Where To Stay, Eat, and Play Your First Time in New York City

Ashlee standing in Times Square, NYC.

With its unique blend of cultures, New York City, home to over 8.5 million people, can be a bit overwhelming for first-time visitors. The city boasts a staggering 25,000+ restaurants and a multitude of small businesses, offering a diverse range of experiences.

To truly immerse yourself in the city’s charm, I suggest not overplanning and embracing the spirit of spontaneity. We visited in late January and explored Manhattan. Here’s where to stay and eat and some iconic things to see and do on your first visit to the Big Apple.

How To Get into the City

left photo: Ashlee standing in front of the Empire State Building; right photo: looking up into the clouds.

Empire State Building on a rainy day.

The major airports in the area are LaGuardia Airport (LGA), John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), and Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR).

We took a direct flight from Tulsa to LaGuardia. Much to my surprise, LaGuardia was organized and easy to navigate. I figured it would be more hectic since it’s servicing the biggest city in America.

Upon landing at LaGuardia, we opted for a direct Uber ride to our hotel near Times Square. While the fare was around $100 (both ways), it was a convenient choice for us as first-time visitors. We didn’t want to worry about navigating shuttles, buses, ride shares, or car rentals with luggage.

Where To Stay

Views of the High Line Trail on a cloudy day in Manhattan.

High Line Trail.

Plan to stay near Times Square. We visited during Hotel Week, a winter promotion some hotels participate in to help visitors get the best room rate. It encourages travelers to visit NYC during less busy times of the year.

We got an excellent rate on a room at the Hyatt Place Times Square. It was the perfect location to walk around and enjoy the city. Plus, they have a complimentary continental breakfast – you can’t beat that.

Explore Times Square

left photo: Pablo in Times Square; right photo: colorful Broadway sign.

Walking near Duffy Square.

When you get settled, get out your smartphone and map how to walk to Times Square in Midtown Manhattan. Go into an ‘I Love New York’ store, take a few selfies in front of the dazzling billboards, people-watch, and pick a place to grab food.

We got burgers at Schnipper’s since I’m gluten-free, and they offer gluten-free buns. Later, we found a cute little dessert shop, NY Bakery and Desserts. They have gluten-free cheesecake, walls of tasty baked goods, and a chocolate fountain.

If you want to catch a Broadway show, you can get discounted tickets the day of. Find the red TKTS Booth in Duffy Square — it is located at 47th Street and Broadway.

More Iconic Things To See and Do

Left photo: Rockefeller Center; right photo: Ashlee and Pablo posing by art on the High Line Trail.

Rockefeller Center / Art along the High Line Trail.

Other popular things to see include exploring Central Park, Central Park South, Grand Central Station, and 5th Avenue. Fifth Avenue is known for being one of the most expensive shopping areas in the world. The Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center are also classic buildings to see. The Rockefeller Center has an ice rink during the winter.

Walk to the Empire State Building. If it is not raining or too cloudy, buy a ticket to go to the top. Visiting is one of the top attractions in New York City.

Where To Eat

Eating pizza in New York City.

Vito’s Slices and Ices / Chelsea Market.

I dreamed of eating authentic New York-style pizza and Italian food weeks before visiting. One night, we walked to the Garment District for pizza at Vito’s Slices and Ices. They have thick-crust gluten-free pizza by the slice. 

The second night, we indulged in Italian at Tavola Hell’s Kitchen – chef’s kiss. The last night, we met friends for pizza again in Times Square because you can’t have enough pizza your first time in New York City.

Take a Food Tour

left photo: Chelsea Market sign; middle photo: Ashlee eating a taco; right photo: colorful macaroons.

Chelsea Market.

My husband and I couldn’t wait to eat our way through New York City. So, when Like a Local Tours invited us on a hosted food tour of Chelsea Market, High Line, and Hudson Yards, we jumped at the chance. There’s no better way to experience a destination’s culinary delights or historic tales than with a local guide.

Chelsea Market is located in the historic Meat Packing District. The area used to be the slaughterhouse neighborhood where businesses would ship meat via train, which is how it got its name. Now, the area is less formally called Google Land because Google has quite a bit of real estate in the area and owns Chelsea Market.

Chelsea Market is known for its food hall vendors and boutique shops. Be sure to grab tacos at Takumi Taco or mini donuts at Doughnuttery. If you’re a Starbucks fan, there’s a Starbucks Roastery across the street.

Next on the tour, we walked to Pier 57 and sampled our way through an indoor food market. From here, you can see views of the Hudson River. If the weather is nice, explore Little Island next door.

Walking the historic High Line Trail and hearing it once had an active rail system was a highlight of our trip. We loved seeing the bright red “Old Tree” over 10th Avenue and 30th Street.

After the tour, if weather permits, go to the Edge for panoramic views of New York City.

Other Helpful Advice

left photo: Ashlee and Pablo posing for photo at Market 57; right photo: Ashlee eating a dumpling.

Pier 57 Market 57.

Plan to stick to one area. Since it was our first time in New York City, we decided to explore Manhattan. If you only have a few days, like we did, keep in mind travel logistics for getting around.

It’s okay if you can’t visit the Statue of Liberty your first time. We saw it from the airplane and hope to be able to visit it up close on our next trip when the weather is warmer. We’ll also visit the 9/11 Memorial & Museum next time.

Don’t overschedule yourself. Take your time, look around, and soak in the magic of the city. It’s something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. With my husband being from another country and me being born and raised in the US, it truly was a bucket list trip for us both.

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer sharing the best-kept secrets that aren’t in your typical guidebook. Her goal is to inspire people to travel with a sense of adventure by sharing hidden gems across the U.S. and beyond. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo. They camp in their Aliner often and love wandering the world. Follow their latest adventures on Instagram @thehappinessfxn.