The first time you visit New York it’s difficult to understand what’s going on. Not only is this the biggest city in the US, but it’s also one of the most diverse, with people from all over the world calling it home. This diversity will stand out as you see how different each neighborhood is from other ones…
We can’t show you all of them in one article, so to give you an introduction we will do two things:
First, we’ll give you an understanding of NYC beyond just the major tourist areas. We’ll break down the differences between the major regions of the city so you have an understanding of what all is a part of New York City.
Second, we’ll focus on a handful of distinctive neighborhoods to get you started preparing to visit.
The New York City Overview
New York City is broken down into five boroughs, which all together make up the city. A borough is basically a large section of the city. Within each borough, there are multiple neighborhoods.
The five boroughs are Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
Most first-timers focus on Manhattan primarily and a few parts of Brooklyn. It’s usually not until they return that they start to venture beyond these starting points. We’d recommend you do the same, simply to get an understanding of how the city operates. This will make it easier to explore other places in the future.
What Makes Each Borough Unique?
When you imagine NYC, Manhattan is probably what comes to mind. From Wall Street to Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem this borough has the most concentrated collection of things to see and do. Not only do many tourists come here, but many locals commute from other boroughs to work or go to school. This unique mix of people from all over the world gives it an incredible energy.
That diversity, combined with the density of people and buildings is what’s most striking about Manhattan. The diverse crowds of people all going about their lives in such a small area gives this island a unique energy. This central area influences the rest of the city.
This northernmost borough one of the city’s most diverse. It’s best known for Yankee Stadium, which is one of NYC most iconic attractions. Even if you’re not that interested in baseball, you should visit the stadium at least once. There’s also the Bronx zoo and the often overlooked Cloisters up North, which combines a branch of the Metropolitan Art Museum with a beautiful park.
The combination of all these attractions and the close proximity to Manhattan stand out about the Bronx.
Brooklyn has grown rapidly for many years as people get priced out of Manhattan, but it’s had a distinctive culture of its own well before that. While most tourists flock to Williamsburg and Dumbo, there’s a whole lot more to the borough. Prospect Park and the Botanical Gardens are both incredible places to relax and take in some natural beauty. There’s the classic Coney Island, which is a small amusement park along the beach. Then there are areas like Brighton Beach that still have a large Russian community.
Put this all together and what stands out about Brooklyn is this combination of old and new. Williamsburg and Dumbo have been turned into the center of the new Brooklyn that’s gotten so much attention, but at the same time, traditional neighborhoods with immigrants from around the world still play the largest role in what shapes this borough.
Queens is one of the most residential boroughs, but areas like Long Island City and Astoria are popular for their proximity to Manhattan and have a unique vibe. A little farther out, Queens is one of the few places in NYC where you see neighborhoods with single-family houses, rather than apartment buildings. It’s also an extremely diverse borough with people from all over the world.
This residential, yet international vibe is what’s most distinctive about Queens.
Staten Island is the least populated borough and is primarily residential. There is more land and more houses, as opposed to apartment buildings. The Staten Island Ferry is one of the most popular attractions in NYC and transports people to the Financial District of Manhattan.
The residential nature of the island, combined with the reliance on the ferry system makes it stand out.
Where to start?
This overview probably makes New York seem much bigger than you thought. To be honest, it is a huge city and you’ll never be able to see everything—unless you plan to live here for a while.
But, you can see a lot.
To help you get started, we’ll focus on some of the best neighborhoods so you use your time more effectively.
For most people, it’s best to start with Manhattan and Brooklyn. After that, explore the outer boroughs. These areas have more things to see and do in a short distance. They are also the easiest to navigate by subway.
Now, let’s get a little more detailed about Manhattan.
An easy way to think of it is in three main sections. Downtown, Midtown, and Uptown. Anything below 14th street is generally considered downtown. Midtown is between 14th and 59th streets and uptown is above that.
For your first time in NYC, you’ll probably want to start with Midtown. This is where you can find all of the most iconic skyscrapers and shopping. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, The New York Public Library building, Fifth Avenue, Grand Central… All Midtown.
For Brooklyn, the layout isn’t quite as straightforward…
To get started, we’ll focus on the Brooklyn Bridge, Williamsburg, and Prospect Park. These are all really unique parts of Brooklyn but are still easy to access from Manhattan.
If you have time after crossing the bridge, Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights are both neighborhoods around the bridge and offer spectacular city views.
Prospect Park is kind of like the Central Park of Brooklyn. It’s a huge park with many highlights nearby, such as the Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Museum. Nearby neighborhoods like Park Slope are also great to visit.
Williamsburg is considered the ultimate hipster neighborhood. It was once an industrial area, but artists moved in and spruced the place up. It rapidly grew in popularity until becoming just as expensive as Manhattan. You’ll find bars, restaurants, artisanal cheese shops, chocolate shops, and cafes.
This is just an introduction
Don’t worry, we’ve got more detailed information on what to see and do in NYC coming soon. For now, we just want to give you an overview of the city. All too often New York is reduced to Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Wall Street. But, there’s so much more to it than that.
Hopefully, this has shown you how much more there is to see. This should serve as a basic introduction, which we will build upon in future articles.
Talk to you soon.
Top photo by BICAD MEDIA on Unsplash
Yankee Stadium photo by Chanan Greenblatt on Unsplash