For those who don’t mind a non-stop vacation (always on the move!), here is my outline of how to see the best of NYC–- all 5 boroughs of it!–- in 4 days, assuming you get an early start each day and have good weather.
DAY ONE: Fair or not, most people dismiss Staten Island and the Bronx as the lesser of the boroughs, so let’s get those out of the way first (while also doing a small part of Manhattan and Brooklyn).
Start your day at Battery Park, the lowest tip of Manhattan. From there, you can take the Staten Island ferry. Not only will you sail past the Statue of Liberty, but you can cross Staten Island off the list, and get right back on the next boat back to Manhattan! Once back, walk up Broadway (hey there’s the Wall St bull!). Veer right once you hit City Hall Park, and look for the Brooklyn Bridge. Once you get across, continue the path into downtown Brooklyn. Look for Borough Hall, where you can get a Bronx-bound 2 train. Take that to Pelham Pkwy, and treat yourself to a few hours at the Bronx Zoo. Exit the zoo at the western pedestrian exit (by W. 183rd). Walk east to Arthur Ave, then up that street to experience the ‘Little Italy’ of the Bronx. Turn east on Fordham Rd, and get a B or D train down to Yankee Stadium to catch a game.
DAY TWO: For the second day, you’re returning to Brooklyn!
Start the day by taking the L train to the Bedford stop in Williamsburg, and explore the heart of NYC hipsterdom. When you’re done, walk over to Metropolitan Ave, and head east… at Havemeyer St, be sure to take a detour into the The City Reliquary Museum for an off-beat look at NYC history. A few blocks from there, take the G train down to Hoyt St and transfer to a Manhattan-bound A/C for two stops to High St. From there, walk down Old Fulton St until you get to Brooklyn Bridge Park. After exploring all of that, head to the south end of the park, and turn up Atlantic Ave, then south again at Court St. Boerum Hill/Cobble Hill/Carroll Gardens is a really nice area to walk through, and quintessentially Brooklyn. Turn east when you hit Union St, and you’ll get to walk past the Gowanus Canal (so toxic! so hip!) on your way through Park Slope. Where Union ends, you’ll find yourself at Grand Army Plaza and and the northern entrance to Prospect Park. You’ll want to take your time exploring this park. When you get to the south end of the park, head for the subway (the F train at Fort Hamilton if the west side; the Q at Parkside if the east side), and head to the end of the line and Coney Island. End your Brooklyn adventure with a hot dog at Nathan’s, riding some historic rides, and taking in the people watching on the boardwalk.
DAY THREE: Get ready for a day of exploring the queen to Brooklyn’s king.
Start the day by taking the 7 train to Vernon Blvd and your first neighborhood of the day… Long Island City. There’s a really nice waterfront park here, and a lot of new development along the river. From this area, walk north into Astoria. If you’re into pop culture, you will want to aim for the Museum of the Moving Image on 35th Ave. From there, take a Queens-bound R train to Roosevelt Ave/Jackson Heights. This area of Queens is very diverse, and will be heaven to fans of ethnic foods. After this, get on a Flushing-bound 7 train and go to 111 St. Walk down to Flushing-Meadows-Corona Park, which is bigger overall than either Central Park or Prospect Park, though showing its age far more. Check out the old structures from past Worlds Fairs, and the panorama at the Queens Museum. Head south along the pedestrian bridge that crosses the LIE to see Meadow Lake and the southern end of the park. When you get to the end of the park, start walking west (even past Queens Blvd) until you get to Forest Hills. Wander to the southeast end of the neighborhood (look for the private streets) to see what, I think, is NYC’s most gorgeous residential neighborhood. Grab dinner somewhere along Austin St, then treat yourself to a LIRR ride back to Manhattan.
DAY FOUR: Exhausted yet? Too bad, you still have Manhattan to explore!
Start your day by taking the A, C, D, or B train up to 125st St in Harlem. Walk past the Apollo Theater, and head to Marcus Garvey Park. From here, head south down 5th Ave. The stretch of 5th between 105th and 82nd Sts is known as Museum Mile, where you can find, among others, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of the City of New York, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once you are done with this, enter Central Park at the 79th St entrance, and head west toward Belvedere Castle. From there, you can head south through the rambles, cross the Bow Bridge, and see the Bethesda Fountain, continue down through the mall, and down toward the Pond. Exit the park on the southwest tip, and head back down 5th Ave to see NYC’s most famous shopping strip. In between 50th & 49th Sts, head into Rockefeller Center. Continue west from there, and head down Broadway for… you guessed it… Times Square. After avoiding an army of costumed buskers, head east on 42nd St to Grand Central Station. Walk back up to 5th Ave. and head down to 34th St, where you will find the Empire State Building, a favorite of giant apes and tourists alike. Walk down 34th St, and head all the way west. At 11th Ave. you will find thenorthern end of the High Line. You can walk the length of the High Line all the way down into the West Village. You’ll want to make your way east through the Village’s winding streets 'til you hit Washington Square Park. From here, head east into the East Village and/or the Lower East Side, grab a late dinner, and toast yourself to a very full vacation.
And if you need help planning such an adventure, I am happy to help!
[Bonus tip! Unless you like missing flights, never take a cab from Manhattan to JFK Airport (LaGuardia? You should be fine). Grab a LIRR train to Jamaica at Penn Station, transfer to the AirTrain to JFK. Cheaper, quicker.]