A city to lift you up
Mad, bad New York? Definitely not. Zara Mansoor has spent a lot of time in New York and reckons it will definitely boost your spirits.
When I first went to New York, I was vaguely intimated by the thought of big city streets lurking with thugs and hustlers. I could not have been more wrong.
Long gone are the bad, mad days of the 80s and muggings on every corner. New York City is one of the safest, friendliest and easiest place to get around in the world. This city won’t trample you down, it’ll whirl you up into a humming, colourful, delicious spin and then sit you down at the end of it and pour you a drink. And probably offer you a pretzel too. (As long as you’re paying, right?)
As a backdrop to so much Western pop culture, you’ll probably feel like you’ve been here even if you haven’t. And if you haven’t, you should because it actually has the goods to live up to its clichés. For me, it still holds top city ranking because it manages to pull off that elusive combination of feeling like both the biggest and smallest of places due to the diversity of its boroughs, neighbourhoods and people. Whatever your timeframe, expectations or budget even the most doubtful traveller can’t help but heart it.
Here are a few of my favourites.
Manhattan, the centre of New York’s seven boroughs, and possibly the world, is extremely easy to navigate for even the most spatially challenged (i.e. me) due to its condensed size and numbered grid streets.
Hustle up fifth avenue, crane your neck up to the iconic buildings and take a peek into some of the glitziest shops. Special mention to Tiffany & Co whose uber friendly staff will be more than happy for you to embrace your inner Audrey and take a peek at treasures inside including the 128 karat Tiffany diamond (souvenir anyone?).
The streets get a little messier downtown but that’s all part of the fun and if you do get stuck, New Yorkers are actually a pretty friendly bunch underneath their city slicker fronts so just ask.
Other excellent neighbourhoods for a wander include: Greenwich village, Upper West Side, China town, Soho, Chelsea… basically you can’t put a foot wrong here. And it’s all free (unless you buy an actual diamond at Tiffany’s)
High Line Park
Central Park is deservedly high on everyone’s New York favourites and hard to miss, stretching 51 blocks over the middle of the city. However, it’s newer and artier sibling, the High Line, offers something just a bit different with an elevated park stretched along old railway tracks.
This is city strolling at its finest with changing art installations, food trucks, buskers and very Instagrammable view spots. There are various entry points to get up to the high line so just decide where you want to start and end. Starting higher up and exiting at the bottom will leave you in Chelsea and right by more great shops and eats. For details, visit the High Line website.
Free (plus some spare change for the buskers)
New York from the fabulous High Line Park, Central Park in autumn and Manhatten from the Staten Island Ferry.
Take in the view from Top of the Rock
If you must pay an exorbitant fee to climb a very tall building, may I suggest you go for the Rockefeller over the Empire State? It might not be quite as famous but the view is better, the platform nicer and there is even a bonus colour changing room. What more could you ask for? Go just before sunset for prime photo and/or romance opportunities.
Not free and can get busy, so book online.
Hop on a boat
For a great view that doesn’t involve heights AND is free, the Staten Island Ferry is your ticket. A commuter ferry that trundles the bottom of Manhattan and Staten Island, this will give you a great view of the downtown skyline and Lady Liberty. No need to get off (sorry Staten Island), just head straight back to town (and explore Battery Park and other Downtown sights such as the former World Trade Center site, now home to spanking new and shiny Freedom Towers). As this is a working commuter boat, you’ll probably want to avoid it at rush hour unless you're after a different experience altogether. Runs 24 hours.
If that’s not enough boat for you, the Circle Line does great cruises which go right around the island of Manhattan from cityscape to rocky outcrops.
Not free. You can check out its website here.
Visit an un-museumy museum
New York has got The Met, the MOMA, the Guggenheim and other big hitters which are all 5 stars in the museum world but if you want something a bit different, the Tenement Museum in the lower East side is excellent. You can only visit it as part of a guided tour, which takes you around a recreation of an old tenement building that New York’s early immigrants were packed into. A museum for even the most museum-weary traveller. Also kid friendly depending on age and tour.
Not free and booking recommended on its website.
Lady Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry, Ellen's Stardust Diner with its singing wait staff, Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) and glorious Fifth Ave.
If Broadway is not your thing or you’re still priced out of the trillion dollar (only slight exaggeration) tickets for 'Hamilton', get off Broadway and check out the huge range of theatre going on outside the Big White Way. This can be anything from Broadway shows that are running test seasons or tiny free pieces found far away from Times Square. TimeOut has a good selection from on Broadway to off off Broadway on its website.
Price ranges from free to ludicrous.
For musical fans who missed out on big tickets, Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Times Square is a uniquely wonderful New York experience where the very talented wait-staff belt out hits and requests for you in between serving your dinner. Go early to get tables.
Eavesdrop and people watch
If sitting back and watching the human traffic go by is your idea of a good time, you’ve come to the right place. Even if you’re not intentionally trying to listen, you’re pretty much guaranteed to partake in some prime eavesdropping as New Yorkers stroll down the streets or sit on the subway having intimate conversations on their phones. If you want to be less of a stalker factor, strike up an actual conversation. It's a brilliant way to get to know the unique and wonderful citizens of NYC.
Getting around and accessibility
I know I’ve talked about walking a lot but, if that’s not an option for you, taxis are also good and generally not too expensive around Manhattan as distances aren’t huge. Just try to avoid travelling in rush hour. Plus, flagging a yellow cab is an essential experience in itself, just check that the occupied light on the roof is off (a pro trying-not-to-look-like-a-tourist tip).
The subway is generally most useful for going up and down town and not so much across town so check the maps first. Metrocards can be used on the subway and bus, and you can load your card to pay by the trip or get a week pass if you’re going to use it a lot.
Check out the NYC Go website for a helpful article for those with more specific disability or accessibility needs.
Get out and about and discover the Flatiron Building, World Trade Center Memorial, Central Park (shown here in winter) and Radio City Music Hall.
Because of the premium on space, particularly in Manhattan, accommodation is notoriously expensive. Book as far in advance as you can, compare traditional hotel sites with Airbnb and choose your location carefully. If you’ve only got a short time, it’s worth paying more to stay centrally as you are closer to everything. Plus, who cares if you are staying in a glorified cupboard with so much to do, right?!
Another whole activity in itself in New York: you must eat to your heart’s content. Whether it’s a hotdog stand, a traditional Nuuuu York diner or a Michelin star restaurant, it’s all here! If you want to eat at one of the famous restaurants, most will let you book in advance and going for lunch instead of dinner can also be a great way to eat somewhere at a cheaper and less busy time.
Contributors: Zara Mansoor with some photos by Kevin Nansett
Updated: 17 October 2017