A guide to making the most of your visit, from the famous landmarks to the hidden gems.
As this New Yorker-turned-Seattleite can attest, there’s so much to do in New York City that it can be overwhelming — even if you’ve lived there for years.
I make it back to the east coast several times a year and, in the whirlwind of seeing as many friends and family members as possible, there are some cherished spots that I just have to revisit every single time.
Although I will avoid Times Square at all costs until the day I die, it’s important to remember that experiencing the Big Apple like a local doesn’t mean you should write off all touristy spots. When I lived there, I went to The Met at least once a month and I couldn’t stay away from Central Park, regardless of the season.
However, some of the city’s best spots are well-kept secrets — so here’s a guide to making the most of your visit, from the famous landmarks to the hidden gems.
Experience the food scene
Restaurants are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dining options in the city.
Food halls have become increasingly popular, and are a great way to taste a vast array of cuisines from the city’s best restaurants. Hudson Eats is widely considered to be the city’s best food hall, but it’s far from the only tasty option — Gotham West Market, Gansevoort Market and The Plaza Food Hall are all worth a visit.
Ask a New Yorker about their favorite Sunday activities, and bottomless brunch will undoubtedly make the list. Many restaurants don’t take reservations and wait times can be staggering. I recommend Agave, which take reservations (you can book online, and should do so several weeks in advance). The West Village eatery offers a $33 deal that includes an entree and unlimited mimosas, wine or margaritas. Calle Ocho on the Upper West Side is another top-notch bottomless brunch locale that takes reservations.
Depending on what time of year you’re in the city, there are some food events that you’ll want to keep on your radar. Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg is an outdoor weekly “flea market” of foods that occurs every weekend from April through October. If you’re visiting during its off-season, don’t fret — the Queens County Market is open all year and its offerings are just as tasty.
Make a trip to the 9/11 Memorial
Visiting the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is an important part of understanding the spirit of New York. As the daughter of a 9/11 survivor, I’ve heard countless stories of the acts of kindness strangers extended to one another on that tragic day. New Yorkers have a reputation for being brusque and rude — and I’ll admit they can be impatient bunch. But one important thing to know about New York City is that its residents never fail to come together during times of tragedy. In my early 20s, I experienced this firsthand on a far lesser scale when Hurricane Sandy ravaged the city in 2012 and, once again, many people were left to rely on the kindness of strangers.
If you’re not up for the intensity of the museum, the memorial site itself certainly suffices. There are two deep fountains where each tower used to stand, representing the void that will never be filled. Be sure to visit the Survivor Tree — it was rescued from the rubble of Ground Zero and rehabilitated by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The tree is a powerful symbol of hope and rebirth.
Bask in the art museums
The city is home to some of the best art museums in the world. But the number of museums can feel overwhelming, and you may not be able to make it to every single one. Each has a specialty, so do some research on the The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, The Frick Collection and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and you can prioritize which museums are an absolute must-see during your trip.
Be sure to check the hours of museums before you go. The city never sleeps, but sometimes museums take a day off in the middle of the week. There’s also typically a day that offers free or discounted admission, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re on a budget.
If you prefer to browse small galleries free of charge, head to Chelsea — there are galleries on every corner. While you’re there, keep an eye out for street art. During my last visit, I was lucky enough to spot graffiti painted by Banksy himself.
Take in the parks and views
Even locals can’t resist a jaunt or bike ride on the Brooklyn Bridge, regardless of how crowded it gets. In order to get the best view, head into Brooklyn and get on the bridge from there — that way you’ll walk towards Manhattan and get the best possible view of the city’s magnificent skyline. Be sure to spend some time in Brooklyn Bridge Park — it offers great views, frequent outdoor activities and exhibitions, and an old-school carousel that’s fun to ride regardless of your age.
Central Park is beloved for good reason. Despite the countless hours I’ve spent exploring there, there’s always something new to discover. When it comes to the most famous attractions within the park, I’m partial to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the Alice in Wonderland Sculpture and the Strawberry Fields memorial. If you want to escape the crowds, try one of the park’s lesser known gems and head to the Gapstow Bridge or the Ramble.
Abandoned railroad tracks were put to good use when The Highline, an elevated park, opened in 2009. It features naturalized plantings that were inspired by the vegetation on the disused tracks. While you’re strolling above the city, you can make frequent stops to relax, buy souvenirs and eat. The views of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea are fantastic — be sure to keep an eye out for beautiful murals on the buildings below.
Spend at least one day in Brooklyn
Manhattan is home to New York City’s most famous sights, but don’t limit yourself to this one borough. Brooklyn has so much to offer and, because it’s home to a growing number of young professionals and families, it’ll give you a taste of what “real life” is like for locals. Stroll through residential neighborhoods such as Park Slope, Williamsburg, Dumbo and Greenpoint.
Visit the Brooklyn Museum, which boasts an impressive collection that includes the work of Mark Rothko, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keefe, Norman Rockwell and Edgar Degas. Be sure to check out the Memorial Sculpture Garden, which is comprised of an array of architectural elements from all over the city.
The Brooklyn Botanical Garden is open all year and is a perfect oasis from the concrete jungle. You could easily spend a full day wandering the gardens, but if you’re pressed for time be sure to visit the Japanese Garden, the Native Flora Garden and the Shakespeare Garden.