New York, New York: the center, the capital, the core. Whatever title it holds in your wildest dreams, it’s definitely a place to be. Whether it’s your first time visiting NYC or not, this travel guide—combining New York classics with shopping, dining, and wandering that strays off the beaten path—will help you experience the city through the eyes of a local.
A slightly jaded, cynical, and tourist-wary local…but what true New Yorker isn’t?
- Where to Stay in NYC
- The Best Places to Eat in the City
- Beans and Bars
- Shopping in New York City
- Gifts and Souvenirs
- Sightseeing and More
- Transportation in the Big Apple
Where to Stay in NYC
In NYC, where you stay depends largely on your budget.
If your trip is a reason to splurge, then you’ve chosen the right city. There are a number of beautiful vintage hotels that will take you back to the decade of your choice.
For more frugal travelers, however, staying in an outer borough can be cheaper. Additionally, it’ll offer a totally different perspective on the city.
Getting on the bus or subway is a part of most residents’ daily routine, and public transportation will get you nearly anywhere if you play it right.
Brooklyn: EVEN Hotel and the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge
Centralized and busy, Downtown Brooklyn is a good option for a hotel stay outside of Manhattan.
There’s a cluster of popular hotels in the area, which is accessible by about ten subway lines.
Located on Nevins Street, the EVEN is blocks from Brooklyn’s busiest shopping districts and the East River waterfront. Brooklyn Bridge Park is a short walk, as is the bridge itself. Walk south along the river to Red Hook’s piers, and then circle back through residential Carroll Gardens and Gowanus.
The best feature of a hotel like the EVEN or this particular Marriott is their proximity to Manhattan, the riverfront, and some of Brooklyn’s most walkable historic neighborhoods.
Manhattan: Colonial House Inn and Chelsea Pines Inn
Chelsea is one of Manhattan’s most popular neighborhoods, and luckily, it offers a few affordable options for overnights.
Close to Hudson River viewpoints like Pier 57 and the Hudson River Greenway, both locations will motivate you to put on your walking shoes.
After wandering the food and gift stalls at Chelsea Market, take 8th Avenue up to Midtown, or walk crosstown across 14th street to the East Village.
The Colonial House Inn has the added bonus of a fireplace suite, while the Chelsea Pines Inn offers breakfast and the rarity of a Manhattan terrace.
Queens: Feather Factory Hotel and The LOCAL NYC Hostel
The Queens waterfront has risen in popularity over the past decade, and lodging options are now abundant.
The borough is still a good option for budget travelers though, and it’s close enough to Manhattan and Brooklyn without sitting smackdab in the heart of the city.
Staying in Queens could also be a gateway to venturing deeper into the worlds’ most diverse borough.
The Feather Factory Hotel sits right on the 7 subway line, and is within walking distance to everything from North Brooklyn, to the Pepsi Cola sign on the river, to Astoria’s famed gyro spots.
The Local NYC Hostel offers a similar experience, with the option of private or dorm rooms. Best of all, these start at much less than your average hotel rate.
Staten Island: NY Harbor House Bed & Breakfast
For travelers willing to subvert their own expectations, NY Harbor House Bed and Breakfast is an interesting take on a city stay.
This B&B, located on the shores of Staten Island, is one of the more authentic lodging options out there. In short, it’s quaint.
Being in an outer borough that hasn’t gained the kind of attention Brooklyn and Queens have in recent years, the Harbor House promises a residential experience with one-of-a-kind views.
Its windows face Brooklyn, the Verrazano Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty all at once. What’s more, it’s right next door to a small museum dedicated to photographer Alice Austen.
The Staten Island Ferry terminal is located a short bus ride away, and the ferry can take you to and from Lower Manhattan 24/7. The boat ride is free, and an attraction in itself.
There’s plenty of food, essential shopping, and waterside strolls in the Rosebank neighborhood where the Harbor House is located.
This stay is guaranteed to be a quieter, more low-key choice for those looking for a slice of life from the outer boroughs.
The Best Places to Eat in the City
New York boasts any kind of cuisine you can think up—and more.
So where do you start when you’re deciding what to sample? These neighborhood spots are worth checking out, based on both quality and atmosphere.
Most of these are tried-and-true local businesses that benefit from your support, and speak to New York’s global heritage. Some of these might be a trek from where you’re staying, but what you happen upon along the way is as worthwhile as the destination.
All of the businesses listed here offer some combination of takeout, as well as outdoor and indoor dining. Whether you’re hungry, parched, or low on caffeine, choose local dining over chain restaurants, especially in New York!
The best thing about New York’s cuisine is that affordable options from around the world are around every corner.
Though many old immigrant neighborhoods have been gentrified, there are still family-run gems throughout the five boroughs.
In Brooklyn, support Greenpoint’s historic Polish community by trying homestyle Eastern European cooking at restaurants like Pyza, Karczma, and Krolewskie Jadlo. Expect a healthy amount of meat, potatoes, and cabbage, as well as vegetarian options like pierogi.
Old Poland Bakery, Syrena, and Jaslowiczanka Bakery are neighborhood mainstays that keep the Polish baking tradition alive with plenty of homemade fillings and age-old recipes.
While you’re in North Brooklyn, stop at Ashbox for its adorable decor, fantastic Japanese meals, and kind employees.
A classic rice ball and hot drink will amount to less than ten dollars—though spending more is definitely worth it, if you’re looking for a healthy and cozy breakfast or lunch.
Real Brooklyn Pizza
Vinnie’s in Williamsburg is a go-to that makes memories. They serve both classic and vegan slices. In fact, the latter is so savory, even the most committed dairy fans should give it a shot.
For more experimental flavors, find a Two Boots pizzeria near you. They now have locations in Jersey and Tennessee, but originated in the East Village in the late eighties.
Try the loaded Bayou Beast for a taste of true Two Boots tradition: cajun flavors on an undoubtedly Italian pie.
Moving south through Brooklyn is a trip across continents in terms of international flavors. Look for Caribbean food in Flatbush, Russian and Georgian dinners in Brighton Beach, and Chinese Dim Sum in Sunset Park.
Or, if looking restaurants up online is too overwhelming, take a walk down Court Street, Bedford Avenue, 7th Avenue, or any other large avenue in Brooklyn.
There’s too many great restaurants to name, but you’ll know yours when you see (or smell) it.
As you might already know, Queens has been called the most diverse spot on Earth.
It’s impossible to list all the amazing South American, Asian, and European restaurants you can find in the borough, especially since the best ones don’t have a website, let alone a Yelp page full of elaborate opinions.
With that said, get on the 7, A, E, Q or bus and plan your own route through neighborhoods like Elmhurst, Flushing, and Howard Beach.
Among the endless options, one of the top recommendations is Lenny’s Clam Bar in Howard Beach, a waterfront section of Queens built around Crossbay Boulevard.
Lenny’s has the atmosphere of a family-run Italian restaurant, with a reputation that far surpasses your expectations. It belongs right where it first opened in 1974, on Crossbay, and there it will stay.
The deeper you get into Queens, the larger it seems. Howard Beach is a breath of fresh, salty air from what you’d consider the city.
The same goes for neighboring Rockaway Beach, where places like Uma’s make the trip well worth it. Try their Central Asian dishes a few blocks away from the Atlantic.
You’ve definitely heard of Manhattan’s Little Italy, and you may have even been told about the Little Italy in the Bronx, which is just as worth checking out.
The Bronx neighborhood’s best-kept secret, however, isn’t its eggplant parmigiana or cannolis.
The Belmont-Arthur Avenue area is also home to a significant Albanian population, and Cka Ka Quellu is one of the best restaurants serving an Albanian menu in New York.
The restaurant itself is decorated with cultural artifacts, setting the atmosphere of a medieval dining room, and meals are served sizzling hot.
Start with the Mantia (baked dumplings) to get a savory taste of the Balkan palette. Then make your way to one of the many grilled options and traditional desserts that follow.
Sometimes, with so much to choose from, it’s nice to just sit down at a spot with an all-around menu where you know you’ll find something you’re in the mood for. It also helps if the atmosphere is awesome, and the restaurant is a downtown classic.
Since 1998, The Grey Dog has served breakfast, brunch, and dinner all day—along with coffee and alcohol. The menu is diverse, the food is fresh, and the decor features many a canine portrait.
Mudspot, located in the East Village, is equally eclectic and approachable. Grab a coffee and pastry, or sit down to all-day brunch in the back—mimosa included.
Dimly lit, cozy, and beloved, Mudspot promises a good time on 9th street. Don’t forget to grab a bag of their famous coffee beans on your way out, so you can bring the mud home.
Beans and Bars
Getting a coffee is, usually, just a thing you do to start the day…but you might as well do it right while you’re in NYC.
With locations in Greenpoint and Queens, Sweetleaf Coffee is hard to miss and easy to remember.
Try the Voodoo Child Cold Brew or toasty Maple Leaf Latte, along with a house-baked scone. The coffee is roasted carefully, intentionally, and—most importantly—locally.
Additionally, the Center Boulevard location doubles as a cocktail bar. Be sure to visit twice!
Stop by Cafe Grumpy in either Brooklyn or Manhattan to enjoy house-roasted coffee…and an adorable logo that might just reflect the way you start your day.
Pause Cafe on the lower East Side has seen such a flow of devoted customers since 2010, it recently expanded its storefront to the space next door.
The cafe serves all your favorite caffeinated drinks, along with breakfast bowls and Moroccan-inspired options. Its cushions are soft, the people are nice, and even the restroom is charming. Head over to Clinton and Houston when you’re in the area.
And for more mouthwatering recommendations, check out this NYC foodie travel guide with even more restaurants to love.
Shopping in New York City
Online commerce has taken some of the magic out of shopping, but hopefully these businesses will pleasantly surprise you.
There’s nothing like associating an item with the first time you saw it through a window, or the recommendation of the local at the register.
Don’t write a shop off if it doesn’t have a website or online presence; let yourself be taken by surprise. There are still some things you can’t buy online, after all. It’s just your job to seek them out past SoHo or Midtown storefronts.
No amount of handheld, lightweight, semi-conscious screens can replace the satisfaction of a good book in your hand, and New York’s bookstores are here to stay.
A used find is a great way to mark a successful getaway, especially if it keeps you busy on the way home. The Strand, Manhattan’s most famous bookstore, has been a community gathering spot for nearly 100 years. Today, it’s still a hub for locals and visitors alike.
Filled with new and used titles, souvenirs, and a good helping of drama in recent years, it remains a classic. Besides the downtown location, there is a new Strand store on the Upper West Side, and two additional kiosks by Central Park and Times Square.
In Brooklyn, Spoonbill & Sugartown just celebrated its twenty-first year as Williamsburg’s best independent bookstore. The extensive collection of art, photo, and design books sets it apart, as does the charm of wandering off Bedford Ave and into a cozy space stacked with books in every genre.
Don’t forget to grab a sticker featuring an actual, finely-rendered spoonbill.
Finally, in Queens, Astoria Bookshop (est. 2013) is a worthwhile pitstop if you’re in the area. As a small independent bookshop, it serves all tastes and interests; there’s something for everyone.
It has the added bonus of a memorable address, too—the bookshop sits right at the intersection of 31st St. and 31st Ave.
Health and Wellness
Herbal and wellness shops aren’t unique to New York, but the variety within them might very well be. Check out these small businesses for alternative gifts and supplies to have your souvenirs last longer than your trip.
In Greenpoint, Ziolko (“Herb” in Polish) is a unique destination for body and skincare products.
This shop carries products imported from Eastern Europe, many of which are focused on herbal ingredients that are hard to find in the States.
The shampoos, salves, and lotions sold here include traditional healing herbs from chamomile to calendula, and are an affordable step beyond what you’d find at CVS or other conventional drug stores.
Stokrotka (“Daisy”), located on Manhattan Ave, is a similar shop, with an equally large array of wellness products in the same neighborhood.
If you’re elsewhere in Brooklyn, stop by Remedies in Carroll Gardens for a slightly different herbal medicine experience.
Instead of mostly body care products, this shop sells herbs by weight, as well as all sorts of hand-chosen gifts from bath salts to teas.
You can find elderberry syrup bottled by the shop, kitchenware, and even an elixir known as “Fire cider.”
If you’re in the city on a Wednesday or Saturday, the Union Square Greenmarket is an essential stop for your herbal needs.
The market is open on Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays, and Saturdays, but Furnace Creek Farm, a vendor from Pennsylvania, is only there two days a week.
If you’re able to catch them, check out their tonics and powdered and liquid supplements, made from plants grown on their small farm in Berks County.
The Greenmarket is a great place to shop in general, with vendors selling everything from fresh baked bread to local honey, condiments, and even merino wool yarn.
Himalayan Vision in the East Village is well-stocked with Tibetan gifts, including jewelry and clothing. The store is budget-friendly, while embracing an authentic Nepali and Tibetan shopping experience.
There are a variety of similar stores peppering downtown Manhattan, but Himalayan Vision is the full package in terms of special pieces, an inviting atmosphere, and fair prices.
Tucked into a tiny nook on Jackson Ave, Slovak Czech Varieties stands ready to introduce you to all things Czech.
Browse imported snacks and tchotchkes; the wooden children’s toys are beautifully crafted, and make refreshing gifts for the little ones of this digital age.
Gifts and Souvenirs
Museums might not be your first shopping destination, but some of New York’s best art institutions have gift shops with enough curiosities to keep you interested.
The American Folk Art Museum’s gift shop greets you right at the entrance of the museum, and the actual exhibition space, while small, is a delightful way to pass an hour or so.
The shop carries a variety of gift items like home accessories, jewelry, and art books, some of which are related to current and past exhibits.
The Whitney, MOMA, and Cooper Hewitt Design Museums all have a variety of design objects for sale, along with books, apparel, and even artist prints.
And, if you’re really looking for New York-themed shopping, don’t miss the subway souvenirs at the Transit Museum gift shop, nor the Big Apple-obsessed knick-knacks at the Museum of the City of New York.
Last but not least among museums, the Met’s gift shop lives up to the museum’s reputation. (As does this MET-themed Monopoly!)
Records, Books, and Miscellanea
Amid the many, many record stores around the city, Generation Records is just special.
With a shrinking CD section but expanding T-shirt selection, it’s still a comfortable place to browse and—hopefully—walk out with a fairly priced record to remind you of Greenwich Village.
While you’re there, stop by the Chess Forum across the street for all your chess needs, including beautiful sets and accessories like clocks scorebooks. The Forum defines itself as New York’s last “old style chess parlour,” so take the time to stop in…even if you’re brand-new to the game.
Famous for its natural historical artifacts, the Evolution Store on Broadway is a very important part of downtown Manhattan. The store sells everything from artist-made jewelry to specimens, including bones and minerals.
Though it does focus on books, Polonia Bookstore in Greenpoint is a one-of-a-kind shopping experience in terms of gifts and unique souvenirs.
This neighborhood mainstay sells handmade, traditional crafts imported from Poland at ridiculously affordable prices. There’s nothing more New York than artisanware you can’t find anywhere else in the U.S.
The shop’s collection of Polish pottery is vibrant, delicate, and varied; everything sold here comes from a region of Poland that prides itself on its community of painters and potters, known all over the world.
If you’re there around Christmas, you’ll also find a beautiful selection of hand-painted ornaments.
Sightseeing and More
New York may ruffle your pockets—and even turn them inside out—but after you’ve spent everything at The Hard Rock Cafe or The Museum of Sex, sightseeing will mostly remain free.
The Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Times Square, etc. are all worthwhile excursions, but the city carries a different, less monumental beauty all throughout the five boroughs. In fact, some of the best viewpoints around the city are hidden, unassuming…and, more importantly, not too crowded.
There’s no shortage of waterfront access in the city, but Pier 40 might be one of the less-trafficked ones, despite its West Village location.
The Pier features a soccer field on the top level, and is easily accessed from West Houston St.
In the evening, the top level offers a glimmering view of the Downtown Manhattan skyline, which only gets prettier as night falls.
Often overlooked, Roosevelt Island is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to waterfront destinations.
Being a residential island, it has plenty of apartment buildings, but also a very walkable and bike-able riverfront pathway. The path stretches across the small island, ending with a small but handsome lighthouse on the north end. Looking around, you’ll take in Manhattan from the middle of the East River.
The island is easy to reach on foot, bike, or subway from Queens or Midtown, but its real attraction is the tramway that picks up passengers at 60th Street, then whisks them across the water in minutes.
For more riverfront views, visit Fort Tryon Park, located at the very tip of Manhattan.
The park is all stone arches and corridors, and follows the Hudson River, giving you an expansive view of New Jersey.
Also in the park are the Met Cloisters. Its medieval culture exhibitions accentuate the surrounding Fort Tryon’s lovely gloom.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is perhaps the best nature walk within the five boroughs.
Located on marshland, the refuge offers a walking loop through wetland habitats that are home to migrating bird species. The walk features educational material along the trail, which weaves in and out of thickets and clusters of trees.
If you happen to look out on the horizon, you’ll see the entire skyline stretching out before you, albeit microscopic.
The refuge is located on the Southern edge of Queens. It’s a trek, but if you have the time to commute, it’s a truly special environment.
Industry City is a cluster of warehouses, studios, and dining located on the riverfront west of Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
The complex has grown to include restaurants, bars, public art installations, and even a small ice skating rink in the colder months.
Start with a coffee from Italian cycling cafe Maglia Rosa, then walk between the buildings lining 34th to 40th Streets, where you can check out the ground-floor businesses on each block.
The indoor food court on 36th Street is your best bet for global cuisine, and Sahadi’s on 35th will satisfy all your Mediterranean grocery needs (or introduce you to ones you never knew you had).
Top all that off with Brooklyn Kura, a brewery specializing in Japanese sake. Take a walk down to Bush Terminal Piers Park for an uncrowded, unbothered riverside stroll with views of Lower Manhattan.
You might not necessarily associate New York with boats, but the fairly new NYC Ferry system has been a blessing. Taking the ferry has become a mode of commute for many New Yorkers, but it’s also just a lot of fun.
For the price of a subway ride, take the Ferry from borough to borough. You even get a free transfer along the way.
Sit on the upper outside deck for views from a different perspective. For a truly great route, take Sunset Park to Rockaway stretch and the East River line.
From either of those, you can connect to routes spanning the East River, from Soundview in the Bronx to Wall St.
Transportation in the Big Apple
Taking advantage of New York’s public transportation system is an important initiation rite to the city.
So is hailing a cab, for that matter—but if you’re staying frugal, get a weekly Metrocard or rent a Citibike as soon as you arrive.
Combine the subway, MTA bus, and NYC Ferry to design your routes around the city.
Additionally, keep these tips in mind:
- There are free transfers between the subway and any public bus! The NYC Ferry also offers free transfers between boats, so hold on to your ticket.
- If you can, check subway service before you leave. Always be prepared for changes, and make sure you have an alternate route in mind, just in case service is disrupted.
- Pay attention to which trains are designated as express trains. You might zip past your stop without even realizing it.
- If you’re renting a Citibike, or a different bike from a local shop, ride carefully, stay in the bike lane, and always be aware of turning vehicles coming up behind you. Biking in New York is no joke, especially if you’re not familiar with the roads.
- If biking around the boroughs sounds appealing, consider these cycling routes to navigate the city quickly—and safely.
Ocean Parkway Greenway
This bike route is heavy on intersections, but a great way to get to Coney Island from areas around Prospect Park. Stay on Ocean Parkway: it’s a straight shot down to the beach.
Shore Parkway Greenway
This Greenway sticks to the water, and can take you from South Brooklyn to Queens—with plenty of open water views along the way.
The Westside Greenway is extremely popular, thanks to its sweeping Hudson vistas and length. In fact, it runs all the way up the west edge of Manhattan.
From Inwood, the northern tip of Manhattan, you can circle back around via the Harlem River Drive Greenway. Once you get down to around 59th street, avoid biking through Midtown by climbing the 59th Street Bridge into Queens.
Randall’s Island isn’t usually at the top of tourist destination lists, but it promises a great ride if you’re on two wheels, especially in the warmer seasons.
The island can be accessed from Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. It also has bike and pedestrian paths.
The RFK Bridge, which connects the island to Astoria, is a steep ride…but its expansive views of Queens and upper Manhattan make the huffing and puffing worth it.
Additionally, the bridge has a few staircases: go slow, and be ready to carry your bike a bit.
Travel to NYC…Your Way
If fitting all of New York into a confined stretch of time seems like a daunting task…it most definitely is!
While a travel guide will certainly make NYC more enjoyable, don’t forget what the city is all about: originality. Your trip is completely your own, and no two visits to New York can—or should—be alike.
Don’t be afraid to explore the city without a route in mind (it is a grid, after all), and set aside time between classic sites to wander wherever your heart desires.
New York is constantly changing, for worse and for better…but first and foremost, it continues to welcome.