New York tourist tips gleaned in my five years in NYC

Five years ago, I packed up and moved to Manhattan for my first post-MBA job. John followed about a month later, after managing a speedy sale of our house, thanks in part to our fortuitous timing before the real estate crash.

I think five years is long enough to consider myself a real New Yorker. Obviously not a native, but in some ways, that might be better for the purposes of observing — with an outside eye, I might be able to see some things better than if I’d grown up here.

In sort of random order, some pointers for visitors gleaned after achieving our hard-fought goal of moving to the Big Apple:

We've enjoyed touring NYC on the Gray Line double decker buses and on the Water Taxi.

Some touristy things are worth doing — even if you aren’t a tourist

  • We’ve probably gone on a Gray Line double decker bus tour of New York once a year since moving here and we always enjoy them. The tour guides are almost always knowledgable raconteurs with excellent stories to share about New York. We’ve done the hop-on hop-off tours of Manhattan, enjoying the downtown loop best, as well as freezing on the upper deck for the Christmas lights tour and getting curious about our current neighborhood on the Brooklyn tour.
  • Similarly, we loved spending a sunny summer day on the New York Water Taxi hop-on hop-off tour around Manhattan. It’s easy to forget that we’re a harbor city when you’re tangled up in Midtown but a cruise helps put that in perspective.
  • For a cheaper take on that, hop on the free Staten Island Ferry for a close brush with the Statue of Liberty and some great skyline views of downtown.

We used Central Park as our back yard, including taking the paper or my laptop to hang out.

  • Top of the Rock is a viewing deck on top of Rockefeller Center. The view is fantastic, but I especially like that they sell tickets with appointment times so you don’t have to waste time standing in a dumb line. (I’m looking at you, Empire State Building.)
  • John and I lived a block from Central Park for our first three years in town. We sort of used it as our back yard — we’d take our coffee and New York Times to go hang out for a Sunday afternoon, for example. New York parks are a great respite from all the concrete and horns. We don’t get to Prospect Park as much as I’d like, nor the New York Botanical Garden, but we have been loving the new Brooklyn Bridge Park, which runs along the East River just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment.
  • Two things John loves to share with our guests: walking the Brooklyn Bridge and riding the Cyclone at Coney Island.

Some touristy things … less so

We go to Times Square when we have visitors, like my dad, but otherwise, I can do without it. It overwhelms me.

  • If you’re a first-time New York visitor, you’ll probably want to pay a visit to Times Square to get the obligatory photos of all the brightly lit advertising. But the longer I live here, the happier I am if I can avoid Times Square as much as possible. If you use Tivo to avoid ads on television, why go elbow to elbow with tourists from around the world to take pictures of ads so bright they nearly give me a seizure?
  • Two pluses for Times Square: the city closed Broadway and put out tables so you can experience sitting in one of the busiest streets in the world, and the new TKTS steps give sort of a birdseye view of the madness without being totally in it.
  • Thanks to Sex and the City, the line to buy cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery in the Village is often dozens of people deep. If you’re a fan of Carrie & Co., get your photo op in front of the store … then go to Billy’s Bakery and buy a banana cupcake or German chocolate cupcake. You will thank me.
  • I’m totally content without ever skating at the Rockefeller Center rink. It’s so crowded and it’s hard to tell whether anyone’s actually there to enjoy skating or just to have pictures taken of them skating.

The food here is amazing. (Except when it isn’t.)

We love Lombardi's so much we recently celebrated our wedding anniversary with dinner there. This photo is from New Year's Eve. No kiddng.

I have eaten mind-blowingly good food in New York, some of it at high-end fancy places, much of it in little Mom and Pop spots.

  • The best Thai food of my life, no question, is at Pam Real Thai in Hell’s Kitchen, just west of Times Square. It won’t win any atmosphere contests, but when we order the steamed chive dumplings, the tom yum soup, vegetarian duck salad, pad kra prow and pad thai, we are so blissed out that we don’t care what it looks like.
  • There’s so much good Italian in New York that I’m kind of spoiled for eating it anywhere else. In our Brooklyn neighborhood, I love Bino — a white tablecloth place but very welcoming and unstuffy. In Manhattan, I like Puttanesca in Hell’s Kitchen, Pomodoro on the Upper West Side and Carmine’s, which serves family style in Times Square and on the UWS. For new Italian, Frankie’s, which has locations in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side, is amazing.
  • John still talks about our trip to Grand Sichuan with my dad at Christmas time. It’s crowded and chaotic, you’ll probably be stuck at a table with strangers — but that just lets you observe what they’ve ordered. In our case, they even offered us tastes from their hot pot.
  • The oysters are a lot more expensive than what we enjoyed in NOLA but the oysters at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar taste great and the place is excellent, nestled right into New York’s east side commuting palace. What some people don’t realize is that it’s like three restaurants in one: fine dining atmosphere to the left when you enter, counter service to the right, then go through the door on the far right to enter the wood-paneled saloon. The service is usually slow, sometimes a little surly, but I figure that just gives me more time to soak the place in.
  • I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t drink beer, so when I tell you that I love a German beer bar with a sausage grill so much that we finished my 40th birthday celebration there, I think it says how great Radegast in Williamsburg is. The food, the drinks, the music, the vibe, it’s all so good.
  • New York is known for its pizza, but beware — there is an awful lot of mediocre to bad pizza in this city, partially because someone keeps buying it and also because pizza slices are a perfectly serviceable cheap meal if you’re in a hurry. But don’t buy a $3 slice and expect to be blown away. That will happen at Lombardi’s, America’s first pizzeria. The wait might be long and they only take cash, but it’s worth it. My favorite pie: sauteed spinach, kalamata olives, fresh garlic, extra sauce, cooked well done. John’s a fan of double pepperoni, fresh garlic, extra sauce, well done.

Update November 2011: Sadly, since this post, Bino has closed. It’s a real loss to our neighborhood. And I think I’ve finally given up on the Grand Central Oyster Bar. If you’re mainly looking to get off your feet, and you don’t mind waiting a ridiculously long time for indifferent service, it’s a nice oasis in Grand Central, but I’ve finally had one too many bad experiences to go back.

Today’s post focused on specifics of where to go and what to do. Coming soon is a post on more general observations about New York.

What are your favorite — and least favorite — things to do in New York?

Bonus NYC tip: HopStop is a great way to figure out how to get from point A to point B using public transportation. It takes into account which lines might be altered for repairs -- which happens a lot, especially on weekends -- and lets you choose whether you prefer to walk more or transfer to another train or bus. I still carry a map of New York but use HopStop much more often.


Categories: career, creativity, food and drink, home and family, lifestyle

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3 replies

  1. Governor’s Island. It’ll probably change soon and get all prettified, so — as a certain someone says — get it while you can, while it still has the abandoned college campus feel, and you can still see the dilapidated dorms with trees growing out of the roofs, and funky artists are doing their things there. I love everything about a trip to Governor’s Island, but perhaps nothing more than the fact that it’s just a ten-minute hop on the ferry from Brooklyn and it feels like another world.


  1. Five observations after five years in New York « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally
  2. More reflections on life in New York City « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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