New York City is the quintessential tourist destination of the United States. It is the #1 tourist destination in the Western Hemisphere and #5 in the world. Due to the enormous amount of tourism in New York, the summer months can be extremely busy. Instead, we recommend visiting New York in early fall. We visited New York over the long Labor Day weekend and spent four incredible days in awe of one of the world’s iconic cities. It did not disappoint.
New York is the kind of city that requires years to truly know. There are so many diverse and amazing experiences in this city that planning a four day trip can be quite difficult. However, the high costs make it difficult to spend two weeks exploring the city as well. So in the great backpacker tradition, we took shortcuts where we could and squeezed in as many adventures as we could in just four days. The great thing about New York though is that the city never sleeps, so there are many activities that can be done at any hour of the day (and there is a Starbucks on every block to keep you going).
The first day, New York City can feel overwhelming and claustrophobic, so we recommend getting to know the city with a harbor cruise. This is a great way to see the geography and it will also make a stop in front of the Statue of Liberty; a must for any visit to New York. The boats will leave from the southern tip of Manhattan and run from dawn until dusk. Insider Tip: The savvy traveler will avoid the Statue Cruise ships and instead take a cruise on the yellow New York Water Taxi. Over Labor Day weekend, the line for the Statue Cruise was 3 hours long while it took only 10 minutes for us to hop on a New York Water Taxi. Did I also mention that it costs less and you can ride it all the way around Manhattan and hop on and off all day at not extra charge?
The harbor cruise will also give you a unique perspective to view the city skyline, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the NYC Heliport.
After seeing the city by water, it is time to head to the Empire State Building to see it from the air. Time your visit to the Empire State Building to coincide with sunset so that you see both sides of the side, during the day and at night. It is important to note that sunset is the most popular time to visit, so make sure to buy the VIP pass online before you go. This will let you skip the two hour line that the other tourists are standing in. If the weather cooperates, you will be treated to a dazzling show as the sun fades from yellow to brilliant orange, followed by the encore as all of the lights of New York City turn on one by one with a white incandescent and neon glow. There is a reason why so many romantic movies feature the Empire State Building observatory, so take the one you love, hold each other tight, and take it all in. It will reverberate in your soul.
From the Empire State Building, you will see brilliant spot of immense light. This is your next destination after you grab some dinner; this is Times Square. For the true Times Square experience, we recommend visiting around midnight. No matter what time you visit, you will be astonished at the amount of people, traffic, and chaos in Times Square. It overwhelms the senses and all you can do is stand there, turning in circles, trying to process the massive amount of sensory information pouring over you. For extra credit, see if you can find a way to get your picture on one of the billboards in Time Square, you will feel like a superstar.
The next morning, start off the day with the most powerful and emotional site of the trip, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The museum portion is set to open in the spring of 2014, but the memorial has been open for awhile now. It is a quiet, somber, reflective space in the midst of a city that is always in motion. It makes for a palpable contrast. Watching the people around you in the memorial, you can see how deeply the events of 9/11 affect the current generation. The Memorial is intense and powerful.
Next, head on over to Central Park. What surprised us the most about Central Park was how much is going on there all the time. A romantic carriage ride through the park is a great way to discover the history and hidden secrets that the park offers. But to really experience the park, you have to interact with it. I am not sure how to describe it other than to say that it is alive. It is dynamic and always changing. Some of the many things to do include playing chess with a stranger, catching a free concert (many times with world class performers), Shakespeare in the Park, taking a paddle boat or canoe ride on the lake, joining a game of Frisbee, football, baseball, volleyball, or soccer, or just lying in the grass and people watching. For longer trips to New York, it is easy to spend an entire day in the park.
After a relaxing afternoon in Central Park, head over to Broadway and catch a play. Although difficult to do on a tight travel budget, Broadway is perhaps the world’s greatest theater district and it should not be missed. Dip into that luxury budget and you will be glad you did. Maria and I caught a late afternoon performance of The Lion King, and I must say, it was incredible. The visual imagery, the world class performers, and the music were all incredible.
The third and fourth days in New York can be more personalized to your individual interests. If you are a museum and art lover, New York has some of the finest museums in the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, and the American Museum of Natural History. These museums can easily take up a full day (or two).
For the political aficionado, New York is home to the headquarters of the United Nations. For the music lover, Radio City Music Hall, The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, The Metropolitan Opera, and countless other venues around the city feature the best musical acts in the world every night. For the sports fanatic, Madison Square Garden is home to some of the best sports action in the country.
Exploring the ethnic neighborhoods in New York is yet another fascinating way to spend some time. Chinatown and Little Italy are the two most popular tourist neighborhoods. Watching and interacting with the black market vendors in Chinatown is always amusing. Many of the shops actually have hidden doors leading to secret stores full of knock-off products from Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Louis Vuitton, RayBan, and many others.
For those that enjoy the nightlife, New York offers something for everyone. Anything from high class martini bars, dive bars, secret bars, live music bars, Irish bars, British pubs, wine bars, and rooftop bars can be found. One of our favorite evenings in New York was spent in a hidden speakeasy, enjoying the finest cocktails in the city, including bacon infused bourbon and rye whiskey. Each of the hidden bars in the city has their own rules and it is quite amusing to enter a phone booth in a grungy hot dog joint, dial a code, and have the wall slide open to reveal a lush, inviting underground bar.
But if you do one thing while you are in New York, you must experience the food. The restaurant competition is so fierce in New York that only the best survive. Many of the top chefs in the country have restaurants in New York and the options for fantastic food are limitless. You could eat at a different restaurant every night for a year and not scratch the surface of what the city has to offer. And let’s not forget the food carts! Just walking around the city you will encounter these guys everywhere, and though some are sub par, many of the ethnic food cart options are simply amazing. There is just something about grabbing a lunch from a food cart, sitting in Rockefeller Square, and enjoying the afternoon that is very wonderful.
What makes New York so extraordinary is the mind boggling array of activities available at all hours of the day. Hands down, Maria and I have never experienced another city that can compete with the sheer number, quality, and diversity of attractions available in New York. It is not a cheap city and when you leave you will likely realize that you completely blew through your budget and them some, but you will not regret it for a moment.
New York is alive, pulsating, and evolving. If you return six months later, you will not be able to recreate your previous experience because it will feel like a completely new city again. It belongs near the top of the list of places to see before you die and the memories will stay with you for a lifetime.
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