What to Watch and Read Before You Visit New York City – Fodor’s Travel

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These are the best books, movies, and TV shows about New York.

There is perhaps no better way to understand the greatness of New York City—its multitude of personalities, histories, and crowded city blocks—than through the works of the many talented writers that have called it home over the years. Classic New York City films, in all their romance and nostalgic splendor, define the way we think of the city—while more contemporary films make way for all-new mythologies. The best New York City television is simply about being a New Yorker: what it takes to thrive (or simply survive) in the city, and the relationships, jobs, daily struggles, and navigations that go along with it.

In her National Book Award-winning memoir, artist, poet, and punk-rock-movement founder Patti Smith creates a beautiful love letter: both to her dear friend, the deceased photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and to the New York City of their shared youth, where the two lived and learned as artists in the late 1960s and ‘70s. With this mix of poetry, dream, and sobering realities, Smith is particularly adept at capturing the mood of being young in the city at this particular time, and all those fleeting, poignant moments that exist right on the brink of change, success, and heartbreak.

Little, Brown and Company

This Dickensian feat of a novel spans Manhattan from the dark corners of the East Village, to the wealthy enclave of the Upper East Side, and everywhere in between. Linked to the book’s other characters through an inciting major tragedy (and subsequent smaller ones), the novel’s antihero is full of moral contradictions and personality flaws, but his journey (from a preteen into adulthood) is fascinating, and it’s impossible not to want to follow along.

This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel traces the lives of two brothers, before, during, and after their glory days as performing musicians, moving from Havana to New York City during the height of the mambo trend in the 1950s (at their peak, meeting Desi Arnaz and earning a musical cameo on I Love Lucy). The story is filled with the memories and music of life in the Bronx streets, apartments, hotels, and nightclubs during the pair’s heyday.

E.B White’s 1948 Manhattan might not look much like the city today, but this work encapsulates a certain fervor and mythology associated with a New York writer deeply in awe of his city. The short read is full of nostalgic Manhattan views and White’s expert observations, making it a perfect little book to savor en route to the Big City.

Weaving together the narratives of several loosely related New Yorkers, this novel circles around a cast of characters and events that all occur around the same date in 1974. Central to one particular day is real-life tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s harrowing traipse between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (curious readers should also watch Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary film on Petit). The multiple, overlapping narratives of McCann’s National Book Award–winning novel showcase both the diversity and unity of experience the city is capable of producing.

Through a central crime told from several points of view of the people involved (a Wall Street trader living on Park Avenue, a bullish assistant district attorney, and an alcoholic tabloid journalist), this satirical novel strives to encapsulate much of the mood of 1980s New York City: less-than-pretty aspects of racism, classism, vapid excess, and bitter greed. While it’s funny and full of farce, Wolfe used his skills as a journalist to base much of the novel on real happenings and characters.

After his father’s tragic death in 9/11, a grieving nine-year-old kid goes on a mission through the five boroughs, making all sorts of human connections throughout the city along the way, and hoping to put together some missing pieces that might help heal his grief. It’s a quick read and a beautiful story not just about 9/11 and loss, but about family, history, and human connection. The movie version stars Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks.

Hughes’s poetry here is about Harlem—its life forces, culture, art, and music—during its 1920s renaissance. The young poet borrowed blues and jazz elements to write poetry about black music and life in a way that had seldom been done before, and his work is at once personal, lyrical, and a resounding voice for the African American experience at the time.

This book is not just for lovers of natural history: there’s a certain magic to be gained from reading it before a visit to New York, and reimagining the streams, hills, and woods that once made up the Manhattan of today, now so crowded with asphalt and chrome. With illustrations and future insights on combating climate change by returning some of the city to its wildness, Mannahatta reminds you of the natural world in everything, even in the country’s most populated city.

Random House

Jenny Zhang’s heartfelt story collection links together the experiences of first- and second-generation Chinese Americans living throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Her sharp, funny writing describes what it’s like to grow up in a country that your parents aren’t quite a part of—with the weight of all their expectations and sacrifices on your shoulders—and illustrates a human experience important to the New York (and American) story.

This Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan classic tops the list because it’s great in both its categories, as a romantic comedy and a New York movie. Much like the pair’s long-running friendship and budding romance in the film, this movie is cute and fun to be around, filled with wanderings throughout the city (and its iconic scene at Katz’s Deli), and culminating as many rom-coms do—with a desperate, romantic run through New York City’s streets.

There’s something magical about New York City at Christmastime, and New York Christmas movies, when done right (Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, You’ve Got Mail) give you warm-and-fuzzy feelings about both the holiday season and the city. Home Alone 2 is an especially fun one because of how much New York you get through Kevin’s explorations and antics: Rockefeller Center, Central Park, the Empire State Building, and the Plaza Hotel—even a cameo by a certain unpopular former New Yorker—all make their way into this screwball, family-friendly film with basically the same plot as the first one.

With his Chronicles of Brooklyn series, renowned filmmaker Spike Lee dedicates a whole slew of fantastic movies (He Got Game, She’s Gotta Have It, Red Hook Summer) to life and black culture in this outer borough, one of the greatest being 1989’s Do The Right Thing. Starring a young Spike Lee himself, Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood on a hot summer day is the setting for a poignant film about community, racial tension, and police brutality.

An unbelievable number of Academy Awards went to this artsy dark comedy back in 2015, about a past-his-prime movie star (Michael Keaton) who attempts to produce a Broadway show while his identity (and mental health) slowly start to unravel. The cinematography—especially Birdman’s magical-realistic walks through streets of New York, and a particular underwear-clad scene in Times Square—make it a strange but beautiful film.

This quintessential New York mob movie (there have been many, of different form and value, before and after it) remains a respected classic masterpiece in New York, Italian-American, and all popular cinema. Organized-crime stereotypes aside, its depictions of life in Staten Island and Little Italy are a glimpse into the Italian-American experience in 1940s and ’50s New York City.

After a white woman was assaulted while jogging in Central Park, the terrible, highly publicized crime escalated into of one of New York’s most infamous wrongful-conviction sagas. In a documentary featuring perspective from the falsely convicted teens, Ken Burns thoroughly investigates all incidents around the case, and also explores the culture of fear and racism in 1980s New York—a factor that played its own important part in this tragedy.

The musical drama about love, feuds, and racial clashes in the 1950s takes place on New York’s Upper West Side, a demographically different neighborhood then than it is today. The 1961 movie is a classic, and Puerto Rican singer and actor Rita Moreno gives one of the films best performances in her supporting role as Anita.

Penguin Random House

Open City’s narrator Julius, a Nigerian immigrant and medical fellow at Columbia, likes to walk, and, through his urban meanderings, readers get to explore great expanses of a city that Julius views with respect and wonder, from the sidewalks and skyscrapers to the many versions of life he encounters. Julius observes the crowded yet solitary nature of big-city life and, as an immigrant, displays a keen awareness of the other cultural influences that make up New York.

This 1990 documentary showcases “Ball Culture,” the underground events and performances in communities of black and Latino gay men, transgender women, and drag queens in 1980s New York City. With colorful ball scenes that have inspired parts of RuPaul’s Drag Race, this film introduced “vogueing” and other cultural gems to mainstream culture. The more colorful scenes are parsed with interviews, where subjects tackle topics of gender, race, and other social issues.

Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis (other movies made from his books are Liar’s Poker, a semiautobiographical account of his time on Wall Street during the 1980s, and Moneyball), this is the story of the greedy banks and bad loans leading up to the 2008 housing-market collapse—and the people who saw it coming. It’s a stylized, uniquely depicted drama that would be even funnier if it were less true. Elsewhere in the New York financial-drama category, the original Wall Street deserves a nod, as do Wolf of Wall Street and Boiler Room.

In writer-director Dee Rees first feature film, a young black woman growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (where it was largely filmed), explores identity and belonging while facing her sexuality, her family, and the greater community. Adepero Oduye, the young actress playing Alike, gives a touching performance, in a beautiful film about sexual identity and coming-of-age in Brooklyn.

A 19th-century Lower Manhattan neighborhood (with a painstakingly detailed set design by Martin Scorsese) is the battleground in this blockbuster. Characters fight for place and survival in 1860s New York City, when Irish immigrants, and anti-immigration sentiment—along with poverty, gangs, and street violence—were prevalent. Heavy hitters like Leonardo DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, and Daniel Day-Lewis make it both a great film and an interesting period piece.

Centered around the lives of overprivileged teenagers growing up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, this dramatic series (based on the books by Cecily von Ziegesar) provides a fictionalized glimpse into the lives of the crème de la crème of Manhattan society—the limo rides, Hamptons vacations, penthouses, and elite private schools—along with all the secrets, lies, scandals, and plot twists you might expect.

This classic HBO show was groundbreaking in its time for featuring a group of cosmopolitan (and cosmopolitan-drinking) women talking about sex and dating in a frank and refreshing way. Besides the infuriatingly large apartments, its depictions of New York and its themes around the turn of the millennium are entertaining and expansive.

It’s nice to see a female friendship on television that’s not about drama or men, and Broad City’s stars (and real-life best friends) Abby and Liana have great on-screen chemistry, creating an entertaining comedy about their friendship and lives in New York. In their own New York–artist dream story, the writers and stars of the show began with a YouTube series, picked up by Comedy Central with the help of fan-turned-producer Amy Poehler. Their writing and takes on New York life are fresh, young, and funny.

Warner Bros. Television

Irreverent but addictive, this light comedy-drama about twenty- to thirtysomethings living around Greenwich Village (in unrealistically nice apartments) ran for 10 seasons in the ’90s and early 2000s. Still probably one of the most popular sitcoms ever, Friends follows the theme of New York shows that are about little else but the intertwining lives of its New Yorker characters and the city itself.

Named for Madison Avenue and the many ad firms there during the 1960s—a dynamic era for advertising in the United States—there’s more to this show than the costumes and astonishing number of cigarettes and martinis consumed. The writing is smart, characters are intriguing (especially, of course, the mysterious Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm), and there are quite a few historical landmarks woven in that make it feel enlightened as a period piece.

Cops in the fictional 15th Precinct (based on the Ninth Precinct in Lower Manhattan) have dark, intense jobs, but often darker, messier private lives. The crime drama ran for 12 seasons beginning in the early ‘90s, weaving in issues of alcoholism, corruption, drug overdoses, and terrorism. Rumor has it that a revival show is in the works at ABC.

An update of what Sex and the City was to women in the early aughts, Girls is also about a group of female friends living in New York City (mostly Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn, in this case), but with very millennial problems in a very millennial New York. While not without flaws, Dunham’s show deserves credit for the honesty and humor (and smart writing) with which it portrays a certain demographic of overprivileged and overeducated youth trying to “make it” in the New York City of today.

This Cinemax show is set in the Knickerbocker, a hospital in an impoverished, unsanitary area of Lower Manhattan during the early 1900s. The gritty lawlessness of downtown Manhattan and the brutalities of early Western medicine make for fascinating viewing, and the show doesn’t shy away from portraying opium dens, illegal abortions, and botched experimental surgeries, along with such themes as the racism, classism, and sexism of the time.

This extremely popular musical drama focuses on a large entertainment company that functions much like a royal dynasty, and not without the same amount of complications and drama. Though much of the actual filming happened in Chicago, everything about Empire, from the scandals and power grabs to the fashion and hip-hop interludes, screams New York.

The original “show about nothing” features comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his group of friends as they get themselves into sometimes unfortunate, always comical, and usually quintessential New York situations: mishaps at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, Macy’s Day Parade, NYC Marathon, and in New York subways and delis, and conflicts over parking spaces, cut-throat apartment hunting, bad neighbors and roommates, and 212 versus 646 area codes.

ROHNY is the original edition of the much-loved, -hated, and loved-to-be-hated franchise about “housewives” in cities across America. Apropos of New York City culture, very few of the women on this edition are actually housewives, but hustling entrepreneurs and businesswomen themselves. The show moves through their failures and successes, friendships and frenemies, Hamptons mortgages, preschool admissions, and charity gala drama. Viewing from the beginning (the first season began in 2008) is a fun move through the trends and changes of the city’s wealthy over the decade.