose roots can be traced to almost anywhere in the world, and thankfully they brought their delicious cuisines with them! 

One of the most famous New York City ethnic neighborhoods is Little Italy. For a delicious, authentic Italian meal, grab a table at Benito One, and for a sweet treat, grab a cannoli just down the street at Caffe Palermo.

Another of New York’s popular neighborhoods is Chinatown. Grab some delicious dim sum at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, eat a late night dinner at Wo Hop, BYOB to wash down your noodles at Spicy Village, try some homemade dumplings at Lan Zhou, or check out Buddha Bodai for kosher or vegetarian options. 

Katz Delicatessen is another New York City classic. Grab a massive pastrami or corned beef sandwich, a hot dog, or a crunchy dill pickle from this Jewish deli that’s been serving up delicious meals for over 130 years. 

Throughout the city, you can find cultural pockets of Polish, Dominican, Russian, Indian, Korean, Guyanese, Greek, Puerto Rican, Senegalese and more! If you have a dream of traveling the world and tasting all the dishes that it has to offer, you may be able to do just that by only traveling to one location: New York City. 

For a delicious pizza, check out Roberta’s or Lucali in Brooklyn. For a quick bagel breakfast on your way to explore the city, try Ess-a-Bagel, H&H Bagels, or Best Bagel and Coffee in Midtown. 

For a high-end meal that will fill your belly, but might leave your wallet a little lighter, try Le Bernardin. This Michelin starred restaurant is known for its French cuisine. If you love seafood, this is definitely the place for you, and if you’re a vegetarian, there are plenty of gourmet options that will fit your dietary needs. Sushi Nakazawa is another Michelin starred restaurant that specializes in – you guessed it – sushi. If you didn’t get enough Italian food in Little Italy, visit Lilia in Brooklyn for an upscale meal of pasta, seafood, lamb, or veal. 

Where to Stay in New York City. 

Being such a big city, New York has many different neighborhoods, each with their own unique feel. For a first-time visitor looking to stay near all of the city’s main tourist attractions, Midtown or the Theater District are your best choices. If you don’t mind a bit of a trek to get to some of the main attractions and want to stay in a quieter area near Central Park, the Upper East and West Sides are great options. For a trendier New York neighborhood with plenty of local flair and fun restaurant options, SoHo, Chelsea, or West Village are excellent choices.

 

NYC Budget friendly hotels

For a modern, budget-friendly option, the Pod 39 hostel offers stylish rooms, private bathrooms, and a fantastic rooftop bar. Pod 39 also boasts a great location – only a five minute walk to Grand Central Terminal and twenty minutes from Times Square and the Fifth Avenue shopping district. For more clean-lined decor at a moderate price, check out the Moxy Hotel near Times Square or the Arlo SoHo hotel.

There are tons of safe, trendy hotel options to make your stay in New York City special. One of my favorite hotels in the city is Hotel Pennsylvania. It’s location in Midtown Manhattan can’t be beat, it has great amenities like a pool and fitness center, and it’s very affordable. If you want to stay close to all of NYC’s main attractions and still stay on budget, this is the place. 

If you’re a history-lover or looking for some old New York charm, check out The Jane or the Harlem Flophouse. Once used to house Titanic survivors, The Jane’s small rooms are furnished to look like old fashioned train bunks or ship’s cabins. You’ll be waited on by bellhops wearing traditional attire, and you’ll be able to enjoy not just the hotel’s unique ambiance, but also the penthouse bar and downstairs ballroom. The Harlem Flophouse bed and breakfast is even more old school than The Jane (no TVs in these rooms!), but the restored brownstone’s antique decor is incredible. There are a limited number of rooms, so if a step back in time to the jazz age of the Harlem Renaissance is what you’re after, make sure to book your stay well in advance. Both of these historic hotel options are very modestly priced, so even budget travelers will feel right at home! 

Luxury Hotels

If you’re ready to go all out for a luxury hotel experience, the NoMad Hotel, located in a beaux-arts building on Broadway, features French-style decor and a lovely restaurant. The Ritz-Carlton near Central Park is a five star hotel in an unbeatable location that offers several spa and wellness services to help you relax during your trip. Finally, the Baccarat Hotel, filled with artwork and tons of glitz and glamour, offers luxury in a convenient, central location. It also has a pool so you can take a refreshing dip after a long day of walking around the city. 

How to Get Around New York City

Hop on, Hop off tour bus

A great option for tourists visiting the “Big Apple” for the first time is to purchase a New York Pass. You can purchase the pass for the length of your stay (up to ten days) and use it for entry into tons of the city’s main attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, and more! The pass also allows you to Fast Track many of the lines at these attractions. One of the best parts of the pass is that it allows you access to a hop-on-hop-off bus tour for one of your pass days.

The bus’ Uptown loop includes stops at Central Park, Carnegie Hall, and the Met, while the Downtown loop includes stops at Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Wall Street. It is a great way to get around the city and hit many of the top spots on your to-do list, especially if you only have a few days to explore this massive city! Even if you’re staying for a longer trip, the hop-on-hop-off bus can be a great first-day activity to help you orient yourself in the city so that you can get around on your own in the days to come. Definitely check out the New York Pass and see if it’s right for you when planning your trip to NYC!

NYC SUBWAY TIPS

A trip to New York City is incomplete without riding the subway. Trains run 24 hours per day and the MTA offers maps of all public transportation routes so you can easily navigate them to get where you need to go. If you’re only visiting for a few days, you might want to opt for paying $3.00 per ride, but if you’re visiting for a week, or even a month, you can get unlimited rides for seven days ($33.00) or thirty days ($127.00).

Most subway stations have vending machines where you can purchase and refill a Metrocard to make for quicker and easier movement between trains and routes. If your route takes you through Grand Central Terminal, spend some time checking out the beautiful architectural elements of this beaux-arts landmark. 

Walking

Of course, your trip to NYC will likely involve a lot of walking. Many of the main tourist attractions are within several blocks of each other, so with a good pair of shoes, much of your transportation around the city will be free! 

Rideshare and taxi

Taxis, or ride sharing services like Uber or Lyft, are also abundantly available on New York City streets if your feet need a break or you want to travel above ground for awhile. Taxi services are the most expensive option for public transportation, and they can also be the most frustrating when it comes to dealing with the traffic, but they are nice to use if you’re traveling to or from your hotel with lots of luggage or if you’re on your way back from a shopping trip with a big haul. 

Best time to Visit and What to Pack

Best time to visit

New York City is a great city to visit all year long, but if you decide to visit in the winter months, be sure to pack heavy layers of warm clothes and boots that can get you through the snow. Temperatures from December to February can easily drop below freezing! Christmas time in NYC can be absolutely magical, so if you’re up for braving some snow and ice then get out there and browse the holiday window displays at the city’s department stores, ice skate under the glow of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, or visit the Christmas market in Central Park.

If you don’t mind colder temps, the late winter/early spring months usually see the lowest number of tourists to the city, so you could more easily snag a deal on a hotel, book a restaurant reservation, or avoid longer lines at main attractions if you schedule your trip during this time. 

What to pack

During the summer months, expect the highs to be in the 80s (°F), so pack shorts, tees, and tank tops. July is also New York’s rainiest month, so be sure to carry a light rain jacket or travel umbrella with you in case you get caught in a drizzle. You will probably be doing a lot of walking as you see the sights that the city has to offer, so pack comfortable shoes that you can get around in without getting blisters. 

For the mildest temperatures, a visit during the spring or autumn would be best.

Conclusion

New York is one of the cultural capitals of the United States, and some would even argue that it’s one of the cultural capitals of the world! There is so much to see, do, eat, and enjoy. If you’ve been dreaming of a trip to the “City of Dreams,” I hope this New York City travel guide provides you with a great place to start making that dream a reality!  Be sure to check out the ultimate first timer travel guide to Washington DC as well.

 

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Grace Ashi
Fashion, travel and lifestyle blogger.
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