New York is one of those places that pretty much everyone I’ve met wants to visit at some point. It’s a place that seems reserved for special birthdays, honeymoons, proposals and other significant milestones. I’ll be honest, I’d never actually been that bothered about going. It’s just a city, and I much prefer the countryside to cities. However, that was until we were going somewhere within touching distance and suddenly it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. All too soon I was getting very excited about heading to New York for the first time, and when I was there it didn’t disappoint. It can be difficult to know what to expect or where to begin with planning, so here are my tips to any other first-timer’s out there.
Expect to spend a while in the airport
Unless you’ve been to the USA before and already have your ESTA, expect to join the longest queue at the airport – those arriving for the first time. We’d been warned before we went that it could take a while to get through security, and it didn’t help that when we landed there appeared to be a minimal number of security lanes actually open. Try and go to the toilet before you join the queue (there were plenty of people who didn’t and regretted it afterwards).
We were probably waiting for about two hours in total. It’s a little bit frustrating, particularly when you have limited time, but if you are expecting it and have factored it into your planning it’s not as bad. Yes, we missed out on a couple of hours in the city, but it also meant we could go straight to our hotel to check-in rather than having to hang around for a few hours before our room was ready.
Don’t be afraid of the Subway
I’d read in a few places before we left that the subway system in New York could be quite complicated. Part of me felt a little apprehensive, part of me wondered how much more difficult than the tube it could be. As a result, we met a lot of people in the airport who were planning on travelling by taxi into the city, and probably around the city as well because they were nervous about using it. This seemed like such a waste of money! MetroCards only cost $1 and then you could top them up as much as you needed.
The subway worked pretty much the same way as any other underground I’d used – you need to know which direction you’re heading and which line you want to take. The only thing to look out for is that some are express trains and some are local – so not everything stops at every stop. I think this caught us out once, but you just need to double check a subway map and see which line is marked in bold next to the stop you want to get off at.
The only time we had an issue was trying to get back to the airport as there were three trains all on the same line, but only one actually went to the airport (and this wasn’t marked on our map). Luckily there were several people on the subway who pointed out our mistake and were happy to point out which station to get off at instead, and which train to wait for. When in doubt, just ask someone.
Don’t expect to do everything
Unless you are going to New York City for a significant amount of time, you’ll soon realise that you won’t have time to do everything. You might be willing to get up at sunrise, pack the day full of activities, and only have a few hours sleep before doing the same again – but I wasn’t. I wanted to enjoy our time there and that would mean balancing racing around trying to see things (which I thought we did a pretty good job at – you can read my itinerary here) and taking things at a slightly gentler pace.
I would advise reading a few blogs and guidebooks, but also just compiling a list of sights you might have heard of and want to see. Once you’ve got your list, cut it down. And once you’ve done that, cut it down further until you’re left with a really definitive shortlist. Then try and familiarise yourself with a map to see what is close by, and possible to fit in at the same time.
James and I had a list of places we’d like to see, but one or two core things for each day that we knew we’d be disappointed if we didn’t fit in. As it was, we actually managed to fit in quite a lot but I wasn’t upset by the things we didn’t see because we’d already seen so much and they hadn’t made the cut to our priority list. If you really don’t mind what you do, here are some suggestions…
Go up a tall building
This was something I was told to do time and time again, but was resisting because I knew it was going to be expensive. Instead, I’d read somewhere that you should try to go to a rooftop bar, and then the money you save on entry you can spend on cocktails. This seemed like a good idea, but then I realised that the views just weren’t going to be the same. So as soon as we got to New York I decided I really wanted to go up a tall building, and luckily we had the perfect weather one day for doing so. Despite the expense, I didn’t regret it at all!
We opted to go to the top of the Rockefeller Center because James wanted to look out over views of Central Park, and I wanted to be able to see the Empire State Building, rather than being up it. The views were fantastic and although I don’t really have a head for heights (and had managed to convince myself I could feel the building moving) I enjoyed the time we spent up there.
If you don’t fancy the Top of The Rock, the Empire State Building is the most iconic building to go up and is taller. It will offer nearer views of Downtown Manhattan and a view of the Rockefeller Plaza. There’s also the One World Observatory which looks to provide more of an ‘experience’ than just a view, and is located to the south of Manhattan island. I would just work out what you’d like to see a view of and make your decision based on that.
Spend time in Central Park
Central Park is one of the most filmed locations in the world and covers over 800 acres. If you’re looking for a quieter spot in the city, some green among the skyscrapers, or just a spot to sit and watch the world go by then I’d really recommend trying to spend a couple of hours in Central Park. It felt to me a little like being in a film set, particularly when we reached the Bethesda Terrace and Fountain. There were an incredible number of runners and cyclists, but also plenty of smaller paths where you could step further off the beaten track. It was the perfect spot for a picnic lunch – and we even saw a proposal!
Go to a museum
New York is home to some of the biggest and most famous museums in the world. You could spend an entire weekend just visiting two or three and still not see everything! If it’s raining or cold then a museum is the perfect place to take shelter and still see something impressive. However, you either need to keep an eye on the time or only plan to fit one into a day because they are vast.
It’s worth checking visitor information in advance – there were a few museums that offered free or reduced entry on certain days between specific time periods. We didn’t take advantage of this, but if you were planning on going somewhere like MoMA (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) then it could be worth it.
See things by day and night
New York is called the city that never sleeps for a reason, and it appears that there is just as much going on during the night as there is by day. Although it can be exhausting, try and make sure you make time to see things at night as well as during the day time. If we’d have had longer, I’d have quite liked to repeat some of our experiences like going up a tall building, or going on the Staten Island ferry, at a different time to enjoy it in a different way. As it was, we tried to carefully choose what we did when.
We avoided Times Square during the day, despite being quite close, as we knew the billboards and lights would be much more impressive after it had become dark. Therefore we made sure this was planned for an evening. Similarly, I knew I wanted to see the Manhattan skyline glitter with lights at night, so we decided to take the Staten Island ferry in the evening rather than during the day so that we could enjoy this.
Get off Manhattan Island
It’s far too easy to spend all your time on Manhattan island and assume you’ve seen New York City. The city is actually made up of five boroughs – so go out and visit one of the others to get more of a sense of what the ‘real city’ is like. I’ll be honest, we didn’t go far from the main island and it’s something I would spend more time doing if I return, but just the small amount we did see was a nice comparison the busy streets of Manhattan.
We crossed the bridge into Brooklyn and into the area known as Brooklyn Heights. From here we got a great view of Downtown Manhattan and found ourselves among the brownstone buildings that I’ve seen in so many films and TV programmes. It was quieter, calmer and felt much more residential than anything we saw on Manhattan island. If we’d have had more time I would definitely have spent longer in Brooklyn, eager to check out the food scene, Prospect Park and Coney Island – I guess they’re all on the list for next time!
New York Botanic Garden and the Bronx zoo were also things that made my long list, but we didn’t make it out to The Bronx this time.
What would you recommend for someone’s first time to New York City?