When you mention Times Square to someone, you can expect a range of reactions. You may hear a groan from a native New Yorker. After all, Times Square is the touristy neighborhood that you always want to avoid. From a first-time visitor, in contrast, you may hear excitement or awe at the bright lights and bustling crowd. The reality is that Times Square is both an attraction for tourists and an awe-inspiring sight to behold, but it’s also just a centrally-located neighborhood within New York City with a host of restaurants, attractions and much more. Times Square has a storied legacy, as the initial location of the city’s famous newspaper, The New York Times. Today, the paper is no longer located in the actual square — but there’s tons more to do there than ever before. Here are some of the best things to experience when you visit Times Square so you can feel like you know the city like a local, while still getting the thrill of the first-time encounter like a new tourist.
Where to Eat
Don’t be distracted by the bright signs of chain restaurants when you head to Times Square. The area actually has some excellent dining options that are authentically New York and sure to please your palette. Carmine’s is one of the city’s most classic spots for Italian food. If you want a taste of old world cooking in a spot that makes any food map of New York, this is your place. Carmine’s has been around for close to 30 years (in the same location), so you can enjoy time-tested pasta dishes, soups, salads and more. For an insider’s look at the neighborhood, head a bit west to Joe Allen, located on Restaurant Row (46th Street). This restaurant is a hot spot for people in the theater industry. Crowds come to dine here before shows, and actors and industry insiders come here to dine late, after their shows are over. Joe Allen is known for having one of the city’s best burgers. For a cheap eat that’s also delicious, check out Xi’an Famous Foods. This authentic spot for Chinese food has locations across the city, and it’s an excellent and quick destination for noodle dishes, soups, dumplings and more.
What to Do
There are plenty of ways to spend your time in Times Square. Of course, you’ll want to stand in one of the plazas that are blocked off from traffic and take in the dazzling signs and neon lights. But there’s more to do than just walk and sit around in the area. Skip tourist attractions like the M&M and Hershey’s Store if you want a more authentically New York experience. Instead, consider getting tickets to a Broadway show, since Times Square is the epicenter of the theater district. You can buy tickets in advance from a box office, or wait in line for TKTS, which offers same-day discounts to popular shows. The waiting area for TKTS has red stairs, which have become a central Times Square landmark. When no one’s waiting in line for the tickets, you can go sit or stand on the stairs and take a photo in the iconic location.
If theater’s not your thing, consider going to a service at Times Square Church. Even if you’re not religious, Times Square Church offers gospel services where you can hear incredible singers belt out prayers and songs. It’s inspiring and uplifting, and it’s right in the heart of the city. Or you can take a tour of a miniature world by visiting Gulliver’s Gate. Inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver’s Gate is a place where you can explore tiny versions of famous places throughout the world — from the Taj Mahal to Grand Central Station. You can even get a miniature version of yourself created if you’re willing to pay an extra fee.
To get a breathtaking view of the city around you and enjoy some fabulous food or drinks at the same time, visit the Haven Rooftop. This rooftop bar and lounge is on the top floor of the Sanctuary Hotel. You can sit in a glass-enclosed area and enjoy the view when the weather’s cold or rainy, or sit out in the open air when the weather’s nice. The Haven Rooftop is a great way to feel like you’re experiencing the pulse of the city while getting to enjoy an expansive look at everything surrounding you.
The Bottom Line
If you want to get a feel for what New York City is really like, you can’t miss Times Square. But you can experience it in a way that is comfortable, enjoyable and not overwhelming. Try coming to Times Square early on a weekend morning. This is a great time to visit because commuters won’t be headed to work in office buildings, and tourists will still be sleeping peacefully in their hotel bedrooms. To take in the beauty of the neon lights, visit at night — but come after 11 p.m., when most Broadway shows are over and the crowds have cleared out.