What You Should Skip Doing in New York City (and what to do instead)
I have a shocking admission to make..I never used to like New York. I had travelled there a few times over the years and every time I was left feeling underwhelmed. Maybe it was the hype. But I always just felt that it was a slightly more expensive, larger version than Toronto (my hometown), and didn't see any reasons to go back. But over the years, I stopped trying to see all the "top attractions" and instead started to explore smaller areas of the city. I stayed in one spot and dug in deep there. I stopped paying attention to the things that bothered me and instead focused on the beauty of what was around me. While I'm never a fan of avoiding certain touristy things just because they "popular", there are definitely some things over-hyped parts of town. I've learned from exploring New York so many times what's worth avoiding and what's worth your attention, time and money.
Skip the Empire State Building
The Empire State building is a touchstone of great, American architecture and is the star of the iconic New York city skyline. There are no if, and's or but's about that. But do you have to wait in line for hours and pay over $40 to ride up the elevator and view in from the inside? The short answer is no. While the view from the top is great, it is missing one thing. The Empire State Building. The lines really are incredibly long and there is so much more you can do with the time rather than line up for an elevator.
Instead, check out the Roof Garden at the Met
Rockefeller Tower used to be such a good alternative to the Empire State building but after some recent renovations and its eventual popularity, the ticket prices are exactly the same price as the Empire State building. The queues might be shorter and you DO get a view OF the Empire State building from here but it's still not the cheaper and easiest option. I would recommend heading to the Roof Garden at the Met. From here, it feels like you're floating on top of a tree lined canopy above Manhattan. At night the sparkling lights of the city twinkle all around you. Access is free with your Museum entrance ticket and if all you want to do is gawk at the views, it won't cost you a cent!
Skip Times Square
Times Square is one of those places that if you've seen it you still have a certain image in your mind of what it's like. "It's bright, it's loud, it's vibrant and fun!" While it is technically all of those things but there are so many other aspects of Times Square which aren't part of your idealized version. Things like crowds so dense you can barely move, hustlers and street performers trying to pressure you into giving them money, angry New Yorkers pushing you out of their way as they TRY and make their way to the subway station. And worst of all, in my opinion, an entire lack of character. This place has been taken over by big brands and giant advertisements. Big name stores that you can find in any mall across America are right here just a little bigger and a lot more crowded and messy. If you HAVE to see it just to say you did, hop out of the subway station, snap a pick and head right back down.
Instead, visit Bryant Park
If you're looking for somewhere to gawk at the lights of the city, then I suggest heading to Bryant Park. It might not be as flashy or as commercial as Times Square but I guess that's the point. But in a lot of ways, it is very similar. It is surrounded by bright lights and has incredible views of some of New York's most iconic structures. The park is lit from above all night long, meaning crowds of people hang out here in the evening well past when it out otherwise be too dark to be in a public park. There is always some musicians entertaining the crowds and kids playing on the grass. People gather here, both locals and tourists, and there is a real sense of community here, which Time Square is devoid of.
Skip ONLY visiting the big name museums
The MET, the MoMA, the Guggenheim and the American Museum of Natural History are some of the largest and most popular museums in NYC. On the weekends the lines for these places can get very long. Although I LOVE these museums, I feel like tourists always flock to them without considering all the other smaller museums, which are sometimes much less busy and often easier to explore in one go. The MET is very overwhelming if you try to do it all in one day and sometimes the modest museums are more digestible and easier to spend only a few hours in if you're visiting NYC for just a short haul.
Instead, visit The Morgan Library and Museum
The Morgan Library and Museum is one of the most incredible hidden gems the city has to offer. Located at 225 Madison Avenue it was founded to house the private library of J. P. Morgan in 1906. The interiors look like something out of the Italian Renaissance, with incredible ornate wallpaper, gilded shelves, opulent tapestries and a ceiling crowned in a stunning stained glass masterpiece. The murals throughout the library were inspired by Raphael. It truly is more than a library and more like an enormous work of art. You can view throughout the year various different books from his collections and there are always different book related exhibitions on in the smaller galleries which are often extremely well curated and always a lot of fun.
Skip the Taxis
Taxies and Ubers in other cities are sometimes HUGE time savers and low-cost options to get around big towns. But in New York neither of those things are true. Taxies are extremely costly and the traffic jams in the city are neverending. You'll end up sitting in one spot for so long, you'll start to wonder if you've even moved. Don't waste your time on these and you'll save yourself time, stress and most of all - money!
Instead, grab a metro pass
The Metro in New York is not only incredibly large but also very convenient. The subway gets you everywhere you want to go in a jiffy and the public buses are also amazingly helpful in getting you to places where the subway doesn't go. The MET Cloisters for instanced is located far outside the city centre but on the subway and one quick bus you'll get there in less time than it takes to hail a cab (ok, not really but it's really quick). I recommend grabbing a metro card which you can load up with as much or as little money as you want and then all you need to do is swipe the card when entering the subway or bus and your card will be automatically deducted, no need to calculate the cost of each ride. Super easy. If you run out of money there are machines all over the place where you can load more money onto your card. Moovit is a great app as it will not only help you find out which route to take but offers live interruption notices so you can plan accordingly.
Skip the chain coffee shops
No morning is complete for most of us without a cup of coffee Yes, Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts are one every corner in NYC but when visiting a city this dynamic and interesting it's a waste to drink the same ol' coffee you could get anywhere else. NYC has some of the best coffee shops in the world and it would be remiss of you not to explore them!
Instead, visit any coffee shop which is unique and catches your eye
Cha Cha Matcha is one of the most unusual and visually appealing places in the city to get your caffeine on. While not technically a "coffee shop" they serve up some of the most delicious macha beverages I've ever tried. Everyman Espresso serves up fair trade brews in a low key setting for those not wanting to interact with the Instagramming crowds at Cha Cha Matcha. But don't think that non-chain coffee shops mean you need to spend a fortune. Diners are the bread and butter of NYC and all of them serve amazing, simple cups of joe. While Joe Jr. Restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside, this greasy spoon is known for their friendly service, awesome breakfast sandwiches and classic cups of coffee!
Skip the Boat Cruises
All over the waterfront, you'll see people peddling $30-$60 sightseeing’s cruises. These are overpriced, overcrowded and just plain unnecessary. The only real advantage of taking a sightseeing cruise is for the interactive tour guide and most of these are merely recordings on a barely functioning headset.
Instead, head to Staten Island or to Brooklyn Heights
If you're heading to Staten Island, the Ferry is free and offers you amazing views of the Lower Manhattan skyline, Ellis Island, and the majestic Statue of Liberty. If you don't want to head to Staten Island, I would recommend heading over to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a gorgeous neighbourhood east of the city which offers incredible panoramic views of the New York skyline.
Soho used to be the go-to shopping recommendation to everyone visiting NYC years ago. It was once the place for off-the-beaten-path restaurants and boutiques but its popularity over the years has resulted in this place being as clogged as Time square. Chain retailers and huge brands have set up shop in once unassuming storefronts and now it feels more like an open-air Mall of American than a bohemian district.
Instead, head to the Lower East Side
The lower east side features some of the most exciting and innovative shops and vintage stores in the city. It is still pretty unpretentious and inclusive to tourists and locals alike (unlike some areas of Brooklyn...) Tokyo Rebel is one of my favourite spots as it features a bunch of brands imported from Japan which highlight the Lolita, punk, and goth fashion which is so popular over there. Even if it's not your style this place is definitely worth poking your head inside. Big Gay Ice Cream Shop is THE place to go for something sweet and is especially good on a hot summer's day.
Skip Central Park
Central Park is a beautiful place for sure. It over more than 29,000 acres of parkland and even has a zoo! And while more tourists who are visiting NYC for the first time will feel the need to at least see a portion of this famous park (understandable) there are plenty of other amazing options throughout the city where you can spend a lovely morning or afternoon which are ever better than this place.
Instead visit something a little outside the city
Fort Tryon Park, north of Manhattan, near the MET cloisters is my favourite park in the city. It has incredible views across the Hudson River and I think has even more beautiful landscaping than Central Park. I love seeing all the ivy growing up the brick archways which connect the walls of the fort throughout the park. Brooklyn Bridge Park is another one of those parks which combines the urban landscape with vast expanses of greenery for cosy picnics under the sun. Plus you have that iconic Brooklyn Bridge right in front of you and that stunning Manhattan skyline.
Skip those dirty hostels
I hear so many people chattering whenever I'm booking a trip to NYC talking about how expensive it must be. I suppose it does have a reputation and as such a big city maybe the cost of hotels might be slightly more than elsewhere in the world but after travelling to Nashville and seeing the cost of those hotels, NYC seems like a bargain. The truth is, NYC has thousands of hotels so the competition here is fierce and the chance of finding a sweet deal during a reasonably popular time of the year is very good. You don't need to immediately book yourself into a hostel with shared bathrooms, no walls or god forbid....a chance of bed bugs.
Instead, plan in advance and search for deals
If you are booking well enough in advance you'll have the chance to really shop around. Expedia makes it easy to make reservations, and cancel them without any fees right up until the day you arrive. This means you can jump on a good deal when you find one but cancel it if something better comes along. Korea Town is my go-to for area for hotel deals. There are beautiful hotels here without the overpriced frills of more modern areas like midtown or the upper east side. Korea town is steps from the Empire State building so you'll always have a great view steps from your hotel.
Skip on eating the latest crazy food trend
New York seems to be a wash with "trendy foods" rainbow bagels, cronuts, tv famous cupcakes and even those 5,000 calorie milkshakes. While these foods might make for the best Instagram photo the things you'll sacrifice to get it might not be worth it. Locals have the time to kill waiting in line, you are a tourist don't have such luxuries. Time is precious and you don't want to spend it waiting in lines.
Instead, head to Van Leeuwen Ice Cream shop
Van Leeuwen is one of the most delicious and dynamic ice cream chains in NYC and the fact that it's a chain means that their locations aren't always packed to the gills. They serve up artisanal flavours on rotator throughout the year so there's is always some new to try. With flavours like Blackberry Danish, Candied Ginger and Cookie Swirl you'll still have something incredible to post on your feed! They also serve up Vegan and Gluten-free flavours so there's something for everyone.
Skip shopping for knock-offs
Canal Street has long been the site for hustlers selling knock-offs purses, bags and even jewellery. These "purses" often come as low low price as $20. And while most people who come here to shop knowing what they're getting is fake, you're still supporting an underground economy and the effects of this kind of low-level crime is actually much higher than you might think. Plus, the bags never last as long as they should, even for the $20 price tag.
Instead, head to the Williamsburg Artistisan Flea Market
The Artists & Fleas Williamsburg is a fantastic place to support local creators and the art community in New York. Here you'll find one of a kind pieces made by people who are contributing to the incredible artistic nature of the city. There are so many cute stalls with everything from jewellery, to vintage clothes, art, soap, candles and more. There is something at every price range too so if all you wanted to spend was that $20 you can absolutely find something here for that price!
Skip Little Italy or Chinatown
While either of these neighbourhood in New York are great places to visit with delicious food and interesting shops, both have become somewhat of a tourist attraction in recent years and lost a little bit of their authenticity. Plus there are so many lesser-known neighbourhoods in the city crying out for your attention.
Instead, visit Koreatown
It's no secret that Koreatown is one of my favourite parts of the city. 'K-Town' as it called by locals is located on West 32nd Street, between Broadway and 5th Avenue. Here you can have a blast from dawn till dusk. Start your morning at Grace Street for some Korean doughnuts and avocado-katsuobushi waffles. Pair it with a roasted oolong milk tea. Then head to the 24-hour spa, grab lunch at one of the many Korean BBQ restaurants (the lunch bbq all your can eat is much cheaper than dinner and just as delicious). Check out Besfren Beauty to nab some Korean face masks to quench your thirsty skin. If you're looking for a sweet treat head to Paris Baguette for a Parisian-Korean pastry fusion and bubble tea. For an elegant dinner, head to Hangawi for a vegetarian take on Korean cuisine. Finish the evening with a night of singing to your favourite tunes in one of the many karaoke clubs!
Skip staying only in Manhattan
Manhattan is great and there is SO MUCH TO DO, but don't get caught up there and never leave. There are so many locations outside Manhattan which are fantastic and worth visiting. The lure of the big city is very strong but escaping its clutches will usually result in fewer crowds and more local experiences.
Instead, take a self-guided historical walking tour
Brooklyn Heights is such a historical part of the city and so important to the development of New York as the superpower city it is today. You can visit some of the oldest houses in new york, the site of George Washington's old residence and even study the names of all the different streets along the way. Each one is named after a different kind of tree which used to grow here. All in all it's a wonderful place to spend an afternoon and there are a ton of incredible restaurants which lack a little of the upscale nature of the ones found inside Manhattan's iron curtain.
Skip wearing yourself out trying to see it all!
New York is enormous. It is more vast and crowded than any other city in America and seeing everything even in a week will result in feeling really burnt out by the end of your trip. And rushing from place to place also means you don't have the chance to stop into places you find along the way. Some of those off the beaten path discoveries are often the best part of the entire trip so you don't want to miss out on them!
Instead, dedicate a day to one particular district
Instead of running from the east to the west and back again, over and over again. Try to group different places you have on your "to-see" list onto a google map and allocate different days to different neighbourhoods and districts. Even if the few items you have on the list won't take up the entire day, don't rush out of there. Take your time to explore the side street and get to know the lay of the land. It will be a richer and more rewarding adventure than trying to run all over the city trying to see every iconic site just to say you did.
What are your favourite things to do or explore when you're in New York City? Let me know in the comments!