Now that I’m back from New York I thought I’d share with you my favourite activities, just in case you have a whirlwind trip planned and want some inspiration for what to do.
In the spirit of full disclosure – I’m an introvert traveller whose likes include walking, food and history and whose dislikes include large crowds and organised fun. If any of those sound like you, then you may like my suggestions…
New York Activity 1: The Top of the Rock
I feel like this one makes everyone’s list, and rightly so. The views from the observation decks at the top of the Rockefeller Center are absolutely breathtaking; all of Manhattan is laid out before you. The building doesn’t look like anything too special from the outside, apart from a really tall piece of real estate with a random perpendicular pool in front of it.
But when you get up to the top, the whole city just unfolds beneath you.
There’s a killer Empire State view; you can even make out the Statue of Liberty in the background.
You can see basically all the main sights of Manhattan from up here – except the Chrysler building, sadly. I could only see this by squidging right up into a corner and taking it through about three layers of glass. Hence the gnarly reflections.
Also, it gets a bit windy at the top. This was the best photo of me and my bestie/travel buddy Emma – for the worst, see my last post!
Pro tip: go when there’s a big parade on. We happened to visit during the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, so the place was deserted. We hadn’t pre-booked tickets and breezed straight through. There were no queues at all!
I would have liked to go at sunset, but those tickets sell out a few days in advance and we weren’t quick enough about it. So if you want to go at sunset, book well in advance!
Cost: $26-32 for normal admission to the observation deck; I paid $50 because I got a combo ticket with admission to MoMA as well, which you can use any time for the following 6 months.
New York Activity 2: A walking tour of the Lower East Side from the Tenement Museum
The Tenement Museum is based in a tenement building (funnily enough) in the Lower East Side, which has been restored to its original condition. You can only look around on a guided tour, of which there are many different types at many different days. I fancied a more extensive walking tour of the Lower East Side itself, looking at architecture and social history in tandem. Entitled Building on the Lower East Side, the tour lasted two hours and was absolutely excellent.
One of the oldest surviving buildings on the LES. Note the unusual pitched roof, and the fact that the two upper floors of prime real estate are being used as box storage!
Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and gave a thoughtful account of the changing demographic of the area and how this has affected the architecture. As someone who generally dislikes organised tours, I thought this was excellent. There was no forced audience participation or any such silliness, just balanced discussion and plenty of interesting facts.
I’d also recommend arriving at the the visitor centre early to watch the half-hour film about the Lower East Side tenements which plays on a loop. It gave me a good background to the tour and was generally very well done. I can’t recommend this whole experience highly enough.
Cost: $25; you get 40% off all subsequent tours you book
New York Activity 3: Taking the boat out to Liberty and Ellis islands
You can’t come to New York and not get a closer look at this beautiful lady. I know a lot of people rate the Staten Island ferry as a free alternative to the paid-for cruises, but honestly at $18 a ticket with the Statue Cruise company I thought being able to visit the islands and Ellis Island museum was well worth it. The views from the water are incredible.
We didn’t get off at Liberty Island because we hadn’t booked tickets up the statue – similar to the Empire State Building, if you’re up the statue you can no longer see the statue any more. I preferred the view from the boat, which circled slowly in front of the statue before we docked on Liberty Island itself.
Plenty of opportunities for a photo or two!
I even snuck in a selfie with Lady Liberty, which you may have caught on my Insta…
We did alight at Ellis Island and took a tour around the museum. It was very interesting, and would have been much more so had we had ancestors who had passed through the immigration process. However, we did find the audio guide a little repetitive and I’d have been quite happy to walk around the exhibits and read the signs at my own (somewhat quicker) pace. Still, it was very educational and I’m glad we did it.
Sidenote: I now want my own herringbone tiled vaulted ceiling.
The one downside of the boat we took was the seats. I don’t think I’ve sat at a more uncomfortable seat in my life!
Cost: $18 and up if you want to include access to the Statue of Liberty or other bolt-on tours
New York Activity 4: Central Park (North)
Emma and I took a delightful stroll around the Harlem Meer and Conservatory Garden before she caught her Uber to the airport.
I loved the Conservatory Garden; it was beautifully laid out and maintained, quiet, and it had fountains. I do love a good fountain.
This would be a great place for a picnic, don’t you think?
New York Activity 5: Walking over the Brooklyn bridge at sunset
Ok so to be honest, I only half managed this. What I wanted to do was walk over the Brooklyn bridge, and then walk back over it in time to catch the sunset over the Manhattan skyline. Unfortunately, I only had one day left and I’d already jam packed it with activities. So I thought maybe I’d catch a taxi to the other side and then walk back. But I also wanted to go for dinner first, because sunset was at 8.30pm, and I didn’t want to be sitting down to eat at 9pm because grandma needs to go to bed. I wanted to be back in my hotel room eating gluten free donuts in front of HGTV by that time.
So I ended up cutting it a bit fine, and the traffic over the bridge was bad so I got dropped at the Manhattan side instead, and power walked up as far as I could, desperately glancing back over my shoulder as I went.
I tried to pretend that I’d caught the sunset, although in reality I’d missed it by minutes. However, I still thoroughly enjoyed my walk and now I want to go back for actual sunset.
(I did enjoy the donuts though, so it all worked out in the end)
Cost: free! (if you don’t get a taxi)
New York Activity 6: All the food and drink
This is mega. I ate so, so well in New York. A separate post is coming on all the delicious gluten free food I found to eat and drink. Stay tuned!
And just to make this a balanced account, here are the things I’d skip if I went back again.
Skip it 1: Central Park (South)
Maybe it’s because I went at lunchtime. Maybe it’s because I went alone. Maybe it’s because I’m used to British parks and gardens, which in my opinion are one of the few things we do better than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world.
Whatever the reason, I didn’t enjoy walking the southern parts of Central Park half as much as I’d enjoyed the northern parts. They felt too busy, a bit tired, and not actually that interesting. Sorry.
Skip it 2: Times Square
Times Square was beyond hectic, and I’ve never seen so many screens in one place. It was all quite bewildering and I was very happy to get away from all the people as soon as possible.
Maybe it would have been more exciting to go at night?
So those were my very favourite activities that I did when I visited New York. What would make your list?