Many times when I travel, I just want to hit the open road. I want to spend time wandering around and finding those hidden gems that only serendipity and a functioning credit card can help you discover. But if you only have 24 hours in New York, you’re going to want a little help exploring the city.
That’s why I liked the Total NYC tour from Urban Adventures. My entire 24 hours in New York was set from 10 in the morning from 9 in the evening. And I got to experience most of the neighborhoods in Manhattan that a first time visitor would want to hit up.
We morninged in the Lower East Side-Chinatown-Little Italy nexus. Then we afternooned in Midtown, managing to avoid the tourist traps. Finally we whiled the night away sipping on cocktails in the East Village.
Even a native New Yorker like me learned quite a few tricks and treats about the city. But if you’re a first-time visitor, trust me that this 24 hours in New York is an ideal itinerary.
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Manhattan. And there’s a million other things to do in New York City.
Want to spend 24 hours in Brooklyn? With the Brooklyn Bridge? In New York City for Christmas? How about the Bronx? Like to visit the Met Museum? Or the best museums in Manhattan? In (gasp!) Staten Island? I’ve got you covered here!
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24 Hours in New York
Where to Stay?
I always laugh hysterically when people ask me this question. I have lived in the same apartment in New York City my entire life. That means I have never stayed in a New York City hotel. If I had unlimited funds, I’d spend my 24 hours in Manhattan at the Hotel Carlyle for the glamour and the bar with the Madeline drawings on them. Or I’d stay at the Plaza, so I could pretend that I was Eloise from the adorable children’s books. I’m basically a Very Fancy Eight Year Old Girl who refused to grow up.
If you’d like to explore great deals on over 1400 other hotels in New York City, click here.
24 Hours in New York
Morning: Tenements, Tales and Tastes Tour
One of the most unique things about Manhattan is its many diverse neighborhoods. It’s a cliché to say that New York City is a city of immigrants, but like many clichés, you shouldn’t count them before they are hatched. So we can’t spend 24 hours in Manhattan without sampling some of its diverse cuisine.
On the Tenements, Tales, and Tastes tour, which is the morning portion of the Total New York tour, you can visit immigrant communities that are still thriving, like Chinatown. But you can also find defunct immigrant neighborhoods, like Klein Deutschland. Of course, each neighborhood comes with its own delicious taste! Observe with…
Approximately Top 5: Downtown Manhattan Foods
Everybody knows that Manhattan is part of New York City. (New York City consists of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. A borough is basically just what we call a county in New York City.)
However, did you know that New York was once called New Amsterdam? Of course, that is because the Dutch were the first Europeans to colonize the area. They established a thriving trading port in Lower Manhattan that soon caught the eye of the British Empire. And if there’s one thing history has taught me, never catch the eye of the British Empire.
Of course, there are no more Dutch restaurants in this part of Manhattan. (Not actually sure that there were ever Dutch restaurants in this part of Manhattan. I think the original Dutch settlers just snacked on beavers and drank bad gin.) But your friendly tour guide will start your 24 hours in Manhattan by giving you a stroopwafel, which is a traditional Dutch cookie made by sticking two cookies together with some squishy syrup. You also need to wear wooden shoes while you eat the cookie.
2) Chung Chung
As I hinted earlier, the next wave of immigrants to hit New York came from England. With this wave came a name change: from New Amsterdam to New York. (PS. The most fun thing you can do as a New Yorker is visit York, England. Just roam around and tell people you come from NEW York. Then let the laughs roll in.)
Apparently many of this British immigrants were not tea-drinking toffs named His Most High Excellency, Lord St. John St. Wiggins. Some were crafty criminals who formed gangs like The Bowery Boys. They made the surrounding neighborhood, known as Five Points, one of the most dangerous in the city. As will surprise no one familiar with British history, they often tended to feud with Irish gangs like The Dead Rabbits. I feel like The Dead Rabbits sounds more like an Irish band than an Irish gang, but maybe this is why I”m not a 19th century gang leader.
Of course, the English and Irish gangs have long been gone from this neighborhood, and now the area is more famous for the courthouse, which has frequently been featured on Law and Order. (CHUNG! CHUNG!)
3) Fried Dumpling
One of the next waves of immigrants to New York came from China. Unlike the Dutch and English, the Chinese came from the West. Many had come to California hoping to strike it rich during the Gold Rush. If that didn’t succeed (and it didn’t for most people), they got jobs erecting the Trans-Continental Railroad and worked their way east.
Unfortunately, many of the more recent immigrants to the country didn’t welcome the Chinese. In fact, there was a quota set strangling the number of Chinese immigrants who could enter the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 wasn’t lifted until after World War II, to thank the Chinese for being America’s ally against Japan.
As a New Yorker, it’s strange for me to think of a time when the Chinese weren’t welcome in the city. To me, Chinese-American food is the food of my childhood. I think of cold noodles with sesame sauce the way some people think of Mom’s meatloaf. But during our 24 hours in Manhattan, we got the quicker option of fried dumplings from the imaginatively named place: Fried Dumpling. That’s not a joke.
All restaurants should take this approach to naming! Tonight I dine at my favorite pizza place: Slice of Pizza.
4) Little Italy
Speaking of pizza, it’s time for Little Italy! Did you know that the first New York style pizza place was right here in New York City? (That fact sounds less impressive when you say it out loud.) Nowadays, Little Italy is but a shell of its former self. As Italian immigrants became wealthier, many of them chose to move to the suburbs or areas where they could own their own house with a backyard.
However, there are a few of the old shops that remain. One is Alleva Dairy, which is the oldest cheese shop in Little Italy. We were lucky enough to come in for a taste of house-made fresh mozzarella and prosciutto di Parma ham. The sweetness of the cheese and the salty ham are a match made in paradiso.
5) Give Us a Little Knish
Nearest and dearest to my heart is the next wave of immigrants, the Chosen People. (I’m Romanian Jewish on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, I’m a Dead Rabbit.) The Jewish people’s most famous contribution to New York cuisine is that famous combination, Loxley and Bagel. But just as delicious is the humble knish.
The last knishery in Manhattan is Yonah Shimmel’s Knishery. Yonah Schimmel was a Romanian Jewish immigrant with an inability to spell his own name, but a gift for making knishes. These are fluffy balls of mashed potatoes rolled up inside a thin layer of dough.
They are basically the apotheosis of eating carbs. You schmear a little mustard on top and there is no more New York dining experience you can have, except for folding a cheese pizza in half and eating while jaywalking and yelling at strangers.
6) A German beer garden
The final stop on this tour is at a German beer garden for warm pretzels. Apparently there used to be a German immigrant community in the Lower East Side area called Klein Deutschland. (Little Germany in German.) Unfortunately after World Wars I and II, it wasn’t so hot to be seen as German in New York City, and Germans made a stronger push to assimilate. Fortunately they left some delicious traditions like pretzels and beer behind.
24 Hour Treat: Gluhwine
If you take this tour in the Christmas season, don’t miss out on the traditional spiced (but not sweet) German tradition known as gluhwine. I think if Germans want this drink to become more popular, they should change the name. It’s a little sticky, but I would hardly compare it to gluh. And who wants to drink gluh? Spiced wine is vastly superior.
24 Hours in New York
Afternoon: Midtown Sights and Bites Tour
Midtown is hands down the most touristic neighborhood in New York City. Most New Yorkers like me wouldn’t touch the place with a ten-foot angry Elmo trying to dupe you into paying him an exorbitant fee for one photo. But the Midtown Sights and Bites tour will help you see all the major attractions in the area (Grand Central! Times Square!) without feeling like a tourist during your 24 hours in Manhattan. I won’t spoil all the tour’s secrets of Midtown, just…
Approximately Top 5: Midtown Edition
1) Grand Central Terminal
Grand Central Terminal is one of New York’s great beauties. It was almost razed to the ground, but thankfully preservationist and pillbox hat aficionado Jackie O came to its rescue. Penn Station wasn’t so lucky, and the frightful 70s monstrosity that was erected in its place is the Lord’s punishment on New York for its myriad sins.
One of the prettiest features of Grand Central is its astrological ceiling. It was designed by a real astrologist, but the painter had no real familiarity with the stars. As a result, he painted the ceiling in reverse. That’s why all the constellations are backwards. I think it symbolizes how New Yorkers tend to see the rest of the world as backwards in comparison with our ways.
Also, if you look closely, you can see a smudge of black on the ceiling. This is how dark the entire ceiling used to be thanks to the waves of cigarette smoke that used to come through the station in the 50s and 60s. I wasn’t surprised to learn this because I’ve seen every episode of Mad Men.
2) Lunch at Roberta’s Pizza
Food halls have become all the rage in New York City because rents are so damn high. (We actually had a mayoral candidate who ran solely on the platform The Rent is Too Damn High.) It’s much easier to maintain a booth in a food hall than in a brick and mortar store. The Urbanspace Food Hall is one of the best places to get lunch in the neighborhood because you can snack on Roberta’s Pizza.
Roberta’s is a disturbingly famous slice shack in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They don’t take reservations, so you have to wait on line for 10 hours to get a table. Just come to Urbanspace and you can have a pizza in a few minutes. Their pies are wood-fired, which means that the crust will come out flopsy and charred on the bottom. It’s ever so much better than gas or electric.
3) New York Public Library
There are three Midtown landmarks we will visit during our 24 hours in Manhattan, and this is the second. The New York Public Library was founded by three rich dudes in order to educate the masses. That’s a surprisingly nice thing for three rich dudes to want to do. (The most famous of the Three Rich Dudes was Mr. Astor. You probably haven’t heard of the other two.)
Since its founding, the NYPL has been a set for many movies, most famously Ghostbusters. (SHHHH!!!) It is also famous for being a library where you can’t actually check out any of the books. There’s actually a guard outside the Rose Reading Room who inspects all the bags to make sure no one is actually (horrors!) leaving the library with a book. I told you we do things differently in New York. Being able to remove a book from a library is for basic cities.
4) Times Square
All you non-New Yorkers out there need to know that Times Square is basically a Hellmouth. (It’s not THE Hellmouth, though. That’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.) The only reason I ever go to Times Square is to see a show.
But there are a few secrets in Times Square hidden underneath all the billboards. Times Square was actually named for the New York Times. The now-deceased newspaper The New York Herald had its own square, where Macy’s is now, and the Times wouldn’t accept secondhand treatment. So its headquarters got its very own eponymous square.
In what is definitely a sad commentary on our times, the Times building is now empty and covered by billboards. The landlord realized that he could make more money by renting out the sides of the building for ads than he could by renting the interior. That is a masterful get-rich quick scheme. I’d totally walk around covered in ads all day if it meant I could quit my day job!
5) A Progressive Midtown Dinner
Midtown has more chain restaurants than the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana has people. (Not actually sure that’s true, but it definitely sounds true.) But you don’t want to visit a chain restaurant for dinner! You have the good taste to frequent this blog, so I’m sure you want only the best. The Midtown Sights and Bites tour managed to put together an early little dinner without visiting even one Olive Garden or Starbucks.
We started with a cup of coffee at Coffee Culture. It was so good that I drank it black. (That’s really my standard for if a cup of coffee is good or not. Do I need milk or sugar to enjoy it?) The non-coffee drinkers could get tea or hot chocolate.
The dinner portion of our dinner was a taco from Los Tacos No. 1. This restaurant is famous for making its tortillas by hand. Also you can get a corn tortilla, which is much more authentically Mexican and delicious. The vegetarian option is the coolest because it’s made with cactus. But I hate animals, so I chose the pork. Be warned that these tacos are demonically spicy. Ask for them mild if you don’t like the kick, if that’s possible.
For dessert, we hopped on that major New York trend, the Fancy Donut. Dough serves fluffy yeast donuts in every conceivable flavor from dulce de leche to hibiscus. I chose the cafe au lait flavor because I still had another evening activity ahead of me and I didn’t want to fall asleep. (Not sure there was actually any caffeine in this donut, but it’s the thought that counts.)
24 Hours in New York
Evening: New York Craft Cocktail Tour
The final stage of my 24 hours in New York was a trendy night on the town in the East Village. The New York Craft Cocktail Tour takes you on a boozy tour of the city’s cocktail history. It takes place in New York’s coolest neighborhood, the East Village. (Don’t comment to tell me other neighborhoods are cooler now. I spent every Saturday between the ages of 16-25 in the East Village, so it’s always coolest in my heart.)
Obviously there are too many NYC cocktales to fit into one post, but I’ll try to keep you entertained with…
Three Fun Facts About New York City Cocktails
1) what was the first cocktail?
Of course now the United States is famous for its craft beer and its Napa Valley Sideways wine, but that wasn’t always the case. It used to be hard to find the crops and technology to make quality beer and wine in colonial days. That’s why many consider the original American cocktail to be punch! It’s easy to mask the taste of poor quality hooch by just dumping a lot of fruit juice on it. At least that’s what my grandmother always told me.
For our punch, we stopped for a bowl of rum punch at a Cuban bar called Cienfuegos. It’s reminiscent of the glamorous bars that existed in Cuba during Prohibition when wealthy Americans had to jet off to foreign climes to get decent alcohol. This rum punch is classy and has cucumbers in it, so you don’t have to worry that someone mixed this punch to hide the taste of bathtub rum.
2) is absinthe still illegal?
I knew that Absinthe used to be illegal, but until I took this tour with Jillian, I had no idea why. Apparently there was once a grape crop failure in France. While the wine shortage was on, you could hardly expect the French to abstain. So many French people turned to an anise flavored liquor called absinthe.
When the wine industry got back on its feet, they wanted to crush absinthe with a smear campaign. That’s why they decided to say absinthe makes you hallucinate and murder your family. The rumors are not true. I’ve had plenty of absinthe, and I’ve never once murdered anyone’s family.
The location where the absinthe is served is even cooler than the drink itself. You get to watch the absinthe prepared in a former speakeasy called The William Barnacle Tavern. (A speakeasy was an illegal bar during Prohibition.) There was actually a safe filled with gangster cash found when the tavern was being excavated. It sounded like the cash got given back to its rightful owner, one of the gangsters himself. I guess it goes to show that crime sometimes does pay.
3) What is a Craft cocktail?
The modern craft cocktail almost didn’t happen. Most people credit mixologist Dale DeGroff with popularizing the contemporary trend in using high quality ingredients in cocktails. But apparently when his boss at the Rainbow Room suggested using things like fresh juice in cocktails, DeGroff wasn’t into the idea. It was only when he was told he’d lose his job if he didn’t try it that he agreed.
You might be thinking that you’ve never heard of DeGroff, but I bet you have. He’s most famous for popularizing the Cosmo, Carrie Bradshaw’s favorite drink. So basically Sex and the City wouldn’t exist without DeGroff.
We finished our 24 hours in Manhattan at a bar called The Late Late. It definitely should have been featured on Sex and the City because there are beds on the walls. You can have your choice of two different kinds of cocktails. I suggest the whiskey cocktail because it’s more of a whiskey bar. I chose the Good Lovin made with rye, Amaro, pineapple syrup, and bitters. It tasted like a Modern Old-Fashioned, which is quite an oxymoron for a simple drink.
That’s a Perfect 24 Hours in New York!
What would you do with 24 hours in New York? Did you ever drink wine made with gluh? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in New York City right now? And if you found a safe filled with gangster cash, what would you do with it? Please leave your thoughts below.