New York City travel guide: 20 reasons to visit the Big Apple

36 Hours in Central Park

With its endless trails, hidden nooks, museums and nearby night spots, Central Park is that rare tourist destination that is also a pleasure ground for locals. Video by the New York Times.

From hip bars and iconic hotels, to soaring skyscrapers, here are 20 reasons why New York is the coolest place to visit.

1 SEE: ONE WORLD OBSERVATORY

Anybody who has ever flown over Manhattan in a plane descending to the airport knows that New York is at its finest when seen from above. Short of a helicopter ride, the best way to prolong the view is to visit one of the city's several lookouts. The best, undoubtably, is Top of the Rock, which affords glimpses north over Central Park and south towards the Empire State Building. But the newest, and highest, occupying the 100th and 101st floor, is found at One World Trade Center, and offers views all the way to Princeton on a clear day. See oneworldobservatory.com; topoftherocknyc.com.

2 WALK: THE HIGH LINE

A civic project that inspired a thousand urban planners around the world, the High Line is justly celebrated for its revolutionary use of disused industrial space. In short, an abandoned 2.3 kilometre railroad spur, elevated above the ground and originally used to transport goods into the Meatpacking District (like frozen turkeys), was transformed over the course of a decade into an extraordinary garden. Think murals, art pieces, lavish horticultural displays that change through the seasons. It's little wonder that the High Line swarms daily with visitors, many using it as an elegant thoroughfare between Midtown and the West Village. See thehighline.org.

3 SEE: THE WHITNEY*

Anybody walking south on the High Line will find themselves delivered straight to the glass doors of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which relocated this May from its brutalist home on the Upper East Side. The new building, designed by Renzo Piano, is a love-it-or-hate-it jumble of shapes and sharp angles, but the soaring interior spaces are simply breathtaking. Finally, the museum collection, which encompasses more than 21,000 objects, is given the room it deserves. Alongside a permanent collection, upcoming temporary exhibitions will focus on Jazz Age Modernism, and Laura Poitras, the political filmmaker. The Whitney is nothing if not eclectic. See whitney.org.

4 SHOP: AT ZABAR'S

Zabar's, on the Upper West Side, was opened by Louis and Lillian Zabar in 1934, and the supermarket has been a beloved Jewish landmark ever since. The cheese counter is worth a visit alone, with mountains of Roquefort and aged Asiago. Smoked fish and caviar – Louis claimed to have introduced the delicacy to New York – is worth the splurge in the next room. But the real draw is the bakery section, complete with babka, black-and-white cookies, and some of the best bagels in the world. zabars.com.

5 CYCLE: THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE

New York is increasingly easy to see on a bicycle, thanks largely to the widespread installation of Citi Bike terminals. To take advantage of the share program, swipe your credit card, then choose a bike from the dock. The best ride starts at the tip of Manhattan, called Battery Point, and threads up over the sublime suspension masterpiece of the Brooklyn Bridge. From there, wind down below the bridge to the neighbourhood of Dumbo, perhaps stopping for a coffee at Brooklyn Roasting Company. Then leave the Citibike at another station and catch a ferry home across the East River. See citibikenyc.com.?

6 BRUNCH: AT BALTHAZAR

New Yorkers take Sunday brunch very seriously – so seriously, in fact, that many "all you can drink" establishments have needed to add a time-limit to the event. Balthazar, in SoHo, doesn't offer an open license to guzzle, but it does offer one of the most popular reservations in town. Perhaps it's the apple cinnamon pancakes, the hazelnut waffles, the ratatouille omelette. Or perhaps it's the Blue Point oysters and pommes frites served in a dining room lifted straight out of Paris. Save your pennies and book ahead: the extravagance is worth it. See balthazarny.com.

7 WALK: CENTRAL PARK*

No visit to New York is complete without a stroll through its green heart, a 340-hectare oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1858. Surrounded on all sides by looming apartment buildings, is there a more famous urban retreat anywhere in the world? From Sheep's Meadow to the Ramble, whole summer days can disappear in a haze of baseball games and hot dogs and quiet strolls in faux-wilderness. Don't miss the Bethesda Fountain and Minton Arcade. (Explore the best of Central Park in the video above) centralparknyc.org.

8 EAT: AT EATALY*

A sensation since the day it opened in 2004, just opposite the Flatiron Building, Eataly is less a food emporium than a temple to all things Italian. Arranged around a central "piazza" are food stations selling everything from pappardelle to formaggio, seafood to fresh coffee. The buzz is vibrant, and it's difficult not to be seduced by the ambience into finding a seat for a glass of vino. If beer is more your style, head to the rooftop where Birreria offers craft brews in an open-air courtyard. eataly.com.

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9 SEE: TIMES SQUARE

In truth, most New Yorkers avoid Times Square like the plague, but the neon spectacle, particularly at night, is worth the endurance test at least once. These enormous billboards advertising movies and perfumes can set advertisers back up to US$4 million a year. Meanwhile, the entire Theatre District, of which Times Square is a part, eats enough electricity at peak times to power more than 160,000 homes. Most remarkable, though, is that it used to be a dump: If you visited before the early 1990s you would have found the city's red-light district.

10 EXPLORE: THE WEST VILLAGE

Manhattan's most charming and coveted neighbourhood is undoubtably the West Village, a tangle of streets just below the Meatpacking District. An enclave, last century, of artists and bohemians, it is now home to many of the city's most moneyed denizens, who don't blink at having Burberry for their corner store. Think of those famous pictures of brownstones and tree-lined streets: the West Village is the New York of dreams and fantasies. Stop for coffee at Bluestone Lane, then browse the sleepy bookshelves in Three Lives and Company, keeping your eyes peeled for famous faces out the window.

11 SEE: SLEEP NO MORE

The McKittrick Hotel, in Chelsea, is not what it seems. The downstairs bar is as real as it comes, but everything up the elevator is a strange hallucination. Guests are given masks, then allowed to wander five floors of the "1930s hotel" as actors perform a variation of Macbeth in ballrooms, bedrooms, and padded cells. Sometimes the guests are pulled into the performance directly, and it's not unusual to reach the three-hour end point with no idea of the theatrical "plot." But Sleep No More is an immersive trip, a theatre experience worth any confusion. The rooftop bar, Gallow Green, is one of the most beautiful in the city. sleepnomore.com.

12 SEE: THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

"The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World" was a gift from France to America in the 1880s, and it has endured as a symbol of freedom and grace ever since. Getting to the island is a chore – long lines, long wait times – and getting up to the crown lookout is even more challenging; but anybody willing to invest the effort will be rewarded with a stunning view. Here's a tip: for a free close-up of Liberty, take the Staten Island Ferry instead. nps.gov/stli.

13 EAT: ROBERTA'S PIZZA

Serious arguments can break out over the best pizza in New York. Roberta's Pizza, in the far-flung Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick, makes a serious bid for the title. Using greens from a rooftop vegetable garden, the chefs produce variations with titles like "Cheesus Christ" and "The Speckenwolf". Bushwick is hipster country, so it's little surprise that Roberta's has made an appearance in the HBO television series Girls. Expect tattoos and beards, elaborate draft beers, and the occasional pop-up vintage clothing shop outside in a truck. robertaspizza.com.

14 STAY: AT THE GRAMERCY PARK HOTEL

There are more accessible places to stay, and certainly cheaper ones, but few Manhattan hotels exude the history and cool of this boutique property. Frequented in their time by Humphrey Bogart, JFK, David Bowie, and Madonna, it was renovated in 2003 and decorated by Julian Schnabel in "Renaissance revival flair," whatever that means. The walls are covered with paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, and many rooms come equipped with proper bar service. Better yet, guests are given something no other hotel can offer: a key to the city's only private park. gramercyparkhotel.com.

15 RIDE: THE CYCLONE

Coney Island has been given a facelift in the last few years, with slick new attractions and a concerted effort to buff the sketchy reputation. Thankfully, not all has changed at New York's classic amusement park. The Cyclone, for example, remains as thrilling as it must have been in 1927, tipping patrons over a 26-metre drop. The wooden rollercoaster is rickety, jerky, even filled with splinters, but it's worth the one-hour train ride just to scream high above the Atlantic Ocean. Not for nothing was it added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. coneyisland.com.

16 SEE: JACOB RIIS BEACH

Though Australians may scoff when they see what a New York beach looks like, Jacob Riis has its charms, including an art deco-style former bathhouse that now features history exhibitions. In summer, there's karaoke and volleyball, and a bazaar offering Bolivian food and scallops in the half-shell. To make a day of it, catch one of the "beach buses" from Williamsburg or Bushwick, or better yet the Rockaway Beach Ferry from Pier 11 near Wall Street. Take sunscreen; the American sun is deceptive. riisparkbeachbazaar.com.

17 EAT: AT CAFE SABARSKY*

A stone's throw from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cafe Sabarsky is hidden inside the Neue Galerie, and it is a knockout, like stepping into Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. Join Upper East Side matrons as they perch on Adolf Loos bentwood chairs, sipping coffee and tearing into smoked bratwurst with cheddar cheese. The desserts are justly famous, including Klimt torte and apple strudel. And a grand piano tucked away in the corner is a constant reminder of cabaret, which is offered on an irregular schedule (so call ahead). kg-ny.com/cafe-sabarsky.

18 BUY: AT THE BROOKLYN FLEA MARKET

It is still possible to find a bargain in New York, mostly in Fort Greene on Saturdays, when more than 150 vendors set up shop and lay out their wares and edibles. Whether you're after a whale throw pillow, a vintage padlock, a dress made of lace, random photographs from the 1920s, iced donuts, or taxidermy deer heads, Brooklyn has it, because Brooklyn has everything. As the website explains, the flea market is "part vintage bazaar, part hipster hang, part old-fashioned town square, and part food bonanza." brooklynflea.com.

19 SEE: AMATEUR NIGHT

The Apollo Harlem, the city's centre of African-American culture, is a glorious neighbourhood of vibrant bars, jazz clubs, and restaurants selling soul food. One of the standout attractions is the legendary Apollo Theater, where every Wednesday for the past 81 years starry-eyed hopefuls have graced the stage in a fiercely fought talent contest. Tickets are cheap, the atmosphere is familial, and booing is encouraged (but never hostile). Losers are tap-danced out of the spotlight by "the executioner." Then everybody laughs. amateurnight.org.

20 CYCLE: THE MANHATTAN WATERFRONT GREENWAY

For many years Manhattan ignored its waterfront, but that began to change last decade, when the city started to sculpt a 51-kilometre loop around the edge of the island. Not all of it is great, but the west-side stretch from Inwood Park right down the Hudson River is open and sublime, threading past parks and navy piers. As you approach the bottom of the Manhattan, One World Trade Center looms directly ahead, and the smaller high-rises of New Jersey cluster off in the distance. Finish at Pier 25, where oysters and champagne are served on a restored wooden schooner named Grand Banks. grandbanks.org.

* Traveller top pick

Lance Richardson is an Australian writer based in New York City.

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