I Heart NY mural at Pizza Beach restaurant via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

A Local’s Guide for Friends and Family Visiting New York City

We’re constantly asked for recommendations when friends and family are planning a visit to New York City. And let’s face it, bloggers have this particularly awful habit of simply shooting off a bunch of links. The truth is, we know that even if you’ve popped in from time to time (thank you!), you may not want to go on a deep dive through our blog before a trip. There are also some obvious and amazing things to do in New York City that we’ve never featured on the blog. So we thought we’d put together a guide of some of our favorite things. These are the very same suggestions we provide our friends and family. (Usually in a long-form email, with about 4-6 addenda over the following days. Sorry, guys!)

Let’s just acknowledge, first and foremost, that planning a trip to New York City can be a rather intimidating experience. There are so many things to see, do, and eat. We often hear things like, “I don’t know where to start!”, or “Can I do all these things in one day?” And then we have some seasoned visitors who turn to us for something new or off-the-beaten-path. We hope this guide has a little something for everyone.

New York City is really best enjoyed on foot. One of the simplest hacks is to group your activities geographically to minimize time spent on the subway or sitting in traffic, so that’s how we’ve organized this guide.


Uptown (Above 59th Street)

Museum Mania

Garden Court of The Frick Collection via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Garden Court at the Frick Collection

Museum Mile is located on Fifth Avenue, from about 82nd Street to 110th Street, which is where you’ll find such stalwart institutions as The Met and the Guggenheim Museum. Across the park, there’s the Museum of Natural History. But for something a little off the beaten path, you could try the Frick Collection, which used to be the home of magnate Henry Clay Frick and houses a stunning collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and more from the likes of Vermeer, Veronese and El Greco. The Museum of the City of New York is also an often overlooked option. It runs interesting exhibits that explore different facets of the city’s past, present and future, allowing you to see more than what lies on the surface. For a museum that doesn’t feel like a museum, check out the hidden gem that is the Society of Illustrators, a tiny space that holds fun exhibits based in the art of illustration. They also hold sketch nights and other fun activities.

Pro Tip: Most museums have certain days of the week or month where the admission is free or pay-what-you-wish, so a quick jaunt to their individual websites might save you some cash. Just note that major institutions like MoMA are very crowded during the free hours, so take that into consideration.

Central Park

Large soap bubble in front of Bethesda Fountain in Central Park via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Bethesda Fountain

Central Park is huge, and you could either lose several days trying to explore all of it, or pick different pockets to visit. If you could only see one portion of the park, enter at the 65th Street Transverse and walk The Mall up to Bethesda Terrace and Fountain. Along The Mall you’ll get to enjoy the Literary Walk, which features statues of famous literary figures. Bethesda Terrace is one of the most beautiful and iconic spots in the park, and is a favorite setting for wedding photo shoots. You’ll probably recognize the Angel on the Water statue at Bethesda Fountain from countless movies and television shows.

John Lennon Memorial in Central Park via Mad Hatters NYC BlogPro Tip: If you exit through 72nd Street on the west side of the park, you’ll get to see the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon. The 72nd Street subway station recently reopened with new artwork by Yoko Ono, and it’s located right by The Dakota (where they both lived).

2nd Avenue Subway

Vik Muniz subway art the 72nd St Station via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Art by Vik Muniz at the 72nd Street Station

We don’t generally send anyone to the subway for fun. But if you happen to be anywhere near the 2nd Avenue Subway, it’s definitely worth the fare to check it out. Many New York City subway stations actually have cool art installations, but the 2nd Avenue Subway is the newest stretch of track and the city commissioned some pretty impressive art to go along with it. The portraits by Chuck Close at the 86th St stop make it one of our favorites.


Midtown (Between 34th Street and 59th Street)

Midtown is where you’ll find a majority of New York City’s popular destinations. It’s home to MoMA, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Radio City Music Hall, Times Square and Broadway. That means most of these are located pretty close together, so with some planning you can see many of these landmarks on the same visit.

Observation Decks

New York City skyline with Empire State Building in the center via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

There are two prominent options in Midtown for views of the city: Top of the Rock and the Empire State Building. Ticket prices for observation decks are pretty steep, so you might want to consider your options. The biggest advantage of Top of the Rock is that you see more of Central Park and have a clear view of the Empire State Building (which you wouldn’t have if you were, say, on the Empire State Building). But the Empire State Building is an icon. Both are tourist attractions, so expect some upselling. However, you can buy tickets for both online to reduce some of the wait. If you’re hell-bent on getting the best views, try Top of the Rock during the day–since Central Park is not lit up when it’s dark–and the Empire State Building at night so you can see the lights of Times Square.

Grand Central Station

Whispering Gallery in Grand Central Station via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Whispering Gallery

Grand Central Station is one of those spots both tourists and locals love. There are fantastic tours that explore its rich history, but if you just want to take pictures of the beautiful interior, that’s okay too. Don’t miss the Whispering Gallery, where you and a friend can stand at opposite corners of the arches and whisper sweet nothings into the wall. The acoustics are such that the other person can hear you perfectly, despite the distance between you.

The Chrysler Building

Ceiling mural and stacked lights in the lobby of Chrysler Building via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The Chrysler Building is one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the New York City skyline, but unlike the Empire State Building you can’t pay for a ticket and ride up to the top. The Art Deco treasure is a private building accessible only by its tenants, but the lobby is open to the public during the week. The entrance is just across the street from Grand Central Station, so it’s worth popping by just to see the amazing deco details like the red Moroccan marble walls, the fluorescent lights placed in a step pattern, the elevator doors with metal and wood veneers, and Edward Trumbull’s ceiling mural named “Transport and Human Endeavor”.

New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

New York Public Library lion with tall glass building in the background via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The flagship branch of the New York Public LIbrary system is easily our favorite in the vast New York City library system. It’s worth a visit just to see this incredible Beaux-Arts landmark, including its iconic feline sentinels, Patience and Fortitude. But there’s also a really nice prelude to your visit that you should definitely take the time to experience: a walk along Library Way. If you approach the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building promenade from the east and walk along 41st Street, you’ll be rewarded with bronze sidewalk plaques with inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature.

It’s also important to remember that there’s much more to see and do at the New New York Public Library’s main branch than just snap some pretty pictures of the exterior. Take a free tour and discover such visual delights as the gorgeous murals adorning the ceiling of The Rose Main Reading Room and learn all about the library’s amazing history. In addition, make sure to check the schedule for New York Public Library’s fantastic programs and events, which include talks by noted authors. Just make sure to register and show up early, as many such events are free of charge and first come, first seated.

For other quirky ideas around Midtown, you could check out Gulliver’s Gate, which is a world of miniatures that takes you around the globe in one afternoon, or the new Spy Museum, where you can get your Bond on.


Downtown (14th Street and below)

Downtown is where we spend most of our time in the city. Whether we’re wandering the charming streets of the West Village, sampling international cuisines in the East Village or checking out the latest street art in the Lower East Side, there are endless ways to pass the time here.

The High Line

View of NYC buildings from the High Line via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

So what is the High Line, what’s so important about it, and why should you visit it? Very simply, The High Line is an elevated, linear park. It’s important because it is a monumental example of both grass-roots community mobilization for a cause (staving off demolition and ensuring the land was returned to public use) and because the project inspired cities all around the country to rethink how they utilized obsolete infrastructure. The former defunct elevated railway became a park that stretches nearly two miles in length from Gansevoort St. to West 30 St. between Washington St. and 11th Ave in Manhattan’s West Side. With an easily walkable railway trail, you’ll find lush gardens and public art exhibits.

Pro Tip: If you work from north to south, you can exit the High Line at 17th Street and make your way to Chelsea Market for some food and shopping. Don’t miss Artists & Fleas, which brings a number of local artisans and designers together, as well as New York City staple Pearl River Mart for Asian and Asian-inspired goods.

The Oculus and World Trade Center

Oculus and World Trade Center buildings via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The Oculus, for all intents and purposes, is a transportation hub and a shopping mall. But the beautiful design by architect Santiago Calatrava makes it a destination in and of itself. A combination of steel, glass and marble, the white winged structure is meant to resemble a bird being released from a child’s hand. On the anniversary of 9/11 the glass ceiling is removed, allowing the sun to stream unobstructed into the space.

Besides The Oculus, there are a host of options to explore while you’re here. You can head through the west concourse tunnel to Brookfield Place to enjoy the light-filled atrium and all things French at Le District. Or you can stop by the 9/11 Memorial Plaza to see the twin pools–the largest manmade waterfalls in the country–in the exact spots where the Twin Towers stood. Or you can head to the other Observation Deck option, the One World Observatory at One WTC. One WTC is the tallest of all three options we’ve mentioned here, and it offers 360-degree views of the city. It’s also the newest, so there are more tech-inspired offerings to enhance your experience.

American History

Street scene with a view of Trinity Church via Mad Hatters NYC Blog

New York City has a rich and storied history, and it played a pretty big role in the national landscape too. History lovers can visit Federal Hall, where the first United States Congress met on March 4, 1789 and where George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States. Not too far away, there’s Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried. (You might also recognize it from movies The Day After Tomorrow and National Treasure). And don’t miss Fraunces Tavern, which played a prominent role in the American Revolution.

Besides these highlights, there are also plenty of neighborhoods to explore. You can take a walk along Canal Street then linger in Chinatown afterwards. The South Street Seaport district has become a buzzy hotspot attracting the best names in food and fashion. And there’s always Battery Park, where you can ride in a Seaglass Carousel if the spectacular views start to bore you. The Museum of Illusions and the Museum of Street Art are great indoor options.


And if I’ve done all that already?

Before relocating to the area, we made trips annually–sometimes twice or three times a year–and never ran out of things to see, do and eat in New York City. But if you find all these ideas boring or a touch too touristy (not a bad word in our books), then here are some other things to consider:

Venture into the outer boroughs

Colorful murals covering the walls of a building in Bushwick, Brooklyn via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Bushwick Collective

A short train or subway ride will take you to areas of New York City with completely different offerings. Here are some quick and easy ideas within 30 minutes of central Manhattan on public transportation:

Drop by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Public Library, for a fun day of culture and horticulture

Trek to Bushwick to check out the street art at the Bushwick Collective as well as the trendy breweries, eateries and galleries in the area

Visit Long Island City to enjoy amazing views of the city as well as fantastic art institutions like MoMA PS1

Take in the fresh air the New York Botanical Garden, which offers amazing gardens to explore, but also themed cultural and art exhibits from artists like Frida Kahlo and Dale Chihuly

Ride the Staten Island Ferry for views of the Statue of Liberty then head over to Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden or track down some authentic Sri Lankan food

And if you’re in New York City during the summer, consider a jaunt to Governors Island

Pro Tip: Coney Island is more than a half hour away, but it’s entirely worth it if you can spare the time. From the beach to the amusement park to the famous eateries and breweries, it promises a fun-filled day for the entire family.

Spend some time exploring individual neighborhoods

Street corner in the Lower East Side with large Stik wall mural via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Lower East Side

Neighborhoods like Harlem and the Lower East Side have street art, galleries, museums, restaurants and shops that will draw you in. Each neighborhood has a distinct vibe, a culture that is uniquely theirs. There are no tour bus operators trying to sell you a ticket here, it’s just the locals going about their everyday business.

Enjoy the beautiful outdoors

View of the World Trade Center from Hudson River Park via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Hudson River Park

Most people associate New York City with glass and concrete, but there are an incredible number of outdoor spaces to enjoy too. Besides Central Park and the High Line, you can enjoy neighborhood parks like Washington Square Park in the West Village, where you’ll find the infamous Washington Square Arch and fountain, as well as a fun mix of street musicians, artists, local families and students. Or explore Hudson River Park for views of the Hudson River and spots to play a round of miniature golf, tennis or volleyball.


And what if I get hungry?

Let’s be honest, the question we are most often asked by our friends and family is: Where should we eat? And they ask for good reason, too, because if there’s one thing you should know about us, it’s that we love to eat. What we’ve decided to do here is provide a map of some of the cafes, restaurants, and bakeries that we love to visit. It’s absolutely not a comprehensive list by any means. Take, for instance, the fact that you won’t find a bunch of Michelin-starred establishments, though there are plenty at your disposal in New York City. Nor will you find every trendy spot in the city with a current wait time of 3 hours and line snaking around the corner. What you will find are places we enjoy regularly.

Margherita Pizza at Keste Pizza restaurant in New York City via Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Margherita Pizza at Keste

Ours is a penchant for New York City institutions, as well as lesser known neighborhood gems. Most of them have reasonable prices and reasonable wait times (by New York City standards, at least, if at all). The goal, originally, was to include around 50 restaurants and cafes, but we quickly decided we would be remiss not to mention some dessert options as well. In the end, we’ve decided to field a list of 55 total establishments. You’ll find everything from quick grab-and-go breakfast sandwiches to dinner where a former president dined, and plenty in between. And, of course, if you have a sweet tooth, we have you covered there as well.

Your New York City

Now, there will undoubtedly be locals and visitors alike that will disagree with some of our choices. Maybe you hate museums. Or perhaps you don’t really care about food or coffee (register our collective horror at such a statement). New Yorkers, in particular, are renowned for their disagreements about things like where to get the best slice in the city, who makes the best bagel and which borough is king. And let’s face it, they can occasionally be snobbish or territorial. But the fact that the city can afford pleasures to any taste on the spectrum is what makes it special. The real beauty of The City That Never Sleeps is that it offers you the opportunity to find your New York City. So go forth and conquer!

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A Pinterst pin image of a street level shot of Times Square with the text, "A Local's Guide to the Best Things to See in New York City" via Mad Hatters NYC blog.

– L. & J.

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Nisha
Guest

Great to know about these places , I have been there once and have covered only some in the list here .This is a great list for my next visit.Wonderful share!!

Cathy
Guest

We can’t wait to go back! I know it is going to take multiple trips to see all we want to. I’m saving this for our next visit to NYC!

Trudy
Guest

WOW!!! What a massively good travel guide! I’ve always wanted to tackle it but was totally overwhelmed! I love all of the pictures, they’re all so beautiful. Great job you two!!

Tip
Guest

Beautiful! You covered it perfectly. The Chamber of Commerce should sign you guys up! I relived our NYC time the whole time I was reading the post. Hope you guys had a good holiday season and are well. Thank you for the re-ride! It was wonderful.

JAM
Guest

This is awesome. You should write a book!

Tara
Guest

While I was reading this piece, I was just thinking- what about the Madhatters food options???
Waited until the end and there it was.
Very comprehensive piece. Also it makes me very happy that you added Artists & Fleas in your blog post.
I guess ther is too much to cover, but personally, Bryant Park and Washington Sq park would be high on my list of receommdeations for nyc, maybe to rest ones weary feet. 🙂

Nicely done piece, you guys!!

lynn
Guest

Whew! You’ve managed a comprehensive guide in a very short time/small space! Not an easy task (and your own excellent photographs to boot!). It made me long to return, which I will, and if the neighborhoods and sites you featured are mostly familiar to someone who lived in the city for decades, surely your restaurant list is full of surprises, so that will be my resource. I trust you guys when it comes to food. 🙂

Cynthia | Adventuring Woman
Guest

The best post I’ve read about general things to do in NYC, and I’ve read quite a few! Completely agree about basing things in a geographic area, something I thought about when planning my last trip. On a short visit, doesn’t make sense to spend half a day traveling back and forth when there’s so much to see wherever you are. Wish I had seen this tip about the Chrysler building lobby—next time! And I’m sad we didn’t make it to the Frick. That’s my #1 next visit. We did the walk you suggest in Central Park but got lost,… Read more »

Alecia
Guest

When I visit NYC one day, your guide will be what I use to plan my stay. Maximizing the time you have in a city like New York is so important and you’ve done a great job making sure that a first time visitor would use each day wisely.