New Yorkers complain about the crowds a lot (like, a lot, a lot). But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel the incredible energy and excitement when we step into Times Square with a theatre playbill in our hand, or that the sight of the Statue of Liberty doesn’t make our heart soar for the millions of immigrants who passed though the harbour under her watch. That’s why even though the tourist sites get a bad rap, there’s still value in seeing them — but if you’re going to visit them, make sure to do it like a local. Here’s how to hit the ‘must-see’ spots in NYC without feeling like a total tourist.
Times Square + Broadway
The number one rule in Times Square: be very careful where you eat! Probably the only neighborhood with a reputation for bad food, Times Square is filled with chain restaurants that cater to hordes of tourists every day. You’ll want to avoid the long wait time and mass-produced food by sticking to hole-in-the-wall joints (like Margon, a Dominican/Puerto Rican lunch counter, or Patzeria, an excellent spot for a classic NYC slice of pizza) or hard-to-find spots (like City Kitchen, a food market hidden upstairs in The Row hotel with loads of local options, or Beer Culture, a cosy neighbourhood bar a half block outside the area serving up great craft beer). Or join the locals in Hell’s Kitchen, a foodie neighbourhood just west of Times Square.
Another problem (throughout the city) is a lack of public restrooms. Your best bet here are hotels. We love the Marriott Marquee’s 8th floor lobby (the women’s restroom is complete with a large vanity — perfect for doing hair and make-up before a Broadway show), filled with comfy chairs and even some outlets where you can charge your phone. The much smaller, boutique Muse Hotel has an amazing restroom with each stall decorated for a different deadly sin (we raved about it here).
As far as shopping, besides bargaining for that classic I-heart-NY t-shirt and the souvenir shops, we’d recommend going anywhere else to shop. You’re going to wait in long lines for the dressing room and to pay, and have to deal with too many other shoppers in a store that probably has several other locations elsewhere in the city.
Statue of Liberty
This major tourist destination has incredibly underrated cafés. Both the Liberty Island (recently renovated) and Ellis Island cafés are Green-certified restaurants offering up healthy, whole-food options like 100% black Angus beef burgers, organic veggie burgers, and local options like the Red Jacket ‘juicery’ from upstate. Our favourite are the Sweet Sam’s chocolate chip cookies, made in the Bronx.
To get in all of those Central Park sights you’ve seen in any movie ever made in NYC, you’ll want to walk across the park from the West to the East starting at 72nd street, which will bring you through Strawberry Fields, the Bethesda Fountain, the Loeb Boathouse, the Conservatory Pond, and the Alice in Wonderland statue (tip: adults can totally climb it as well, it’s not just for kids!).
To see another side of the park, head to our favourite part: the north. We love taking the 6 Train up to Spanish Harlem, grabbing some fried Puerto Rican deliciousness at Cuchifritos (this place can be intimidating but don’t feel bad shoving your way to the counter and grabbing a server’s attention with your ready order). We recommend the alcapurrias, rellenos de papa and the rice and beans. Then walk down Park Avenue over to Tito Puento Way, which will have you entering the park at the Harlem Meers. The Conservatory Garden is beautiful and you have easy access to Museum Mile (we love the Museum of the City of New York).
If you want to really do Central Park like a local, prepare yourself a picnic complete with wine and beer (to be kept inside your bag and poured into plastic cups — don’t forget a wine opener!) and head to the great lawn (just be sure to steer clear of the softball fields). Or even better, head just south of the Tennis Center to avoid the local crowds and be near the bathrooms.
There’s lots to see and eat in this area, but we’d recommend the lesser known Irish Hunger Memorial, which is within walking distance. Our favourite eats downtown are on Stone Street, where you’ll find a cobblestoned street closed to traffic and lined with pubs and German beer houses — perfect for a beer and a burger after a day of walking around.
Sure there’s something iconic about ice skating here in the winter, but you’ll save money (and a bit of wait time) if you head to Bryant Park instead.
The best part about this location are the great food options nearby. We love Taam-Tov (an Uzbeki- Kosher restaurant hidden up two flights of steps in the Diamond District), Sapporo (for ramen), the Sake Bar Hagi (perfect for super late-night dining transporting you right to Tokyo), and the Swedish Church for a quiet escape (with great coffee and homemade cinnamon buns — just ring the doorbell to be admitted and head to the kitchen in the back).
Ready to hit up the sites in NYC? Hop on one of our tours for a peek of local life beyond the tourist spots!