WOW ! That was the most common reaction we had during our entire visit in New York City (NYC). No matter how many amazing things we had heard about it, how many photos we had seen or videos we had watched, being there was totally different and exciting. It is not just the huge skyscapers, the landscape, the theatres, museums, art galleries, the great restaurants, cafes, bars. It is the vibe of the city itself. It has a unique energy that we have never experienced before. It is failry considered the world’s capital.
Understanding New York's Regions
New York City consistes five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island. The most famous one where most of the NYC landmarks are is Manhattan. Brooklyn and Queens have also gained popularity over the last decades.
Manhattan is actually an island, bounded by the Hudson, East, and Harlem rivers. It is further devided into neighbrohoods mostly arranged geographically as shown in the map. The most main ones are:
– Midtown: the main business, commercial and shopping center. Here the Times Square, Empire State Building, Rockfeller Center, Grand Central Terminal are located.
– Central Park: a huge green area in the city offering many types of activities.
– Lower Manhattan: the financial district of NYC with the famous city’s waterfront. From here the ferries to the Statue of Liberty depart.
Its street plan is a uniform grid of streets and avenues, making orientation and navigation pretty easy. Avenues run from south to north, with numbers beginning on the east side and ascending to the west. Streets run from east to west with most of the streets also being numbered.
Best Things to See & Do
The list of top attractions in NYC can be endless. Whether you vist it for 5 days (as we did in March 2015) or more (even months), it is never enough ! You can spend a lifetime exploring and never really see it all. That’s why you need to be well prepared and plan your itineraries in advance so that you can at least make the most of your visit. And for sure, don’t forget to pack the most comfortable shoes you have … there is a lot of walking !
1. Grand Central Terminal
The Grand Central Terminal, also known as Grand Central or Grand Central Station or just GCT, is the city’s historic train station and the transportation hub in Midtown Manhattan. But it is much more than that. Being mostly famous for its distinctive art-nouveau architecure and amazing interior design, it is one of the most visited landmarks not only in New York but in the world.
When visiting it, you realize that it is not just a sinlge landmark but a destination on its own and you can spend an entire day exploring its countless baux-arts passages and discovering not only its rich history but also the numerous shopping and dining options. The most remarkable attactions are its magnificent roof and the four-faced opal clock.
2. Rockefeller Center - Top of the Rock
You can’t visit New York and miss going to the Rockfeller Center at the top of which the “Top of the Rock” observation platform is located. From there, you will be able to see the city from above and get breathtaking panoramic views stetching over miles, weather permitting. You will be able to see downtown Manhattan and all of its amazing landmarks including the Empire State Building, the Central Park, the Times Square, the Hudson River, the East River, Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. And of course, this is where you will get the typical photos of NYC.
We planned to visit the Rockfeller Center in the beginning of our tour in order to have a first view of what we would explore the next days and of course in order to get oriented which is very easy with the numbered avenues and streets.
3. Times Square
At the junction of Broadway and 7th Avenue streching from West 42nd to West 47th Streets in Midtown Manhattan, you can find the “Heart of the Heart”, the world’s most famous crossroad. What else other than … the Times Square ! No matter what time you go, it will be packed with a lot of people and cars and there will always be something going on. You feel in the middle of the buzz.
It is colorful, exciting, full of energy and action. Especially at night, when the LED huge screens light up the the view is amazing. However, all this non-stop activity can make you feel tired at some point. We passed several times from Times Square and each time we were feeling the same entousiasm as it was our first experience, but we couldn’t stay much time.
Here is also the famous Broadway, the center of NYC’s art scene, where 41 high class theatres stage the historic or new shows. Not to be missed !
4. Empire State Building
You might not see a gorilla, but you will definitely get amazed viewing the city from the 86th floor or 102nd floor of the Empire State Building, the most famous building of New York and probably in the world. It is an absolute must! Even if you have been on the Top of the Rock, this is a different experience.
It is a classical art-nouveau building, the 2nd highest shyscaper in New York. What is really worth mentioning is that when it first opened, it was totally empty for many years. You may have heard its nickname “Empty State Building“. So far from the current reality !
In order to get the best views, we planned to visit it when the sky would be clear and just before the sunset so that we could admire the city both with daylight and when lightened with the city lights. The almost impossible factor to plan is the waiting in the long queues. We bought the fast track tickets that save you a lot of time; we were up in 15 minutes while the average waiting time was 2 hours. If you want to make the most of your visit, the extra cost is totally worth it.
5. Statue of Liberty
Undoubtedly, the Statue of Liberty is the symbol not just of New York and United States, but a universal symbol of freedom. It was the first thing the immigrants were viewing as they were approaching the countrly full of hopes for a better life. It goes without saying it is in the top list of the NYC’s attractions.
There are two main ways to visit it:
- The easiest, cheapest and fastest one is to take the free Staten Island ferry. You can take photos of the statue and harbor, but you don’t go to the island to have a closed up view of the statue.
- The longest, long waiting, more expensive but full experience way is to take the ferry from the Battery Park. You can see the statue up close and also visit the Ellis island and learn more about the immigrants who actually built New York. If you want to go up to the Crown, you need to book an extra ticket maybe almost 3 months in advance.
6. Central Park
If you need a break from the city’s buzz and leave the crowds behind, then Central Park is the best next attraction to explore. Covering over 40 blocks in the midst of the city, you can spend hours wandering around. The best thing is that it is not just an oasis where you can relax and enjoy the nature. There are so many attractions and hidden treasures that will feel as you are exploring another city. You just realise you can’t see everything NYC has to offer and you want to visit it again.
The spots we picked were the John Lenon memorial, the fontaine (the replica of which is used in the trailer of the famous TV Series “Friends”) and a nice castle.
7. Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue is a synonym of shopping, as it is the most famous shopping street in the world. Whether you are planning to do shopping or not, spending some time in this famous street is a unique experience. It is 10 klm long starting at Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and runs northwards through the heart of Midtown, along the eastern side of Central Park. The most recognized and popular section is between 49th Street and 60th Street. Most of the stores are luxury brands, but there are also options more reasonably priced.
While the shops is the utlimate attraction of Fifth Avenue, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is also a very interesting spot at it is one of New York City’s finest buildings and most spectacular churches with its paris style neo-gothic architecture.
At the north part of the avenue, it is located the amazing Flatiron building, mostly famous for its triangle shape and unique method of construction.
8. Brooklyn Bridge
There are three main reasons Brooklyn Bridge is a top attraction when visiting New York. The first one is the amazing and iconic structure of the bridge. It is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the country and connects Manhattan with Brooklyn, spanning the East River. The second reason you will enjoy crossing it is the amazing view it offers to New York skyline and harbor. Its a top rated photo-shooting spot ! And finally, the third reason is that it is the gateway to visit Brooklyn, the famous NYC’s borough that is considered as one of the most interesting, historic and mutlicultural neighborhoods due to the diversity of its inhabitants. This is where you will can find amazing restaurants, cafes, shops and other entertainment options.
Top-class museums couldn’t be missing from NYC. There are hundrends of museums and cultural centers, satisfying every taste. One day at least should be dedicated to visiting the world famous ones: Metropolitan Museum (Met), Museum of Modern Art and Guggenheim. For sure there are more to explore.
9.1 Metropolitan Museum (MET)
The Metropolitan Museum (Met) is one of the biggest museums in the world, with more than 2 million artworks covering 5000 years of civilization from all over the world. It has many sections, such as ancient Egypt, American art, Greek and Roman world, impressionist paintings … well everything ! As you can imagine, it is impossible to visit everything in one-day. Just pick one or more sections and dedicate your time only to those.
9.2 Museum of Modern Art (MoMa)
The Museum of Modern Art, or simply MoMA, is a museum of modern art in Midtown Manhattan and is considered as one of the most important museums of contemporary art in the world. For modern art lovers, it is one of the best. For the non-lovers, it is still very interesting as it has a big collection of themes, such as architecture, design, photography, electronics and many others. We aren’t modern-art experts, but we enjoyed a lot the experience !
The Guggenheim is actually a “chain” of museums in several cities, such as New York, Berlin, Bilbao, Venice, Abu Dhabi. It is also a museum of modern and contemporary art. What makes them very special is their architectural design. I have been to the one in Bilbao and it is even more stunning.
9.4. Merchant's House Museum (MHM)
Following the recommendation of a friend, we decided to visit the Merchant’s House Museum which turned to be be very interesting and worth visiting. It is the NYC’s only preserved family home from the 19th century, one of the finest surviving examples of architecture from the period and it really shows how early NY residents (albeit wealthy-ish ones) lived.
It was home to the Tredwell family and their servants for nearly 100 years. The house remains unchanged and is considered as a National Historic Landmark nt only for its 1832 late-Federal brick exterior but also for its Greek revival interior rooms. Being Greeks, we couldn’t miss it
10. Chelsea Market
Did you know where the famous OREO cookie was invented and produced ? In the former building called National Biscuit Company, where the Chelsea Market is now housed. Chelsea Market is a high-end food court where you can find anything you desire, such as bakery’s, patisseries, winery’s, vegetable, fruits, fish restaurants, steak houses and so much more. But it is not just that. It has a shopping mall, an amazing book store, stalls with handmade artistic products. You can spend an entire day and still not explore everything. Definitely a spot not to be missed.
11. Greenwich Village
How weird is that? New York City is a city with villages. There are three villages, the West Village, East Village and Greenwich Village (also referred as “the Village”). Their borders of the West and Greenwich villages are not so well defined, making their discovery a bit difficult. We wanted to visit the Greenwich Village and I think we finally made it.
Greenwich Village is mostly famous as the Bohemian capital and used to be full of artists. Today, it is a very beautiful neigborhood with a lot of trees, nice buildings, and very nice restaurants, cafes with the most famous one the Cafe Wha? where Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan used to visit.
There is a nice square, called Washington Square Park, where people were dancing. And of course we wouldn’t miss the opportunity for some exercise !
13. Financial District
On the southern tip of Lower Manhattan, the NYC’s Financial District is located. Also known as FiDi, it is the most historic region as this is where the construction of New York started. Now it is the home to world famous financial institutions and other buildings, such as New World Trade Center (or Freedom Tower), New York Stock Exchange, Federal Hall, Goldman Sacks Headquarters. The famous Wall Street is also located here. It is the pulse of world’s economy and you can feel it.
13.1 Wall Street
Fifth Avenue is synonym of shopping, Broadway is synonym of theatres and Wall Street is synonym of the world’s financial center and associated with wealth and power. It is where the New York Stock Exchange and headquarters of numerous inverstment banks are located. Its name is from the wall built by Dutch colonists in order to defend themselves from the British and Native Americans. The wall was removed but the name remained.
13.3 Trinity Church
New York has everything and a beautiful and historic church couldn’t be missing from its attractions. In absolute contradiction wth the rest of the builidings in the regions, at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway, Trinity Church is one of New York’s best known churches and one of the oldest churches in America, mostly famous for its colonial graveyard. Something we didn’t know is that it used to be the highest building in the city.
13.3 Memorial 9/11
Unless you are very young, I am sure you remember very well the terrorist attack in September 11, 2011 when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were totally collapsed after being deliberately struck by two commercial passenger jets and over 3000 people died. At their place now you can find the National 9/11 Memorial (formely known as Ground Zero), serving as the primary tribute to the victims and their families. It consists of two enormous reflecting pools set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. The names of each victim are inscribed around the pools. The atmosphere is really depressive, as was the event.
A Piece of Advice
- As you can imagine, New York City is a fairly expensive city and for most of the attractions you need to pay a ticket. New York Pass is a great choice that will save you money.
- The best area to book a hotel is close to Times Square. Expensive but you are in the heart of New York.
- There are countless eating choices. The most famous are the steak houses. Of course the prices are quite high.
- Tickets for a Broadway show are sold out quickly. So hurry up!
- Plan in advance your itineraries of each day. The main criterion should be the geographical distance of the attractions and the time you plan to dedicate at each of them. There are also times with less people. If you can try to shedule it then … you will save a lot of waing time in the queues.
- Wairing comfortable shoes is your only choice!
- It has amazing smoothies! We stuck with the Smoothie King.
- Prepare to get just a taste of the city and most likely you will want to come back.
- ENJOY !!!