A New Yorker's Top 10 Must-Dos in New York City

by Lauren Hauptman
By all means, visit the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, hop on the Circle Line around Manhattan, stroll over the Brooklyn Bridge. But if you were my best friend and you were visiting Manhattan for the very first time (what kind of best friend are you?), there are better things to do and see, including a bevy of my favorite places to visit, shop, eat and gawk. As your new best friend, I am thrilled to share with you my own personal Top 10 things I would do if I were you:

1. Grand Central Terminal

42nd Street and Park Avenue, www.grandcentralterminal.com

Grand Central is like a big, beautiful Beaux-Arts box, wrapped in marble, topped with a cerulean bow. My love for the place has grown through the years, and I recently decided I want to move in. I would never have to leave: plenty of restaurants and food stalls, a gourmet market, shops galore and a century’s worth of architecture and history to explore. Try the new self-guided Official Grand Central Tour (choose the local or express version), which you can either download to your phone or rent at one of the tourist-information windows. It’s a great way to learn about the history, architecture and little-known facts of this landmark. Whether you decide to take the tour or wander on your own, be sure to really take some time in the main concourse (sit on a step or move off to the side, so you don’t get knocked over by rushers-by) to appreciate the sun streaming in through the soaring arched windows and look up at the Sky Ceiling — the full, albeit backward, zodiac will look back at you. (Extra: If you’re visiting in December, Vanderbilt Hall, on the south side of the building, hosts a phenomenal Holiday Fair filled with world-class artisans. And don’t miss one of my favorite spots for NY souvenirs: the Transit Museum Store in the Shuttle Passage.)

2. High Line

Gansevoort Street to W. 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues (section 1, to 20th Street, opened in 2009; section 2, to 34th Street, opens in June 2011); www.thehighline.org

A public eco-park built on raised railroad tracks from the 1930s: I was skeptical. Well, it’s magical. Meandering above the Meatpacking District and West Chelsea, the High Line is like a magic carpet ride — if said magic carpet were made of concrete, wood and rusted railroad parts. Wooden chaises move along old tracks, and copious benches host sunbathers in summer, students in fall, walkers in winter and tourists in spring. I love how the original tracks and railroad things weave in to and out of the new construction, which is dotted by waving wild grasses, public art and clever perching areas; plop on one of the benches at the brilliantly handicap-friendly 10th Avenue Square, where you can watch traffic pass surprisingly peacefully underneath you for hours on end. Enter (via stairs or elevator) toward the south end, near Chelsea Market at 16th Street, and get some iced coffee to cool you or hot cider to warm you on your ride … I mean walk.

3. ABC Carpet & Home

888 Broadway at 19th Street, www.abchome.com

The first floor of ABC looks and feels like a fairytale wonderland. Everything from handmade tabletop accessories to fine papers to clothing to chandeliers to estate jewelry greets you from its own eclectic little corner, and you may have to catch your breath as you take it all in. I know people who’ve never ascended to any of the other five floors, because floor 1 is so enchanting. The actual carpet part of the store is on the sixth floor and across the street (never gone there either). While the prices may take your breath away, too, buying anything — anything — is a thrill. ABC also has three in-house restaurants, the newest of which, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s fabulous “farm-to-table” ABC Kitchen — is worth a trip on its own. Tucked into this cornucopia, it just adds to the embarrassment of riches. (Extra: Diagonally across the street is Fishs Eddy, which offers both vintage and house-designed dishes, glasses and the like. Anything in the 212 pattern is a perfect souvenir.)

4. Museum of the City of New York

1220 Fifth Ave. at 103rd Street, www.mcny.org

Of all the museums in New York, this is, by far, my favorite. It bills itself as a “celebration of New York’s heritage of diversity, opportunity and perpetual transformation.” Maybe that’s why I like it so much: It’s a constant yet ever-changing reminder of how incredible this city I love has always been and why. Exhibits cover a freakishly large variety of subjects, times, media and cultures — from furniture to photography to cars to fashion to architecture to mayors to Broadway to anything and everything New York. One of my favorite exhibits, The Glory Days: New York Baseball, 1947–1957, left me feeling as excited as if I had just left a Yankee game (you can still see the online version of this exhibit on the website).

5. Central Park Zoo

Near 64th Street and Fifth Avenue; www.centralparkzoo.com

I could certainly write a Top 10 list of things to do just in Central Park: Frederick Law Olmsted’s 843-acre pastoral paradise contains an endless array of amusements. Every New Yorker has his or her favorite part of the park, and mine is the area around the Central Park Zoo. The zoo, itself, is lovely: not too big, just interesting enough to spend a couple of hours, and the seals who populate its nucleus are swimming around their ring no matter the weather (you don’t have to actually enter the zoo to see them — or to visit the Zootique). In the southeast corner of the park, the zoo is open every day of the year and is surrounded by lovely brick tunnels and walking paths and tons of trees. Time your visit to be there on the hour or half-hour to see and hear the dancing animals of the George Delacorte Musical Clock; it never gets old.

6. Ess-A-Bagel

831 Third Ave., between 50th and 51st streets; www.ess-a-bagel.com

It’s virtually impossible to get a decent bagel outside New York. Ess-a-Bagel is more than decent; it’s arguably the best there is. (Some will say H&H is the best. Let them.) Expect a line, and use your waiting time to decide exactly what you want to order. Seriously, you’ll upset both the employees and those waiting behind you if you hem and haw. It is perfectly acceptable to ask, “What’s hot?” and order that with a shmear (cream cheese). And don’t even think about asking for your bagel to be toasted. You never, ever toast a fresh bagel.

7. Lower East Side: East Houston Trifecta

Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery: 137 E. Houston St., www.knishery.com

Russ & Daughters: 179 E. Houston St., www.russanddaughters.com

Katz’s Delicatessen: 205 E. Houston St., www.katzdeli.com

Within two blocks of each other on East Houston Street (pronounced: HOW-ston), on the increasingly hip Lower East Side, these three shops represent the Jewish immigrants who “settled” this area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they stand in the same places they’ve stood since then.

Both Yonah Schimmel and Russ & Daughters began life as pushcarts — the type of business to which immigrants aspired when they were tired of carrying their wares on their backs. Yonah Schimmel still makes knishes the way they always have, under the same tin roof that’s always been there. Order a regular potato knish, and eat it with a drop of the spicy brown mustard you’ll find on the table.

Russ & Daughters, the most modern-looking — and cleanest — of the three, is a traditional appetizing store and reportedly the first American business to use “& Daughters” in its name; a fourth-generation granddaughter currently works behind the counter. One taste of their lox (smoked salmon), and you will understand not all lox is created equal. I swear. And while you’re eating your bagel with cream cheese and lox, and ogling the smoked-fish cases, consider a drink of what they inexplicably call a “beet shrub,” which is some kind of mixture of beet juice and lemon. If you happen to have an accessible mini bar in your hotel room, the vodka will be ever so grateful if you bring some back.

Serving the best pastrami you will ever eat (seriously) since 1888, Katz’s Deli is probably the most famous of the three, having starred in its share of movies. Feel free to sit at the table that hosted Meg Ryan’s food-gasm in When Harry Met Sally. Order your (huge) sandwich at the counter; put a dollar in the tip jar and your slicer will give you a preview taste.

(Extra: I recently rediscovered these gems during the super-fun Lower East Side Eats Tour, which also included real New York pickles and the best doughnuts I’ve ever had, as well as fascinating history and a walk around this hard-to-navigate neighborhood. I highly recommend it.)

8. New York Public Library, main branch

Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, www.nypl.org

Taking your picture with either Patience or Fortitude, the lions who guard the front of the library is a must. Doing just that, however, means you’ll miss out on the treasures found inside the incredible Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (not to mention the awesome Library Shop), as I did until pretty recently. The sheer volume of marble in the lobby of the Beaux-Arts gem is overwhelming, and the names of the patrons carved into the soaring walls read as a historical who’s who of New York society. A free docent-led tour of the building is offered twice a day (Mondays–Saturdays 11 am and 2 pm, Sundays 2 pm; just show up at the reception desk) and is actually quite interesting, if a drop academic.

If the tour tuckers you out, take refuge in Bryant Park, stretching to Sixth Avenue right behind the library. Once a haven for drug dealers, the park was revitalized and reopened nearly 20 years ago and now serves as a hangout for locals, commuters and visitors. It can get downright crowded at lunchtime, as local workers take full advantage of the lovely gardens and plentiful tables, chairs and benches. Check the website ( www.bryantpark.org ) for a list of programs and activities (as well as a downloadable audio tour), including Monday-nights summer films, after-work performances and the free(!) winter ice-skating rink.

9. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Ave. at 89th Street, www.guggenheim.org

Truth be told, my patience for museums is limited. That is part of the reason that, of all the art museums in Manhattan, I like the Guggenheim best. In addition to a world-renowned collection of 20th century art, an excellent shop and a very hip restaurant, the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed building, itself, is just fun. It is the only place on earth where I actually feel an urge to hop on a skateboard (though a shopping cart might be more my style) to ride around like a pachinko ball and end up in the gift shop. If you’re on a budget, consider visiting on a Saturday from 5:45–7:45 pm, when you (and hordes of others) can “pay what you wish.”

10. TKTS Discount Booth

Broadway and 47th Street, www.tdf.org

You can certainly buy tickets to a Broadway show before you arrive in New York (and, if there’s something you are dying to see, you should do just that — unless it’s Spiderman, in which case you should stay home), but then, in addition to paying full price, you’ll miss the fun-filled experience of waiting on line (yes, we say on line, not in line) at the TKTS Discount Booth. Renovated a few years ago, TKTS in Father Duffy Square (sort of a subset of Times Square) is even easier to spot due to its red neon steps above the booth — and it now takes credit cards. Get on line immediately, while someone in your group goes to the electronic boards up front to see what shows are available. It’s a good idea to do your homework and come equipped with a list of what you’d like to see. Yes, the lines look painfully long, but it’s OK: First, they move quickly, and second, you can get great advice while waiting. The TKTS line is always a mix of visitors and locals who are usually willing to share their hits and misses on shows they’ve already seen, as well as any other recommendations you need. As with most gatherings of New Yorkers, a sense of camaraderie will develop quickly, with everyone wanting to tell you where to go and what to do. Just like me.
If you liked this writing, you might also enjoy one of our other articles:

Lauren Hauptman is a native New Yorker who is temporarily a long-term tourist in San Francisco. She has been a contributing editor and writer for WHERE San Francisco and Pulse Guides, and is an editorial and creative services consultant for numerous other publications and organizations ( www.laurenhauptmanink.com ). She believes New York is the center of the universe. She also wrote “One Short Day in Midtown” and other articles for Must See New York.

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