New York for First Timers

Day 10 of the blog post a day in May and time to get back to the schedule. And return to handing out some travel advice. Just in case anyone needs it.

My first trip to the USA started with a week in Boston, spent four weeks on the road and rolled into New York – my first time in Manhattan was driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and trying to find the car hire garage.

Our first experience was a yellow cab ride uptown, a wander into Central Park, a dive bar (actually called Dive Bar) and a subway which carried us into the madness of Times Square as dark fell.

Thirteen years and a fair few visits since and still remember the feeling of the first day in New York – it felt, after five weeks in the States, like being in a whole new country.

So what should anyone arriving in New York for the first time know?

Not claiming to have ‘done’ New York, think only natives can come close to that and this is almost exclusively Manhattan – despite intentions on every trip to get further afield.

Guidebooks can fill in the gaps and provide exhaustive options, but this is pretty much the advice handed out when asked.

Getting There

Have arrived by car, coach (cheap and pretty comfortable over the four hours from Boston), train (expensive), boat (over the Hudson from Jersey City) and, finally, last time out by the most common arrival method for UK visitors – air.

JFK airport is about an hour away – traffic permitting – from central Manhattan. You can get the subway, but it is not ideal after a long flight and you miss that great moment when you first catch sight of the skyline appearing in the distance.

Best option – for the experience and the budget – is book a shared van or a coach. Both are about $15-20 and can be booked in advance and return.

Personally, prefer the van from the airport as it takes you to your hotel – may have to wait at the booking desk for your van, normally not too long, and hope you are not the last drop off although you do get an added tour of Manhattan – and a coach running to a schedule from near Grand Central Station to head back.

Ellis Island

Where to stay

If you want the highlights on your first trip and to be near the action, any of the numerous options around Times Square are probably the best shot.

The location is pretty much perfect for, well, just about everywhere and the sheer number of available rooms means there’s normally some pretty good deals to be found (because of the competition, New York tends to be cheaper for equivalent accommodation than other US cities such as Boston).

Not stayed there for a while, but the giant Hostelling International (Amsterdam Avenue, near W 104th Street) was comfortable, secure and a good option for first couple of visits.

The quirky Jane Hotel – near the Meatpacking District, West Village and the High Line – with small cabins and shared bathrooms was another reasonable option. If you like that sort of thing.

Getting around

Yes, take a cab ride. Yes, use the subway. But the best way to see New York is walk. And keep walking, you will stumble across something.

Suggest you work out what district you want to see, get there via subway and then take in as much as you can on foot.

Those tourists buses might be designed to grab your dollars but they can also be used to cover a fair amount of space and tick off a lot of things (my niece got one included in a City Pass covering various attractions).

Food and drink

American food does not always have the best reputation and, admittedly, it is pretty easy to eat pretty badly. Or very well, if you have the budget.

But you can also eat perfectly well for not too much.

Fuel up at breakfast in a diner and it will keep you going for much of the day and most bars will do you a perfectly good meal.

There’s always the Golden Arches, any number of local takeaways of any ethnicity and, whatever the appearances, those hot dog stands are fine if you need a quick hit.

Can happily while away hours in New York bars – usually sport on TV, surprisingly good array of beer, perfectly good food and somebody will talk to you when the English accent comes out.

Things to do for free

This is very much a personal list – space and preference dictate that, but if you’ve got a long weekend to see the greatest hits, this is my choice.

Central Park
  • The High Line – Adore this place. Think have walked the entire length three times but want to get back for the latest additions around the northern end at Hudson Yards. Put simply, a city park created from what was a derelict raised railway line, but so much more than that. Supposedly you can walk it in half an hour but take longer, savour it.
  • Central Park – The heart and lungs of Manhattan. There’s a reason why it is so famous and so important to New Yorkers. Wander, get lost if necessary (although not after dark), run if you are that way inclined, sit and take in a softball game.
  • Times Square – Cough up a few bucks for a drink, sit down and watch. The place, the lights, the people, the colour. But then that goes for much of the city.
  • Brooklyn Bridge – There will be a lot of people but take the time to wander over the East River. The bridge is spectacular but plays second fiddle to the views of the skyline from Brooklyn.
  • Staten Island Ferry – The ferry itself is pretty nondescript, a commuter trip to the outlying borough which is not exactly a tourist destination. But the views are pretty special, the skyline and some quite famous statue.
  • Grand Central Station – Yes, sending you to a station. Grab the short subway ride fromTimes Square and emerge from the bowels or, preferably, wander over and enter into the spectacular concourse. Look up at the ceiling, grab a bite to eat in the food court and don’t forget to take a look at the neighbouring Chrysler Building – the best looking skyscraper.
  • Coney Island – It’s a long subway ride out there and chances are you will have to spend something, but a touch of classic Americana is the perfect escape from the heat of the city.

What to pay for

You didn’t go all that way to just do the free stuff and there are endless ways to spend your dollars. These are the best from my experiences.

  • Top of the Rock – Never been up the Empire State Building, which is a spectacular sight in itself, but have headed to the summit of the Rockefeller Building. Amazing views of the city, Central Park and the Empire State (one advantage its rival cannot offer).
  • Ellis Island – You can see the Statue of Liberty for free, but pay out for a trip and you get the added bonus of the Immigration Museum at Ellis Island where endless arrivals to the land of the free first stepped foot on American soil. Made a far greater impression than Lady Liberty.
  • Ground Zero Museum – It is not always easy and you are acutely aware that you are walking through what was the scene of the horrific loss of life on 9/11. But for anyone interested in modern history, current affairs and how today’s world was shaped, it is a fascinating visit. And the memorial pools on the footprints of the Twin Towers are uniquely moving.
  • Yankee Stadium – As a Boston Red Sox fan this is heresy, but watching a game in the Bronx is a must for any baseball fan. It’s no Fenway mind.

There’s far more and feel free to leave your thoughts below, but that’s my choice of where to head on your first trip to New York. Enjoy.

  • Will update this as we go along and try to get a few more of these guides in as the month goes on and even beyond – next one just up the coast in Boston. With a far better baseball team.
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