Overview: How to Visit New York City
Until recently cloudtravel lacked any serious material to offer about New York City, but now I have this page and a walking tour. The idea of writing a comprehensive guide to New York City is daunting. Any one category - restaurants, museums, shopping, landmark sites - can produce an avalanche of detail that makes the presentation unwieldy. To forgo reasonably useful detail, or to make the presentation unwieldy, would violate the cloudtravel credo. My solution is to provide an overview covering basic logistics, accommodation and restaurant tips, and then fill out the guide with a prototype walking tour covering some highlights.
I'm not a native New Yorker, which should be admitted up front. But by the time of this writing I've lived here a decade without ownership of an automobile and I've weathered both 9/11 and the 2003 blackout (here's the posting I made on cloudtravel during the Blackout). Thus, there are some qualifications to speak of. Not being from New York is an impediment and an advantage to writing this guide. The impediments are obvious - I don't know the place like a local. But the advantages come clear whenever we have a visitor, particularly from out of the country. "Let's show 'em the City," comes the mandate, and we find ourselves visiting places we always knew about, but never bothered to see: Ellis Island, walking over the Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry, the top of the Empire State Building, etc. Something about being a resident causes one to take the City for granted. From speaking with people who are lifelong residents I'd say that coming here from someplace else increases the chances that you'll look the place over yourself and not just skate by on the lore of famous landmarks without ever visiting.
There is so much to see that I suggest some kind of tour, guided or self-guided, if you are visiting New York for a short stay. For a self-guided tour take a look at the cloudtravel "Grand Day Out" to give you some ideas of what you want to see. A quality guide, like Fodor's, will give you detailed information on specific parts of the City, but comprehensive guidebooks often fail to give you a really comprehensible touring structure or a good, intuitive geographic reference for your day-to-day wandering. The truth of the matter is that when you visit you are tired, excited and disoriented all at the same time, so you need a helping hand to guide you around. For this I suggest something like Jane Egginton's On Foot Guide: New York Walks. The key feature is the aerial-view mapping that cuts out bite-sized walking tours and lays them out clearly on a map that shows building and topographical references to guide you along the route.
I'm generally not a fan of the guided tour, though I recognize that they are invaluable for giving you the overview of a place when you don't have the luxury of copious orientation time. It's the fishbowl/tourist thing that I generally don't like. The Circle Line Cruise is high on my list of tour recommendations (Pier 83 at the west end of 42nd Street - 212563-3200). The Circle Line (and it's iterations, the "Blues Cruise" and the "Booze Cruise") takes you on a narrated boat journey all the way around Manhattan island. The narrations can be sketchy, so you should do some geographic homework and bring along a map for reference (so you can go back to the good places you spot on the tour). Other less-comprehensive maritime options include the Staten Island Ferry and the NY Waterway harbor cruise (Pier 78 at West 38th Street - 800-533-3779), as well as various dinner and yacht cruises. For the ultimate overview take the helicopter tour at an expense of about $50 to $150 per person (e.g. Liberty Helicopter, heliport, West 30th and Hudson Street - - 212-465-8905)
For terrestrial tours I'd have to recommend one of the various New York double-decker bus tours at $20 to $30 per person (Empire State Building, Room 4503 - 212-967-6008). You'll see these busses all over the city and the open-air thing is serious improvement over being packed inside a bus (of course, in foul weather it becomes a curse). Getting progressively closer to street level you can opt for the Bite of the Apple Central Park Bike Tours (212-541-8758) or one of the many guided walking tours, like Citywalks (212-989-2456).
Basic Logistical Information -
Let me start by declaring that the New York City that scared the fertilizer out of tourists ten or twenty years ago is gone. Steadily through the Guilliani administration of the 1990s (and abetted by the clensing surge of the economic boom years) New York transformed itself. The crack dens of Alphabet City in the East Village gave way to a police clean up, and then gradually to redevelopment in the form of the trendy cafes that are there today. It became safe to venture increasingly northward, so that the 92th Street demarcation line of personal safety was washed steadily northward. Harlem in daylight, and with reasonable precautions, is now a safe place to visit. I know people who walk through Central Park at night without hazard. Public transportation makes New York one of only a handful of American cities where you don't need a car. Subways (with fares climbing to $2 to ride anywhere on the 714 miles of track) are safe and effective. The subway cars haven't carried the 1970s-era graffiti in decades. Cabs are easy to get, except during rush hour; they are often a quick and reasonable means to cover a couple dozen blocks. Panhandlers are cropping up more and more with the persistent and hard-hitting economic downturn, but you don't have many out-of-control homeless person displays (like street nudity and insane screaming) the way you had ten years ago. The biggest unresolved problem for the average out-of-town tourist is probably: where on earth can I find a bathroom? It's true that the marshal law de-commissioning of most public toilets has not been widely reversed. But you can turn to large department stores and hotels.
It is the shame of the City that with three major airports servicing New York City (LaGuardia and JFK in Queens, and Newark in New Jersey), only Newark, the New Jersey outsider, provides a rail link into Manhattan. AirTrain, the Newark train service goes to Pennsylvania Station and is heartily recommended (take the New Jersey transit train at half the price of the Amtrak trains). Your other options from Newark are the Olympia bus service (about $12), or private car services and taxis, the latter of which can present a complicated issue with the fare because you're crossing into New York State (work out the deal with the driver before you get in the cab - he may want you to pay a fare for his trip back to Jersey). All vehicular traffic to and from Manhattan from any airport is subject to traffic delays at almost any time, so an estimate of your travel time can only be summarized as: with good luck 30 minutes, probably nearer to an hour, and possibly ninety minutes.
For LaGuardia and JFK your surest bet is to go stand in the taxi line, although there are some other options for airport transportation. Taxi fares to or from LaGuardia are on the meter, plus bridge or tunnel tolls, and will cost $20 to $30 for Manhattan destinations (tolls are generally about $3.50 and you'll tip $3 to $4). Coming in from JFK is a flat fare of $35, plus tolls and a $5 tip (going out to JFK is on the meter). Don't take the gypsy cabs at the airport, though the drivers will solicit you while you're in the taxi line. To be safe take only a yellow cab or a private car if one has been specifically arranged for you in advance (Carmel is one private car service I've used repeatedly without incident - 212-666-6666). The taxi ride in a yellow cab is typically safe and scam-free. When you get to a toll booth for a bridge or tunnel the driver may want the toll from you there and then, or he may pay the toll and add the amount to the fare at the end of the ride. (Note: the Queensboro bridge is toll free, and there is an infrequent scam where the taxi driver buys a roll of bridge tokens at the toll both when you cross and then at the end of the ride presents you with a seemingly valid receipt for a toll of about $35 on top of your fare.)
I hesitate to provide driving advice for Manhattan out of concern that somebody will perceive this to mean it's a reasonable idea to bring your car. If you are driving do the best you can (DOT home site). There's no turn on red, it's 30 mph, watch the parking rules and consider off-street parking ($20-$30 for 24 hours) if you value your car. Cars and trucks from behind will constantly harass you to inch up, but don't "block the box" (get stuck at a traffic light inside the intersection). Early Sunday morning is the best time to drive when you can zoom around unimpeded. Avoid business rush hour (lots of other cars) and lunch hour (mobs of pedestrians in business locations). Get your gas outside of the City. If you're stuck needing gas, try way up First Avenue in the 90s and early 100s.
Pennsylvania Station at 34th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues (same location for Madison Square Garden) handles all Amtrak train traffic up and down the seaboard, as well as local New Jersey Transit and Long Island Rail routes. The original Penn Station was pulled down in 1963 to make room for the present, low-ceilinged disgrace. There have been plans bandied about to transform the Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue into a new Penn Station by 2008 (and name it after the late Senator Moynihan), but things seem to be dragging since we ran out of money when the economy sputtered. Former resident Jackie Onassis was pivotal in saving the other old guard train station, Grand Central Terminal, and it survives beautifully intact (and even restored) to serve the local commuter traffic to upstate destinations.
You should refer to a commercial guidebook for any comprehensive hotel review that you might need. I'll note the very best places in town, as well as some resources for finding nice bargains. As for the best, the modern, centrally located and bursting-with-service Four Seasons Hotel designed by architect I.M.Pei is generally regarded as the best, all-purpose hotel in New York (57 East 57th Street - 212-758-5700, www.fourseasons.com). The Peninsula Hotel is in a period building that has been thoroughly renovated so that it includes a great spa, a second-floor lounge with great midtown views and a roof-top bar (700 Fifth Avenue - 212-956-2888, www.peninsula.com). If you prefer a little more history at some expense of modern facilities then conider the elegant St. Regis in mid-town (2 East 55th Street - 212-753-4500, www.stregis.com), and the famous Carlyle in the Upper East Side (35 East 76th Street - 212-744-1600). For smaller, top-rated boutique hotels consider The Lowell (28 East 63rd Street - 212-838-1400, www.preferredhotels.com) and The Mark (25 East 77th Street - 212-7244-4300, www.mandarinoriental.com).
Let me take a moment to write in some detail about a unique property in the upscale/boutique category. The Inn at Irving Place is comfortably located a few blocks downtown of Grammercy Park on a charming and quiet street, Irving Place. There is no identifying sign on the exterior of the twin, 1830’s townhouses that make up the inn. Upon entering you find a tea salon, working fireplace, oriental rugs and antiques. The 1834 stairway spirals you up to twelve beautifully appointed rooms, each with an ornamental fireplace, four poster bed, dark wood floors and fully appointed bath with tub, newspaper rack and full fixtures. Breakfast served in the tea salon which does a traditional tea function in the afternoon hours, candles lit around the room. The Inn offers a rarity in New York, classic, old-world charm with a residential feel that offers a comfortable, protected transition for non-urbanites. At the same time it has a central Manhattan location in a great neighborhood for leisure walking safe from the more harried parts of the metropolis. The Inn at Irving Place, 56 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003. Tel.- 212-533-4600; fax - 212-533-4611; rez - 800-685-1447. Major credit cards, 48-hour cancellation, no pets or kids under 12. $295-450 incl. Continental breakfast.
If you are looking for a hotel deal in Manhattan be circumspect. There are a lot of really crummy properties in the discount part of the spectrum, some on hideous sections of Mahnattan that will make you cringe, or cry, or maybe scream. Sure, there are ways to get a deal on a New York hotel. For example, today I see some reasonable deals on www.hotels.com, including these hotels right off Central Park: Helmsley Park Lane for $159 and the Stanhope Park Hyatt for $179. There's also Le Parker Meridien for $179, a terrific hotel a block from where we live (handy insider's note: despite its deceptive elegance, this hotel also has the best, top secret $5 burger joint in town). I also see some real dogs offered on hotels.com, like the dismal Hotel Pennsylvania across from Penn Station (priced at $119/night) and the abysmal Howard Johnson's Plaza in the dregs of Eighth Avenue (the optimistic advert says: "in the heart of the Theater District") priced at $95/night. You would have to do your homework to take advantage of deals like hotels.com without risking an ugly surprise. Note that before using hotels.com, or any similar service, you should familiarize yourself with the full cost (hotels.com adds a surcharge and tax to the prices quoted above), plus look at the pre-pay and cancellation policies. But the deals are there. Even with the service charge included, hotels.com is offering really great hotels like Le Parker Meridien at only $30 to $50 beyond the price of some of the bargain hotels recommended below.
When looking for a bargain don’t book on the fringes of Manhattan (be wary of Seventh Avenue and further west) and do the best you can to see an Internet image of the building and the facilities (though this is no insurance - I can't believe that this website depicts the same, degraded trainstation hotel where I have continuing legal education classes a couple of times each year). For some reason all of my relatives who visit from the south end up in Times Square, and most often at the goliath Marriott Marquis. These hotels are serviceable, but Times Square has very little to do with what New York is about (looking around at the panhandlers and glitzy tourist sights by their hotels, they say incredulously, "You live here?" - well no, we don't live in Times Square). To accommodate the noble needs of the budget traveler following are some recommendations.
Larchmont Hotel, 27 West 11th Street, New York, NY 10011. Tel - 212-989-9333; fax 212-989-9496. $80-120 (to evaluate it, check out Tripadvisor's site). This European-style hotel with shared bathrooms has a remarkable redeeming quality - A Manhattan hotel on a pleasant, north Greenwich Village street with rooms under the three-figure mark. The entrance is inviting, offering protection on a street that requires no particular protection. There is a small lobby and the rooms are modest, yet clean, non-frightening and non-oppressive (if not particularly uplifting). Expect a shoebox-sized room with a 13” television, window air conditioner and a small, wicker or cane writing desk. The shared bath facilities offer both showers and bathtubs (robes and slippers are provided in your room). Good points - the price is unheard of for a hotel with this location and the nominally good features offered; the street is a nice one that offers relative quiet (although just a few blocks away the energy of NYC and Greenwich Village awaits); proximity to the Village, Union Square and Grammercy is excellent. Negatives - The hotel is modest in a city were modest accommodations fade quickly into the undesirable; shared bath; expect the irregular behavior of Greenwich Village to infiltrate the neighborhood and some of the other guests.
Hotel Beacon, 2130 Broadway, between 74th and 75th Streets. Singles $125, doubles $145, suites from $195 (212-787-1100) (Tripadvisor's write up). The address is prime, bustling, upper west side, presently Manhattan's most-in-demand residential area. Lincoln Center, Columbus Avenue shopping, west side restaurants and Central Park are all within walking distance. The Hotel has 200 modern rooms with large closets and clean bathrooms. Ask about a kitchenette in your room (stocked with dishes and utensils). Make sure and reserve as far in advance as you are able.
New York City is awash with restaurants. A strong suit is New York’s amazing variety of ethnic offerings and broad span of restaurant locations, decors and atmospheres. On the down side there are far too many restaurants in New York happy to serve you an average plate of food at an exorbitant price. Be careful about spending a lot on a meal in New York unless you have a good reason for doing so (e.g. the place is highly recommended, you’re on an expense account, you got engaged at that particular restaurant, etc.) Other guides and the Zagat survey will provide far more depth in reviewing New York restaurants than I’m inclined to attempt. For the purposes of this guide I’ll provide a roll call of what are commonly regarded as the best restaurants in the City, followed by a few personal tips about some great, uniquely New York dining experiences.
The most raved about places in the City include Daniel, Nobu, Jean Georges, Le Bernadin and Chanterelle. I don't typcally go for the grandeaur and pose of places like Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in the Essex House hotel with the silly $160 set menus. March restaurant is very unique with its ultra-gourmet ambitions hanging on its sleeve and the set price menu that allows you to choose from a wide variety of unusually interesting options. I've been to Union Square Cafe several times and more recently got the impression they are coasting, though it’s still highly ranked. The Balthazar/Pastis/Orsay family of faux bistro restaurants are still quite popular with the crowd that borrows its appearance from Gap advertisements. Lot 61 has a lot of recent buzz (look at their web site and you see they're not fooling around).
Woody Allen was famously quoted: “I hate reality, but where else are you going to get a good steak dinner?” Regarding steak restaurants I have to part company with those who cosset Peter Luger’s Steakhouse over the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn. I once waited the requisite two months for a reservation and found the place fabulously overrated. Compared with a serious steakhouse like Manny’s in Minneapolis, I think Peter Luger’s is a dog. For a good steak in Manhattan I say head to Sparks Steak House, which has a better strip and is so New York that Big Paulie "the Banker" Castellano was whacked there in 1985. For the best steak bargain in town order the $15.50 Parisian cut sirloin at Bistro Le Steak on the Upper East Side (my father, a seasoned steak man from the south, declared: “Best at any price”).
Here are some other ideas for great New York dining experiences:
Eat at the bar at Café des Artistes on a Tuesday through Saturday when Victor is working. He will take perfect, 19th-century-quality care of you, spreading out the napkins, offering hard-boiled quail eggs, dolling out the pot au feu (sadly, no longer served from shining copper pots) or steam-warming your after dinner armagnac.
Visit 21 Club for a great, post-speakeasy New York dinner. We go every Christmas, regardless of expense, when the festivity of the season and the various toys hanging from the ceiling make for a unique evening. Be sure to reserve a table and try to dine early to take advantage of the pre-theater menu because the regular menu has punitive prices (your waiter will ask if you’re going to the show, and your affirmative reply is code for “give me the special, prix fixe menu, please”).
Visit Churrascaria Plataforma (49th and 9th Ave) for the experience of a Brazillian Rodizio. They have a band up on the bandstand and a million waiters running around with long skewers of roasted meat of all kinds. Order a caipirinha cocktail (its like a Margarita, but made with Brazilian sugar cane liquor, sugar and fresh lime juice). Give the enormous salad bar short shrift so you can go to the main event - they give you a little disk that you turn to the green side to start the waiters approaching you, or the red side to stop them. It's one price, all you can eat and a unique experience.
Try the all-you-can-drink wine dinner at Cite' (120 W 51st). After 8:00 every night (and after 5:30 on Sunday) Cite', a reasonably fancy midtown French/steakhouse with one of the best wine cellars in town, offers a set price dinner where you pay $60 for your choice of any appetizer, any main course and any desert on their menu plus generous servings of all the champagne and wine you can drink (see the e-opinions write up). When we were there last the champagne was Taittinger and when we said we liked it they left half a bottle at our table. After we tallied up wine consumption would have normally cost $150, the waiter had the nerve to buy me a port. It's the best bargain in town and a true NY experience with all the in-the-know patrons getting rolling drunk right in front of you.
Have a drink at Michael Jordan's or Cipriani Dolci on the elevated terrace in Grand Central Terminal. You can't beat having a drink under the huge canopy of the refurbished train station with the celestial themes blinking across the ceiling and all the people milling around below. Without an expense account it's may not worth dining, but stop for a drink. Because of the legalities pertaining to the train station location, Michael Jordan’s is one of the last restaurants in New York City where you can legally smoke a cigar. If Michael’s or Cipriani’s are full you can also visit the mostly unknown Campbell Apartment bar by leaving the station through the Vanderbilt Street exit, bearing left and following the signs.
I ought to recommend something from both the East and West Village. Both are rolling in great restaurants. But for the West Village I’m going to say Chumley’s, located through an unmarked doorway at 86 Bedford Street. You get a fancier plate of food at a lot of other places, but you can’t rival it for atmosphere. This obscure, former speakeasy is situated on a quintessential West Village street and has a fireplace and sawdust on the floor. The East Village is more difficult to call, but for a sense of the model-infested, ultra cool bar scene while getting a great meal I’ll say visit Casimir at 103 Avenue B (between 6th and 7th Streets).
A New York Walking Tour –
Click on the caption above to access the tour. The itinerary could keep you busy for four or five days. It covers what I would do if I had a visitor from out of the country who wanted to see a lot of New York without undue preference on what is famous or what is trendy.
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© Copyright 2006 Chris Cloud.
Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:21 PM.