I’ve finally visited The Big Apple! It was on my bucket list before I turned 30 so am very happy to tick that one off. So what to do with 5 days in New York City? Well, I’m going to give you a whole rundown of what we did during our time in the city that never sleeps, to inspire you for your own visit!
There is an abundance of astonishing architecture, beautiful design and Art in this buzzing capital. As well as rich history and culture, and friendly New York Citizens. I could have spent weeks exploring this city, and will definitely visit NYC again in the future. If you’re contemplating how long you should stay in the capital, my advice is, to stay simply as long as you can. There is an endless amount of wonderful things to see and do, if you’re toying with an extra day you’ll definitely regret not taking it!
- Visa – I had to apply for an ESTA for my visit to New York check out the official government website for more information here.
- Immunisations – some are required, check out my go-to website for up to date information: https://nathnac.net
- Safety – Just like London New York City is a very safe place to visit. You should use usual common sense, around protecting valuables to avoid pick-pocketers, and staying safe at night.
- Currency – USA dollar
- Language – English
We flew with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow and booked the holiday as a package via Virgin Holidays. I had checked booking accommodation and flights separately, but Virgin Holidays was still competitively priced. As we were travelling as a group also and Virgin Holidays offered a book now pay later system it was the easiest option for all. The flight to JFK was around 7 hours and on our way home a little shorter at just over 6 hours. Flights with Virgin Atlantic are very comfortable, even though we were in economy, being the tallest of the group at 5″3…I know, I was the tallest! We had plenty of leg room. The meals onboard Virgin Atlantic were great too. I pre-ordered my vegan meals and all of the food was very tasty and well balanced.
When arriving at JFK airport, expect confusion and long waits! Maybe this was especially noticeable being a brit as we are well known for our fantastic queuing systems and love of queueing. There was no order in waiting in line to get out of the airport or even get back in for that matter when it was time to go home. I don’t particularly enjoy the passport control security processes at airports, which I’m sure most people don’t either. But I do much prefer knowing where I stand – quite literally when it comes to expectations of wait times and where I’m meant to be going. So just a little word to the wise, expect a long wait and plan ahead.
Our transfer from JFK to our hotel in Times Square was provided by ‘Go Airlink Shuttle‘ which I found to be quite disappointing. The ‘share ride shuttle transfer’ was a small mini-bus with multiple drop off’s. The journey which would have only taken an hour by taxi turned into 2 hours, by which point we all just wanted to collapse at our hotel. Taxies are very easy to find in NYC and our hotel later advised that taxis charge a flat fee of $53 from Times Square to JFK which was considerably cheaper than out shuttle.
Where to stay
We decided to stay right in the action of Times Square at The Renaissance.
The location was ideal, right in the heart of Manhattan, in Mid-town, with the Subway just outside the front door, giving us access to the R and W trains. We were also only a stone’s throw from the many theatres, as well as tonnes of restaurants. After a day of sightseeing around Manhattan, we wanted it to be easy to find some tasty food and head home to rest, for the next jam-packed day.
The rooms were very comfortable, clean and had great amenities. Breakfast was also included in the price. On offer was a cooked breakfast selection, fresh fruit, cereal, pastries toast and bagels! As well as tea, coffee, fresh orange juice. The real icing on the breakfast cake, however, was the magnificent view from the restaurant over Times Square. It was amazing to wake up, have breakfast, and watch the hustle and bustle unfold before we decided to join it for the day. Highly recommend staying in this wonderful hotel.
As I mentioned earlier, taxis are in abundance in New York City. They are so easy to hail and use to get around. A taxi from JFK to Times Square is only $53 which worked out cheaper than our pre-paid shuttle service so it’s always worth checking your options. Although taking a taxi may be a little more comfortable, going door to door rather than using the subway, there can also be some downsides – namely NYC traffic! We opted to take a taxi to China Town one evening when going for dinner. Unfortunately, we were sat in the taxi pretty much at a standstill for around 20 minutes. The taxi driver said he thought there had been an accident so we decided to jump out a little earlier, although tried to go as far as we could as our little legs were aching from all the sightseeing! The taxi fare quickly increased whilst we sat in traffic!
Subway and buses
If you’re on a budget like I was, then taxi’s can get rather expensive so I took full advantage of the weekly metro card. The Subway was great and I completely recommend everyone visiting NYC to ride the subway. It was only $33 for a weekly metro card, with each individual journey costing $2.75, that meant I only had to use the subway over 12 times to make financial sense, which was a bargain! It can also be used on buses, which was also a life saver when I wanted to be lazy and just hop on a bus to head down one of the long avenues and save my legs for the museum and galleries.
The subway system may look a little daunting at first, but once you get your head around it, it’s easy to follow. It’s probably even more straight forward than the London Underground for tourists. Check out the Subway Map here. It operates with different coloured lines (similar to the London Underground) and the lines are just named after a letter or number. You can use the subway to pretty much reach all of the major attractions. Even when travelling in what I thought was rush hour the trains were never overcrowded and I even managed to get a seat most of the time. A friendly American gentleman even offered me his seat when I got on one of the subway trains which was lovely.
Lastly, aside from taxis, subways and buses, the best way to get around is walking. But my gosh will you do some walking, according to my fit-bit I averaged around 20,000 steps a day! It was, of course, totally worth it, and also helped to work off the gigantic food portion sizes at the restaurants we went to. Walking around New York though you really get a sense of what the city is like, for people who live and work there, and other tourists along the way. So definitely fit in some time during your trip to hit the streets and soak up the atmosphere by foot!
As always it can be a little difficult eating as a group with other meat eaters, but the options available in New York City were pretty good. Here’s a breakdown of where we visited.
- Olive Garden
- Hard Rock Cafe
- Candle 79 Restaurant (all vegan restaurant – highly recommend!)
- Johns Pizzeria NYC
- Bella Vita Pizzeria and Trattoria
- 456 Shanghai Cuisine
Day 1 – We arrived early afternoon, so got our bearings and then roamed around Times Square soaking up the bright lights as this afternoon moved into evening. Then we set off to the Rockefeller Centre to enjoy cocktails at Bar 65 and gaze at the evening view of Manhattan.
Day 2 – Midtown – Empire State Building, New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, Chrysler Building, Flat iron Building and the Theatre District.
Day 3 – Downtown – Statue of Liberty, China Town, Little Italy, and 9/11 Memorial and Museum
Day 4 – Uptown – Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art.
Day 5 – Our last day before heading back to the airport in the afternoon, spent wandering around Central Park, escaping the hustle and bustle of the city and unwinding amongst nature.
For the purposes of this guide, I’ve split the attractions into three main areas – Uptown, Midtown and Downtown. Also, I have to mention, going the week before spring break was fantastic – almost all of the attractions we saw were so quiet. There were hardly any queues and there was a very relaxed atmosphere everywhere we went. Speaking to one of the staff members at the Empire State Building she advised that it would get a whole lot busier the following week during spring break. So if you are considering when to go, if you can, definitely avoid any major holidays. You’ll be able to fit so much more in, without wasting time waiting in lines.
Known as ‘Museum Mile’ on 5th Avenue, which hugs the east side of Central Park is home to several galleries and museums, including:
- El Museo del Barrio at 104th Street
- Museum of the City of New York at 103rd Street
- Jewish Museum at 92nd Street
- Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design at 91st Street
- National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts at 89th Street
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum at 88th Street
- Metropolitan Museum of Art from 82nd to 86th Streets
I would have seen them all if I could but only having 5 days in New York I decided to prioritise the art galleries, visiting, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then hopping down to 54th Street to visit the Museum of Modern Art.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
I was so excited to see the Guggenheim. Not only the art exhibitions inside but the building itself. I studied the architect Frank Lloyd Wright during college and his design ideas were so innovative for his time. Construction of this monumental building finished in 1959 and opened just 6 months after Frank Lloyd Wright’s death. As well as the Guggenheim in New York there are several more locations. Including the Guggenheim in Bilbao, designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry. Another amazing building I’d love to visit soon. There is also another Guggenheim in Venice , as well as an equally daringly designed architectural feat by Frank Gehry underway in Abu Dhabi. For more information on these amazing architectural buildings visit the Guggenheim Foundation website here.
The interior of the Guggenheim is just as inspiring as the exterior. It allows for a meandering wander through exhibitions up to the 5th floor of the building. Circling the outer edges of the building with other exhibition rooms and cafes off of the main console. With a huge domed ceiling, light floods the space.
When I visited there was an exhibition dedicated to Hilma Af Klint. A pioneer of Abstract Art who first started creating abstract art in 1906. Fearful that her work would not be understood, her works miraculously did not surface until after her death, with them only later beginning to be exhibited from 1986. Decades after the likes of Kandinsky and Mondrian started to exhibit and talk about their abstract art. I wonder how different would her career have been if she had the courage to share her work whilst she was alive?
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum is absolutely huge, you could probably spend a couple of days exploring every part of the museum to actually take it all in. So if you’re visiting for just a few hours then you really need to try and choose which parts to focus on, and what interests you the most. Check out the full map of the museum here.
I decided to visit just the west wing of the Museum which includes: Greek and Roman Art, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and Modern and Contemporary Art. Such as the Kwoma Ceiling, originally found in the ceremonial houses of the Kwoma people, of New Guinea. Or the modern abstract artworks of Jackson Pollock. The Museum was pretty busy when I visited, with school visits before spring break as well as loving couples on a day out (it was Valentine’s day). However, it didn’t dampen the experience at all.
Museum of Modern Art
Again, quite a busy venue with lots of visitors, but still plenty of room to view all of the exhibitions. it was actually quite fun to watch other tourists attempt to take selfies with iconic works like ‘Starry Night’ by Van Gogh. As well as seeing Gustav Klimt’s ‘Hope’ in person. (Gustav Klimt is a favourite artist of mine).
The other people in my group opted to take the horse and carriage ride around the whole of Central Park, which they said they thoroughly enjoyed and received a detailed tour from their tour guide. However, as a vegan, I disagree with any form of animal exploitation. So instead decided to hop on the C train up the west side of Central Park getting off at 96th street and meandering through this picturesque park. I spent around 2 hours leisurely strolling through the park (getting lost a few times along the way) but it was great to escape the hustle and bustle and get back to nature. Once I arrived back at the entrance I jumped on the 1 train and headed back downtown towards Time Square for lunch.
Alice in Wonderland
All situated within walking distance of one another in Midtown are several feats of engineering, and beautiful architecture including:
- Rockefeller Center
- Empire State Building
- New York Public Library
- Grand Central Station
- Chrysler Building
- Flat iron Building
The Rockefeller Center an iconic building for so many reasons. One which my friend mentioned a few times was of course because of the lovely Christmas film ‘Home Alone’. It has been an icon and hub for so many people and organisations throughout the years, which lived up to the hopes and dreams of its owner John D. Rockefeller. The idea behind the Rockefeller Center was to create a city within a city.
Construction of The Rockefeller Center began in 1930 and was officially opened in 1933. The yearly tradition of the huge Christmas tree started in 1931. As well as the later addition of the Ice Rink in 1936. The building was leased to different organisations and companies and over 90% of the building was rented by 1940s.
Both the Rockefeller Center and Empire State building offers great views of the city so we decided to visit Rockefeller in the evening, visiting Bar 65 for some cocktails instead of paying the fee to enter the top of the building.
We actually embarrassingly struggled to find the Rockefeller Center initially! We were in the Rockefeller Plaza and could see the ice rink below, but couldn’t find the iconic building.
It’s surprising when you see these amazing buildings in full and the top of the buildings they are instantly recognisable but down on the ground as little ants, they can be hard to spot! So if you struggle to find any sights then don’t worry we did too! It just made it even funnier when we finally reached the bar parched and in need of a drink to celebrate our long-awaited discovery!
Empire State Building
For a different view of the city during the day we opted to pay the fee to go to the top of the Empire State building. Construction of the Empire State building began in 1930, with 4 and a half stories being built each week. Just over a year later in 1931, the construction was completed.
I recommend visiting the Empire State building towards the end of your trip. As you reach the observation deck you will be able to marvel and pick out all of the sights you have already seen, which is what we did.
We could see the statue of liberty in the distance looking towards downtown, and Central Park looking towards uptown. Along with other landmarks such as the Chrysler Building and the Flat Iron Building!
I also strongly recommend visiting during term time, when children are at school. New York is obviously a major tourist destination so welcomes year-round visitors. However, when we visited just before spring break we did not have to queue at all! It was amazing we just entered the building and could go straight up to the observation deck. If you do have to visit during the holidays however you can purchase advance tickets, or skip the line tickets so it’s worth considering. Check out the Empire State Building website for more information here.
New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
There is a whole network of New York public Libraries across New York City, however, the most iconic building is the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Built in 1911, the building showcases examples of magnificent Beaux-Arts style of architecture.
The New York Public Library isn’t always a priority on everyone’s visiting list, but I wanted to visit to view the beautiful architecture and learn about its history. It is really worth a visit! You can just wander around the Library yourself if you’re short on time, however, the Library does offer an excellent free audio tour, which lasts around 45minutes to an hour.
It was very peaceful and relaxing to escape the buzz of the city and wander inside this quiet and still functioning public library. The architecture in the building is phenomenal and very grand. Much like a lot of the other landmarks in New York City. As well as being a functional library for research, students and children to visit, they also hold regular exhibitions.
When I visited, one of their exhibitions, was ‘Love & Resistance’. Which detailed the events of the Stonewall riots in 1969, involving the LGBTQ civil rights activists. Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the event.
You can also visit the real stuffed animals which inspired the stories of Winnie the Pooh in the Children’s Section of the Library.
Grand Central Terminal
The wealthy Vanderbilt Family are responsible for the building of the Grand Central Terminal. They wanted to create a magnificent building for passengers entering and leaving New York City. With the building itself echoing the grandeur and possibilities of the city. Which was greatly achieved by the spectacular architecture and interior design of the building. Construction of the building started in 1903, and ten years of excavation and construction was later finished in 1913.
Over the years the building became damaged and dilapidated. There is a small square on the ceiling which remains unchanged and is completely black. Back in the day when everyone smoked everywhere, the interiors became stained and dirty. As well as the dangers during World War 1 and 2, the vast windows were painted black to block out any light to make it less visible to enemy overhead planes. All of this combined meant the building was in great need of restoration. Which thankfully, took place during the 1980s and 1990s. Now the building is back to its original 1913 splendour.
There are a couple of options to access the audio tour. I opted to pick up an audio guide at the desk just by the ticket offices on the main concourse. I couldn’t find it to begin with but if you just head to the row of ticket offices it’s located in the far corner. The tour is charged at around $12, and lasts for approximately one hour. Although you can take as long or as little listening to each stop. I decided to have a break midway and head to the basement to grab some lunch. If you’d prefer you can also download an audio tour on your smartphone via the App Store (for IPhone or Android). Check out the Grand Central Terminal website here for more information.
Situated just next to Grand Central Terminal is the iconic Chrysler Building. Unfortunately, I could only catch a glimpse of this magnificent building as every time I looked up, I had an onslaught of snow covering my face! Fortunately, it only snowed one day during our trip so wasn’t enough to put a dampener on it! There isn’t an observation deck inside the Chrysler, but you can visit the Lobby to appreciate the beautiful interiors.
The Flatiron Building was built in 1902, and is 22 stories high. It gets its name due to the resemblance it shares with a cast iron clothes iron. Much like the Chrysler Building the flat iron building also doesn’t have an observation deck accessible to the public. There are plans however for the building to be converted into a hotel so this may be a possibility in years to come once renovations are completed. Just like the Chrysler Building, however, it is still a marvel to look at from the outside. I’d also learnt about the flat iron building at college due to it’s iconic ‘flat iron’ triangular shaped design, which was very innovative for its time.
I’m not a huge shopper but the rest of my group were, so they took full advantage of visiting the shopping outlet ‘Woodberry Common’. They managed to spend a whole day there and came back with hoards of bags! I was amazed when they didn’t go over their luggage allowance at check in on our way home! So if you are a fan of shopping Woodberry Common is worth a mention. Although I wanted to focus on the sightseeing so sat this one out.
Last but not least being an avid fan of the drama of ‘say yes to the dress’ we couldn’t visit New York without stopping by the legendary Kleinfeld. We obviously weren’t allowed to go into the store (not having an appointment or being engaged for that matter!). We did get the opportunity to visit their small store across the street which housed some of their sample dresses, which I fell in love with!
Another shopping opportunity is Macey’s. I didn’t hang around for long. Although we arrived just before the stored opened and I think I had the warmest welcome into a department store ever! Music blaring, members of staff were either side of the entrances cheering and clapping as shoppers entered as if to be applauded for our consumerism! Definitely an experience.
We visited the very quaint Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street in the Theatre District. It is quite a small theatre which gave a very intimate feel to the performance. We booked online prior to our visit to ensure we got good seats, and as we were visiting New York as a birthday celebration for my friend, we did splurge a little on the tickets.
The show Anastasia was probably one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen yet. Everything from the costume design, hair, makeup and staging was immaculately beautiful. The story was just as I had remembered when I watched the Disney version of Anastasia as a child. The tumultuous story of the slaying of the Russian Royal Family in which little Anastasia shrives. Suffering from Amnesia and losing her identify she falls in with two con artists who groom her to play the part of Anastasia without realising she really is her. All ending with a heartfelt reunion with her grandmother in Paris . The show is full of great acting, dancing, emotion and banter, as well as a short ballet performance!
Statue of Liberty
To visit the statue of liberty we booked a tour through Statue Cruises.
We purchased the standard ticket which included the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, including a visit to the pedestal as well as Ellis Island before heading back to Manhattan. We did consider visiting the crown of the statue, however, If you want to book tickets to get up into the crown you generally need to book 6 months in advance. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan in advance and the next available slot was May 1st! The ferry offered amazing views of Manhattan as we crossed the waters, which was actually a relatively smooth ride and not rough at all.
An Audio tour is included for free when you arrive on the island and gives detailed information about the history of the island, the statue construction and design. There is also a museum in the pedestal and the opportunity to climb several flights of stairs to the top of the pedestal.
The ferry arrives at the island every 40 minutes or so. Just as we were heading back to the dock we missed the boat so took shelter inside the very overpriced cafe and had a bite to eat before the next boat arrived. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise how long we would spend at the Statue of Liberty and as we had other sights planned for the day we decided to stay on the boat and not get off at Ellis Island. You really need to reserve around 3 hours for the round trip just for the Statue I would say. It was also quite a cold day when we visited with very cold winds, and we were both happy to head back into the city where we would be shielded by towers and buildings from the brutal wind! It would be great to go back in the summer though and visit Ellis Island. Before we headed back, we saw a barge with a huge tweet plastered on it from John F Kennedy stating:
“The US has always served as a lantern in the dark for those who love freedom but are persecuted, in misery, or in need”
New York City is the home of immigration and is full of a rich dense population from all over the world. Two particular areas which saw a large number of immigrants from one place is that of China Town and Little Italy. China Town is as you would imagine home to a vast number of restaurants and eateries. With various noodles, rice, dumplings and buns on offer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore so settled for a wander through the streets of China Town. If you do have more time to spare however there are a number of places to visit. Including, Museum of Chinese in America, Colombus Park and Mahayana Buddhist Temple. We also visited here in the evening and went to ‘456 Shanghai Cuisine’ The restaurant was packed to the rafters – a good sign, and the food was great!
Just like China Town, an abundance of Italians settled in the now dubbed Little Italy of Manhattan. Here you will find countless Italian restaurants, offering authentic Italian cuisine. If you have time and would like to learn more about the history and heritage of the Italian immigrants visit the Italian American Museum. I was pushed for time so wandered through Little Italy during the day. it was surprisingly very quiet so I recommend heading here in the evening to soak up the atmosphere and visit one of the many restaurants.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
The memorial is made up of two square water features which represent the two fallen twin towers. The nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11th 2001, and February 26th 1993 are inscribed in bronze framing the water features.
When I visited there were white roses placed in some of the inscribed names. There was a very quiet atmosphere at the memorial as people wandered silently through the memorial.
The museum is dedicated to all those who lost their lives on September 11th 2001, as well as 6 people who lost their lives on February 26th 1993 during a previous terror attack on the twin towers. The museum is a touching tribute and information centre to these devastating events. Within the museum, you will be able to see artefacts taken from the wreckage such as twisted sections of steel where the planes hit the towers. As well as a fire truck which was on the scene when the events unfolded. A large gallery of all of the nearly 3000 victims is held within one of the exhibits, paying tribute to their individual lives.
There was also a beautiful art installation named “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning”. 2,983 individual watercolor drawings, commemorating the victims of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. As well as a fibre glass statue of liberty covered in American flags, condolence messages, prayer cards, and other memorial items. For more information on the artwork and exhibits of the museum, visit the 9/11 memorial and museum website here.
The museum is very emotionally disturbing, the sheer horror and tragedy of these events is depicted with truth and conviction, but is very difficult to bear witness to. At one moment during an exhibit, I was almost in floods of tears and had to leave immediately because I was so distraught at seeing the various articles, photographs and footage of that terrible day. A very emotional visit, but one that everyone visiting New York City should make.
World Trade Center Transportation Hub
When you’re finished visited the 9/11 memorial and museum head over to the World Trade Centre Transportation Hub – even if you don’t intend on using the subway – go just to see the amazing space! Built in 2016, the building described by the architects Santiago Calatrava as being made up of ‘ribs’ which when viewed from the exterior draw out to form wings. The inside of the rib cage is quite breathtaking and full of natural light which floods in between the rib cage ‘bones’.
I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures in New York City, and I’ve given you some pointers and inspiration for your visit! If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to comment or contact me directly for more information. If I had an extra day I would have loved to visit, Brooklyn Bridge, Museum of American History, and Wall Street but alas – I will have to wait for next time! What else did you see and do in this great city, I’d love to hear about your trips too!
For more detailed information and advice why not check out these useful guides and books – Lonely Planet Best of New York, The 500 Hidden Secrets of New York, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide New York and The Rough Guide to New York City.
This article contains affiliate links, which means I make a small commission if you decide to purchase via that link. The price is not increased to include my commission, and I only include products that I use and love myself.