NYC: A Guide from a Small Town Southerner

Monday night Jason and I returned from New York City for the second time together. I've been quite a few times in high school in college with my family, and Jason made a 3 hour trip to the Big Apple from New Jersey when he was touring with Crowns back in 2012. 

Last year we discovered that one of the best times to go to New York is the last full weekend of February. It usually happens to be the weekend after a big snow storm, and before another snow storm, and the weather is really mild. Also, since it's February, the flights are cheaper, the hotels are discounted, and the crowds aren't as large. Last year we were there Feb. 21-25 and this year we were there Feb. 20-24.

I don't pretend to be any sort of expert on New York. I'm a Floridian gone Alabamian. I live in a city where our population is 1 million, and I'm pretty sure that's including all of the Birmingham Metro area. New York City has 8.3 million people, and that was in 2012. So, I'm no expert, and I'm no New Yorker, but we've done some pretty cool stuff there, and I thought I'd share (I also didn't mean to rhyme).

First things first. The BEST way to travel around New York is by subway. The first few times my family went to NYC, we used taxi's or walked EVERYWHERE. We thought the subway map looked like a Kindergartner had gotten a hold of it with their crayons. Finally, after 3 for 4 times in the city, someone finally explained it to us. Since then, I'm a total fan of the subways in NYC. In the 10 days Jason and I have spent in NYC together, we've been in a taxi twice.

The best deal on the subway cards is the 7-day unlimited pass. Even though we were only there for 5 days, we saved so much money by buying this. Otherwise, it's $2.50 per person, per ride. By day two, we started saving money. Honestly, after dropping our stuff off at the hotel, buying our subway pass was the first thing we did.

Native American music in the subway station.

I would assume that the next thing to go over is where to stay. I'm a fan of midtown as far as hotels are concerned. Some people try to stay in Brooklyn or Queens because it's cheaper, and that's true, it is cheaper, but you spent about an hour or so just getting into Manhattan to start your day. I like to walk outside the hotel doors, grab a bagel and some coffee, and get started. Last year we stayed at a little boutique hotel, The Mansfield. It was fantastic, except it was REALLY small and about 3 or 4 blocks from the subway. Also, the closest subway station was at Grand Central, so we had to go into Grand Central Station just to get to the subway. This year we stayed at The New Yorker Hotel. We'll never stay anywhere else again as long as their prices remain about the same. We paid an average of $150 per night, which is unheard of! Also, The New Yorker is smack dab in the middle of Herald Square on 34th & 8th. We had 4 different subway lines within 2 blocks from us. It was perfect. 

Now, as far as things to do while in NYC, there are SO MANY OPTIONS. I'm really not sure of a way to share except just to go through the things we did, we've done, and things we want to do next time. 

Jason and I always start off a new city together with a tour through the city. We did the Gray Linetour last year when we went, and it's truly fantastic. It's about $80 per person, but that gets you on the Manhattan tour, the uptown tour, and the Brooklyn tour. Worth every penny. It's hop on, hop off, so you can also use it as your transportation if you need to for a day or so.

On the Gray Line Tour

Also, last year when we went, we did a lot more of the "must-see-tourist-things".

We spent a lot of time in Times Square just seeing what's there.

We saw 2 Broadway shows, Once and Newsies. Now, here's what we learned about shows: You can go to TKTS in Times Square and get discounted tickets for a lot of different shows OR you can see which shows have rush tickets or lottery tickets, and see amazing shows with amazing seats for $20-$35 a ticket. TKTS is usually still going to run between $80-$150 per ticket. We did TKTS for Once last year, and then we did the lottery for Newsies. You can read more about the lottery here.

Jason's name got drawn for the lottery tickets.

We did the NBC Studio tour, which was well worth it! We actually almost did it again this year.

They wouldn't let me take pictures once the tour began, so I had to settle for a picture of my ticket.

We spent a lot of time in the Rockefeller Plaza/5th Avenue area visiting Tiffany's, FAO Schwarz, and The Plaza. 

Last year we also discovered an amazing website and Twitter account for movie and TV junkies like Jason and me. It's called 'On Location Vacation' and it lists where EVERYTHING that is filming right now is located for the day. We are big LOST and Person of Interest fans, and last year we saw Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson from about 4 feet away. We also got to watch them film the show for about an hour on the street. It. Was. Awesome. Click here for the Twitter account.

We also spent some time in Washington Square Park near NYU, and in Central Park. 

Central Park

Okay, now let's move on to our 2014 trip!

We started out the day at Macy's because it was next door to our hotel and we didn't make it there last year. We looked at potential outfits for Judah, and then we found so cute little onesies that our family could get excited about.

Then, we walked through Central Park. We arrived just a few days after a big snow storm, and the park was covered in beautiful, gray snow. We went to eat at the Shake Shack in the Upper West Side, and then we headed to The Daily Show to stand in line.

Best burger I've ever had!

NYC LIVE SHOW TIP: Jason found a Twitter account that lets you know when tickets are released for shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. He got us two tickets, but we had to stand in line to get them. If you do this, it says to get there by 2:30. We got there well before that and the line was already wrapped around the building. When it finally got to us, they were handing out the second level of tickets (blue tickets), so get there EARLY! They told everyone to come back at 4:45. So we did. Then we stood in line even more. Then we went through security. The show started at 6pm. It last about 1 hour, and we were on our way. Coolest, strangest thing we've done in NYC to date. I definitely recommend doing something like this!

After the show, we went to Yum Yum Bangkok for dinner. Now, here's the thing about eating in NYC. There are literally THOUSANDS of amazing restaurants. Just pick one. Hell's Kitchen is a great place to find food. It's directly west of Times Square. It's approximately from 42nd St. to 50th St. and in between 8th and 10th. Plan to spend between $15-$25 per person in this area...which is great considering Times Square is WAY more expensive than that. If you want any more restaurant recommendations, just ask me. I have a list of great ones that Jason and I have gone to, and my cousin who lives in NYC has given me some great suggestions - including Yum Yum!

Friday morning we got up pretty early and headed to the 9/11 Memorial. Jason had never been and I hadn't been since the they finished the fountains. The best way to get tickets is through their website ahead of time. It's much easier to get a time slot that way. It takes about an hour total to stand in line, go through security, and then walk around. Tickets are free, but if you  buy them ahead of time like we did, there's a $2 charge per ticket. It's definitely worth doing if you've never done this before. Also, we were not very smart and didn't dress as if we were going to be outside for a while. The 9/11 Memorial is outdoors, but there's a museum opening this spring that is indoors.

After going back to the hotel to change into warmer clothing, we headed to Greenwich Village for lunch. We went to the oldest pizzaria in NYC - Lombardi's. It's on Spring Street. It's cash only, which most of the pizza places are. SO GOOD. Last year we ate at John's Pizza and it was fantastic too. There's so much good pizza in NYC, so you really can't go wrong...as long as you stay away from Ray's Pizza and Sbarro.

We wondered around the East Village for a while. We did make our way to NYU for a few minutes, and then it started raining so we went back to the hotel to rest. We walked between 7-9 miles a day, so rest was important. 

Friday night we went back to the East Village for dinner at Luke's Lobster. There are a couple of these in the city. They're famous for their lobster roll. I'm not a huge fan of lobster, but it's Jason's favorite, so he gets that and I get the shrimp roll. The restaurant in the East Village is teeny tiny, so either get it to go or be prepared to stand. Thankfully, we got seats, but we ate fast because there was a huge line for seating behind us. 

After dinner, we went to Webster Hall a few blocks away for a show. Jason has grown up following tons of bands in the 'music scene' and he was telling me that every time a band he liked wasn't coming to his city, they were usually going to be playing at Webster Hall along the tour. Needless to say, he was so excited to go see a band there. We saw Judah & the Lion, who we started following after we picked out a name for our son. We googled Judah, and their logo came up. They're a great newer band out of Nashville. Totally worth a listen. The headliner was Andrew Ripp. He's a Dave Barnes/Ben Rector type, also from Nashville. I had never heard him before, but I'm a total fan now. If you like music and you're going to be in NYC, check out the app Song Kick because it will give a list of EVERY concert that's on the books. It's a great resource. 

 Judah & the Lion

Judah & the Lion

 Andrew Ripp

Andrew Ripp

Saturday morning we got up with plans to go to Canal Street and buy fake expensive stuff, but we actually never made it. If you do want to buy knockoff purses, watches, sunglasses, etc. start at Canal and Broadway. Go on a Saturday morning. Be prepared for some sketchiness. My policy is that I'll go in a backroom of storefront, but I won't follow anyone off of Canal. If you've never been down there, you're probably rethinking reading my blog, but if you've been or if you go, you'll see what I mean. Don't plan to spend more than an hour or so there. Be ready to bargain. TAKE ONLY THE AMOUNT OF CASH YOU WANT TO SPEND. When I was a teenager and I worked to support my shopping habit and movie going, I would get to the ATM in Canal and get out more and more cash. Now, I take about $75-$100 and that's it. You have to be prepared for whatever you buy to break/rip/not work by the time you get home. Even so, I've bought some pretty great knockoffs there that I still use (um..hello $20 MK watch)

Instead of Canal St., we ended up walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. Since we'd done the Canal St. thing last time, the BB was a much better use of our time. It was beautiful. Then we walked down to the Brooklyn Bridge Park and got a great panoramic view of the city. I had never done that before and I definitely recommend it!

Next we took the subway from Brooklyn the East Village to eat at Katz's Deli. You know, the one from When Harry Met Sally? Plan to be there for a little while, spend way too much on a sandwich, and be kind of overwhelmed. I'm glad we went, but we'll probably never go back. Also, if you like the same thing as the people you're with, share! 

After lunch, Jason found a coffee shop, and I found a nail salon. He had to make some phone calls for work, and I decided to treat myself to a pedicure. If you're in the area, Breeze Nails & Spa does it right. I got a pedicure with extra massage and a manicure and back massage for $60. Now, in Birmingham that's kind of a lot, but in Destin, a pedicure is like $40...so I thought that $60 for all of that was a great bargain. 

That night, we walked around Rockefeller Plaza a little bit, and then went to Serendipidy3 for a late dinner. Now, here's the thing about Serendipity...most people want to go just for the frozen hot chocolate, and I totally am on board with that. BUT, if you do that, you're probably going to be waiting for about an hour to an hour and a half. If you make reservations, you have to order more than just dessert, but you don't have to wait at all. You just show up, and they take you to your table. Also, make a reservation at least two weeks in advance. I made a reservation about a week in advance because I forgot, and the first available that they had was 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night. 

After dinner, we walked past the 5th Ave. Apple Store that's open 24 hours a day. Jason wanted to see how busy they were at 11:30 at night. They were more slammed than some normal days at the Summit store in Birmingham. CRAZY.

Sunday morning we got up and headed down to the Union Square area for church at Hillsong NYC. We actually met up with some friends from Birmingham who were in NYC for the weekend too. Hillsong was awesome. We also found out that beginning the weekend after we're there, Hillsong will be meeting at a new location on 34th and 8th...which just so happens to be right where we were staying. It would have been nice to not wake up super early and stand in line for 40 minutes before the doors opened, but you live and you learn. 

After Hillsong, we made our way back up to the Upper West Side to hang out for a bit. Jason wanted to see the UWS Apple store, and I wanted to visit the Levain Bakery. It was a short, rushed little trip, but well worth it!

Sunday night, we headed north east to the Upper East Side to attend our second worship service of the day. Redeemer Presbyterian Church is almost exactly the opposite of Hillsong NYC as far as style. The music is more traditional, there's congregational scripture reading, and the sermon feels more like a lecture. I loved both churches, but it was an honor to get to hear Tim Keller preach. I learned so much in 30 minutes that I thought my head would explode - it was AWESOME. 

After church, we found a sushi restaurant that was nearby. It's become a Morales tradition to always have a sushi dinner in every place we visit. This time, we went to Ginza Japanese, and I'm not sure if I was just really hungry, or it was really that good, but Ginza was the best Japanese food I've ever had. Jason and I almost ate in silence because it was so good. 

Monday morning, we packed and checked out at our hotel. We wanted to do just a few things before we left, and the NBC Experience Store was one of them. We were there on the weekend that connected Jimmy Fallon's first week on the Tonight Show and Seth Meyers' first week on Late Night. I thought I might want something, but alas, I decided to save my pennies. If you've never been there before though, the NBC store is really cool to see.

We finished our trip by walking down 5th Ave., eating at The Plaza (food court), and getting some Garrett's popcorn for the trip home. Our little vacation was incredible, but what was even better is that we were able to do everything we wanted to do on a budget. In fact, when we got home, Jason said that we actually had money to put back into our vacation fund for next time! 

For anyone who may be taking a (first) trip to NYC in the near future, here's a list of a few do's and don'ts that I've learned. 

DO...

  • Use the subway!! It is really simple if you are able to just make a little bit of sense out of the map. Also, ask the subway attendants (I don't know their official title, but the people that work in the little booth) for directions or ask them to clarify something you don't understand. Honestly, Jason and I have been to NYC twice together, for 5 days each time, and we've only used a cab twice.
  • If you're going to be there for more then 2 days, buy the 7 day unlimited subway pass. The pass is $30 per person. A subway ride is $2.50 per person, one-way. We started saving money the second day we were there by buying the unlimited pass.
  • Download the Yelp,  NYC Subway map, and Google Maps app. Whether you're walking or riding, these two apps are key. Google Maps gives you step-by-step instructions on the subway or bus you may want, or turn-by-turn walking directions. 
  • Carry your phone charger with you! You just don't want to be without your phone...you use it for everything (see above bullet point). My battery drains a lot faster in NYC than it does in Birmingham, so it's safe to just have the option of charging.
  • Wear comfortable shoes. That goes without saying.
  • Get out of midtown. We love getting out and walking through the less crowded parts of town that seem more residential and eclectic. Also, the farther you go, the cheaper things get.
  • Carry cash. You'd be shocked how many places are cash only.
  • Ask a cab driver how much it'll be to get from point A to point B before you get in the car. You just want to ensure that they're not taking the 'long way home' because you say "y'all".
  • Use a shuttle service to and from the airport. We used NYCAirporter and it's only $13 per person one-way. A cab is anywhere between $40-$60, one-way.

DON'T...

  • Buy a subway card from someone off the street. There's a kiosk in every station. Buy it there.
  • Spend time going out the the Statue of Liberty. That typically takes a whole day. You can get a boat ride that last a few hours and you get pretty close so you can take pictures. 
  • Eat at a chain restaurant. Almost anywhere you eat in the city is going to be pretty good. I use the Yelp app, and if it has 4 stars or more, we go for it. I'm even referring to coffee shops and breakfast places. Our favorite thing to do in the mornings is grab a bagel and coffee somewhere near our hotel. Don't go to Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.. you can do that at home!
  • Walk through Central Park at night. Unless you're in a carriage ride or some sort of tour, I'd stay on the surrounding streets if you've got to walk. But definitely DO spend time in the park during the day!
  • Be disrespectful to those who are living and working in the place you're vacationing. I can definitely speak from experience growing up in a popular beach vacation spot. When you're on the subway, walking down the street, or just in line at a restaurant or coffee shop, just be aware that there are people trying to get to work or get home, and they're in a hurry. Just keep right on the sidewalk, stairs, or escalator, and if you have to stop to look at a map or something, just move out of the way. New Yorkers are really nice, they're just always in a hurry. Well, usually.
  • Be scared. Maybe it's just me being naive to my surroundings, but I've felt unsafe more in Birmingham than I've ever felt in New York. Honestly, as an adult, I've never once felt unsafe, either with Jason, or even walking somewhere by myself.
  • Spend too much money. We usually choose one or two things that we wouldn't normally spend money on to do while we're on vacation. Last time that was a broadway show and a meal. This time it was eating at restaurants that had been in movies. New York is expensive, but it doesn't have to break the bank. You can find reasonably priced food and things to do. But, you can also find REALLY expensive food and things to do as well. Just do your research ahead of time and you'll be fine!

Well, I think that about sums up our trip and my tips! I am by no means an expert on New York, but I feel like we've been there enough to have done our research and do some cool things. I hope you enjoyed this little vacation recap and sort-of-guide! Have a great weekend!

Posted on February 28, 2014 and filed under Travel.