New York, New York – Yes, it is such a fabulous city they decided to name it twice! New York happens to be one of my favourite ‘big’ cities in the world, closely behind my native Sydney and Shanghai where I lived for four years. I’ve been here three times and every time I’ve been here I’ve explored something new and dreamt of living here. You can’t beat the top hot-spots for tourists, but what happens if you visit NY with no plan at all and you don’t want to do the touristy things? My good friend, Vanessa and I decided to meet up on the spur of the moment whirlwind trip to New York and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes one of my favourite things about travelling is not having a plan, read more here in my post about travelling solo for more information about this topic. And not having a plan in a big city like New York with a girlfriend is kind of the best type of plan to have.
So keep reading for the ultimate guide to exploring NYC when you have no clue on what to do and you have no agenda to follow.
1. Get the Midtown Hotspots Out of the Way
Whether you’ve visited NY once or many times, you’ve got to go to Times Square, just to soak up the atmosphere. We grabbed a coffee and instead of doing a bunch of tourist things, we just sat and ‘people-watched’. I also walked through the back alleys and was convinced to get my fortune told by a clairvoyant. Kind of the crazy things you do when you’ve got time on your hands. It was an insane reading and perhaps a waste of $30, but she did tell me some interesting things about my past life (not all good) if you believe in that stuff. Actually, if you do, drop me a comment in the comments box below on your experience.
You can also start at Grand Central for an iconic pic, and walk down 5th Ave for the window-shopping and visit Rockefeller center. There’s obviously some of the best shopping in the world on 5th Ave, and even if you don’t’ want to shop up a storm the window shopping is amazing. I love looking at the window displays of the most creative and visual shop fronts in the world. Everyone has their own type of souvenir idea, and for me, when I’m in NY I always buy something from Tiffany’s – cause if you’re going to buy a piece of Tiffany & Co. it should be in their 5th Ave NY store, right?
Grab a view from either the Empire State Building or Top of the Rock building for an iconic view of the city. This is a must. But once you’ve done it once, you probably won’t need to do it again. We also liked going to the Plaza food court, which has a fascinating history of how they developed the sub-floor in this historic building. Grab a bite to eat or a decadent piece of desert for a sugar hit.
If you stand long enough in Times Square, you might find someone asking you if you want to go and be in the audience for a live recording of a show like Saturday Night Live, Good Morning America, or the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. I did this once it was heaps of fun to sit in the live audience and watch the recording. A couple of other things to check out are the St. Patricks Cathedral and the NY Public Library for great architecture.
2. Get OUT of Midtown
So as a first-time tourist, you could spend all your time in Midtown. And why not? It’s where all the big ticket things are, and you HAVE to do this if it’s your first time in NY. But if you’re after some off-the-beaten-path spots, you need to check out lower Manhattan. Where you’ll find the best hole-in-the-wall shops, rooftop bars, trendy restaurants and speakeasies. My favourite places to visit are Union square for the Greenmarket Farmer Markets, Dylan’s Candy Bar for amazing American candy from all around the world and The City Bakery, for perfect yummy lunch.
Tribeca is very cool, just to walk around and people watch also. I loved going to The Brandy Library, and walking around Pier 25, and for night entertainment, check out the duelling piano shows at Shake Rattle & Roll Pianos. Of course, the museums are also a must as is 9/11 Memorial and the World Trade Centre now has many new developments around it with lots of cool restaurants and shops to check out.
3. Check out the latest New York Food Trends
So if there is a new culinary fad to be found, be sure NY has it first. Everything from cronut and churro ice cream sandwiches, to sushi burritos, ramen burgers and chicken waffles to unicorn lattes and rainbow bagels can be found in NY. Whatever the latest craze is, make a list experience the weird and wacky of food NY trends. This is also a fun way to check out new openings in the city and get to places where you wouldn’t have originally thought to go. (pic below courtesy of Bagels Store in Brooklyn)
4. Go For a Stroll Anywhere and Everywhere
There are so many places to stroll around its hard to narrow this list down. But a couple of things I did was stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge for great views and check out Brooklyn which is where I found the rainbow bagels above.
Central Park is, of course, a must-do item, but if you want to experience NY life, get up early and go for a morning jog with the locals before they start work or spend your time daydreaming as you wind around the many paths and lakes of this iconic park.
The Highline is another excellent spot to check out and wander through. It’s got all sorts of cultural events and programs through the year, and you can also do a guided tour and learn about the history and the natural environment they created amongst the urban jungle the surrounds it.
They say it’s the city that never sleeps, and it kind of is. New York has a totally different feeling at night and an energy that you feel from the ground up. Stay on the main roads and explore the neon lights and feel the pulse that this city delivers in abundance.
5. Watch a Sporting Event
If you have time, get out to a ball game. You’re in NY after all, and you have to experience the atmosphere and a hotdog and beer while watching the game. There’s a lot of games on in the season, so between Madison Square Garden, Barclays centre, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Metlife Stadium you should find some game to watch.
You can’t beat a hot dog at a New York Baseball game. Also, these stadiums hold major concerts and you never know who will be playing while you’re there. We grabbed last minute tickets to Yankee Stadium and watched Madonna in Concert.
6. Check out the Best of the ‘Best of Lists’
The other thing I like to do when I have no agenda is picking one item from the ‘best’ lists which you can find in many web article search lists. New York is so full of the best everything it’s hard to get it wrong and here’s what we checked out. Here’s what we checked out from the ‘best lists’.
Best Rooftop Bar: So many to choose from but we checked out Hotel Hugo and the rooftop bar where we stayed at the Mondrian Hotel on Park Ave.
Best SpeakEasy: Hidden bars have become quite popular in New York City, echoing the time of Prohibition. I LOVE to check out speakeasy bars when I’m in a big city because they bring you back to a vintage era and they usually have secret entrances which adds a bit of fun and they have a reputation worldwide for delivering fabulous cocktails even if on the pricier side. We went to Raines Law Room, which I can highly recommend but you can also do a search on the closest ones to your where you’re staying as there are few around.
Best Farmers Markets: If it’s a sunny day over the weekend one of the best things to do is head to Union Square Markets in the morning and pick up a pre-made picnic basket or some fresh cheese and bread and head to one of the parks close by to soak up some sunshine.
Best Italian Restaurant: While in NY, you have to check out an Italian restaurant or pizzeria. I’ve got to add here that even the $5 pizza slices on the street corners are fantastic but if you’re after something a little classier, we checked out Terra Italian. We loved the ambiance of sitting in the sun and eating and drinking while people-watching. It was pure NY bliss and the food was lovely.
Best Deli: You can’t go to NY without trying a sandwich at one of their famous delis. Katz is one of the most famous located on the Lower East Side and has been in Manhattan since 1888.
Best Coffee: I’m pretty quick to judge American coffee, but NY has some good coffee shops with trained baristas so you’ll find some very decent coffee shops easily. We had breakfast and coffee at Rustic Table, which served up an impressive omelette and smooth latte which got this coffee snobs’ tick of approval.
Best Stay: On this trip we stayed at the newly opened Mondrial boutique hotel located on Park Ave. We have a view (below) straight to the Empire State building and we loved the convenience of the location, the hipster nightclub and the gorgeous views on the rooftop bar.