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As New Yorkers, one of the questions we’re asked the most is regarding finding a place to stay in the City That Never Sleeps. For an outsider, understanding the neighborhoods and the nuances that make them unique, as well as the accessibility and convenience of the different subway lines, can be quite overwhelming — which is why we’ve created a guide to break everything down for you to understand.
How to Find the Best Place to Stay in NYC
Understanding the boroughs
New York City is big, and a traveler’s first mistake is underestimating the distance between the boroughs. There are five boroughs in New York City: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Outsiders often think of the four latter boroughs as “outside” of New York City, but the truth is that they offer just as much diversity, culture and entertainment for out-of-towners that Manhattan does. (Did you know that Lonely Planet named Queens as the #1 place to visit in 2015? We dig it.)
So — when you’re looking for a place to stay, the first step is identifying the borough you want to stay in. There is so much to learn about each of the boroughs, but for the sake of brevity in this post, we are creating this guide for a first time tourist in NYC, assuming that said tourist is staying in the city for between 3 and 7 days, and has interest in seeing the main “must-see” attractions as well as a healthy selection of off-the-beaten-path gems. With that in mind, we’re breaking down our guide to include information on Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn (but we still love you, Bronx and SI!). Again, please note that these are generalizations and do not fully represent the diversity of our city.
Manhattan: 22 square miles in diameter, the island of Manhattan is what most outsiders typically think of as NYC. From Times Square to Central Park, most of your top touristy destinations are on the island. The AllTheRooms offices are in Manhattan, so this is certainly our home turf!
Queens: Considered by most a very up and coming borough, Queens is the largest of the five boroughs. Queens has been claimed to be the most diverse place on earth (according to the Guinness Book of World Records), and we’re pretty sure this is why you can find some of the best food here.
Brooklyn: The Brooklyn brand reaches far and wide, but the borough has much more to offer than the stereotype of the standard millennial hipster. Brooklyn is a thriving hub for entrepreneurship, artists and innovators.
Navigate the subway
The biggest consideration when finding a place to stay is looking at the proximity of the location to the nearest subway. Space is extremely limited in NYC, so you’re always going to have to play a balancing act between price, location and size. Decide what factors you want to prioritize the most, and then weigh these options against one another.
* A note on transportation between boroughs: It’s easy to get to Manhattan from either Brooklyn or Queens, but based on the subway system, it can be harder (more time-consuming) to get from Brooklyn to Queens (and vice versa). An easy fix for this is the bus system, although for first-timers, we would probably opt for sticking to the subway just to make it easier on understanding a new system.
The subway system runs on both local and express trains (which essentially means that some trains [local] stop at every station, but run slower, and other trains [express] stop at only select stations but run much faster). This can be a little harder to understand at first, but it basically means that distance can be deceiving as far as the time it takes to move from place to place. For example, taking the 77th Street 6 train (local) to 42nd street, which is 3 stops and about 20 blocks, probably takes about 7 minutes. But taking the 86th Street 4 or 5 trains (express) to 14th Street, which is 3 stops and about 70 blocks, can also take about 7 minutes.
Choose a neighborhood
Manhattan: As a general rule, it’s faster to go north or south (uptown –> downtown) in Manhattan than it is to go east and west (like say, from the Upper East Side to the Upper West Side). Again, appearances can be deceiving. Keep this in mind when looking for a space to stay.
Our recommendations on a neighborhood to stay in would be: in the Village, including the West Village, Greenwich Village and the East Village (pretty much anything along the L train) for anyone interested in a central downtown location. The Village area caters to younger locals (it’s close to the NYU and The New School) and is great for art, nightlife and more. As a general rule, the West Village is home to picture-esque cobblestone streets and brownstone buildings (and also pricier), and the East Village is a little grungier and up-and-coming.
For those more interested in some of the traditional tourist destinations, midtown is a solid option, both for convenience and price point — but the con is that there isn’t much to do in this neighborhood outside of these tourist options. We would opt to stay in Chelsea if this is more your vibe.
If you’re looking for a quieter home base, the Upper West Side and Upper East Side can be great options for a cute place to stay, especially on a tree-lined street that offers an oasis from the hustle and bustle of downtown. We would recommend staying near an express train line so it’s easy to move uptown and downtown.
Last but not least, if you’re into shopping and boutiques, we love Nolita (close to Bowery on the map below). Most tourists think of SoHo when they consider shopping in NYC, but we love the local vibes in Nolita. It’s also easy to pop over to the Lower East Side from here, which is known for its nightlife and bar scene.
For the first-time visitor, we would recommend staying in Long Island City, which, contrary to the name, is not in Long Island but indeed, just a subway stop away from Manhattan. A trendy neighborhood with a ton of young professionals moving in, LIC is a solid bet for both proximity and price.
We also love Astoria, which is our top recommendation for any of our foodies. You can get more bang for your buck as far as space in Astoria, and it’s still really easy to get into Manhattan via the subway.
Brooklyn is big. Like really, really big. To travel from side to side, it can take upwards of an hour of travel time on the subway. We love spots like Coney Island or Brighton Beach for a fun trip to the beach, but would definitely recommend taking a day trip to these neighborhoods, as opposed to staying there.
When most people think of the Brooklyn brand, the neighborhoods they are visualizing are Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint. Think HBO’s Girls and you’ve got what is essentially the first 10 stops or so along the L train line into Brooklyn.
We also love Cobble Hill, an adorable neighborhood that is somewhat similar to what you might consider as Brooklyn’s version of the West Village, and it also happens to be a foodie’s haven. Crown Heights is a great option for those who are looking for more space at a better price range. We also love Prospect Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after their completion of Manhattan’s Central Park (and they have been quoted as saying Prospect Park is where they fixed all the mistakes they learned from Central Park). You can stay in a ton of neighborhoods around the park, but we would opt for something new at the Brooklyn Museum or Brooklyn Children’s Museum.