[As written for Travel Eye, hosted on The Huffington Post UK, August 2012]
“NEW YORK IS AMAZING!” – that’s what I’ve spent the last week saying to anyone and everyone who will listen. I’ve just got back from a trip there, you see. And my goodness, I am in love.
I know I’m not the first person to cross the pond and fall head over heels for this big city. I’ve had many friends swear blind they’re not bothered about seeing NYC in the flesh and then, having been forced to stop-over there for work, come home almost jumping up and down and clapping their hands with glee, because they too have fallen in love with the Big Apple. It’s like entering a city-shaped vortex where no one comes out with a sad face.
Saying that, we all know New York has suffered horrible tragedy. It has been almost 11 years now since the world watched on in horror, while New Yorkers said painful goodbyes to the victims of 9/11. But a decade on, the city has given us just another example of how strong and incredible the people of NYC are and we know that even after such a terrible atrocity, we can still go over there and feel welcome and energised and excited and happy. That’s a pretty special quality for any city to possess.
Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit New York a few times. The first time was a bit of a stopover and admittedly, I wasn’t overly bothered that we were spending three days there. By the end of those three days, I would have given my right arm (and probably my left) not to leave.
Last week, I was there for my fourth time – and having done all the tourist stuff (ferrying over to Liberty Island, gazing over the skyline from the top of the Rockerfella Tower, snapping away at the Empire State Building, taking a train into Grand Central Station and running up those stairs in the New York Public Library where Carrie gets jilted in the 2008 Sex and the City movie) – I opted for the relaxed route. I stayed in my hotel (The Hotel on Rivington) and tapped away on my laptop while looking over Manhattan Bridge, went out for brunches and dinners with lovely friends – and yes, did slightly too much shopping on Fifth Avenue and then had to buy a second suitcase to get it all home.
Yet waking up each morning, I still felt exhilirated – even though I had nothing more important to do than grab a coffee. I still wanted to jump on the (plush) bed screaming, ‘I’m in New York!’.
I can’t really pin-point why. For some reason, for me, New York is a place that makes me feel alive – like I could do anything with my day. Yes, I know that’s really corny – but it does. I found myself silently nodding in agreement to Alicia Keys on Empire State of Mind a few times.
Anyone who’s experienced that crossing over Williamsburg Bridge from JFK airport will know what I mean. Nothing quite prepares you for when the infamous NY skyline comes into view. And no matter what kind of holiday you’re after, if you’ve picked the Big Apple as your destination, you won’t go wrong. There’s just so much delicious food to eat, cocktails to drink, views to gaze over and stores to shop in. Whether it’s culture and craziness you’re after or relaxation and good food, New York has it all.
But enough of me banging on about it. If you head to New York, you can experience all this for yourself. Instead, I have included a few personal tips below. When I experienced these places, I felt like I was experiencing the best of New York. Hopefully they will do the same for you too!
The first timer
For those who haven’t experienced New York City’s wonderfulness before
Top of the Rock – As tempting as it is to go up the Empire State Building… don’t. Go to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre instead. Why? Because the view of the NYC skyline from up there includes the Empire State Building, which sits a few blocks south. The 70th floor is open air and a bit breezy – but totally worth it! Tickets are $25 for adults and $16 for kids – but if you’re visiting a few places on the tourist trail, ask for a combo ticket and save some dosh.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island – jump on the Ellis Island ferry at Battery Park to Ellis Island and you’ll be able to stop off and admire the Statue of Liberty en route. Admission is free although the ferry ride will set you back $12. At Ellis Island, you’ll learn the story of New York’s main immigration station from 1892 to 1954 and the routines they upheld. It’s really interesting stuff; a good insight into how New York became the State it is today.
Brooklyn Bridge – it’s a 20 minute walk over from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn and it’s worth every step. Do the stroll at sunset and you won’t regret it – the skies behind the bridge’s huge steel arches will be bathed in colour.
Central Park – jump off the subway at Columbus Circle and take a walk through lush Central Park. You’ll find dancers putting on shows, musicians playing their best tunes, sports clubs training and families throwing parties in the grass. There’s almost always a really fun vibe going down, even when the skies are a bit grey. And when you get a little tired, have a sit down and watch the New Yorkers go by.
John’s of Bleecker Street comes ready with celebrity recommendations (Jack Black loves them apparently) – and they have a point, because the pizzas are divine. Located near West 4th Street Station, they don’t take reservations and there’s often a queue. You do get to choose your own toppings from scratch though. Amazing.
Blue Smoke – if you like your meat barbequed, then you need to get your table booked here. The menu is full of BBQ ribs, burgers, sandwiches and great puddings – the tastes of which come inspired from across the country. The restaurant at the Flatiron building has a live jazz bar downstairs – and for that reason, I’d pick that location over the Battery Park venue any day. Oh and the cocktails are divine too!
The 11th Street Bar is a strange cross between a NYC bar and Irish boozer, which bizarrely has a penchant for showing Premier League football when Liverpool are playing (yeah, get your head around that). Still, it’s a great place to go if you want a touch of home – and the atmosphere is great for a cosy, sofa-seated beer or wine. They host poetry nights too, which isn’t as cheesy as it sounds!
The Lobby Lounge at the Mandarin Oriental is a bit pricey but if you’re after a pre-dinner or theatre cocktail you should definitely have one up here. The Lounge is set high up on the top floor and has a panoramic view of the New York skyline. At night it looks incredible but if a daytime visit is what you fancy, they serve afternoon tea between 2.30 and 4.30pm.
For those who want some fun in a short space of time
Fifth Avenue shopping – hit NY’s famous shopping avenue at around 34th Street and you’ll have all the favourites like Mango, H&M and Zara at your fingertips. Why go all the way to NYC to shop in Zara? It’s a good question, but the store merchandise is different and I think I liked what they had to offer over there more than I do the stuff over here at the moment. There’s also Macy’s and Bloomingdales if you want a department store and the usual big US names like Abercrombie & Fitch. If you like topless muscley men, you should probably at least walk past the latter…
The boutique shops of Tribeca – check them out over a quiet mid-morning stroll. You may not want to splash the cash here (it’s not cheap) but they’re well worth stopping off to look at. There’s everything from Prada to Juliana Cho and you’ll find a wonderful French Art Deco gallery called Antiqueria Tribeca to wander through on Duane Street.
Los Feliz near Delancey Street station is all about the cocktails. And the tacos. And the burritos. In fact, the whole menu is sublime.
It’s often quiet in there, but don’t let that put you off – the tequila-based cocktails will have you dancing around the bar in no time. But get those tacos down you first, to line your stomach…
Essex – My NYC-living friend has mentioned Essex on more than one occasion… and she was right to. Happy Hour here is better than any happy hour I’ve ever experienced before – not only are cocktails half price from 5-8pm Sunday to Friday, but they serve up delicious Oysters too for just $1 each. Now, anyone who likes Oysters will know that never happens so cheaply! The Essex famous potato pancakes with melted goat cheese is also something that will also make your insides hurt in anticipation.
The Apartment at Grand Central used to be an office to an old 1920s NY tycoon called John W. Campbell. Now it’s a cocktail bar with stunning vintage décor and old, comfortable arm chairs. It takes a good picture too but only if your camera does dim lights relatively well!
Co-Op Food & Drink is a part of the Hotel on Rivington and is famed for its tasty brunches (over-easy eggs on toast) to its (Truffle Mac & Cheese) dinners. You might spot the odd celeb here apparently (although I didn’t) but maybe they were talking about the portraits of Debbie Harry, Moby and the other New York famed faces which line the walls. The orange juice (OJ) is so fresh and juicy – get yourself a glass of that badboy as soon as you walk in.
For those who want to forget real life for a bit
Eden Day Spa – Step off Broadway and step into this lush day spa – because it really is pretty great. I asked for an-hour long massage ($88) and what I got was an intense therapeutic treatment which involved a Swedish and Thai massage rolled into one (heaven). I would honestly say it was one of the best massages I’ve had outside of a Thai spa. If you spend more than $80 on treatments, you’ll be offered a complimentary meal too and if you’re getting your nails done, you’ll get a plate of fruit to nibble on. Saunas and rest rooms are there for the in-between bits.
Central Park – Once you’ve strolled around Central Park a few times, it’s definitely worth heading a bit further into the lush greenery to see Belvedere Castle which is just further north of the lakes. It’s not far at all but it’s a nice stroll and once you get to the castle, you can climb to the top and take in the view of the park. It’s a great spot to be when it’s sunny too because you get some rare shade under the castle walls.
Pastis – located in the heart of the Meatpacking District and the perfect brunch spot is French bistro, Pastis. It is always busy with the locals because the whole menu is pretty mouth-watering. But for me, it’s all about the Eggs Benedict at brunch. The moules-frites, oysters in a half shell or Mediterranean tuna sandwich are also delicious.
Tom’s Restaurant – eating here means venturing out to Brooklyn, but it’s worth it, I promise! They serve brekkie and lunch so head over early enough to beat any queues and be prepared to try everything on the menu, because it’s almost impossible not to end up ordering the pancakes, waffles, eggs on toast, turkey sausage all at once. Yum!
Barcade in Brooklyn is all about beer and arcade games. Perfect if you’re an 80s child, a boy or just after a lazy drink. Opened by a bunch of friends almost a decade ago, Barcade was put together thanks to the guys’ love for American craft beer and arcade games. Happy hour is particular fun – and who knew Frogger would still supply endless hours of fun to so many?
Brass Monkey If the weather is good, head straight up to the roof of this cute, wooden Meatpacking District bar. It stands out, because this is a pretty chic area but Monkey is all about the beer and old-time feel. You’ll forget about the real world in no time.
Where to stay…
The Hotel on Rivington is one of the best hotels I’ve stayed in New York, mainly because it gave me the opportunity to look out of the window and see, er, New York.
Considering rooms in this city are notoriously small, The Rivington offers a comfortable king rooms with a good amount of space. Upgrade to a high-floor king (which I recommend) and you’ll be able to shower with a view of the NY skyline and wake up to two walls worth of windows with views. It’s stunning. Oh and you’ll get complimentary wi-fi in all the rooms too.
Three nights in New York with Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels, including Virgin Atlantic flights with private transfers and accommodation at the Hotel on Rivington (king room only basis), start from £999pp.
NB. Prices are per person based on two adults. and include all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges (which are subject to change). They are also based on select departures until 30 November 2012. Book by 25 September to make use of this deal.
For more information, head to the Virgin Holidays + Hip Hotels website or call VHip Travel Guru on 0844 573 2460.
PICTURE CREDIT: Karen Edwards