A First Timer’s Guide to New York City

Never been to New York City? Then you must make plans to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

By Roger Allnutt

There is never a dull moment when you visit New York, with almost infinite entertainment options both day and night to provide an unforgettable itinerary for all visitors.

A Spectacular Arrival

Whether you arrive by car, train, plane or ship your sense of anticipation grows as you get closer to the city. On my most recent trip I arrived by cruise ship at the end of a voyage from Quebec. Approaching lower Manhattan under the Verrazano Bridge with the dramatic skyline ahead, including the One World Tower and Statue of Liberty, sent shivers up my spine.

A red open-topped tour bus passes in front of skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan
A tour bus passes through Lower Manhattan
(Photo by Mateus Maia on Unsplash)

Start With a Hop-on, Hop-Off Bus Tour

Once settled into your accommodations in New York, typically in Manhattan, the choice of activities is mind blowing. I would recommend starting your visit with a hop-on, hop-off bus tour which gives the opportunity to orientate yourself with the major parts of the city and to plan those areas where you would like to return for further exploration.

There are a number of companies such as Gray Line and Big Bus Tours which offer one- and two-day passes, different routes around the city and even night tours. These tours also offer discounted entry prices to attractions such as the Art Deco Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center, two of the city’s best-known buildings. Neither should be missed as the views from the viewing platforms are truly spectacular. Opposite the Rockefeller Center is the well-known Radio City Music Hall.

See One World Trade Center

Well over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the twin towers have now been replaced by the tower of the One World Trade Center. A dazzlingly stark memorial building; however to many New Yorkers the tower has not totally acted as a unifying point for the city after the attack. The National September 11 Memorial Museum at the base is worth a visit, as are the reflecting pools in the central plaza.

A side view of the upper part of the Statue of Liberty set against a bright blue sky in New York City
The Statue of Liberty, icon of New York City
(Photo by Leon Gao on Unsplash)

Visit Lady Liberty

Continue on to the southern tip of Manhattan past Wall Street and you come to lovely Battery Park with views to the Statue of Liberty. It is possible to take a trip out to both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (where migrants in previous times were processed into the U.S.) but you need to make reservations well in advance to visit. The view from the top of the Statue is panoramic and exhilarating. The ferry ride is free.

Explore More New York Neighborhoods

Traveling up the east side of Manhattan you come to Brooklyn Bridge (it is worth taking the time to visit Brooklyn) and then East Village and the Lower East Side, which is one of my favorite areas. The area is full of quirky shops and boutiques, narrow streets and alleyways, lots of cafes and bars. New York seemed to be full of tattoo parlors – one I noticed combined the parlor and a cappuccino café!

Tompkins Square Park is a pleasant oasis in the middle of this bustling area. Locals gather for chess games on concrete tables, relax on the lawn for a picnic or let their dogs loose for a run in the dog enclosure. Clearly there are many professional dog handlers taking charges out for a run (I counted six dogs with one woman) and there is lots of yapping and sniffing as the pets enjoy an escape from their apartment lives.

Scattered people in Grand Central Terminal in New York City
Grand Central Terminal in New York City
(Photo by Daniel Polevoy on Unsplash)

Take in the Scene at Grand Central

The United Nations buildings stand tall and erect overlooking the East River and then you can get off at Grand Central Terminal, one of the many examples of Beaux Arts architecture in the city. It’s a must-see landmark for first-time visitors to New York City. The huge vaulted concourse of the main station is always packed with busy commuters and you can stop and watch the passing parade while having a snack at one of the eateries. If you really want to live it up, drop in for a drink at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant.

Stroll Along Fifth Avenue

Of course you will want to walk along famous Fifth Avenue if only to indulge in some window shopping at famous shops like Tiffany and Cartier. In fact the lineup of shops is a who’s who of all the big retail names throughout the world.

Walk On to Times Square

You would need many weeks if not months to really explore even the highlights of what New York has to offer. Despite its size Manhattan is really best explored on foot. You can walk along Broadway from Times Square checking out all the theaters and deciding which plays you might like to attend. Times Square, where Broadway and Seventh Avenue intersect, is quintessentially American, with flashing neon signs, exuberant locals and visitors. A real crossroads of the world.

I attended a wonderful performance of Jersey Boys, the story of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, still going strong since it premiered in 2005. But the line-up of shows includes Phantom of the Opera, Lion King, and dozens of others. Go to the ticket offices at the theaters of your choice as most of the longer running shows have seats available on the day, or check out the half-price ticket booths.

Indulge in the Arts at Lincoln Center

Further north near Columbus Circle you come to the Lincoln Center with its three main performing arts centers for classical music; the Avery Fisher Hall, home to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the David Koch Theatre (ballet) and the iconic Metropolitan Opera House. I saw a marvelous performance of my favorite opera, Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte; again cheap sets at the door. Not far away is Carnegie Hall, another famous concert space.

Galleries at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City
(Photo by Leslie Lopez Holder on Unsplash)

Into New York City’s Art World

Art lovers will have a field day in New York with most attracted to three major galleries all located on the east side of Central Park on 5th Avenue. The largest is the wonderful Metropolitan Museum of Art founded in 1870 with over two million items in its vast collection. Spread out over 7 hectares of galleries, the collection includes Egyptian art and a superb collection of European paintings as well as American artists.

The Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the private Frick Collection are more modest in size but equally tempting. Modern art enthusiasts will enjoy the Museum of Modern Art. New York has hundreds of other museums and galleries covering just about every possible interest.

Enjoy Central Park, the Centerpiece of Manhattan

Undoubtedly the centerpiece of Manhattan is Central Park, the green heart of the city stretching north from 57th to 110th street. You can do many activities within the park including walking, jogging or cycling the many roads and paths, have a picnic, throw a frisbee on the Sheep Meadow, take a horse-drawn carriage ride, take a boat ride on the central lake, visit the zoo or just watch the kaleidoscope of people enjoying themselves.

Head North to Harlem

If you want to explore a bit further north and experience a lesser-known part of Manhattan, catch a bus or train north to Harlem. Wander around the bus terminus area along 125th street and you will experience how many New Yorkers live away from the glamour and glitter closer to 5th Avenue. On one side of the street you might find small shops where food stamps are currency while on the other more upmarket apartments around Columbia University are the norm. Iconic Yankee Stadium is located in Upper Manhattan.

Eat Out in Manhattan

Eating out in Manhattan offers an incredible variety from mind bogglingly expensive to lots of wonderful cafes, pubs and street stalls. Try the many delis where the servings are huge and you choose your own ingredients. We found one large salad was more than enough for two.

Where to Stay in New York City

Accommodation in New York is expensive but two places I could recommend are Hotel Wellington on Seventh Ave near Carnegie Hall and Hotel Beacon at 75th on Broadway on the Upper West Side.

Need more tips for visiting New York City? Visit the Official NYC tourism website, www.nycgo.com.

Looking for more first-timer’s city guides? Check out “Touring the Major Attractions of Memphis, Tennessee.”

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