FAQs about Visiting New York

Skyline of NYC with green Central Park scene

A trip to New York shouldn’t be taken lightly, but it’s easy to get bogged down by the sheer amount of recommendations for this city. To make life easier, I’ve picked apart some of the key questions you might have about planning and taking your city break.

Famous train station seen in American films such as The Untouchables
Grand Central Terminal is worth a visit, even if you’re just passing through.

Q: I only have one day in New York. What shouldn’t I miss?

Start with an early morning bus tour, which will help you get your bearings. Your best bet would be a hop-on-hop-off tour, starting at 8am, with a 24 hour ticket. I’d recommend seeing One World Trade Centre away from the bus, as it’s best experienced in person. When I last visited the museum and monument weren’t established, but even then it was a sobering place to be.

Food-wise, pop into a classic American diner or make a pilgrimage to Grand Central Terminal, which has a brilliant food court downstairs selling everything from hearty soups to oysters. Take the time to try out the Whispering Gallery, and then marvel at the painted ceiling on the main concourse, where the night sky is mapped out along with each symbol of the zodiac.

Add a trip to Central Park if the weather’s good, and pick one nearby art gallery or museum to visit in the afternoon, depending on what kind of art or artefacts you’re interested in. Surrounding Central Park you’ll find plenty to choose from, including the Guggenheim.

Save Times Square for night time, when the bright lights will look more impressive in your photos (but don’t forget to turn the flash off when you’re snapping). Instead of squeezing in a Broadway show, take a late night trip up the Empire State Building – it’s open until 2am and, according to the website, a saxophonist plays live on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

Souvenir hunting in the city
The lure of shopping is all too obvious when you visit!

Q. Souvenir-wise, should I buy a ton of ‘I NY’ merchandise or something less obvious?

There’s nothing wrong with indulging in the cliché and buying that all-important ‘I ♥ NY’ t-shirt – just don’t wear it until you get home. Shops will be hawking identikit products in tourist areas, so haggle for a good deal, especially if you’re buying in bulk.

For a souvenir packed with history, visit the oldest apothecary in America – C.O. Bigelow, in Greenwich Village (414 6th Avenue). The brand stretches back to 1838 and has served countless famous faces over the years, including Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt and Calvin Klein. Pick up classic products like the lemon body cream (a favourite since 1870) or the Bay Rum cologne (developed in 1907).

Financial district of New York
Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s aren’t the only places dealing with hefty sums of money. Here’s the Stock Exchange.

Q. Which is better – Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s?

This may not be a popular answer, but… neither. I’m a huge shopping enthusiast, yet I wasn’t overwhelmed by these stores. Perhaps they’re more magical at Christmas, but when I visited – one year in February, another in July – they definitely lacked the charm of places like Liberty (London) and KaDeWe (Berlin). Obviously if you find department stores hellish, don’t get dragged into either Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s just for the novelty value. You’ll regret it.

To still get a designer fix, but at a genuinely affordable price, head to the two Marc Jacobs stores on Bleecker Street (403 and 400), where there are quite a few purse-friendly branded accessories displayed alongside the often unattainable clothing. Think beach bags, jewellery, key rings and flip flops for around €10-20. If you crave something a bit more unusual, I’d recommend a walk through Chinatown. Before you travel, you could also find out if there are any flea markets held when you’ll be visiting the city.

Specially made Papua New Guinea tribal outfits for festivities
These traditional costumes, seen in the Metropolitan Museum, are best left as exhibits. Your wardrobe can be a bit simpler…

Q. What should I pack to wear in NYC?

Unsurprisingly, common sense dictates that you should wear layer upon layer in winter and keep it simple in summer! In the rain and snow you’ll need sturdy, waterproof footwear – a pair of biker boots would be perfect – and a decent coat. Team with plaid shirts, vintage jumpers and dark trousers or jeans. Don’t forget a hat (fedora, beanie, etc.), complete with a chunky scarf and gloves. When it’s not quite so cold, wear a hoodie, a leather jacket or even a preppy cardigan (very Upper East Side when worn with loafers, if you want to channel Gossip Girl).

Summer in the city can be irrepressibly hot, punctuated by powerful blasts of air con from shops and offices, and torrential summer downpours that are one part refreshing and one part irritating. A whole day’s sightseeing in flip flops is cruel, so upgrade to some pumps or Converse trainers and take something a bit nicer for evening drinks. Pack plenty of tea dresses or sun dresses, floaty maxi skirts, some shirts and casual denim shorts, then add a couple of extra tops in case of extreme heat waves, plus sunglasses and a summer hat. Remember the temperature will drop when it’s dark, and you’ll need something warm for the plane home.

Rona Jaffe's debut novel, The Best of Everything
A terrible cover for a brilliant book.

Q. Other than travel guides, what books should I read before I get to New York?

There are loads of options, from The Great Gatsby to The Age of Innocence, but these are my personal favourites:

  • New York, by Edward Rutherfurd
  • The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe
  • Lucia, Lucia, by Adriana Trigiani
Iconic Art Deco skyscraper in New York
Built in 1932, the Chrysler Building represents the American Dream – something those emigrating to the USA hoped to be a part of.

Q. Is the Immigration Museum open on Ellis Island?

Yep, it’s finally open to visitors again! This is where every newcomer was registered on arrival in the US and, after filtering through the Baggage Room, faced interrogation as well as health checks. The museum fully conveys the processes immigrants faced, as well as a potential language barrier. They were given a ‘six second physical’, and faced being quarantined if they potentially carried an illness.

Of course, the long journey to America from Europe, inside a crowded ship, meant diseases had a chance to thrive and spread before anyone stepped off the boat at Ellis Island. Besides potential infection, doctors also looked out for signs of physical defects or mental health problems. If you have ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, you can learn how to trace them here.

Crowds ice skating under warm lights
I snapped this beside the permanently busy ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre during winter, but there are other trendy places to spend time this year.

Q. Where are the trendiest places to go in NYC this year?

Lonely Planet recommends Queens, citing the ‘world-class art scene’ of the borough, and championing its restaurants and microbreweries as well as the popular Rockaway Beach. Queens was also the home of the Ramones, who grew up in Forest Hills.

Museum-wise, the Whitney has moved, and its old building is becoming an additional space for the Metropolitan Museum. As for exhibitions, the Botanical Garden will celebrate Mexico as it hosts Art, Garden, Life, looking at the painter Frida Kahlo’s relationship with nature, especially in her Mexico City home, Casa Azul. Catch it from 16th May-1st November 2015, with loads of special events throughout, such as film screenings and workshops with artists from Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Solo travellers will love Central Park, one of New York's highlights.
You’re never alone in Central Park (not to be read in a creepy voice…).

Q. What tips can you give solo travellers?

I’ve written a whole post on solo travel in New York; the beauty of visiting alone is not having to compromise on what you do. Get some research under your belt and list a few things you really need to see, then work out how they tie in together and how you’re going to travel to each one. The subway isn’t for everyone, but it’s pretty easy to master – albeit slightly more complicated than London Underground – and is a cheap way to get around.

You could also join a free walking tour to meet people and see things you’d otherwise have missed. It’s also easier to take photos in a group, as you can pick up tips from others, plus you don’t stick out like a sore thumb as a lone wanderer brandishing an expensive camera.

Dark tourism in NYC archway of park
It doesn’t look much like a burial ground today.

Q. Can you recommend any dark tourism sites in the city?

It goes without saying that Ground Zero is the most talked about dark tourism spot, but don’t get me started on the idiotic selfie takers hanging out there. Meanwhile, Washington Square has an interesting past, as it was an American Indian burial ground as well as a place for public hangings, though none of this is obvious at first glance.

A much more conspicuous attraction, currently in the planning stages, is a museum at the notorious Sing Sing Prison in Ossining village. Right now you can see some exhibits inside the Ossining Heritage Centre, but a bigger project is in the pipeline, set in the original cell block that inmates were forced to build themselves. The attraction would highlight the harsh conditions prisoners faced, with cells only 3ft wide and 7ft tall, and a range of extreme punishments meted out by guards. If created respectfully, I think this museum could be a must-see.

The famous library in New York beside Bryant Park
Just out of shot: a very unhappy Carrie Bradshaw in the SATC movie.

Q. With so many films and TV shows made in NYC, how do I decide which locations to visit?

You’re going to have to be picky, as any guided visits will be expensive. There are general tours, but the more specific ones go into greater depth, such as ‘TCM Classic Films’ or ‘Sopranos Sites’.

As for self-guided options, you don’t have to look far to realise that most of the city’s iconic landmarks – which you were probably planning on seeing anyway – have had plenty of screen time. New York Public Library is where Carrie and Big were due to marry in the first Sex and the City film; the Empire State Building is remembered for Love Affair, King Kong and Sleepless in Seattle; Grand Central Terminal is known for Spellbound, North By Northwest and many others.

Do you have any questions I haven’t covered? Get in touch and I’ll do my best to answer them.