When my husband and I decided to take a 5-day vacation in New York City, we were excited about our first stay in The Big Apple. But then we got overwhelmed with all of the choices to make about what to do because there is everything to do in The City That Never Sleeps.
To help you narrow down your 1000-choice list, you can start by determining the types of activities you’re interested in: parks, restaurants, landmarks, bars, bridges, museums, shows, architecture, water? Next, do you want to spend all of your time focusing on one or two of those “genres” or do you want to pick a couple of activities from each genre? Or if that doesn’t work for you, you can get ideas from watching movies in which New York is prominently featured. (That’s a good excuse to watch John Wick. Again.)
We went with the buffet option of experiencing a few sites from as many categories as possible. We came up with 2 sites and 1 bonus site if we had extra time for each day we were there. Each evening, we checked the weather for the next day and based our itinerary on that. Since we’d rather spend time viewing a site than waiting in line to enter, if a site on our list was ticketed, we purchased our tickets online for the next day. We attempted to group our sites geographically, but that wasn’t always possible. That’s where a 7-day unlimited MetroCard comes in. You can hop on and off buses or subways to get you to places faster than walking. (But you still will walk a lot! We averaged 10 miles per day.)
It’s difficult to rank the sites, so in no particular order, here were our Top 10 Things to Do in New York City:
I could write an entire blog post just on this wonderful place. We found an apartment only three blocks away since we knew we’d spend quite a bit of time in or near Central Park. We split the park up into north, central and south and covered those areas on three different days. The Bethesda Fountain was high on the list since we’d seen it in so many movies. We momentarily stepped out of the park to tip our hats to John Lennon’s memory at the Dakota Hotel where he was gunned down, then stepped right back in to visit the Imagine Mosaic. The Jackie O. Reservoir was beautiful at sunset. On one evening we took a gamble that there’d be walk-up tickets available for Shakespeare in the Park and wound up with fantastic seats at a superb production of Coriolanus. The Alice in Wonderland statue is only one of many art installations. And you must take a load off for a bit and just simply people watch.
East River Ferry to DUMBO
We received an insider tip to take the East River Ferry from Manhattan to DUMBO because for only $2.75 per person, you can cruise along the Hudson with gorgeous views of the Manhattan skyline. You also experience the unique perspective of gliding underneath both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. We ate delicious pizza at Juliana’s before walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn. We hung out at the TimeOut Bar in the Empire Stores Building (where we learned that DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass and “yer” is the new “yo” to some people) in order to quench our thirst and be near a restroom before heading back to the shoreline to watch the sunset over Manhattan.
9/11 Memorial and Museum
We pre-purchased our tickets, so we skipped the line. We decided to visit when the museum opened. I’m glad we did because we were able to experience the tremendous sadness and pay our respects before it got more and more crowded. Despite the number of people there, it was incredibly quiet. This museum is a tremendous emotional experience, but one that we felt was important because we must never forget this event. Despite the heavy weight of the subject matter, three hours flew by before we even looked at our watches. The second reason why I’m glad we visited in the early morning is because we needed time to decompress afterwards.
This was the perfect spot to head to after the 9/11 Museum. My husband and I didn’t speak much for about the first 15 minutes. We just sipped wine as we silently reflected on what we’d just experienced. But as different courses of comfort food arrived, we first discussed our thoughts and reactions to the museum, then gradually re-entered happy vacation mode. A bottle of wine and a platter of pasta will do that for you. We walked off our meal by popping in and out of shops in the Little Italy neighborhood.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center
These are two unrelated places, but they’re right across the street from each other. St. Patrick’s has hosted weddings and funerals that you’ve probably caught glimpses of on television, as well as served as the backdrop in many movies. It also happens to be a beautiful work of art inside and out. Even if you’re not Catholic, take a slow stroll around inside the church to admire the statuary and details. (There’s a secret restroom in the wooden wall next to St. Therese if you need one!) The sculpture of Atlas is directly across the street and Rockefeller Center right down the block. We’re not much for shopping, so we just stopped by the lobby of NBC studios for a quick look around, then took our obligatory photo of the gold statue above the famous ice rink (or where the ice rink is in the winter).
Get ready for a sea of humanity. There are signs everywhere with arrows giving instructions for which way pedestrian traffic should flow, but apparently no one cares what the signs say. The neon lights were bright even during the day, so you don’t have to necessarily go at night to take it all in. For a great bird’s eye view of the entire area, go to the 8thfloor lounge in the Marriott Marquis. (Thank you to Lonely Planet for this and other photography tips!)
If you’re parched after walking around Times Square, walk a few blocks to the Algonquin Hotel to look around the lobby where literary greats and journalists used to hang out, then enjoy a drink at their Blue Bar. Be on the lookout for Hamlet, the hotel cat.
Grand Central Station
People. Marble. Iconic Beaux-Arts architecture. The setting in tons of movies. Enough said. If you get the chance, enter and look around.
We’re not baseball fans, but this entire trip was planned around going to a Yankees vs Red Sox game. We had an absolute blast! If you’ve never been, check out my tips for Yankee Stadium first-timers here.
If you like any category of art between the beginning of time and the 1960’s, you’ll probably find it here. You could spend an entire week in The Metropolitan Museum of Artand still not view every piece. We chose highlight works of art ahead of time and spent a couple of hours roaming around. There’s a rooftop bar which you can access via a stairway on the 4thfloor, near the gift shop. I thought we’d be able to see more of the buildings in Manhattan from this vantage point, but the tall trees in Central Park partially obstruct the view. It’s still nice, though, to be able to walk to the edge of the terrace and get a different view of New York City.
American Museum of Natural History
Just as at The Met, there will be a long line in front to go through security, but it only takes about 15-20 minutes to get through. If you pre-purchased your tickets, you can head straight to the exhibit entrance. If you don’t already have your tickets, you’ll have to stand in a new line after security. We went to see the T-Rex and the namesakes of the movie, The Squid and the Whale. We wound up experiencing and learning so much more because we decided to take a complimentary 90-minute highlights tour.
Well, that was 11. You got a bonus. Enjoy!
If you’re scratching your head and wondering, “Why all of these travel-related blogs in a time management blog?”, the answer is simple. Getting away from it all allows our bodies and brains to take a break. Going on a vacation – no matter how long and no matter where – will do wonders for your productivity. But sometimes properly planning for the type of vacation that lowers your stress levels (and doesn’t add to it) can take a lot of time. To save you time and stress, I’m sharing my travel tips with you.
For more travel tips as well as a how-to guide to leave work behind, be sure to check out The Great Escape: A Vacation Planner for Busy People Who Want to Take a Real Break from Work & Life.