New York is a city that tops many a travel lovers bucket list. Admittedly, the city that never sleeps has never been high up on my list of must-visit places, but when the opportunity for a trip across the pond presented itself, I didn’t have to think twice: I jumped at the chance.
Last September I flew out to the States to spend a week in the Big Apple. I didn’t know what to expect, although I knew from my brief bit of research that New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world. And the most populated, with over 8.5 million people. Oh, and it’s also illegal to honk your horn in New York City. But let’s leave the fun facts for later.
My first impression of New York, and indeed my first impression of America, wasn’t the most positive. We flew from Heathrow with British Airways, and after a 7 hour flight, we were faced with the nightmare that is US Customs. I’ve never seen so many people queuing to get through the security checks at Newark Airport. Hardly the warmest welcome, and standing in a long queue in the heat wasn’t fun. Not that I was expecting smiles, hugs and a big ‘Welcome to New York’ sign. After eventually making it through security about an hour and a half later (also, be prepared to have your finger prints taken if it’s your first visit) we headed for what was to be our base for the week, the Michelangelo Hotel, a four-star hotel in the heart of Manhattan.
Despite being a little dated in its decor, the Italian inspired Michelangelo is a very nice hotel, with spacious rooms and extremely comfortable beds in an unbeatable location. High-end by American standards, it’s just a few minutes walk to the world famous Times Square. In my opinion, the pros of staying in a hotel so close to Times Square far outweigh the cons. Whilst many standard rooms in the city can be on the small side, you’ll find that hotels in the area tend to have larger rooms. Plus of course you’re in the best location if you plan to take in a Broadway show.
For anyone visiting New York for the first time, there are the quintessential attractions that you’re going to want to tick off your ‘to do’ list. And that’s going to be dictated by how long you have to explore the city. I arrived with a rather long list, and soon realised that I wouldn’t have enough time to tick everything off that list. So here’s my top 6 things to see and do in 5 days.
Things to See and do in NYC
#1 Check Out Times Square
Given our hotel’s close proximity to Times Square, this was an easy choice. The commercial and cultural heart of New York City, Times Square is everything I imagined it to be and much, much more. It’s beyond busy. It’s loud. It’s brash. It’s colourful. It’s littered with selfie stick wielding tourists, street performers and giant billboards that generate over $23 million a year. This Manhattan neighbourhood, which locals nickname The Centre of the Universe, is said to be visited by 360,000 people a day, making it the most visited tourist attraction in the world. It’s best experienced at night, when everything is lit up. It’s under the cover of darkness that New York really lives up to its bright lights, big city name. If you want to get a good handle on what NYC is all about, Times Square puts you right into the city’s heartbeat and like marmite, you’ll either love it or hate it. Just for the record, I loved it. And normally I hate crowds. But it’s hard not to be taken in by the energy and atmosphere.
#2 See the Big Apple From Above
Before heading across the pond, I naturally did a little bit of research – like any good tourist would. And practically every article and blog I read said you haven’t seen New York unless you’ve seen it from above. There are a number of well known landmarks that offer a unique vantage point to see the world famous skyline from high up. The Empire State Building is probably the most popular and therefore the busiest. So we headed to that other quintessential NYC landmark instead, the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center. From the 70th floor you’ll enjoy breathtaking, 360 degree views of Manhattan courtesy of 3 indoor and outdoor viewing decks. The weather for our visit was perfect and you really do get a sense of how much of a concrete jungle the Big Apple really is. Of course, if you’re feeling really adventurous, don’t have a fear of heights, and are happy to splash a bit of cash, you could take a helicopter tour instead.
#3 Explore Central Park
You will get a fantastic aerial view of Central Park from the Top of the Rock. But it’s also worth making a beeline for the park to explore it on foot. We visited this iconic urban park on a beautifully warm and sunny September day and only managed to explore a tiny bit of its 840 acres. Stretching 51 blocks, the green oasis provides a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city. If you’ve got the time, hire a boat and row around the lake, visit the Conservatory Garden or take a walk through the Shakespeare Garden. Whatever time of year you visit, Central Park is one of the most romantic spots in New York City. It’s easy to see why over 40 million people visit this free tourist attraction every year.
#4 Take a City Bus Tour
You can walk, cycle or take the subway around New York, but I think the best option for first time visitors to see the most iconic parts of the city is on one of the open top sightseeing bus tours. There are various tour companies operating hop on, hop off double decker bus tours. We went with Gray Line, one of the longest standing tour operators, and purchased a 3 day pass. As the name suggests, you’ll have the option of hopping on and off throughout the duration of your tour. Most of the routes are accompanied by a knowledgeable tour guide, which makes the experience all the more fun. Tours take passengers to all of the popular tourist attractions, including Times Square, Wall Street, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Bridge. Our particular Gray Line New York tour included a ferry ride which allowed for a close up view of New York’s most iconic landmark, the Statue of Liberty.
#5 Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
If walking across the Brooklyn Bridge isn’t on your ‘to do’ list, it absolutely should be. The iconic bridge stretches across the East River and is easily one of the most recognisable landmarks of the NYC skyline. If you’re looking for a true New York experience, then join the thousands of tourists and New Yorkers who walk, jog or cycle the bridge each day. It’s around 1.3 miles to get from one side to the other, and walking at a leisurely pace (to take in the views and snap some photos) it will take you about an hour to complete. It was a really warm and stuffy September day when we set out to do the walk and I was shocked by the sheer number of walkers, joggers and cyclists who all had the same idea.
#6 Visit the September 11 Memorial
I don’t feel comfortable referring to the September 11 Memorial as a tourist attraction, but I encourage anyone visiting NYC to take some time out for contemplation and to pay their respects at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. Set within the footprints of the Twin Towers, this sanctuary in the heart of Manhattan is both a beautiful and respectful memorial to the people who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. This is one of those experiences that is hard to do justice with words. The memorial comprises of hundreds of white oak trees and two sunken pools with the largest manmade waterfalls in the United States cascading down the sides of the pools. The names of every person who lost their lives are inscribed in bronze along the tops of the walls. It’s a sobering experience, listening to the sound of the water falling whilst reading the names of the fallen. I could’t help but reflect not just on the evil of mankind that day, but more so the bravery of the human race.
Musings of a NYC Newbie
We had six days and five nights in New York City and to be honest, it wasn’t quite long enough. Whilst we packed in a lot of sightseeing, there still wasn’t enough time to see everything I wanted to. Perhaps I was being overly ambitious for my first trip to NYC, but I really wanted to visit at least a couple of museums, and I was gutted to miss out on the High Line and Grand Central Terminal.
That said, we were able to embrace other aspects of life in New York City. From eating at a classic American diner (the famous Junior’s) and riding the subway (quite a confusing experience!) to dining at one of the city’s finest restaurants (Buddakan, I highly recommend it!) we managed to pack in a lot in a relatively short amount of time.
I know many travellers dream of visiting New York during the winter months, or to celebrate New Year. And while I get the appeal of a snowy NYC (it does sound pretty romantic) for me autumn was the perfect season to take a bite out of the Big Apple. The weather was fabulous, with bright blue skies, sunshine and temperatures hovering between the mid to late 20s, even pushing 30 on our very last day.
As I write this blog, it’s almost 7 months since my New York trip. The whole world is in the grips of a pandemic, with travel of any kind off the cards for the foreseeable future. On reflection, it’s made me even more grateful for the opportunity I had to take that trip overseas.
As I’ve said before, New York is expensive. Very expensive. The terrible exchange rate didn’t help. And you’re expected to tip everyone. Even if you receive bad service.
I didn’t think coffee in America would be great. But all of the coffee I drank was pretty bad. And don’t even get me started on the non existent tea!
Watch out for hidden hotel fees. You have to pay mandatory hotel taxes in NYC. Known as Room Occupancy Taxes, they work out to be 14.75% plus $3.50 per day in addition to what you pay for the room per night.
Food portions in most diners and restaurants are huge. If you haven’t got the biggest appetite, stick to the appetisers.
7 Fun Facts About NYC
- Times Square is one of the world’s most instagrammed locations. Thanks to its giant illuminated billboards, the square can be seen from outer space.
- The New York City library is the third largest library in the world, and home to more than 50 million books. That’s a lot of books!
- New York is famous for its yellow taxis. But the yellow colour wasn’t introduced until 1912. Prior to that, the city’s cabs were green and red.
- Permits to sell hot dogs in Central Park don’t come cheap. It can cost almost $300,000 for an annual hot dog stand permit.
- Between 1931 and 1972, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world. One World Trade Centre is currently the tallest and has been since 2014.
- Around 6 million people use the New York City subway each day. It was opened back in 1904 and has 472 stations.
- New York was the first capital of the United States. Only for a year, in 1789.