A First Timer’s Guide to New York City

I’m back home in Yorkshire after spending 6 magical days and nights in New York City with my good friend Harriet. It was a girly trip of sightseeing, shopping, brunching, rooftop bars, taxi hops and plenty of photo taking. I had dreamed of visiting New York for years and after much planning and anticipation, I can honestly say it was the highlight trip 2017. It was my first time in New York and despite all the blog posts I read, nothing could have prepared me for the surreal excitement I felt as we drove over the Brooklyn Bridge by night and into a lit-up Manhattan. Every street corner looks like it could be a film set and we stumbled across iconic and significant landmarks everywhere we went. I’d say it is the first time I have ever truly been star struck by a city. Who knew that was even possible?

Although I had an endless list of recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers, the amount of things to do, see, eat and experience in New York can be overwhelming. I remember feeling confused about what to prioritise during my 6 precious days in the city. I’ve got a whole series of New York posts planned, but I wanted to start with a First Timer’s Guide to New York. This is because I myself was a first timer in the big city.

Before we get started on this (rather meaty) guide, I want to make a bit of a disclaimer and say that this guide isn’t going to include all of the new, alternative and ‘under the radar’ things to do in New York. What it is going to do, is help you decipher where on earth you should begin if you’re planning your very first trip to this captivating, fast-paced and incredible city. Just like every other first timer in New York, I wanted to see all of the most famous and iconic sights and whilst some of these may seem cliché to a New Yorker, they’re still iconic for a reason. This guide is going to help you plan your days in a logical order, and will pass on all of the best recommendations I was given. So get comfy, grab a notepad and get ready for a bumper crash course to Manhattan.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
A Little Geography

I’m going to start with a bit of basic geography. When people talk about New York City, they’re often referring to Manhattan. Manhattan is an island, bound by the Hudson River on the west and the East River to the east. It’s connected to the surrounding areas by bridges including Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens. Although little island of Manhattan is only 13.4 miles long and 2.3 miles wide, it definitely pays to plan your days logically so that you won’t be jumping all over the island unnecessarily. This is what Harriet and I tried to do whilst in New York.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Where to Stay

There are hotels all over Manhattan but when you start to do your research you’ll find that they are most densely populated in Midtown. Although downtown boasts the best nightlife, a great restaurant scene and cooler neighbourhood vibes, Midtown is a very central part of Manhattan to base yourself. I stayed in 3 hotels during my time in New York, all of which were boutique in style and well-located in Midtown. If you’re looking for a stylish and central base for your first time in New York, be sure to check out The Chambers Hotel, The Royalton and The Tuscany by St Giles. Or if you want to find something similar, search for a hotel with cozycozy search engine that compares prices for you.

Read my hotel review of The Royalton to find out more about this boutique hotel in New York.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Getting Around

If you base yourself in Midtown then chances are some of the most famous attractions will be in walking distance to your hotel, including Central Park, The Rockerfeller Centre, Fifth Avenue, Broadway shows and Times Square. For everything else that’s a little further away, you’ve got the option of the Subway or hailing a yellow cab. The subway ticket machines issue Metro Cards, which you can top up as you go or you can purchase 3 rides for $9. You’ll never have to wait more than a few minutes to flag a yellow cab. Just look out for the ones with the yellow lights on top and you’ll be flagging like a New Yorker in no time.

Top Tip: Unlike the London Underground, the Subway has express and local trains for all of their lines. The express trains skip some stops out for a faster journey and the local trains stop at every stop (just like the Tube). Be sure to check if you’re getting on an express train or a local train before getting on it or you may overshoot your destination!

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Save Money with The New York Pass

As a First Timer in New York it’s likely you’re going to want to see all of the main sights, so you might want to think about getting a New York Pass for your trip. The New York Pass gives you all-inclusive access to 90 of New York’s top attractions so nearly all of your activities will already be paid for when you arrive. It also lets you fast-track the queues and offers exclusive discounts on shows, restaurants and tours. You can get the pass for 1, 2, 3, 5, 7 or 10 days, depending on the duration of your stay.

Harriet and I got a 3-day New York Pass during our time in New York so we planned our first 3 days around the inclusive attractions. Not only does it help to plan your days, it also can save you a huge amount of money on admission fees. We visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum, Top of The Rock and the Water Taxi Tour all with the New York Pass and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

Top Tip: You don’t necessarily need to buy a pass that will last the entire duration of your trip. I would say that a 3-day pass would be ideal for a 5-day trip. It’s nice to leave yourself some free time towards the end of your city break. On these days you could plan things that don’t have admission fees such as Central Park, The Highline and walking the Brooklyn Bridge.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
10 Must-Dos For a First Timer in New York

Every first timer in New York will have a different set of priorities depending on their interests, but these are the things I chose to prioritise during my first time in New York City. If you’re looking for a well-rounded and quintessential introduction to New York, you might just want to add all of these things to your to-do list.

  1. Top of The Rock at The Rockefeller Centre

For 360 degree views of New York from above, visit the Top of The Rock at the famous Rockefeller Centre. The views are breath taking and the height will get your adrenaline pumping. Here you’ll get the very best view of The Empire State Building. Admission is timed so expect queues if you’re visiting at peak times. Top of The Rock is included in the New York Pass.

  1. Pay Respect at The National September 11 Memorial and Museum

We all know about the horrifying events of 9/11 but the magnitude of what happened becomes a stark reality when you’re standing exactly where it happened. A touching memorial can now be found where the ‘twin towers’ once stood and below them underground is the National September 11 Museum. A visit to this museum is chilling, heart breaking and gripping in equal measure. Admission is also included in the New York Pass.

  1. Visit the Statue of Liberty 

There are a variety of boat tours and ferry rides operating from Battery Park in Downtown Manhattan, but we opted for the New York Water Taxi. You can either choose to hop on and off and different stops throughout the day, or take a round trip, which takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. We jumped on at Battery Park to see The Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty and sailed down The Hudson River before hopping off at the Midtown stop. Alternatively, if you want to actually climb the Statue of Liberty and/or visit Ellis Island the only way to do so is via Statue Cruises, which you can book in advance.

Top Tip: If the weather is fine, ride the water taxi at dusk and you might just get to see the whole skyline with a dusky-pink backdrop

  1. Shop ‘til you Drop in SoHo

It seems like an obvious one, but everyone needs to allow a little time for shopping in New York. Fifth Avenue is the most iconic shopping street with luxury and designer stores as well as a much-loved Victoria’s Secret. Macy’s Department Store is equally as iconic but I loved the shopping experience in SoHo the most. It’s a little less busy with more of a neighbourhood vibe. There is a mini Bloomingdales there and the shops are equally as good.

  1. Stroll Through Central Park

No trip to New York is complete without a stroll through iconic Central Park. The winding pathways, bridges and streams create a little oasis in the bustling city. We visited in November when the Autumn leaves were still a vivid orange and the winter ice rink was open. Entertainers and buskers bring Central Park to life and The Boathouse provides an upmarket and iconic lunch spot. Reservations required.

  1. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge

I can’t think of one human being that wouldn’t be blown away by the significance of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s been in so many films that I love so to me this was such an exciting thing to do. A pedestrian walkway suspends above the cars and takes you safely over to Brooklyn. As you approach the Brooklyn side you’ll see an incredible view of the Manhattan skyline. Crossing the bridge is completely free.

  1. Sip Cocktails at some Rooftop Bars

New York is rife with impossibly cool rooftop bars but unless you know where to go, it’s unlikely that you’ll find them. We went to The Top of The Standard (also known as The Boom Boom Room) at The Standard Hotel, which is an popular spot with in-crowd New Yorkers. Be prepared to pay around $20 for a cocktail, but the views make it more-than worth it (they do a mean Cosmopolitan). The Roof at The Public Hotel and Mr Purple at Hotel Indigo are also great and are both located in Downtown Manhattan. Public is round the corner from Vandal Restaurant which has a great food and a fantastic pre-night out vibe. Do the same as us and combine both on one night!

  1. Hunt for Foodie Delights at Chelsea Market

Ever since we landed at JFK airport I couldn’t wait to taste my first slice of New York pizza , which I found at Chelsea Market. Chelsea Market is a local’s favourite and a haven for foodies. There are lots of food stalls and pop-up style restaurants to choose from so whatever you’re craving, you’ll probably find it here. There are also independent shops so it’s a great place to pick up a few souvenirs too.

  1. Walk the Highline to The Meat Packing District

The Highline is a 1.45 mile long park which is elevated over the west side of Manhattan. It was created on the former New York Central railroad, so it’s an incredibly unique addition to the city. We ‘hopped on’ to the Highline and Chelsea Market and ‘hopped off’ at the end of the line in the Meatpacking district. It gives a unique perspective of the lower west Manhattan and being pedestrian only it feels a lot more calmer than walking the streets of New York. Access to the High Line is free.

  1. Visit Carrie Bradshaw’s Apartment

If you’re not a Sex in The City fan, you may want to skip this one out. However, if you are a Sex in The City fan, it would be a crime not visit Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment. The famous ‘stoop’ (or steps) was used throughout the entire SATC series and the films. It’s located at 66 Percy Street in the trendy West Village and you’re likely to see at least a few other SATC fans taking photos in the street too.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Foodie Recommendations

From casual brunch and lunch options to upmarket evening dinners for glamorous nights out, here is my pick of the New York foodie scene. I visited all of these places during my first trip to New York.

Upmarket Restaurants for Well-Dressed Dinners

Tao Downtown
92 9th Ave, New York, NY 10011, USA

If you want to go ‘all-out’ in NYC, make a reservation for dinner at Tao Downtown. This pan-Asian underground restaurant feels almost club-like and is dimly lit with candles and sexy lighting. It’s the perfect place to dress up and enjoy some cocktails alongside delicious sushi and Asian bites. It’s always packed and always buzzing. Reservations essential.

199 Bowery, New York, NY 10002, USA

Another buzzy, stylish yet pricey dinner option is Vandal on Bowery. The interiors are very artistic and the atmosphere is fantastic. The menu is full of international small plates, which are designed to be shared. This is where the ‘in crowds’ hang out. Reservations essential.

La Esquina
114 Kenmare St, New York, NY 10012, USA

Hidden away underneath a run-down canteen is La Esquina, possibly one of New York’s coolest restaurants. You’d never find it unless you were in the know, especially because of the speak-easy style reception. La Esquina is a hub of underground activity with a sexy bar and dark restaurant serving up Mexican food that’s to-die-for. Reservations essential.

Casual Eateries serving Amazing, Affordable Food

Pure Thai Cookhouse
766 9th Ave #2, New York, NY 10019, USA 

I can’t really take the credit for finding this gem of a Thai restaurant as it was recommended to me by Hayley from Frock Me I’m Famous. It was possibly the best recommendation of the trip. The Thai food was authentic, fresh and incredibly delicious. Make a reservation or just show up for lunch or an early dinner. The vibe at Pure Thai Cookhouse is very casual.

Dim Sim Palace
334 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036, USA

We found Dim Sum Palace when we were craving dim sum for a late lunch one day. The interiors are extremely low-key but the service is efficient. There is a huge dim sum menu and everything that we ordered off it was fresh and delicious. They do a Happy Hour from 3pm-5pm, which gives you 50% off all sushi. Even without the Happy Hour though, it’s still affordable.

Serafina Fabulous Pizza
1022 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10075, USA

Serafina is a great option for lunch if you’re visiting Central Park, as it’s a short walk away on the Upper East Side. This authentically Italian restaurant is definitely a neighbourhood favourite that has stood the test of time. Rest assured that anything you order here will be delicious. This place is also casual.

The Best Lunch and Brunch Spots

Various Locations

Sarabeth’s is an upmarket restaurant chain that is well known by New Yorkers. It serves everything from brunch through to dinner and has a light, bright interior. There are a few different branches around Manhattan so pick the one that works for you. Special thanks to the Sarabeth’s waiter who cured my hangover with a salty soda water and lime juice. It actually works!

Red Flame Diner
67 W 44th St #1, New York, NY 10036, USA

This place was over the road from us when we were staying at The Royalton. If you’re looking for a basic All-American diner experience, the Red Flame Diner is the place to come. The décor feels like it hasn’t changed since the 60’s but that’s all part of the charm. Come here for breakfast or brunch and try the waffles. The service is primitive but the food is classic, indulgent and totally delicious.

38 Macdougal St, New York, NY 10012, USA

Last but by no means least is Shuka, an aesthetically beautiful restaurant in SoHo serving up delicious Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean bites. The beetroot hummus and halloumi bites are an absolute must. The menu is designed for sharing and the waiters are happy to recommend things. The coffee is also great. Come here for lunch followed by some shopping in Soho. You will not be disappointed.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Tipping Etiquette in New York

First timers visiting New York may not be aware of the tipping culture there, and in the whole of the USA for that matter. Tips make up a large part of wages in certain hospitality jobs therefore tipping is always expected, and not just 10%. Average tips in restaurants are expected to range between 15%-22% of the total bill and most of the time the optional amounts are marked down on the receipt. Taxi drivers and hotel staff also expect to be tipped, but it’s hard to put a solid amount on how much that should be. We always rounded up our taxis and gave a few dollars to bellboys and doormen flagging our cabs. Give what you can afford and remember that a small gesture is better than nothing at all. As a Brit, such an intense tipping culture can be difficult to get your head around.

Top Tip: Always try to have some single dollars and 5 dollar notes in your wallet at all times to avoid being caught short. If you’re on a budget, remember to factor in the cost of the tip when deciding where to eat. If the bill for the food is going to be high, so will the tip.

First Timer’s Guide to New York
Getting There

I flew to New York with Norwegian Air, who have recently launched a double daily service to New York from Gatwick Airport. This means they fly twice a day, every day. Norwegian Air operate a fleet of brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliners with cabins for Premium and Economy. I got to experience Premium Class with Norwegian air, which I will be reviewing in a separate blog post. Fares start from £149 one-way in economy and £499 one way in Premium including all taxes and charges.

If you’re reading this, then thank you for persevering all the way to the end of this lengthy post! I really hope that it will come in useful for some First Timers in New York, and perhaps it’s provided a few ideas for people who are already familiar with Manhattan too. I can honestly say I fell in love with New York and I can already feel a magnetic pull back to the city that I know will last a lifetime.

Want to read more posts about New York? Check out;

Are you planning your first trip to New York or do you know the city well and can offer some more advice for First Timers? Either way, I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment in the box below. X

Jessica Ruth Gibson is the Founder and Editor of Travelista and an award-winning travel content creator of 10 years. She lives in York, UK with her son and has travelled to over 50 countries; her favourites being Italy, Canada and Vietnam.


  • I am happy after getting stuff about it and ill try to share with others when I will take the day trips from New York City.

  • Thank you, Madam ! Wonderful sophisticated and romantic New York ! And wonderful photos from you !

  • this is one of the best article on New York City guide.. keep it up and keep sharing useful knowledge

  • Great Job, and your blog is very valuable for us. I totally agree with what you are saying and hope to see more of your posts in the near future.

  • Amazing as well as informative post.

  • Amazing as well as informative post.Love reading your blog.i have never been to NYC.I was planning to visit there this summer.Your blog help me to travel there easily.Thanks for the post.Keep sharing.

    • Thanks David! So glad this post has been helpful for you. Hope you bookmark it in case you ever visit NYC x

  • I felt exactly the same when I visited New York! We got the train in from the airport, and walking out of Penn Station to find myself in the middle of such an iconic city was absolutely breathtaking! xxx
    Lucy @ La Lingua | Life, Travel, Italy

    • Thanks Lucy! So glad you can relate, I am sure it’s a feeling so many people remember well. I will definitely never forget it. So magic! X

  • As a New Yorker and often more armchair traveler than traveler based on my current life situation, I loved reading your guide and thought it was awesome.
    Two small notes:
    Harlem is actually a neighborhood in Northern Manhattan, so you might have been thinking of the Bronx and New Jersey which are also connected to Manhattan by bridges.
    AS you probably know, if you or other readers want to actually climb the Statue of Liberty and/or visit Ellis Island, the only way to do so is via Statue Cruises, and I would recommend booking in advance if you want to go to the Crown of the statue.

    Props again on a great guide, and come back and visit soon!

    • Hi Gabriel, thanks so much for flagging those corrections! I have amended the post with the correct info. I am so glad you liked the guide, means a lot coming from a New Yorker! 🙂

  • This is THE perfect first timer’s guide to New York and you’ve successfully made me miss that city SO much! I’m hoping to make it there next year when the festive decorations up so I’ll be bookmarking this for a few places to eat! Glad you had such an amazing time on your first visit to NYC!

    • Thanks Emma, I am so pleased you think so! I am missing the city so much already, cannot wait to go back. We managed to catch some of the festive decorations at the department store but the tree at the Rockerfella centre wasn’t up yet. I’d love to return just before Christmas. It’s so magical! X

  • Gemma Thornton

    Ah this is such a great post! I would have loved to have read this before going!
    Me and hubby came back Sunday just gone,1st timers aswel and we absolutely loved it!
    We also flew with norwegian, had the same pass as you guys and visited a lot of the same attractions and places! Feels like ive read my own holiday diary!
    Take me back!
    Look forward to seeing your reviews on hotels and flights

    • Thanks for your commment Gemma, so pleased to read that you had an equally amazing trip to NYC! Did you find the NYC pass to be really useful? I’d love to know what you thought of Norwegian also. My first hotel review is now live 🙂 x

      • Gemma Thornton

        Hi Jess, I thought the NYC pass was great although we didnt use it for a lot of attractions listed, just a few of the main ones so we probably could have done without it, and a lot of stuff we wanted to see was free to do!
        Norwegian was great! Although we didnt fly premium we enjoyed our flight and loved the use of the touch screen for ordering and service. (I particularly loved the male cabin crew tartan jackets )
        The online shop was a bit of a let down..I was hoping for some exclusive goodies!
        All in all though it was good and will most certainly fly with them again Xx

  • Loved this post! Heading back to New York on a 24 hour layover in a few days time so will have to see how much I can squeeze in! 🙂

    Rachel xx

  • I love New York, there is so much to do the first time you go it can be overwhelming! This is a great guide!

    • Thank you! I totally agree that it can be overwhelming, that’s exactly how I felt despite having loads of advice from friends. If anything, that can just confuse the matter! I wrote this guide to try and help people decide what to do first x

  • So many of my favourites here!! Really really great tips for first timers.

  • Jessica Gowing

    Since following you on Instagram and seeing your NYC pics I have been waiting for this blog as I will be going for the first time this Christmas xx thank you for all your tips and reading this has got me even more excited to be going to the big Apple xx

    • That is so lovely to hear, thank you Jessica! I really hope this post comes in handy as I wrote it for people like you. I hope you have the most incredible time in NY and get to try out some of my recommendations. Let me know how it goes! 🙂 xx

  • I’m visiting in January and cannot wait! Your blog post has made me even more excited what camera do you use out of interest? X

    • Thanks for the comment Catherine! Oh you are going to have the MOST amazing time… but sure to layer up though as it will be freezing in January. I use a Panasonic Lumix DMC G6. It’s quite an old model now but I would definitely recommend a Panasonic Lumix x

  • Oh girl you’ve absolutely killed me with this post!! It’s making me miss NYC more than EVER! You’ve pretty much nailed this post and shared some amazing food recommendations and sites to see! Walking the Brooklyn bridge, shopping in Soho and top of the rock have to be some of my favourite things to do in the big apple!

    Hayley xo

    • Thank you my love! You were SO right about how much I was going to love NYC. I now share your passion for it 100%. Thanks again for the fab restaurant recommendation x

  • Yes I love ny! I went as a first timer earlier this year and just think 6 days is the perfect time to see the main sights. I think you could spend weeks there but realistically who has that kind of time haha, looks like you had fun,


    • Hi Jet! I do agree 6 days was a perfect amount of time. I was EXHAUSTED by the end of the 6 days (partly due to the jet lag and partly due to the late nights and long days!) I was ready for a rest by the end… and so was my bank card! It’s such a magical place and I’ll never forget my first time there. Can’t wait to go back! X

  • And to think I got my first driving license just over the border in NJ and my first solo trip out was to NYC many years ago. Thanks for the memory, nice post; cheers

  • I live in NYC and you did a great job doing a guide! I would say only one thing is that I dont’ think the tipping culture is any different here. Awesome pics! And I have yet to visit Top of the Rock but it looks amazing 🙂

    • Thanks Rachel! I am so glad you think I did a good job with the guide, that is a big compliment from a New Yorker! I do think that tipping is much more expected in the US particularly in restaurants, and a higher percentage of the bill. Some people don’t tip at all in the UK! Definitely treat yourself to a trip up the Top of the Rock! 🙂 x

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