You’re coming to New York for the weekend, and you want to experience the city like a local, not a tourist. Fortunately, it isn’t hard to do. New Yorkers love their glorious city—and they make good use of it. When they aren’t working or commuting (or doing their laundry), locals pack like sardines into trendy bars, window-shop in Soho, and attend the city’s multitude of concerts and gallery openings with unflagging enthusiasm. As a visitor, you’ll likely do the same, soaking up as much of the city as possible while quickly becoming part of the mosaic of people and culture that comprise this vibrant metropolis.
With that said, there are a few details that particularly distinguish a New Yorker’s lifestyle from what you find in other cities around the globe. If you want to experience NYC like someone who actually lives there, here are some basic guidelines to follow:
Have a Hyperactive (and Possibly Delusional) To-Do List
You aren’t a New Yorker if you aren’t rushing from one place to the next. In the spirit of the city, be ridiculously ambitious with your weekend plans. (Read on for plenty of NYC recommendations, guaranteed to totally overbook your schedule.)
Sacrifice Space to Save on “Rent”
Unless you’re looking to emulate famous New Yorker Donald Trump, you’ll feel most akin to fellow city dwellers if you’re shacking up in a highly reduced living space. (Manhattanites are lucky if there’s a wall between their bedroom and the kitchen.) Most hotel rooms in New York are far smaller than what you’d find in the average American city, but you can take it to the extreme by checking in at one of the city’s cool “capsule” hotels, like The Pod Hotel or The Jane. Another option is to literally stay in a real New York apartment by booking a place via Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) or Airbnb.
Walk, Walk, Walk…
In New York City, the best way to get from Point A to Point B is often on foot. Most locals trek miles each day because, for short distances, it’s more efficient to walk than to take the subway. Walking is also the best way to explore beautiful residential neighborhoods like Gramercy and the West Village, where you’ll wander past Federal-style townhouses, urban parks, and cute bookshops. Enjoy blending in amid the parade of office workers, fashionistas, dog walkers, and hipsters strolling along the sidewalk.
…and Walk Fast
Don’t stop to check maps or send a text message in the middle of a stream of sidewalk traffic. Nothing irritates a New Yorker like having to break stride, and tourists are notorious for causing sidewalk jams.
Take the Subway, Too
Taking the train is a New York experience all its own. If you’re going more than ten (or twenty) blocks, the subway is the most economical and efficient option—especially during rush hour, when auto traffic clogs the streets.
Have a Slice
New York is famous for its varied ethnic cuisine and luxurious fine dining. But on a daily basis, locals fill up on the city’s iconic quick bites: pizza slices, bagels with cream cheese, hot dogs, and deli sandwiches. (Skip the giant pretzels, though.)
For an authentic taste of New York, start your day with a bagel, cream cheese, and hand-sliced lox at Russ & Daughters, a Lower East Side institution. Other than a few sidewalk benches, there isn’t any seating at this nearly 100-year-old shop, so do like Holly Golightly and eat your breakfast while window-shopping.
Check Out Places Off the Beaten Path…
There are hundreds of galleries, museums, and event spaces in New York City, but many of the most memorable experiences take place at smaller venues—like Off-Off-Broadway theaters, artist-owned galleries, and quirky bookstores and coffee shops.
When you get to town, see what’s playing at alternative performance spaces like St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery or the Nuyorican Poets Café. Smaller and lesser-known museums, like The Studio Museum in Harlem, often have wonderful temporary exhibits and pleasantly uncrowded showrooms. If you don’t know where to start, pick up a copy of Time Out New York or New York Magazine to see what exhibitions and performances the editors are recommending.
…but Don’t Eschew the Tourist Attractions
While it’s true that most NYC residents avoid busy tourist epicenters like Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, that doesn’t mean they don’t take advantage of New York’s other world-famous sights. Many locals are enthusiastic patrons of the city’s magnificent cultural institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
If you’re going to the Met, however, do like a local and focus your visit on one or two exhibits, rather than trying to take in the whole place. Check out the museum’s temporary shows, like the current “Civil War and American Art” exhibit (through September 2), or visit the recently remodeled Islamic art galleries, which have received glowing reviews from art critics across the city.
Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman might be the city’s most famous shopping meccas, but many New Yorkers prefer the ultra-cool indie boutiques of Soho, Nolita, and the Lower East Side. For designer clothes from cutting-edge labels, stop into Opening Ceremony, a boutique and gallery space that epitomizes “downtown” cool.
Downtown is also the best place to pick up books, knickknacks, art supplies, music, and other rare treasures. Have a coffee while browsing the selection of used books and vinyl at the nonprofit Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho, a favorite of the literary set. In the Village, check out Other Music, a famous record shop, or the beloved St. Mark’s Bookshop near Astor Place.
New York’s frenetic energy often requires a little extra boost, and New Yorkers love/need coffee. For many, Dunkin’ Donuts is the ultimate brew. For others, it’s a gourmet espresso at a French café, like Épicerie Boulud. No matter where you choose to sip, for a true New Yorker, it’s all about iced coffee in the summertime.
In NYC, top-notch coffee bars have a way of popping up in unlikely places. If you catch an independent film or documentary at Angelika Film Center, you can do your mandatory caffeine intake at the in-house espresso bar. At the New Museum on the Bowery, grab a cup at Birdbath, the contemporary art museum’s awesome lobby-level café, operated by the folks at City Bakery.
Use the Parks and Open Spaces
New York City’s beautiful parks are more than a leafy-green adornment to the urban jungle. They are beloved and functional outdoor spaces, providing city residents with a place to exercise, relax, and breathe some fresh air.
If it’s a nice day, head to Central Park, which is constantly crowded with joggers, picnickers, and dog walkers during the spring and summer. Walk along the Mall and snap photos at picturesque Bethesda Terrace. For fresh lemonade and some great people watching, visit the Greenmarket in Union Square, a thrice-weekly farmers’ market with a delightful atmosphere and fervent local following.
Wait for a Table (If You Didn’t Book Ahead)
Eating well is a quintessential NYC experience. New Yorkers take dining seriously, and popular restaurants can book up months in advance. Fortunately, some big-name eateries, like Babbo or Minetta Tavern, will accommodate a small number of walk-ins each night. Other popular places don’t take reservations at all. For example, Gramercy Tavern’s no-reservations “tavern room,” which adjoins the famous restaurant, is a wonderful place to have a memorable meal at one of the city’s signature institutions. If you didn’t make a rez, it’s worth the wait for a special dinner.
Have a Cocktail
Craft drinks are a veritable civic obsession in New York. Spend a few hours sipping drinks at one of the gazillion hip cocktail bars, or dine at a restaurant known for its impressive mixed drinks program. You’ll have the opportunity to sample such unusual flavors as the famous bacon-infused Old Fashioned at PDT, a sleek reservations-only speakeasy in the East Village. In Soho, sample creative cocktails in a super-cool setting at East Asian–inspired Pegu Club. Everything at this gorgeous bar is made with fresh, homemade ingredients, including the unique Earl Grey martini.
You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead
Rest up before you arrive, because New York is an all-hours city. If you’re feeling ready for bed, then the night is young. For a taste of New York’s (literally) underground jazz scene, head to Smalls, a basement club that often features young and emerging talent. It’s half price to see the after-hours jazz sets, which start at 12:30am and run until four in the morning.
Feeling hungry? You’ll be happy to hear there’s a cheap burger joint just a few blocks from Smalls, and it’s open until 4am as well. Join the masses of locals headed for a late-night refuel at Corner Bistro, where an eight-ounce hamburger topped with American cheese and bacon will set you back nine bucks.
Recover at Brunch
Boozy and overindulgent weekend brunches are the best way to recuperate from an evening out on the town. Downtown, try Prune, a beloved East Village restaurant famous for its excellent brunch menu (and owned by famed writer-chef Gabrielle Hamilton). Here, you can accompany your huevos rancheros or steak and eggs with one of the restaurant’s ten signature Bloody Marys.
Uptown, go to Ouest, a posh New American restaurant that offers one of the best brunches in the city, a two-course prix fixe that includes a basket of housemade bread and muffins, as well as tea or coffee.
Remember… It’s How-ston
Since you’re trying to act the part, remember that the famous avenue dividing Soho from the Village may be spelled just like Houston, Texas, but it’s pronounced How-ston in New York City.