Exploring NYC neighbourhoods: Manhattan
Manhattan is huge and as a first time visitor, navigating through all of its diverse neighbourhoods can be tricky.
We broke it down as a guide around neighbourhoods moving from Lower Manhattan towards Upper Manhattan, noting down places we had a chance to explore and landmarks you shouldn’t miss.
The Southernmost point of the Manhattan island is where you’ll find the Battery park and ferry terminal with daily departures for Ellis Island. If you want to avoid the tourist hordes and see Lady Liberty a bit closer for no cost at all, you can jump on the Staten Island Ferry from the Whitehall terminal. The ferry runs 24/7 and the trip one way takes about 25 min. When you board the ferry in Manhattan, go on to your right hand side where you’ll get the best views.
Making your way up to Broadway, you’ll find the other most photographed monument in New York - The Charging Bull, a fairly recent addition - The Fearless Girl statue and the New York Stock Exchange building.
Further up you’ll see the Trinity Church and the little cemetery on its grounds which is the final resting place for a lot of prominent Americans, including Alexander Hamilton.
Further up and left off Greenwich St, you’ll reach the World Trade Centre and 9/11 Memorial where you can pay your respects. Just to run down some quick facts - the gleaming One World Trade Center building you will see adjacent to the memorial is the tallest in NYC, the whole of the USA and the 6th tallest in the world.
New York’s Chinatown is one of the biggest and second oldest, after San Francisco, that is located outside of Asia. There are heaps to explore, from shops to restaurants and parks.
If you have a taste for unusual ice-cream flavours, pay a visit to The Original Chinatown Ice-Cream Factory (they did not have any vegan options when we were there though). There’s amazing street art and murals all over.
Definitely take a walk through Columbus Park, which is a lively hangout for the community with locals playing mahjong and cards and musicians performing Chinese songs and instruments.
Little Italy, which now welcomes a big crowd of tourists, was once a home to many Italian immigrants. Italian bakeries and restaurants still line the streets here, although you will not see many locals eating there. This is at least partly due to skyrocketing rents and subsequent higher pricing that now mainly caters for tourists.
It is worth a stroll through to see the colourful buildings and if it’s close to your heritage or of interest, you can pay a visit to the Italian American Museum.
Moving on to East Village. If you have an appreciation for punk rock, the memorial mural of the late great frontman of The Clash, Joe Strummer, is a must-visit pilgrimage spot.
Also in the area, you’ll find the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. It was established by a group of improvisers, who brought cutting-edge comedy and long form improv to New York from Chicago including Amy Poehler who we love and obsess over. UCB is where you can have a laugh for a few bucks or even for free on selected performances and see the best comic talent in the city. There is also another location of UCB in Hell’s Kitchen.
After the show, we also found East Village to be the best bet for a great night out, considering the variety of bars dotted around the neighbourhood. See where we went bar hopping in NYC here.
Moving left off East Village, you’ll be wandering into Greenwich Village. This is the neighbourhood where the New York University Campus is located, bringing in a young and cultured (and well-off) crowd. There’s lots to see, whether you are aiming to tick-off some well known pop-culture landmarks, such as the actual location of the ‘Friends’ house or Jimi Hendrix’s famed Electric Lady Studios where a lot of music legends have recorded or just take a walk to check out the brownstone buildings, the little bars and cafes. You can start your exploration in Washington Square Park, which is filled with tourists, university students and locals alike, making it a great place for chilling and people watching.
Chelsea is mainly composed of luxury high-rises, art galleries, boutiques and is also one of the most obvious areas in New York hit by gentrification. High-Line, one of the most popular attractions here, is a park built on top of disused rail tracks. Be aware that it can get very busy during weekends.
Bordering Chelsea is the Flatiron District, named after its signature landmark - The Flatiron Building.
With a notable amount of landmarks, this part of Manhattan is where most of the buzz is concentrated.
Empire State Building doesn’t need much of an introduction. One of the tallest and most impressive skyscrapers in the world, it is the symbol of New York City. You should definitely pay a visit, even its art deco interior is impressive and you can learn about the history and its presence in popular culture whilst you make your way up. The entrance fee is is included in the New York Pass, which we highly suggest getting if you intend to tick-off most of the top attractions in the city and want to save some dollars.
New York Public Library, whose main branch is located in Bryant Park, hosts temporary exhibitions on the ground floor but the real attraction is the building itself. As many other places in the city, it has heavily featured in many TV shows and movies, such as Sex and The City, Spider-Man and Ghostbusters. It’s open to visitors for free.
A 5-minute walk away you’ll see another world-famous landmark that doubles as a transportation hub. Stepping in Grand Central Station feels just a little magical, thinking of how many people have travelled through it since it first opened in 1913. Look up to see the skyscape and constellations on the Main Concourse ceiling. If you look closely, under the astrological sign of Cancer, you’ll spot one black brick. This has been left there to remind us of the state of the station before the renovation works that were finished in 1998.
Moving east from the Grand Central, you’ll eventually find the United Nations headquarters. Although situated in NYC’s Turtle Bay neighbourhood, technically, as soon as you enter United Nations, you’re on extraterritorial ground, even though, with some exceptions, it still mostly remains under jurisdiction and laws of United States. We recommend joining the tour to learn about the history and importance of UN. It’s best to book online as tickets tend to sell out quick.
Everybody loves to hate Time’s Square due to crazy busy traffic, streets overrun by tourists and people hustling in superhero costumes but it’s certainly worth a peek of the bright Broadway lights and billboards before swiftly moving on. If you do have a love of musicals though, go to one of the TKTS booths for discounted tickets.
A few blocks away, you’ll run into the Rockefeller Centre. The large complex is home to NBC Studios at 30 Rock with a viewing platform, Top of the Rock, as well as Radio City Music Hall. This is also where the most famous Christmas tree in the United States is lit up every year.
As Tina Fey fans and ‘30 Rock’ nerds, this was a highlight to our visit to NYC.
We did not get to spend a lot of time on Upper East & Upper West side but we definitely spent some quality time in between. As you can tell by taking one look at the map of Manhattan, the park is vast and there are a bunch of things to do.
We took one of the little rowing boats for a spin on The Lake. After a shaky start, it was a lot of fun, just generally trying to stay afloat and spotting the turtles that were hanging out on the rocks. It cost $15 for an hour (+$20 deposit). You’ll find the rowboat rental spot just after Bethesda Fountain.
You can also rent a bike to get around. We do suggest thinking twice before renting the horse-drawn carriages though. The horses are often overworked and, especially during the busier periods, hardly get any breaks from carrying around tourists all day.
Manhattan has many great museums but for World-class art, you must head to The Metropolitan Museum of Art or 'The Met' on Upper East Side. With over two million works on display, it is the largest art museum in the United States.
Sadly, we only had time to wandered up as far as Harlem, which has not enjoyed the best reputation in the past but gladly it doesn’t live up to it anymore. It is worth a visit to see the Apollo Theatre, famous for starting the careers of many great performers over the decades including Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill just to name a few, and for a good walk around the neighbourhood with its many markets, shops and street art.