The cultural and financial capital of the USA, if not the world, New York City is an adrenaline-charged, history-laden place that holds immense romantic appeal for visitors. Its past is visible in the tangled lanes of Wall Street and tenements of the Lower East Side; meanwhile, towering skyscrapers serve as monuments of the modern age. Street life buzzes round the clock and shifts markedly from one area to the next. The waterfront, redeveloped in many places, and the landscaped green spaces – notably Central Park – give the city a chance to catch its breath. Iconic symbols of world culture – the neon of Times Square, the sculptures at Rockefeller Center – always seem just a stone’s throw away. For raw energy, dynamism and social diversity, you’d be hard-pressed to top it; simply put, there’s no place quite like it. Visiting New York should be on every traveller's bucket-list.

New York City comprises the central island of Manhattan and the four outer boroughs – Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Manhattan, to many, is New York; certainly, this is where you’re likely to stay and spend most of your time. Though you could spend weeks here and still barely scratch the surface, there are some key attractions and pleasures that you won’t want to miss. These include the different ethnic neighbourhoods, like Chinatown, and the more artsy concentrations of Soho and the East and West villages. Of course, there is also the celebrated architecture of Midtown and the Financial District, as well as many fabulous museums. In between sightseeing, you can eat just about anything, at any time, cooked in any style; you can drink in any kind of company; and enjoy any number of obscure movies. The more established arts – dance, theatre and music – are superbly presented. For the avid consumer, the choice of shops is almost numbingly exhaustive. When you're visiting New York, it can feel hard to catch your breath.

Manhattan is a hard act to follow, though Brooklyn is a worthy rival: there’s the ragged glory of Coney Island, the trim brownstones of Brooklyn Heights, the foodie destinations in South Brooklyn and the hip nightlife of Williamsburg. The rest of the outer boroughs also have their draws, namely the innovative museums of Long Island City and Astoria, both in Queens; and the renowned Bronx Zoo and adjacent botanical gardens in the Bronx. Last but not least, a free trip on the Staten Island Ferry is a sea-sprayed, refreshing good time.

Where to go in New York

New York is very much a city of neighbourhoods, most compact enough to be explored on foot (at least below 59th Street). This guide to the best places to visit in New York starts at the southern tip of the island and moves north.

The Harbour Islands – Liberty, Ellis and Governors islands – were the first glimpses of New York (and indeed America) for many nineteenth-century immigrants, a legacy celebrated in Ellis Island’s excellent Museum of Immigration.

The Financial District encompasses the skyscrapers and historic buildings of Manhattan’s southern reaches, including the tallest structure in town, One World Trade Center, rising from the ashes of Ground Zero.

Immediately east of here is City Hall, New York’s well-appointed municipal centre, and the massive Gothic span of the Brooklyn Bridge, while to the west is swanky Tribeca, a loft-filled residential district with plenty of happening restaurants. Soho, just to the north, was a big centre for art galleries in the 1970s and 80s; it’s better known today for its shops and street scene, as well as some historic cast-iron buildings.

East of here is Chinatown, Manhattan’s most densely populated ethnic neighbourhood and a vibrant locale great for Chinese food and mooching around. Now more a haven for pasta-and- red-sauce tourist traps than Italians, Little Italy next door is slowly being swallowed by Chinatown’s hungry expansion, while the Lower East Side, traditionally the city’s gateway neighbourhood for new immigrants – whether German, Jewish or Hispanic – has been almost totally gentrified by young urban professionals, but preserves its history in the thought-provoking Tenement Museum.

The East and West villages are known for their gorgeous, tree-lined streets, bohemian history and their hip bars, restaurants and shops. Chelsea has displaced the West Village as the heart of Manhattan’s gay scene, scooped Soho for exciting gallery spaces and added outdoor gems in the High Line and Hudson River Park developments.

The areas around Union Square and Gramercy Park feature some lovely skyscrapers, including the Flatiron Building, that nicely complement the green spaces, as well as an exciting eating scene. This is where the avenues begin their march north through the busy, regimented blocks of Midtown.

In its eastern portion, Midtown is dotted with some of the city’s most impressive sights, including the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal and the Museum of Modern Art. Modern and postmodern skyscrapers punctuate this business district. To the west, Times Square and the Theater District provide a commercialized look at the popular image of New York City, while Hell’s Kitchen, along Ninth and Tenth avenues, at least harkens back to a slightly grittier day.

Beyond the high-rise blocks of Midtown, the character of the city changes quite rapidly. The neck-cricking architecture and flagship stores along Fifth Avenue run into 59th Street, where the classic Manhattan vistas are broken by the broad expanse of Central Park, a supreme piece of nineteenth-century landscaping.

Flanking the park, the Upper East Side is wealthy and grandiose, with many of its nineteenth-century millionaires’ mansions now transformed into a string of magnificent museums known as “Museum Mile”; the most prominent of these is the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art. The residential neighbourhood boasts some of the swankiest addresses in Manhattan, as well as a nest of designer shops along Madison Avenue in the seventies.

On the other side of the park, the largely residential, less patrician enclave of the Upper West Side is worth a visit, mostly for Lincoln Center, the American Museum of Natural History and Riverside Park along the Hudson River; studenty Morningside Heights, home to Columbia University, tops off the neighbourhood.

Immediately north of Central Park, Harlem, the historic black city-within-a-city, numbers elegant brownstones, Baptist churches, jazz landmarks and a strong community spirit among its high points.

Still farther north, past residential Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights, a largely Hispanic enclave that few visitors ever venture to visit, stands Inwood at the tip of the island. It’s here you’ll find the Cloisters, a nineteenth-century mock-up of a medieval monastery, packed with great European Romanesque and Gothic art and (transplanted) architecture – in short, one of Manhattan’s must-sees.

It’s a good thing that, more and more, visitors (even those on a limited trip) venture off Manhattan Island to one or more of the outer boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island.

In addition to the points of historical and contemporary interest in each, places to visit include some of New York’s most vibrant ethnic neighborhoods. Consequently some of the city’s best food can be found out here: the Greek restaurants of the Astoria district in Queens, for example, or the Italian bakeries and trattorias of the Bronx’s Belmont section.

Individual sights like the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and Museum of Moving Image in Queens have plenty of pull, too, and a ride on the Staten Island Ferry is a free thrill that’s hard to beat.

It’s Brooklyn, however, that tends to steal the show and is more or less Manhattan’s equal – or at least rival. You can sample locally made food and buy snappy duds in hip Williamsburg, wander the brownstone-lined streets of Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, view cutting-edge exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum, ride a rickety roller coaster and soak up the old-world charm of Coney Island or hit Central Park’s counterpart, activity-filled Prospect Park.

Brief history of New York City

The first European to see Manhattan Island, then inhabited by the Lenape, was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, in 1524. Dutch colonists established the settlement of New Amsterdam exactly one hundred years later. The first governor, Peter Minuit, was the man who famously bought the island for a handful of trinkets. Though we don’t know for sure who “sold” it (probably a northern branch of the Lenni Lenape), the other side of the story was that the concept of owning land was utterly alien to Native Americans – they had merely agreed to support Dutch claims to use the land. By the time the British laid claim to the area in 1664, the heavy-handed rule of governor Peter Stuyvesant had so alienated its inhabitants that the Dutch relinquished control without a fight.

Renamed New York, the city prospered and grew, its population reaching 33,000 by the time of the American Revolution. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 facilitated trade farther inland, spurring the city to become the economic powerhouse of the nation, the base later in the century of tycoons such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and financiers like J.P. Morgan. The Statue of Liberty arrived from France in 1886, a symbol of the city’s role as the gateway for generations of immigrants, and the early twentieth century saw the sudden proliferation of Manhattan’s extraordinary skyscrapers, which cast New York as the city of the future in the eyes of an astonished world.

Almost a century later, the events of September 11, 2001, which destroyed the World Trade Center, shook New York to its core. Yet the Financial District bounced back, and the former Ground Zero site continues to develop, with the incredible Oculus housing a fancy shopping mall while new digs for the 9/11 Tribute Museum opened in 2018.

What to do in New York City

  1. Visit the Empire State Building

The Empire State Building is still the most original and elegant skyscraper of them all.

  1. Breathe in the Statue of Liberty

There's no greater symbol of the American dream than the magnificent statue that graces New York Harbour. Those with deep pockets can see the lady from a whole new angle by booking onto a New York helicopter tour.

  1. Explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art

You could easily spend a whole day (or week or month) at the Met, discovering everything from Egyptian artefacts to modern masters.

  1. See a baseball match

A summertime treat: enjoy a hot dog, a cold beer and America's pastime in the Yankees' or Mets' homes – or for a more intimate experience, see a Cyclones game in Coney Island.

  1. Walk across Brooklyn Bridge

Take the less-than-a-mile walk across the bridge to see beautiful views of the downtown skyline and Harbor views.

  1. Pause at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum

The pools in the buildings' footprints and museum artefacts including the "Last Column" can't help but stir emotion.

  1. Discover the Museum of Modern Art

Simply put, the MoMA holds the most comprehensive collection of modern art in the world, curated in a breathtaking setting of glass atriums and statuary.

  1. Smell the flowers at the High Line

This plant-lined Chelsea walkway offers a unique perspective on the city below and on the power of progressive urban renewal.

  1. Roam Central Park

The city's beloved swathe of green: take a boat ride, watch Shakespeare in the Park or enjoy a picnic after a morning spent museum-hopping. Alternatively, join a Central Park Ice Skating and Walking Tour, or book onto a romantic Carriage Ride.

  1. Take the Staten Island Ferry

Savour Manhattan's skyline and the Statue of Liberty from a boat's-eye view – absolutely free.

  1. Experience some thrills on Coney Island

Ride on classics like the Wonder Wheel or Cyclone, or on the newer Thunderbolt coaster, high above the boardwalk, for a seaside thrill.

  1. Marvel at modern art at the Whitney Museum of American Art

As the anchor of the High Line, this Meatpacking District museum shows off modern American art, with a healthy dose of terrace views.

  1. Explore the Tenement Museum

A Lower East Side apartment dwelling turned museum, this local treasure brilliantly captures the lives of three generations of immigrants.

  1. Feel the beat at live jazz

New York's jazz scene is vibrant, but Harlem is first choice for characterful venues and late-night jam sessions. Some great jazz talent is showcased at the Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church in Harlem.

  1. See a show

Taking in a Broadway play or musical is a must for theatre-lovers; any venue will suffice, as long as the show is up to standard. Try Frozen, Aladdin, the Lion King, Moulin Rouge or Tina Turner.

LGBT Travel Information for New York

There are few places in America where gay culture thrives as it does in New York. Chelsea (centred on Eighth Ave, between 14th and 23rd sts), the East Village and Hell’s Kitchen have replaced the West Village as the hubs of gay New York, although a strong presence still lingers around Christopher Street. There’s Brooklyn’s Park Slope, too, though perhaps more for women than for men. The free weekly Gay City News, Next and GO have listings.

Nightlife in New York City

You’ll never be at a loss for something fun or culturally enriching to do while in New York. The live music scene, in particular, well reflects New York’s diversity: on any night of the week, you can hear pretty much any type of music, from thumping hip-hop to raging punk, and, of course, plenty of jazz. There are also quite a few dance clubs, where you can move to hard-hitting house or cheesy tunes from the 1970s and 80s.

Arts, culture and entertainment in New York City

Home to Broadway and 42nd Street, New York is one of the world’s great theatre centres. Even if you’re not normally a theatre buff, going to see a play or a musical while here is virtually de rigueur. The various theatre venues are referred to as Broadway, Off-Broadway or Off-Off Broadway, representing a descending order of ticket price, production polish, elegance and comfort. Classical music, opera and dance are all very well represented, too. As for film, you couldn’t hope for better pickings: the city has several large indie theatres, assorted revival and arthouse cinemas and countless Hollywood-blockbuster multiplexes. Last but not least, NYC has many excellent comedy clubs.

Shopping in New York City

When it comes to consumerism, New York leaves all other cities behind. Midtown Manhattan is mainstream territory, with the department stores, big-name clothes designers and larger chains. Downtown plays host to a wide variety of more offbeat stores – SoHo is perhaps the most popular shopping neighbourhood in these parts, and generally the most expensive. Affordable alternatives for the young and trendy are available in the Lower East Side; good vintage clothing can be found there, in the East Village and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Sports in New York

Seeing either of New York’s two baseball teams involves a trip to the outer boroughs. The Yankees play in the Bronx, at Yankee Stadium. Get there on the #4, B or D subway lines direct to the 161st Street station. The Mets are based in Queens, at Citi Field. Take the #7 train, direct to Willets Point.

New York’s football teams – the Jets and Giants – play at the Metlife Stadium. Buses from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, serve the stadium. Tickets for both teams are always officially sold out well in advance, but you can often get seats (legally) from websites such as stubhub.com.

There are three New York pro teams: the NBA Knicks and the WNBA Liberty, both of which play at Madison Square Garden, and the Brooklyn Nets, who call Barclays Center home. Tickets for the Knicks are very expensive, and, due to impossibly high demand, available in only limited numbers, if at all. Nets tickets are easier to score, while the women’s games are fairly exciting and cheaper (starting at a little over $10, though they can be much more).

New York’s hockey team, the Rangers, also plays at Madison Square Garden. The New York Islanders skate at the Barclays Center. The area soccer team, the New York Red Bulls, play over in Harrison, New Jersey; a second pro team, New York City FC, started playing in 2015.

This page contains affiliate links; all recommendations are editorially independent.

Best time to visit

New York City’s climate ranges from sticky, hot and humid in midsummer to very cold in January and February: be prepared to freeze or boil accordingly if you decide to visit during these periods.

Spring is a good time to visit, gentle, if unpredictable and often wet, while autumn is perhaps the most beguiling season and the best time to visit New York, with crisp, clear days and warmish nights.

Whenever you’re visiting, plan to dress in layers, as it’s the only way to combat overheated buildings in winter and overactive, icy air-conditioning come summertime.

City tours

Countless businesses and individuals compete to help you make sense of the city, offering all manner of guided tours; even if you don’t need the assistance, you might appreciate the background they provide.

Bus and boat tours

Circle Line Ferry Pier 83 at West 42nd St and Twelfth Ave 212 563 3200, circleline42.com. Circumnavigate Manhattan while boxening to live commentary; the 3hr tour runs year-round.

Gray Line Port Authority Bus Terminal 800 669 0051, newyorksightseeing.com. Double-decker bus tours offering an unlimited hop-on, hop-off service, taking in the main sights of Manhattan. If you’re not happy with your tour guide (quality can vary), you can hop off the bus and wait another 15min for the next one.

Walking tours

Big Onion Walking Tours 212 439 1090, bigonion.com. Guided by history grad students from local universities, the venerable Big Onion specializes in tours with an ethnic and historical focus: pick one, or take the “Immigrant New York” tour and learn about everyone. Tours last about 2hr.

Harlem Heritage Tours 212 280 7888, harlemheritage.com. Local Neal Shoemaker runs cultural tours of this historic neighbourhood, ranging from Harlem Gospel to Harlem Renaissance-themed walking tours. The tours sometimes include food, a cultural performance, film clips and/or bus service.

Municipal Arts Society 212 935 3960, mas.org/tours. Opinionated, incredibly detailed historical and architectural tours in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. They also offer free tours of Grand Central Terminal (Wed 12.30pm; from the information booth).

Eating

New Yorkers take their food very seriously, and are obsessed with new cuisines, new dishes and new restaurants. Certain areas hold pockets of ethnic restaurants, especially in the outer boroughs, but you can generally find whatever you want, wherever (and whenever) you want. You can also find examples of a recent trend, the food truck, scattered all around town, serving lobster rolls, Korean tacos and much more. Check @nycfoodtruck on Twitter locations.

Drinking in New York City

New York’s best bars are, generally speaking, in Downtown Manhattan – the West and East villages, Soho and the Lower East Side – and in outer-borough hoods like Williamsburg, Red Hook and Long Island City. Most places serve food of some kind and have happy hours sometime between 4pm and 8pm during the week.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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