So we’re just back from a wee break in New York and I finally get it. I get the hype. It really was as great as everyone says. We booked earlier this year as a little celebration for my upcoming 30th which isn’t until December, but I really didn’t want to go when it was freezing so we decided to go a bit earlier and opted for four nights right at the end of September.
Since coming home I’ve had quite a lot of messages from people about some of the places we visited, hotel, travel and budget from people that have an upcoming trip planned or are hoping to go soon, so I thought I’d answer them here as a wee quick guide to NYC from a first timer!
Travel & Hotel
We looked at booking flights and hotel separately because I just assumed this would be the cheapest way and we have an added bonus of Robin having access to hugely discounted standby tickets for a lot of flights, but with these factored in hotels were still coming in at well over £1000 for 4 nights. Air B&B’s are technically illegal in Manhattan and there are a few horror stories alongside the many people saying their experience was great but in all honesty, I didn’t wanna risk it. So we chose to book as part of a package instead – it also meant that additional baggage cost and resort fees for the hotel were included which was great as these are fairly pricey. All in, we paid around £1800 for 4 nights.
We chose Yotel based on its good reviews, central location and reasonable price tag. It’s in the Hell’s Kitchen area of the city just to the west of Times Square so really easy to get around. The only downside is Times Square itself is the thing of my nightmares so getting off the subway there on an evening to return to the hotel and having to fight through the crowds is less than ideal, but mostly we strolled other routes anyway. The hotel was clean, cool and quirky. We emailed in advance to tell them it was my birthday and we got upgraded to a superior room with a view (which is usually extra) so worth a shot! The rooms are fairly small but that’s to be expected in NYC – it was fine for us!
We also chose to fly from Glasgow with United as it was a whooping £600 less than from Edinburgh! And the flights were better times too, leaving at 9am as opposed to early afternoon. We just paid parking at My Easy Park near the airport and they give you a ride in (this was our second time using this service and I couldn’t recommend enough!).
Money Saving Explorers
Before we left we did quite a lot of research to try and pull together an itinerary, and I’ll be honest – it’s quite overwhelming. Torn between wanting to do ALL the stuff versus wanting some freedom to wing it.
We decided to buy NYC Explorer Passes for the main attractions as they can be fairly expensive if you ‘pay as you go’ when you’re there. Keep an eye out though because there are LOADS of options… tonnes. From 2-22 attractions and there’s always offers on. We eventually took the plunge and ordered passes that covered us for 4 attractions each for around £130 (we got it using the .com site for Expedia and paying in dollars with a promo code). It covers more than 70 attractions and tours and we used ours for Top of The Rock, The Color Factory, Intrepid: Air and Space Museum and Circle Line Cruise: Statue of Liberty by Night. These would have cost a total of just over $280 – so it’s a decent saving. You don’t have to pick in advance either so once you’re there you can decide which you’d like to do – some you just show your phone at the entrance and other (like the cruise) we had to go earlier and exchange our pass for tickets but it was easy and every one had its own instruction.
Before we left, we’d written a basic itinerary for an idea of what we’d do each day, mostly so we didn’t miss anything major out. But once there we mixed it up a bit as we got a feel for distance between things and the best time to go to certain places. So in the end, this was what we did on each day with some tips and recommendations –
We landed just after 11am (NYC time) into Newark and were through security quite quickly, this was a relief in itself as we’ve heard it can be a bit mental, although I believe JFK is a lot worse. We collected our bags and headed for the Air Train and then the NJ transit (there are ticket machines in the airport for this train!) to New York Penn station where it was a 10 minute walk to our hotel to drop our bags (with the hotel robot!) till the room was ready.
We headed round the counter and dived into the first bar we came across called Dalton’s where it was $5 per pint and devoured some wings – YALDI! Then on the way back to the hotel we grabbed a $ pizza slice… cause New York innit. I can confirm – it was everything I dreamed of and more!
After checking in we headed out and stumbled upon the Vessel for some pictures before hitting The High Line towards Chelsea Market where we stopped off at Los Tacos No.1 which we had been told was the best taco in NYC – and yeah, they’re pretty good! I do wish we’d spent some more time here and eaten a bit more because it’s really cool (and I’ve heard the place that sells lobster rolls is incredible!), but we were desperate to explore some more and were also shattered after all our travel so we went a walk via Times Square and then Rudy’s for a beer (they serve free hot dogs with them) and back to the hotel for an early night (can you tell we’re old AF?!)
We had an early start on Sunday to get to Rockerfella Centre for it opening at 8, so grabbed a bagel en route for breakfast. I don’t even like bagels, but even they taste fab in NYC.
Top of the Rock is brilliant, we used our Explorer Pass but general entry is around €38 I think. It’s the only one of the three ‘main’ views (Rockerfella, Empire State & One World Observatory) that doesn’t have glass so it’s the best for pictures. On one side you have Central Park and on the other, the Empire State, and Downtown. It was incredible and I actually enjoyed just taking in the view more than I expected! Defo try and do it early though as it was really starting to busy up by the time we were leaving just before 10.
Then it was time to grab a sugary post breakfast snack at Donut Project (thank you to everyone that recommended!) before heading into Central Park for a wander in the 30 degree heat. We stopped and watched a Little League game and it was probably the cutest thing I’ve ever seen… we spend the rest of the morning here just wandering and exploring and also ticking off Belvedere Castle and Strawberry Fields (complete with the world’s worst John Lennon impersonator – sorry mate) as well as the ponds and Jackie O Reservoir. You could easily spend a day here, and I now wish we’d hired a boat and had a row around the lake… but instead we decided to go to Shake Shack on the Upper West Side because, well, we were desperate to try it and it didn’t disappoint! We ate it in the gardens of the Natural History Museum while people watching in the sun! On a side note: I ordered a wine in Shake Shack and we weren’t able to take it away because of licensing laws, so if you do plan to takeaway get a soft drink – I’d recommend the Orange Fanta as it’s soooo much better in the US!
By this point, Robin was well on his way to destroying his Achilles so we wandered back to the hotel, through the red stone neighbourhoods of the Upper West Side, for a much needed rest!
Then it was time for our first jaunt on the subway to Little Italy to see some of the street art that I had saved onto my maps and it didn’t disappoint! It’s so nice to just wander the streets, remembering to look up and see all the art (maybe even throw in a few beers along the way). For dinner we had to walk further down to Chinatown for dim sum at Nom Wah Tea Parlour on Doyers Street, the first dim sum restaurant in Manhattan dating back to the 20’s. It’s no frills dining (and cash only!) but it’s delicious and fun, and one of our favourite cuisines! After, we decided to walk down to the piers and have a wee peer (geddit) at the Brooklyn Bridge after sundown before jumping on a subway back to Midtown and taking a wander past the Empire State Building to Grand Central Station as we didn’t think we’d get a chance to do this any other day, in all honesty, I wasn’t particularly fussed about either of these, but at least I can say I did it. Then it was back to the hotel via Times Square for another amazing nights sleep in the world’s comfiest bed – seriously, I’ve been trying to find out what mattresses Yotel use ever since I got home..!
Yet another early start for us and a day that we’d changed our pre-planned itinerary drastically … because Robin surprised me by booking a doors off helicopter flight which I’d seen weeks before when we were initially planning but we’d decided against it due to budget. I was so excited, but equally terrified!
We headed Downtown first thing ready to walk the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s beautiful and amazing but also so busy, but it’s worth just picking a spot on the way over and loitering because there will be a break in the crowds at some point and you can run to the centre of the path and get a picture that looks like you had the bridge all to yourself! The we continued over to Dumbo to get ‘the shot’ of the Empire State through the arch of the Manhattan Bridge, before a wander down by the water to kill some time and take in the skyline before going for some world famous pizza at Juliana’s . We weren’t sure whether to go to Juliana’s or Grimaldi’s next door… but the sun was shining, we wanted to sit out and Grimaldi’s had scaffolding outside so our mind was made up! We spoke to a local that told us that Juliana’s is owned by the family that started Grimaldi’s, they opened it when they sold the Grimaldi name, so although Grimaldi’s is the older name, Juliana’s is the original. And OH MY GOD, it lived up to the hype! Probably the best pizza I’ve ever had… I may have also had a beer to steady my nerves for what was to come.
In an ideal world we’d have spent the day in Brooklyn as I had SO many more recommendations that we wanted to try out, but we had to go catch our helicopter! If you’re planning a trip, please don’t rush Brooklyn! If we even go back (finger’s crossed) I think we’d stay in that part of town.
Anyway… onto the helicopter! So here’s the deal – doors-off helicopters are banned in NYC. They’re considered too “high-risk”. Safe to say I did not know this before hand. For this reason, the company we used, flyNYON (the only doors off experience in the city), operates out of Kearney, New Jersey. They provide private or group transfers from midtown to the airfield, but we’d decided to just get the subway, PATH train and an Uber. Google Maps says this is about 55 minutes (from Brooklyn via World Trade Centre) and we gave it 1hr 45minutes and just made it in time – you don’t really get anywhere fast in New York we found!
The company was really well run and the staff were great – I mean, I was still shitting myself, but they were lovely. As was our pilot, Gregory. This was my first time in a helicopter and considering 90% of our time in New York was 30 degrees with sun splitting the sky, it was somewhat unlucky that the sky clouded over and even more unlucky that that the wind got up… it was like dangling in a net and blowing in the wind.
The helicopter flew from NJ to Manhattan where it slowed down and we were able to turn 90 degrees in our seat and dangle our feet out over the city. By this point we were a lot lower and calmer and I put my fear aside and man, the views were incredible! We flew over downtown with the Empire State, past One World Observatory and the 9/11 memorial pools and then onto and round the Statue Of Liberty and it was amazing… for a moment I forgot I was terrified and it was the first glimpse of the Statue since spotting her from the plane into Newark. I’d recommend a flight whether it be doors on or off – it was an amazing experience. We opted for the 16 minute flight but there are longer ones available too. I realise it is a luxury though and not in everyone’s budget but the company pretty much always has a 50% offer code available, so don’t take the price at face value. Apparently there can be some haggling room if you call them on the day to book but we didn’t try this out!
Once we’d landed and my blood pressure had returned to [semi] normal, we got the train back to Manhattan to visit the 9/11 memorial pools on the ground after seeing them in the air. It was really poignant and we tried to make our way round reading all the names. It felt odd to see so many people taking selfies and posing, I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. I’m glad we visited though, and it really is breathtaking, overlooked by the new One World Observatory (OWO) and 6 other Trade Centres that are either complete on in the process of being built. After visiting we planned to go up OWO, but it was still light and since we’d done Top Of The Rock in the day time, we decided to do OWO at night, so, off we trotted to Tribeca to get a few beers at Tiny’s & The Bar Upstairs. It is what it says, tiny! We got talking to the barman who gave us some dinner recommendations in exchange for some tips on the best time to visit Edinburgh (he wrote them on a piece of paper and now I can’t find it – when I come across them, I’ll share!) and after a few beers we hopped back down to head up for the view. OWO isn’t available on attraction passes, so it cost us $38 each. A cool little fact we learnt about the new Trade Centres is that once complete, none of them will ever cast shadow on the two original towers that are now memorial pools, they’ve been designed so that they will always be in the sunshine.
After some snaps we headed back down to Tribeca and went to Holy Ground for dinner, as recommended by the barman in Tiny’s. It’s a cool wee underground BBQ place with a sort of vintage speakeasy vibe (which seems really popular) and it was brilliant, I had a burger and fries and Robin had a smoked chicken sandwich with a wee cheeky mac n cheese side to share and it was probably one of the best burger I’ve ever had… and I’ve had quite a few! My one regret is that I didn’t have a cocktail because they sounded amazing… I actually didn’t have a cocktail the whole holiday (I mean, is it even a holiday without one!?). But I suppose it means I’ll just have to go back another time.
Tuesday was our last full day in the city and the steps were catching up on us (by this point we were at over 100k and Robin’s achilles had swelled like an egg…) but we started the day off with yet another bagel before ambling down to the Color Factory in SoHo. I’d decided this was something I wanted to do one day well before we even booked the holiday after seeing pictures of it online and thinking it looked really cool. Lucky for us, it was included in our Explorer Pass, I think it’s usually around $32pp. We were greeted with the weirdest, coolest, tastiest chewy ice cream ball upon arrival and it pretty much set us up for the rest of the experience which was equally as weird but really cool and well thought out featuring installations by many New York artists. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to give too much away as part of the fun is the surprise but I’d highly recommend it – it was probably my biggest surprise of the trip and even better than expected! This attraction would be great for kids too, it’s interactive, so probably best for age 5 and above.
As we were flailing a bit by this point we decided to have a quieter afternoon and just went a wander to the shops. I’m not really a fan of shopping to be honest, least of all on holiday. I know a lot of people head to NYC primarily to shop, and if that’s you, then you’ll love it, the shops are amazing… however, I just can’t be arsed, BUT we needed to get some gifts for the kids and Christmas decorations for our Mums. Plus I wanted a new pair of Converse and Robin wanted to visit the Nintendo store… obviously. After we’d picked up our souvenirs we ended up stumbling into another Los Tacos No.1 and getting some more tacos for the road before heading back to the hotel to put our feet up till evening.
We’d decided to use our final ticket on our attraction pass to do a Circle Line Statue of Liberty by Night tour (we’d picked up our tickets from the pier the previous day using our passes so didn’t need to queue etc). The cruise sets sail from Pier 16 at 7pm and we were advised to get there early to get ahead of the queue and secure good seats on the upper, open deck. We arrived at about 6pm and were 2nd in line… which turned out to be completely pointless. Upon boarding the boat we went up top to get our “good seats”, but the thing is, the seats don’t go to the edge of the boat, so once the seats of the upper deck were filled, people just file round the outside and stand at the railings completely blocking the view of the folk in the seats, so don’t bother. Just show up and get on whenever! The views were great though, and the guy that did the tour was actually brilliant, so it was worth it. Meant we got to see her from sea level as well as from the air a few days previously!
To top off our last night in the city, we decided to go for a steak (yeah, we had dollars to use up!). A LOT of people recommended Gallagher’s up near Times Square but the fact that it was in Times Square put us off a bit as we thought it might be a bit of a tourist trap (to be honest, we thought this about most of the popular tourist spots there – I’m looking at you Carmine’s and Ellen’s), don’t get me wrong, it sounded great, but I was convinced there would be other, equally good steaks (if not better) and anyway, we were downtown and wanted to eat nearby, about 5 or 6 popped up on Google all with 4.5+ stars. We chose Harry’s in the Financial District… it didn’t disappoint. The restaurant was stylish, luxe, very American and the service was brilliant. We ordered a filet mignon and a bone-in filet mignon and some sides and both of us agreed it was probably the best steak we’d ever had! It wasn’t a cheap meal, but we didn’t exert it to be, and it was worth every penny. remembering that the standard NYC tip is 20%, our bill came to just over $200 but this seemed in-keeping with most steakhouses we looked at, and it was worth every penny and the best way to finish off our last night in the most magical city!
On our last half day before heading off to the airport we hobbled along to the Intrepid Air and Space museum to use our last Attraction Pass tickets . It had been Robin’s choice, and probably not something that I’d have chosen, but it was actually quite a bit better than I anticipated! Despite the 35 degree heat… When the time rolled round to collect our bags and head for the airport, we were probably quite relieved to step onto the air-conditioned train, and the long journey home started. Why is it that it always seems to take twice as long to get home?!
Then crash back to reality. The reality of stepping off the red-eye at 7.30am and being a parent again after 5 days of absolute freedom, but it was worth it. And well done if you’ve made it this far… I originally was going to break this down to highlights, but I just kept adding and adding, and then couldn’t stop. I’ve even bored myself, but I hope this is useful for someone out there! As I said, we were both first timers and I think we did pretty well for the time we were there and we really did have the best time in the most amazing city. I always found it a bit bewildering when people spoke about New York with such passion, and visited again and again, but I kind of get it now. It really is a special city and I’d love to go back one day, maybe even with the kids when they’re a bit older.
Before I go though, I’ve rounded up some of my top tips, and stuff I learned before I went, while I was there as well as things I’d bear in mind for the future –
We took about $700 cash and the rest of our money on a Revolut card. Revolut is great for travel as you can transfer £ into the account and then exchange it into $ (or any other currency) with a live exchange rate (I think we got around 1.23 – thank Brexit). Then whatever you spend on the card comes out of the $ pot, so you see exactly what you have left in that currency, which for us, just made it a lot easier, not having to do some quick math every time we paid for something! On arriving home we had $ left in our pot so just exchanged them back, hassle free.
But remember, cash is a must as a lot of places are cash only, just as a lot of places are card only, so you do need a mix. It’s also really handy for tipping which is a must in the States. Service staff are taxed on an assumed amount of tips, so if you don’t tip they will still be taxed, so it’s pretty much expected that you tip between 15-20% (we stuck with 20%). You also tip your chambermaid daily and taxi drivers etc so bear this in mind. We were worried that it was going to be crazy expensive after reading some Facebook groups and blogs, but honestly, it wasn’t. this could be due to the kind of food we enjoy as we ate a lot of street food and market food etc, so this probably kept costs down. We avoided tourist trap restaurants around Time Square because they can be overpriced and underwhelming and just not really our kinda thing. Drinking is fairly expensive, but most places have Happy Hours in the evening. In a nice rooftop bar you could be looking at $25 for a cocktail, but ya know, stay for one, soak up the view then go to a dive bar round the corner for a pitcher of beer if you’re on a budget! It can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want – don’t feel a pressure to spend spend spend if you don’t want to!
The High Line, I had high hopes for this walk which is a public park built on a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side, but it just didn’t live up to the hype, I mean, it was fine, but not as pretty as I imagined it to be… maybe it was just the time of year. I don’t know, I just wasn’t blown away. The other slight disappointment was One World Observatory (OWO), it’s fairly expensive as it wasn’t on our passes and I just thought it was a bit over-hyped. Don’t get me wrong, the view was great, but I preferred Top Of The Rock as it’s the only view of it’s kind without glass (better for pictures!).
You can get a metro 7-day unlimited pass for $33 each (the price of 12 single journeys). We knew about this but decided not to get one as we weren’t sure that we’d use it enough, and we probably broke even. We didn’t realise that the PATH train we used to get to New Jersey for our helicopter flight was included, had we known this wed have probably got the passes. I’d say for 5 -7 days you’d get the use out of it and save money. We used the subway, but still managed to rack up 30-50k steps a day!
The subway is a little easier than London i thought, because it’s fairly easy to work out if you’re going uptown or downtown, it just takes a few rides to get your head around it. I used Apple maps to plan most journeys and work out the routes and didn’t have any nightmares. Didn’t need offline map due to free roaming (check this before you go). Also, the UK Uber app works in US, we used this to get to the helicopter airfield after the train.
What did we miss?
4 nights/5 days was a great amount of time and we got a LOT done, but a few more would have given us a bit of leeway, any less and we would really have struggled. If we went back I’d love to squeeze in some museums, in particular the 9/11 Memorial Museum (it has free entry on a Tuesday evening by the way). I’d also have loved to check out the Guggenheim, and Moma. I’d also do a show – the one most recommended to me was Book Of Mormon. We didn’t bother as we already had so much to get through, and truthfully, we’d probably have fallen asleep, but if we went back it would be a must. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t do it all, and that’s ok!
We’d also go a little later in the year, as mentioned before, we decided to go when we did because we didn’t want it to be freezing… but it was still really hot, between 26-36 degrees every day and it’s hard going in the city. Maybe leave it till mid-October. I’d also not bother staying in Manhattan if we went back. It was good to be central for our first trip just for ease but I’d definitely stay in Brooklyn or Williamsburg if we went back and explore these areas more as the short amount of time we spend in Brooklyn was wonderful and I’ve heard of so many amazing spots in Williamsburg.
As you probably gathered, we had a blast, I’d go back tomorrow if I could (ya know, If I had a money tree and a nanny). I hope there are some useful tips in here if you’re planning a holiday there any time soon, and if not, sorry for boring you… NYC BABY!