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Best One-Day Walking Tour of New York City

A Walking Tour of Favorite Parts of New York City

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Manhattan isn't as much of a walker's city as the great European capitals.  The rigidly rational, Cartesian grid structure of the Manhattan streets north of 14th Street kills some of the fun.  Stalking block after block up the grid will give you lots of changing neighborhoods, but the arrow-straight streets and endless right angles fail to keep many adventurers completely engaged.  Perhaps its for this reason that my walking tour starts out by dipping deeply into the downtown regions, into the wilds of Brooklyn, and then exhausts itself finally in the sensible gridlines of posh Midtown (take a look here for a visitor's overview of New York City). I've also tried to maximize the emotional impact by drawing the tour across some of the most characteristic areas: Little Italy, Soho, Wall Street, Chinatown, etc.  We did this tour in a day, from breakfast to dinner, but you can't possibly hold that pace unless you know exactly where you're going, unless you have good touring weather, and unless you're in good shape.  It would be better to break it up into three days, to which you could add another day to see some of the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side and the Park in between.  With that you're only lacking every significant museum and indoor cultural attraction in New York City, none of which are addressed in any detail in this purely topographical survey. 


This tour is inspired by one of those days of walking around the City after a long season of bad weather when we hungrily  re-visited most of our favorite haunts, taking in during a single sweep restaurants, shopping, city sights, etc.  The Grand Day Out from March of 2003 will serve as roadmap for this tour.  I’ll break up the tour into thirteen sections. It should provide a general touring guideline, some information about Manhattan sights and neighborhoods, some shopping and restaurant information, and should generally provide a scope of outdoor visitor information compressed into a short, serviceable itinerary. 


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Here’s a synopsis of the tour: 


1. Breakfast on Prince Street near Soho

2. Shopping in Little Italy

3. Dining in Little Italy

4. Shopping in Chinatown

5. Foley Square, the Courthouses, and the Brooklyn Bridge

6. Side Trip to Brooklyn Heights after Walking Over the Brooklyn Bridge 

7. Wall Street and the Staten Island Ferry

8. Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

9. The Customs House and Bowling Green

10. Historic SoHo

11. Greenwich Village

12. Regal Midtown

13. Grand Central Terminal


Part One: Breakfast on Prince Street near Soho 


A grand day out starts with breakfast at Balthazar on Prince Street near Broadway (80 Spring Street – 212-965-1414).  Balthazar ushered in the faux French bistro restaurant surge that came to light during the Internet boom years in New York (Orsay and the now-trendy Pastis are two of Balthazar owner Keith McNally's offspring).  These restaurants are slightly cartoon versions of real French bistros – they are calculated to have all the atmosphere and offerings of a traditional bistro, only more so.  They are also tilted toward American tastes, kind of like the way they do at EPCOT Center at Disney World, but perhaps not so insultingly.  The smeared ochre paint at Balthazar, or Pastis is brighter (and more smeared) than you would find in an authentic brasserie (it yells at you, “Hey look!  We got ochre paint like in a real Paris bistro!”), the daily menus on the chalkboards look like they were scrawled by career Parisian restaurateurs. 


Anyway, with just a little suspended disbelief you can have a nice, fake bistro meal, including truly delicious baked goods.  Balthazar recently added a kind of pricey formal breakfast menu that is served after 10:00 am, but if you get there earlier you can still get their great continental breakfast, plus you avoid the crowds that come later (used to be that this was an active and crowded all-night haunt).  At breakfast they give you a green bottle of New York tap water and a newspaper (no charge) and you order a steaming bowl of café au lait, a teed-up soft-boiled egg and a mixed basket of the signature breads and pastries (coffee and egg each under $3 and the bursting full panier bread basket feeds two to four at $10).  Balthazar has its own attached bakery shop, but it can be argued that just down Spring Street is a better French bakery at Ceci-Cela, which is agreed to be one of the best in town (55 Spring Street – 212-274-9179).


Part Two: Shopping in Little Italy


From Balthazar it’s an easy matter to walk around through the cast-iron-fronted buildings of SoHo, but we calculated to loop back and do this at lunchtime. So, (via Ceci-Cela) we traipsed down Mulberry Street (take a look at this site with a 360-degree image), down the heart of Little Italy.  Much of Little Italy is about the unique atmosphere (epitomized by Mulberry Street - here's another 360-degree camera shot) and the restaurants where tourists are hawked to step in for a bite.  Eating here, especially out of doors on a warm night, or during the dressed up Christmas Season, shouldn’t be missed.  But we timed our walk to avoid eating and focused instead on a surgical shopping strike before the Saturday crowds congealed. 


Our purpose in Little Italy was food shopping.  For that the Grand Street intersection with Mulberry is where you need to be.  Starting with the family-run Italian Food Center at number 186, you fan out down Grand Street on both sides of Mulberry making purchases of pasta, traditional salami, sopprasetta, bresola, bread, olives, etc.  From Mulberry the fringes of Grand Street begin to merge with Chinatown, so you will incidentally encounter shops like Phoenix Poultry Market at 159 Grand street where you pick your duck or chicken from a cage and they take it back for decapitation.  There’s also a handy branch of Pearl River Mart at 200 Grand Street, the charter store of which will be referenced later.  There are two Ferrara Bakeries in this vicinity, one at 195 Grand Street (across from Pearl River) and another further down Mulberry Street.  These are favored for Italian baked goods, cannolis and a passing cup of espresso.


Part Three: Dining in Little Italy 


Manhattan is pretty tight with Italian restaurants.  My city strategy has always been to pick a great, convenient Italian standby and stay with it until events demand a change (the current choice in a long, long line is un-Zagat-rated midtown shoebox, La Vineria, 19 West 55th Street – (212-247-3400).  If you want to eat on Mulberry Street, Zagat’s Restaurant Survey has all kinds of views for you to consider.  I’ll add some ideas that Zagat’s doesn’t reference. (As Zagat’s has more and more monopolized the restaurant guide business, and has branched into other areas, it seems that they omit more and more New York City Restaurants from their guide). 


For general purposes I favor Paolucci’s (149 Mulberry – (212-925-2288) because of the traditional, quasi-mob, family-run atmosphere.  Following on this atmospheric theme, Umberto’s Clam House (386 Grand Street – 212-431-7545) is where they whacked mob boss Joey Gallo in 1972.  Puglia Ristorante is a place where you can sit at a large table with a bunch of people singing their hearts out while they eat pasta and swing glasses of Chianti (189 Hester Street – 212-966-6006).  There is a trick with Puglia: you have to have a pretty big party, you have to arrive when the singing has started, and you have to convince the owners upon your arrival that your group is game enough to merit sitting in the big room – otherwise they shunt you off to a smaller room which isn’t worth staying for.  The shabby and deeply atmospheric bar, Mare Chiaro is a must see (known locally as the "Sinatra Bar" after a certain former patron, it is located at 176 1/2 Mulberry St., between Grand and Broome Streets).  Mare Chiaro has been the mainstay movie bar locale for dozens of films, perhaps most recently Donnie Brasco - Mare Chiaro is where Al Pacino tries to sell Johnny Depp a "fugazy" fake diamond.  Bring singles for the jukebox and  maybe come aptly prepared by visiting  the cigar shop first, which is halfway down the block from Mare Chiaro, on the same side of Mulberry Street (I don't know what the March 30 smoking prohibition will do to change Mare Chiaro, but they already weathered prohibition).


Part Four: Shopping in Chinatown

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Walking downtown Mulberry Street we crossed Canal Street into Chinatown, which is roughly sketched out by the “T” of Canal Street and Mott Street.  Like Little Italy, Chinatown is a city within a city that makes a distinct impression.  At 277 Canal Street is the famous Pearl River Mart (the Grand Street branch was mentioned previously).  Pearl River epitomizes the stores in this area that stock oodles of inexpensive Asian goods, and also sell common, staple items at weirdly cheap prices.  As some folks on the web point out ungenerously, Pearl River is not about elegance, but about value (examples of my purchases – box of Mead business envelopes for 80 cents, Elmer’s glue all for 85 cents, Scotch tape for a dollar, etc.).  Stores contiguous to Pearl River shamelessly sell luxury brand knockoffs of designer goods so that busloads of tourists down here everyday.  On a given day you see sleepy-eyed Asian locals mixed with wild-eyed heartland bargain hunters.


The thing about shopping in Chinatown is the volume (both people and goods) and the bargains.  Fish markets along Canal near Mott Street are bursting with iced seafood of strange and extensive variety.  These offerings are on sale at a fraction of the cost charged in tonier parts of Manhattan.  I always buy shellfish here, especially fresh shrimp, where you can get jumbo, 15-count (that is, 15 shrimp weigh a pound) for $4 or $5 per pound, or you can opt for cocktail-ready, steamed and veined shrimp for as little as $3 per pound.  This trip we bought a pint of shucked, pacific oysters for $5 and two pounds of snow crab legs (three good-sized clusters).  The crab was frozen and right out of the box from Washington State and cost $9 total. 


Not all shopping in Chinatown is of the massive volume/bargain price variety.  Quality clothing and tailoring is to be had (and also Asian restaurants of all kinds, of course).  C.F.G. Boutique at 129 Walker Street (917-237-0688) has stunning Chinois clothing, mostly for women.  A wise purchase here (you need to be pretty thin, and make sure and try it on first) will net you a garment unlike anything else you will see on the people around you (unless you live in Asia).  I don’t know if it’s worth adding this, but I would advise against the purchase of garments that are fur trimmed, unless you’re satisfied with the explanation of the source of the fur.


Part Five: Foley Square, the Courthouses, and the Brooklyn Bridge


I ended the last entry with notes on shopping in Chinatown.  I didn't provide much about the history of the neighborhood, so here's a link.  As far as dining is concerned, I’m going to have to beg off providing a restaurant discussion regarding Chinatown.  I used to eat here with other lawyers when I worked in the nearby Manhattan courts, but I never really enjoyed it and I never go now.  You can find great, authentic dishes and dim sum, but most of the places are high-volume, marginal quality. You always get the sense that the flash of a health inspector badge would send the staff frantically scrambling for the back door.  Zagat will give you loads of ideas if you are so inclined.


From Chinatown we drifted into lower Manhattan around the courthouses (of lawyer interest: clustered in a few blocks is the Manhattan county court of general jurisdiction, the Surrogate, the Family Court, the Criminal Court, as well as the Federal Courts for the Southern District of New York and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals).  From here you can do something unique and wonderful in New York – you can cross the East River by walking out over the pedestrian concourse of the Brooklyn Bridge. 

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John Roebling’s masterpiece of 19th Century engineering was the first New York City bridge (the last was the Verrazano Narrows Bridge completed in 1964 - see how it looks this minute on the Staten Island Bridge Cam).  It’s a mile-long walk over to Brooklyn and it’s a most splendid experience in good weather.  You’ll learn all about the construction history from the tablets at the mid point of the crossing. Here's a panorama shot taken from the Bridge.  The engineering history is fantastic.  The two, massive anchoring caissons (solid stone masonry 119' by 132' by 90' and weighing 120 million pounds each) were pneumatically lowered into the muddy river bed.  Workers inside the caissons dug out and removed the river mud as the massive objects settled to the bedrock.  Working well beneath the water line, these workers sometimes climed the stairs to the exit too quickly and contracted the bends (an unknown ailment at the time that was dubbed "caisson disease").   There was lots of drama.  The original $5 million budget was soon outstripped, the father of the project, bridge architect John Roebling, crushed his foot on the construction site and died of tetanus. Roebling's successor, his son Washington Roebling, contracted the bends and faithfully managed the completion of construction peering through a telescope from his sick bed.  By the time the bridge was completed on May 24, 1883, 27 had people died on the construction site.   


From the other side of the bridge you can either walk back, hail a returning cab, or you can take a look at nearby Brooklyn Heights, from where you can catch the subway back to Manhattan.  There is no charge to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and the pedestrian concourse is safely and comfortably lofted above the busy motor vehicle level.  You can see below to the vehicle level through the slats so those with a fear of heights might opt to double back a third of the way out. 


Part Six: Side Trip to Brooklyn Heights after Walking Over the Brooklyn Bridge

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The dignified, tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights have increasingly attracted upscale city dwellers, for whom the commute to lower Manhattan is all of a single subway stop. This proximity to Wall Street and the financial district is one powerful lure, but there are others.  Where living in the canyons of Manhattan's financial district cuts you off from much nearby pleasure dining, nightlife and a comprehensive view of your own skyline, Brooklyn Heights restores all of these and preserves the great commute.  Instead of apartment blocks you have handsome brownstones.  Instead of the sidewalks rolling up at 5:00 pm you have a vibrant community of cafes and restaurants.  And all of this is piled up on a nice, commanding rise in the topography of Brooklyn that constantly reminds you of your participation in the glistening metropolis in a fashion that frees you instead of encapsulating you (Brooklyn Heights neighborhood views).


The pejorative aspects of Brooklyn - that reputation as a scruffy Manhattan wanna-be - don't apply to Brooklyn Heights anymore as they might have in the run-down years from the 1940s to the 1960s.  Increasingly, the nearness to Manhattan, the European feel and the cheap rents attracted writers and artists (Truman Capote, Arthur Miller, W.H. Auden, etc.), and made Brooklyn Heights a second Greenwich Village.  Then, on the crest of this cultural upswing, Brooklyn Heights became New York City's first Historical District, thus locking in the feel and preserving the architecture.  And finally the Internet boom years hit, with an economic power that even turned the crack dens of Harlem and the East Villlage into safe, viable neighborhoods.  Brooklyn Heights became the place where clever domestic adventurers could get Manhattan, plus a lot more.


If you take the side trip to Brooklyn from your walk over the Brooklyn Bridge you can either do a comprehensive, snake-like pattern, or you can do a surgical strike (general map - - detail map).  For the comprehensive tour veer off the bridge to the right and double back toward the water in a sweep into the old streets of Poplar, Middagh, Cranberry, Orange and Pineaple (these run parallel to the bridge as you progress south).  You can filter through the neighborhood in a southerly direction away from the bridge until you hit Remsen Street (a total of ten blocks from the Bridge). Then Follow Remson to the east (away from the Manhattan skyline) to the subway.  A shorter, quicker route is to veer right off the bridge and follow the greenery of Cadman Plaza up to Borough Hall where you will see and mark the subway stops for your return journey.  From here take a walk off to the right (this will be in a due westerly direction) down famous Montague Street.  Walk down Montague Street as far as you care, all the way near the Brooklyn Piers if you like, and take a right turn so you can double back one block over via leafy Pierrepont Street that runs parallel to Montague.  (Of more lawyer interest: the Brooklyn County courts are clustered along Cadman Plaza, as well as the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York, and off of Peirrepont Street at 45 Monroe Place is the state appeal court for the Second of New York’s four appellate “Departments”.) 


Part Seven: Wall Street and the Staten Island Ferry 


After spanning the mighty Brooklyn Bridge and touring a gem neighborhood on the other side, let's return to Manhattan.  From the base of the bridge you are a short walk from the famed canyons of Wall Street.  These days the peripheral absence of the World Trade Center plays havoc with my memories of this part of town (after seven years on Wall Street I changed jobs to a midtown address in January 2001). 


We paid visits to Nassau Street, to Federal Hall and the Stock Exchange, to Trinity Church, and to the J.P. Morgan Bank where the marble is still pocked from a September 16, 1920 bomb plot.  I paid respects at my former work haunts at 120 Broadway (the Equitable Building) and 80 Wall Street.  At Cedar Street I showed my wife where my closest colleague at my last job described running from the engulfing cloud of the Trade Center Collapse on 9/11/01 that knocked him to the ground with its force (he survived with cuts and bruises).  We then worked our way down to the Staten Island Ferry terminal and Battery Park. 


The Staten Island Ferry, that I used to take regularly to get to the Richmond County Court, is another tourist treat (this article on taking good tourist photographs in NYC endorses taking the ferry over waiting in line to visi the Statue of Liberty).  The ferry is free, it swings you right under the nose of the Statue of Liberty, and when it pulls back from lower Manhattan it gives you the best, camera-ready vantage in town.  The problem with the trip is that there is nothing to do from this forlorn part of Staten Island (you must believe me) except wait in the tired ferry terminal for the next boat to take you back to Manhattan.  If you’re quick and alert it is barely possible to board the ferry that is being readied to return to Manhattan as you simultaneously arrive in Staten Island aboard a sister craft, but odds are you won’t make it.  Another trick is that if you go during business commuting hours the ferries run every 15 minutes instead of every 30 minutes. But for an average Saturday, I’d say that if you can dedicate 90 minutes to the process (30 minutes to cross each way, plus 30 minutes between ferries in a worst case scenario), it’s a great insider trick that circumvents the bother, crowds and expense of the commercial Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island tour boats that run from Battery Park.


Part Eight: Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island


Battery Park at the toe of Manhattan is the embarkation point for a variety fo ferries, boat tours of the Statue of Liberty out in the harbor, and the tours of Ellis Island.  Both landmarks are clearly visible from the Park, the green and thoughtful Lady Liberty stealing the show.  From here you can also take the “Circle Line” boat tour that makes an enjoyable circuit around Manhattan Island.  As of this writing the Statue of Liberty is closed, although you can still visit the island and stand up close (but not enter) the statue.  It’s a $10 trip by boat (buy your ticket inside the reddish-brown Castle Clinton) and you can expect a pretty big line most times of the year.  Like near Times Square, our New York City panhandlers, luxury goods knockoff merchants, and street musicians are at their most prolific and aggressive/gregarious at Battery Park. Take a preview here at the site of the First Precinct and get the local crime stats.

Part Nine: The Customs House, Bowling Green and Broadway 

Steps from Battery Park is the the Customs House, a lavish Beaux Arts building that was once the single source for more U.S. Government tax income than any other in the country. Befitting the revenue importance of the building, it was grandly and ornately constructed in the early 20th Century.  Customs functions have been located since 1973 in the World Trade Center.  After September 11 Customs was scattered all over the city.  The original Customs Building at the foot of Broadway replaced a fort and then a governor's mansion on a key south Manhattan plot of land.  The building now houses the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian as well as some Bankrupcty Judges.  Inside the huge, oval table still exists where arriving ships paid their duty.   

Directly in front of the Customs House is Bowling Green, the oldest green park in New York.  It still has its Revolution-era wrought iron fence (but it is lacking the equestrian statue of King George III that was pulled down and melted into rifle balls during the American Revolution).  Bowling Green and the Customs House mark the start of Broadway, that grand, distinctive, diagonal thoroughfare that crosses the entire length of Manhattan.  The name "Broadway" is justifiably famous, but its geographic significance is not always understood.  Because it cuts irregularly across the other grid-like streets of the City, it creates distinctive intersections all along the length of Mahnattan island. These intersections comprise most of the great and famous "squares" of Manhattan: Foley Square, Union Square, Madison Square, Herald Square, Times Square, etc.  A walk up the length of Broadway - literally from the Bronx to the Battery - is truly the most comprehensive tour of New York City you can get from tramping on any one street.

Part Ten: Historic SoHo 

From the Wall Street subway station in front of Trinity Church we took the Lexington Avenue liA picture named Soho.jpgne up a few stops to bring us back to SoHo, near where we had started the morning at Balthazar.  SoHo is short for “south of Houston Street,” a street name that is locally pronounced “house-ton.”  SoHo consists of a distinctive, 26-block historic district full of small museums, restaurants, some music clubs, and many upscale stores (here's a 360 degree panorma shot of the neighborhood). The chief historical significance is the survival of a number of period buildings, now declared landmarks.  The front pieces of these buildings are attached, cast iron that was cheaply wrought in the last half of the 19th Century and made to look like ornate, columned building facades.  The district begins just north of Canal Street.  The historical architecture is most actively represented up the length of Greene Street between Canal and Houston.


In SoHo we did our usual meandering, including a fun trip to the great kitchen supply shop, The Broadway Panhander (477 Broome Street – 212-966-3434).  We also stopped for a beer and the great chicken wings at that institution Fanelli Café (94 Prince Street – 212-226-9412).  Fanelli’s can attract a certain number of younger, grunge-oriented celebrities, but none appeared today from what I saw.  Last visit the British film actress Helena Bonham Carter had a hamburger next to us, dressed in a disorientingly eclectic crash of styles. 


After that appetizer at Fanelli’s we decided to visit The Cub Room for a full brunch (131 Sullivan Street – 212-677-4100).  The Cub Room takes its name from the famous private celebrity back room at the now-defunct Stork Club.  It’s on the pricey side and they can get snobbish so we always sit at the bar where we enjoy the huge windows and have more control than at a table where the waitress conducts you.  The beauty of the Cub Room is the great brunch that veers creatively away from the standard egg offerings provided all over town (I had a potato latke with apples, bacon, biscuits, and three poached eggs - $10).


Part Eleven: Greenwich Village 


Manhattan has its rational grid of streets uptown from 14th Street, and it has its off-kilter sprawl of former cow paths below.  Nowhere are the ghosts of bohemian New York more at play than Greenwich Village, which is situated just over Houston Street from SoHo.  The days of Edgar Allan Poe, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac and even Bob Dylan are gone now. Instead we’re meant to know that in some make believe world the gang from the show “Friends” lives in the Village.  (Though they claimed to be living in Brooklyn Heights, The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family inhabited a brownstone at No. 10 St. Luke's Place, which is three doors down from the home famously popular and corrupt 1920s/30s Mayor Jimmy Walker.) 


Rents are up along the quiet, leafy streets and the old-world shopkeeps have boosted their prices to catch the fall out.  Popular demand has pretty well scrubbed the Village clean nowadays.  But thanks to the presence of New York University (one of the largest private universities in the country) and a well-established gay community, the radical roots of the West Village will probably never be severed.  The past and present have been divided, but the ties remain and they are still visible during a walking tour.   In Washington Square Park you won’t be swept into a wild, hippy scene and you are rarely even get accosted to buy drugs anymore, but glance to the northwest corner of the park and you’ll see a big, brown Elm that actually served as a hangman’s tree in the early 19th Century.  In modern times the radical and outlandish qualities of the West Village are perhaps best exemplified by the Stonewall riots of 1969 where the local gay community snapped under the strain of constant police harassment and rose up.  Imagine the scenario of Village queens in drag barricading Serpico-era New York cops inside of the Stonewall Inn near Sheridan Square.  You still see plenty of down-home gay pride, particularly around the time of the Halloween Parade.  These days you come to the Village for the unique atmosphere and to see the last ebb of that melting pot New York quality, with many different communities living side by side in a quiet Manhattan enclave.


We took a nostalgic stroll through the Village up to Washington Square.  Many of the great restaurants are still there (Cornelia Street is a real haven, with mono-syllabic restaurants like Home at 20 Cornelia and Po at 31 Cornelia).  The discount music stores seem to have lost much of their discount, but we found a leather goods store having a raucous spring sale of coats under the $100 mark.  Working uptown on Sixth Avenue from the Village on this day where many things had fallen into place nicely, we happened on one of those ubiquitous Manhattan framed art stores.  I’m not sure where they come from, but these places that sell posters and framed art are all over the place in New York City, like a certain caliber of local diner, and like those crazy Middle-eastern electronics stores of doubtful license status that are parodied on Saturday Night Live and always have shredded newspaper on the floor and perpetual signs declaring “Going out of Business!!!”  Usually, the frames art stores are too pricey to bother with, but we happen to be in the market for a couple of vintage travel posters and this place had great, framed examples going for about $65, so we bought a couple.  I’ll provide the name and address of the place, but I’m not recommending it because once the sale ends it will be as useless as all the others – Times Art Gallery & Framing, Inc. 489 6th Avenue – (212-255-2970).

Part Twelve: Regal Midtown  A picture named Midtown.jpg

After dropping off the goods purchased during our day out we brushed ourselves off, made a call, and scheduled a rendezvous for cocktails in the heart of Midtown.  At twilight, when the teeth of the city skyline meet the midnight blue of the luminescent early evening sky, Midtown Manhattan is at its prime.  Certain seasons also hold Midtown in high regard, like the champagne weather of fall, and Christmas when an army of workers dressed as Santa Claus deck out Bergdorf Goodman.  But with daily regularity the early evening lights come up and the swank residences and stores of Park, Madison and Fifth Avenue glow with capitalistic privilege.  The prime stretch for Park Avenue is just above Grand Central Station, from 46th Street and the Met Life Building that serves as a visual headstone for Park Avenue, well into the 60s.  Madison Avenue offers the global hub of high fashion with upscale stores from Saks Fifth Avenue at 49th Street up into the 70s.  Fifth Avenue is perhaps the best promenade of all from Rockefeller Center up to the Park at 59th Street. 

For us an essential Midtown landmark is the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel.  The Carlyle Hotel has its allure, but its pretty far uptown and the Upper East Side is no substitute for Midtown.  The Four Seasons is a bit too corporate for real downtime leisure, while the Plaza is arguably a tourist trinket. The St. Regis is an old-world gem on 55th Street that was reputedly the first hotel in the world with air conditioning. It's the old stomping ground of Fred Astaire and Manhattan high society of the 30s and 40s.  Back then the hotel counted 47 Steinway pianos while Eddy Duchin and his orchestra played in the Maisonette Supper Club downstairs (now, sadly, a corporate meeting room).  The fancy, present-day Lespinasse Restaurant was formerly the site of the King Cole Bar, where the famous Maxfield Parrish mural hangs that gives the place its name. [Note: lacking the heart to pull it entirely from this page, I have to report that Lespinasse closed permenantly on April 19, 2003.] Yes, the King Cole has been Sheratonized into its present space and deprived of cigars through a New York City smoking ban, but the bar is still a dark, sacred enclave only slightly removed from a rich stream of Manhattan history.  The principal historical tie is the Parrish mural that used to hang at the Knickerbocker Hotel at 42nd Street and Broadway.  Sitting under it with a cocktail you hang on to the last threads of an era. 

The walking tour tour described here actually ended at the King Cole Bar where we visited just before we went home and devoured the snow crab legs bought in Chinatown.  But it isn't unlikely that would have opted to end the day in the hospitable and inspiring arms of that Midtown palace, Grand Central Terminal.  Being a travel enthusiast I have a religious sentiment for old train stations (it shows in my mystical Grand Central photo).  I remember the first time after I moved to New York City that I felt a stake in the City.  It was when I learned about the tragedy of Pennsylvania Station on 34th Street.  Penn was magnificent structure that was pulled to the ground in 1963 to make way for the new Madison Square Garden and that low-ceilinged bus terminal of a train station that they call Penn Station today.  More than realizing and feeling the loss of Pennsylvania Station, I feel like living here during the rebirth of Grand Central Terminal gives me credential as a legitimate New Yorker. 

Commodore Vanderbilt himself started the predecessor of Grand Central in 1869 before the present structure was constructed by 1913.  In the early 1990s Grand Central’s stained, gray walls reminded you of public school.  There was one tired restaurant, the old, sooty Oyster Bar in the basement.  But in the mid-1990s they cleaned and refurbished every inch of Grand Central (except a little, stained section at the northwest corner of the roof that quietly remains to demonstrate how bad it used to look).  Now Grand Central gleams and glows with activity and appreciation.  Both concourses burst with busy shops and restaurants.  Grand Central is once again one of those rare, surviving public spaces (like Washington DC's Union Station) that is valued by persons who visit it as much as by the people who rely on it every day in their commute. 

The main terrace restaurants (Matrazur, Cipriani Dolci and Michael Jordon’s Steakhouse) have great, open bars that allow you to drink under the expanse of the vast, marble terminal.  But if you go out the Vanderbilt Street exit to the taxi area and turn sharply left you will find the entrance to the Campbell Apartment.  The former apartment of a tycoon John Campbell, the apartments are now a perfect, little-known retreat.  It's perhaps fitting that after Campbell vacated the apartment in the 1950s the space was used as the drunk tank for unruly train passengers.


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Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:35:30 PM.