The Ultimate New York City Travel Guide
New York has exactly five seconds to indulge your Eat Pray Love fantasies. You done? Cool, now careen through a beautifully unpredictable city that invites you to find someone who’s wrong for you in just the right way. Pretty much anything goes in this town stocked with top dogs who long ago decided that if you don’t fit inside the box, you might as well climb on top of it and have a good look around. If you’re here, the eyes are on you, too, so own it. Be brash, be loud, be flirty, be musical, be alert. Try on a taboo or two. As part of the street parade, you gotta bring the you-est you you’ve got. Go big or go home. Or go even bigger and move here. Nothing but basic sanity is stopping you.
What no one tells you when you arrive is that, as a visitor in New York, you’ve got it made. The natives are rat-racing around, too busy to indulge in the many treasures just under our noses. You, the out-of-towner, get to experience the city that we have to rush past in order to afford rent. You get the lunch special at the dandiest restaurant, whereas us working stiffs can’t get a seat for dinner. You can waltz into a bar and actually chat with the bartender before it’s swarmed by the eight-to-sixers. You get the Planetarium, the Russian & Turkish baths, the Koreatown spas, and the lawn at Bryant Park, barefoot, sipping rosé from the 40oz bottle you’ve tucked into a brown paper bag. You get the one thing no one else has here: a chance to relax.
These streets may seem pinball-esque and overpriced and chaotic, but the city has never been safer, so go as slow as you want. Any average weekday hour here is worth its weight in weekend. And one weekend? It’ll leave you with as many stories as you’d get in a whole month back home. We’re going to help you write your own New York story with this, Thrillist’s sixth DestiNATION Guide (love u, NOLA, San Diego, Miami, Austin, and Vegasbabyvegas). We call New York City home, and with the help of our trusted local writers, we’re steering you towards NYC’s most exceptional foods and iconic establishments, the greatest bars and buzzed-about restaurants, the finest in our diverse international foods and the best foodie day trips within the city. Then we’ll take you to a Broadway show on the cheap, through (and past) our most infamous tourist attractions, show you our favorite deep-cut tourist-free spots and the best shopping, then give your wallet a break with the best free stuff. We’ll save you from common visitor mistakes, help you decipher local etiquette, and let you into the mind of a Brooklynite who never, ever saw himself moving here, until he did. Which, in its way, is the oldest New York story in the book.
New Yorkers are professional restaurant-goers. But ask a local where to eat, they’ll reply “Uhhh... ” in robot mode. Ask them where they eat, and you’re golden. Pastrami and pizza are absolute, non-negotiable must-trys, and the world’s most gleeful melting pot attracts an avalanche of incredible international recipes you’d be remiss not to sample. Restaurants without some element of greatness -- price balanced with ambiance, location, innovation, personality, cool staff, speed, quality -- quickly get swallowed by exorbitant rent. The survivors are doing something right.
Since nobody is shackled to a car, patrons and bartenders know that “one for the road” is merely an expression. So drink up. Often, the finest bars aren’t the most expensive; the cheaper the drinks, the more likely people are there to talk to other people. Check out, for instance, 169 Bar, a New Orleans-inspired joint with a groovy funk-soul-jazz soundtrack, raw oysters, and the ultimate happy hour: beer/shot combos for $3 till 7:30. The Dublin House -- the last of the Upper West Side’s archetypal, neighborly Irish pubs -- has opened its doors at 8am since before Prohibition. Clockwork is a reinvented, narrow punk rock bar where DJs spin classic 45s -- don’t ask anyone to play the Ramones. The classic Hell’s Kitchen holdout Rudy’s Bar & Grill is your evolved speakeasy with cheap pitchers and free hot dogs. And those are just off the top of our head. Every New Yorker has their favorite go-tos; all you gotta do is ask.
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Every minute of every day is a hustle for most New Yorkers. In the ’80s and ’90s, rents were cheap, jobs were plentiful, and anyone from the American middle class could arrive in Manhattan with a suitcase and a few hundred bucks, and make a go of it. Now, you need money, connections, and/or an elite degree to land a decently paying job and the absurd long hours that come with it.
This explains why we’re stressed out. We’re rushing, we’re tired, we’re anxious. We’re impatient with tourists who don’t know the rules or keep up with the pace. But don’t operate under the assumption that all New Yorkers are assholes. Here, it’s typically a courtesy to ignore someone -- especially on the subway -- so they can catch a break from the stimulus. Look closely and you’ll begin to notice simple acts of kindness hiding in plain sight: strangers offering each other tips and directions, or helping moms to carry strollers up subway stairs. New Yorkers all share a sense of the same mission; this city’s version of sink or swim is a group effort.
We’re not assholes, but we’re certainly not modest. Unlike other parts of America, where getting someone to open up is like sanding paint off a car, an encounter with a New Yorker often means getting their life story in the time it takes to finish a drink, or three. Acting, finance, design, media -- everyone who signs on here is on a serious mission to be the best at something, usually something cool. Most New Yorkers blew off being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. It’s worth asking them why. You can turn any moment into an adventure just by striking up conversation. And if that doesn’t work, walk another block.
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In the most pedestrian-friendly city in the world, you’ll need utilitarian shoes, for you and your date. Visitors commonly walk 5 miles a day here, easy. Abandon “north” and “south” in favor of “uptown” and “downtown.” Then, embrace the grid system.
Taxis are reasonably priced but considered a borderline luxury-spend (late nights excepted) when a subway station is handy. When you get in a cab, have both an address and cross-streets at the ready. Outside Manhattan, look for green cars instead of that iconic yellow, or use Uber and Lyft -- prices tend to be similar across most distances. During Uber surge pricing, opt for the cab. During the workday rush hour, opt to walk or take a train or, hell, a pogo stick. Any mode but cars, which are the last things to move through congested intersections.
The first thing to know about the subway is that it’s HUGE: 472 stops, or the number that LA, Chicago, DC, the Bay Area, Miami, Philly, and Boston have combined. On the ubiquitous transit map, black dots represent “local” stops and the white circles are “express” stops, an important distinction in the likely event you’re riding a line with multiple trains on it. Subway station booth workers have free subway maps. Grab a few, as they double as great souvenirs for the knuckleheads back home. Every subway car also has a map, and a person sitting next to you who’s used to giving directions. Your friend and savior will be the unlimited MetroCard, just $32 for a seven-day supply of train and bus rides. Buy it, and you can make as many transit mistakes as you like, knowing your costs are fixed. Get excited! You’re going to see real, live New York rats in those tunnels, guaranteed.
Buses don’t break the sound barrier, but you’ll get there and can see en route. Better still is two wheels. It’s never been safer to bike in the city, in part thanks to the abundance of riders hopping on Citi Bikes ($12 for a single-day pass). Just, dammit, be careful. Manhattan has dedicated bike lanes that are fast and wonderful, but still criss-crossed by hurried motorists and meandering pedestrians. Speed kills, so go at your own pace.
When you’re walking, the script is flipped: You could be broadsided by a cyclist (often racing salmon-style against one-way traffic, even). In cities like Saigon, rookies can’t cross busy streets unless they literally follow a local. In New York, be careful who you follow in jaywalking mode, since they might be on nine pills, in mid-divorce, and wearing headphones. People who work here view the sidewalks as their highways and are not pleased when visitors block their thoroughfares to snap a pic or check Google Maps. So don’t do it. Pull over.
In any case, let go of your anxiety and explore. But don’t be scared of a long haul by subway. Use it to find rarely visited places like Broad Channel (Queens, NYC’s version of an old-time maritime hamlet), Pelham Bay Park (the Bronx, three times larger than Central Park, with hints of the Catskills), and Coney Island (Brooklyn’s version of a mini-Russia surrounding an amusement park). If the rest of New York vanished, Brooklyn would still rank as America’s third-most populous city behind LA and Chicago. If you’re going to get lost anywhere, it will probably be there.
Finally, at some point, you will have to piss. Fortunately, New York funds a popular chain of free, well-maintained public restrooms. We call them “Starbucks.” Elsewhere, asking restaurant hostesses and bartenders to use their restroom usually does the trick, or you can waltz your full bladder into a larger hotel. If you absolutely have to pee outside, just don’t do it near a school, since that multiplies the fine, even at 3am.
You’ve got time, in a single day, to take on the Big Four. Stroll through Central Park, see a play (check day-of deals via TKTS), belly-flop into Times Square, and survey the city from 1,000 feet up (Top of the Rock for the best 360-degree view). But pace yourself -- New York laughs at itineraries and picks its teeth with your checklists. You will be late. You will get tired. The trick is to set a few goals and embrace the time in between.
Then, zig-zag a little. Instead of (or, OK, in addition to) walking the Brooklyn Bridge, try the Williamsburg Bridge, then bang a left to storm Williamsburg the old-fashioned way. Or pick an east-west Manhattan street and walk it from the East River to the Hudson River, sampling whatever piques your fancy along the way. Grand Street is a great choice, as (from east to west) it segues through a Jewish quarter, Chinatown, Little Italy, and trendy SoHo. Your ticket to ride, anywhere you go: “Excuse me, I’m not from this neighborhood. What’s your favorite thing to do around here?”
And don’t miss the other boroughs, if you have the time. Staten Island has a minor league baseball team (the other Yankees) and a Buddhist monastery; the free Staten Island Ferry is a simple way to behold the Statue of Liberty. In the Bronx, an MLB Yankees game makes an obvious foray, but the borough also brings massive city parks and zero pretense. Queens has one of the world’s best multicultural attractions priced at $2.75 -- riding the No. 7 above-ground subway train from Manhattan’s Hudson Yard to Flushing, Queens. It doubles as a trip around the world, with its 22 pit stops representing people from dozens of nations. It may be America’s cheapest way to feel like you’ve gone overseas without stamping your passport or herniating your bank account.
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So before you arrive in the City That Never Sleeps, you’ll need to arrange a place to, er, sleep. Warn your friends who live in New York or the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT) of your arrival, and ask for suggestions on where to stay. Usually they’ll know a guy, or know a guy who knows a guy. If you crash with friends, it’s not weird to kick in a little cash or buy ‘em a round of drinks. For maximum harmony, keep your footprint in the apartment tidy and tiny, and respect your host’s work routine, as it has been carefully honed to be as aerodynamic as possible.
Option the second: Get an Airbnb. The city’s limited, overcrowded hostels charge per head, so if you’re not solo, they will cost more than Airbnb. When paying for a hotel or a room, favor great location over low cost. Unless you meet your ultimate pheromonal match, your hotel is merely where you’ll pass out, not spend real time.
The key to picking an affordable neighborhood is its delis. The Upper East and West Sides, Midtown, and Tribeca are the domain of overpriced gourmet delis, which fetch $2 for a soda and $5 for an impossible-to-open bag of chips. Harlem, the Lower East Side, and most neighborhoods in the other boroughs still have budget-friendly bodegas (Spanish for mini-mart, the kind of places where a can of beer still costs a buck) that won’t drain your miscellany budget.
If you’re shopping for a place to stay, start with these neighborhoods:
The Lower East Side (LES)
South of Delancey, this patch enjoys riverside chill, little traffic (there’s no shortcuts to anywhere), calm street life, and mellow sidewalk dining, minus the bus fumes (example: Café Petisco). It’s the best Airbnb/hotel bang for your buck in Manhattan. The Holiday Inn on Delancey Street showcases this neighborhood’s gnarly past and future: raw seafood joint and martinis a stone’s throw away. Their dinky hotel bar is actually a kitschy place to “do New York” for a bit. The Ludlow is the Lower East Side’s best imitation of posh SoHo, worth a lobby fly-by even if you don’t stay over.
It’s cost effective, if a bit removed from the action during a short stay. Stopping at Red Rooster after seeing the Harlem Gospel Choir is a rite of passage. The Apollo Theater introduced us to the Jackson Five and James Brown -- if you can’t find a way in, there are several other instituted blues and jazz bars. Hostels in Harlem will keep you comfortably in the mix of other travelers, but if you’re in a duo or group, paying per head might be unwise. Consider a B&B in a historic Harlem brownstone.
Upper West Side
The inflated park-your-head prices are worthwhile if proximity to Central Park is your dream come true. If you haven’t yet seen a head-tripping T-Rex skeleton, hit the American Museum of Natural History. The 79th Street boat basin is a nice detour into salty Hudson River calmness. Jake’s Dilemma’s half-price-everything happy hour (weekdays 3-8pm) is a double deal, as their sidewalk seating area serves as front row on the Amsterdam Avenue catwalk. Wanna shake it? There’s free swing dancing at Lincoln Center.
Hope you like stress! You’re in the middle of the action, but the horns and sirens are a constant: 34th Street is basically a turnpike connecting the Midtown and Lincoln Tunnels, thus one of America’s busiest thoroughfares. But there’s a bright side. The Flatiron Building, an NYC icon for more than a century, may soon transition into a luxury hotel -- well, that is, once the leases of the current tenants expire (or if they are “tempted” to leave). Until then, scope the nifty Pod hotel as one of Midtown’s rare affordable oases. The pricier Ace has a great lobby bar buzz and sits near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.
Busy yet still quaint, this bonanza for fashionistas and the gay set is where you can wear your designer flip-flops in a wine bar. Need some air? Go whack a basket of golf balls at Chelsea Piers. Stroll the groundbreaking High Line and Chelsea Market, a foodie heaven that recalls a pre-telephones marketplace... except that an ice cream cone costs 10 bucks. The High Line Hotel -- a former school turned slick boutique -- is the pick for reasonable room in a building that shows its age proudly.
The land of endless bodegas is no longer a heroin addict zombie zone. Everything you need is here, at the right price. And this down-to-earth sector has not yet been invaded by insta-skyscrapers. Set your compass to the legendary Tompkins Square Park and mobilize from there. The crew at Manitoba’s will steer you to other offbeat tourist attractions. The authentic East Village Hotel puts you right in the action, just be sure to wear black.
Bring a high-limit credit card while you pretend to be slumming it. Washington Square Park is legendary for a reason. Routine in NYU’s playground are live music (including the amazing piano dude who rolls his instrument under the arch), street performers, and models on break. This is a great home base if your travel goals all fall between Central Park and Wall Street.
There’s not a bodega in sight, but seeing live music at City Winery is a real treat. Pier 25 has sand volleyball courts, an 18-hole miniature golf course, and big green lawns where you can cautiously nurse your disguised BYOB. An unraveling wet dream for foodies, Distilled NY is a landmarked space serving American classics. If you’re staying on someone else’s dime, hit up the Greenwich Hotel, where no two of the 88 guest rooms are alike.
The wiki-definition of what a generation of rampant gentrification does to a place. A world unto its own, this favorite of post-hipsterdom still supports excellent dive bars beside equally outstanding sushi joints. Check for a live event -- if not bowling -- at Brooklyn Bowl (from indie to jam bands). Artsy angles include a variety of zero-carbon-footprint-inspired outdoor festivals, hip clothing stores, and beautiful, fit transplants wearing designer T-shirts. Check out Lucky Dog, a dog-friendly bar with a backyard, for some intel, because urban dog owners meet and know everyone. If you want to roll with a Euro vibe, the Williamsburg Hotel is where you’ll meet intercontinental travelers at your morning coffee.
Throughout this year, Thrillist will be rolling out massive, comprehensive travel guides to great American cities, having tackled New Orleans, San Diego, Miami, Austin, Vegas, and now New York. Keep a lookout for a new travel guide coming soon.
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Writers: Bruce Northam, Lucy Meilus, Dave Infante, Marguerite Preston, Sara Ventiera, Priya Krishna, JP Howley, Brandon K. Thorp, Melissa Kravitz, Sammy Nickalls, Roxanne Fequiere
Art direction: Drew Swantak
Photographer: Cole Saladino
Graphics: Jason Hoffman, Evan Lockhart
Production: Pete Dombrosky, Tanner Saunders, Amy Schulman
Video: Nezihe Soyalan, Joe Orisino
Special thanks: Bison Messink, Elaheh Nozari, James Chrisman, Alex Garofalo, Eliza Dumais, Dan Reilly, Maggie Rossetti, Sam Blum, Zach Mack, Matt Cullinen, Alex Seclow, Carrie Dennis, Gianni Jaccoma, Wil Fulton
No thanks: Rick. Look, maybe you're just not cut out for this town, OK buddy?