New York for the first-timer

by pcole

Spending a long weekend in New York City was one of the most exhilarating experiences of our lives. If, like us, you're visiting for the first time, here are our tips on where to stay and what to do

Where to spend your 40th birthday and your 20th wedding anniversary? We decided on New York: we had heard only good things about the place from friends, and the reviews we read raved about it.

We arrived at JFK after the seven-hour flight and, after an hour's wait to clear immigration, it was off to find a yellow cab to take us to Manhattan. The fare is fixed from the airport: about US$40, including tip and tolls. The drivers are crazy and don't always know where to go, but we arrived safely at our hotel after about 30 minutes.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Jolly Madison Towers on Madison Avenue and 38th Street, a lovely little Italian boutique hotel. We didn't spend much time in the hotel, as there is too much to see and do, but the public areas were very impressive; rooms were a little on the small side but ours was newly refurbished, with a lovely bathroom and a great view of the Empire State Building. The staff were friendly and the concierge funny: we asked where Times Square was and were told, "where it's always been, sir".

Don't breakfast in the hotel; it's expensive. Instead, pop in to the Moonstruck Diner opposite for excellent service, excellent food and reasonable prices.

Seeing the sights

Times Square
On the first night, all we wanted to do was visit Times Square. We'd left the kids at home with the mother but had promised them bags of chocolate from the M&M store and Hershey's. Times Square was only about a 10-minute walk from the hotel and was as impressive as everyone says - neon overload! It was busy, very busy, but fun. The M&M shop is three floors of chocolate and chocolate-related merchandise, but beware: it's not cheap. Hershey's is smaller but much more reasonably priced. Toys R Us, with a ferris wheel inside, is also worth a visit for a wander around.

Guided tour
We took a five-and-a-half-hour guided bus tour, which was an excellent way to see the major sights, including Strawberry Fields (you'll meet Gary, who creates a shrine to John Lennon every day), St Patrick's Cathedral, the Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center site, to name but a few.

You'll stop at South Street Sea Port for lunch and the opportunity to snap some photos of the Brooklyn Bridge, before heading off to the Staten Island ferry. The terminal is huge and very busy and you will think that not everyone will get on - I'm not sure where everyone went on that ferry! It's free and a great way to see the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. When you reach Staten Island, you have to get off (this discourages the tramps from getting on), then run through the terminal to catch the ferry back, but it's all good fun, and has to be one of the highlights of the tour.

The tour, which leaves from 52nd Street, costs about £35 each but it's worth it if you're only there for a few days.

Empire State Building
I have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower and thought that was impressive, but nothing beats the view from the top of the Empire State Building. We bought queue-jumpers online before we travelled, and I would advise you to do the same. We got there at about 5pm and although there was no queue for tickets, there was about an hour wait for the elevator to the security area. Queue-jumpers are great - they move you to the front of every queue - but you do feel a little rushed.

Shopping is a must. Macy's, Bloomingdale's and FAO Schwartz are not to be missed, and Fifth Avenue has to be seen to be believed (but beware: the stores don't open until 10 am). We got some good deals in the Armani store and Toys R Us. To get yourself some money-off vouchers, grab an info pack from the street touts in Times Square - we saved 15 per cent in Toys R Us.

The Museum of Natural History was OK, but don't eat in the basement cafe - it's full of school trips, you can't get a seat and the food is poor. We also visited the Ripley's Believe it or Not! exhibition, which was OK and killed some time in the rain. You can get vouchers for this also.

Home time

Beware when you return to JFK: the cabs going back to the airport are on the meter and can be quite expensive. We booked a hotel car, which cost about $60 but it turned out that we were travelling back in a stretch limo. We had to share with two lovely ladies from our hotel but you're asked if that's OK when you book, and it was fine - we're pretty laidback and just had a natter and watched the sights go by. All in all, it was a fantastic if exhausting trip - we would do it again tomorrow.