Started as a trading post for the Dutch West India Company in 1624, New York City (Manhattan more precisely since the rest four boroughs didn’t join officially until 1898) gradually became the major port of trade between North America and Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. And as the business in the then “new” continent flourishes and with more and more immigrants coming in, NYC grew bigger and bigger in much the same ways as the new land did. The inevitable clashes between the old and the new worlds began in August 1776. They won, of course, and George Washington delivered his first inauguration address in 1789 in this city.
The layout of Manhattan streets indicates the city is very well planned: the neatly divided streets in middle and uptown, and the naming of the streets — 1st to 7th ave from east to west, and 1st to around 160th streets from south to north. This would be boring for many, but is very convenient for visitors to locate themselves in the overcrowded little island.
Some of the traditional must-sees in Manhattan include the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Arts (the Met), Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA), Central Park, Financial district and Times Square. Central Park is by far my favorite in the city. Its size is relatively large considering the limited real estate in such a narrow island, and the crowd doing morning exercising is most impressive to me. They jog, bike, doing stretch and yoga and all other kinds of exercises. In central park, I feel the real vitality of the city, and lively, natural, warm and human aspects of the land, whereas the busy bees in business attire on wall street offers a tense urban passion. The Met is huge, which could easily take up a whole week, or even a life time, as one of the museum curators told us: he had been in the Met for 32 years and yet has not seen it all. Millions of other smaller museums offer collections that will satisfy your special interest.
Manhattan is of course not just about museums, parks and streets. A whopping 46% of the population speak another language at home. Here on subway, you can hear most major languages around the world. Chinatown, little Italy, and other ethnic centers are scattered around the downtown areas. Walking around the streets in Manhattan is already a scene by itself, but if you need “a higher dose of entertainment”, theaters are abound. Mamma Mia!, Lion King, Chicago are some of the current shows, costly though.
Some practicalities. Cost is the major concern for budget travelers. The hostel I lived in costs $35 per night, and plus the food around $15 per day, so $50 per day is for barely survival. The museum admission fee is around $10 each, and if you want to really learn something, an audio set is a must, which would add another $5. The theater ticket is totally another story: they could easily go up to around $100 if you are looking for a decent seat or a popular show. Eating at a common restaurant would cost you around $15 for lunch and $25 for dinner, and tax (8%) and tipping (10-20%) will add 15-25% more of whatever you pay.
Though the best way to explore the city is on foot, at least in theory, the subway/bus is a cheap way to get around. You can get the Metrocard in any subway station by cash or credit cards. They offer prepaid card (2.25 per ride), one day pass($8.25), and seven day week pass($27.25). You may benefit from studying (yes studying) the subway system fully before entering the underground because it is the most complicated subway system I have ever seen. They use colors, letters, numbers, and geometry in order to distinguish trains. Two or three trains may share the same line for quite a distance. For example, 4,5,6 trains share the same line on most part of the east Manhattan, and only diverge when they are near the boundaries of Manhattan. The difference between “local” and “express” are usually distinguished by the geometry around the number. Take 7 for example, 7 in diamond is the express train, meaning it won’t stop in some stations, and 7 in circle is the local train, meaning it will stop at all the stations. So you may guess already that the symbol for the stations are different as well, plus different types of connections, shuttle buses, and stations that you cannot get to the opposite direction without getting out of the station. Anyway, good luck reading the map.