Sometimes the big, obvious choices are must-sees. Other times you’re better off skipping the crowds and going someplace totally weird. As a Brooklyn CouchSurfing Ambassador, I would get asked for recommendations all the time. Here are my top recommendations for what to see during your time in New York.
Best of NYC
Tacos: Tacos el Bronco
Ice cream: Ample Hills
Donuts: Shaikh’s Place
Sandwich: City Subs
Manhattan dive bar: 12th Street Ale House
Brooklyn dive bar: 4th Ave Pub
Brunch: Dean Street
Small museum: NY Transit Museum
Cheap Chinatown eats: Shanghai Cafe
Movie Theatre: BAM
Burlesque: The Slipper Room
For the best luck finding hosts, you should always have a completed profile, references, get verified, and send personalized requests.
Make sure it’s New York, NY
New York is a city and a state. CouchSurfing hosts in Upstate New York, hours away from New York City, get a huge number of couch requests from people who don’t understand the difference. Save yourself some time and make sure you’re sending requests for the right city.
Look outside of NYC
You don’t want to send a couch request to a host in Buffalo for your weekend in the big apple, but you should absolutely consider places outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island are all part of New York City. Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark are connected to Manhattan by the PATH (a subway system). Hosts along the commuter rail lines (NJTransit, LIRR, MetroNorth) get very few couch requests, but are still an easy train ride away from the city. As a bonus, many of these commuter towns are beautiful destinations in their own right — with hiking trails, quaint downtowns, and beaches.
Don’t wait too long
Hostels are often fully booked during the summer, pride weekend, and the holidays. Hostels frequently are full for the weekends. If you aren’t having any luck finding a host, it’s safer to book a hostel than to find yourself without a place to stay.
The subway & the bus
You can buy a metrocard at most subway stations with cash, debit, or credit card. Busses require a metrocard or exact change. If you’re in New York for a week, go ahead and get a weekly unlimited pass. If you’re only in the city for a day, a daily pass might be a good deal, depending on your itinerary. The subway system is huge and old, so be sure to plan your route ahead of time and check mta.info for scheduled changes.
- Make sure you have the MTA map saved offline on your phone before you go underground.
- Don’t feel bad when you get lost or end up on the wrong train. Trains get diverted to different routes, switch from local to express, or stop running pretty regularly.
- Don’t be afraid to take the bus. The bus network is huge and will take you to all sorts of crazy places. Bus Time is essential.
I almost never took cabs when I lived in New York, but plenty of people take them everywhere. Don’t make a fool of yourself trying to hail a cab. Be prepared to give your cabbie directions. All NYC cabs take credit and debit. And, of course, there’s always Uber.
The PATH train
People hate on New Jersey, but it’s the key to cheap accommodation and the best skyline views. Plus, the PATH operates on a much more reliable schedule than the subway. You can use your pay-per-ride metrocard (not an unlimited) or buy a ticket at any PATH station.
NJTransit, LIRR, and Amtrak both operate out of Penn Station, arguably the worst place on the planet.
MetroNorth operates out of Grand Central Terminal.
If you have two days
Don’t go on a tour. Read the Wikipedia page and then give yourself two hours to explore everywhere you can see without trespassing.
It’s cheaper than the Empire State Building and the lines are a heck of a lot shorter. Swipe your metrocard and you’ll get a fantastic view of the skyline.
You can hop back on the tram back to Manhattan, walk over to the F train, or explore the island. If you’re an architecture nerd, you’ll want to see Four Freedoms Park.
If you have a week
Everyone recommends this because it’s free and it’s awesome.
Loading dock lunch
If you’d like a standard lunch counter, I’m a fan of A&A Coffee Shop and Johnny’s Luncheonette. I won’t pretend I haven’t had a thousand meals at B&H Dairy, along with everyone else who went to school in the village.
If tacos and beer are more your style, the tacos in the back of Tehuitzingo Deli are sometimes fine, sometimes amazing.
If you’d like a more upscale underground lunch option, my favorite is Sakagura.
If you’d like to feel like you’re eating your buffet in a bowling alley bar, The Upstairs Pub is weird in a way I find delightful.
This free museum has been forgotten by tourists. When they say Hispanic they don’t mean Latino, they’re talking about Spain and Portugal. Housed in Manhattan’s original museum campus, it’s worth the trip for the architecture and the weirdness.
Across the street is one of three Trinity Cemeteries. It houses lots of dead notables, fancy mausoleums, and a peak into when Washington Heights was a very different place.
Before you get back on the subway, walk the rest of the way West and check out the view of the Palisades.
Go to the park the neighborhood of Sunset Park is named after to check out a great example of WPA era architecture. Oh yeah, and one of the best views of Manhattan’s skyline.
There are tons of places to get tacos and lots of other cheap, delicious things. Do yourself a favor and eat as much as possible.
It may sound weird, but Green-wood Cemetery was once New York’s most popular tourist attraction. This was a time when New York had few competing attractions, but it’s still pretty cool. There are a lot of famous dead guys if that’s your thing. I prefer the giant, somewhat terrifying snapping turtles andparrots that are among its living residents.
Check the events calendar before you go. They’re known for giving tours of crypts, concerts in the chapel, and other things you wouldn’t expect from a cemetery. If there’s no events going on, just turn off your phone and wander around until you’re hopelessly lost.
If you’re staying in Brooklyn
The first time I went to the Brooklyn Museum, before I moved to Brooklyn, I didn’t have high hopes. My mom and I figured we’d go for an hour…and then stayed until closing. Check their events page, because this pay-what-you-wish museum has lots of great stuff going on.
Red Hook has lots of great restaurants and bars, but my favorite option, which I won’t advocate because it’s mildly illegal, is BYOB IKEA dinner. I also enjoy putting pictures of the IKEA monkey in all the frames, but the staff is super on the ball about removing them. The NY Water Taxi to Manhattan is free with your IKEA receipt and there’s a partially preserved dry dock turned into a park next to IKEA.
Another excellent food option is the prepared foods (or random stuff) from Fairway, which has a waterfront patio behind the giant grocery store. Even if you don’t eat here, go behind Fairway to see the piers and art galleries.
If it’s a nice day out, the best food comes from the food trucks at the soccer fields, where you can eat in the shadow of the abandoned grain terminal. I like to walk around the more industrial sections of Red Hook.
Catch a show at the Jalopy Theatre on your way back to the subway.
Sheepshead Bay is a strange place. It has people from all over the world, the water, great food, semi-convenient transit options, and a motley crew of weird houses. It’s also full of highly suspicious but friendly locals who don’t go to Manhattan for anything but work.
Roll-N-Roaster is the last man standing in what was once a NYC chain. If you ever wondered what fast food was like in the 70s, this is your chance to experience it. They spell cheese with a “z” and sell champagne. Go on your birthday for free Roll-N-Roaster swag and maybe free food.
I like the Masal Cafe, although the menu (and service) are very hit or miss. A sausage may or may not be a hot dog. The toppings on their kumpir all come out of a can. But I love it anyway and how can you go wrong when there’s so much cheese and honey?
If you want to stay in a place in New York that’s terribly inconvenient but very unique, sometimes there are houseboats for rent in the Marina behind the Coney Island WWTP. It’s easy to walk by and not know it’s there behind the fence, but there are a bunch of retired cops and other folks living on houseboats in what’s technically Federal territory. There’s a liquor store, deli with a hot buffet, and a TGI Fridays to serve all of your needs.
Want to escape the city without leaving? It’s time to go to a landfill. Really.
Give yourself a couple of hours to explore. Bring stuff for a picnic. There’s no food or drink options nearby. It has a great view of the skyline.
Take the 2 to the end of the line at Brooklyn College. Hop on the Q35 and get off at the last stop before the toll booths for the Marine Park Bridge. The closest bathrooms are at Floyd Bennett Field, which has a newly renovated visitors center. There’s also the nearest bush and an outhouse near where you can catch the bus back to Brooklyn College.
Technically it’s illegal to take anything from the landfill, which is now a National Recreation Area, but this is flaunted by people carrying out bags and bags of historic trash.
If you’re staying in Queens
Built for the World’s Fair (formerly the ash piles Gatsby drove through), Flushing Meadows-Corona Park manages to be shabby and amazing. The park doesn’t have a lot of food (or bathroom) options, but the food trucks are solid.
The New York Hall of Science is frozen in the 90s. If you have a nostalgia for that sort of thing or an hour to kill, swing by. They’ve got science minigolf and a hall of mirrors.
Cheap South Indian food in the basement of a beautiful temple? Yes.
If you’re anywhere nearby Forest Hills, you should go here and get ice cream. This place is 100 years old and basically hasn’t changed at all.
If you’re staying in Jersey City
The top 10 attractions in Jersey City are all terrible. Liberty State Park is a toxic waste site. Colgate Clock is…a clock. Ellis Island lurks just out of reach, even though there’s a bridge to the island.
Jersey City does have a lovely waterfront. The area around the Grove Street PATH station has all the same type of bars, cafes, and shops that you’d find in hipper-than-thou Brooklyn. Go to Journal Square for some legit Middle Eastern food.
If you’d like to get a feel for the suburban hell that is 95% of America, here’s your chance. Hop off the PATH at Pavonia-Newport and take a decidedly unlovely walk to the Jersey City Target. Giant shopping carts! Weird bargains! The chance to be hit by a car! Walmarts are so much weirder, but none are easily accessible from NYC.
Bonus points if you opt to cross the treacherous entrance to the Holland Tunnel on foot, which I did every day for two months. It’s not a fun experience, but it demonstrates something interesting about America.
If you’re staying in Hoboken
Then, hop on the PATH. This is a good excuse to stop by the Oculus at the WTC transit hub. Take a detour on your way out of the station to see Hoboken’s lovely train terminal, with it’s Tiffany windows and unusually clean bathrooms.
The waterfront and Washington Street are the two main strips. The waterfront is a new urbanist dream full of piers and parks. Strollers are everywhere. Washington has a boutique for anything you’d possibly want, or not want.
Get a slice from Benny Tudino’s. Benny once told me that the apartment above a pizzeria in Flatbush had been a brothel and mob guys had used the giant living room for poker games. I’d almost rented it, but decided the floorplan was too weird. This solved a minor mystery for me.
Get a postcard view of Manhattan from Elysian Fields. This will be more exciting for you if you like baseball.
If you wander all the way up to Weehawken, you can take the ferry back to Manhattan.
I find that people get lost in Hoboken constantly, despite how small a town it is and the fact that my apartment in Hoboken was on the main drag across the street from a Golden Elk. It’s a city surrounded on water on three sides and a cliff on the other, yet people would mistake the Jersey City skyline for Manhattan and wander off in the wrong direction. Don’t be that person.
If you’re staying in Staten Island
I tried so hard to find something interesting in Staten Island. Casey and I walked through every neighborhood. We went to all the attractions. We spent so much time on the bus and dodging cars on sidewalk-less roads. There are some things if you live there (or are staying there with extended family, I assume) but not a heck of a lot of reasons to get off the Staten Island Ferry.
I love museum campuses. Cross the road to find a cute little dock.
Sadly, it’s too late for you to enjoy the abandoned beach cottages of Staten Island. The abundance of foreclosed and abandoned homes (thanks to the mortgage crisis and Hurricane Sandy) give the boardwalk an ominous air, even in the nicer spots.
If you’re staying in the Bronx
The former NYU campus has a collection of fantastic (or at least noteworthy) architecture. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans and Gould Memorial Library are both major architectural landmarks, which have been joined by several noteworthy brutalist structures.
It’s a New England fishing village attached to the Bronx. They have a museum in an old school that’s interesting to stop by if you’re ready to chat with a docent and look at lots of miniature boats.