New York City hardly requires any introduction– people in even the most remote corners of the world have heard of this dynamic city, and most travelers — regardless of their budget — aspire to pass through this so-called “crossroads of the world” at some point.
But there’s the New York City of TV and movie fame and the New York City of guidebooks. Both are different from the New York of New Yorkers.
New York City means different things to different people– maybe that’s why it has so many nicknames. One writer has documented as many as 98, though I’d never heard of half of them. The three most popular nicknames — and the ones you’ve probably heard before — are The Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, and Gotham.
Before it was given the name it carries today, New York City was known as New Amsterdam, a nod of recognition to the city’s Dutch founders. The city was renamed in 1664, and played an important early role in US politics, serving as the nation’s capital from 1785 until 1790.
Located in the southern part of New York State, New York City is not the capital of New York, though those of us who live here think our city is the center not just of the state, but of the world!
New York City is made up of five boroughs, loosely understood as counties: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and — the most famous of all — Manhattan.
New York can seem utterly overwhelming to first-time visitors. You’re in for a surprise, though: it’s actually one of the US’s most compact and navigable cities, especially if your visit is confined to Manhattan.
Even for the most directionally impaired traveler, it’s easy to get oriented in Manhattan, which is laid out on a grid system. The Hudson River is to your west; the East River is to your east. In between, avenues run west to east and streets run south to north. The number of the avenues gets lower as you move east; street numbers get higher as you move north. The system doesn’t apply completely downtown, where many street names — Wall, Canal, Houston — hark back to the early days of the city. Grab a free map in any subway station and you’ll be oriented in no time.
Name: New York City, New York, USA
Place: In the south of New York State, USA
Population:Almost 8 million
Languages: English. However, Spanish is spoken by more than 1 million people and Chinese by more than 300,000
Known for: Vibrant art and culinary scenes, Central Park
Temperatures: Spring:around 52°F, summer: around 75°F, autumn: around 58°F, winter: around 32°F
Airports: LaGuardia and JFK in the city, Newark across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey. Public transport is available to get into the city, but make sure you have the correct change.
Price of a pint: US$6-$7
Price of a dorm bed: US$40
Price of a public transport ticket: US$2.25 per ride
The price of lodging can be pretty sobering, especially if you blew your budget on drinks, but there are deals to be had. The average price of a hostel dorm is $35 to $45, with the best deals to be had at Big Apple Hostel in Times Square and Chelsea International Hostel. Chelsea’s a location that can’t be beat for art lovers, nightclubbers, and foodies, but the accommodation here is cut-rate for a reason: shabby and no-frills. If you’re planning to stay in the city for three months or longer, you may want to check out the work exchange program offered by the Jazz Hostel.
If you’re a step above hostels but don’t quite have a Plaza, Ritz, or Trump pocketbook, the best mid-range options can be found at chain hotels like Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, and Comfort Inn in Long Island City. Don’t be mislead by the name of the neighborhood — Long Island City is NOT in Long Island; it’s in Queens. Though it’s not in Manhattan, Long Island City is just five minutes from Times Square by subway. The difference that five minutes can make on your wallet is worth it– nightly rates can be found for as low as $79 before tax.
If your budget is a bit more, ahem, generous, Manhattan is home to the flagships of many hotel chains and in recent years has experienced a boutique hotel boom. Prices at boutique properties like GEM Hotel start around $140, depending on the season, but if you’re flush with cash, the Four Seasons offers rooms ranging from $600 to just short of $1,000.
New York’s culinary landscape has been defined by films as a smorgasbord made up of pizza, hot dogs and pretzels served up from street carts, and steaming bowls of pasta served alongside tables of Mafiosi in Little Italy.
You CAN find all those things here, but it’d be a shame if you limit yourself to them. For one thing, street food has become incredibly sophisticated in the past few years, and you can find dumplings, ice cream and Belgian waffles, BBQ, enchiladas, Jamaican jerk chicken, and Indian biryani all dished out of food trucks that park temporarily at curbs all over the city.
Traveling foodies shouldn’t miss Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco warehouse converted into a food and shopping arcade. Thai, Italian, American seafood, and organic local fare are just a few of the specialties here, and the bakeries turning out fresh breads and pastries can’t be beat. Visit in the late afternoon, when many of the shops sell their goods, including sandwiches, at half price.
As much as New Yorkers complain about the rising cost of their public transportation system, New York City transit is one of the world’s most comprehensive subway and bus systems. The current price per ride is $2.25, but you’d be much better off to buy an unlimited pass. Unlimited passes come in daily, weekly, or monthly increments and can be bought with cash, credit cards, or debit cards inside any Metro station.
To and from the airports
New York City is serviced by three major airports: LaGuardia and JFK, which are in the city, and Newark, which is just across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey.
La Guardia, which handles most domestic flights, is the airport that’s closest to the city center, just eight miles from midtown Manhattan. From La Guardia, you can take the M60 bus into Manhattan, but be sure to have the exact fare of $2.25 (no bills!) on hand. Taxis are readily available, too, but avoid the men inside the terminal who approach you with offers of taxi service and opt for the yellow cab instead. NYC taxis now accept major debit and credit cards if you’d prefer to pay with plastic instead of cash.
JFK, approximately 12 miles from midtown Manhattan, is the airport you’re most likely to fly into if you’re arriving in New York from abroad. Like La Guardia, you can catch a bus or a taxi into the city from the airport, but a taxi will be pricey; budget at least $40. Either option is likely to have you spending the first part of your vacation annoyed with New York City traffic. A better bet is to take the AirTrain out of the airport and to the city subway system.
Newark, about 16 miles from midtown Manhattan, is an option for visitors arriving by plane; like JFK, it handles many international flights. Taxis and train service are available from Newark, dropping passengers off in the heart of the city. Be prepared to pay for the taxi ride, though; depending on traffic and your specific destination, the fare can run upwards of $50.
Attractions — free
Most guide books recommend the same set of tried and true tourist attractions, but New York City offers many more activities and sites to see than can possibly fit into the pages of even the most novel and comprehensive guide.
One of the newest attractions, the High Line, is an elevated park that currently runs from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street; eventually it will extend all the way to 34th Street. It doesn’t cost a dime to visit, and though the warmer months are the best times to walk along the High Line’s path, enjoying views of the Hudson River and the native plants landscaping the High Line, it’s such a lovely park that it’s worth a visit any time you’re in town.
During the summer months and into early fall, it’s just a short walk from the High Line to the Hudson River Park, which runs almost the entire length of Manhattan. This park –more than ten years in the making — is composed of cycling, running, and rollerblading paths, places for picnicking and enjoying open-air concerts and movies (both of which are offered by the city for free during the summer), and kayak launches. All of these activities are free.
Attractions — seasonal
If you’re visiting in winter months, you can enjoy ice skating for free in Bryant Park, located behind the main branch of the New York Public Library. Skates are provided. In summer months, free films are offered on the same lawn every Monday night.
Attractions — paid
Hudson River Park boasts the Chelsea Piers sports complex, where you can bowl, golf, or practice your swing in the batting cage for a modest fee. There are also a trapeze school and a sailing school in the park.
If the outdoors isn’t your thing, then there’s plenty of indoor entertainment to keep you busy throughout your visit. The Comix Comedy Club in the newly trendy Meatpacking District has a comedy night called Get Your Yucks for Only Five Bucks; it’s just one of dozens of comedy clubs around the city. And if you’re one of the many visitors who want to see a Broadway show, be sure to check the cut rate ticket vendor, TKTS.
If you’re the museum type, don’t overlook some of the smaller, lesser-known institutions. They don’t have the name recognition that MOMA and the Met do, but the Museum of Chinese in America and El Museo del Barrio are both wonderful neighborhood museums showcasing artwork reflecting the cultural diversity of New York City. With lower ticket prices and fewer visitors, you don’t really have an excuse NOT to visit these museums. If you’re really on the cheap, though, I recommend following Newyorkology on Twitter. She maintains a list of free admission days as well as other announcements about current events around the city.
Every major guidebook publisher has a New York City title in its collection, but some of the offbeat guides written by locals offer travelers of all types specialized guides that are better choices. Whatever your interest, there’s a guide for it: Off the Beaten Subway Track, Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, Bloom’s Literary Guide to New York, Slow Food Guide to New York City, Jazz Guide to New York City, and The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York City.
Where to next?
Once you’ve “done” New York — though, to be honest, one’s never really DONE with New York — you can easily use the city as a jumping-off point for any other major East Coast destination, including Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Budget buses, including Fung Wah and Bolt, offer tickets between $1.00 and $20.00; Bolt buses are becoming increasingly popular with frequent travelers on a budget, not the least reason being that they’re equipped with WiFi. Amtrak trains and, of course, the airports, also serve as points of departure if you’re in a hurry to move faster.
After New York, though, you might just need a rest!
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This podcast was scripted and recorded by Julie Schwietert Collazo.