Backpacking New York
New York City is typically not viewed as a backpacking destination, but you’ll still have an incredible adventure in the “City that Never Sleeps.” Food, accommodation, transportation, and activities are all more expensive than most other cities in the United States so you’ll have to be careful of the budget while there.
Each section of New York has its own personality, and it’s possible to spend several days in each borough.
Manhattan is where many of the city’s famous attractions are located, and this backpacking itinerary includes spending three days on the island. It covers iconic attractions like Times Square and Central Park, but also ventures to lesser-visited sites in Harlem.
The other four days of the itinerary cover Queens and Brooklyn, with two days spent exploring each.
Many tourists never go outside of Manhattan when they visit, and some places in the other boroughs will give you more of a local vibe.
New York is a huge city and it can definitely be overwhelming for first-timers. If you want to prepare yourself before your first visit here are some top New York tips for first-timers.
***Disclaimer: Affiliate links are used on this site. If you see a link assume I probably get a kickback from it. It won’t cost you any extra, in fact, at times it will get you a discount. I hugely appreciate you using my links.***
Backpacking New York Itinerary
One World Trade Center, 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Staten Island Ferry, South Street Seaport, Financial District, Brooklyn Bridge
Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, Top of the Rock, Museum of Modern Art, Central Park, Bryant Park
Graffiti Hall of Fame, Harlem Haberdashery, Sylvia’s Restaurant, National Jazz Museum, Marcus Garvey Park, Appollo Theatre
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, MoMA PS1, Gantry Plaza State Park, Jackson Heights
Rockaway Beach, People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Forest Park
Brooklyn Brewery, Artists & Fleas Williamsburg, Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Green-Wood Cemetery, Coney Island, Brighton Beach
Top Tips | Getting Around | Costs
BACKPACKING NEW YORK ITINERARY – 1 WEEK ROUTE
See the map below for the route for I’d recommend for your backpacking New York trip and the key reasons you’d want to visit each place in the list below.
Day 1 – Lower Manhattan
One World Trade Center – The iconic skyscraper that was built to replace the Twin Towers after 9/11. You can get an incredible panorama of the Manhattan skyline from the One World Observatory and feel like you’re on top of the world.
9/11 Memorial & Museum – This touching memorial was constructed where the Twin Towers once stood and etched into the monument is every victim of that tragic day. Family and friends of those who perished pay their respects to their lost loved ones and walking around the memorial is an emotional experience.
The 9/11 Museum gives you an in-depth look of the attacks and how it reshaped American society.
Tip – The museum has free entry every Tuesday from 5 pm to 8 pm, with the last entry at 7 pm.
Staten Island Ferry – Get one of the best views of Lower Manhattan from ground level by taking the ferry to Staten Island. The ride also gives you spectacular views of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Best of all, the ferry is one of the top free things to do in Lower Manhattan. While you’re in Staten Island, have a drink at Steiny’s Pub, one of the most popular watering holes in the borough.
South Street Seaport – One of the most historic sections of Manhattan that features cobblestone streets, 19th-century architecture, and preserved sailing vessels. Wander into the South Street Seaport Museum or do some shopping at the upscale malls along the waterfront.
Financial District – Explore the heart of the American economy and the epicentre of the global stock exchange. Discover the headquarters of major financial institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. A jaunt down Wall Street gives you a glimpse of other powerful financial markets and companies that play a major role in dictating the world economy.
Brooklyn Bridge – This incredible suspension bridge was built in 1883 and the first crossing along the East River. The bridge plays a crucial role for thousands of daily commuters between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Walking across the bridge is free and gives you some of the most exhilarating views of each borough.
Day 2 – Midtown Manhattan
Times Square – The bustling square that feels like the centre of the universe with its enormous billboards and electrifying energy. Thousands of tourists pass the pedestrian intersection of Times Square each day, and the area is the heart of New York’s Theatre District and entertainment industry.
Grand Central Terminal – An iconic transportation hub that remains one of New York’s busiest railway stations to this day. The historic landmark is an architectural masterpiece with exquisite artwork and dozens of shops and restaurants inside. Grand Central is the train station you see featured in so many American films so it will likely feel very familiar.
Top of the Rock – located at Rockefeller Plaza, the Top of the Tock observatory gives you arguably the greatest panorama of the Manhattan skyline. You’ll see the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center on one side, and Central Park on the other.
Museum of Modern Art – This incredible museum boasts one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary art. The exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art showcase paintings, sculptures, architecture, photographs, and many more elaborate creations.
Central Park – Manhattan’s green oasis that attracts outdoor enthusiasts with its walking paths, tranquil lakes, and beautiful foliage. Central Park is filled with numerous statues and you’ll find lots of festive events throughout the year.
Bryant Park – End the day at this vibrant public space that’s popular amongst locals any time of the year. Dine at fabulous eateries, smell the aroma of radiant gardens, or complete your holiday shopping at the 9.6-acre Bryant Park.
Day 3 – Harlem
Graffiti Hall of Fame – Artists from across the globe gather at this open-air museum to celebrate the talents of those who have left their marks on this local schoolyard.
Harlem Haberdashery – Reinvent your sense of fashion by stopping at this boutique that has tailored custom outfits for celebrities in the sports and music industries. Find suits, shoes, and clothing accessories suitable for any budget at this family-owned shop.
Sylvia’s Restaurant – Stop by for a generous helping of Southern comfort food in one of Harlem’s iconic eateries for classic soul food. Sylvia’s is a historic restaurant that has served delicious meals for decades and played an important role during the Harlem Renaissance. There’s live music on Wednesdays, Gospel brunch on Sundays, and daily specials to satisfy your cravings.
National Jazz Museum – Jazz music has shaped Harlem’s culture, and you can find rare recordings at this unique museum. The collection is filled with works from some of Harlem’s most talented jazz artists, and there are often live performances throughout the year.
Marcus Garvey Park – The community comes alive at this jubilant 20-acre park nestled between the Harlem and East Harlem neighbourhoods. There’s often live music performances, playgrounds, and public pools for a refreshing swim at Marcus Garvey Park.
Apollo Theater – This renowned music venue has created legendary artists for generations. Talented musicians such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown have all graced the stage of the Apollo. If you’re able to attend Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre, you might witness one of the next big stars before they rocket to fame.
Day 4 – North Queens
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park – Once a dumping ground for ashes, this vibrant park is now one of the most popular public spaces in Queens. The now, unfortunately, names Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is famous for hosting World Fairs, an abundance of sports facilities, institutions of learning, and scenic walking and cycling trails.
Socrates Sculpture Park – Another former New York landfill, this intriguing park features some of the city’s most unique sculptures. Socrates Sculpture Park has remarkable views of Manhattan, and there are often outdoor movies shown when the weather’s nice.
MoMA PS1 – This exceptional collection of contemporary art hosts some of the most thought-provoking pieces in the country. The MoMA PS1 museum features innovative exhibits from talented artists, live performances, and an annual competition for aspiring architects.
Gantry Plaza State Park – Grab a few snacks or cheap lunch to enjoy a relaxing picnic with stellar views of the Manhattan skyline. The Gantry Plaza State Park also has beautiful walking trails along the East River and is a delightful place to watch the sunset.
Jackson Heights – This lively neighbourhood is one of the many multicultural hubs that make Queens a thriving melting pot. Jackson Heights is primarily an Indian and South Asian community with some of the borough’s tastiest eateries and interesting shops.
Day 5 – South Queens
Rockaway Beach – Surfs up at one of New York City’s most popular public beaches. The roughly 5.5-mile strip of coastline at Rockaway Beach also attracts sunbathers, swimmers, and families during the scorching summer temperatures.
People’s Beach at Jacob Riis Park – If you’re looking to escape the crowds of Rockaway, you can hop on the bus to reach Jacob Riis Park. The nearby Beach Bizarre offers refreshments, and there are changing facilities in the bathhouse along the shore.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge – The wetlands and islands residing in Jamaica Bay are one of New York City’s protected landscapes and a tranquil escape for nature enthusiasts. The area is home to a wide range of flora, and you’ll notice lots of birds and mammals frolicking around the refuge.
Forest Park – This 538-acre park is the third-largest in Queens and provides another haven for nature lovers. Forest Park remains one of the last untouched forests of New York City and has lots of hiking trails to explore.
Day 6 – North Brooklyn
Brooklyn Brewery – Tour the iconic Williamsburg brewery and taste their famous brew after learning about the beer-making process.
Artists & Fleas Williamsburg – Pick out a whimsical gift for your loved ones from one of the creative vendors at this festive flea market. The shopping area has a fun vibe with a DJ playing tunes for customers.
Brooklyn Museum – This historic building houses one of New York City’s greatest collections of artwork. There are roughly 1.5 million works inside the museum that includes pieces from Europe, Africa, Japan, and Oceania in the Brooklyn Museum.
Prospect Park – This urban oasis is the second-largest park in Brooklyn and is an enjoyable place for a picnic. Prospect park contains sculpted gardens, sports facilities, a zoo, cycling paths, and hosts outdoor concerts.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden – Adjacent to Prospect Park, the 52-acre facility has a wide range of speciality gardens, beautiful trees, and peaceful ponds. Spot hundreds of blooming cherry blossoms, Japanese gardens, rose gardens, and other gorgeous gardens at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden complex.
Day 7 – South Brooklyn
Green-Wood Cemetery – A graveyard may seem like a morbid place to visit, but Green-Wood Cemetery is one of the most peaceful spots in Brooklyn. The cemetery has thousands of trees, rolling hills, tranquil ponds, and monuments of varied architectural styles.
Coney Island – As New York City’s original seaside resort, Coney Island has always been a bustling beach destination. The boardwalk is filled with amusement park rides, carnival games, street performers, and delicious bites. Whether you sprawl out on the beach, win a prize or visit the New York Aquarium, there’s fun for all ages at Coney Island.
Brighton Beach – The Brighton Beach boardwalk offers a more low-key vibe than the neighbouring Coney Island. A large part of the area consists of Russian and Eastern-European immigrants, and it’s a popular summer getaway for local New Yorkers.
Itinerary Duration – As you can see above, I’ve made this New York backpacking itinerary for one week, but this only scratches the surface of what you can do in New York City. The “Big Apple” is a humungous city, and there’s no way you’ll be able to do anywhere close to everything. Since New York City is wicked expensive, a week is probably the max of a backpackers budget though.
Comfy Walking Shoes – This New York City itinerary includes lots of walking and you’ll need to have reliable sneakers to get around. If your shoes lack support or cushion, invest in a pair of new ones before walking down New York’s busy streets. You’ll likely spend hours walking in the city if you follow the above advice on what to see. You can even get yourself a free walking tour of New York if you don’t mind putting in the steps and would like a guide to tell you a bit more about the things you’re seeing.
Bring a Thermos – New York City has some of the freshest tap water in the United States and bottled water is a waste of money. Carry a reusable thermos during your travels and refill it whenever you get a chance.
Unlimited Ride MetroCard – Each ride on the bus or subway costs $2.75 and that can add up quickly during your trip. You’ll be skipping around to different areas of one borough within a day, and it’s not feasible to walk everywhere. Get a 7-day unlimited MetroCard to hop on public transport at any time.
Free Museums – New York City has tons of museums, and many of them offer free entry all the time or waive entry fees on certain days of the week. I have several museums on this itinerary, and you can plan your schedule to gain free entry at some of them.
Always Have Cash – Many places in New York City only accept cash payments despite our digital world. It’s best to change your currency into American Dollars before your trip to avoid exchange rates or ATM fees.
Skip the Chain Restaurants – In New York City, you can eat food from any part of the world, and some of the best local joints in the country are here. It would be a shame to eat at restaurants you can find in any other city in the United States instead of places that give you an authentic taste of New York.
Dress for the Season – New York City has four distinct seasons and it’s important to wear the attire that fits the season you visit. Summer can be brutally hot, and winter is often well below freezing. The spring and fall are normally comfortable, but you’ll sometimes need to wear layers depending on the month you visit.
Be Aware of Your Surroundings – New York City is nowhere nearly as dangerous as it once was. However, there are still over 8 million people living here in addition to thousands of tourists. Secure your valuables, don’t wander into suspicious areas, and be alert when outside at night.
New York City has one of the most extensive public transport systems in the United States, and it would be unwise to drive around the city on your trip. The traffic alone is a nightmare and finding a free/cheap place to park is pretty much non-existent.
Getting to Manhattan from the airport can be a challenge the first time you visit New York City. If you’re not prepared before arrival, you could spend a hefty chunk of change just to reach your hotel. Here’s a breakdown of getting to Manhattan from all three NYC airports:
JFK – Most visitors will land in JFK jfkairport.com for their visit. The airport is in South Queens and around 16-18 miles from Times Square, depending on the route you take. A taxi or Uber ride is the easiest but most expensive way to get there. The cost will be upwards of $50 or more, and that doesn’t include tip.
The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and subway are far cheaper modes of transportation. You’ll have to pay a $7.75 exit fee to use the AirTrain but your total cost will be roughly $15.50-$18.50 taking the LIRR and $10.50 for the subway. The LIRR will take you to Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan, and you can use the E, J, or Z subway lines at Jamaica Station.
Newark – Although Newark airport is in New Jersey, many flights serving New York City arrive here. The airport is around 16-17 miles from Times Square and a taxi or Uber ride is easily the quickest way to reach Manhattan. Like JFK, the cost will be upwards of $50.
The most affordable way to reach Manhattan is by taking the AirTrain and NJ Transit. The train drops you off at New York Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan and costs roughly $13. Alternatively, you can transfer to the PATH train at Newark Penn Station and reach the One World Trade Center for $11.
LaGuardia – If you’re an international arrival, you’re unlikely to fly into LaGuardia. For the domestic and Canadian flyers who land in LaGuardia, this is the cheapest airport to reach Manhattan.
You only need to pay for the $2.75 MTA fare, and the journey consists of a bus and subway ride. Take the Q70 SBS bus to reach the 7, E, F, M, and R subway lines at 74 St/Roosevelt Ave. Alternatively, take the M60 SBS bus to reach the N and Q lines at Hoyt Ave S & 31 St or the 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, A, B, C, or D lines from 125th St in Harlem.
Buses – The fare for a single bus ride costs $2.75 and you can transfer to a bus on a different route without paying an extra cost. Bus stops are on street corners and can be identified by a tall sign with a bus emblem. You insert your MetroCard when boarding the bus or pay in exact change.
Subway – New York City has the largest subway system in the world and there are hundreds of stations to get you around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Fares cost $2.75 per ride and you can fill up your card as your ride. 7-day and 30-day unlimited passes can be bought for those who frequently ride the subway. You can transfer to a different subway line for no extra cost but will have to pay for another ride if you walk through the turnstile. The routes for each subway line are shown on maps inside the train cars, and there is also an MTA app you can download.
Taxi/Uber – You’ll have no issues finding taxis or Ubers throughout the boroughs in New York City, but it will be far costlier than taking public transport. Taxis charge a $2.50 base fare and a metered fare the rest of the journey. You can download the Uber app and punch in your destination address to determine the fare.
Accommodation – This will likely be the most expensive part of your budget when traveling to New York City. Many hotels range in the hundreds per night, but it’s possible to find money-saving deals if you look hard enough. The United States is generally not known for hostels but you’ll find several inside the city.
For backpackers, this can be one of the most affordable options when looking for a place to stay in New York City. Airbnb (you’ll get money towards your first trip if you book through this link but full disclosure, I get a kickback too) and VRBO have lots of private room options available, and you can even look into Couchsurfing to save even more money (not something I’d recommend if you’re a solo female traveler however although solo travel is the best).
Food – You can eat your way around the world in New York City, but it’s also possible to eat a hole through your wallet. Eating out in New York City is incredibly expensive and going to a restaurant every night isn’t feasible for the average person. While going out for a meal is fine on occasion, be prepared to make a few trips to New York grocery stores. Just like dining out, New York has a seemingly unlimited amount of options to get groceries.
The best thing to do is to compare prices for meat, milk, eggs, fruits & vegetables, and bread at all the stores you visit to find the best deals.
What was your favourite part of backpacking New York? Let me know in the comments below.
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