It’s true that we were rather ambitious thinking that we could fit everything into 3 days in New York, however we did manage to see almost everything that we set out to in that time. It wasn’t a relaxed trip by any means, which you’ll soon see once you see our itinerary but it shows that it is possible to do it if you’re short on time!
I should point out here that I have been to New York before (albeit 10 whole years ago!) and the friend I travelled with had not so my aim for this trip was to try to balance the essential must-do activiites with some things I hadn’t had the chance to do on my last trip. Therefore I think this is a pretty touristy itinerary that would suit first-time visitors to the city as it covers all of the big photo opportunities and things New York is most famous for.
Day 1 – Lower Manhattan & Liberty Island
We had a couple of activities pre-booked for some days of our trip out of necessity. Usually I plan to go with the flow a bit more but if you’re going to do a trip to the Statue of Liberty then the queues are huge and it’s pretty much essential to pre-book your ticket. (Side note: If you want to book to go up the crown of the Statue of Liberty the waiting list is currently 3 months long so pre-plan!)
Most people do not recommend doing the cruises and it’s true that you don’t have to do one if you just want to see the Statue of Liberty from the water. You can ride the Staten Island ferry for free and it will get you a good snap if that’s all you’re interested in!
However, if you have the time and are interested in the history I would recommend the trip to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. In my opinion it is worth the relatively cheap $18.50 entry ticket and it’s worth putting up with the hoardes of tourists for. The audio guide around Liberty Island is very informative and it’s quite an experience to see the statue so close up. Ellis Island has a fantastic museum where you can listen to oral histories about immigrants’ experiences of first arriving in America… it is somehow especially poignant considering the current situation in the US.
After quite an exhaustive trip around both islands and arriving back in Battersea Park we tried to do a whistle-stop tour of some of the nearby sights. In this area of Manhattan you are in the midst of the Financial District and obviously a stop to see the famous Charging Bull statue and recently added Fearless Girl (my favourite!) were on the agenda. They are super crowded at all times so if you want a photo you’ll probably have to turn up at some ludicrous time of the morning, I couldn’t even see the bull behind the amount of people!
Dominating the skyline in this part of the city is the Freedom Tower (or new World Trade Center) which you might choose to go up if you’re not doing on of the other viewpoints around the city. The advantage of Freedom Tower seems to be that it has a glass-bottomed floor you can walk on. It is also the tallest building in New York. Back at the bottom is Ground Zero, the 9/11 memorial and museum. We did go to see the memorial but we didn’t go into the museum.
From the trip on across to Liberty Island we were able to catch a little glimpse of the Brooklyn Bridge. Had we had more time our plan was the walk across the bridge and explore some of Brooklyn but we turned out to be rushed off our feet this day and only made it far enough to take a quick snap from the water’s edge. Something to add to the itinerary for a return trip!
Day 2 – Midtown & the Theater District
The chances are that you’re going to want to do one viewpoint during your 3 days in New York City to get a look at that incredible skyline from up above and if there’s one I’d recommend it’s the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center – otherwise known as Top of the Rock. Now this is a preferable choice to the view from the top of the Empire State Building for a major reason. From the top of Rockefeller you can see the skyline with the Empire State Building in it whereas if you go up the Empire State Building all you get is a view of the less-than-attractive top of the Rockefeller Center.
My tip is to go early in the morning. We went at around 9.30am (it opens at 8.00am) on a Saturday and there were very few people at the top and absolutely no queue to get in. I’m not sure whether this is because it was early-ish or because most people choose to go to the Empire State observation deck – which last time I went had an enormous queue!
Rockefeller Center is however very pretty from the bottom and a pretty cool place to be as it is steeped in television history. It is where the TV institution Saturday Night Live is filmed and was also the setting for one of my favourite shows of the 00’s Tina Fey’s 30 Rock (which was based on her experience as Head Writer on SNL). If you like US comedy you might want to take one of the NBC Studios tours or (like us) just visit the shop to stock up on your memorabilia from classic shows like Parks & Recreation, The Office, Seinfeld and Friends.
There are way too many different museums for you to be able to fit them all into just 3 days in New York City so you might want to pick one or two that are the most important and try to slot these into your trip. When it comes to art New York is home to some of the most famous paintings in the world, many of them in either The Met (Metropolitan) or the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). We opted to visit the MOMA because I’m more interested in modern over classical art and the MOMA has amongst its 6 floors of treasures Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Frida Kahlo, Monet and Andy Warhol to name just a few. It would be easy to while away a whole afternoon here – if you have the energy!
When the lights go down it’s the perfect time to check out Times Square, although chances are by this point you’ve been there already. For me this is the place that defines New York as the city that never sleeps. You could literally be in Times Square at 4.00am on a Tuesday morning and there would be people there. It turns out on a Saturday night there are more people than you’ve probably seen in your whole life and whilst not always the most pleasant experience it is certainly an experience!
We were of course in the area to splash a serious amount of cash on the ultimate tourist trap of New York City… a show on Broadway. It might not be for everyone but we are huge theatre fans and it was one of the reasons we planned our trip in the first place. I’m pleased to say that it was worth every penny of the ticket price for us (we saw Frozen in case anyone is curious).
Day 3 – Upper East & West Side
Our third day in New York was split into two halves based on a couple of things we wanted to do in two different areas of the city. First we headed to the Upper East Side to walk the width of Central Park, taking in the Alice in Wonderland statue, Bethesda Fountain, Bow Bridge and Strawberry Fields (the John Lennon memorial). There are so many things to see in Central Park that it is nearly impossible… it’s really big! I have been twice now and although this time I saw some things I’d missed the first time I still haven’t seen it all. Did you know there’s a castle in the park too?
On the corner of 72nd Street where we exited the part is the Dakota building where John Lennon was killed in 1980 but it has had many other famous residents over the years including Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein and Roberta Flack. It was also used as the exterior for the film Rosemary’s Baby so to be honest I’m surprised anyone wants to live there at all anymore, no matter how great the view is over Central Park.
Being a Sunday we then headed to the nearby NYC Grand Bazaar, one of the best known antiques and flea markets in the city. This is a less touristy attraction as it’s mostly filled with locals on the lookout for unique furniture and jewellery by local craftsmen. There are also some amazing street food stalls! We mainly visited to get an authentic taste of New York living but also because it was a special event that week. Every so often there are special vendors and they were having an ice cream festival which of course meant I tucked into a cinnammon crunch cookie ice-cream sandwich for my elevenses – yum!
Greenwich Village & Chelsea
Following our ice-cream indulgence we caught the subway downtown to one of the most interesting neighbourhoods in the city, Greenwich Village. This is the area where all of the artists used to live and has so much recent history! It’s here that musicians like Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones played their first shows, and even more recently where Lady Gaga and Norah Jones were discovered. You can go to the comedy club where Jerry Seinfeld was discovered or drink in the bar Ernest Hemingway frequented.
Although this area is now home to the super rich and artists can no longer afford to live here, it has maintained the bohemian vibe that made it so trendy in the first place and many of the establishments are exactly the same as they would have been back in the days when the aforementioned people lived here. It is also still a popular part of town for celebs to hang out if you keep your eyes peeled.
It’s all very well wandering around here yourself but unless you’re really well versed in the history of this time period you’ll need someone to point out the famous haunts to you. We took the Greenwich Village walking tour run by New York Tour1 Neighbourhood Tours and it was excellent, in fact definitely my favourite thing we did during our time in the city.
After our tour we re-fuelled with a visit to Rocco’s at the recommendation of our tour guide for a cup of Italian coffee and a cheeky canoli before heading back into the city centre via a walk along the High Line. The High Line is an elevated public part built on a disused railway line and it’s great! Not just because it brings more green space, culture (artists and public performers), street food and even sunbathing spots to the centre of Manhattan but it’s an excellent quick walking route for pedestrians. If you’ve ever tried to walk for any distance in the centre of New York the amount of time spent at traffic lights every single block is a source of never-ending frustration!
Getting from JFK Airport to the city centre
The cheapest and quickest way to get from JFK Airport to New York City centre is to use public transport. You take the AirTrain to Jamaica Station and then either the subway to the closest stop to your hotel or Long Island Railroad which goes into Penn Station right in the centre of the city.
This takes about 40 minutes in total. The AirTrain will cost you $5 and the LIRR around $7/8. You pay for the AirTrain once you get to Jamaica Station as you will notice there are no ticket machines at JFK.
Once you get to Jamaica buy a Metrocard from one of the machines or the desks and top it up with at least $5 then use this to exit through the turnstiles. If you are proceeding to the subway then a one-way subway ticket costs $2.75 so you will need to add at least $7.75 to get to your destination.
If you are getting the LIRR you still need to buy a $5 Metrocard to exit the station AND the $7/8 train ticket for the train to Penn Station. You can keep your Metrocard and top it up to use on the subway around New York (like an Oyster Card in London).
Where we stayed in New York
We stayed at Hotel Metro NYC on West 35th Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown. It’s a nice hotel with a rooftop view of the Empire State Building, a free continental breakfast (bagels, muffins and coffee… what more could you need?) and located well for the major sights.
You are about a 15 minute walk from Rockefeller Center and Times Square, probably even close to the Empire State Building, and right in the heart of the shopping area. The world’s largest department store Macy’s is almost opposite! Another perk is that the hotel is really close to Penn Station so if you’re arriving by train you don’t have to carry your luggage too far!