It’s both a lifetime must-see and a complex grid of honking cars and rushing commuters, full of potential frustrations. New York City has its own microculture, made up of tip-demanding cabbies, incredible restaurants, brusque deli owners, spendy museums, hedonistic rooftops and straight-off-the-screen sights.
You’ll need to do a bit of forward planning to get the best out of it – not least narrowing down the neighbourhoods you want to explore, attractions you want to tick off and booking restaurants that routinely fill up months ahead. But the rewards are dynamite: even a short trip can be packed full of best-ever dinners, late nights, world class culture and only-in-NY moments. At the end of it all, your memories will be vivid (even if your wallet is a little lighter).
What to do
This skyline is the stuff of student posters, movie marketing and migrant dreams the world over. It’s worth seeing from a high point. Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock is pretty good, with a calm, gallery-like space and an audio-visual lift to reach its dizzying heights. But those who are romantic about NY will love the Empire State Building, with its Art Deco detailing and (caged) outdoor viewing deck as seen in a million movies. Seeing a 360-degree view while the wind whips your hair about is the jet-lag wake up call you need (and the observatory is open until 2am for a little past-midnight magic). Adult tickets $44, children 12 and under $38, kids under six go free.
NY’s Metropolitan Museum is one of the biggest and best in the world, containing treasures as diverse as couture dresses, medieval church gates and Egyptian temples. Polished, huge and echoing with space, it’s an atmospheric walk through the history of the world. Don’t miss the airy Greek and Roman sculpture court (Gallery 162), the impressive “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and other Founding Father portraits in the American Wing, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Room, a living room designed by the modernist architect. Adults $30, children under 12 free.
Take a walk
Half of the fun here is simply strolling around neighbourhoods that, to most, simply look like movie sets or romantic sketches of fire escapes and tree-lined streets. Start with the bohemian West Village, with its weekend cafe culture, moving on to the High Line, running from west-side Hudson Yards down to the Whitney art museum. Leave time for shopping-heaven SoHo and the on-trend Lower East Side. Brooklyn is a whole world of its own, worthy of a whole guide, but nip over if you have the time.
Park life and showtunes
A stroll through Central Park, too, is a must: note how the paths curve and dip, with round boulders and curvaceous lakes. This was an intentional design choice to help New Yorkers living in an angular grid of streets relax and unwind in nature. Aim to pass through it on your way to one of the museums (the stretch of road around the Met is known as “museum mile”) or coming from there down to the Broadway theatres. A Broadway show is also a great way to soak up some of this city’s world-leading culture scene – if you’re not the type to book a front-row seat eight months ahead, look at what’s available on the day on last-minute tickets website TodayTix. You can often snap up $40 tickets to something unexpected, picking them up from a TodayTix rep outside the theatre 30 minutes before showtime.
Where to stay
I prefer to stay downtown when I visit NY. For me, the neighbourhoods that huddle south of the Empire State Building (34th Street) – including Chelsea, the West Village, East Village, Lower East Side, SoHo and Tribeca – feel less chaotic, less traffic-heavy, and have a higher concentration of good restaurants and bars than uptown Manhattan. There are of course many more brilliant hotels around tourist centre Midtown and Central Park.
This redbrick Chelsea townhouse does only the basics, but with great interior flair. There’s a glam Midcentury-styled lobby lounge that does great coffee by day, and a curated wine selection by night. There’s a petite rooftop for private evening drinks, and a neat gym for those who need it. Rooms are snug but stylish with a glossy walnut-panelling aesthetic, luxuriant Frette bedding and black-tiled bathrooms with decent power showers. Doubles from £202, room only. themoorenyc.com
In summer, NY sizzles, and a hotel with a pool is an asset. This sharp little design hotel in foodie, sociable SoHo has a great rooftop number, which hosts weekend parties. Bright, Sixties-feel bedrooms have pops of cobalt blue decor and Bauhaus-era art; a tree-shaded terrace hosts drinks, while a friendly, hands-on team can help you with anything you need down in the stylish wood-panelled lobby. Doubles from £305 a night, room only. modernhaushotel.com
Most famous for being owned by Robert DeNiro – and having a restaurant where Beyoncé, Bradley Cooper and even Meghan and Harry have broken bread – in reality, the Greenwich is a beacon of calm, privacy and effortless New York style. Rooms are large and individually stocked with butter-soft leather sofas, coffee table art books, whimsical candy gift baskets, Dyson hairdryers and bespoke bathtubs that fill up in seconds. In the basement is a heavenly Japanese-influenced spa with lap pool; at the back is a guests-only lounge and garden reminiscent of LA’s Chateau Marmont. The prices, as you might expect, are gasp-worthy. Doubles from £808, room only. Thegreenwichhotel.com
For something affordable, try the new Arlo hotel in Midtown, a design-hotel wunderkind with light, essentials-only monochrome rooms, a petite but vibey rooftop bar and huge, high-ceilinged lobby. There’s a basic but modern gym in the basement and all the first-timer sights are within walking distance. Double rooms from £159, room only. arlohotels.com/midtown
Read more of our hotel reviews in New York
Where to eat
New York’s indoor food markets are on the rise, with one to be found in most areas – they’re a great shout for tasting “a bit of everything” in a city with far too much to try in one trip. Essex Market, on the Lower East Side, is our pick: pop in for lunch to grab cult fried rice balls from Arancini Bros, bagels from Davidovich or purple ube ice cream from L.E.S Ice Cream Factory. For something so now, book Dhamaka, a hot new Indian restaurant on the edge of the market.
This is the swanky pasta place New York regulars fight over reservations for – its spicy rigatoni vodka is the stuff of legend. The neon sign, dark-wood panelling, swing classics on the stereo and suited waiters give it a pleasing mobster undertone, while inky blue walls, tiled floors and painted Italian crockery keep things stylish.
Russ & Daughters
This Lower East Side institution may have the humble looks and well-stocked fish counter of the 1914 Jewish deli it once was, but it’s got the queues and turnover of a 2022 “it” brunch spot. Get your name in early on weekend mornings, then wander the indie-store-packed LES while you wait – the silky smoked salmon (lox), cream cheese (schmear) and plump bagels (boiled in traditional NY style) are worth the wait, as are goodies you may not have had before: comforting potato knishes, matzo ball soup or an array of caviar.
For an upmarket, still-fresh newcomer in this city of constant openings, Tribeca hotspot L’Abeille feels like a fine-dining fan’s secret. A mishmash of fine French cuisine and Japanese flair courtesy of chef Mitsunobu Nagae, it has a glamorous but unpretentious dining room, a wide open kitchen and friendly bar staff waiting to make you a killer aperitif. Tasting menus cost $195 (£167) for an eight-course extravaganza, with an added $125 (£107) for wine pairings. Each dish is a dainty, luxurious creation, with seafood carpaccios, melting-soft wagyu fillets and fruity granitas making regular appearances on a seasonal menu.
Where to drink
A kitsch, Americana-themed dive bar with a huge stars’n’stripes flag, checkerboard floors and haphazardly strung fairy lights, Ray’s is actually a secretly starry hangout. Part-owned by actor Justin Theroux as well as Succession’s Nicholas Braun (cousin Greg), this Lower East Side spot is an artfully designed faux-dive-bar which opened in 2019. Pop in for a bottled beer, a shot of whisky and a singalong to some rock and hip-hop classics under the disco ball.
Trailer Park Lounge
If you want something that feels like an all-American road trip stop rather than a glossy hotel bar, Trailer Park Lounge delivers in spades. Elvis memorabilia nudges up against 1950s Coca-Cola ads, plastic Christmas reindeer and tiki bric-a-brac, on crowded walls featuring the wall of a trailer and vintage car seats. Neon-tinged cocktails come adorned with tinsel, paper flamingos or pineapples; burgers are served, but you don’t come here for the cuisine. Be warned – minimalists may shudder.
A really swanky cocktail in a storied hotel bar is something you should add to your “NY before I die” checklist, and for our money, Bemelmans (on the Upper East Side) packs the most vintage romance for your buck. The ground-floor cocktail bar in the nearly century-old Carlyle Hotel has artfully dimmed lamps, sweeping murals illustrated by Ludwig Bemelman, who created the Madeline picture books, and does a damn fine Manhattan (or Martini). Table service by suited and booted waiters whisks you back to the golden age of travel, as does ivory-tinkling by a house pianist and crooner.
Where to shop
This broad boulevard’s department stores and flagship boutiques are as much a sightseeing attraction as a shopping spot, whether you’re doing an Audrey in the window of Tiffany’s (number 727), a Marilyn in Harry Winston (701), or browsing the rails of designer gear at Bergdorf Goodman or Saks. They’re particularly worth your time in the run-up to Christmas, when you should combine seeing their over-the-top window displays with a trip to Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and ice rink.
A picturesque grid of streets that once contained galleries and artists’ lofts, this quarter is now wall-to-wall fashion boutiques with goodies from streetwear to footwear and fragrance. There are still a few galleries, too, along with vintage shops and indie fashion stores. You won’t be short of cult cafes and bakeries for a pitstop, either.
The West Village
The West Village has a scattering of cute shopfronts, from legendary Left Bank Books on Perry Street to romantic frock shop LoveShackFancy on Bleecker. Get a coffee to go, wander, peruse, and fall in love with the neighbourhood.
It’s worth learning a little about New York’s world-recognised skyscrapers – the Skyscraper Museum or an archictecture tour can get you up to speed on its 20th-century “race to the sky”. Pick your favourite landmark, but I rather like the Flatiron Building, which transforms from a slender tower to a wide cake-slice as you approach it.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
English, though Spanish and many other languages are spoken here, too.
Should I tip?
Yes, and be prepared for some local attitude if you don’t tip enough. Generally speaking, the going rate is 18 to 20 per cent of your bill. But it’s not uncommon to tip up to 25 per cent, even though Brits will likely baulk at the base price. It’s customary to tip bartenders and baristas a dollar or two per drink, too.
What’s the time difference?
Five hours behind the UK.
How should I get around?
This is a big city, with Manhattan’s length meaning you’ll need to use the subway or taxis to get from north to south. The subway (underground train network) is somewhat confusing to navigate, so do some research ahead of time and buy a MetroCard on arrival to pre-load with some dollars. Some people are nervous about taking the subway, but it’s largely safe, busy and well-lit. Be aware, too, that NY’s iconic yellow cabs can run up big bills – you’re also expected to tip. Uber is operational but it can be hard for drivers and customers to find each other on complex one-way systems.
What’s the best view?
Some say it’s one of the big skyscraper viewing decks: the newer One World Observatory, the sleek, central Top of the Rock or the seen-on-screen Empire State. I say it’s from the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge at golden hour or sunset, looking back at the world-famous russet arches and Manhattan’s skyline beyond.
If you’re seeing the Statue of Liberty, people will tell you to “Just get the Staten Island Ferry – it goes right past.” In reality, it sails a serious distance away from Lady L, leaving her a thumb-sized imprint across the water. It’s worth paying for the official boat tour to go right up to the island and see her from below, whether or not you pay extra to climb up into her head.
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, JetBlue and Norse Airways all have direct flights from the UK to New York. Be sure of your airports – JFK is in Queens, a 45-minute drive east of Manhattan, while Newark Liberty is in New Jersey, 30 minutes west. The latter sees fewer flights but is better served by public transport.
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