From playing with virtual sea lions at the National Geographic Encounter to braving a two-hour cultural walking tour of the ‘burbs… and then hopping on a ferry to explore Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty… New York City really has something to captivate any age group and demographic.
Here’s our list of top attractions in New York City and how to get there when you’re on a budget…
But First… Plan ahead and choose accommodation wisely!
As we were travelling without our kids, we decided up front that we wanted to experience as much as we possibly could in the city. This meant a packed itinerary and also that our accommodation needed to be as simple and affordable as possible…
We were definitely not looking for a 5-star rated hotel and we didn’t mind staying further out of town to save a few bucks!
I shared some of my favourite photographs from our trip here.
We decided on an Airbnb in Brooklyn – about a 40-minute commute from Manhattan. The savings were phenomenal as we found that the further afield you stay, the cheaper the accommodation! Staying in Brooklyn also had its perks as we got to explore this local neighbourhood at leisure, away from the masses who were crowding Manhattan every day.
Saving on sights!
With the mission of our trip clearly outlined, we went online to find the best deals for sightseeing and we were pleasantly surprised by the number of options and packages on offer. We decided on the Sightseeing Pass, which at around $200 per person for a week, gave us access to over 90 of New York’s greatest attractions. What set this one apart from the many other tourist packages available online was the fact that it also gave us access to the Gray Line CitySightseeing Double Decker Bus Tour for the duration of our stay! This was a bonus as we could then use these tour buses as our transport between attractions!
Other budget travel tips for NYC:
- Use the Subway. We bought a week pass and used the Subway to get everywhere – even from the airport to our Airbnb in Brooklyn. Unlike the train lines in South Africa, the Subway actually works – with airconditioning and a constant flow of trains in almost every direction.
- Eat in the suburbs. Food is costly and takeout can quickly add up if you’re on the road every day. If you’re looking for good, affordable food, stay away from Uptown where you’ll probably pay tourist rates. Go where the locals go in Downtown and the neighbouring communities.
- Drink tap water. Yes, we were skeptical too but after we saw a tour guide fill his bottle at a drinking fountain in Central Park, we were sold. Bottled water can become seriously expensive, especially during the summer months in NYC. Luckily, the tap water is perfectly fine for consumption!
- Go to a free concert or a movie in the park. In the summer months, NYC is abuzz with free outdoor entertainment. Ask around, use Google and enjoy a great day out for FREE.
So, what did we eventually cover? Here’s a list of our favourites (all included in the sightseeing pass) and a rating for each attraction.
This is a fantastic way to see the city and included various routes such as tours of both Uptown and Downtown, as well as Brooklyn and a Night Tour. The latter being the highlight of our bus tour experience for the week as we got to experience a pristine NYC sunset followed by a crazy thunderstorm. You also get to hop on and hop off at your leisure and the onboard entertainment is on point! Rating: 9/10 – time and money well spent!
Home of the Rockettes and also the sounding board of some the nation’s top performers and musos. Radio City Music Hall is truly impressive – from every detail embedded in its luxe interior to the precision of sound and craftsmanship that it takes to put together a live performance in this state of the art venue!
Of course, we were the only people from Africa on our tour and maybe it was the luck of the Africans, but we also had the very rare opportunity to access the stage which is almost always out of bounds as they prepare for ongoing live shows. Add to that the fact that we got to meet a Rockette, and the tour itself was magical! Rating: 8/10 – breathtaking venue filled with so much soul and history!
With views that span the entire city, a visit up 70 floors to the Top of The Rock is well worth it! With three decks and 360-degree views, you are sure to find a whole new perspective on NYC! Tip: Visit at sunset so that you can see the transition between day and night in the city. Rating: 8/10 – magnificent views but the only downside is the long booking queues!
Where were you on that fateful day when the Twin Towers came crashing down and the entire world stood at a stand-still? The 9 / 11 Museum shares some of the personal stories of survival, loss, and healing from those who were there, and the tremendous spirit of resilience and service that arose after the attacks.
It really is an interactive and awe-inspiring space with massive displays including damaged service vehicles and crushed skyscraper pillars.
Audio and visual exhibits also take us into the events that went down on that day and there is even a section dedicated to explaining how and when the terrorists entered the country and plotted the attacks. Rating 7/10 – A sobering experience!
5. National Geographic Encounter – Ocean Odyssey
I wish we had the kids around for this one! The entire experience centres around an ocean journey as you travel the depths of the sea via immersive technology and get to experience the inner workings of the ocean and its magnificent creatures.
We got to play with sea lions and walk through a kelp forest. Rating 6 / 10 – Only because we were the only kid-less couple on the tour and had to subdue our childlike wonder just a little!
6. Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
This is a must for anyone coming into New York City for the first time. At the Statue of Liberty, we decided on an audio walking tour of the island which covers the amazing history of the statue as well as its global impact today.
Although we were unsure of what to expect during the Ellis Island stop, this became a highlight! The museum takes you to an era long gone when immigrants first arrived at the island in hopes of establishing a new life in America. Again, we followed the audio tour that took us through the various exhibitions and the grand hall which has been restored to its former glory. Rating: 8/10 – A great day outing that may require up to 4 hours of your time to visit both islands.
7. Grand Central Station – An Audio Tour
Nothing can quite prepare you for the grandeur and constant ebb and flow of people moving through this terminal which has become an iconic landmark in the city. Besides being a transport hub it is also a dining, shopping and cultural destination.
Again, we decided on the audio tour which takes you to all the different sections that comprise the terminal, including over 60 shops, an eating hall, a fabulous indoor food market and so much more. Rating: 7/10.
From the interesting and extraordinary to the downright bizarre, Ripleys is packed with family-friendly displays and interactive exhibitions. Centrally located (right in Times Square), Ripleys lures you in with its fascinating displays out front – such as Godzilla made from recycled tires… Rating 6 / 10.
9. A Walking Tour of Central Park
The Central Park Walking Tour offers an amazing overview of the southern portion of Central Park. Highlights on this tour include Bethesda Terrace, The Mall, Conservatory Waters, Alice in Wonderland, Bow Bridge, ending at Strawberry Fields.
Our tour guide, Lyall Croft from Manhattan and Beyond Tours was super insightful and clearly shares a real love and understanding of the park. We were a small group of five and we thoroughly enjoyed the intimate setting with lots of opportunity for photographs. Rating: 9/10 – superb way to explore the beauty of Central Park!
10. A Walking Tour of Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown
So guys, I kept this one for last because this was possibly my favourite attraction of our entire stay in NYC. For two hours we walked through the diverse streets of these three very different neighbourhoods. Our tour guide, also a drama student, definitely brought lots of entertainment and laughs to the tour.
We heard stories of the infamous Mafia and tasted Italian-style Cannolis at a local deli. We walked the cobblestone streets of SOHO and even witnessed a film crew setting up for a movie!
Each suburb offers its own unique ambience and contribution to the city, and we loved being exposed to the interesting cultural mix that adds to the magnificence of NYC. Rating 9/10 – it’s one of those tours I would gladly do again and still be captivated.