Editor’s Note: CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
Trying to do the best of New York City in a few days is like announcing you plan to see Africa in a week: it minimizes just how much there is to experience and completely disregards travel times.
Our menu of the best of New York City eats, drinks, sights and photo ops ensures you don’t waste a New York minute – which Johnny Cash supposedly once defined as the time it takes for a traffic light to turn green and the guy behind you to honk his horn.
Mandarin Oriental New York
Located atop one of the twin sentries comprising the Time Warner Center, the five-star Mandarin enjoys unobstructed views through its floor-to-ceiling windows of the Hudson River, Central Park, Brooklyn and Portugal (at least, it feels that way).
Its best of New York City position in bustling Columbus Circle centralizes it near perfectly – just north of Midtown – with subways linking to virtually every part of the city. Unlike in much of the rest of the United States, there’s no shame in walking in New York. Plenty of attractions are within an easy stroll, including Lincoln Center, Broadway, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square.
Crosby Street Hotel
With high ceilings and full length windows reflective of SoHo’s history as a factory cum gallery district, Hotelier Firmdale’s only non-London property is an all-new structure built in the neighborhood’s classic style, its 86 guest rooms each receiving their own individual designs.
As charming as the cobblestone street out front, the hotel has an outdoor sculpture garden, all-day afternoon tea service with cakes and sandwiches in the bar and a 100-seat screening room with a Sunday Night Film Club open to all. The neighborhood’s overall lower profile makes the Crosby’s upper floors all the more recommended.
The Standard, High Line
If aesthetics are a requisite, The Standard, High Line – situated directly above a stretch of old elevated railway now known as High Line Park – is a best of New York City landmark in Manhattan’s most model-intensive neighborhood.
The decor is mod and the vibe is downtown, so go ahead and pack your shiniest shirts for the clubs, bars and bistros of the surrounding Meatpacking District.
Among the property’s greatest draws are its views. Of models, yes, but also of the Hudson River, downtown and, to a lesser extent, New Jersey. Ensure you see as much as possible by getting a room ending in 24, which will net you two walls of windows.
The Bowery Hotel
Two hundred years ago, the Bowery was a poor man’s Broadway. By the turn of the last century, it was just poor. But those familiar just 10 years ago with this erstwhile skid row would hardly recognize it today, and the Bowery Hotel embodies its new, loftier status.
Lying right at the intersection of hip and elegant, the hotel is appointed with luxurious old world refinements and décor while retaining a vibe that’s lively and modern. Factory windows offer 360-degrees of the city, while several rooms have their own terraces, complete with outdoor showers.
The Pod Hotel
The only way you can stay overnight in Manhattan for less than one of the single rooms in this Midtown budgetier is by staying with family in the area. And if you stay at the Pod’s 51st Street location, in some cases it, too, requires you to share a bathroom with people you may not like.
But rooms at the newer Murray Hill location all feature private bathrooms, along with free Wi-Fi and an emphasis on communal space typified by the Pod 39’s rooftop lounge. The hotel’s perks are few and the rooms are barely bigger than the beds, but if you want hip and affordable, you won’t likely do better.
Insider tips for more American cities: Chicago | Los Angeles | San Francisco
With its modern decor and swanky address at the tip of Central Park, Per Se strives to turn your dinner into “a journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten,” which would seem pretentious if that wasn’t precisely what it accomplishes with nearly every dish. Hailed by food critics ever since its doors opened, Per Se is the brainchild of Thomas Keller, the only American chef to have been awarded three Michelin stars for two different restaurants (including Per Se).
Per Se is the East Coast version of his flagship French Laundry in California, having since far surpassed it on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. While the chef’s tasting menu changes daily, there are mainstays, such as Keller’s well-known twist on “oysters and pearls,” which combines succulent oysters, tapioca pearls and caviar.
Americans tend to value massive portions; fine dining is inevitably about small but perfect items. Keens earns best of New York City marks by seeking to combine the best of both philosophies.
While up against worthy steakhouse competitors including Peter Luger, Old Homestead and The Strip House, Keens has an edge by serving the city’s top mutton chop. The chop comes flanked by pieces of lamb bacon.
Keens also has the edge in decor. Its ceiling is stippled with thousands of clay pipes that represent an erstwhile club membership including American icons Theodore Roosevelt, Babe Ruth and General Douglas MacArthur.
With novelty as a guiding, but not solitary, principle, chef Matthew Lightner is dazzling diners at his tiny new tasting room in Tribeca.
Foraged ingredients and innovative ideas drive a constantly changing 22-course menu that’s designed as much to stir emotions as it is taste buds, which can go unrewarded in any given moment in favor of a gastro-narrative revelation four courses later.
Modernist creations like gin-cured scallops, cedar-oil-drizzled lamb and a baguette colored with squid ink to resemble a razor clam are served on flat rocks, hay and driftwood in the naturist style pioneered in Portland, Oregon. The award of two stars by Michelin isn’t doing anything to ease accessibility to an already modest space, so reservations are vital.
“New York” magazine recently called Michael White “the city’s hottest Italian chef,” and “Esquire” put his bustling new Osteria Morini on its list of best restaurants in the city. So why shouldn’t we put it on our best of New York City list?
White has earned praise with his knack for taking home-style fare and providing a gourmet twist, like tortellini with a duck-liver cream sauce. Of course, man cannot live on food alone, and Osteria Morini’s cocktails are also superb.
Dress code at The Dutch? “This ain’t no country club, but it’s no ball game either,” states the American bar/restaurant’s website. “This is New York. Do what you feel, but keep it fresh.”
That casual but earnest logic lies at the heart of Andrew Carmellini’s latest offering in New York. Inspired by a mix of cafés, country inns and seaside shacks, diners get reinterpretations of American classics like the good old porterhouse steak and fried chicken served with biscuits. Just remember to look up from your food occasionally, or else you’ll miss the celebrities meandering through the dining room.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is one of the most celebrated chefs in New York. If you want to experience his creations at reasonable prices, try the lunch deal at Jean-Georges’ Café Nougatine in the Trump Building. The French haute cuisine goes for around $25 every lunch hour at the acclaimed restaurant.
Miss Lily’s Cakes
While the name promises cakes, this hip diner in downtown Manhattan serves remarkable Jamaican dishes. The most revered item at this best of New York City diner is jerk chicken.
The decor is simple, but you won’t care as you watch leggy servers carry hearty platefuls of curry goat, oxtail stew and, yes, even cakes if you so desire. Warning to anyone looking for a relaxed island vibe: the atmosphere of Miss Lily’s tends to get clubbier and the music louder as the night goes on.
For a best of New York City experience, there’s no more quintessential fast food than a slice of pizza.
Joe’s modest storefront unloads exceptional slices to an uninterrupted queue of patrons nearly 20 hours of every day. Stand in line, point, pay, apply Parmesan and chili flakes from the public shakers, fold, eat and hustle back to work. Hey, now you’re practically a local.
Best street food in New York City – from falafel to bagels
Step back in time and behold fully restored glasswork, furnishings and architectural appointments of a cavernous lounge that was once the massive private office of 1920s magnate John W. Campbell.
Now a swanky club, Campbell Apartment evokes images reminiscent of the more elegant side of “The Great Gatsby.” (For Gatsby-esque smoking ruins, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) Having a cocktail amid such elegance comes at a price: no jeans or sneakers allowed.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room
In the lobby of the Ace Hotel, The Breslin is separated into small rooms for eating, drinking and generally feeling good about rubbing shoulders with trendy New Yorkers. There’s a good chance you won’t even get a table in the bar, which has dark wood, antique pendant light fixtures and the feel of a private British club – but the buzz and people scenery will make up for it.
The Breslin’s lamb burger draws raves from regulars. The dining room is the place for pork in all its marrow and other modern guises.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, 16 W. 29th St. (between Broadway and Fifth Avenue); +1 212 679 1939
Anyone who feels every New York nightclub is the same should hit this NoLita (North of Little Italy) establishment with an interior every bit as eclectic as its playlist, which includes new wave, rap, rock and pop.
How eclectic? For one, the entire space is swathed in gold. For another, it includes a wall studded with gilded human skulls. (That’s right, skulls.) Be advised that while you’ll likely want to capture an evening here for posterity – it’s pricy enough that it’s less a night out than an investment – photography is not permitted.
McSorley’s Old Ale House
As at Campbell Apartment, you feel like you’re stepping back in time. McSorley’s, however, is the sort of place that would welcome those traveling steerage as warmly as those in first class.
Rough-hewn wood floors, workmanlike bartenders and assorted memorabilia said to have been in the building since 1910 make you feel like you’re in a simpler age. There are only two options for sale here: dark beer and light beer, the latter being called “light” not for its caloric value, but because it’s not the former. Since beers here must be ordered in pairs, try one of each.
ReVision’s theme is reclamation, with a front room furnished in bar stools made of recycled snow skis and a countertop of shredded, outdated U.S. currency glazed to a smooth finish. But it’s the best of New York City back room you’ll remember.
Filled with couches fashioned from old coffins, porcelain bath tubs and the back ends of 1970s American luxury cars, it’s got a DJ table formed by the front end of an old Cadillac. If you get in early in the evening you might be able to dodge the often unbearable late crowds. Just be sure not to show up wearing real fur. (Seriously.)
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Bergdorf Goodman department store
All high-fashion roads lead to this city institution, where the merchandise, layout and presentation are first-class, the staff is renowned for obsessive courteousness and historic New York department store shopping is still a dignified experience.
Bergdorf’s offers some impressive sales, though half off a US$1,000 sweater is still 500 bucks. BG’s four on-site restaurants are surprisingly good, a find for anyone who normally wouldn’t dream of eating in a store.
For expensive stuff cheap and cheap stuff even cheaper, there’s no more beloved and simultaneously bemoaned retailer in New York City than Century 21.
Shoppers ascend C21’s five floors, slipping through the hordes searching for deeply discounted designer fashions, mainstream basics and mall-brand overstock, as well as items including luggage, watches and handbags. If you’re willing to brave masses of consumers, C21 probably has a version of whatever clothing item you desire at every level of the economic spectrum, whether it’s a $1,200 coat for $400 or a $25 pack of socks for $10.
B&H Photo Video
B&H does a healthy amount of Internet business, making it known to many planet-wide, but the brick-and-mortar version is a hive of retail wonderment that really must be observed offline.
Thousands of daily customers seek counsel and competitive prices from hundreds of employees on photo and video cameras, computers, audio and lighting equipment, TVs, portable media devices and all of their associated accessories. It’s worth it alone to buy something just to watch it travel via the store’s overhead rail delivery system.
National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Finally opened on September 12, 2011, after years of legal and architectural haggling, the 9/11 Memorial replaces the footprints of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers with reflecting pools fed by gargantuan ground-level waterfalls.
While the scale is massive, the aesthetic is in many ways quite personal, making the experience imposing yet touching all at once. As long as construction continues around the site, visits require advance reservations; go to the official site to secure your visit time.
Top of The Rock observation deck
Like Meg Ryan and King Kong, you may be filled with a yen to rush to the top of the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, this is an impulse shared by a zillion or so other tourists. Instead, check out the observation deck at Rockefeller Center, which offers 360-degree views that are nearly as stunning and can be seen after a fraction of the wait.
The expanse of green in the middle of Manhattan is your chance to do everything from seeing Shakespeare in the Park (there’s also a Marionette Theater at the Swedish Cottage if your little ones aren’t ready for Titus Andronicus) to challenging old Italian men to a game of bocce on the green near Sheep’s Meadow.
In the summer, Conservatory Water is filled with model boats. For even bigger kids, rental rowboats are available. In winter, you can ice-skate at either Wollman or Lasker Rink.
Visitors might experience completely different New Yorks depending on the time of year. Here are some seasonal suggestions:
Madison Square Garden
Hopes are high again at the Garden as the resurgent New York Knicks NBA franchise has emerged from one of the bleaker stretches in its proud history to contention for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. If you prefer your athletes with fewer teeth, the Garden is also home to the New York Rangers, one of six original members of the National Hockey League.
Citi Pond at Bryant Park
Ice-skating at Rockefeller Center may be the most iconic activity available for any winter visit to New York City. Unfortunately, every other visitor willing to lace on skates knows this, as well.
If lines prove too horrific, consider heading south to the seasonal Citi Pond at Bryant Park. The park also fills up in winter with holiday shops to amuse those who choose to stay off the ice.
Admission free, skate rentals US$14.
Hudson River Park
New York’s west side waterfront has undergone wholesale improvements over the last decade, including the installation of an eight-kilometer bike and walking path, tennis and basketball courts, soccer fields, batting cages, playgrounds, skate park, trapeze school, open lawns and free kayaking at Piers 96, 40 and 72nd Street. Yes, that’s right, trapeze school.
Good burgers and beers can be found at the Frying Pan, a wartime barge turned bar and grill at 26th Street.
From April through September, the Bronx comes alive for the most successful sports franchise in North America, which supplies New York with a good chunk of its swagger – it’s easier to call yourself “the greatest city in the world” when you’ve won 27 World Series, not to mention those two by the Mets.
Take the B, D or 4 subway trains to 161st Street for a game, including time to stroll the team’s new billion-dollar stadium. Beware purchasing tickets from street scalpers: counterfeiters here are among the best in the world.
The best things to do in New York City beyond Manhattan
One of the best ways to appreciate Manhattan is to leave it.
Get off the F train at York Street in Brooklyn and enjoy the two-and-a-half kilometer walk back to the city via its most historic gateway, enjoying a remarkable view of Manhattan that will make you feel like you’re living a particularly charming moment from a Woody Allen film.
Before making the journey, spend some time in Brooklyn. Check out Brooklyn’s bridge-side DUMBO neighborhood, which offers a waterfront view and features warehouses converted into an array of residences and businesses. If you enjoy waiting in line for food that you eat with your hands, check out Grimaldi’s, one of New York’s best-rated brick oven pizzas.
If you’re looking for a museum missed by most tourists (and a surprising number of New Yorkers), make time for the Cloisters, located in Fort Tryon Park.
A reassembled French building houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval Europe collection, but for many visitors the best part of the visit occurs when you step outside and see gardens patterned faithfully after medieval designs for landscaping and architecture. You’ll be going much farther north than most visitors, but when you witness an attraction unlike anything else in New York you’ll know it’s worth the journey.