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 nyctourist.com – their website has TONS of info about New York City!

nyc-neighborhood-mapImage source: http://www.nyctourist.com

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 (playbill.com and broadwaybox.com 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!

48 Hours in New York City

ESB in fog

Happy Wednesday! Spring has sprung in North Carolina…the daffodils and Tulip Poplars are blooming! I’m planning to explore some botanical gardens over the next few weeks, so watch for garden posts coming soon.

For this week’s edition of Wednesday Wanderings, I’m sharing details of our recent trip to New York City to see Hamilton.  New York City is a place I love to visit; every time I spend time in the city, I find new adventures and hidden spots. This trip was just a couple of days…a quick birthday getaway! 

Lodging:  We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square, on 8th Avenue between West 48th and West 49th.  While I don’t usually like to stay in the Times Square area (it’s way too crowded most of the year), the location was brilliant for this visit. The hotel is diagonally across the street from the 50th Street subway stop (C and E lines) so it was super easy to get from La Guardia airport to our hotel by public transport (full blog post on how to do this coming soon), and since we went to several shows, it was a super quick walk to all of the theaters! Eighth Avenue, while just one block away from the craziness of Times Square, is much quieter, and we heard very little street noise at night. As a bonus, I used my Hilton Honors points so it was completely free! Read this post to find out more about how I choose hotels in NYC.

Ate: Restaurants in New York run the gamut from $3 pizza slices to $200 dinners; if you are on a tight budget, you can eat just as easily as if you have no spending limit. We usually choose to spend our money on experiences rather than food (although a great meal can absolutely be an experience), so on a day to day basis we tend to eat on the cheaper side. We had breakfast the first day at the Times Square Diner and Grill right across from the hotel. The food was very good diner fare, and they currently have a deal with the Hilton for a 10% discount for hotel guests. The next day, we had breakfast at the Blue Dog Kitchen Bar. A nice step up from the diner, and the food was delicious. It’s a small place, so I highly recommend reservations!

Our two dinners were at Serafina and Hurley’s Saloon. Serafina is an Italian restaurant with several locations around Manhattan; they have an extensive menu and delicious wood-fired thin crust pizza. The location near us was in the Time Hotel on West 49th Street…we started with the bruschetta, which was oh so yummy, then ordered the “pizza for the table” – a big square pizza.  It was very good, but if you have your heart set on the super thin crust, order the individual pizza as the pizza for the table had a thicker crust.

Hurley’s Saloon is a historic pub on West 48th Street that was established in 1892.  It’s a beautiful, atmospheric dark wood place with a huge bar, three floors, a beer garden, and rooftop dining when the weather is nice. We ate in a private booth in the Library Room and really enjoyed our meal. They also have a prix-fixe pre-theater meal for anyone heading to the theater afterward. I’d love to go back in nice weather and enjoy the beer garden!

yaoqi-lai-503557-unsplash

I love NYC in the snow – but it was NOT beer garden weather!

Saw: Our first night, we went to the TKTS booth and got last minute tickets to Avenue Q, which is a hilarious, slightly raunchy show using puppets (NOT appropriate for kids)! We are a theater family – our daughter has a degree in Theater Arts (she is a Stage Manager) so she educated us about technical aspects of the show that added to our enjoyment. 

**TKTS booth tips – TKTS has a website as well as an app – both list the current day’s ticket availability. You can also look and see which shows have been at the booth recently. If you want to see a play rather than a musical, there is a dedicated “Play only” line which moves more quickly. Tickets tend to be more plentiful on weekdays, although many shows are dark (no shows) on Monday**

The next day was my birthday; I found a BOGOF deal for the Downton Abbey exhibit, so my daughter and I headed there after breakfast, while the boys went to the Natural History Museum. The exhibit was awesome…entire rooms from the set have been brought over from England along with costumes, etc. I loved it as I had seen the entire series; if you haven’t seen the show, however, there are TONS of spoilers as each character has a section with their storyline summarized. If you’ve already seen the show and are a fan, go see the exhibit (it’s in NYC through April 2); if you haven’t yet but want to watch without knowing what’s going to happen, don’t go!

Hamilton, of course was the highlight of the trip! I bought our tickets way back last spring when a new block of tickets went on sale, so we waited ten months for our show date.  I listened to the soundtrack endlessly prior to our trip, which really added to my enjoyment of the show. I LOVED the show and would gladly see it over and over again, but my husband was a little surprised by the lack of dialogue. Most of the dialogue is singing; if you’ve heard the soundtrack, you’ve heard all but a few lines of the show. We made a beeline to the stage door after the show and met Michael Luwoye, aka Alexander Hamilton. If you want to get on the email list, click here and submit your email at the bottom of the page to join the revolution! For tips on other ways to get Hamilton tickets, read this article.

Stage door Hamilton

Meeting Michael Luwoye at the stage door!

We also visited the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. They currently have an evocative exhibit about the 60’s which is quite interesting! The exhibit runs through the beginning of September.

NYPL benefactors

Guess who was a benefactor of the New York Public Library – Alexander Hamilton!

Shopping: The ONLY shopping we did this trip was a quick stop at Book-Off on East 49th Street – we love used bookstores and grabbed a few books from the $1 section to supplement our trip reading. It’s a very well organized store with a large selection of DVD’s and games as well as books.

So that was our quick 48 hours in Manhattan – what are your favorite things to do in New York City??? 

Five things to consider when choosing a hotel in New York City

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NYC skyline – photo courtesy of pixabay

Happy Wednesday all! Today’s post describes how I choose a hotel when I go to New York City.  A couple of weeks ago, we took a quick trip to NYC to see Hamilton for my birthday. After the tickets were purchased, I had to decide where to stay, and thought you all might like a peek into my thought process.

These are the five main points I consider when choosing a hotel (there are THOUSANDS of hotels in NYC – I am by no means a NYC expert, but have had fairly good luck using these parameters so am hoping you’ll find them helpful).

Our planned activities and how long we will be in the city – First, I plot our planned activities on Google maps. This gives me a sense of whether we will mainly be in one part of the city or traveling around to lots of different areas. If I’m in New York City for a longer stay, my activities tend to be more spread out. This time, we only went for two nights and had tickets for Hamilton and the Downton Abbey exhibit, so our activities were concentrated in the Theater District and Midtown West areas of Manhattan. (click here for a map and explanation of Manhattan neighborhoods) 

Better NYC plans photo

My plotted activities – the stars are places we planned on visiting and our hotel

Weather – I consider the season in which we will be traveling – I LOVE being outside and walking around Manhattan, especially in the spring and fall, so will sometimes choose a hotel farther away from our planned sights or in my favorite neighborhoods so I can walk more. In January, however, NYC is cold and the tall buildings create wind tunnels, so it feels even colder. Our daughter from Florida joined us on this trip and she gets cold very quickly, so I decided to stay as close as possible to the theatre so we wouldn’t have to walk more than a few blocks at a time in the cold weather.

Stage door Hamilton

Meeting Michael Luwoye (aka Alexander Hamilton) at the stage door with my Florida girl!

Transportation – How do I want to get around? Am I planning on taking the subway or walking? (I don’t often take cabs in NYC, but if you plan on taking lots of cabs then you can get a cab from any hotel but longer cab rides will of course cost more). For trips when my activities are more spread out, I’ll plan on taking the subway and will try to find a hotel with good subway connections for my planned activities (attraction websites helpfully tell you which are the closest subway stops – for a subway map of Manhattan, click here). Since this was a super short trip, I decided I just wanted to quickly walk to the theaters rather than spend a lot of time on the subway.

Expense – How much can I afford? There are a wide range of prices in NYC, so this is a big consideration. (January is an EXCELLENT time to get rock bottom hotel prices as long as you don’t mind the cold – after the holidays are over, prices drop super low for hotels and the city is much less crowded). I try to find mid-level hotels and generally pay below $125 per night in January – in spring and fall these same hotels run around $200-350 and in December they can be as much as $500-700 per night! Hotel prices in NYC are very dependent upon the season, so if price is a big consideration, go in January! (I’ve also had excellent luck finding reasonable rates in July, I guess because of the hot muggy weather this is also a cheap time to visit.) I’m a Hilton Honors member, so was specifically looking for a Hilton Hotel this trip so I could use my points to help keep costs down (just to be completely transparent, this is not a sponsored post).

Crowd Tolerance – Some folks love to be right in the hustle and bustle, but I prefer quieter areas. I abhor crowds, and refuse to stay in the Times Square area (7th Ave and Broadway between W. 42nd and W. 50th Streets) as it is crazy crowded! My favorite areas in which to stay are Chelsea and the West Village, but Midtown East is also a less crowded area in which to stay and is still close to places like Rockefeller Center, MOMA, St Patricks Cathedral, and Times Square. 

Times Square crowds

Times Square crowds – photo courtesy of Pixabay

So where did we stay for our January trip?

Taking into account our short trip, our planned activities, the cold weather and our plan to just walk to our activities, I decided to bite the bullet and stay in the Theater District/Times Square area so we’d be close, despite my low crowd tolerance. However, I was pleasantly surprised – I found the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square on 8th Avenue, between West 48th and West 49th Streets. It was my first stay at this hotel and being one avenue removed from Times Square worked out perfectly; there were far fewer crowds, yet it was super close to the theaters. We heard very little city noise at night and there was a great little diner right across the street for breakfast (or other meals) which delivers to the hotel if you prefer to eat in your room. As a bonus, it was across the street from the subway, which we used to travel into Manhattan from La Guardia airport. I used Hilton points for our stay, but the prices were right around $110-120 per night for a room with two double beds on our dates. A huge plus for me was the fact that the room temperatures were easy to adjust – some hotels in NYC are in older buildings with whole-building heating, so even if the heat is completely turned off in the individual room, the room is still HOT due to the older heating systems (I’m looking at you, Hilton New York Fashion District – I love you in spring, summer and fall, but don’t think I’ll stay here in the winter ever again). 

I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into my hotel-finding process for New York City! Thanks so much for reading! Do you have any tips for finding hotels in Manhattan??

**Want to join the email list to be notified when a new block of tickets go on sale for Hamilton NY? Click here  – there’s a spot to submit your email at the bottom of the home page**