Tips for planning your first visit to NYC

ESB in fog

Happy New Year! Are you planning a trip to New York City this year? I’ve recently had a few family members ask for advice about their first trips to NYC, so thought I’d put my tips into a blog post.

First of all, New York City is HUGE – and most first-time visitors spend their time in Manhattan, one of five boroughs that make up the city (the other four are Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx), so this post will focus on Manhattan. Secondly, this post will NOT include a list of “must see” sights. What I will do, however, is give you tips for making the most of your limited time, navigating your way around the city, and designing an efficient sight-seeing plan. I’ll also alert you to some things that surprise first-time visitors.

Where to stay – There are thousands of hotels in Manhattan; I’ve written an entire post on how I choose hotels in NYC.  Here’s the short version – where you should stay depends on what you want to see and do as well as cost, your tolerance for noise, and how you plan to get around. Stay away from hotels directly on Times Square if you don’t like crowds and noise; moving just a couple of blocks away can drastically cut the crowds (I’ve stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn on 8th Ave. between 48th and 49th Streets and had a great experience). Midtown East is quieter but still close to many of the Midtown area main attractions (St Patrick’s Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, and Times Square, among others), but doesn’t have great subway connections once you’re east of Lexington Avenue. If you want to spend most of your time exploring the 9/11 Memorial/Museum and the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island complex, the Financial District might be a good location. Chelsea and the Fashion (Garment) District are walkable and have good subway connections to Midtown, the West Village (with some amazing restaurants) and the Financial District; this is often where I choose to stay. Here is a map outlining the neighborhoods of Manhattan, from the folks at – their website has TONS of info about New York City!

nyc-neighborhood-mapImage source:

When to go – New York City is a year round destination – the museums and sights are phenomenal no matter when you go. January is one of the cheapest months for hotels, and I’ve also gotten great rates for the Fourth of July weekend (I guess everyone goes to the beach instead?). December is generally expensive, although I had a friend report last month that she found good hotel rates for the third week in December. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is both incredibly crowded and extremely expensive. Spring and Fall have the nicest weather and the parks are beautiful. Time Out NYC lists the best places to see cherry blossoms here, and the fall foliage in Central Park is gorgeous!

Sightseeing – My biggest tip here is to group your sightseeing geographically! Minimize the time you spend traveling around the city by visiting all of your sights in the Financial District one day, then spend another day enjoying the museums on the Upper West Side and Central Park and a third day seeing the sights of Midtown. I star my activities on Google Maps, then plan my days by location. After many visits when I’ve been too ambitious with my sightseeing plan, I now divide my days into morning, afternoon, and evening, and schedule no more than ONE activity per segment. However, I also keep a list handy of other sights in the vicinity that I’d like to see in case I have extra time and can squeeze in something else.

Better NYC plans photoHere’s a screenshot of  my “midtown/theater district” day – everything is within a ten block area to make for convenient and quick walks between activities

Visiting the Statue of Liberty – Okay, so maybe THIS is my biggest tip – if there is one thing that surprises first time visitors more than anything else, it is the amount of time you have to block out to take the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty. If you are planning on visiting both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, I’d recommend blocking out the entire day, especially if you want to climb to the crown and enjoy the museum at Ellis Island. Even with advance tickets for the ferry, you wait in a long line and go through security (the entrance time on your ticket is the time you enter the security line – you might not get on the first ferry after you’re through the line). The ferry stops first at Liberty Island, the home of Lady Liberty, then proceeds to Ellis Island before circling back to Manhattan; even if you don’t want to visit Ellis Island, you still have to ride the ferry and wait while others disembark and embark. My family loves history; we took the very first ferry in the morning and the very last ferry back in the late afternoon and still wished for more time! Both islands have cafes, so you can buy coffee and lunch. If you’re just going to the Statue but don’t plan on getting off at Ellis Island, you will want to block out at least 4 hours (more during busy times like Spring Break, Easter, summer and December), so be cautious about what you schedule directly after your Statue excursion. I’d recommend planning this for a day towards the beginning/middle of your trip – I once booked a visit for my last morning in the city, but due to a snow storm, the ferries didn’t run until afternoon. The company offered to put me on a later ferry, but I had a flight out, so had to miss the experience.  Ha – aren’t you glad I make these mistakes so you don’t have to??

**For those of you with kids between 6-12, Ellis Island has an AMAZING Junior Ranger Program – and even though the islands are a National Park site, the state of New York is providing the funding for them to stay open during the government shutdown (thanks, State of New York!)**

Click here for info about the ferry and the different types of tickets available. If you want to climb to the crown, book your tickets as far in advance as possible and keep in mind that the inside of the statue is not climate controlled, so it can get very hot in the summer.

Doug and I in Lady libertyHubby and I in the crown of the Statue of Liberty

**Time-saving tip – If you are tight on time and okay with just seeing the Statue of Liberty from the water, I’d recommend taking the Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and back – it’s FREE, you get great views (albeit from farther away) and it takes about 1.5 hours tops – the ride is 25 minutes each way, but you have to disembark on Staten Island and circle around to get back in line for the return trip**

If you want to see a show, you can book tickets ahead of time ( and sell discounted tickets for some shows) or use the TKTS booth to get discounted tickets the day of the show. If you’re flying in and arriving in the late afternoon, book a show for your second night and plan something like a walk around Rockefeller Center for your first night, in case you end up with a flight delay.  If you have your heart set on seeing a specific show, I’d recommend booking ahead; if you’re flexible about what you want to see and would be happy with a myriad of choices, then I’ve seen some great shows using the TKTS booth. Here is the link to the TKTS website home page, and you can see what’s currently available at the booth here (there are no guarantees what will be available the day you go, of course, but I’ve always been able to find something fun). Many first time visitors don’t realize you can meet the actors at the stage door after the show – take your playbill and a sharpie if you want autographs! To be the among the first in line, scope out the stage door location before going into the show and leave the theater as soon as possible after the show ends – don’t stay through all the curtain calls.

Stage door HamiltonMeeting Michael Luwoye (aka Alexander Hamilton) at the stage door after the show!

Advance tickets – You’ll definitely want to buy advance tickets for the Statue of Liberty, and if you want to go to the Top of the Rock, Empire State Building, or One World Observatory, you’ll save a TON of time by buying tickets online. This blogger has a great article about when to book ahead…the Statue of Liberty tickets and Broadway tickets are in the #1 and #2 spots!

To go to the top or not? – Top of the Rock, the Empire State Building and the One World Observatory all give you the same type of experience – you go to the top of the building and get amazing views over the city. They all offer advance booking (and together hold the #4 spot on the above list) but are slightly different.

One World Observatory is the newest of the three, honoring the former World Trade Center Twin Towers. It overlooks the 9/11 Memorial and the Financial District, with a great view of New York Harbor. There are three types of tickets, all of which include a multimedia experience in the visit. They seem to have the earliest closing time of the three (when I checked times for today, the last entry was at 8:15 PM).

The Empire State Building is the oldest, with great views of midtown. The Empire State Building is the classic experience for fans of Sleepless in Seattle, King Kong, or An Affair to Remember, and is open the latest of the three, until 2 am, so if you’re a night owl or trying to squeeze every last bit of sightseeing out of your visit, a late night visit is a great option. Click here for ticket info.

Top of the Rock – Another option is to go to the top of Rockefeller Center, where you get great views of midtown and Central Park, as well as the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and One World Tower.  To me, there’s something magical about being at Top of the Rock during sunset, watching the sky become a blend of colors before it fades to dark and the lights of the city come on, including a fantastic view of the lights coming on at the Empire State Building. The latest entry time is generally 11:40 PM, so this is also a good “after dinner” option.

**These tickets are usually pretty easy to get a day or two in advance, so I wait to book until I can see the weather forecast for the days I’ll be in NYC, and choose a sunny day! If you want the sunset view, book a time for about 30-45 minutes before sunset (find sunset times here, although Top of the Rock makes it easy with a little sun symbol next to entrance times that will let you see the sunset) to allow for time to get up to the observation deck. Once you’re up there, you can stay for as long as you like.**

new-york-city-105860From Top of the Rock, you’ll get this gorgeous sunset view!  Photo courtesy of pixabay

Eating – I’m not a foodie, and while I enjoy a nice dinner, I don’t want to spend $100 per person either, so I look for food that is fresh, tasty, inexpensive-moderately priced, and convenient to sightseeing rather than adventurous. I rely heavily on Yelp and suggestions from friends or Instagram, and I stay away from chain restaurants. I’ve gotten tons of great recommendations from With Love from Kat – two of the places we’ve tried from her app (and loved) are Buvette and Momoya. I’ve also enjoyed La Bonne Soup (french bistro), S’mac (an entire restaurant devoted to mac and cheese? yes, please!), Gigino’s at Wagner Park (Statue of Liberty views), Serafina (several locations for wood-fired pizza and pasta), Hurley’s Saloon (Irish Pub in the Theatre District with a beer garden out back in nice weather), Carmine’s (family style Italian in Times Square), Serendipity 3 (if you’ve seen the movie with Kate Beckinsale and John Cusack, it’s especially fun!), Doughnut Plant, and Alice’s Tea Cup (Alice in Wonderland themed tea room with three locations). I’ve also been known to chow down on Shake Shack, Pret a Manger, or Chipotle while in line for show tickets or riding the Staten Island Ferry!


Transportation –  I don’t recommend driving around the city to get from one sight to another – parking is just too hard and expensive, and traffic is crazy crowded. If you are driving to New York City, be prepared for parking charges of $40-50 per day at your hotel, and plan on parking your car and not using it again until you leave. Parking at hotels is generally valet-only, so be ready to pull up, get all your stuff out, and have a few singles on hand for tipping the valet.

New York is a great walking city; I walk whenever possible, but when my destination is too far, I use the subway or a cab/Uber. I could do an entire series of posts on transportation in New York, but I’ll just give you a helpful link with details about getting around the city by subway, bus, cab, Uber, walking, and more!

traffic-691870Believe me – you DO NOT want to try and drive from sight to sight in NYC traffic! photo courtesy of pixabay

**navigation tip – In Manhattan, anything above 14th Street is on a grid pattern, which makes navigating easy. Streets run east/west (with 5th Avenue as the dividing line) and Avenues run north/south, while Broadway runs diagonally. Below 14th Street, it’s a little less predictable, as this is the oldest part of the island. Most people use cross streets to navigate rather than numerical addresses, so when giving your destination to a cab/uber driver, say “The Hilton New York Fashion District on West 26th St. near 7th Avenue”**

Weather in NYC –  if you are going in the winter, the skyscrapers create wind tunnels, so you’ll feel much colder than you might expect! Bring warm gloves/mittens (mittens are warmer than gloves because of the body heat from your fingers being together), a scarf (or you can buy one on nearly any street corner for less than $10 – these make great souvenirs) and a hat. If you’re going in the summer, the converse is true – temps can feel warmer, as all the concrete holds heat.

img_1626We got lucky with a day full of sunshine for our Statue of Liberty day – but the wind on the ferry was COLD!!!

**I often see recommendations to wear thermal base layers in winter, but then I get way too hot when indoors, so my secret trick is to layer a lightweight down coat under my heavier winter coat! I have this one and it works like a charm – kept me toasty warm even standing outside for two hours in 34 degree weather trying to get lottery tickets for Hamilton! It packs down into a small pouch for packing, is super lightweight but an invaluable layer in the winter! There’s a longer version, as well**

Wow! If you’ve read this far, you’re a champ – I really hope these tips were helpful! In my next post, I’ll list my favorite sights and restaurants by neighborhood, to help you plan geographically 🙂  Leave me a note in the comments below if you have specific questions or want to add a recommendation to my list!

2 thoughts on “Tips for planning your first visit to NYC

  1. Pingback: My favorite NYC sights by neighborhood | Detours Through Life

  2. Pingback: Great Sights for Your First Visit to New York City, part 2 – Midtown East/West and Times Square | Detours Through Life

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