NEW YORK (CNN) - Times Square is the most iconic place in New York City, but it's also one of the most maligned. Stop any New Yorker and ask them what part of town they avoid at all costs, and the odds are high that they'd say Times Square.
Although Times Square went through a seedy period where you were more likely to find strip joints than coffee shops, times have changed: Now, the area is packed with chain restaurants, Broadway theaters and neon signs.
It can all be pretty overwhelming for a first-time visitor, and many locals avoid the West 40s around Broadway and 7th Avenue to bypass the throngs of people gaping upward and snapping photos.
But Times Square is still Manhattan, which means there's still travel treasure to be found -- as long as you know where to look.
How to avoid the Olive Garden trap
Although the American chain restaurants may have the brightest signs, there are plenty of local dining options that don't require a long walk.
For a fancy midday meal, Sen Sakana has pre-chosen "set meals" that combine Peruvian and Japanese cuisine: Think sushi topped with crunchy quinoa or noodles paired with spicy shellfish.
Xi'an Famous Foods is a New York City mini-chain of Northwestern Chinese restaurants where even the most snobby Manhattanites will wait in line for an hour for spicy lamb soup, hand-pulled noodles and spicy sour dumplings. The best way to experience the canteen-style restaurant is to arrive at a non-peak mealtime (3 p.m., for example) and go solo or with only one other person to increase your odds of snagging one of the few seats.
If you want the feeling of old-school New York, head to The Lambs Club, where the main dining room is lined in red velvet and centered around a fireplace from legendary Gilded Age architect Stanford White. The food, overseen by celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, has modern (usually healthier) takes on classic menu items like Dover sole and foie gras. And you'll want to wash the whole thing down with a retro cocktail like an Aviation.
When it comes to drinking, Times Square has some of the highest and lowest options. For the best of the low, stop by beloved dive bar Rudy's, where cheap beer is plentiful and best paired with one of the bar's ready-made hot dogs.
On the high end, duck into the dimly-lit Rum House for cocktails in a piano bar inside the Hotel Edison.
On the west edge of Bryant Park is Kinokuniya, the first US branch of the mega-popular Japanese bookstore, which can sometimes feel more like an art gallery than a bookshop: There's everything from manga to stuffed animals to calligraphy pens.
Head upstairs to the store's Cafe Zaiya for mulberry tea and Japanese snacks, and choose a window seat where you can have a bird's-eye view of the park.
Sen Sakana, 28 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 221-9560
Xi'an Famous Foods, 24 W 45th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 786-2068
The Lambs Club, 132 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 997-5262
Rudy's Bar & Grill, 627 9th Ave, New York, NY 10036, +1 (646) 707-0890
The Rum House, 228 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (646) 490-6924
Kinokuniya, 1073 6th Ave, New York, NY 10018, +1 (212) 869-1700
Broadway and Beyond
Even the most disgruntled New Yorker will come to Times Square to see a Broadway show.
The best way to snag last-minute tickets is to hit the TKTS line in the very center of the square. Just look for the bright red staircase and get in line.
(We have to break the news now, though: you're not going to get tickets to "Hamilton.")
You can also use the TodayTix app, but where's the fun (or photo op?) in that?
However, theater isn't the only artistic offering in Times Square. The pod hotel Yotel hosts film screenings on its roof in the summer, and nearby Bryant Park has outdoor ones on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Bryant Park, just a short walk away, is worth visiting all year round, though: In the winter there's ice skating and a Christmas market full of pop-up shops, and in warmer months you'll find office workers on their lunch breaks having picnics or perched on orange chairs reading paperbacks.
On the park's east side is the central branch of the New York Public Library.
The library is a celebrity in its own right--the stunning Beaux-Arts building has been a pop culture mainstay, appearing in everything from "Seinfeld" to "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Don't miss the twin lions out front (their names are Patience and Fortitude) or the recently-renovated Rose Reading Room.
While Mood Fabrics on 37th Street has long been a Garment District staple for fashionistas, the show's costarring role on "Project Runway" has made it into a tourist attraction.
Stop by to gape at the colorful rows of silks and velvets, but don't miss a chance to get your picture taken with doggie mascot Swatch.
Even if you aren't going to see a show in Times Square, you can scratch your Broadway itch at the Drama Book Shop, a New York institution that sells plays, music books, programs and other theater ephemera.
The bookstore is also known for its small black box theater that supports independent shows and is famous for serving as the rehearsal space for a then-unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda as he and a group of actors practiced what would become the Tony-winning musical "In the Heights."
In other words? You never know who you might see one aisle over.
TKTS, W 47th St & 7th avenue, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 912-9770
Rooftop Cinema Club at the Yotel, 570 10th Ave, New York, NY 10036, +1 (646) 449-7700
Bryant Park, 40-42 Sts, 5-6th Avenues, New York, NY 10018
New York Public Library, 476 5th Ave, New York, NY 10018, +1 (917) 275-6975
Mood Fabrics, 225 W 37th St, New York, NY 10018, +1 (212) 730-5003,
Drama Book Shop, 250 W 40th St #1, New York, NY 10018, +1 (212) 944-0595
Sleeping in the city that never sleeps
Yes, it is possible to get a good night's sleep in the busiest quarter of the city. You just have to choose your hotel wisely.
The Knickerbocker Hotel was once known as "the 42nd Street Country Club" for its ability to attract Hollywood stars and Gilded Age elites (it was built by an Astor, after all).
Following a thoughtful renovation, the hotel is just as beautiful as ever. But now there's a Charlie Parker restaurant and a rooftop bar with "sky pods."
If an end-of-the-day recharge is what you're after, the health-centric Kimpton Hotel Muse stocks each room with yoga mats and (more importantly) comfortable beds.
The W Times Square may feel clubby in the lobby, but the higher-floor rooms with window seats will make you feel as if you're flying high above the city--and you can practically see as far as JFK airport.
In 2018, Marriott-owned AC Hotels opened an outpost in New York City on 40th Street and 8th Avenue, across the street from the New York Times building.
The chain has a Spanish influence, so look for a tapas restaurant, Boqueria, on the ground floor, and vinto tinto and Palomas in the rooftop Cassell's bar.
To end the night in style, stop in for a drink at the sexy glassed-in Refinery Rooftop, arguably the city's best rooftop bar.
A block away from Port Authority, easily one of the least cool addresses in the whole city, a new hotel and bar are changing the face of the neighborhood -- The Polynesian, a lighthearted tiki bar atop the Pod Hotel, is so much fun that even a diehard New Yorker is willing to wait in line to get in.
Semi-hidden (you can't be a secret when you have a website) inside the Iroquois Hotel is a treasure of a cocktail bar, Lantern's Keep.
The bar keeps limited hours, so you'll need to walk past the hotel -- if the lantern out front is illuminated, walk into the lobby and head all the way to the back of the ground floor to find the dark, romantic space.
The Knickerbocker Hotel, 6 Times Square, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 204-4980
The Muse, 130 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 485-2400
W Times Square, 1567 Broadway, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 930-7400
AC Hotel New York, 260 West 40th Street, New York, NY 10018, +1 212-398-2700
Refinery Rooftop, 63 W 38th St, New York, NY 10018, +1 (646) 664-0372
Lantern's Keep, 49 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 453-4287
The Polynesian, 400 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 254-3000
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