I loved every second of my college experience, but I still I consider my five years post-grad in New York City the best of my life (...so far!). Growing up, I felt a gravitational pull to NYC more than any other place I traveled to – namely because my parents are from New York, my entire extended family lives there, and it's where I was born.
When I finally had the chance to be a real New Yorker, I tried to take full advantage of the food, shopping and experiences it provided. I lived in four neighborhoods (the West Village, Upper East Side, Union Square and NoHo), spent time in most boroughs (...though I never made it to Staten Island) and reveled in every moment.
I kept a running note on my phone with the names of my favorite restaurants that I'm sharing with you below. Food is my strong suit, but I included a couple of shops and experiences below to get you started. Narrowing down my picks was tough, there are so many places I wanted to include but had to do some elimination. I'd love to hear what I missed in the comments – and if you're interested in a more thorough list with activities as well!
Most Instagrammable meal?
Jack's Wife Freda: Everything is made for the 'gram here – from the placemats to the sugar packets. The Mediterranean meals have always hit the spot (I get the Fish à la Plancha or poached eggs with halloumi), and you'll leave with a couple great flat lays.
Buvette: The sister restaurant is in Paris, so you know this location evokes the French atmosphere in the heart of Greenwich Village. Go for the Jambon Cru or an almond croissant (the waffle is a close third!).
Eggshop: Head to the original location (there's another, larger one in Williamsburg). It's perhaps the cutest storefront in Nolita, and possibly even Manhattan. The food is spectacular – if you're willing to wait for a table. Don't skip the sausage, egg and cheese on a biscuit.
Best intimate Italian meal?
L'Artusi: L'Artusi's decor manages to be both cozy and industrial at the same time, while serving some of the best Italian food in the city. I'm a sucker for their spaghetti, kale salad, and olive oil cake.
Charlie Bird: The Italian dishes are tasty, but the wine list is even more impressive. A bit pricey, but an excellent overall experience.
Lilia: This might be my favorite meal in all of New York. Get a reservation a month in advance and arrive a bit early to order a drink at Cafe Lilia. The Agnolotti, Mafaldini and soft-serve gelato are the stars.
Birch: I make a point to hit up Birch whenever I visit NYC. Their cold brew is my favorite of all time, and the lattes are also fantastic.
Jack's: One of the more unique coffeeshops in New York. They have clever coffee combinations (I'm personally a fan of the Mountie, which uses cinnamon and maple syrup) and all vegan pastries.
Happy Bones: A chic, teeny shop in Nolita that's a haven for New York-based celebs. I'm a sucker for their cold brew.
Daily Provisions: Danny Meyer's take on a local pastry and coffee shop that totally hits the spot. Grab a hot coffee and one of their crullers.
Devoción: A coffeeshop so gorgeous, it's truly jaw-dropping. An entire wall is taken over by plants, and their cascara fizz is a great option if you're avoiding caffeine.
Black Seed Bagels: The Montreal-inspired bagels are worth the line. They're a bit smaller than the average NYC bagel, and I love them so much that I get them shipped to me in LA so I can have a taste of the East Coast in California.
Russ and Daughters: Irrefutably a can't-miss in New York. If you want the true lox and bagel experience, get here early. And order the babka French toast for the table.
Sadelle's: A stunning restaurant with a bagel tower you'll want to post on Instagram before you've even finished your meal. Add the sticky buns to your order – they're underrated and don't get the attention they deserve.
H&H: Among the best in the city. It's my family's bagel shop whenever we visit New York and worth every heavenly carb-filled bite.
Morgenstern's: Like an old school ice cream parlor got an Instagram makeover. I love their many vanilla flavors (Bourbon! Burnt honey! Madagascar!) and the Vietnamese coffee.
Levain: An NYC-must for a reason. The dense, decadent cookies are close to the size of your head, and will stay good for a few days after you leave (...or you can freeze them and whip them out at an opportune time!). I personally love the Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip, but can only have a few bites at a time.
Dominique Ansel: Dominique Ansel's worldwide cronut domination is now a bit dated, but I can't recommend his DKA enough. It's one of the most memorable pastries in the city.
Ample Hills: Ooey Gooey Butter Cake remains the top ice cream in my books – but you can find other innovative flavors like Salted Crack'd Caramel and Snap, Mallow, Pop!
Milk Bar: The expansion has already begun, but I still think it's worth visiting the original location in the East Village. A slice of crack pie, birthday cake truffles and some cereal milk ice cream will do the trick.
Rubirosa: Please meet my favorite pizza place in New York – where I hosted birthday celebrations, enjoyed Valentine's Day meals, and did dinner with my parents whenever they were in town. The Tie-Dye is famous, but the Supreme is an underrated winner.
Prince Street: If you're a pepperoni fan, get to Prince Street Pizza. Their square slice is possibly the best bang for your buck in New York.
Joe's: If you're looking for a slice and only have 10 minutes to eat, you only have one choice: Joe's. There are multiple locations throughout the city, with the original in the West Village that epitomizes the New York pizza experience.
Roberta's: The Brooklyn-based pizza has made its way to LA, but the original still reigns supreme. If you're in New York in the summer, sit outside, get a beer and order the Bee Sting.
Community Food & Juice: One of the lesser-known NYC secrets is that Community Food & Juice serves the same pancakes as Clinton Street Baking Co., but with a line that's half as long. They're fluffy, decadent and come with maple butter that will truly change your life.
Ruby's: There are many, many Australian cafes in New York City, and Ruby's is the best of them. I'm personally a fan of the chia muesli for breakfast and the shrimp pasta or the crispy rice bowl for lunch and dinner.
Little Owl: A cozy, cute spot in the West Village (that also happens to be in the building that was used as the facade for Friends!). Their chilaquiles are the tastiest thing on the menu.
Best splurge-worthy restaurant?
Blue Hill: If you can make the trip up to Stone Barns in Tarrytown, you should. If you'd prefer to stay within the city limits, you can get a taste of Dan Barber's food at Blue Hill – at a steep price.
Eleven Madison Park: My first and only time at Eleven Madison Park was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. The service is impeccable, the meal is experimental and the dishes are both inventive and delicious.
Union Square Cafe: Another Danny Meyer institution that's pretty stuffy, but makes a damn good meal. The burger and rigatoni are the stand-outs.
Best Chinese food?
Han Dynasty: My local Chinese restaurant from my time in New York that I still crave to this day. Their peanut noodles will rock your world.
Joe's Shanghai: If you're on the hunt for soup dumplings, this is your spot (but only go to the Chinatown location).
Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodle: A hole-in-the-wall noodle shop on Doyers Street that will give you an authentic New York City Chinese food experience. Order some cucumbers, dumplings and any form of noodles with duck.
Mimi Cheng's: The updated, healthy twist on dumplings. Started by two sisters who brought their mom's dumpling recipes and techniques to the masses (and thank goodness for that).
Best restaurant you'd only find in New York?
Peter Luger Steak House: Peter Luger has been rated the top steakhouse in New York since 1984 and has even earned a Michelin Star. It's an experience, but one worth your time (if you're a meat lover!).
Katz's Deli: You probably know it from the iconic When Harry Met Sally scene, but it's so much more than that. It's a New York institution that actually serves some of the best Jewish deli food around. Matzoh ball soup and a pastrami sandwich are a must.
J.G. Melon: Are you a burger person? If the answer is yes, take a trip to the Upper East Side to experience a purely simple and delicious burger at J.G. Melon. They're conveniently open until 4 AM Thursday through Saturday.
Best New York chain restaurant?
Xi'An Famous Foods: There's a reason this is first on the list: It's cheap, spicy and quick. There are 12 locations that span Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, so you can't miss it.
Mighty Quinn's: Any barbecue lover should test out Mighty Quinn's. The cafeteria-style chain is very solid – the pulled pork and spare ribs are a highlight, and their sweet potato casserole is beyond words.
Dos Toros: The Chipotle competitor makes a mean burrito bowl. Carnitas are the way to go. And be warned: Their hot salsa is one of the spiciest you've ever tried.
Taim: Fantastic falafel to-go – and a great option for vegetarians. I personally love the sabich platter and the date lime banana smoothie.
Freeman's: Not only does Freeman's have one of the most Instagram-friendly entrances in the city, it also has spectacular craft cocktails.
The Bowery Lobby: The bar at the Bowery feels like an underground speakeasy with tons of velvet, leather and cocktails that impress.
Attaboy: This cocktail bar is a local and tourist favorite that just oozes "cool."
Best for big groups?
Miss Lily's: Delicious Jamaican food with warm staff and an eclectic vibe. Don't skip the plantains.
The Smith: The go-to when it comes to big parties. A bit basic, but the comfort food will leave you and your large party full and satisfied. The mac and cheese is a must.
Tacombi: If you're a taco fan, hit up Tacombi. Their authentic Mexican food hits the spot, and you'll feel like you're on a tropical vacation. Any and all tacos are fabulous, the agua frescas are perfectly sweet, and do yourself a favor and order a few corn esquites for the table.
BONUS: Here are a few activities and boutique shops to get your started on your trip.
Touristy place that's actually worthwhile?
9/11 Memorial: A stunning exhibition that honors the people killed in the horrific attacks of September 11. It's moving, tragic and a tribute that you don't want to miss.
The High Line: The city converted a 1.45-mile-long railroad to an elevated park on the west side of Manhattan – and it's spectacular. Expect a ton of tourists, but views and scenery that will make it all worth it.
Chelsea Market: A hub of some of the best food and shops in the city. If you're in the Chelsea area, swing by Amy's Bread or grab a pita sandwich at Miznon.
Brooklyn Bridge: Walk the Brooklyn Bridge if the weather permits. The distance is just the right amount of exercise, and the views are sensational.
Broadway show: This is a personal weakness of mine – I will splurge on experiences, and Broadway musicals happen to be my kryptonite. A couple highlights? Hamilton (unoriginal, I know!), Dear Evan Hansen, and Book of Mormon.
Favorite running loop?
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir: A classic NYC running path. The reservoir is a hub for anyone who lives uptown, and you'll run into several Charlotte York-types squeezing in their morning jog.
Westside Highway: When I lived in Noho, this was my go-to running path. I'd shoot across Houston and up to around 34th Street, with views of Chelsea Piers and a few miles of the Hudson along the way.
Two Bridges Loop: If you're staying in lower Manhattan, I can't recommend this loop enough. There are killer inclines and remarkable views.
Best places to shop?
Duo: The sister-owned boutique is always on my list of places to visit. They sell stunning vintage pieces that are in excellent condition.
The Frankie Shop: An unfussy, minimal boutique with prices that won't offend you. I love their funky and less-traditional pieces, and they have a Parisian outpost that confirmed their cool factor.
Goods for the Study Mulberry: This shop was on my old block, and I found myself visiting and revisiting. It's an entire store dedicated to pens and notebooks – my personal form of heaven.
sundays: Wellness-inspired salon with polishes that are 10-Free, non-toxic, vegan, and cruelty-free. You get beautiful nails without the health risk.
tenoverten: Another non-toxic nail salon on a mission of conscious nail care. Adorable spaces that are very on-trend, without being too trendy.
Paintbox: Modern and sleek interior with some of the most eye-catching gel designs you've ever seen. The entire experience is extremely elevated and will have you reaching for your phone to upload your manicure to Instagram immediately.
SLT: Want abs within a month? Hit up SLT. The pilates-inspired workout is all about strengthening, lengthening and toning and will whip you into shape.
Rumble: If Barry's and a boxing studio had a baby, it would be called Rumble. It's a fun, high-paced class that leaves you drenched in sweat.
Sky Ting: The most blissful yoga experience in the busiest city in the world. Every time I stepped into Sky Ting, I forgot the stress and craziness of New York and could just be present, relaxing and get in a killer workout.