It’s a helluva town

I’m far from an expert, but I’ve done NYC a few times in the last couple of years (thanks Punchdrunk) and have been curating a bit of a list of recommendations since we started planning that first trip.

It’s far from exhaustive, but here’s all the stuff I had recommended to me before my first visit, topped up with plenty of my own thoughts… if you’ve been before you can ignore some of the basics, but should be some useful stuff in here!

  • If you’re that way inclined, absolutely, 100% do a show! My top pick is, of course, Sleep No More – an immersive production based on Macbeth but set in a Hitchcockian noir-ish hotel, where you wear a mask and follow the characters around the set, meaning that you see a different show depending who you follow – I’ve done it a load of times now, loved every one, and they’re all different! I’ve done a load of show write ups on this here blog, but though they’re essentially spoiler-free, I would advise going into your first trip blind, as it were. If you decide to go, let me know and I’ll send you some basic advice to help you get the most out of it without spoiling anything.
  • If you want to do a traditional show, there’s a TKTS booth in Times Square that does discounted tickets every day for shows the same evening. Check out the timings online, but I think they open at 3 for that evening’s shows, and people start queuing maybe an hour before.
  • Consider going for dinner in The Heath – Sleep No More’s onsite restaurant – food is good and generous, the whole place is decked out like a smoky, speakeasy-style booze den, with amazingly detailed decor, live jazz band, waiters in character, the cocktails are prohibition style (BOOZY) and there’s a fixed price menu which is great value. You don’t really have time to do it before a standard evening show though, so unless you’re doing the late show, it would take up another evening. They also have a great rooftop cocktail bar – Gallow Green – check the show, bar and restaurant all out here:
  • If you want to save a few quid (and you probably will) you get decent views of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry from South Ferry Station and it’s free. It doesn’t stop on Liberty Island, and you have to get off and then line up again at Staten Island for the return journey, but you get good views for zero pennies and the round trip will take 1hr-1hr 30 max. I did Liberty Island and Ellis Island when I was there in December 2015 and would recommend – tickets to go up into the crown or even the pedestal sell out months in advance, so check that out soon if you want to try to do it, but just going to Liberty Island is still good and you do get a whole load closer than you do on the Staten Island ferry. The Immigration museum on Ellis Island is fascinating too, and included in your round trip. The whole thing took us about 3 hours I think. A note about booking – it was cheaper to pay on the day than to book in advance which left us a little miffed! However in high season the queues can be ridiculous, so it  might be worth paying a small premium.
  • Doing Central Park, you could spend hours wandering, so if you want to be efficient start at 72nd Street on the West Side where John Lennon was killed, head east through strawberry fields then north around the lake until you do a circle of it and end up at the famous bridge and fountain. Make sure you find the Alice In Wonderland sculpture too – and climb on the toadstool. You see most of the best bits, apart form the random castle which is further north.
  • Ground Zero – the 9/11 Memorial is well worth a look – really quite moving. And don’t miss the Survivor Tree.
  • East Village is worth a look – we stayed there first time around and loved the vibe – relaxed, multicultural and bohemian, great restaurants too. Our favourite from our entire first trip was Momofuku, and I went back with my mum last year and took the friends I went with this year – everyone I’ve been with has loved it. Expect to wait 15-40 minutes for a table (though you may be seated immediately at lunchtime or on quiet nights) but it’s worth it – they have the best noodles and pork buns EVER. And stay for dessert, where you absolutely HAVE to have the truffles – they rotate them, so you won’t get to choose which you want, but they’re all good! However the pretzel cake and birthday cake ones are particularly insane. And you can buy a pack (or several) to take away to nibble on in your hotel room. It’s also pretty reasonable – their signature Momofuku Ramen is about $16.  Momofuku also has a few Milk Bars around the city – one in Brooklyn, one in West Village etc – which do hot drinks, milkshakes, cookies, truffles etc – and they have more choice on the sweet things than the full restaurant.
  • Also we brunched at Esperanza in East Village a couple of times in 2014 – assuming it’s still there, bloody mary or mimosa, entree with home fries and salad, plus bottomless coffee was about $10-12 + tip – super reasonable.
  • Katz Deli – the one from When Harry Met Sally – is also in East Village. Don’t expect good service though – it’s an institution but you have to pretend you know what you’re doing! Just order a pastrami sandwich, maybe coleslaw as a side (again, HUGE), and make sure you don’t lose your ticket or you’ll get shouted at!
  • There are good cheap food options if you have a bit of insider info, mostly in East Village (that’s where my friend used to live and where we stayed first time around) – St Marks in East Village (8th St), Taco Trucks, Mounam’s $3 felafel sandwich, Belgian fries with blue cheese or garlic sauce at Pommes Frittes (2nd Ave), Takoyaki balls from Otafuku on 9th St. If you want to clog your arteries more, try 99 Miles to Philly and get a Philly Cheese Steak with Provolone cheese. And share it – it’s a monster.
  • Last one for East Village – lovely little shop called Alphabets on Avenue A has lots of really cool quirky bits of homeware, t-shirts, souvenirs etc – I got a Brooklyn Brewery t-shirt and a Sriracha sauce one there, and Will got a New York rat one and one of a guy punching a bear – some really fun stuff, and less tacky than most souvenirs.
  • If you want soul food, head up to Harlem and go to Sylvia’s – famous customers include Obama, Stevie Wonder and Liza Minnelli (pictures all over the walls) – it was on Man Vs Food. So reasonable, so good.
  • If you’re in Chelsea, go to The High Line – a free art gallery / park that’s a gentrified old meat packing trainline above ground. Also amazing boutique art galleries (Gargosian, 303, Zimerman) around 23rd St
  • Little Italy worth a visit – Promodore is good and inexpensive, but as long as you’re willing to wait (queue can be 20-60 minutes, but you can have a drink at the bar while you wait), the best pizza I’ve had in NYC was from Lombardi’s – there’s a queue for a reason. Again, share a pizza – even the regular size is pretty generous, and the large is huge.
  • Chinatown also worth doing, though it’s less touristy than the one in London – my mum was a bit disappointed by the aesthetic, but it’s authentic and there are good food joints to be found. Joe’s Shanghai is wonderful – and it’s busy on nights when other restaurants are empty, which is always a good sign. Have the soup dumplings.
  • If you do Brooklyn, Williamsburg is worth a wander, but the best area is probably around Carroll Gardens – there’s Smith Street and Court Street which run parallel to each other and are both full of cool little bars, cafes etc.
  • Brooklyn Bridge is definitely worth doing – I timed it to get to the entrance to the bridge about 40 minutes before sunset. It can get really busy, so it took about 25 minutes to get to the centre of the bridge from the Manhattan side, I stayed there for about 30 minutes throughout the sunset, then walked back to the Manhattan side again – it took about 40 minutes to get off the bridge as it was really busy and almost at a standstill – still worth it, but just make sure you don’t have pressing dinner/theatre plans immediately after.
  • If you want a view from a tall building, do Top of the Rock – a bit cheaper, and I’d say better views than Empire State – means that Empire State Building is IN your photos, and it’s closer to Central Park – if you go up ESB, the Rockefeller Building will be obscuring your view in that direction. You’ll get the most out of it on a clear day, and again, you could time it go for sunset to see the city all lit up after dark too. 
  • We also did the Rockefeller Centre building tour which was good, but it’s an art history tour of the outside – there were folk who hadn’t realised that and were disappointed it wasn’t a tour of the inside and the NBC studios.
  • We didn’t have time to do it, but apparently the Radio City Music Hall tour is amazing.
  • The botanic gardens in Brooklyn are lovely, and free on winter weekdays – obviously the outdoor stuff isn’t as impressive in the winter, but it’s still a nice place to get some peace and quiet, and the conservatories are all lovely and toasty and warm if it’s as cold and damp as it was when I was there in January!
  • I’d highly recommend the Museum of the City of New York up on 103rd street on the upper east side – one of the cheaper museums ($14 compared to $25 for Moma, Guggenheim etc) and I spent about 3 1/2 hours there quite happily! It’s about the history of the city – the changing population, different ethnic communities etc, how it changed over time, as well as a celebration of the New York arts scene – I really loved the Gay Gotham exhibition which was about the work of LGBTQ creatives over the years – musicians, artists, choreographers, photographers, directors etc.
  • If you do museums, check the opening times – the Guggenheim is closed on a Thursday, the Brooklyn Museum is closed on a Monday/Tuesday etc
  • We didn’t do MoMA, but we did do the shop which was great – really good for stylish, non-tacky souvenirs.
  • There’s a hot dog place called Criff Dog, and at the back there’s a phone box (simply dial any number) which is a secret entrance to a speakeasy called Please Don’t Tell – again, we didn’t get to go but would LOVE to. Though it’s not particularly secret – you actually probably need to book in advance!
  • For shopping, head up Madison Avenue til you’re in the 80-somethings and keep your eyes open for consignment stores, and full of unwanted gifts so not all cast offs – I got a Marc Jacobs travelcard holder (leather, brand new, took the labels off myself – it was meant to be $150) for $30 in one, and a Kate Spade purse (again brand new, label said $160 I think) for $35. Again, it’s a LONG street – don’t underestimate how long it will take you to walk up it!
  • On designer shopping, Century 21 is a huge discount designer store in the Financial District (near Ground Zero) – got all my Christmas presents there last year! Michael Kors ties for the men for about $15 instead of $65, beautiful YSL scarves for $30 instead of $70… it’s a full department store and doesn’t require as much rummaging as TK Maxx.
  • I always stock up on Levi’s in the States (Macy’s, Century 21 and JC Penney always have a few styles each for $30-$50 when they’re more like £60-£80 here, plus there are some jeans shops dotted around which have similar deals).
  • Macy’s do loads of good promotions all year round, and if you go to the concierge there’s a special discount card that all visitors are entitled to but not everyone will tell you about! I think you need to show your passport to get it, and it doesn’t work on certain things like cosmetics or concessions, but will work on most clothes and other bits I believe.
  • Check out Grand Central Station – absolutely beautiful building, great shops, and some good restaurants in the basement too – the oyster bar is wonderful for a mid-afternoon treat.
  • Read up before you go on tax and tipping – there are taxes applied to shopping, meals etc on top of the advertised price. An easy rule for tipping in restaurants is to double the tax and add it on as a tip (15-20% is standard). Just make sure you know before you go as it can be baffling (esp if you’re doing more than one city – tax changes in different cities and states, so we had to learn different rules between Washington and NYC!)
  • Had amazing tapas at Tertulia in Greenwich Village – a little pricier, but really good value for the quality and quantity of what we had.
  • Last up, a slightly random one, but if you fancy a bit of free movie sightseeing, ride the 6 train downtown. It terminates at City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge, but if you stay on the train (the announcer will tell you it’s terminating, but you don’t actually have to get off) you’ll go through the old City Hall old subway station – it’s a really cool old fashioned station anyway with the tiling and archways, but it’s also where they filmed the finale of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.