Tips for first-timers and solo travellers in New York

I’ve taken three bites of the Big Apple so far, visiting in 2004, 2007 and 2008, and I’m eager to take a fourth chunk out of the city. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t deserve to be ticked off a list only once; each time I’m there, I do totally different things, from hanging out at the UN Headquarters to appearing in the background on Good Morning America, and it feels like a new side to New York is revealed. I also have some great insight from my sister Nancy, who lived in New York for a year and has been back a few times since.

Good Morning America outdoor crew 2008

“That one time, when our college appeared on American TV…”

I’ve travelled in a group, in a pair and also on my own, so I’ve seen it from different angles in that sense, too. If you’re looking to really do it justice when you arrive, here’s what you need to know when you visit NY – at least, according to me…

The journey in from JFK doesn’t really prepare you for what the city will be like.

So, you step off the plane and you’re right in the middle of things, aren’t you? Well, not quite. It’s a bit of a hike to get into the tourist areas from the airport (there is more than one, but I’ve always used JFK) and it’ll take a while before your surroundings resemble the place you’ve seen in photos, so don’t expect skyscrapers and Times Square to be on your doorstep. On the taxi/bus/AirTrain ride in, you will pass by some cute wooden houses that look like they’re straight out of Sabrina the Teenage Witch – a sign that you’re not in the heart of the city just yet. Nobody in Manhattan lives in a Sabrina house. If you want cutesy, I’d recommend parts of Greenwich Village, for bohemian-style boutiques and studio apartments, as well as the tiny 72 1/2 Bedford Street, which is NYC’s narrowest house.

New York's smallest house, Greenwich Village

I think the person with the 4×4 might have more space than the resident of 72 1/2 Bedford Street.

Those rumours about portion sizes are all true.

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that food portions are larger here, and I’m in no way saying that all New Yorkers are obese; in fact, many of them are super-skinny and love exercise, with gyms and juice bars almost peppering as many street corners as Starbucks. But if you’re coming from stingy old Britain, you’ll be surprised at how much is piled up on your plate when it’s time to eat.  By all means, fill up at breakfast, but you’ll probably only need one other sit-down meal and then something simple, like a bagel, a salad or a small hot dog. I did manage to order children’s portions once or twice (top tip for solo travellers!), knowing I’d only be able to eat half of what was served, but waiters tend to get annoyed about this. Maybe because I haven’t been under 16 in quite some time.

Try not to get too starry-eyed in tourist areas.

This is important regardless of your group size or if you’re on your own, as it’s all too easy to be blinded by the lights of the big city. On my second trip here, a bunch of us went to the Hard Rock Cafe (yeah, I know it’s not very original, but we wanted to try it) and one girl had her wallet stolen under our noses. None of us even saw anyone acting suspiciously, let alone reaching into her bag, but then a good thief doesn’t get noticed, especially in a hotspot like Times Square. Whilst I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s holiday with safety advice, it’s worthwhile making sure that you take a secure bag – not a really nice one that happens not to have a zip or closure – and that you don’t leave it hanging off the end of your chair. Similarly, don’t wave the contents around, especially if you have expensive gadgets (that means you, iPad user!).

Wooden barman statue in New York pub

Secure bag – check. New wooden friend with beer – check.

You can have fun on your own, honest.

Don’t panic – if you’re fairly confident at reading a map and working out directions, you’ll get into the grid system of the streets in no time. You’ll also find that people can be more than helpful if there are times when you feel lost, so just pop into the nearest shop, hotel or restaurant and ask for directions. When you visit the museums, you won’t be the only one flying solo, and your experience will be a lot more personal – skip the parts of the Metropolitan Museum or the Whitney that don’t interest you, then spend a stupid amount of time staring at other rooms without having to keep up with someone else’s pace. I spent ages admiring the Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at the Met in 2008, which later formed part of a second year art theory essay at university, whilst Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe at the Whitney was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Another attraction that don’t need a group to be enjoyed is the UN; I took a tour with my college, but you can enjoy it alone, too, and the shop is brilliant. As a member of Amnesty International, I found it really fascinating to see global cooperation in action.

If in doubt, park yourself in Central Park.

There are loads of things to do in the greenest place in the city, whatever season you’re here for; I’ve wrapped up warm and scrambled on rocks in the bitter cold, and I’ve lazed in the sunshine by myself. Easy things to find are: the boating lake and Boathouse cafe and restaurant, where English Breakfast Tea is a welcome pick-me-up; the Alice in Wonderland statue beside the lake; the paved area with the fountain which was featured in Enchanted, where people practice yoga and tai chi; Strawberry Fields, a peaceful place and an essential stop-off for Beatles fans. What’s not so easy to find is the castle – I spent ages trying to track it down, then ended up in a shady wooded area at dusk, when a strange and over-friendly man approached me. Needless to say, I legged it pretty quick and gave up chasing castles, but let’s not dwell on that. 9 times out of 10, Central Park is a great place to hang out.

Central Park fountain with fitness enthusiasts

Recognise this part of the park from ‘Enchanted’?

And here are some quick tips from former resident, Nancy…

  • Don’t miss the chance to try Shake Shack burgers – they’re delicious and you get a lot for your money. Thankfully they’re coming to Covent Garden in London, but this is where you can track down the originals.
  • The 9/11 memorial is a must-see – it’s really important to pay a visit here [note: I’d also recommend this].
  • Check out the High Line. Running all the way from Chelsea to Meatpacking, this is a communal garden space where you can chill out.
  • Take a trip to Williamsburg for Beacon’s Closet, which is where the best vintage clothes in the city can be found. I picked up a Diane Von Furstenberg top here that I absolutely love.
  • The Staten Island Ferry is free, so you have no excuse not to jump on it.

Stay tuned for some more New York posts, including Ellis Island and the Bodyworlds exhibition that introduced me to anatomy. And if you have any tips to add to the list, you can tweet me or share them below.

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