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quick tourist guide to nyc

So I feel a little ridiculous writing this … but actually not everyone has been to NYC and I have two coworkers visiting for the first time in March and thought I’d write them a quick guide.

To begin with, two important tips: Know the difference between New York City and Manhattan (Manhattan is one of the five boroughs that make up the City of New York, the others being Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island), and understand the grid system; it’ll make navigating the city much easier.

The grid means that streets run horizontally on a map (east-west) and avenues run vertically (north-south). All streets on the grid are either east or west, with the counting beginning at Fifth Avenue. So an address that’s 500 West 34th Street is going to be all the way over on the west side, probably past 10th Avenue; while 500 East 34th Street will likely be close to First Avenue. Also, there’s hardly any Fourth Avenue; instead between Second and Third Avenues there’s Madison, Park and Lexington Avenues. Lastly Broadway runs diagonally across Manhattan, kinda from its northwest to southeast.

Honestly, if you take a little time to understand the grid it’ll make navigation much easier. Manhattan is a big walking city and it becomes easy to gauge distances – it takes about a minute to walk from street to street (walking along an avenue) and three to four minutes to walk from avenue to avenue (walking along a street). (E.g., walking from West 23rd to West 42nd Street takes roughly 20 minutes).

What to see:

times squareOkay, yeah, you kinda have to see Times Square and Rockefeller Center (both in the same general area). After that if you want to get a bite or a drink, I’d bypass Eighth Avenue and walk all the way to Ninth; it’s a little less touristy and more for people who live in the area. Lots of great bars and Thai restaurants line Ninth Avenue from 42nd Street to 50th Street.

Union Square isn’t as famous as some parts of NYC but it is lovely. There are often street performers and sometimes protests in the square, and the stores, bars and restaurants surrounding it are nice too. Soho is also a great place to explore.

It is definitely worth it to see the High Line, the elevated track that runs from 30th Street to Gansevoort Street around 10th Avenue.

view from cable on the williamsburg bridgeWalking over the Brooklyn Bridge is a cliche, but still cool – however the less famous Williamsburg Bridge boasts even better views of the city, particularly at night. It’s also much less crowded. Williamsburg is kinda incredible and definitely worth checking out, particularly the nexus around Bedford and North 7th Street (the Bedford L train stop). I won’t use the word “hipsters” – I really thought it was full of amazing and interesting people doing amazing and interesting things.

brooklyn bridgeIf you do walk (or bike) over the Brooklyn Bridge, you may find there’s not a lot to do in the immediate vicinity on the Brooklyn side. One thing is to check out Jacques Torres Chocolate factory at 66 Water Street.

A membership to Citibike, NYC’s fairly new bike-sharing program, is totally worth it IMHO if you’re going to be in the city for a week or more. Bike riding is fun!

Don’t be scared of taking the subway.

NYC is definitely a big drinking town. If you want to go out at night, the West Village, the Lower East Side, Williamsburg and the East Village are all good spots. Rooftop bars can be lots of fun if the weather is right. (And if you don’t mind tourists… although, oops, I guess you are one).

empire state buildingGoing to the top of the Empire State Building can involve waiting in long lines, but the lines move quick and it’s worth it. The observatory is open until 2am and I’ve heard of people who have gone quite late and had no wait at all. Also, Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) is a valid alternative.

Another cliche is New Yorkers sending their visitors off on the Staten Island ferry as a way to occupy them for a bit. But hey, it’s free and you do get good views, including of the Statue of Liberty. I sorta recommend just turning around and coming straight back though. (Sorry, Staten Island…). It’s a 22-minute trip each way.

Yes to museums including The Met and the Guggenheim (if you like museums). The Met has a “suggested donation” admission of $20 and the American Museum of Natural History has a suggested donation of $16. But those are just suggestion! If you want you can just give $1! And the MOMA — the Museum of Modern Art — is free on Fridays from 4pm to 8pm. The Guggenheim museum is Pay What You Wish on Saturdays from 5:45pm to 7:45pm.

Yes, the 9/11 memorial is worth seeing; Wall Street is also in that vicinity, as is the South Street Seaport. The other side of Manhattan (the western side) by the North Cove is good as well. If you are there in warm weather you will see amazing superyachts docked at the North Cove marina. Here’s information on a pay-what-you-like walking tour of Lower Manhattan.

central park lake viewOne of my favorite views in the city is from running in Central Park, going south on West Drive around West 76th Street. You get a view of the skyscrapers rising up over the green of the park and a lake; I find the contrast quite beautiful.

strawberry fieldsStrawberry Fields, the area in Central Park named in tribute to John Lennon, is not far from there and features an “Imagine” circle that people will have usually left flowers at.

If you’re there in summer having a drink on the Frying Pan boat can be quite fun.

Do try to see a Broadway musical in the city … it’s not cheap, but think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Very much worth it. If you don’t care what you see, line up at the TKTS booth in either Times Square, Brooklyn or the South Street Seaport on the day of the show you want to see and you can get half-price tickets for shows that haven’t sold out.

And then of course there’s also the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Jets and Giants. Seatgeek, an aggregator site, is a good source for tickets. (It searches sites like eBay and Stubhub… also could be worthwhile for searching theatre tickets).

If you’re into yoga, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite studio, Kula Yoga Project. There’s also some great Crossfit gyms including Crossfit 212 in Tribeca and Brick in Chelsea.

william wallAnother hidden gem even many New Yorkers don’t know about: the William Wall, the floating clubhouse of the Manhattan Sailing Club. If you’re visiting on a summer afternoon or evening, you can take a launch out to this bar floating in the middle of the Hudson. However it might be good to call ahead as sometimes the club closes randomly for private parties without mentioning it on their website. Still, heaps of fun.

Going to a Sunday church service in Harlem is something that European visitors to NYC sometimes do and I don’t blame them – hearing a gospel service is a pretty unique experience. (I’ve never gone as a tourist, but did once cover politician Mark Green’s trip to Abyssinian Baptist Church as a reporter). Abyssian is the most famous Baptist church in Harlem but gets crowded with tourists – I’d try others, like Mother AME Zion, New Mt. Zion Church or Bethel Gospel Assembly. Here’s a good list of some. (Obviously, you wanna dress and act respectfully).

Walking along Canal Street (the heart of Chinatown) can be an interesting experience and there’s lots of good shopping to be had there. Chinatown has been encroaching on Little Italy for years now, FYI. Other famous shopping spots include Century 21 for clothes (but know your sizes as you can’t try stuff on) and J&R for electronics. They are pretty reputable and I know J&R has a good return policy. The Uniqlo store, Forever 21, Macy’s and H&M are of course all very popular as well.

Some expensive shopping spots include Bergdorf Goodman, at 754 5th Avenue and 58th Street; Saks Fifth Avenue, at 611 Fifth Avenue (between 49th and 50th Streets); Tiffany & Co. (Fifth Avenue at 57th Street); and FAO Schwartz (Fifth Ave and 58th Street). These are not in everyone’s budget — but it’s free to look!

There are obviously many good restaurants; I would recommend checking out Eataly NYC, this HUGE ritzy Italian marketplace at 200 Fifth Avenue (by 23rd Street) that includes seven different sit-down restaurants. It is almost a must-see, honestly.

This wouldn’t be at the top of my list, but if you have time, taking the subway to someplace in Queens like Astoria or Flushing would be an experience. NYC is home to people from around the world and Queens is often where they live. It’s one of the most diverse places in the planet I think. Astoria boasts some good restaurants… I lived there in 2001.

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