Fun Things To Do in New York (Hint: Skip Times Square)

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New York City is a place that many people think they’ll either love or hate. Just bringing up the word “New York” likely brings to mind a chaotic mess of yellow cabs, sidewalks overflowing with people, and looming skyscrapers. But that isn’t the whole story.

Before moving to California, I lived in New York for several years. While I came to California for opportunities, I did and always will LOVE New York. I don’t mean love as in the way you feel about your favorite vacation destination. I love New York the way one loves an old friend – you know, the one that you could see once a week or once a decade but it always feels like no time has passed. That friend that reminds you of where you come from and who you want to be.

That’s what New York means to me.

New York is a city full of possibilities. And if you’re planning on visiting this summer, not having a game plan before you go could leave you exhausted, broke, or missing major pieces of the puzzle by the time you leave. That’s why it’s so hard to use a tourist guide or map to visit New York. The experience needs to start off holistically. What type of New York experience are you looking for?

Before you plan your trip, think about what you want your New York story to be. Do you want to take in the New York of classic movies? The New York of big dreams and chasing fame? Or the New York of history and museums?

My New York story is a story of exploration, relaxation, and budget-friendly activities. If you like the idea of exploring the simple life in the city that never sleeps, then here’s what I would do if I were to go there for a week this summer.

Enjoying the Beautiful Outdoors

It’s no secret that winter in New York is bitter cold. So cold that residents and visitors alike spend the winter months finding a way to cover every possible inch of exposed skin – because anything facing the elements will feel extreme pain.

…which is why summer in New York is so incredible.

I can’t even begin to express the way New Yorkers come to life in the summer. They shed the skin of their wool coats, hats, and gloves. They put on shorts and sunglasses and the city gloriously slows down for three months. All of a sudden, the whole city feels like a playground waiting to be enjoyed by all. And if you’d like to enjoy some of this outdoor time on your vacation, you’re in luck! There are many places to enjoy the great outdoors and, bonus, they’re all practically free:

Parks with a View

Start your day off by taking the ferry over to Governor’s Island or walk the Brooklyn Bridge and spend some time at Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Governor’s Island is fun for walking (or picnicking or biking), taking in an incredible view of lower Manhattan, and having lunch on the “beach”. You can potentially even see a concert if your timing is right!

If you prefer to stay in one of the five boroughs, then head over to the promenade for a lovely place to picnic with incredible spanning views of Manhattan. You can even walk through Brooklyn Heights to check out some of the brownstones that mark classic New York architecture.

Take in a movie on a warm summer evening

Once the sun goes down, the fun doesn’t stop. Many New York parks offer a place to view movies outdoors. If you’d like to admire the view of the city from afar, go to DUMBO (a neighborhood in Brooklyn) and watch movies in front of a panoramic Manhattan view. If you like to be in the middle of it all, head over to Bryant Park, tucked away behind one of the most beautiful libraries in New York.

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Taking in Classic New York

After you’ve taken in all of the sun, you might want to take a break and absorb some classic New York: namely, the museums. There are so many museums in New York that I couldn’t possibly name them all. Instead, I’ll just name a few of my favorites.

Before you go, remember that most museums in New York have ticket prices that are donation-based (including the most famous museums). That means you can take it all in and have plenty of money left over for lunch. Of course, if you’re anything like me, then lunch would probably be sitting on the steps of The Met with a hot dog in hand, just watching the world go by.

If you’re more of a history buff, take a stroll over to the American Museum of Natural History. Love books? The Morgan Library & Museum won’t disappoint.

You can’t take in classic New York without spending some serious time in Central Park! One of my favorite things is to grab some food at a local grocery story and head over to The Belvedere Castle, one of the lushest and most green spots in the park.

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I’ve had many a meandering afternoon in Central Park – the perfect reprieve from the energy of the city without having to go too far.

Discover the Small Town Feel of the Big City

What I love the most about New York may come as a surprise: the small town feel of the East Village. Yes, the East Village is known for being the place for artists (and a more unsavory history in the 80s and 90s), but it’s also a lot like being in a small town. I met my husband and most of my friends simply by spending so much time in the East Village when I lived there. It wasn’t at all uncommon to see your favorite bartender at the coffee shop or your favorite barista at the bar.

So if you’re looking to see what it feels like to live in New York, spend a day in the East Village. Here’s a great way to do it:

Start your morning off with a coffee and chocolate croissant at Ost Cafe. If it’s nice out, grab a seat by the wide open french doors to feel the breeze come in. And don’t forget to say hi to the owners! They’re East Villagers themselves and promote a wonderful community vibe. Warning: your morning could stretch to afternoon if you’re not careful. A great place to sit and people watch!

If you’re ready for a snack, take a walk over to Avenue B and enjoy a pretzel at Sigmund Pretzel Shop. You can also hang out in Tompkins Square Park or walk over to Union Square. Love books? You’ll easily lose an entire day to the 18 miles of books at Strand. But you can regain your strength by walking back East and having a nice relaxed dinner at Mogador Cafe. You can have a drink and dessert there or head over to some of my favorite East Village spots: Terroir, The Immigrant, or Tree. Terroir is the place to go if you have a little bit more money to spend, but would love personal attention in selecting the perfect wine for you. Prices at The Immigrant are much better and you’ll also enjoy an intimate setting while Tree is a great place to save money, enjoy the courtyard out back, and chances are the owners will have a few drinks with you as well.

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Looking for a bit more night life? Have a delicious meal at Mercadito, local fare at Northern Spy, some German pretzels and beer at Zum Schneider, or discover the secret bar behind the Japanese restaurant: Angels Share. How about nightlife on a friendlier budget? Take in a show at Rockwood Music HallThe cover is cheap and there are three different stages. Each one is so small that you’ll feel front and center with the singer/songwriters and likely to be shushed by the bartenders if you talk too loud.

Finally, there’s one important word of advice: if a bar has a line and large cover price, there’s a really good chance that no one’s inside. Those are the places that veer towards the trendy and care more about appearances than actual ambiance.

Honorable Mentions

There are about a million things I haven’t mentioned, which is sort of inevitable when it comes to amount of things there are to do in New York. Here are some more of my personal favorites that weren’t mentioned:

Coffee
Ninth Street Espresso, East Village
Ground Support, SoHo

Lunch/Snack
Grey Dog, Chelsea
Rice to Riches, SoHo

Pizza
Anywhere! It’s all good.

And of course, some things that you can definitely skip, unless you want the traditional tourist experience:

Skip Times Square and instead take a stroll through Grand Central Station. Skip The Empire State Building and instead view the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park and then have lunch on Stone Street.

Of course, these are all suggestions of how I would spend my time on a New York vacation. Your own idea of a great New York trip could be very different! The most important takeaway from all of this is that you can make whatever you want of it without having to spend a fortune.

Image #1 Credit: Dirk Knight

Image #2 Credit: Marques Stewart

Image #3 Credit: Johan Wieland

Image #4 Credit: Karigee

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  • Julie @ Millennial Cents

    Just reading this makes me nostalgic! I use to live there before I moved down to MIA. This is a great list for anyone visiting this summer. A few other recommendations for those on a budget: I would also add a stroll down the high line over on 10th avenue, coffee from Stump Town in the ACE hotel (delicious!) and a Bahn Mi (Vietnamese sandwich) from Nam Pang – there are a few around the city now.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Thanks for the recommendations, Julie! My husband loves the coffee at Ace Hotel and I’m super bummed that we never made it over to the high line before moving. The city’s adding new fun things at the speed of lightening!

  • http://thebrokeandbeautifullife.com/ Stefanie @ brokeandbeau

    Yay for the East Village. I live on St Marks Place right next to the very popular Brunch spot Cafe Orlin. Another East Village must do is the community gardens. There’s an adorable one on 6th between A and B and another one a block further east between B and C. We also have the best happy hours.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      How funny, Stefanie – we didn’t live too far from each other – I used to live on 10th and A. I love Cafe Orlin and ended up getting married in a community garden – so they’re pretty awesome in my book :).