My ultimate guide to planning your New York city breaks
*This post is a collaboration with New York Harbour Boat Tours.
Planning New York city breaks is no easy task – there’s no end of amazing things to do and see in the Big Apple – but how do stop yourself from wasting time? When you’ve been looking forward to your trip for months, you want to make the most of every second and focus on the things YOU really want to do, not what everyone tells you that you “should” do. The city may never sleep, but let’s be honest, if you did the same you’d be dead on your feet. So this post is all about how to cram in everything you want to see and do, without feeling like you’re rushing around like headless chicken!
As someone who has visited the city five times, I’ve had the opportunity to visit as a tourist keen on sightseeing, and the chance to return and focus on the parts of the city I love the most. Each trip has been completely different and each time I’ve been, I’ve discovered a whole new side to the city and fallen in love with it all over again. Now I want to help you do the same – not that you need any help to love New York City – but by taking your trip from the same old New York city breaks, to a trip you’ll never forget.
Planning your New York city breaks
Booking flights and when to visit
If you’re more flexible on when you travel, it’s worth monitoring flights and airline sales for some seriously budget-friendly prices. I’ve just searched on Skyscanner for the cheapest month and it’s coming up with flights from London to New York at just £137 one-way in October. Yes New York is an expensive holiday overall, but there are a lot of ways to cut costs and make it that little bit more affordable.If you’re unsure of how long you want to spend in the city, four to five days is a perfect amount of time for a first visit.
I’ve traveled there at Christmas, Easter and October, and all three are lovely times of year to visit. Flying out on Christmas day was significantly cheaper and the time difference meant we arrived by lunchtime and could still enjoy the day (plus everything is open like normal in New York at Christmas!). Do your research and check the weather for the time of year you want to visit, the city can sometimes be caught up in extreme snowstorms that could ruin your holiday!
Where to stay?
I’ve stayed in different hotels during my stays in the city – the first was the Flathotel which you may know as one of the hotels where the models in America’s Next Top Model used to stay during the show. It was one of the best hotels I have ever stayed at in my life, with the most incredible pancakes for breakfast but sadly it has since shut down. My last time in New York, I stayed at the Wellington Hotel, which is in Midtown Manhattan and just 400ms from Central Park and Carnegie Hall. It’s perfect positioned with great access to shopping, sights and more within walking distance.
If you’re traveling on a backpacker budget, I recommend checking out the hostels around the city for cheap beds in dorms (after all you’ll only be sleeping there) or private rooms that are more budget-friendly. Check out Hi NYC Hostel for a unique stay in a historic castle-like building featuring lots of great communal areas for meeting new friends and joining in the daily activities. They’re one of the highest rated hostels on Hostelworld and have two metro stations within walking distance that link direct to Times Square and Central Park.
What NOT to miss on your New York city breaks?
Head to the top of the Empire State Building
There is always a queue for the Empire State Building so make sure you either get up early and get to the front of the line, or get there in plenty of time for sunset. Some may say it’s a cheesy tourist spot, but you’ll be hard pushed to escape these in New York, and honestly it gives you such a fantastic view of the city. And the Big Apple is definitely a city you want to appreciate from the 102nd floor. Once you see New York from these heights, you’ll never forget it.
Stand in awe at the 9/11 Memorial/Ground Zero
A memory that will never leave me, I remember when I first went to New York and the World Trade Centre was just a pile of rubble waiting to be cleared. Over the next few visits, I watched it take shape and become the Ground Zero and 9/11 Memorial we see today. It’s incredibly heartbreaking, poignant and hard-hitting to visit the site of such a brutal attack, I still remember where I was when I heard the attack had happened. But now, it is a testament to the strength of the people in the wake of destruction.
Go give the Statue of Liberty a wave
Whether you decide to head over on the boat and visit the island, or you prefer to take in the view from Battery Park, it would be rude not to greet the Statue of Liberty.
Spend a sunny afternoon in Central Park
Central Park is such a beautiful place, you could easily spend endless time there. Whether in the winter for the ice skating and snowball fights, or in the summer for long afternoons in the sunshine, visiting the zoo and exploring the little walkways.
Take breakfast to the next level
If there’s one city that does breakfast well, it’s New York. From blueberry pancakes with bacon, to eggs sunny side up, French toast dripping in syrup to countless other options – you’ll be spoiled for choice! Check out Fluffy’s Café and Pizzeria, in Midtown, for insane blueberry pancakes, huge muffins and delicious cheesecake.
Pick up a bagel or sandwich on-the-go
There are no end of delis in the city and they all offer freshly made sandwiches, bagels and much more to order. Pick your fave fillings and put in your order! I was obsessed with the smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels on my last visit!
A slice of real New York city pizza
Who could say no to a slice of pizza? New York has the most epic array of pizza places – it would be impossible to cover them all! Here I hand over to Em Shel – who has definitely done her research when it comes to the best pizza in New York, check out her recommendations here.
Track down your favourite cuisine
Whether you love Italian food, Chinese food, Japanese sushi or Mexican, you’re sure to find amazing restaurants serving the very finest during your New York city breaks. But be sure to do the research first and have a place in mind so you don’t waste time deciding when you’re starving! Read the reviews and get recommendations from friends who have been. For me, I love Italian food so every visit means trekking to Little Italy for the best Italian food made authentically in restaurants that have been there longer than I’ve been around.
Exploring the city
Stroll around Little Italy
If you’re eager to get out and explore on foot to work up an appetite after stuffing yourself silly, why not take a walk to some of the different neighbourhoods? Little Italy is a personal favourite, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time and the streets are filled with the most amazing smells of food cooking in the family-run restaurants.
Shop in Chinatown
On the way to Little Italy, you’ll find yourself in Chinatown and you’ll want to stop and take in the sights. Crowded streets selling all kinds of items, restaurant windows filled with hanging ducks and lanterns overhead. It’s well worth a walk around the area for a taste of something different to Midtown.
Head to Brooklyn Flea Market
New York has lots of great markets for vintage shopping and quirky items, get away from the city and head over to Brooklyn to see the city from another viewpoint. Brooklyn Flea Market is a great place to find amazing pieces whether you’re looking for second-hand records, clothes or furniture.
Let’s be honest, there’s no chance of you going to New York and not shopping! Head to the famous 5th Avenue and go from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to afternoon at Armani. Whatever your budget, you’ll find shopping to suit, from the designer brands down to seasonal sales. If shopping is a priority, look at the time of year you travel – when we visited at Christmas, from Boxing Day onwards, everything was in extreme sale-mode and we saved so much money!
Take a harbour boat cruise
Tired of walking? Why not sit back and enjoy seeing the city from a different perspective, from the deck of a private motorboat with New York Harbor Boat Tours? Skip the crowded NYC boat tours and instead take a unique cruise with views of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan skyline, the Freedom Tower, Ellis Island and more. With two and three hour cruises up for grabs, it’s the perfect way to relax while cramming in the sights during your New York city breaks. The company offer small group and private boat tours departing from two locations, conveniently in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Prices start at $90 per person, full details of New York Harbor Boat Tours available here.
Snap up cheap Broadway tickets
Keen to catch a show while in the city? Tickets can be crazy expensive for some of the shows, but you can save money by heading to the ticket sellers in Times Square where they sell the last remaining seats for the day a few hours before the shows. It’s a great place to pick up reduced price tickets and get great seats! I’ve seen Mamma Mia and The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and wow, they were incredible!
See a game at Madison Square Gardens
Whether you’re into ice hockey, basketball, boxing or wrestling, Madison Square Gardens is the place to catch epic live sports in New York. I’ve always wanted to get tickets to the basketball while in the city but haven’t yet had the chance. You can buy tickets online here or pick them up from ticket sellers in the city, just be careful where you buy!
Catch a dinner show
Can’t splash out on sports or theatre tickets, but fancy an evening’s entertainment? Why not take in a dinner show? There are so many to choose from and they are so much fun, paired with a great meal. Check out this list by Culture Trip to find one that you like the sound of. We went to the World Famous Jekyll and Hyde Club – the world’s only haunted restaurant! The show was fantastic and had us laughing the whole way through and the food was absolutely delicious.
How to prioritise during your New York city breaks
You will never run out of things to do and see during your New York city breaks, but the important thing is to focus on the things you really want to spend time on. Yes, I’ve listed the big sights and some activities here, but you don’t have to do them all – you could pick just one or two and skip the rest. You might want to focus entirely on food and culinary experiences, or sports and watching as many as possible, you might even have tickets for a gig! Don’t feel the pressure to cram too much in, remember you’re on holiday and you should enjoy every second of your trip, no matter what pace you travel at.
I also really enjoyed visiting the art galleries, the New York City Library, Central Station and various other famous sights including Carrie Bradshaw’s flat from Sex and the City. Everyone is different, and many other people might not enjoy these, or many not have the money to spend on a lot of paid activities. If you’re on a budget, you should check out this post I wrote on finding free activities when you travel. Also, read about my free experience stargazing on the New York City High Line with a local astronomy group – one of my highlights of the trips.
Have you been to New York – what was your favourite memory? Is New York on your bucket list?
*All images by the amazingly talented Jörg Schubert – find more of his work here.