I have visited New York City every year for the past six years and I’m not sure I’ll ever get tired of going. Most people I’ve spoken to who have been there have loved it, but it also has its detractors. These people I have tended to find are countryside people who dislike cities in general, so see NYC as being particularly overhyped. While they are entitled to their opinion, I take great delight in ignoring them, for NYC is easily one of the best cities on the planet. It is the biggest movie set in the world – you’ve seen so much of it already in films and television that when you finally go, everything looks awesome.
I seem to get asked a lot by friends about tips for visiting the city, so rather than keep typing out emails all the time, I’m putting everything together in one place.
It’s worth remembering that everyone has different tastes – what I find interesting, you might find boring and vice versa. I’ve been recommended places to visit only to get there and find I didn’t like it at all. Always put your own preferences first when taking tips from other people. With that in mind, please continue reading…
I have always flown Virgin Atlantic to NYC – flying into JFK airport wherever possible. Only once have I had to go to Newark and that was a terrible experience – both the airport and having to get a cab to Manhattan. Having a satnav thrust at you by an angry cab driver because you AMAZINGLY didn’t know exactly where your hotel was in a city and country you don’t live in, is not something I want to have happen again. I have never flown into or out of La Guardia so cannot comment on that route or airport.
I always buy flights during airline sale times, as this can reduce the cost by around 50% – Virgin sale flights are usually around £450 return depending on the time of year, while at other times they can be around £800 return and sometimes over £1,000.
I understand from friends that Norwegian Airlines now operates ‘low cost’ flights to New York from Gatwick, and this can shave more than £100 off a return flight – so you may want to consider doing this if you’re on a budget.
I cannot sugarcoat this fact – staying in New York is EXPENSIVE, particularly Manhattan. A few nights in even a basic room-only hotel could cost you more than a week’s package holiday in Spain. Even sharing a dorm room in a hostel can come in at around the £60/£70 a night mark. Recently, people have been taking to air bnb to stay in the city and reduce costs. While this is often cheaper and you can get a great room/apartment, it is also technically illegal in NYC and may soon be made actually illegal – only permanent residents are supposed to be allowed to rent private dwellings short-term (under 30 days) in the city.
On average, I pay around £150 a night for a nice hotel in a reasonable location. If you’re looking for a classic New York hotel, a brand/chain name or a room with a view, be prepared to pay upwards of £300 a night. You can find cheaper hotels out towards the airports (Queens) but then you will spend a few hours each day travelling into the centre and you’ll waste a lot of time.
If you are lucky enough to have a friend or family member you can stay with in the city, THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS. I have friends all over the world but have yet to become close enough friends with anyone who lives in NYC.
For the visitor on an average budget, hotel rooms in NYC are SMALL – with space at a premium and millions of people wanting to visit each year, space has to be maximised. Luckily, you really only use your room to sleep in – you’ll be out exploring every minute of every day until your legs are about to fall off.
Some hotels I’ve stayed in and would recommend:
The Empire Hotel (Columbus Circle/Upper West Side) – Close to Central Park, many different subway lines and *cough* Trump Tower, this hotel has a great bar and restaurant attached, and a swimming pool on the rooftop, plus bar.
The Cosmopolitan Hotel (TriBeca) – A great downtown hotel within walking distance of Wall Street and the One World Trade Center. No bar or restaurant but plenty of eating and drinking places nearby.
Pod 51 (Midtown East) – Part of a new breed of ‘poshtels’, you can stay here in a shared dorm room or pay a little bit more for a private room. The rooms are capsule-based and modern, with the hotel being close to many attractions – Grand Central Station is only a few blocks away.
Your feet and the subway are the best ways of getting around the city. As London has recently introduced (in 2016!) a 24-hour service on the tube, New York has been doing this forever. Don’t expect nice comfortable train seats and aesthetically pleasant stations, though – the subway is dirty, smelly and slow (I have permission from a New Yorker to describe the subway as such.) Don’t be put off – it will get you everywhere you need to be. Buy a 7-day metrocard to save vast amounts of money.
Cabs are actually a lot cheaper than London taxis, but far worse in terms of service. For a start, if they don’t like the look of you – NYC cab drivers will just ignore you. And they don’t have the ‘knowledge’ that London cabbies have – I’ve been asked to tell NYC cab drivers where I’m going, which you won’t always know, you know – not living in the city and all that. But do take a cab ride if you can – for the experience if nothing else.
Central Park – beloved of New Yorkers, you must take a walk through this beautiful park which is as much an icon of the city as the Statue of Liberty. It is huge, and you may well have special parts of the park you want to see for yourself – it has been featured in so many films and TV shows. A word of advice – please don’t be tempted to take one of the horse carriage rides around the park. It might seem romantic, but the horses are dreadfully overworked.
Statue of Liberty – possibly the most famous movie star in the world? You can either take a paid tour here (and get off on Liberty Island) or just take a boat tour past her. If you’re on a budget, then get the free Staten Island Ferry – you won’t get as close as the paid tours, but you can still see her and the city in the background.
Top of the Rock – lots of people will want to go up the Empire State building, but of course once you’re up there – it no longer appears in the city skyline. Instead, go to the top of the Rockefeller centre and enjoy the breathtaking view of the Empire State building and also the Chrysler building. I have done this both daytime and night and they are equally awe-inspiring.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – I’m not much of a fan of museums as a whole, unless there is something specific you want to see or you are very interested in the subject matter (sue me.) But MoMA has many beautiful artworks including Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Andy Warhol, Dali, Degas and many more.
One World Trade Centre and 9/11 Memorial – The two memorial pools are absolutely beautiful and the best possible dedication to those who died in the 9/11 attacks. It is an emotive experience and I’d advise you to keep a tissue handy.
Grand Central Station – I cannot describe how much love I have for this stunning building – it is just magnificent and I always spend at least half a day there when I visit.
Times Square – I wouldn’t usually include this sort of place on a list of must-sees, in the same way I wouldn’t recommend Piccadilly Circus to someone visiting London. Heaving with people, plus lots of street vendors trying to sell you Broadway tickets or NYC tours, it is a complete tourist trap. And yet you should probably go and see it, just to say you’ve been there.
Places to make an effort for
The Highline – a fairly recent addition to the NYC list of places to see, I would really recommend a stroll along this old converted railroad track above the city. You can take it at your own pace, there are benches to sit down and admire the view, beautiful landscaping and it’s a lovely way to see a side of the city rarely explored.
Staten Island Ferry – to be appreciated as a completely free, 24-hour public transport service funded by the city. Before the bridges were built between the mainland and islands, the ferry was the primary way to get places. It is a terrific thing that in the 21st century, the service is still going. Also a good way to see the Statue of Liberty.
Brooklyn – I haven’t explored Brooklyn as much as I should have (I’m usually in a Manhattan bar chatting up the barman), but there are many, many delights across the river. Yes, this is where David and Victoria Beckham conceived their son and that fact alone I’m sure will make you want to visit the area. It has at least, some stunning views of the island of Manhattan. And lots of hipsters with their start up businesses.
Brooklyn Bridge – a magnificent piece of engineering, with fabulous views of Manhattan once you get to the Brooklyn side. Go on a sunny day or at night when the city lights are just fabulous.
Guggenheim Museum – You should go here (east side of central park) if only to visit a Frank Lloyd Wright building (featured in the Men in Black film). I have never been inside – merely stood outside marvelling at the design.
Coney Island – I love this place. It reminds me of a British seaside resort, with its roller coasters, junk food stalls and wide, sandy beach. You can board a subway train in the middle of Manhattan and take it all the way to this coastal bay. Buy a locally brewed beer (Coney Island Mermaid Pilsner is very good!), eat some cotton candy or one of Nathan’s famous hot dogs and enjoy the sunshine and space.
Places to eat
I had a weird moment on thinking about this because…NYC is not somewhere I specifically go to places to ‘eat.’ If that sounds strange, try this explanation. I tend to wander around the city and explore places I want to see, and then when I’m hungry – find the nearest place that sells the type of food I want. I *know* there are some excellent restaurants in NYC and if you’re a foodie, they’ll already be on your list. The following are some places I’ve eaten at and left as a happy customer.
Jason Atherton’s Clocktower restaurant – I’m a huge fan of Jason’s cooking in London, so when he opened his first American restaurant, I knew I had to visit. It didn’t disappoint – sit in the movie star room while dining on amazing food.
Keen’s steakhouse – Since 1885. This should tell you all you need to know about the longevity of this restaurant. I visited here for lunch, ordered a steak sandwich and received half a cow in return. Amazing portion sizes and amazing cocktails.
Jack’s Wife Freda – I only discovered this place on my visit in May this year and I know I will be going back again. Any place that serves breakfast cocktails is instantly in my good books, and when that is matched with excellent food and service from (dare I say it), very good-looking staff, you know you’re onto a winner.
Punch Restaurant – This place is near the Flatiron building and does an awesome bottomless brunch on the weekends. I have walked away from here very drunk but happy. Try the steak and eggs brunch with unlimited Mimosas, Bellinis and Bloody Marys.
Now we get to the best part of this blog.
The main reason I go to New York is to visit rooftop bars and drink cocktails. Despite being a major capital city, London is woefully short of rooftop bars and so I have to visit NYC to fill this gap. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. Thankfully, New Yorkers are aware of the value of their rooftops and the bars are often magnificent.
These are my favourite bars (not all of them are rooftop bars):
The Press Lounge, Hell’s Kitchen. The view here took my breath away, no kidding. There’s a reason the place has queues and you get a front spot in the queue if you are a hotel guest or eat at the restaurant. I chose the latter, had an incredible meal and then amazing cocktails and views later on – well worth the wait.
The Wythe Hotel, Brooklyn – the rooftop bar at the Wythe hotel is stunning and you can see Manhattan in all its glory. Just be sure to get there early or make a reservation. I went there late afternoon and sipped great cocktails as the sun went down.
Dead Rabbit – Regularly voted as the best bar in the world, it is easy to see why it retains this title. The service is second to none, and the quality of drinks and food add to the amazing atmosphere. It runs a daily ‘absinthe hour’ and the first time I tried this was a Monday night. There was still a queue to get in at 5pm. Unrivalled and gets very, very busy.
The Spotted Pig – Famous for spotting famous people, but also for serving great food and drink, this place feels very like a local English pub. I didn’t go there for the supposed celebrity sightings, I just wanted to see if it lived up to the hype. The first time I visited, I was very hungover and desperately needed a good cure for my poorly head – it was delivered in the form of mimosas served with spiced pork hash and eggs. Oh, and I held the door open for Damian Lewis (he’s very tall and handsome.) Mission = ACCOMPLISHED.
Le Bain at the Standard Hotel – Located in the trendy meatpacking district, I stumbled on this place quite by accident. I had just finished walking the High Line and was looking for a spot to drink. I followed a group of people who looked as if they were going somewhere specific and they ended up in the queue for this bar and nightclub. They were from Sweden and were very happy to incorporate drunk me into their group.
If you’ve ever wanted to drink cocktails while getting your feet wet in a jacuzzi and gazing at amazing views, this hotel bar is for you. Pretentious, but worth a visit.
The Roof at Park South – Views of the Chrysler Building while sipping on amazing cocktails? TAKE MY MONEY. I loved it here – it could be very pretentious, but I found the door and bar staff to be utterly lovely.
PDT (Please Don’t Tell) – Good luck finding this bar if you don’t know where it is. Hidden inside a hot dog restaurant, I almost didn’t believe the instructions to ‘find’ PDT when I heard them:
Go to Crif’s hot dog restaurant (113 St. Marks’ Place), enter the phone booth inside on the left side of the restaurant, pick up the phone and look into the camera. A secret door will swing open and a waitress will admit you to the bar. If you haven’t reserved, you need to add your name to the list and you will be admitted when the bar staff are ready for you.
If this sounds too much faff, it’s probably not the place for you – but I had some very innovative drinks here, made by world-class bartenders. I got to chat to other patrons of the bar – they are strict with the numbers of people allowed in, so you feel very privileged.
Go mad. American customer service is so good compared to the grumpiness of the British version. It is often cheaper than what we pay here – but don’t assume. Some items are as expensive as the UK, if not more so (I find perfume tends to fall into this category).
In terms of department stores, my faves are as follows: Bloomingdales > Macy’s > Saks Fifth Avenue > Barneys.
This is as far as my shopping takes me. I am not a great shopper when I go to NYC – as you can tell from the above, I spend most of my time in bars. I’m not even sorry.
There are hundreds of these, so do take time to note down the location of where your favorite film or TV show was filmed. Two of my favourites were the Ghostbusters firehouse and the Men in Black ‘HQ’ building. And although not at all attractive, the ‘New Zealand Consulate’ from Flight of the Conchords TV show was a personal favourite.
That’s it for now – if I think of anything else, I’ll add it!