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Tips for visiting Times Square for the first time by a New Yorker

Like Shibuya Station in Tokyo and the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Times Square is an imminently recognizable tourist stop. The ads on the giant screens at One Times Square – where the New Year’s Eve ball drops every year – might change, but the energy of the intersection has only grown with time.

Times Square sits in the heart of Manhattan’s Theatre District, spanning West 42nd to West 47th Streets across Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Some sources extend this designation to 40th and 53rd Streets and 6th to 9th Avenues.  This article will discuss the best things to do in Times Square with input from New Yorkers with some helpful tips for visiting Times Square for the first time.

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Times Square encompasses the Theatre District and sits in the center of Midtown Manhattan. Central Park, Penn Station, and Rockefeller Center are all within easy walking distance, as well as Hell’s Kitchen, which is not as scary as it sounds and actually is home to a number of noteworthy bars and restaurants and my favorite Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. You’ll also be able to be in the background of many popular news programs as they film!

In the heart of Times Square, the streets literally glitter and shimmer in the mid-afternoon sun. The light cast from the LCD screens on the buildings make it feel like mid-day even after the sun has set. When I hear Jay-Z sing “Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,” on Top 40 radio, my mind inevitably flashes to visions of Times Square.

I remember walking through the city with my mom as a child. We’d circumvent 42nd Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue. Back in the 1960s, when my mother was a young adult, this intersection was at the very edge of New York’s “Red Light District,” which extended from 24th to 42nd streets across Fifth Avenue to Seventh Avenue. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. Just that 42nd Street was to be avoided on the walk from Penn Station to Rockefeller Center. It’s since been cleaned up—and renovated by various New York mayors.

However, Times Square is NOT something you want to avoid today. It’s a bustling center of tourist activity and commercialism that should be part of any New York City vacation, even if just for a brief stop. If you only have a day in Times Square, I’ve spotlighted some of the must-see stops, including places to eat and activities for the whole family.

The worst thing today’s tourists have to worry about is being chased down by Elmo or Iron-man for a photo – for a price, of course. Do not take a photo with any of these random characters roaming Times Square.

A brief history of Times Square

Whatever you do, just don’t call it “Time Square.” Originally named Longacre Square, the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue got the name Times Square when the New York Times moved its headquarters to the building at One Times Square in 1904.  Although New Yorkers are guilty of blurring the words together, it’s really Times Square.

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In 2009 Broadway in Times Square was closed to vehicular traffic, bringing about even more positive changes in the commercial neighborhood. The change was made permanent in 2010, leaving only 7th Avenue open to vehicles. If you’re walking through Times Square, Broadway is the way to go, with foot traffic moving at a steady pace thanks to the entire street – not just sidewalks – being open to pedestrians. You’ll also find benches and tables in the middle of Times Square where you can sit down amid the hustle and bustle. (For tips for visiting Times Square for New Years Eve, click here!)

The entire area has plenty to explore – including many free attractions and fun flagship stores that are fun to pop into.  Exhibitions and attractions change frequently throughout the year, so look up temporary exhibitions that might be occurring during your visit.

That’s the thing about Times Square. It’s always evolving to deliver more of what New York City residents and visitors want. The only constant is change in the city that never sleeps.  The attractions I’m sharing have staying power (one can hope) but visit them now because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

The TKTS Booth

Hoping to catch an affordable Broadway play on the spur-of-the-moment? The TKTS Booth is your place to be. You can grab same-day tickets to top Broadway shows for up to 50% off. Make sure to download the free app to see what’s available before you wait in line.

Even if a show isn’t on your agenda, you should climb the famed red stairs and people watch. There’s no better vantage point to take in the energy of Times Square and rest your feet.

The Naked Cowboy

You may want to avoid Spiderman, the Statue of Liberty, et al., running around seeking photo ops. But you’ll want to seek out New York’s legendary Naked Cowboy. There are imposters in the city, so make sure you’ve got the real one before you grab that photo opp.

Robert John Burck is now nearly 50 years old, but still looks good in his cowboy boot, white briefs, and a strategically placed guitar. You can hire the Naked Cowboy for your event for a mere $1,000 – or try to catch him in Times Square or another New York area appearance. He was recently spotted at a gym in Astoria, Queens, showing that he’s as strong as he is cool. Unfortunately, due to a steady schedule of other public appearances, he is not as much of a staple in Times Square as he was several years ago. But he’s still around, so keep an eye out for him!

Shop until you drop!

In the heart of Times Square, you’ll find many flagship stores for many major chains. Editor Karen loves stepping into UNIQLO for well-made clothes (including winter jackets) and cute t-shirts. Old Navy is great for cute yet affordable clothes along with US-themed clothing.

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Souvenir shop for classic New York items

If you attended a Broadway show and passed on the $40 t-shirt, it’s likely you’ll find a souvenir to take home at the Phantom of Broadway. This classic New York City shop features all sorts of New York City merch, from hoodies to mugs.

An insider tip from Karen: If you are looking to save on classic NYC themed merchandise, many of the major flagships sell cute yet reasonably priced New York souvenirs. When I was last in Times Square, I stepped into the Old Navy for a bit of shipping. I saw many cute New York t-shirts, study canvas bags, and hats adorned with different New York designs. Even with regular use for groceries, my NYC tote bag from Old Navy has been holding up well!

M&Ms World

Looking for something free and sweet in Times Square The three-story M&Ms World on Broadway should be your next stop. Open from 9 AM to midnight, the M&Ms World store boasts a 50-foot wall of chocolate where you can choose from a rainbow of M&M colors.

When it launched years ago, the interactive M&M Mood Analyzer represented state-of-the-art technology. The attraction still garners a line, but it’s far less exciting to see what color M&M your mood represents when you could, instead, have your face or a customized message printed on an M&M.

Hershey’s Chocolate World 

If milk chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hand, isn’t your thing, hop across the street to Hershey’s Chocolate World. The smell of milk chocolate will immediately assault your senses – which is a good thing for many of us.

My favorite spots include the giant s’mores served up fresh, the Hershey’s Kitchen offering an array of sweet treats … See where I’m going here? The Hershey’s store is the perfect dessert stop and so much more than a retail experience. You can also choose from chocolate bars with personalized wrappers and plenty of Hershey’s apparel.

Where to eat in Times Square

Editor’s note: Many New Yorkers avoid eating in Times Square like the plague. You can save a lot by heading west to Hell’s Kitchen, which is full of affordable dining options. In a pinch, you can always stop for a coffee or a snack in Times Square. I usually stop at Europa Cafe for a reasonable snack.

Ellen’s Stardust Diner

If the sweetest intersection in New York City has your taste buds tingling but you’re craving savory sustenance, it’s time for a stop at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Located on the outskirts of Times Square near Rockefeller Center, Ellen’s Stardust Diner is modeled after a 1950s diner and features frequent singing and dancing performances from the staff – many who are aspiring Broadway artists.

Featuring reasonably priced burgers and the obligatory delicious fries, Ellen’s has always been one of my favorite places to grab a bite in New York. One of my best memories was chewing on grilled cheese and watching with my best friend as a waitress performed “Defy Gravity” from Wicked, leaving me in awe of her talent. I don’t know her name, but I hope she made it to Broadway because she deserved it.

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Ellen’s doesn’t take reservations and the line can be long, so don’t be afraid to pick up some chocolate from Hershey’s Chocolate World to eat while you wait.

Carmine’s Italian Restaurant

If you’re looking for an original New York restaurant, stop into the world-famous Carmine’s. Southern Italian food (read: the Italian favorites you know and love, like ravioli, eggplant parmigiana, and chicken marsala, along with a generous selection of pastas in your choice of sauce) all served family-style will leave everyone full and happy.

Tony’s Di Napoli would be second on my list for great Italian fare – some of my friends rank it number one. With Little Italy rapidly disappearing, it’s good that you don’t have to leave Midtown to get authentic Italian food and Tony’s location on 34th Street in the Casablanca Hotel makes it perfect for pre- and post-theatre crowds. (If you’re looking for the real thing, head up to the Bronx to experience Arthur Avenue!)

Enjoy a local artisanal coffee

Editor’s note. There is absolutely no shortage of coffee in Times Square. One of my favorite places to get a coffee to go before just sitting among the chaos of Times Square is For Five Coffee Times Square. Unlike many of the chains in times Square, For Five is run by two friends from Queens who roast their own beans in New York City. Their coffee is absolutely delicious and you’ll not regret skipping Starbucks in favor of For Five. I also recommend their very melty chocolate chip cookies, but you cannot go wrong with the food here! They are vegan-friendly. (You can sit in the middle of Times Square if you get it to-go!)

Gulliver’s Gate

When dinner is done, it’s time to continue your Times Square adventure at Gulliver’s Gate, an interactive pop-up exhibit unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Deemed “the most technologically advanced & interactive museum of miniatures on the planet,” I can guarantee Gulliver’s Gate is something you’ve never seen or experienced before. 

If you thought the Queens Museum Panorama of the City of New York was cool, Gulliver’s Gate ramps up that concept to the nth degree, recreating more than 25 cities across 5 continents in an industry-standard HO scale. You can put yourself directly into the experience by having a miniature model of yourself recreated – take it home or leave it in Gulliver’s Gate to become a part of history.

The exhibit is expensive, as many New York City pop-ups are, but it can be included as one of the exhibits in CityPass or it can be your +1 after your Ripley’s Museum experience. That’s kind of a “big” deal.

Haven Rooftop

Rooftop bars are a growing trend in New York City. I mean, rooftops have been cool since the kids from Friends gathered there, but the number of hotels and restaurants offering rooftop seating has grown since the ‘90s.

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The Haven Rooftop bar, located at the top of The Sanctuary Hotel on 47th Street, is about as hip as you can get. Serving brunch, dinner, and craft cocktails, the Haven is the perfect place to unwind after your day of sightseeing in Times Square. With an enclosed area boasting floor-to-ceiling windows and an outside balcony, the Haven is all about the ambiance and the view. (And of course, tasty fare.) Use Open Table to reserve your seat and end your night in New York’s Times Square on a high note. 

A bit of kitsch

Editor’s note: It’s hard to deny the more kitschy and touristy elements of Times Square that make it popular with tourists. It should be noted that both Madame Tussauds Wax Museum and Ripley’s Believe It or Not exist in many cities around the world, so there’s nothing wrong with skipping these attractions. (These are both popular with families.)

Located on 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, Madame Tussauds is a longstanding Times Square attraction that has evolved to deliver so much more than wax figures. Sure, you’ll want to pose with your favorite celebs. People have been doing that since before Insta was a thing.

Ripley’s is awe-inspiring, exciting, and lots of fun for the whole family. Best of all, it’s open late, especially on the weekends. If you have some time before a Broadway show, you can spend a few hours being spooked and mystified by everything from shrunken heads to a medieval torture chamber. Ripley’s is not for the squeamish, but it’s definitely a visit you’ll remember.

Entry is pricey for both are pricey, but both attractions are included as part of a New York Pass®, which could be a worthwhile investment if you’re visiting three or more Manhattan attractions during your trip. Ripley’s offers a Ripley’s + 1 ticket where you can save almost half off your entry fee while enjoying another popular attraction such as Ellis Island, Brooklyn’s Luna Park, and Gulliver’s Gate. New York is expensive, but you can find bargains if you plan ahead.

In sum…

If you’re seeking to experience the pulse of New York City, Times Square is the place to be. Many other neighborhoods have their own character and flair, but a stop in Times Square will be the New York memory you’ll always treasure.

The iconic Crossroads of the World and the place where time turns on New Year’s Eve, Times Square is quintessential New York. A blend of people, shopping, art, performance, and technology, there is just so much to see it can overwhelm the senses. And it’s possibly one of the most amazing places on Earth.

Have you visited Times Square?

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