With the holidays on the horizon, New Yorkers can expect guests. I’ve lived in New York for only 6 months now as an English transplant, and my husband and I recently had some friends visit for a long weekend. I wanted to share the highlights of this big, beautiful city without overwhelming them or costing them the earth. When I think about my favourite thing in New York, I have to say it is simply walking around and taking it all in – so here are the highlights of a walk that we took on a random Friday in autumn. By the end of the day, it was clear that our guests were falling in love with the city too, and amazed by the amount of things you can see and do in just one day in this patchwork metropolis that I have the privilege to call my home. To the New York experts, I apologise in advance as I have probably missed a million things along the way… but please forgive me, I am just getting to know her myself.
Brunch At Sarabeth’s on Central Park South
Sarabeth’s is a lovely Manhattan upscale diner made famous by Sex and The City, so this place is awash with gaggles of females fuelling up for a shop-a-thon or couples (with the woman craning her neck to see if she can recognise where Carrie and the girls sat). The general hubbub, art deco décor and no-nonsense New York waiters provide a lively setting for your first venture into New York dining. The all American brunch menu is excellent. The lemon ricotta pancakes, where the ricotta is actually in the batter, are light, fluffy and simply gorgeous. If eggs are more your thing or the thought of ordering something “fluffy” is simply too emasculating for words, try the equally fabulous Eggs Benedict. Coffee comes with free refills, and since you need all your energy for the busy day ahead, be sure to fill up!
Come out of Sarabeth’s and walk towards 5th Avenue, on the corner is The Plaza where the family stayed in Home Alone 2. Carry on straight ahead to the Apple store, open 24/7, 365 days per year. If you’re thinking of hopping on the Apple band wagon or adding to your collection, it’s worth spending some time here, as Apple products are, at the time of this writing, cheaper here than at home in England. Next door to the Apple store is the FAO Schwarz toy store, New York’s answer to Hamley’s. The actual piano from Big is on sale there, yours for only $250,000. If you don’t feel like lugging it around all day you can just have a dance on it for free. You can make your own Jim Henson muppet, buy an everlasting gob stopper, or just indulge your inner child and marvel at the sheer array of cool toys on offer.
Head south for 17 blocks on 5th towards Grand Central Station, and on this twenty minute walk you’ll pass some of New York’s iconic buildings, take in the romance of Tiffany’s, the brash masculinity of the gold Trump Towers, the height of the Rockefeller Centre and the peaceful serenity of St Patrick’s Cathedral. 5th avenue. The romance and majesty of the circa 1800 marble buildings softening the modern sky scrapper juggernauts, interspersed with street vendors and chaotic streets creates an exciting air of power, ambition and quality.
Grand Central Terminal
Turn left on 42nd street and 5th towards Grand Central Station and head through the marble passage to the Main concourse. This is my favourite place to visit in all of Manhattan, possibly the world. Despite the 750,000 tourists and commuters who pass through this working station floor daily, the softly lit marble and the turquoise ceiling give this vast atrium a romantic glow and timeless feel that allows you to imagine all of the hopelessly romantic hellos and goodbyes that have taken place in front of the ticket office clock tower over the decades. Head down the stone steps at either end to the food concourse to Junior’s Cheesecake Café for a slice of New York’s finest cheesecake and yet another coffee.
Grand Central Food Market
Head back upstairs to the atrium and find the Grand Central Food Market. Imagine the sprinkling of frosting on the gleaming fruit atop the tarts at the patisserie, the smell of the freshly baked, oversized bread plaits at the bakers mixing with the musky, exotic smell of freshly ground coffee beans in the brimming sacks at the coffee stand, and the vibrant oranges and greens of the winter vegetables displayed in traditional woven baskets. This artisan market is part commercial and part fine art gallery for the city’s food lovers. I dare you to leave without at least buying a small cake or nectarine.
The New York Public Library
The romance is far from over as you head back onto 5th Avenue; next stop is the venerable New York Public Library and Bryant Park. Outside the library, just up the stone steps there are wrought iron tables and chairs where office workers bring their lunch and tourists rest their feet in the summer. New York’s celebrated Food trucks circulate this area and if you are lucky enough to be there when the dumpling truck is outside you are in for a cheap, delicious treat. Incidentally, it is on these steps that the first ghost appears in the 1984 Ghost Busters movie.
Enter the library through the huge, iron double doors and walk to the far left corner of the room. There is an intimately lit, beautifully presented museum space that displays free exhibitions on literary figures. There has recently been both a Shelley and Dickens exhibit. Take the sweeping staircase in the main entrance, where Big jilted Carrie in SATC, and step back in time to the reading room on the third floor where Paul first tells Holly Go-lightly he loves her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The beautifully preserved tin ceilings and thick book shelves, heavy with books on every imaginable subject, surround line after line of solid wooden tables gently lit with brass reading lamps to captivate your imagination and take you to a bygone era. Today, the room offers respite from the hectic streets of midtown. For those looking for a glimpse of old New York, there is even wifi throughout so you can tell the modern world that you are not to be disturbed.
The Empire State Building
Head down the library steps between the iconic lions back onto 5th Avenue until you reach the Empire State Building, the most iconic building in New York. The sheer size of the building and the persistent ticket touts on the ground make this attraction difficult to miss. If this is your first time to the city, you have a head for heights and if there are no low-hanging clouds or fog, then a trip to the main observation deck on the 86th floor is worth the $47.50 where, on a clear day, you can see for more than 200 miles. The audio tour is delivered by an Italian American local whose family arrived from Italy in the early 20th century and built their legacy within the fabric of the American dream. Take in the dramatic views of the city from the highest vantage point while he animatedly guides you around the deck and New York’s ever-changing landscape. Whilst I am not suggesting you forgo a trip to the observation deck, it is worth visiting another vantage point, such as the Top Of The Rock to take in the magnitude of this building which is one of only two buildings in the United States to have its own zip code, the other being the Pentagon.
From the Empire state building head across to Broadway and take a slight detour uptown to see the commercial epicentre that is Times Square. TV shows and mega brands plaster their brightest stars on digital screens and gigantic posters spanning entire buildings to grab the attention of the ever upward looking tourists. While on the ground the stores, sorry “worlds,” vie for your attention with the call of the latest One Direction numbers that entice you to enter their lair — unlocking a previously undiscovered need for a giant cushion of your favourite candy label, and only permitting you to fight your way out through the throngs of tourists after you have had a photograph with a giant New York themed plastic statue (which you will feel compelled to put on Facebook immediately so that your friends will have to visit on their next trip). Add to the mix the chain restaurants offering stereotypical all American fare with portion sizes that would feed the people of Tunbridge Wells for a week, and the hyper-extrovert street performers wearing nothing but tight white Y fronts, a smile and an Indian headdress. Times Square delightfully surpasses every stereotype the world has ever had about the modern American psyche. It is outrageous, in your face, completely over the top and at times alarming, but go with its childlike enthusiasm and it’s a ball. Approach it with preconceptions and British decorum and you will quickly be in need of a tablet and a lie down.
The Garment District
Leaving the commercial cacophony that is Times Square behind you, walk down Broadway towards the Flatiron District. Within a few blocks the landscape changes as the storefronts move from nationally recognised brands to souvenir shops selling 5 “I Love New York” T-shirts for $10 and keeping the novelty fridge magnet industry afloat. A few blocks further and you enter the Garment District; at 39th street walk one avenue over to 7th Avenue to the “Needle Threading A Button” sculpture. This symbolises the dominant position in the global fashion industry that this area has occupied as a result of fashion houses such as Oscar de La Renta, Calvin Klein and Donna Karan having their operations based here.
Other points to hit on your epic NYC stroll: Macy’s, the Brooklyn Bridge, historical Brooklyn Heights, Wall Street, the museums, the United Nations, Soho, NoLita, Magnolia Cupcakes in the far west village, the Meatpacking District, the High Line, and Central Park.
TIPS for VISITORS:
Book the restaurants a week before your visit; most places suggested do standby but to avoid having to wait book a table via their website.
If you have data roaming and an Android phone, download Hop Stop, a free route planner on your phone and it will take you from your current location to anywhere in Manhattan or the surrounding area either by car, public transport or by foot.
Manhattan streets are like the co-ordinates on a map the avenues go vertically and the cross streets horizontally in numeric order. So to find 69 and central park west, find 69 Street on the horizontal until it crosses with Central Park West. A word of warning: this works fine until you get below 14th Street and the numbers disappear; then it transcends into a chaotic mish-mash of streets. If you lose your bearings down there, ask.
Tipping: be sure to tip in any service venue restaurants, taxis, beauty salons, hairdressers etc, Americans do not use the word “cheque,” so in this instance, to avoid confusion, ask for the bill. The sky written cheque beloved by dads the world over does do the trick however. The attitude to tipping is different to England so a good rule of thumb for decent service is to double the tax line on the bill which will leave about 18%. That’s standard in the U.S., particularly in NYC.
Have fun exploring one of the greatest cities on the globe with your visitors.