New York City travel guide for first-timers
New York City is probably the most visited city in the United States and one of the most visited in the world, with over 60 million individual trips per year. We have been 6 times in the “Big Apple”, and it never ceases to amaze us. Famous for its attractions, fashion restaurants, trendy clubs, vibrant nightlife, crowded street, a melting pot of cultures, theatres and spectacular events, New York can be called the “heart of the world”. We always say that you can spend a lifetime exploring and never really see it all! On the other side, it can easily drain your wallet. As a budget traveller, visiting NYC can be tough because you can quickly go through money if you aren’t careful.
The best period to go
NYC can be visited anytime as each season has something to offer. The best months are April, May, June, September and October, when there are fewer crowds, and the weather is more bearable. We love these months because you can also enjoy the lush parks, outdoor cafes and restaurants, rooftop bars, outdoor markets and plenty of festivals and parades spill onto the streets. January and February bring cold and snow, with temperatures ranging between 7 to -5°C. It could be tough to stay outside and visit the best spots. Despite that, during the Christmas holidays, NYC skyscrapers, the streets, window displays and city sights turn into a magical, twinkling landscape with a fairytale atmosphere! Spending Christmas in NYC is a top bucket-list experience. Deep summer is hot and humid, with average daily temperatures of about 30° C. This season could also bring afternoon thunderstorms.
How to reach New York City
NYC has 3 major airports: JFK International Airport, located in Queens (southeastern part of NYC) and the busiest serving the Big Apple; LaGuardia Airport, also located in Queens (to the north of JFK); and Newark International Airport, next to Newark city in New Jersey.
- JFK International Airport to NYC
The easiest and practical way to reach NYC is to book a shared ride or a private car with the company Go Airlink Shuttle. This is a great way to get from all NYC airports to just about anywhere you want to go. This is the best option to reach the airport from your hotel.
The second option is to take the subway from here, especially if you’re a light traveller, this could be the way to go. Click here to see how far is your destination on the subway map.
NYC Express Bus (managed by Golden Touch) is another mean of transport to get there. It picks you up from Terminals 1, 4, 7, and 8 to Grand Central Terminal (41st and Lexington), Times Square (42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, same block as Bryant Park) and the Port Authority (42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue, and runs every 30 minutes. It’s possible to buy the ticket online to show to the Ground Transportation Welcome Center.
The most expensive option is to take a taxi, Lyft or Uber as tolls and surcharges may be added to your fare.
- LaGuardia Airport to NYC
There is no subway station at LaGuardia, but you can take the MTA buses to Manhattan or Queens with connections to the subway. The buses Q47 (from terminal A) and Q70 (from terminal B-C-D) connect the airport to the 7, E, F, M, R subway lines at 74 St/Roosevelt Ave.
The easiest and practical way to reach NYC is to book a shared ride or a private car with the company Go Airlink Shuttle.
NYC Express Bus (managed by Golden Touch) runs from LaGuardia airport to Grand Central Terminal (41st and Lexington), Times Square (42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue, same block as Bryant Park) and the Port Authority.
You can also take a taxi, Uber or Lyft, but the fare depends on your final destination, the traffic, as well as tolls and surcharges.
- Newark International Airport to NYC
First of all, you can take the NYC Express bus from all terminals to 3 different locations in Manhattan: Grand Central, Bryant Park, and Port Authority.
Also, in Newark, the best option is to book the Go Airlink shuttle to your final destination.
Another option is to take the AirTrain combined with NJ transit trains or the Path railway service. The air train runs from Newark airport to Newark airport train station. Once at the station, take the NJ train to Penn Station and catch the Path Railways Service to Manhattan downtown to take the subway (red line).
The most expensive option is the taxi as the fare depends on your final destination.
Where to sleep in New York City
NYC is undoubtedly amazing, but accommodations are expensive in New York, and there aren’t many hostels in the city. Manhattan is the best place to stay, but if you decide to sleep outside it, accommodation will cost about 25%. The right choice for NYC first-timers could be Midtown, the heart of Manhattan. This area comprises fantastic attractions like Times Square, the iconic Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue shopping, 57th Street and Madison Avenue boutiques, the bustling Theatre district and Broadway. Midtown also offers a large concentration of hotels and a huge dining choice from budget to haute cuisine. It’s also a great base to visit the metropolis because the 42nd Street-Broadway subway station serves many lines.
Anyway, other beautiful Manhattan neighbourhoods where to stay are Soho and Tribeca, Upper East and Upper West Side, the trendiest Bowery and the East Village, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Chinatown, Lower Manhattan and the Financial District. If you are a solo traveller, we suggest sleeping at Chelsea International Hostel, located near different subway stations in the Chelsea district. You can look for other hostels using Hostelworld.com. Other options besides hotels and hostels include apartment rentals, home exchanges, and couch surfing.
Our choices: in our six trips to NYC, we never chose hotels by area. We chose our accommodations based on the best deals we found to save bucks and use them to visit as many attractions as possible. The most important thing is that the hotel must be close to a subway station and in a safe area. NYC is a big metropolis, and many areas in north Manhattan (like Upper Central Park, the Bronx and Harlem) and outside it, are not very safe at night. For example, we slept at Seton Hotel in the heart of Midtown East; at the Jane Hotel, near Hudson River Park; at Sohotel, at the cross-section of Chinatown and Nolita; 3 times at Sleep Inn Long Island City, in Queens, very close to 21-st Queensbridge subway station. We slept 3 times in Queens because, in general, the cheapest rooms in Manhattan are basic and tiny (sometimes with shared bathroom), whereas, in Queens, we found big rooms with all comfort for 85 USD (double room with breakfast).
- Click here to see the accommodations in Midtown;
- Click here to see the accommodations in Soho and Tribeca;
- Click here to see the accommodations in the Upper East Side;
- Click here to see the accommodations in the Upper West Side;
- Click here to see the accommodations in the Bowery;
- Click here to see accommodations in Chinatown;
- Click here to see the accommodations in Lower Manhattan;
- Click here to see accommodation in Brooklyn;
- Click here to see accommodations in Queens.
How to get around
Central Manhattan is laid out on a grid with cross streets clearly numbered. When numbers go up, they lead uptown; if numbers go down, they are heading south or downtown. Most of the avenues are one-way, and they are numbered from east to west with numbers going up. Fifth Avenue is the dividing line between “east side” and “west side.” Getting around is very easy, but if you want to save money, the best thing is to find accommodation close to a subway station or a bus stop.
- Means of transport
1. Subway: it’s the best transportation to visit NYC and its boroughs as it boasts 24 different lines. It could be a bit confusing the first time but learning the system is not difficult. Subway stations are labelled either uptown or downtown to show the direction of the trains on that track.
You’ll need to buy a Metrocard to get around, and you must top up with a minimum of 5.50 USD. Each ride costs 2.75 USD. The best way to save money is to buy a 7-day (or longer) Metrocard unlimited transit for 33 USD.
2. Bus: the bus network allows you to go everywhere, but it’s obviously slower than the subway. You can catch the bus if you can’t get where you are going by subway. The ride costs 2.75 USD on the Metrocard (6 USD for an express ride).
3. Taxi: it’s an expensive option to reach your destination, but if you stay out of Manhattan and don’t want to catch the subway late at night, it could be a good choice. The minimum fare starts from 2.50 USD for an additional 0.50 USD every fifth of a mile or every minute.
4. Private-shared riding: UBER and Lyft are cheaper than a taxi, especially if you book the shared option, where you share your ride with other customers. Download their Smartphone App to book the ride and know in advance the cost.
5. Sightseeing buses: these tourists buses are a great option to visit the best attraction of NYC without catching the local transportation. They boast different routes and stops next to the main spots of the Big apple. You can book the tickets at the main stops, in some stands around Times Square, or using the web platforms like Viator.com and GetYourGuide.com.
Where to eat
We do not want to suggest you a specific restaurant as making a list by quality is really difficult. It would be too long a list, and everyone has their own tastes in terms of food. NYC boasts a wide choice of dining places in all neighbourhoods, from delicious hot dogs, pastrami and bagels carts to trucks bearing every kind of food, from fast food to pizzeria, cheap restaurants to haute cuisine restaurants for all tastes. We only recommend exploring the ethnic areas of Manhattan like Chinatown, Little Italy, or Little Korea to try their typical dishes and to hit the streets of Manhattan looking for street food. If you like, it’s fascinating to join a “food tour” to discover some of the most popular dishes in NYC.
Rooftop bars: a thing you don’t have to miss before leaving the Big Apple are the rooftop bars! They are located on the roof of a building and New York, with its many skyscrapers, on whose roofs there are beautiful terraces, is one of the cities where you can find the largest number of rooftop bars, from which to enjoy a breathtaking view. A drink is not that cheap and, in some of them, a dress code is required. Our favourite rooftop bars are the Press Lounge at Kimpton Ink-48 Hotel, Harriet’s Rooftop and lounge at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, Dear Irving on Hudson at Aliz Hotel, The Cantor Roof Garden Bar at Met and the stunning 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar.
Safety in New York City
New York City, like all the big metropolis, has a bit of a reputation for crime. Violent attacks are usually confined to specific areas, but tourists may encounter petty theft, bag snatching, and pickpocketing in tourist areas like Times Square or Chinatown. Use common sense and stay alert when you take public transportation like the subway, especially at night. Don’t ride in empty carriages, but always opt for busy ones or the conductor’s car. Keep belongings secure, and don’t leave valuables unattended. After dark, try to avoid sticking to not well-lit streets and stay with the crowds. Remember that Safety conditions change worldwide daily; therefore, always do your own research through official websites. For example, it is very interesting the official page NYC crime map.gov, where you can see the crimes by areas.
Remember to purchase travel insurance that protects you against injuries (the US’s medical expenses are very high), illness and theft. We never go on a trip without it. We suggest Worldnomad.com, an insurance company with qualified customer service, competitive prices and in-depth coverage.
New York City Attractions
The list of NYC attractions are endless and suit all tastes. You’ll never get bored of the Big Apple! High building with breathtaking views like Top of the Rock, the Empire State Building and One World Observatory, art galleries and prestigious museums, iconic bridges like Brooklyn and Manhattan, lush and green parks where to relax like Central Park, bustling shopping streets and mall, folkloristic ethnic neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy, worldwide famous landmarks like Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, and thousand of other activities will make your trip unforgettable. If you like plays and musicals, do not miss Broadway, the heart and soul of American theatre! We saw the Mary Poppins musical, and it was amazing. The musicals tickets can be purchased online, but you can also try your luck going to the popular TKTS booths (one is in Time Square), great places to check for discounted Broadway tickets. If you are a music lover, don’t miss Radio City Hall, one of the most famous theatres that hosted international artists like Lady Gaga, Frank Sinatra, Celine Dion, Ray Charles, BB King, Sting or the many free or inexpensive events throughout the city (check on the “Free in NYC” page of New York’s official tourist board). If you are sports lovers, the Madison Square Garden and the Yankee stadium are a must no to be missed!
New York City tourist passes
The best way to save money and time to visit the best NYC attractions is to purchase one of the tourist passes. They represent the most valid alternative to buying tickets for every single attraction we want to see. NYC boasts 8 passes, and their convenience is mainly based on answering the questions: “what do you want to see?” and “how many days are you in New York?”. None of the New York passes includes public transportation. Some include hop-on hop-off sightseeing buses, but you’ll need to purchase a separate pass for the subway and public transport. You can save more money by purchasing them online as they usually offer more discounts. After purchasing the pass, you will receive it by email immediately. Then you can print it and take it with you or directly use it from your smartphone.
In our opinion, these below are the most complete and most affordable passes for tourists, especially if it’s your first time in NYC.
1. NY Pass: It gives you entry into tens and tens of attractions over a set number of days (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 or 10 days) for one fixed price. We can tell that it’s challenging to find something that is not included in the pass! The pass also includes the tour on the hop-on / hop-off sightseeing bus, guided tours, bicycle rental, water taxi and a manhattan cruise. The prices vary according to the days of validity of the card. The biggest savings are with the 7-day pass as you have time to visit as much attraction as you can.
2. NY City Pass: it includes entrance tickets to 6 of New York’s main attractions, those “musts” that the typical tourist generally does not want to miss. It is mainly oriented on the main museums and the most popular spots of interest, and, in general, allows a 35-40% discount compared to the single purchase of full fare tickets. It has a duration of 30 days from the first use; therefore, you can visit the attraction taking your time.
The attractions included in the City Pass are the Empire State Building Observatory (with a second free entry for night access on the same day), Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (or Circle Line Cruises), American Museum of Natural History, 9/11 Memorial, and Museum (or Intrepid Museum), Top of the rock (or Guggenheim Museum), Metropolitan Museum of Art. City Pass costs 136 USD for adults (18+) and 112 USD for kids ages 6-17.
3. Sightseeing Day Pass unlimited: it includes more than 150 attractions to visit in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or 10 days. For example, it includes the Empire State Building observatory, the One World Trade Center, the Top of the Rock, the new Edge observatory, many guided tours, sightseeing bus tours, the Bronx and Central Park zoos, and several discounts. The prices vary according to the days of validity of the card.
4. Go NY Explorer Pass: this pass is handy as you can choose from 3 to 10 attractions to visit on a list of over 60 museums, monuments, tours, cruises, etc. It‘s valid for 60 days from the first attraction entrance. The price varies according to the number of attractions chosen in the Pass, and the more attractions you choose, the more you save.
How much does a trip to New York cost?
It is not that easy to tell because it depends on how long you stay in this magnificent metropolis and on what you want to do. To get an idea, below the expenses of our most recent one-week trip.
Air ticket: we found an excellent deal with Alitalia for 450 USD, booking several months in advance. The cost also varies according to the period.
Hotel: as we visited NYC several times, we decided to sleep in Queens for the third time at the Sleep Inn Long Island City. The room was very spacious with comfortable beds – 100 USD per night with breakfast. The hotel is a 5-minute on foot from 21st Queensbridge subway station. We avoided Manhattan because the average cost of a basic (really small) room is around 90 – 100 USD. Sometimes you can save a little by choosing the options with a shared bathroom. Hostels in Manhattan are also quite expensive. The average price for a bed in a dormitory is around 40 USD.
Restaurants: we always had lunch in fast food or street stalls-carts. The cost is a few dollars (maximum 10 USD). In the evening, however, we dined in restaurants (including ethnic and “all you can eat”) with an average cost of 20 – 25 USD each. If you want to try a dinner in some high-class restaurant, be ready to open your wallet. For breakfast, when not included in the hotel, the average expense is 5 USD for a pastry and coffee.
Metrocard: we bought the weekly pass for 33 USD.
Attractions: to save money, we purchased the NY Go Explorer Pass with 10 attractions for 229 USD.
Other expenses: the list could be long and varies according to your interests. For example, there are guided tours, musicals in theatres, malls and outlets where you can buy designer clothes at excellent prices, taxi rides, aperitifs in the sky bars or clubs and the inevitable souvenirs.
Our expense: At the end of the trip, we spent about USD 1700 each. We did not miss anything, so you could also do a smaller expense. Just be careful not to get carried away by this amazing metropolis!
Enjoy New York City!