A New York City guide for the first-timer on a budget!
NEW YORK CITY! Life doesn't get more exciting or thrilling than being in this incredible city, bustling with life 24 hours a day, seven days a week! It really is no lie when they say it's the 'city that never sleeps'. Writing this out now is making me all nostalgic already, and it's only been about two weeks since I got back! But what a city. And that's what this city does to you: it pulls you in with it's enticing way of the life, making you never want to leave. The taxis, the people, the buildings, the history, the never-ending list of things to do and see! And believe me, it is with no doubt never-ending. This is precisely why I'm putting this little guide together. My mom and I went for a week to celebrate my 21st birthday, and we squashed as much in as possible! But when I say that we had the greatest adventure ever, it is 100% accurate and all due to the city's secrets we got to uncover and the wonderful people who opened up our eyes about life. I hope you enjoy this and that it comes in handy on your next trip there!
Being in New York really means that you are not there to nap or spend your time in a room. Definitely not. You are in New York to get as much out of this city as possible, and this requires as little sleep as possible! For this reason, splurging on some fancy hotel that you're not even going to really see in the light of day is not worth it. In my opinion, all you are looking for is a room with a bed in it, that's comfortable enough to rest your sore feet after walking ALL DAY. (Trust me, they will be sore!)
We had a room at The Gallivant hotel, which is situated on West 48th Street in Times Square. This location is absolutely prime! You are in the middle of all the action, but it's far from The Michelangelo Hotel or anything of that sort. It is really all you need though. You are gone before breakfast and back only after midnight - so a shower and a bed will do!
This was our view as we walked out of our hotel! Prime location I tell you!
THE MUST-SEE ATTRACTIONS
This city is home to thousands of famous sites, buildings and areas that are without a doubt an obligation to visit on your trip! There are quite a few packages that you can purchase that gives you discounts on all of these tourist attractions, and only until a couple of days before we left, my mom and I weren't sure about which to get. We ended up buying a City Pass booklet each, and this was one of the best decisions! If you are unsure as to whether this is worth it or not, I really do vouch for its high standard and the general sense of ease it allowed us to see things with. (It's already easy to feel stressed in such a huge city, don't add unnecessary unease!)
What's great about the City Pass is that it allows you entry into 6 attractions. This includes the Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), American Museum of Natural History, either the Top of the Rock Observation Deck or the Guggenheim Museum, either Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island or Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises and lastly, either the 9/11 Memorial and Museum or the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. So you really get a good selection of the most iconic things to see and you get to skip the lines, which in all honestly is amazing!
The Empire State Building is something you most definitely have to do. I would take this over the Rockefeller Observation Deck any day. I just loved the whole experience - from entering the doors at the bottom, to walking through the building, getting to read all of the facts and information about the building, to finally stepping into the elevator and experiencing the strange sensation of popping ears as you travel up 86 floors! They've even made the elevator ride special! There's an animated clip on the roof of the elevator that you watch as you go up, and it just makes the whole experience more special.
Once you're at the top, you obviously have the most spectacular views of the city. We went on a bit of a cloudy day, but I feel like New York is gorgeous in any weather! And of course you can't help feel all reminiscent over the famous 'Sleepless in Seattle' scene as you wander around the observation deck. It's just too romantic!
Going on a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise is also a very special way to see the Statue of Liberty. You don't get off the ferry to look at the Statue or Ellis Island, rather it just takes you around them and you see it all from the river.
If you are more interested in seeing the Statue of Liberty up close, or walking around Ellis Island then the cruise isn't the best option for you.
We had the most knowledgable and funny tour guide on our cruise though, and he just made it even more enjoyable. The view of the city from the river is also really amazing and it's awesome to see Manhattan from a different perspective. When you're on the island of Manhattan everything is so big and busy, that you can't take it in all at once. But I found on the ferry I could really look at the buildings and the skyline and really appreciate it.
Another thing that really stood out for my mom and I was visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. I don't think you can come to New York and not go here. Even if it's not going into the museum itself - because that was really intense. But something as huge as that day, that literally changed New York forever, makes it so interesting to at least be in the space it happened.
There are two infinity pools that have been placed where the towers once stood. These have all the names of those who died around the edge of the pools, and on the birthdays of the victims a rose is placed on their name. Seeing the roses on various names the day we went, was enough to send my mom and I into a huge feeling of sadness. I can't even describe what it felt like to be there. 16 years later and none of the tragedy has been forgotten.
In the museum they have pieces of concrete that was cleared up, and there are news clips playing in the background and real life phone calls to the police from the day. It really was an intense walk through the museum, but extremely interesting and moving.
THE RESTAURANTS TO EAT AT:
On a lighter note, there are SO MANY CHOICES FOR FOOD IN NEW YORK! What we struggled with the most was not that we didn't have anywhere to eat, but that we had too many places to go and not enough time to go to them all! These are my favourite restaurants we went to while we were there:
Dos Caminos - This little Mexican gem was around the corner from our hotel and it was probably my favourite. We had the nachos (obviously) and it was delicious! The atmosphere in the restaurant was just so happy and bubbly, and everyone around us was so friendly and interesting. The decor in Dos Caminos is colourful and cute, which I loved immediately. And the best part was the guacamole came in this huuuuuge bowl! You can never have too much guac, right?!
Dean and DeLuca - We came across this place as we were walking around, wondering what we could possibly eat for breakfast (you know, when you're spoilt for choice it's hard!). It was a bit further down from our hotel, but so worth the hunt. It's a really relaxed setting, with long tables in the middle and then a few separate tables scattered around. This was where I had my typical New York bagel with cream cheese. It was delicious!!
As we lined up to pay for our meal, there were these cookies decorated so nicely and they looked so yummy! We all know I'm a huge sucker for a sweet treat, but surprisingly I resisted and took a photo instead. If you come to Dean and DeLuca and try one of their cookies, please let me know how they are!!!
As a typical New York tourist for the first time, it is mandatory to try a hotdog from the street vendors, or a corn dog, or a pretzel - or all three obviously?! There's nothing different or fancy about these foods, but it just has to be done. If you don't, did you even go to New York? 😉
The corn dog was an interesting one for me. The pastry around the sausage was a little bit sweet, but I did enjoy it. It was quite rich though, so it filled me quickly. But the kind guy gave me a free fried oreo when I told him that I'm from South Africa and had never tried one! (Not that we don't get fried oreo here, but it was still cool of him) I really loved it though, it was so tasty! And not at all as rich as I expected it to be. Winning!
The Hard Rock Cafe - This is basically a New York icon. It's so big and majestic, with it's bright lights and huge displays. You really can't miss it. It is located in the middle of Times Square and it is something you have to see! Even if you've been to other Hard Rock Cafe's before, none of them will live up to New York's. And if you can, make sure you go with an empty stomach because their portions are huge! My macaroni was really good, but I couldn't get through half of it! Also, their cocktails are crazy, unique and completely extravagant, so you may want to have a taste of one of those as well!
The last place on my list that you cannot miss out on is Little Italy -This is a city on its own pretty much! It's incredible how so much diversity and culture exists in the Big Apple.
We went to a restaurant that is run by this Italian family, situated on a corner right opposite the 'Little Italy' sign. These streets were so interesting to walk through and experience. Far from the craziness of Times Square, but just as beautiful and movie-like!
Our waiter at this quaint restaurant explained that the shouting we heard in the back was just usual conversation between Italian family members! He also suggested a delicious garlic bread to start with and then a pizza for our main. We devoured this with a glass of champagne and we couldn't have been happier!
OUT ON THE TOWN:
As you can only imagine, New York is packed with bars, cafes and exciting places to dance all over the place. It can be a real bonus if you chat to people who live in the city, who can share some of the amazing places to go, that you wouldn't generally know about as a tourist.
My mom has a friend from Long Island (which is about a two hour train journey from Manhattan), who came through a couple of evenings to show us some of the nightlife. She took us to an amazing, little Thai place not far from our hotel, but that we wouldn't have tried otherwise!
The highlight of this evening however, was a rooftop bar that she took us to - which we REALLY wouldn't have found if it wasn't for her. It's called 230 Fifth and it was such an amazing experience! The view of the city was unimaginable and the lit up Empire State Building was something I could only picture from movies. It was such a beautiful experience and I would definitely recommend finding a rooftop bar to visit one night!
Interestingly, there were a lot of Irish pubs around Times Square. I had no idea New York had a big Irish community..
Another place we went to was called Playwright. This restaurant/bar had live music when we went (I think it was about once a week that they have it) but it was such a great evening. The singer asked where everyone was from, and was so interactive with everyone. It was really special! Playwright is also in Times Square, so if you're close, stop by for a quick drink. The bartender, Kerry, was a really cool girl too - she was so friendly and cute, with her beautiful Irish accent!
If you're feeling confident on your trip, like I was, you have to go do karaoke! I had never done it before, but after our first time at Tonic, we kept going back for more! Tonic is another bar/restaurant type place and is ALSO in Times Square. Everyone here was so much fun and the karaoke DJ even got the whole place to sing happy birthday to me! That was honestly one of the best moments of my life.
The nachos at Tonic were very delicious too (for some reason I ate a lot of nachos in New York!) and they had this chocolate brownie-type cake, with cream. And that was just another very happy moment for me!
Something that you'll have to get used to is the walking. Most of the time, it is just the easiest option to walk. But the great thing about walking is that you discover places that you wouldn't in the back of a car, and you can take your time to look at the buildings and surroundings. I really loved being able to walk everywhere, although by the end of the trip I really did feel like my feet needed a massage. I am not exaggerating!
Another good idea is the Hop-On Hop-Off buses. These are really handy for getting to all your iconic destinations and attractions. We got a 48 hours pass, and there are a whole bunch of different ones you can get. A guy named Sani helped us out - he was just awesome. So if you're in need of help, look for Sani on the corner of West 48th Street opposite the Hershey's Chocolate shop (I can't guarantee he'll still be there obviously!)
The buses come about every 15 minutes to various stops, and the different buses take different routes. It's a good idea to plan your day and which attractions you want to see because that makes it easier to decide which bus to hop onto. There's downtown, midtown and uptown buses, and the tour guides on all of them are so knowledgable. I really loved listening to them speak about the history behind everything and answering people's questions. It's an awesome way to learn about the city.
Of course there are also the famous yellow cabs that you can catch straight from the side of the road. I think these may end up costing you quite a bit though. We didn't use the taxis while we were there, but it's definitely something that would be cool to experience, if only once!
We did however use the subway a couple of times, and this was really easy. We just put about $20 on our card, or something around there, and then the machine prints the ticket out for you and off you go! We travelled to Brooklyn with the subway and it was such a quick trip! Also, the subway gets to miss all the crazy New York traffic, which is a big plus.
There is definitely no question that New York shopping is the best! And you have so many options to choose from. The shops in Times Square are open until 1 AM, if not later. Everywhere you look there is something new, even if you've walked past the area a few times, there is always something new that catches your eye! It's insane.
My favourite shop by far was Sephora. We don't have Sephora in South Africa, and most of the brands within Sephora are also not available here. So my mom and I were just in heaven looking at the huge range of make-up! Every time we had a little bit of a break, I would suggest we make our way to Sephora. It was just that much fun to be inside! It also helped that there was one on basically every corner. (Not quite, but they definitely weren't sparse!) Obviously this won't seem like a big deal to you if you get Sephora where you live, but those who don't will understand my excitement.
Macy's - This department store is a part of New York City culture and something you have to experience as a tourist. There are 11 floors to wander around, with restaurants on every level I think, and the shop itself takes up a whole block of the city. It's massive! And when you go up to the older floors, they still have the original wooden escalators, which is amazing!
China Town - This is kind of near Little Italy (we walked from the one to the other) and it feels like you're in a completely different place! It's really crazy. There are so many parts of New York that are like city's on their own.
China Town is filled with so many souvenir shops and all that fake goodness that we love to buy. Every tour guide mentions China Town and recommends it for your gifts and whatnot, because you get it for a fraction of the price that you would elsewhere. I mean even if you're not so keen on buying China Town souvenirs, it's incredibly exciting to go and see what it's all about!
There seriously are so many things to do in New York, it's scary. The Broadway Shows, the Brooklyn Bridge walk, shopping in SoHo (Bloomingdales?!!), Grand Central Station, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, the museums, the speak easy's (bars from the prohibition!), the people, the parks, the views. There is a list that just keeps going, and the more you wander around the city, the more things you find to do and see.
I definitely cannot fit all of the amazing things into one post, so just trust me when I say that New York is a place you have to see once in your lifetime. There is such an energy that is so contagious in the city and everywhere you look it feels so alive! I am 100% in love with New York City and if I could go back tomorrow, I would. But for now I'll enjoy the thousands of photos I took, and keep on sharing my passion for this place through my blog and through talking to everyone about my trip.
And please, if you are visiting it soon, let me know what your favourite part was! If you've been already and anything in this post stood out for you, I would love to know as well!