So you’re visiting my home city…you can go to the touristy stuff, or you can see some things that make New York unique among all US cities—architecturally, historically and culturally.
Logistics hints for first time visitors
Trying to get around and find stuff on your first visit can be overwhelming, so have some kind of plan of what things you want to do each day, and try to cluster things that are geographically near each other.
Don’t even think of renting a car or driving in Manhattan. You’ll spend most of your time sitting in traffic or cursing, and most of your money on parking fees. Taxis are easy to find but often no faster than walking if traffic is heavy.
The subway runs 24x7. You can purchase and load up a MetroCard at any station; individual rides are around $3 flat fare but there are also multi-day unlimited-use cards. The card is also valid on buses.
0. The Usual Suspects
These are all classic tourist attractions and well worth seeing, but they’re obvious choices and well covered by other guides, so I won’t discuss them further: the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History (though it does have an exceptional dinosaur exhibit recently renamed the “Hall of Birds and their Extinct Ancestors”) and the very kid-friendly and well-done Rose Center for Earth and Space (a/k/a Planetarium) adjacent to it, the Museum of Modern Art, South Street Seaport, Central Park (about the same size as Golden Gate Park in SF).
For a panoramic view, The Edge NYC now competes with the Empire State Building and Freedom Tower (World Trade Center). All are expensive but you’re not here to save money, and the views are amazing.
1. See a Broadway Show
Why: Experience not only the best production values in the US, but the energy that pervades one of only two really vigorous theater districts in the world (London is the other), with dozens of shows at dozens of theaters playing on any given night. Most shows are dark on Mondays; some have Sunday evening shows, others only Sunday matinees.
BroadwayBox.com and TodayTix have 25-50% discounts on advance tickets for many performances. (Full price is typically $90-$125) Half price tickets for same day (or the day before, for Sunday matinees) are sold at two “TKTS booths”. The one in Times Square (officially Duffy Square, 47th and Broadway) is well-known and crowded: Tickets go on sale at 3pm for the evening shows (11am on matinee days for the matinee show) but people line up long before then. The lesser known one is near South Street Seaport (subway: Fulton St/Broadway/Nassau, walk straight east along Fulton St and turn right on Front St). It opens at 11am and is frequented by Wall Street workers during lunch hour. Its selection is slightly less than the Duffy Square booth but it’s less crowded, and it’s easy to combine a trip to this with a visit to South Street Seaport or to lower Manhattan, to/from which you can walk along the waterfront.
Note: I’m happy to serve as a recommender/consultant on what to see if you tell me your tastes, so that you don’t end up seeing some of the dreck that passes for theater these days.
Dining and drinking in the theater district: For a pricey drink with a great view before or after the show, go to the View Lounge in the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square (it can get crowded before a show). For a quieter drink and full dinner menu, the hard-to-find Bar Centrale on 46th St. is great, but reservations a must for dinner. If you don’t mind if it gets a bit loud, Havana Central on 47th St. near Broadway has live Latin music many nights, and great Cuban food.
2. Take a boat ride
Why: The best views of the Statue of Liberty and the lower Manhattan skyline, all for free. (But no need to do this if you’re visiting Ellis Island; see below.)
The Staten Island Ferry (subway: South Ferry, 1; Whitehall St, N,R; Bowling Green, 4,5) is still free and runs every 15-30 minutes all day long. You will get an awesome view of Miss Liberty (secure a place along the starboard railing early) on the way out, and a stunning view of the lower Manhattan skyline (especially at twilight/night) on the way back. Allow an hour for the roundtrip, including waiting times.
Combine with a walk around lower Manhattan, including Battery Park and the new Freedom Tower and 9/11 Memorial (see below).
3. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
Why: one of the great engineering achievements of pre-WWI America, its towers were the tallest structures in America when completed in 1887. Culturally, it knitted the area together just as the Bay Bridge knitted the East Bay and San Francisco together.
The pedestrian walkway is on the UPPER level and away from all the cars, affording a spectacular view all around. Caution: the walkway has a striped-off bike lane that is VERY heavily used. Stay out of cyclists’ way. My favorite route is to take the subway to High St in Brooklyn (A,C), follow the signs/people to walk 2 blocks to the bridge access stairway, and then walk across the bridge into Manhattan, where you’ll end up at City Hall. Including the subway ride from lower Manhattan, allow about an hour.
4. Experience Immigrant New York
Why: The story of New York, and America, is the story of immigrants. Every immigration story, and every immigrant-related issue we deal with today, happened here first. Here are two sites that tell the story vividly.
The little-known Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side takes you on a guided tour through one of the very few remaining tenement buildings in New York (preserved by designation as an historical building). The house has period furniture and fittings, and much of the finishing (paint, wainscotting, etc.) is original. The tours bring to life the background and lifestyles of the different immigrant groups that came in waves through the Lower East Side. Tours are about 90 minutes, have limited capacity and are required for entry, and reservations are a must. While you’re in the neighborhood, have an overstuffed pastrami sandwich at the famous Katz’s Deli on Houston St near Essex St (subway: F to 2nd Ave, or M to Delancey St). The New York Adventure Club offers periodic “ethnic food tours” of the Lower East Side.
Ellis Island (now a National Park) served as the gateway into New York for over 12 million immigrants, and is now an immigration museum. Because it includes actual artifacts, voice interviews, etc. with people who came through Ellis Island, it’s particularly moving, and you can recreate the experience immigrants would have had as they first stepped off the boat. There’s also facilities for looking up your own forbears who may have immigrated through Ellis. The views from the boat ride to Ellis are comparable to those of the Staten Island Ferry, so no need to do both. Allow 1/2 day.
Note: the same ferry that serves Ellis Island also stops at the Statue of Liberty. You can enter the Statue’s pedestal for free (as I recall) but have to pay to climb up to the crown. It is a strenuous climb and in summer it’s like climbing in a copper oven. You get a beautiful view of the statue from the Staten Island Ferry, and better views of Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building, so I’d skip this.
5. See Grand Central Terminal
Why: GCT is one of the few Beaux Arts railroad terminals in the US that still serves as an active railroad terminal (45 tracks with 30 more planned for 2015, 286 daily commuter trains, 4 subway lines), and uniquely captures what the golden age of rail travel must have been like. Allow 30 minutes, and it’s a good meal stop. Subway: 4,5,6,7 to 42 St./Grand Central, or S (shuttle) from Times Square.
Pre-WWI American architecture, especially Beaux Arts, was buoyed by a civic optimism that justified creating grand public structures, on a scale not seen before or since. (Other excellent examples of grand civic architecture are the New York Public Library main building, the Museum of Natural History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) It is worth stepping inside GCT just to realize that there was a time when taking a journey made you feel like you were an important person going on an important trip, rather than a potential terrorist to be patted down and then stuffed with bland fast food in a sterile waiting lounge. The food court on the lower concourse of GCT is quite good; I’ve never eaten at the famous Oyster Bar, which is featured in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live.
For logistical reasons, most long-distance trains in and out of New York use Penn Station—formerly an even grander terminal than GCT, but reprehensibly destroyed in the 1960s to make room for the unforgivably ugly Madison Square Garden arena. Until 2020, the station itself was relegated to a labyrinthine warren of underground tunnels. In 2020 that changed with the opening of Moynihan Train Hall, created by repurposing the Farley Post Office across the street from MSG, which had been built shortly after Penn in the same style by the same architectural firm. The Post Office courtyard was glassed in, creating a triumphant train hall that is once again a much more appropriate arrival into the greatest city in the world.
Bonus feature: one of the best places to enjoy a classy, leisurely cocktail is the Campbell Apartment, former office/study of New York Central Board member John Campbell. It’s physically part of GCT but the entrance is around the outside of the building, facing Vanderbilt Ave. No sneakers, shorts, or t-shirts.
6. The New York Public Library
Why: Another amazing Beaux Arts structure from back when the zeitgeist was that a grand public experiment deserved grand public structures.
Just down the street from Grand Central, the main (research, noncirculating) branch of the NYPL, built on the site of the former Croton Reservoir, is a spectacular building housing the NYPL’s research collections and both permanent and rotating exhibits of historical books, maps and literary artifacts. Admission is free; allow 30 minutes to wander around. Walk from Grand Central, or subway: B,D,F to 42 St./Bryant Park, 7 to Fifth Ave.
7. Transit Museum
Why: Step into real subway cars from 1904, the year America’s largest transit system opened for business, and from every decade since then.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a transportation geek but this place is fascinating. Built around a decommissioned subway station, a highlight of the exhibits is a collection of around a dozen subway cars covering the areas from 1904 to the recent past. Many of these are still railworthy and are run as regular trains around the holiday season for railfans, and most still have period advertisements posted inside. The museum itself is a few blocks from downtown Brooklyn.
8. Visit the Steinway factory
Considered by many (including me) to be the makers of the best pianos anywhere, Steinway & Sons was founded by German immigrant Heinrich Steinweg (later Henry Steinway) in New York in 1853, and has been building pianos at the Astoria factory since 1880. Free factory tours are held two or three times a week but you must reserve in advance. Every Steinway sold in the US is made here, essentially by hand and taking about a year per piano, using largely the same techniques and equipment that were used in 1880. (Steinways sold in Europe are made in the Hamburg factory, which was established later.) The Steinway factory is about a 15-20 minute walk from the Ditmars Blvd. subway station (N, Q lines). Allow 2 hours for tour itself, exclusive of travel time.
9. Greenwich Village
Funky food, great bars, varied music scene, home of New York’s “freeway revolt”, site of the “Stonewall Riots” that launched the gay rights movement, home of NYU, it combines the cultural role of SF’s North Beach with the closest New York ever got to bohemia. The hole-in-the-wall restaurants along Bleecker and especially Macdougal are generally good bets. The West Village is the nucleus of the gay community. If you’re a jazz fan, there are numerous little clubs everywhere, as well as the world famous Village Vanguard (7th Ave South and Christopher Street) and the Blue Note (W 4th St at 6th Ave; subway: A,C,E to W 4 St, 6 to Bleecker St., N, Q, R to W. 8th St., 1 to Christopher St./Sheridan Square).
10. Lower Manhattan including Ground Zero and 9/11 Memorial
Lower Manhattan (basically, below 14th St.) is the original New York, and its twisty streets and tucked-away taverns preserve the feel of post-New-Amsterdam. Join the Wall Street crowd for an after-work drink at the Stone Street alley near Coenties Slip, or drink where George Washington drank at Fraunces Tavern. Subway: you can’t swing a dead cat in lower Manhattan without having it fall into a subway station. Walk in a random direction and you’ll soon bump into a station.
The 9/11 Memorial and Museum is an apolitical, sensitively-done tribute to those who perished on 9/11/2001. Admission is free but you may have to sign up in advance to get in on crowded days.