The infamous skyline appeared over the horizon as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel, and excitement welled up within me. I was filled with anticipation at what the city had in store for us but we only had 2 nights, which is NOT long enough to see New York in all its splendour.
This is a review of our itinerary; what worked and what we could have done better – I hope it helps you plan your trip!
Day One: 2.30pm – Midnight
1. Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central is far more than just a railway station. It’s a core part of New York’s identity, featured in a million movies (probably), and it doesn’t disappoint. A place where you can observe the fast-paced life of a city in action, this impressive building and its tremendous people-watching potential is a great place to centre yourself for a tour of the city.
TIP: You can combine your visit to Grand Central with a meal in the huge food court downstairs if time is of the essence – they do great chicken!
2. Central Park
We walked from Grand Central down 5th Avenue to Sheep Meadow in Central Park, which took about 30 minutes. Now it may seem obvious but Central Park is a must-see, and it’s vast at 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide. You could easily spend a whole day there, but with such little time the most interesting thing for me was the famous image of the high rises around the straight edges of the park. I love the juxtaposition of nature and city in such close proximity, giving the sense of peace and tranquility all the while enlivened by the knowledge that the city is right there, waiting for you to emerge refreshed.
TIP: Head to Sheep Meadow as it’s a great viewpoint for the park and city, and you can chill out for a while with the locals.
3. Coffee at Cafe Lalo
For those of you familiar with the 90s movie ‘You’ve Got Mail’, this is the setting where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet up. As a big Tom Hanks fan, I wanted to go and have coffee here, and you know what? I’m really glad we did. The cafe sits on an otherwise residential street off Broadway on 83rd Street and is a Parisian style patisserie. It’s all wooden inside with an antique cash register and a selection of desserts, pastries and cakes to make your mouth water. The sun was shining, we were thirsty, and we sat in the large open window sipping raspberry lemonade in the thriving atmosphere. It was wonderful. I would heartily recommend it, however, if it’s just a drink you want and aren’t obsessed with visiting movie sets like me, there are closer places to go.
TIP: If you’re really in a rush, you can pick up some water and a hotdog from a street vendor and eat in the park.
4. Empire State Building
We’d had enough walking, so caught the metro Red Line from 79th to 34th Street with the aim of getting to the top of the ESB before the sun began setting. One of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Empire State has somehow managed to maintain its infamy despite not being anywhere close to the world’s tallest building for many years now. The Empire State is iconic and, whilst there are other options to see the view, if this is your first time in the city, I would say do it.
TIP: Buy tickets online before you go to save time in queues, and go up an hour before sunset and watch the sun go down from the top. Once you’re up there, you can stay as long as you want, so wrap up warm and watch night fall over Manhattan. It’s honestly one of my favourite memories of all time!
5. Times Square
Having watched darkness descend, it was time for some neon. Times Square is only just over half a mile from the Empire State Building, so we walked. We spent a little while in front of one of the big screens trying to get our face on it, which was not normally the sort of thing we would go for – but it was so much fun and I’m glad we did. Here is a picture of our achievement:
It took about 20 minutes to centre ourselves in the heart We are the bespectacled pair right in the middle. What winners we are.
TIP: Climb to the top of the red steps on Father Duffy Square for a perfect viewpoint to people-watch and gawp at the neon.
6. Dinner at Planet Hollywood
We were in a very crowded Times Square at 9pm, and we were hungry. We had come upon a $10 voucher for Planet Hollywood, so in we went. We didn’t have great expectations, and perhaps that played in the restaurant’s favour, but the service was great and our meal remains one of my favourites on our trips! I had a beautiful salad with a perfect balance of flavour, and I’ve recreated it several times at home. It was kind of fun, too, surrounded by all the memorabilia – sometimes it’s the unexpected things that prove to be the best!
TIP: If you leave eating until a little later, you won’t have to wait for a table and it will save you valuable time.
Day Two: Full Day in New York City
7. Helicopter Ride
So this is a little unusual for a 2 night stay, granted, but it was a birthday present from me to my husband. It was a misty day, but New York still delivered in the haze, and hovering over the Statue of Liberty was wonderful – a truly unique viewpoint.
TIP: If you only have 2 days, don’t take the helicopter unless it is a specific dream that you’ve always wanted to fulfil. It will take up a whole morning, and is really expensive. If you decide to do it, book ahead online to avoid disappointment and arrive in plenty of time. The experience will take up almost half a day for a 45 minute flight, so you need to factor that in to your planning.
8. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
We headed towards Battery Park to catch the boat to the Statue of Liberty. What trip to NYC would be complete without a trip to the Statue of Liberty? Once again a must-see on a first trip to the city, an iconic symbol of America standing tall and proud, guarding the gateway to the USA from Europe. We went up to the crown; 354 steps to the top, and whilst you can get a lift up to the pedestal level there’s no lift up to the crown. It’s a very narrow, steep spiral staircase leading up through the body of the statue and I was exhausted at the top, where you can peer out of small windows whilst experiencing the muscle burn of lactic acid, biding your time before your descent.
TIP: Buy your tickets online in advance. This way you can skip the queues and save a lot of time. Crown tickets cost more, and involve significant physical exertion for what I would argue is minimal gain (and a whole world of pain if you’re as unfit as I am). If time is of the essence, I wouldn’t bother – pedestal tickets are just as good and there is a lift! The whole experience, including Ellis Island, can take around 3-4 hours, so plan accordingly.
9. A quiet night in
We were shattered after Lady Liberty, and headed back to the hotel to plan our evening. In the end, the rain closed in and it absolutely threw it down – we really wanted to go and see Brooklyn Bridge, and initially it felt like a ‘waste of time’ to stay in, but we sat at the window of our hotel overlooking the Empire State and Crysler Buildings, and watched the world go by from the 32nd floor as the sound of the rain hammered against the slanted glass. It was fabulous.
TIP: Go with the flow. Even if you don’t have loads of time, sometimes saying no to one thing means you can experience something else. You’re never going to see everything in 2 days, so do what is right for you – every experience will leave you with valuable memories that can never be replaced.
Day Three: 11am – 2pm
9. Ground Zero
We still hadn’t seen the 9/11 Memorial so we took the Metro to Wall Street and walked around the corner to Ground Zero. We found the memorial to be really well thought out and rather beautiful, and it’s a very peaceful and reflective place. We crammed this visit in, but I am so pleased that we did. These days, you can go up the One World Trade Centre, but back then it was still being built. Make time to see this memorial if you can. It’s worth it in my opinion.
TIP: There are museums and exhibits that can take time and cost money, but a visit to the Memorial itself is free and is a way to save on time if you don’t mind missing a deep look into the events of 9/11.
So 2 nights in New York. Not ideal, but I hope I’ve shown that it’s possible to do a lot in New York even when time is tight and given you some tips to make even more use of your time than we did!
Going to New York City? Check out this guide from Lonely Planet: