There’s something special about escaping your normal life for a few days and indulging in the chaotic world of someone else’s. Luckily for us, the US border is only a few hours away. And while it may be hard to capitalize on its close proximity during the school year, the fantasy of New York is only a 50 min plane ride away (okay….plus the 2-3 hour travel time to Toronto).
The city that never sleeps earned its moniker for a reason. There is literally something going on every single hour of the day. For those of you who have never been, prepare yourself. The bustling life of the city never fails to impress, or in some cases, overwhelm.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the city eight times in my twenty and a half years of existence. This past July was my first time visiting sans parents (not counting my eighth grade trip where the entire graduating class was funneled through the city in Greyhounds and herded by teachers from one tourist attraction to the next). It was also the first time where I truly felt home in the city as if all the previous visits have been some sort of training to learn how to navigate this massive metropolitan maze and I was finally let free to see what I remembered. I credit that autonomy to why this trip was my favourite one yet.
If you’re going to do New York, you can’t stick to the tourist traps. I know that seeing the Easter Island heads that were in Night at the Museum is on everyone’s bucket list, and so is a picture in Times Square, but I’m telling you, the city is so much more than bright lights and screaming crowds. There’s so much culture and authenticity and innovation. If you’re going to go, you have to see it all. And that means getting off the island.
CHOOSING YOUR BASE BOROUGH
NYC is massive. So massive that five cities have amalgamated into one: Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. If you’re looking for accommodation, try staying off of Manhattan (unless you have money to spend) and gravitating towards Brooklyn or Queens. Astoria is one of Queens’ nicest and newly gentrified areas. Which means you can get an Airbnb for under $100/night per person that has AC, a King-sized bed and is in walking distance to a subway line that will take you into Manhattan in 10 minutes. We stayed with Nadir, whose home was located by some of the coolest hot spots for young to mid-twenty somethings. It felt super safe, even when we got lost walking home at 11:30 pm at night. A rarity anywhere, but especially in the Big Apple.
Whether you’re in Kingston, in Toronto, or somewhere in the middle, New York seems like it’s only a hop, skip or drive away. Well, probably the latter. Yet, it takes a certain kind of personality to be able to withstand the long drive from the border into the city. The best way to travel towards NYC is by plane, and the ONLY airport you want to deal with is Newark. Maybe I’m a little biased because I find flying off the island is enchanting, but the easiest trips into New York have always been the ones where I fly from Billy Bishop to Newark with Porter Airlines.
If you’re not familiar with Porter, it’s a small airline that does short distance trips around North America. Destinations include Ottawa, Montreal, and Washington D.C. The reason it’s the favoured choice for travelling NYC is that it flies into Newark Airport, a small(er) terminal based in New Jersey that’s a $13 train ride straight into Penn Station. So, while LaGuardia or JFK seem tempting, those big players boast thousands of more travellers, causing traffic jams at customs, as well as on the roads. You’re likely to drop $50+ getting a taxi into the island – not great for a student budget. Plus, when Porter seat sales are on, you can grab plane tickets for under $100. Crazy!
WHAT TO DO
There’s so much to do in the city it’s insane. But, you have to be smart and plan ahead to make sure you get to see everything you want to. The first thing I do when I get to New York is buy a MetroCard. Depending on how long your stay is, and what day it is, different passes will work. The 7-Day card is the best deal if you’re going to ride the subway over 11 times.
Once you’ve got a card and a good pair of walking shoes, the world is your oyster.
Uptown is really broad because it consists of basically everything north of 53rdSt (Times Sq) and extends the length of the park until you reach Harlem. While I’ve never personally been to Harlem, my New Yorker friends told me that the only thing worth seeing north of Central Park in Columbia, and even that isn’t truly Harlem. So, if you wish to venture that way, let me know how it goes. Now back to uptown.
There are three components of the uptown area: Upper West Side, Central Park, and Upper East Side.
For all the Gossip Girl fans out there, Upper East Side is as glorious in real life as it is on TV. Walk along Park Ave, Lexington or 5th, and you’re seeing the crème de la crème of luxury brands, boutiques, salons, agencies, restaurants etc. Everyone is carrying an LV Neverfull and looks effortlessly manicured as if going shopping is their day job.
While you’re up there, hit The Monkey Bar for dinner or drinks (it’s a favourite among celebs and my queen, Anna Wintour), JG Melonfor the country’s best burgers, Le Pain Quotidien for quintessential brunch bites, Sarabeth’s for the world’s best jam, and Café Boulud for high-end French Fare.
In terms of shopping, hit up Bergdorf Goodman, Barney’s, Chanel, Cartier, Le Labo, Ralph Lauren, and Bloomingdale’s of course. These places may be a little out of our price range but are stunning in architecture, design, and their high-end luxury offerings.
Then, make your way to the MoMA (free after 4pm on Fridays!) to take in some modern art, go to the Central Park Zoo to see the cutest penguins on earth, and head up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take in the famous steps, stunning pieces of history, and (currently) the Heavenly Bodies exhibition that brought me to tears. It was absolutely stunning. Never doubt the curatorial powers of the Met and Ms. Wintour.
Now that you’ve seen the Upper East, cut through the park to head over to the west side. Central Park is incredible in itself: the trees, the sculptures, the activity. There’s a Shakespeare Theater, multiple ponds and lakes to boat on, and endless paths to bike. If you’re looking for something cheap and fun, grab a Citi Bike and ride around the park. It’s yours to discover.
Now, onto the west. The first thing everyone should see is The Dakota. This was the apartment building where the frontman for the Beatles, John Lennon, was shot. Walk over to Columbus Ave for Joe and the Juice or Magnolia Bakery. Upper West is also home to the American Museum of Natural History(okay, I’ll let you have your Night at the Museum moment), and the Lincoln Center, which has a stunning plaza out front, and also neighbours Fordham University and Julliard, and is where you can catch the New York City Ballet. This was where the tents were for fashion week from 2010-2015, so don’t forget to snap your best street style pic.
I count midtown as the massive area between the park (~57thSt) and Penn Station (~34thSt). It’s home to some of the swankiest hotels (The Knickerbocker, Kimpton Ink48, The Roosevelt, The Plaza) and has the highest concentration of tourist attractions (Times Square, Rockefeller, Bartholomew’s Church, Radio City Music Hall, Madame Tussauds, Chrysler Building, Empire State). While the NBC Studio Tour at the Rock is a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon, as you get to see the SNL sets, where they film the news and maybe even catch a glimpse of Jimmy Fallon, this area is best for a cute post-dinner walk. The lights and excitement are perfect for basking in your fortune of visiting the city that never sleeps but can be insanely overwhelming.
If you want to eat in this area, lean east or west. The more central you get, the higher the prices and the lower the quality. If you want authentic American, Bareburgeris a great inclusive chain that has organic burgers from beef to bison, Ruby’s Café is an Aussie establishment perfect for brunch (and your Instagram), and Briciolahas small bites and a killer wine selection.
CHELSEA – GREENWICH – GRAMERCY – BOWERY
This area is peak Gwyneth. If you subscribe to the GOOP travel files (a great resource to live lavishly like Ms. Paltrow in all the major travel destinations around the world), then you’d know that these four neighbourhoods, just south of midtown, are home to chic boutiques, healthy eateries, and quaint tree-lined streets. Starting in Chelsea, walk south on the High Line, an elevated park that gives you views of the Hudson and the city. You can spot Ariana Grande & Pete Davidson’s house on the way, as the multi-million-dollar apartment is nestled right beside the walkway of this urban park. If you get off at the south end, you’re right by the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Standard Hotel(check out their rooftop restaurant!), and major shopping areas. Chelsea is where some of the major fashion brands shoot their campaigns and e-commerce visuals, as well as host many a fashion show or presentation. While you’re there, break the bank and eat at Catch NYC, or check out Chelsea Market, an elevated version of Toronto’s St Lawrence that has everything from buzzing boutiques to stand-out eateries.
Continuing south, you hit Greenwich Village and NYU. At the corner of Bedford and Grove, you’ll see the famous FRIENDS Apartment, and on Greenwich Ave, you can hit up Daniel Radcliffe’s favourite shop, Tea & Sympathy, which stocks all the British goods. Just south of Union Square is Strand Bookstore, which is a landmark bookshop that houses every type of book imaginable. You’re always able to score rare finds or read up on any subject, from philosophy to finance. The famous Grace Church is located on Broadway Ave, which has excellent choral music and reminds you of the rich history the city has. Oh, and if you want to say Yes! To the dress, go to Kleinfeld Bridal at 20thand 7th.
In terms of food, there’s my favourite Jack’s Wife Freda, the farm-fresh Market Table(which has the most gorgeous windows and is always bustling with Manhatten’s finest), Rafele for cozy Italian fare, SweetsBy Chloe for some delicious vegan desserts, the ultimate farmer’s market in Union Square, primal deliciousness courtesy of Hu Kitchen, model-approved dishes at ABC Kitchen, or dive into the incredible gourmet experience of Eatalyat the Flatiron building by Madison Square Park.
These neighbourhoods house both The New School (which is the parent uni of Parsons) and NYU. While they don’t have the same regal limestone architecture as our beloved Queen’s, their cosmopolitan locations and seamless integration certainly make them a sight worth seeing.
If you want to workout, these areas are where to do it. From SoulCycle NOHO, Equinox Bond Street, the super trendy Rumble Boxing, ballet-inspired Barre3, OrangeTheory, and the high energy 305 Fitness, there’s no shortage of boutique and big name classes to work up a sweat.
South of Houston lies the land of fashion. Celebrities often call this rich real estate home, and so does high fashion and big-name brands, whose boutiques line the curving streets of this illustrious neighbourhood. Soho Shopping Sunday is a REAL thing. Check out VFiles, NikeLab, Glossier Showroom, Outdoor Voices, Saturdays NYC on Crosby, Reformation, Rick Owens, Fjallraven Epic, Acne, Scoop, Theory, Fiorentini + Baker, All Saints, Levi’s, Mackage, Valentino, Tiffany, Cos, The Apartment by Line, Fendi, Adidas Flagship, Stella McCartney, Shinola, Supreme, Birchbox, Bite Beauty Lip Lab, Louis, Y-3, Dior Men’s, Proenza Scholer…The list goes on and on.
If you’re looking for some serious model and celeb sighting, Balthazaaris always a promising brunch and dinner spot. David Beckham, Larry David, Anna Wintour, Seth Meyers and a myriad of other big names are regulars. Otherwise, Delicatessen, Cafe Select, Ramen Lab, Two Hands, Cha Cha Matcha, The Butcher’s Daughter, Rubirosa, Seamore’s, and the trustworthy ultimate salad chain sweetgreen are all good alternatives.
For me, downtown Manhattan is underrated. This is because people go to rub the balls of Wall Street’s bull, take a look at the New York Stock Exchange, and pretty much call it a day. But they miss out on TriBeCa (where Taylor Swift lives), which is one of the nicest neighbourhoods I’ve been in. There’s an incredible number of boutiques and hole-in-the-wall restaurants for you to discover, and keep secret. 😉
Below TriBeCa is the World Trade Centre. While this may seem like the tourist trap I warned you about, it is a must-see for any trip to New York. Conde Nast now operates out of WTC, but the memorial is breathtaking and very pedestrian friendly.
When you hit the bottom of the island, you’ll see Battery Park. Here, there is an Urban Farm, views of New Jersey, a carousel, memorials, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and three eateries where you can drink and dine while taking in the Statue of Liberty.
Speaking of the Statue of Liberty – don’t go. Instead, take the FREE Staten Island Ferry to SI and back. On your way, you’ll also catch a glimpse of Governor’s Island where the big music festival is held. It also is now the go-to destination for glamping, if you’re willing to dish out $400/night. Who knew?
To finish off your Manhattan adventures, walk parallel to FDR Drive all the way up to the Brooklyn Bridge. While you will have to watch out for bikers (they’ll yell profanities your way if you forget), the bridge walk is absolutely invigorating. Early in the morning is the best time to go if you want the best Insta-worthy pics or have the bridge to yourself, but at night you’ll get to see all the beautiful lights of the city. Right at the root of the bridge in Brooklyn, you can find Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, Shake Shack, the city’s best pizza at Grimaldi’s Pizza and plenty of parks.
Since Dan Humphrey married Serena van der Woodsen and fooled us all with his GG antics, his home borough has gone through some serious gentrification. It seems the millennials are moving off the main island and onto the long one. While you’re still a couple hours’ drive away from meeting Long Island Medium or sunbathing in the Hamptons, Brooklyn holds its ground for being one of the coolest places in New York. That being said, you need to stick to your neighbourhoods: Fulton Ferry District, Dumbo, Cobble Hill, Downtown, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, BedStuy, even Prospect Park. My brother used to live in Bushwick, and I remember the first thing I saw getting off the subway was two men in an altercation involving guns. While I may sound a little snobby, it was a less-than-ideal experience.
In Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, you’ll find the VICE HQ, brunch hotspot Sunday in Brooklyn, and insane shopping at places like Kate Bird, Awoke Vintage, Think Closet, Pema, and Kinfolk 90. At every corner, there’s something special that shows up – whether it’s a pop-up vintage store, a closet clean-out hosted by Toni Garrn, or a feminist-themed boutique where you can pick up everything from toys to t-shirts.
Prospect Park is where you’ll find a luscious green comparable to Central Park. There’s a zoo, a carousel, lake activities, the Brooklyn Museum and a beautiful Botanic Garden. Plus, they have their own farmer’s market called Smorgasburgand a wetland called Duck Island. Supermodel/mumCameron Russell introduced me to this spacious oasis and often hosts her Model Activist meet-ups on one of the rolling hills.
Look, I know it’s impossible to do this over a weekend, let alone a week. But if you’re an early bird, walking enthusiast like me, you can cover more than you think. Whenever you’re planning a trip to the big apple, consider where you are staying, your must-hit destinations, and let your spontaneous, adventurous side to the rest.
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