When most people think of New York City, they picture Manhattan, with its towering skyscrapers, glittering Broadway theater marquees and surging crowds of businesspeople racing to important meetings. Among New York’s five boroughs, Manhattan has the smallest footprint (23 square miles), and the highest population density. The island is home to more than 1.6 million people; commuters and visitors usually outnumber the residents. In the early 17th century, Dutch colonists established a shipping port on the island’s southernmost tip. Fueled by commerce and immigration, the city expanded northward following a grid of streets and avenues that flow around gorgeous Central Park. Manhattan remains the heart of New York and is, arguably, the cultural and commercial center of the world.
Things to Do: Manhattan is so attraction-packed that it’s impossible to see everything in a single trip. But the Empire State Building’s Observation Deck provides a sweeping overview of the island (plus, the Hudson and East Rivers and, on a clear day, New Jersey). The Theater District overflows with Broadway shows, comedy clubs and colorful characters, both in and out of costume. Central Park, Manhattan’s backyard, annually attracts more than 25 million visitors. Manhattan’s hundreds of cultural venues — from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art to Madame Tussauds wax museum — cover a mind-boggling range of topics. Simply walking around Manhattan’s distinctive neighborhoods is an essential experience. Or, you can just sit in Times Square and watch the world go by.
Restaurants: From a cheap, on-the-go meal from the city’s ever-expanding fleet of food trucks to multi-course tasting menus prepared by some of the country’s most celebrated chefs, Manhattan’s culinary scene caters to everyone and every budget. Cuisines from all over the world are represented: You can eat dim sum in Chinatown, pasta in Little Italy, Indian in the East Village, Irish pub grub in Midtown, Southern fare in Harlem — and that’s just a sampling. There are exceptional eateries of all varieties in every corner of the borough. Midtown’s Restaurant Row offers food from 11 countries on a single block of West 46th Street.
Shopping: On weekend afternoons, it can seem like everyone in the city has converged on the streets of SoHo to shop. But that’s just one of Manhattan’s prime shopping districts. High-end stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton line Fifth Avenue in the 50s. The Upper East Side‘s stretch of Madison Avenue and the Meatpacking District contain lots of big-name designer boutiques, too. The indoor collection of shops at the Time Warner Center, on the Upper West Side, and Macy’s 34st Street flagship, which bills itself as the world’s largest department store, are good options for browsing when its raining or cold. Inexpensive designer knockoffs, kitchen equipment and Asian specialty foods are widely available in Chinatown. Bargain-hunters also head for the Century 21 discount department store and J&R Electronics in the Financial District.
Hotels: Manhattan hotels cater to everyone from business travelers in need of a basic bed and bath to vacationers seeking a little extra style to the rich and famous expecting the best of everything. Midtown Manhattan contains the highest concentration of hotels in the city. Most major brands are represented, including Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, Mandarin Oriental and W. New York classics include the Carlyle, Algonquin, Plaza, Waldorf Astoria, Four Seasons and St. Regis.
Downtown Manhattan hotels tend to be smaller and hipper, mirroring the vibe of their surrounding neighborhoods. These include the Standard outposts in the West Village and East Village, The Nomad, Thompson LES and the Crosby Street Hotel (among many others). In the past decade, a number of hotels have popped up in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District. North of Central Park, hotel options remain limited. Wherever you stay, Manhattan’s extensive subway network makes it cheap and easy to explore the city. Finding a cheap room rate, however, isn’t always so easy. While it is possible to find comfortable accommodations for under $200, rooms at Manhattan’s top hotels often go for $500, or more, per night.
Theater and Nightlife: Broadway theater is New York’s best-known source of live entertainment, but there are plenty of Off-Broadway alternatives all over the borough, from 42nd Street (Theatre Row, Signature Theater, Playwrights Horizons) to the Village (The Public, New York Theater Workshop), to uptown (the ArcLight, Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse). There are many cabarets, piano bars, comedy clubs, rock venues and arena stages, as well. If you want to party all night, look to the Meatpacking District or the Lower East Side. Gay bars cluster in Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. For a deal on happy hour drinks, try Midtown or the Financial District.
Neighborhoods: From the high-powered bustle of the Financial District in Lower Manhattan to the northern reaches of residential Inwood, Manhattan is full of fascinating enclaves that feel like mini cities unto themselves. Downtown, you’ll find the vibrant chaos of Chinatown, the intimate charm of Greenwich Village and the artsy East Village. NoLIta, SoHo and the Flatiron District are favorites among architecture buffs. The cosmopolitan Upper West Side and fashionable Upper East Side, which flank Central Park, have a more residential pace. Most visitors head straight for the excitement of Midtown and the glamour of the Theater District.