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New York City is amazing, but can feel overwhelming. Tons of skyscrapers, traffic, wall to wall people. Yikes. So how do you plan an effective NYC day trip without losing your mind? It’s possible, believe it or not.
Now let’s be honest: trying to see all of New York City’s incredible sites in a single day is impossible. How do I know? I live only forty five minutes away from New York (yay best local getaway), but, despite countless visits, I still haven’t “seen it all.”
And to tell you the truth? I doubt I will truly see all of New York City in my lifetime, haha.
Personally, New York City is one of my favorite cities in the world. Tourists flock here for a reason. New York City is a pop culture icon, the shining setting of several television shows and movies, and going to the city provides endless shopping and eating opportunities. Cultures blend on every street, making you feel as if you’re exploring the entire world in the span of a single block. New York City is flippin’ awesome.
Here are some ways you can plan an effective NYC day trip without too much fuss. Good luck! I promise you’ll fall madly in love with the Big Apple.
How to Enter New York City
If you want to spend a day in New York City, then I’m guessing you’re arriving from either New Jersey, New York State, or Connecticut. Hey, just an assumption on my part.
To start, you need to plan ahead for getting into New York City itself. Do you want to drive (you’re brave)? Take the train into New York Penn Station or Grand Central? Take one of the many buses into Port Authority? You have a lot of options at your disposal, but they can “make or break” your awesome New York City adventure.
Here are a couple tips to avoid transit problems. Read schedules ahead of time. Buy tickets ahead of time. Tickets are especially important for reserving a spot on buses. I almost couldn’t board my preferred Greyhound bus, because I stupidly assumed seats would be available at Port Authority. Don’t be me.
Factor in delays. For instance, NJ Transit is notorious for running behind schedule. You need to consider this additional “lost” time to avoid feeling disappointed or overwhelmed. Go with the flow.
Read More: When is the Best Time to Travel to New York
Focus on One Borough or One Neighborhood
New York City isn’t only Manhattan. The entire metro area also consists of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. It’s truly unbelievable when you sit and think about the actual size of New York City. Again, it’s easy for any traveler to feel overwhelmed.
If you’re visiting New York City for the first time, then I would honestly recommend spending the entire day in Manhattan since this borough is where most of the most famous sites are located. Is it cliche? Eh, maybe a little, but who cares.
However, Manhattan is still, uh, very very very huge. Be careful of how much ground you want to cover on your trip. You will get exhausted if you overexert yourself, I promise. For example, if you’re coming for a single day and want to enjoy Central Park and the Met, then don’t take the PATH into the World Trade Center when you’re coming into the city. You’ll be wasting precious time traveling uptown to your preferred sites. Have a plan.
Ultimately make your day trip to New York more manageable by focusing on only one borough. If you have time to spare, then spend the night in an unique neighborhood and take a walk to the cafes, bars, and theaters.
Learn the Subway System
New York’s subway is the best way to get around the city. Not only can taxis be pricey, especially if you’re a solo traveler, but New York’s traffic is notorious and sloooooooow. It can take a shocking amount of time to drive from, say, Central Park to Greenwich Village. Most of the time, you’re better off braving the subway than hailing a taxi.
So buy a metro card, hop on a train, and make New York City your oyster.
You’ll be fine, trust me. I actually think the New York City subway is pretty easy to navigate. All lines are color coded and signs clearly mark all of the platforms. If you board a newer car, the upcoming stations flash on small screens and are loudly announced over a speaker, so it’s difficult to get lost.
However, I do have two words of warning.
First, don’t confuse “express” and “local” trains. Express trains stop at select stations whereas local trains hit every single stop on a specific line. If you get on an express train when you should have boarded a local train, you may end up blocks away from your desired destination and waste a lot of valuable time backtracking. Be careful.
Additionally, keep in mind that track repairs tend to happen on the weekends. So some trains may not run as frequently, which can mess up your travel plans. Therefore it’s always important to check the announcements posted at your subway station. Even better, bring up Google Maps and search for the train times in advance. You don’t want to waste fifteen minutes chilling on the subway platform even if a talented jazz musician is playing a tune for you.
Make Dinner Reservations Ahead of Time
This suggestion is especially important if you’re visiting New York City on a Friday or Saturday. Sure, the city has an endless selection of restaurants, but reservations are critical. Even Sunday brunch warrants reservations.
Research restaurants ahead of time. It’s exciting to “magically” stumble upon a cute place to eat, but honestly, the exploration is more stressful than anything else if you only have a day at your disposal. Select your brunch and dinner spots ahead of time and reserve a table, so you’re guaranteed a lovely meal after a long day of sightseeing and shopping.
Not sure where you want to eat? I rely on Yelp and Time Out New York to guide me to some great places, but asking locals for advice is definitely the best idea! Try asking at r/NYC if you’re unsure of who to ask in your personal life. New Yorkers are very proud of their food scene and know the latest “hip” places to enjoy a meal.
If you want to use your day to focus on New York’s thriving food scene, then it might be worth your while to book a food tour with Big Onion Tours. Their multi-ethnic food tour focuses on the Lower East Side so you won’t miss a thing!
Some of my favorite (in no particular order) restaurants include the following sweet spots:
The Dead Rabbit: Want to experience some of the best cocktails in the world? Then you need to go to The Dead Rabbit located in the Financial District. Try your damnest to get into the parlor. You won’t regret it. Promise. The Dead Rabbit is located on 30 Water St.
Dirty French: Mmm, one of my favorite places for breakfast. I know the name is a little weird, but trust me, this place is soooo stinkin’ good. I love their Salmon Maison. I dream about it. Dirty French is located 180 Ludlow Street.
Grand Central Station: Huh? Isn’t that a train station? Believe it or not, Grand Central has some amazing places for you to grab a quick bite to eat. My favorite place spot to eat is the Great Northern Food Hall. Reminds me of beautiful Copenhagen, haha.
Levain Bakery: I absolutely adore Levain Bakery from the bottom of my sweet tooth heart. Their chocolate croissants are gifts from the bakery gods, I tell you. You can find Levain Bakery on 167 West 74th Street, on the Upper West Side.
The Little Owl: Mmm, my favorite brunch place ever. Reservations are essential. The Little Owl is tiny. Very tiny. However, if you have an opportunity to eat here, you won’t regret it. The meatball sliders are to die for! The Little Owl is located at 90 Bedford Street.
Marta: Another great place to enjoy dinner! Marta is at the Redbury Hotel, and this restaurant knows pizza, believe me. I could eat their Stracciatella pizza every single day and not feel tired of it. Of course, I’d be the size of a house if I did that, haha. Marta can be found at 29 East 29th Street.
Stick to Your Budget (or Else!)
Okay, I won’t sugarcoat it, but New York City is expensive. Budget travelers beware. I’ll repeat it. New York City is hella expensive. You can find many free activities and eat delicious $1 pizza slices, sure, so seeing this place on a budget isn’t impossible.
However, temptations are everywhere especially if you love to eat and shop. I always, without fail, spend way more money than anticipated whenever I go to New York City. My bank account transforms into a punching bag. It’s a curse. But try to keep the impulses under control.
For example, say you adore fashion and don’t have the money to shop? Go check out some of the window displays. I love the displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, for instance. By having self-control, you can get your shopping fix without hemorrhaging money all over the sidewalks.
If you truly can’t resist spending some money, check out possible sales happening in neighborhoods like Soho. You could discover a sweet little steal at an unknown boutique. Be adventurous!
Use NYC’s CITYPass to See the Sites
Okay, let’s say your plan is to pack in as many notable sites as possible within the span of 24 hours. An admirable goal. But think about the crowds who plan on doing alllll the same activities on your New York City bucket list. Want to avoid standing in endless lines especially if you only have a day in New York City?
Then invest in the New York CITYPass to have an effective NYC day trip.
Not only will this pass allow you to skip most of the lines, but you can save a bit of money when you visit several different sites. CITYPass admission includes some of the best attractions in the city such as The Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and so so so much more!
Don’t Stand in the Middle of the Sidewalk
A bit of a weird tip, I know, but avoid standing in the middle of the sidewalk if you want to enjoy your trip to New York City.
I have gone to New York City just to visit family members, not sightsee or see a Broadway performance. When I’m running late (thanks NJ transit), nothing aggravates me more than tourists suddenly stopping in front of me, right in the middle of the sidewalk, without a single care in the world. Do not do that. It’s rude and sets New Yorkers off like you wouldn’t believe.
Think I’m exaggerating? Well I’ve also spoken to some of my friends who live in New York, and all of them have expressed their annoyance at tourists blocking the sidewalks as they’re trying to rush into work.
Again, for emphasis, don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk. Getting lost is understandable. Stay smart, though. Step to the side or duck into a cafe or shop, and look at Google Maps in peace. You’ll thank me for it.
Stay Alert But Not Paranoid
New York City is usually portrayed very positively in the media, but I have had a lot of people ask me if New York is “dangerous” – especially at night. And I understand the fear. New York is the biggest city in the United States, so it would be natural to assume more crime happens due to the metro’s sheer size.
Real talk. I experienced very few – if any issues – walking around Manhattan even at night. Basic safety sense applies, but don’t allow your paranoia to get too out of control.
However, certain areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn aren’t very safe, so make sure you are a smart traveler and do some research ahead of time to avoid an unpleasant situation. Keep your wits about you, and you will be fine.
Of course, if you feel truly uncomfortable, don’t feel bad approaching the NYPD and asking for help. The officers themselves may look intimidating, but they’re a very well trained force and will help you if you need it.
Describe an effective NYC day trip. Have you ever visited the Big Apple? Did you like it? And remember to bring your guidebook and make those dinner reservations.