New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide

21st Feb 2020

Times Square, Manhattan, New York City

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal

One out of 3 people that I have met or spoken to have most profoundly confessed to New York being their "dream city". It is wild, loud, bubbling with energy, fast-paced. The Manhattan skyline or the streets of NYC find themselves publicized on all popular TV shows, movies, books that most of use grew up reading, watching.

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide 1/4 by Ganga Shinghal
Artists of NYC
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide 2/4 by Ganga Shinghal
The yellow-taxis of Manhattan
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide 3/4 by Ganga Shinghal
People in different costumes at Times Sqaure, NYC.

How many of us have fantasized ourselves on the F.R.I.E.N.D.S couch or dreamed of watching 'The Phantom of the Operah" on Broadway, NYC certainly rates as the most popular cities in the whole world.

As student or more appropriately low-budget travelers seeking to explore the glamorous Manhattan may seem a task. But here I've got you covered.

Notably, hotel/transport rates in new York vary according to the season and festivities. So choosing a relatively quite period in late September/October once schools and universities open and before the cold winter sets in or late Feb/early March before the spring break can save you on time, money and also add to the charm of exploring the touristy areas to your heart's content. Nonetheless, the crowd in some of the most iconic places such as Brooklyn bridge or the Liberty Island Ferry can be taxing and preferring a weekday to explore is wiser.

Before we start, remember a few things, a hand-printed map of New York with a clearly laid out subway map, a good pair of walking shoes, a bottle of water, some dry nut/ cookies/ snack and a small backpack is all you need as you set out exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn.


An interconnected distributed network of subway lines connect the corners of New York to its main industrial hub. If you plan to commute by subway mostly getting a 7-day pass for 33 dollars is the best bet and it can be purchased at any subway station. Note, there are no day passes. A subway map helps as the interconnected dense network may seem confusing in the beginning. Though most stations in Manhattan are based on street number and thus, easier to navigate than some other metropolitan cities I have visited.

Flying to New York wasn't an economical option. Studying across the border in Toronto, I opted for the 12 hour night bus operated by Megabus, though GreyHound is an option too. These buses drop you off at The 7th and 27th Avenue or the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide 4/4 by Ganga Shinghal
NYC subway. Note the street no on the walls. Easy to find your way in NYC

Now Manhattan is laid out geometrically in a grid-like strucure with the the streets running parallel from west to east direction are labelled as 34/47/23 etc street while those running from north to south are called 1,2,3... avenue. Simply put, if you go walk north the streets are in ascending order while if you go west the avenues are in ascending order. Finding your way can't get easier as you don't have to worry about street names for the most part, especially in Manhattan.

The streets of New York have interesting stories to tell. From the street vendors, to the tallest of buildings, from the symbolic yellow taxis to the tourists who throng this place from all over the world.

Day 1

Walking up north from the bus stand, you hit the famous Empire State Building, on 35th and 5th (street & avenue) further north-east is the famous Grand Central Station (any Madagascar fans, here). The iconic clock coupled with its distinctive architecture and interior design has transformed into a shopping, dining and cultural hub with a dozen events throughout the year. You can either walk to the station or take the Shuttle (Train S) from the central 42nd and 7th subway station, that will bring you close to the iconic square that is virtually the trademark for New York, the Time Square.

Times Square at the junction of Broadway and 7th ave is the center of the entertainment industry, of glittering lights and fancy billboards, of tonnes of people, of aspirations, commercialization and glamorization of the world.

One can notice a large section of people who derive their livelihood from the popularity of the place. Whether it is those who dress up as Disney characters, or as the Statue of liberty, or the street vendors who sell dream-catchers or caps and gloves, to the numerous artists who are more than happy to do a sketch for you, one must sit on the red steps at Times Square and take in the atmosphere and fell the vibes. If you are a "Phantom of the Opera Person", or a "Lion King" fan, it is a lifetime opportunity to see it at the Broadway. Book your tickets in advance though, I would recommend.

The View from Cent

Photo of Central Park, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

Living in Manhattan, is not something many people can afford, but if you choose a not-so-busy time of the year (mentioned above), you can get a stay as cheap as 30$ per night, and that's what I was fortunate to get too at HI New York City Hostel in upper west Manhattan, well connected by Line 1 and ideally located with the 103 subway station just one block away. A few blocks to the west is the Hudson river which presents a unique waterfront experience, if you love walking/running along them. Moreover, the hostel is equipped with a kitchen, a cafe, a small library, a unique theater, billiards table and other games. It presents you with the opportunity of interacting with fellow travelers and for its economical costs provides with you so many things to enjoy at, besides just a hotel room. Personally, I recommend hostels to hotels any day, as they also have different options from two to a room to 10 to a room, based on your budget and preference.

The HI Hostel located at the junction of Amsterdam Ave and 104 st in Upper West Manhattan

Photo of HI New York City Hostel, Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal
Day 2

The second day, I caught with up with a close friend of mine from my undergrad engineering days in India, who was studying in Boston. We choose to walk from the bus stand at 7th and 27th right down to Battery Park, where we had booked a ferry to the Liberty and Ellis Island at 12 noon. You can chose to take the Line 1/2 subway that traverses Manhattan from north to south.

Our first stop was the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, a tribute to the dozens who lost their lives in the ghastly 9/11 attacks and the newly constructed World Trade Park. It can also be reached via the Cortlandt Subway station on Line 1. Every day till date, relatives and loved ones of those who lost their lives come with white roses and flowers to remember their lost ones.

Remembering those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks at the 9/11 memorial

Photo of World Trade Center, Manhattan, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

The Wall street is close to the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, famous for the trading bull where there is always a line-up for dozens of visitors line up for a photograph. While walking down the streets, make sure you look down for the sidewalks which are decorated with plaques, granite markers, art installations, hand-prints and other markers to commemorate important locations and people.

The symbolic bull at Wall Street

Photo of Wall Street, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

The granite markers on the streets of NYC commemorating important events

Photo of Wall Street, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

The highlight of the trip was the ferry ride to Liberty and Ellis Island from Battery Park, New York. Alternatively, this trip can be taken from New Jersey. We had already walked 10 km by then, so we sat on the benches facing the sea shore, waiting for out time slot.

A relatively cold winter morning in the off-season, yet there was nearly a mile-long line for the ferry. Thanks to the advice of my friend, I booked the tickets to the Statue Cruises through their official site. ( ) . I recommend the Pedestal Reserve Ticket for $19.25 and gives you access to climb up to the Pedestal over just the reserve or basic ticket which costs the same. (Book at least a few days in advance). The Crown ticket is icing on the cake if you can afford it that takes you close to the top of the Statue with a view unimaginable and a breeze so soothing. For if you dreamed of New York, here you are with the perfect bird's eye view of Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey.

NOTE : (Remember there are black marketers and fake sites that may try to sell illegal tickets at high costs. They will be not be accepted at the boarding line. Also, take note that their is security at boarding and landing. So no big bags, food, sharp metallic objects)

Streaming past on the cruise, as a jet of strong wind hits you, as the cruise slowly crosses the Statue making its way to the docking station, you are reminded of liberty, of all those immigrants who escaped horrendous conditions and torture in their native lands, especially during the World Wars, and came to the shores of America to experience freedom. To imagine the joy of an immigrant that arrived by ship after miles of travels and years of pain to see this lady with her symbol of enlightenment, welcoming the incomers and showing them the path to Liberty, to live the "American Dream".

Cruising along with the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline

Photo of Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

Once on the island, you will be greeted by the American flag and the Statue of Liberty Museum. Housed within the Statue of Liberty Museum are three interactive galleries that tell the statue's history in thought-provoking ways. Each gallery is designed to inspire visitors and has different experiences such as the immersive theater and interactive gallery with a roof deck. Honestly, the coolest and most surreal activity is the visitor interaction center where each visitor can enter their nationality, the meaning of liberty for them and get a picture clicked. As thousands of visitors join in, an interactive display called the Liberty Wall coalesces them all to form the Statue of Liberty.

The interactive display where visitors can find themselves on the screen to form an image of Statue of Liberty - Liberty Musuem

Photo of Liberty Island, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

No extra ticket required. Every half-an-hour a ferry heads over to Ellis Island from the Liberty Island, home to one of the largest museums of immigration. Stories of pain and suffering, of freedom and happiness, of escape and liberation, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration takes you back in time through pictures, texts, letters, artifacts of countless immigrants who had washed up on the shores of New York to lead a life free from poverty, torture, deprivation or oppression, to become accomplished men and women in society. An immersive audio tour is included in the ticket package.

The Immigration Museum at Ellis Island

Photo of Ellis Island, United States by Ganga Shinghal

As travelers, we often find ourselves attracted to unique and ancient architectural styles, but what if I tell you about a unique creation of modern architecture, the Vessel. To reach this, you can either walk west on 34th street till you reach 10th ave, or you can ride one spot on line no 7 from 7th and 42nd street (subway close to Time square) to Hudson sq yards.

This building is designed in an intricate honeycomb-like structure. It rises 16 stories and consists of 154 flights of stairs, 2,500 steps, and 80 landings for visitors to climb and you can do it for free, to be rewarded with excellent views of the New Jersey skyline (budget travelers, eh!!!) . Just remember, to pre-book your time slot on their website since the site is highly visited. Booking a few hours on a weekday and a day or two before on a weekend is ideal. ( If you are a fitness freak, this is the best exercise I can assure you and it is for free, unlike most NYC viewing monuments (eg Rockefeller Center)

Of modern art - The uniquely designed VESSEL

Photo of The Vessel, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

For all the fans of the iconic F.R.I.E.N.D.S saga, this is for you. Back on the subway line 1 get off at Christopher Street Station stop and walk a few meters west to the famous building on Bedford street. I was flooded with requests from friends to send in some pictures for it reminded them of their childhood and this iconic serial.

The famous F.R.I.E.N.D.S building

Photo of Friends Apartment, Bedford Street, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal
Day 3

The famous dosa-walla food truck

New York food vendor Thiru Kumar, better known as the Dosa Man opened his tiny world-renowned cart, NY Dosas , in 2001. Today he has amassed a cult following; local and international tourists visit year-round to buy his inexpensive but tasty vegan delight. He has been listed on numerous TV shows, NYC tourist guides and I knew I had to visit his stall to satisfy my cravings for south Indian food. Enjoy his hospitality amidst the vibrancy at Washington Square Park which is a hotspot for students from NYC state university and numerous souvenir vendors. Washington square park is close to the F.R.I.E.N.D.S building. Once you reach the Christopher street station, you can walk down south to reach the Park.

The famous NYC dosa-truck in Washington Square Park

Photo of Washington Square Park, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

Spanning the East River between the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn lie two bridges, the pedestrian-popular and photogenic Brooklyn bridge and the commercial Manhattan bridge. The Brooklyn bridge is a hybrid cable-stayed/suspension bridge known for its uniquely designed arches. Walking down the bridge at sunset/evening not only gives a brilliant view of the sunset over the Liberty statue. This bridge is extremely crowded during evenings though. Most tourists are unable to find their way to the entrance of the pedestrian route to the bridge and we were no different. However, a little girl and her dog guided us to the steps.

The Brooklyn bridge park is a vast stretch of the waterfront buzzing with people, activities like beach volleyball, merry-go-rounds, the Fulton Ferry Terminal, kayaking, vast green spaces to relish the sun and a fitness lover's delight. Besides providing excellent view of the Manhattan skyline along with the setting sun, one can also see the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge.

Just prior to entering is the quintessential DUMBO, where photographers love framing their subjects to the backdrop of the Manhattan bridge perfectly framed between two buildings. Once you cross over the Brooklyn bridge from Manhattan, walk down north (towards Manhattan) on Brooklyn Bridge Boulevard and Pearl street to reach the popular site. The sunset view is spectacular as the rays streams past the bridge and onto the street, lighting up the buildings and making it a perfect destination for a number of wedding and engagement photo shoots.

The icing on a long day of walking was a reward to walk on the Shores Parkway with a view of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. It is the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere, connecting the New York City boroughs of Staten Island and Brooklyn. Not many tourists go there, but thanks to a friend who stays in Brooklyn, I got the opportunity to walk along Shores Parkway at night.

The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Brooklyn

Photo of Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Staten Island, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal
Day 4

The hub of international human rights, peace, economics, security, finance, the United Nations was formed post World War 2 to enhance cooperation and partnership among countries and to prevent another war-like situation. I do advise you to visit the United Nations Headquarters. It is one-in-a-lifetime-opportunity and the guided tour plus the pictures and stories up on display take you through the history of the world and current affairs.

The United Nations Headquarters

Photo of United Nations Headquarters, New York, NY, USA by Ganga Shinghal

Moving up north, you would end up at one of the most popular and large urban parks of the world, Central Park. Central Park has a wide array of services to cater to the tastes of all kinds of travelers. The zoo or the ice skating rink, the castle replica, the trails besides the ponds, the food trucks and children playgrounds, I walked right across Central Park. Of course, you could opt for a cycle (there are a number of bike rentals all over) or a horse carriage or rickshaw ride. It is so fascinating to see this amalgamation of a concrete jungle with the natural jungle just meters apart.

To get a glimpse of the park, climb the small rocky mounds interspersed all over to have a view from the top. As runners and fitness enthusiasts train on one side and horse carriages give tourists a historical tour of the place, just sitting and relishing the warmth in the winter sun and absorbing the sights, I felt relaxed.

This holiday meant so much to me. If you are a grad research student with colleagues who work 16 hours a day and hence, you too are deprived from any holiday or break, you would know what it is like to make an impromptu plan, to catch a night bus to a different country , just to feel, liberated.

Walking around the two rectangular 1-acre pools with man-made waterfalls represent the footprints of the Twin Towers, symbolizing the loss of life and the physical void left by the attacks. Engraved in black marble are the names of the people who were killed and those from the fire, police and other services who sacrificed their lives. Swamp white oak trees fill the Memorial plaza, enhancing the site's reflective nature. If you are looking for a more complete experience with a guided tour and a visit to the 9/11 museum there are paid tickets, and considering how frequented it is, getting tickets online in advance is advised. One can't miss out on the unique Oculus, a transport, food and shopping center, shaped like an unearthly creature with massive wings or the innumerable graffiti for a photo-shoot.

The uniquely-designed Oculus at the World Trade Center Memorial Site

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal

Once inside you can take a walk around the monument and enter (remember to lock your bags in the locked provided) and climb up to the pedestal/crown depending on your ticket. The breeze, the view and the sense of freedom that you get is unrivaled.

Heading back one can take the ferry that leaves Ellis Island for either New York or New Jersey.

After a long day, we choose to walk a bit more to experience the night life at Times Square.

Walk / take the subway line 2/3/4/5 to Brooklyn bridge city hall subway station. Close to central street and under the over-bridge there are is a small entrance with steps leading onto Brooklyn bridge promenade. The bridge is dotted with tourists, photographers, cyclists and local sellers who have a wide variety of NYC souvenirs, and paintings. There's a 9/11 tribute and an image display that shows Lower Manhattan when the twin towers were part of the skyline. You can in fact, cross the bridge to end up at Brooklyn, and make your way to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The long stretch of land running all the way around Brooklyn is often used by runners and cyclists to train. The cool breeze flowing from the Hudson river and the view of the skyline was a perfect end to a long day. And as a budget traveler, experiences like these add value to a trip since they take you to offbeat locations at virtually no cost. If you're already on Brooklyn bridge park you need to take the R train from Court Street station to Bay Ridge -95 street.

To visit the UN, one must have a passport from a country which is a member of the UN. Since these are guided tours, you need to book your visit online. Tours are available in the official languages of the UN and can be booked at-least two-three days in advance (so that you get availability in one of their time slots). There are cheaper tickets for students. Remember though, the visit can be only be done on a weekday. On arrival, they check your passport and luggage (only small backpacks allowed) and then you proceed to the main hall where the display changes from time to time. During my visit in late Feb, the holocaust and the gas chambers in Germany was the subject along with stories of Jews who managed to escape the torture and were able to share their stories.

The 45-minute guided tour takes you to the various chambers of the UN including the General Assembly and the Security Council. It is a surreal feeling being able to sit in the chambers where top leaders of the world discuss almost every issue concerning the world and also to see the podium at the General Assembly from where some of the greatest leaders have addressed the world. Of course, you can pick up some souvenirs from the plaza where you even find UN chocolates.

The UN General Assembly hall

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal

The UN security council

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal

Any backpacking trip is incomplete if you do not walk along the streets to immerse in the local culture and engage with street vendors. In fact, street vendors and artists are harbingers of the identity of a place.

With a few hours for my return bus, I decided to walk around the streets of NYC looking out for souvenir sellers, street sketchers, musicians who produced sounds out of discarded utensils and paint boxes, street dancers or simply daily walkers. Here is a compilation of some of the sights that fascinated me. From the yellow taxis, to horse carriages, to street art, graffiti walls and finally people. Of course, if you have a higher budget you can opt for the NYC hop-on hop-off buses to catch a glimpse of the streets.

Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal
Photo of New York - A backpackers budget-friendly tour-guide by Ganga Shinghal

There are a dozen more sights, a score more experiences and hundred different ways to explore when you venture to a different city. Some go sight-seeing, some prefer off-beat places, some love luxury, some opt for the economical options, some love walking, some choose guided tours, some go for the food, some love shopping, whatever may your preference be, this was an attempted breakdown of a 3.5 day budget tour to NYC.

Hope this virtual trip has excited you to set out to start planning a trip once the situation improves. And one lesson that we can all pick up in today's Corona Virus Pandemic is to be grateful for the times we are able to travel.

Stay safe. Read up travel blogs, Write your own. Stay home for the time being!!!

You can also follow my photo-blog @a_reason_to_travel on Instagram to learn about new place/experiences.