You have to go to New York. Sure, it’s expensive, although not exorbitantly so if you plan your visit right. And like all big cities, it can be crowded and a hassle. But without question, New York is a one of the World’s great cities, not just in reputation but in actual fact. (As one reader once said about Shakespeare “Everyone said he was great, but he really was great!”)
Generally speaking, New York is a much kinder and gentler place than it was when we first started visiting. Crime in most areas is way down, and there is not the air of paranoia that used to grip tourists who had heard all the stories about bad old New York. A New Yorker might ask to borrow your phone, even while they can tell you clearly look like an out of towner. A Japanese tourist might ask for you to take their picture; there is not so much the fear of interaction there once was. Some people might say they miss the grit and sleaze of old Times Square, but these are generally people who have never been traumatized by a mugging.
We despise Mayor Bloomberg, one of the most arrogant men on earth, who has basically used his huge wealth to try to remake the city as a nanny state in his own image, like outlawing large soft drinks, as well as smoking. Having said that, the city is more pedestrian friendly, and it’s pretty cool to see the bikers and runners take over Park Avenue on the weekends. Tourism has grown quite a bit in New York City, because it’s generally a nice place to visit. However, the rise in tourism is itself a problem, as one of the main attractions of New York has always been that it’s a real, working city, with a vibrant local culture, unlike say, a place like Venice Italy, which is completely tourist oriented. There are certain areas, like midtown along 5th avenue, where the tourists wildly outnumber the locals, but other areas much less so.
New Yorkers, or at least those living in Manhattan, used to have a reputation as being sophisticated, both in appearance and otherwise. Generally, New Yorkers have succumbed to the casual disease which has overtaken America and much of the rest of the world, but they are still better dressed than in most cities. Of course, these days, that is not saying too much, but if you look into one of the fancy cafes on the upper east side on a weekend at lunch time, you’ll still see entire families that have that distinct well heeled upper east side look. And downtown you’ll see the hipsters sporting whatever the uniform of the day might be. There’s a lot of talk about the resurgence of men’s fashion in the US, and lots of stores selling interesting men’s clothing, but, still you’ll see very few really well dressed men even in trendy areas of New York.
We’ve been on something like 17 or 18 separate trips to New York, maybe more. So we know our way around the city. But like all dynamic places, it’s constantly changing. Traditionally, Manhattan has been the place to be, with the outer boroughs receiving very little tourist attention, or any attention at all for that matter, despite the fact that most New Yorkers don’t live or work in Manhattan. Lately that has all changed, as Brooklyn, and specifically the Williamsburg and Park Slope areas of Brooklyn, have become super hyped. Allegedly, the cool new restaurants are in Brooklyn, and all the creative types – writers and artists, have moved to take advantage of Brooklyn’s lower rents. Like all hype, there is some grain of truth to this; rents used to be lower in Brooklyn, many cool restaurants and shops have been opened there, and many creative types have moved there – which to a large extent accounts for the volume of articles about Brooklyn, as its so convenient to write about the place you live.
But the hype is overblown, and the real place to live or visit in New York right now is the lower east side, which has an amazing selection of restaurants, bars and clothing shops. See our article about Prince and Orchard Streets in particular in the Coolest Streets essay. In addition to being the heart of cool, the lower east side also offers easy proximity to other locations. Just walk or bike across the Williamsburg bridge to get to Brooklyn, or go the opposite direction for quick trip by cab or train to midtown or, a little further up, Central Park. Soho is a (fairly easy) walk, and Chinatown is right next door.
While New York can be an expensive place, it’s also possible to find bargains, to a large extent dictated by the small size of New York apartments, especially in places like the lower east side. Most people don’t have decent kitchens, which fosters an amazing number of restaurants at both high and lower ends of the spectrum. (Okay, truth be told, most of the locals have no intention of cooking in any event, but lack of kitchen is a good excuse). Unlike most places in America, most of the older apartments have no washer or dryer, which sounds like a drag until you realize you can go to a Laundromat in China town or the lower east side and have someone do your laundry for you for 65 cents a pound, or maybe $6, and nicely folded. All you have to do is drop it off and pick it up.
Ultimately, what makes a place interesting is interesting people. The best places to go are the places, like the lower east side, that attract young entrepreneurs who are willing to throw all their creative energy into a small restaurant or a tiny new line of clothing. This is really what distinguishes areas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the lower east side from, say, midtown. The latter is a great stroll. You can stay at one of the huge famous establishment hotels like the Waldorf Astoria or the Palace and stroll up Madison or 5th Avenue; this is certainly worth doing, and you’ll see every fashion brand that ever heard of or seen advertised in a glossy magazine. All varieties of Armani, Ralph Lauren, or Gucci; the flagship store of Cartier on 5th Avenue. Even the discount chains like H&M and Uniqlo have flagships on 5th that are worth a visit. There is probably no better place to window shop, or to buy if you’re loaded and like famous brands, then 5th Avenue and Madison in midtown. But if you want to find the unique and the new, you need to head downtown or to Brooklyn. One thing you’ll notice in these areas that hasn’t changed too much, surprisingly, is that despite the endless laws, taxes, and anti-smoking propaganda, New York’s young and hip are still lighting up.
Chelsea is another famous, hip neighborhood and is probably the contemporary art capitol of the US, perhaps the world right now, but that, strangely enough, does not mean it is a good place to see art, unless you are an insider with insider access. The galleries are hard to find, often difficult to access, and hardly worth the trouble. The gallerists generally have absolutely no interest in dealing with tourists or, actually, anyone they don’t know. The best reason to visit Chelsea is to walk the high line park, which shows what can be done with derelict real estate with a lot of creativity and a few determined and visionary people; urban renovation at it’s best.
A Sunny Spring Sunday in New York’s Central Park
While we generally favor the road not taken, that path does not always make sense. In terms of choosing how to spend your time and money among the museums of New York, it may make sense to join the biggest crowds. Devote as much time, and energy, as you can muster for the Met. There are always an endless number of fascinating treasures here, a true embarrassment of riches. The admission fee is not really a fee but a recommendation; you can actually get in for nothing if you can brave the nasty looks at the ticket counter. Most people pay the full $25, which is certainly worth it if you have the energy to focus for at least a couple hours. Try to have a plan to see the things that interest you most; it’s easy to just wonder aimlessly among this vast building. This place will remind you that our species, for all its flaws and foibles, has been doing beautiful, amazing things for a long time.
Skip the Guggenheim – yes, it’s a famous Frank Lloyd Writing building, but it has a tiny fraction of the art on display at the Met, yet it charges almost as much for admission, $22, and the fee is fixed. While you should always be able to find something of interest at the Met, if the current exhibition isn’t to your liking you may out of the Guggenheim in 20 minutes.
In planning museum visits remember that the main art attraction other than the Met, MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art, is in midtown, which is not along Museum mile. If you’re moving around the city, you’ll want to visit MOMA when you’re in midtown; Museum Mile is on the Upper East side, along central park. Don’t try to do MOMA and Museum Mile on the same day; it’s just too much, and too far apart.
Some specific New York hotel notes:
Palace Hotel (formerly the Helmsley Palace) – Great midtown location, but beware, it is undergoing huge renovations even while keeping the rooms open. However, the attraction of this hotel has always been the charming courtyard and the large lobby, a bastion for business types using the free lobby Wi-Fi. There is, at the moment, virtually no lobby, and no place to sit down. The rooms are large by New York standards, but dark and generic; the whole hotel has a somewhat creepy vibe, although rooms are clean. You can get a decent sized room at a fair price; otherwise, there’s no reason to stay here until the renovation is finished and the lobby and courtyard reopen. (If you’ve got the cash, the rooms in the tower section are quite large, but considerably more expensive.) Despite the fact that they have no lobby, they still have the chutzpah to charge $16 for Internet access in rooms the last time we were there. Service is very perfunctory and somewhat bored.
Waldorf Astoria – The grand dame of New York hotels, this one reeks of history and former grandeur. Now it’s just another place for the upwardly mobile mass tourist, trading on its past and owned by the Hilton hotel chain Still, it’s a great midtown location, basically across the street from the Palace. Rooms are nice, if small and often overpriced, sometimes wildly so depending on current midtown demand. Yet the masses keep coming. Service is good. Sit in the lobby and watch the parade of people. Not a lot of beautiful people, but what the parade lacks in quality it makes up for in volume. You can have a $9 beer in the lobby restaurant (Peacock Alley) and watch them stream by. Internet access is free in the lobby, but a ridiculous $18 in rooms – yes, per day. We’ve stayed in the Waldorf many times in the past and have a (slight) sentimental thing for it, almost entirely because of the lobby space and the great midtown location.
Franklin – A small 50 room hotel near Museum mile, but not quite near enough, as you still have to cross Lexington, Madison, and Park to get to 5th Avenue. Rooms are very small; in fact, I could barely fit my shoulders into the area over the sink. The only public room is a small reading room, but with a nice view onto the street. Located in a moderately interesting, not too touristy neighborhood, this is one of those hotels that will do for a night or two for a single person, or a couple that can negotiate really tight spaces. The hotel does have nice finishes, which makes the tiny rooms more bearable. Decent continental breakfast in the morning and free Wi-Fi in the rooms. This hotel could be okay, except at the very end they try to tack on a “service charge” of 6%, not shown on Expedia booking totals. This is one of those small but very sleazy and aggravating things that lower class hotels will try. If you object, and I did, they will remove it, but it substantially increases their profit margin for all those people who don’t object. Basically, it allows them, and other hotels who do this, to charge more then their advertised rates. It is absolutely gratuitous, and as a traveler you should object any time you see something like this. The same is true of “resort fees,” which is also an add on which may not be included in the price when you book. Hotels should be free to charge whatever they like, but all fees and total charges should be transparent before booking, not hidden and presented at check out.
Blue Moon – When people say this is not a cookie cutter hotel, they are so right. Small, with service that is more like you’d get at your local saloon, this hotel fits right in to it’s lower east side location. There are no room numbers, just names after musical legends; I was in the Duke Ellington. Rooms are nice sized, and kinda shabby chic, but clean. Mine had a shared balcony with one other room with an unusual view – looking right over the Williamsburg Bridge. If you can afford it, go for the luxury rooms higher in the building with big terraces and great views. Like most small hotels this one doesn’t have much of a lobby, but they do provide a free day pass to a nice gym across the street, as well as free Wi-Fi in the rooms. The best part of this hotel is that it’s located in one of the coolest parts of New York on Orchard Street. The immediate neighborhood is great, and all of Orchard is nice stroll. A few blocks away and you can walk across the Williamsburg Bridge into trendy Williamsburg. SoHo is a ten minute walk. You can get your laundry done for you at a neighborhood Laundromat for $6. The place is a little hard to find as it blends right into the neighborhood, but it’s right across the street from the Tenement Museum.