Five boroughs in five days? Yes, it can be done. Of course, you’ll have to hustle, relying on subways, buses and your own two feet, and you won’t be able to take in everything the boroughs have to offer. But our itinerary suggests the best of each one, starting in the morning and ending in the evening: see the Met’s highlights and eat haute cuisine in Manhattan; buy Brooklyn-made goods and ride the borough’s historic roller coaster; visit an old fort and sample a Sri Lankan buffet in Staten Island. To truly experience all of New York City, you’d need a lifetime, if not several. To get a taste, though, it just takes a few days, an open mind and a great pair of walking shoes.
The Bronx: Morning
With more than 600 species of animals inhabiting its 265 acres, the Bronx Zoo offers days’, if not weeks’, worth of entertainment. However, you can hit some of the main events in a morning. Most days, the sea lions have an 11am feeding (with another at 3pm) in their pool at historic Astor Court, built in the early 1900s. Then move over to see one of the zoo’s newest habitats, featuring Komodo dragons; take a peek at some of spring's latest additions, a baby otter and some fruit bats; or check out Madagascar!, home to five types of lemurs, ring-tailed mongooses, hissing cockroaches and more. Next door to the zoo is the New York Botanical Garden, with 250 acres of flora—more than 1 million plants in all (there are almost a million daffodils alone), so there is always something that’s beautiful whatever the season. Roaming around these two attractions has earned you a big lunch: you can get a Neapolitan pizza at Zero Otto Nove on Arthur Avenue, where there's a conglomeration of Italian restaurants and bakeries that feels (and tastes) totally authentic. Alternatively, a 25-minute bus ride winds you through the borough to Taqueria Tlaxcalli, an outstanding outpost for Mexican food.
The Bronx: Afternoon and Evening
Many of our Bronx recommendations have you meandering around parks, including Franz Sigel Park and Joyce Kilmer Park. The fact is that while the Bronx is one of the most densely populated areas in the United States, it also has lots and lots of green space. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington and his troops maneuvered around this area, spying on British troops camped along the nearby Harlem River. Both of these parks happen to be alongside another important piece of the borough’s history, the Grand Concourse, which was constructed beginning in the 1890s; today it forms a beautiful artery from 138th Street to the Mosholu Parkway. Pay special attention to the notable art deco and art moderne apartment buildings as you travel to the Bronx Museum of the Arts, with its collection of contemporary work that emphasizes cross-cultural understanding. Depending on the time of year, you might finish your day by cheering the Bronx Bombers, better known as the New York Yankees. If chowing down on stadium food at a game isn’t your style, opt to sample a spicy stew at Ebe Ye Yie, an epicenter of Little Ghana, or jerk chicken at Feeding Tree, a beloved destination for Jamaican fare. Definitely grab a drink at Stan’s Sports Bar, adorned with such memorabilia as an original Joe DiMaggio baseball card, jerseys and photos.
When the weather's warm, start your explorations at one of the borough's most vibrant spots: Coney Island, home of the historic Cyclone roller coaster in Luna Park. If the temperature’s right, you can dip your toes in the Atlantic Ocean, stroll past bathing beauties on the boardwalk and let the salt spray whip through your hair. Don't forget to stop for a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous, so good that, according to legend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the franks shipped to Yalta to enjoy while hashing things out with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill. For those who think it too early for a dog, note that Tom’s Coney Island on the boardwalk is open year-round and serves breakfast.
After an early morning spent by the ocean (or in lieu of it, during non-summer months), visit Prospect Park, which features a zoo and Audubon Center, along with 585 acres of natural splendor. Then head to the nearby Brooklyn Museum, renowned for its extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts. Other highlights at the borough's largest museum include artist Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, a famous feminist work, and 23 period rooms, which show authentic architectural and interior design details from the 1600s to the 1900s. You just might get a sense of what life was like back when Brooklyn was "Breuckelen," home to European settlers and Native Americans. Meanwhile, when hunger strikes, consider hitting the museum’s on-site restaurant, The Norm, courtesy of Michelin-star chef Saul Bolton. For a more casual option, try B Café or BKM Bowl, both of which offer Brooklyn-centric foods including sandwiches crafted in collaboration with artists shown at the museum.
Brooklyn: Afternoon and Evening
Your afternoon starts with a stroll through the New York Transit Museum, in Brooklyn Heights. Here, you can marvel at maps, pass through turnstiles, contemplate tokens and slugs (items including buttons and coins illegally used instead of tokens) and, best of all, walk through actual subway cars from yesteryear. Judging by the little wicker seats and height of the metal fans, people really were smaller back in the day. Leave the museum and make your way to Smith Street, home to cute shops and great dining at the junction of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill. If you have time, take an indoor skateboarding lesson at Homage (the facilities are about 10 blocks away from the shop). Options for dinner include the 15-odd courses at Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, the only restaurant in Brooklyn to boast three Michelin stars, and the decidedly less fancy, farm-to-table fare at Prime Meats. The night is young, the borough lively: catch some music at Pete’s Candy Store, over in Williamsburg, or head farther east to Bushwick for an artisanal cocktail at The Narrows or a craft pint at The Sampler. No matter what, finish your Brooklyn day with a walk across the namesake bridge: it’s always open, and the view never gets old.
Kick things off at Cafe Sabarsky—if there’s a more elegant breakfast experience to be had in the City, we’ve yet to find it. Modeled after the cafés of Vienna, the space features banquettes upholstered in a 1912 Otto Wagner fabric and lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann. After a repast of Bavarian ham and eggs along with an einspänner (double espresso with whipped cream), cross Fifth Avenue to the Met. The museum covers 2 million square feet, so grab a map and be strategic. Collection highlights include the monumental Temple of Dendur, Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware and works by Van Gogh and other 19th-century masters; find what interests you, and remember that what you don’t see will be waiting for you next time. From the Met, head south through Central Park to Midtown. Your destination: Rockefeller Center and its 70-story-high observation deck, Top of the Rock, or, another dozen or so blocks south, the Empire State Building's 86th- and 102nd-floor observation decks. Reaching the top to marvel at the sights spread out below is reward enough, but why not treat yourself for your accomplishments thus far? Splurge for lunch at Le Bernardin or wander up to Columbus Circle to Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Try the Asian-inflected American food at Má Pêche, part of the Momofuku Restaurant Group. Owner David Chang is among the most influential chefs in the NYC restaurant scene in the last 10 years.
Manhattan: Afternoon and Evening
After lunch, take the subway south to Chelsea and walk along the High Line. The park is extremely popular, but you should be able to find plenty of quiet spots—especially on a weekday. Work your way down the elevated path to the Meatpacking District, where you can take some time for a spin around the airy galleries and outdoor terraces of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which just returned downtown after 60 years on the Upper East Side. Exit the park at the edge of the West Village and wander into Greenwich Village—both neighborhoods abound in pretty, tree-lined streets, welcoming cafés and small, romantic restaurants. A favorite is The Little Owl, a quintessential neighborhood spot. The menu tilts toward seasonal Mediterranean, although the lively, friendly atmosphere is pure New York. For nightlife options, it's back to the Meatpacking District. Swank, trendy Le Bain lets you imagine you’re in an episode of Sex and the City. Less exclusive are nearby bars like Brass Monkey, Corner Bistro and Johnny's. A different yet equally perfect Manhattan evening involves taking the subway to Times Square for a Broadway show. Go with The Phantom of the Opera for the classic route or Kinky Boots for an alternative selection.
Get a sense of the tremendous diversity in Queens by breakfasting at the New World Mall food court. Rather than fare from Subway or Sbarro, you’ll find steamed buns, dumplings, soups and noodles from regions of China, Korea and Hong Kong. After wandering the streets of Flushing and its Chinatown, head over to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The Unisphere, a 140-foot-high steel globe in the middle of a reflecting pool, still stands as a monument to the 1964 World’s Fair. From here you might visit the Queens Museum, whose original building is a relic from an earlier fair—a 2013 renovation brought the venue 50,000 square feet of additional space for new galleries, artists' studios and more. Its most famous holding is a scale model of the City featuring 895,000 buildings constructed before 1992 (and a few built after). Have fun finding your hotel as well as famous landmarks. If you’re a sports fan, detour to Citi Field, where the Mets play, or the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which hosts the US Open every summer. Otherwise, take the subway to Jackson Heights, which boasts amazing Asian and Latin American food. For the former, visit Phayul, which serves Tibetan dishes. For the latter, try Mama’s Empanadas, which counts shredded chicken, apples and cinnamon, and kielbasa and sauerkraut among its empanada offerings.
Queens: Afternoon and Evening
After another quick subway ride, you’re in Astoria. In addition to having some of the finest Greek and Egyptian food around, this neighborhood has a longstanding connection to television and the movies. Indeed, Orange Is the New Black and Sesame Street are two of the shows being shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios, anchor of Astoria’s arts district. Learn all about the fine art of making motion pictures at the Museum of the Moving Image, which counts among its permanent collection the head-spinning dummy from The Exorcist, original Star Wars figurines, and costumes from shows and movies like Mork & Mindy, Chicago and Annie Hall. Make your way over to adjacent Long Island City, also a player in the entertainment business—its Silvercup Studios is home to shows like Girls and Elementary. At the neighborhood’s northern edge, Gantry Plaza State Park offers amazing views of the east side of Manhattan. If you time it right, you just might be able to watch the sun set beyond the United Nations and the Chrysler Building from one of the park’s Adirondack chairs. The neighborhood also has some fine bars, including Dominie’s Hoek, low-key and old school, and the shinier Alewife, with craft beers from around the world. The food at both is good, too. Or you could double back to Jackson Heights and eat your way through the street-food carts that come out along Roosevelt Avenue most evenings.
Staten Island: Morning
Want to see the Statue of Liberty while taking in the sights of New York Harbor—for free? Hop on the Staten Island Ferry. Instead of turning around and heading back to Manhattan, disembark and visit the September 11 Memorial next door to the ferry terminal. This sculpture honors Staten Island residents who died on 9/11. Then catch a bus to Fort Wadsworth; the area was first fortified by the British in the late 1700s, and the present-day fort was built in the mid-1800s and used by the US military until the 1990s. You can visit its historic batteries, admiring the architecture and the views of the City beyond and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge above. Runners will appreciate the fort for another reason: the New York City Marathon starts here. Not far north from Fort Wadsworth, you can learn about the life of Alice Austen, one of the earliest female photographers in the United States, by visiting her house. Continue in the same direction to Lakruwana, where you can sate your hunger with authentic Sri Lankan fare: the restaurant’s massive, all-you-can-eat buffet on Saturdays and Sundays includes deviled chicken and other food bursting from clay pots.
Staten Island: Afternoon and Evening
During the summer, you can watch the Staten Island Yankees battle minor-league foes like the Brooklyn Cyclones, their cross-Narrows rivals. Truth be told, sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on the baseball game, considering the stadium’s great skyline sightlines. Fireworks after Friday and Saturday games add to the fun. Otherwise you might catch a show at St. George Theatre, a baroque performance hall that opened in 1929. (The theater offers tours by appointment during the day.) People often praise restaurants for food just like grandma used to make, but at Enoteca Maria a rotating crew of real Italian nonnas take over the kitchen beginning at 3pm Wednesday through Sunday and produce primi and secondi plates until the food runs out. Speaking of Italian, Staten Island has some of the best pizza in the City. If you can squeeze it in, try the garbage pie (topped with sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, onions and mushrooms) at Denino’s, family owned and operated since 1937. An excellent day deserves an excellent close: you can sip specialty whiskey or craft beer at Ruddy & Dean or check out the channel views while sinking a daiquiri at Tiki Island during the warmer months.