Mike Kueber's Blog

August 26, 2010

My Top-12 things to do when visiting New York City on a budget

Growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I was as far from seeing anything dramatic as one could be.  Although we had miles and miles of wheat on the plains, we had nothing I thought worth writing about.  When I read about New York City (especially Manhattan), I had a hard time imagining what it was like because it was all so foreign to anything I had seen.  

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Manhattan on business, and I loved it instantly.  Since then, I have returned for short sightseeing tours probably seven or eight times.  Most times I do much of the same stuff because my goal is not to learn more about the City, but rather to absorb the ambiance.  Nevertheless, I invariably learn about new things to do.  The following is my Top-12 compilation of things that provide a NYC ambiance without breaking the piggy bank (less than $100 total, not including $27 for a 7-day, unlimited-use subway Metro pass):     

  1. Biking from Central Park to Riverside Park.  Most people don’t realize how big Central Park is, but a rental bike makes that size manageable.  At 840 acres, Central Park is almost exactly the size of the Kueber family farm back in North Dakota.  The park is a half-mile wide – from 5th Avenue to 8th Avenue – and two and a half miles long – from 59th Street to 110th Street.  (Some elementary math reveals that there are 20 streets in a Manhattan mile and six avenues.)  Bikes can be rented from an assortment of bike vendors at the south end of Central Park, and paved bike trails will take you completely around the park.  At about 106th Street, there is a sign directing you to a street route about a half-mile long that will take you to Riverside Park alongside the Hudson River.  This park also has miles of paved bike routes that are easy to navigate.  A two-hour bike rental enables you to see much of both parks while riding at a moderate to slow pace.  The rental vendors typically ask for $20 for two hours, but the price is negotiable, depending on the supply & demand at the time you need the bike.  I rented two bikes for two hours for $25 because it was cool and cloudy and business was slow.     
  2. Brooklyn Bridge and Promenade.  The Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in 1883 by German immigrant John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling and at the time was the world’s longest suspension bridge, with a span of nearly 1600 feet, and the Western Hemisphere’s tallest structure.  I highly recommend a 1978 book on the building of the bridge (and late-19th century NYC history) called “The Great Bridge,” by David McCullough.  The Brooklyn Bridge has a large walkway/bikeway that travels above the cars.  I recommend entering in lower Manhattan at Chambers/Centers Street and then walking approximately one mile across to Brooklyn.  Upon arriving in Brooklyn, you can go south to the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and its famous Brooklyn Heights Promenade.  (Technically, the Promenade [for walking only] is an esplanade [for walking and cars] because it is cantilevered above an expressway.)  The Brooklyn Promenade is famous because it provides an outstanding, unobstructed view of lower Manhattan and is used in countless TV shows and movies because of this backdrop. 
  3. Staten Island Ferry.  The Staten Island Ferry runs from Battery Park in southern Manhattan to northern Staten Island.  The 5-mile, 25-minute free ride goes right in front of the Statue of Liberty.  There isn’t much to see in Staten Island, so most tourists simply turn around and take the next boat back to Manhattan.  Staten Island has a reputation as a working-class bedroom community for Manhattan, and you might recall that the ferry played as a backdrop to one of my all-time favorite movies – Working Girl. 
  4. Yankee game.  Yankee Stadium is located at 161st Street in the southern part of the Bronx, just north of the Harlem River, which separates Manhattan and the Bronx.  Yankee tickets are probably the most expensive in baseball, and the tickets often sell out for decent games, but bargains can be had.  The right field bleacher seats sell for $5, and I was recently able to buy some scalped bleacher tickets for an afternoon game against Detroit for only $10 each.  Old Yankee Stadium was right across the street from the new stadium and is currently an empty lot.
  5. Coney Island boardwalk and the Cyclone roller coaster.  The well-maintained boardwalk on Coney Island in south Brooklyn runs along the Atlantic beach for over two miles (bring your swimsuit) and is served by a variety of food vendors, including the World Famous Nathan’s, which is the site of the annual hotdog eating contest.  The adjoining carnival includes Wonder Wheel, a 150-foot Ferris wheel, and the Cyclone, the oldest wooden roller coaster in America.  A ride on the Cyclone costs only $5 and in my opinion this coaster is rougher than any at Fiesta Texas or Sea World.
  6. Empire State Building.  This iconic 102-story building is located at 5th Avenue and 34th Street.  Since the demise of the Twin Towers, it is the tallest building in New York and dominates the Manhattan skyline.  During my recent visit to the City, there was a large controversy because a developer proposed a new building on 7th Avenue and 34th Street that would be only a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building.  Although the new building might diminish the Empire State Building, its construction has been approved.  The attraction with the Empire State Building is its location in mid-town and its 86th-floor observation deck, which played a major role in the movie Sleepless in Seattle.  I love viewing the City from this deck because it enables you to put everything in context – from lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers to Central Park and from the Hudson River to the East River.  The $20 cost is money well spent.     
  7. Circle Line Cruise.  This cruise can be boarded at Pier 83 at West 42nd Street, which is due west from Times Square.  The cruise ship will take you completely around Manhattan – south on the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey, then north on the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens, then northwest on the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx, and finally south again on the Hudson River.   I love this 3-hour cruise because, like the view from the top of the Empire State Building, it gives you context to the City.  You can see what downtown, mid-town, and up-town look like from a distance.  With the benefit of a tour guide, you can see how different parts of the city have developed differently.  The cruise is not inexpensive at $35, but I think it is worth that price.   
  8. The Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th.  Food in NYC has a reputation for being expensive, but bargains are available.  The best bargain that I have found is the Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th.  (Halal is to Muslims what kosher is to Jews.)  This food cart doesn’t open until 7pm and closes at 4am.  It sells two types of meat – chicken or gyro (lamb) – in two formats – sandwich wrap ($4) or platter ($6).  The portions are huge and the food is tasty, and because its reputation with the locals in unsurpassed, there is usually a 30-minute line.  See a lengthy descriptive article on Wikipedia.  I’ve been known to visit the Halal Cart for a gyro sandwich three nights in a row.   
  9. The Hi Line park.  This new park was created from an abandoned elevated train track that runs parallel to 10th Avenue, northward from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street.  Eventually the park will extend to 34th Street.    The park provides an excellent view of visually appealing Chelsea and the Meatpacking District and is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets below.
  10. Museum Mile.  NYC has several outstanding museums near Central Park, such as the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Although the museums typically charge up to $20 for admission, they routinely offer free admission for 2-4 hours in the late afternoon on specific days, usually Friday or Saturday.  You can learn the days and times by checking on-line.
  11. Chinatown.  If you like flea markets, you will love Canal Street in Chinatown.  This is the home of knock-offs, such as Rolex watches, Oakley sunglasses, bootleg movies and music, and name-brand perfumes and handbags.
  12. Times Square.  Times Square is created by the extended intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, from 42nd to 47th Street.  The area used to be seedy, but it is now cleaned up.  It seems that every tourist in NYC goes to Times Square to buy touristy trinkets and outlet-mall type merchandise.  The place is also the most famous location to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  While visiting Times Square, you should consider a side trip to Grand Central Terminal, which can be found at 42nd Street and Park Avenue.  Grand Central is the largest train station in the world, and because of the large number of people who go through it every day (750,000), there is a common expression, “this place is as busy as Grand Central.”

I haven’t included any Broadway productions because they don’t interest me and are expensive.  Most Broadway tickets will cost over $100, and even buying them at 50% off at TKTS in Times Square will still usually require over $50. 

NYC comprises five boroughs – Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.  I apologize to Queens for failing to list anything in their borough worth seeing.  Now they know how we North Dakotans feel.

p.s., a dominant portion of your budget will be consumed by lodging unless you are careful.  But a single, adventuresome traveler can find a bed at a tourist hostel for about $30, and a Spartan hotel room with two beds can be had for less than $100 at the Morningside Inn on 107th Street and 7th Avenue, which is just a few blocks away from Columbia University, Central Park, and Riverside Park.

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