Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, in celebration of my newly released NYC guide, I’m sharing an excerpt from said book.
A big thanks to interviewee Dani Heinrich—a travel blogger, photographer, and street art enthusiast—for sharing her favorite New York corners.
First, tell us about you.
Hey, I’m Dani! I’m originally from Germany, but now live in New York about six months of the year and spend the rest of the year traveling. I am a travel blogger and freelance writer/ photographer.
Urban exploration is what I do with most of my free time. I’m always hunting for new street art, exploring neighborhoods that are new to me, going on photo walks, and visiting New York’s many flea and food markets on the weekends. I am ever looking for new cool spots—be they trendy neighborhoods, hip bars and coffee shops, or new restaurants.
If someone is visiting NYC for the first time, what should they do and see?
Let’s start with what I’d skip: the lines for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are always long. Instead, take the free Staten Island Ferry, which passes the statue and has a terrific view of the Lower Manhattan skyline—for free.
I’d also skip the hop-on hop-off buses. Instead walk along Broadway or 5th Avenue and across the Brooklyn Bridge. You only get a true feel for what a vibrant city New York is when you walk the streets. Also take time to wander different neighborhoods—West Village, Harlem, Chinatown—to get a sense of New York’s incredible diversity. And, of course, leave Manhattan! Brooklyn has some of New York’s most beautiful neighborhoods—Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and Park Slope, for example—and Queens is incredibly ethnically diverse.
Do plan time for a stroll through Central Park, which is much bigger than most people expect and filled with gorgeous spots like Belvedere Castle, the Swedish Cottage, Bethesda Fountain, and the Rose Garden.
Finally, most of New York’s iconic sights, like Times Square, the Empire State Building, or the MoMA, are nice, but the lines are usually long and visiting them doesn’t really reveal anything about what makes New York tick.
For more experienced travelers, what are some of your favorite hidden gems?
Visit Prospect Park (which was designed by the same architect/landscapist as Central Park). Take a stroll around Williamsburg or Dumbo in Brooklyn and visit the East River State Park Beach or Pebble Beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park for views of Manhattan.
As for food markets, check out the Smorgasburg (smorgasburg.com). It features over 100 food vendors, and you can sample some of New York’s famous foods (including ramen burgers, Red Hook lobster rolls, artisan doughnuts from Bed-Stuy’s Dough, or New Orleans-style iced coffee from specialty roaster Blue Bottle).
If you’re a fan of street art, head to Bushwick’s Troutman Street. If you’re a lover of architecture, wander the streets of the historic Prospect-Lefferts Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn.
What neighborhoods do you recommend staying in?
It depends what you’re looking for. The Upper West Side is a beautiful residential area, but the Lower East Side is where a lot of the locals head for bars and nightlife.
Crown Heights in Brooklyn is an up-and-coming neighborhood with lots of good food and coffee shops. Park Slope, also in Brooklyn, is a quieter neighborhood with excellent food choices and gorgeous brownstones. [Editor’s note: This is my favorite place I lived in New York.]
Astoria, Queens, has beautiful parks, Manhattan views, plenty of eateries, and an off-the-beaten-path sculpture park (Socrates Sculpture Park). It’s popular with younger New Yorkers and hardly ever sees any tourists.
You can also have an authentic New York experience in Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, or the East Village. You don’t have to venture all that far.
Let’s talk about day trips. What nearby places should people make sure to see?
In the summer, the Hamptons (on the east end of Long Island) make for a nice day trip, as does taking the Sea Streak Ferry to Jersey’s Sandy Hook Beach.
If you are willing to rent a car, head north into the Catskills Mountains and stop in some of the quaint little towns along the way. Some of my favorites are Rhinebeck, Woodstock, or Catskill. Even Bear Mountain, only 50 miles from New York, makes for a great day trip. You can take a nice hike up the mountain for splendid views over the Hudson Valley.
You could even head down to Philadelphia for the day; it’s only about 100 miles from New York City.
What nearby walking paths or natural areas do you recommend?
I love Riverside Park along the Hudson River. In the spring, there’s a portion called Cherry Walk, which is full of blossoming cherry trees. You can walk Riverside Park along the Hudson all the way from 125th Street down to Battery Park, the southern tip of Manhattan. That is one of my favorite spots to watch the sunset (though I also love Brooklyn Bridge Park).
Fort Tryon Park in the Washington Heights neighborhood is beautiful. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is free to visit on Tuesdays and Saturdays before noon and is well worth it. And, of course, I love Prospect Park and Central Park, both of which I’ve mentioned before, and High Line Park, even though it is quite touristy and can get very crowded in the summer months.
For a more off-the-beaten path experience, head to Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City for fabulous views over Manhattan and plenty of empty sun loungers to relax on or to Roosevelt Island’s Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park.
Tell us about the food. What local dishes should people make sure to try?
Definitely try some New York bagels and pizza! There are some great places to grab a slice in the West Village…in particular Bleecker Street Pizza (at 69 7th Avenue S.) and Joe’s Pizza (at 7 Carmine Street).
As for bagels, Murray’s Bagels (at 500 Avenue of the Americas) and Brooklyn Bagel (with multiple locations at bkbagel.com) are great bagel shops. But every neighborhood has its own local bagel place, most of which are very good.
What are your favorite restaurants and bars?
Skip the iconic, touristy must-try pizza spot Grimaldi’s and head instead to Roberta’s (at 261 Moore Street in Bushwick) or Artichoke Basille (at 328 E. 14th Street in East Village).
For a speakeasy bar experience, check out Bathtub Gin (at 132 9th Avenue). For excellent soul food, try Red Rooster (310 Malcolm X Boulevard) or Sylvia’s (328 Malcolm X Boulevard).
For a pricy and exquisite Michelin-starred meal, Momofuku Ko (8 Extra Place; phone: 212.203.8095) is a great choice. Or, for a more affordable Michelin-starred meal, try The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th Street; no reservations).
Finally, do check out New York’s famous Shake Shack burger joints.
Any tips for saving money?
Most of the museums have a free admission day or free admission hours, so definitely look those up before you come. The Staten Island Ferry has amazing free views and so does the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway, which is included in your MTA card.
By the way, the MTA doesn’t offer day tickets, but at $2.75 per subway ride, a weekly card for $31 pays for itself if you take 12 rides during your stay.
What’s the best way to meet locals and make friends?
Websites like eatwith.com make it easy to meet locals and have a unique dining experience. The Big Apple Greeters (bigapplegreeter.org) are also a good way to help get yourself settled in; they’re a wealth of information. And then there are dozens of meetup.com groups for pretty much for any interest.
Where are the best places to take an iconic NYC photo?
I love the view of the Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (as well as all the other skyline views I’ve previously mentioned).
As far as views from above go, the Empire State Building is the classic observation deck, but I prefer the Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center), because you’ll actually have the Empire State Building in your photos, as well as Central Park, which you don’t see much of from the top of the Empire State Building. There are also some great viewpoints in Central Park—like Sheep Meadow or Umpire Rock—from which you get a good view of the Midtown skyscrapers.
Psst…Don’t forget that I’m giving away a bunch of New York prizes and the book is on sale this week!
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Get 10 more interviews from urban planners, photographers, and locals all over New York City in my latest guidebook.