Late last year, I hit New York City for the first time on a whirlwind trip for work. More accurately, New York hit me – like the full-fisted thump in the chest that brings a dead heart lurching back to life.
Stepping onto Manhattan’s churning streets, every sense registers chaos. Sirens scream and fade. You’re jostled on sidewalks engorged by a thick human flood. A heady mix of exhaust fumes and subway steam assaults the nose. Dubious pavement vendors serve up pretzels and hot dogs that taste of salty, chewy nothingness. And by night, Times Square blitzes the eye with enough neon firepower to single-handedly explain global warming.
In short, New York City is crass, confronting and crazy… as in crazy good. Somehow all that insanity co-exists with the best of humanity—art, culture, music and raw exuberant life. I absolutely loved it.
My first bite into the Big Apple wasn’t anywhere deep enough for my liking. But even a nibble yields memorable experiences. And if it all gets too much, there are places where you can turn down the volume—for a little while—on New York’s relentless vivacity.
Cruising to Liberty
It’s a cliché, I know, but if you come to New York and don’t sail out to see Lady Liberty, then what are you doing there?
Work colleagues and I caught a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise that leaves from Pier 83 at West 42nd Street, near the area evocatively known as Hell’s Kitchen. (Side note: Hell’s Kitchen is the setting for a weekend flea market of antiques, vintage clothes and art. Head down West 39th Street, towards the river, to find it.)
Pulling away from the pier and out into the Hudson, you get the grand panorama of Manhattan that’s so familiar from movies. Art deco skyscrapers, terraced and topped with spires, mingle with modern monoliths of glinting glass and steel. And away from the seething streets, everything is much quieter – a quiet broken only by the theatrical on-board commentary.
As we cruised past midtown and lower Manhattan, our guide regaled us – in his best Broadway audition style – with stories of the city’s history and landmarks. (New Jersey lies across the Hudson – and if you want a land-based view back onto Manhattan, head to Frank Sinatra Park in Hoboken. My Mum was Ol’ Blue Eyes’ number one fan, so it sticks in the memory).
Fall in love with Liberty
But it’s the giant green Goddess we came to see and even the first distant glimpse of her, out there in the harbour, is enough to get your pulse dancing and camera snapping. I must have taken a hundred photos, besotted at first sight.
Circle Line Cruises can deliver you to within 30 metres of Liberty and she’s an absolute stunner up close. Some find the statue smaller in real life than they imagined (an icon is always grander in the mind) but sailing beneath that classically noble face in her starry crown, an elegant arm bearing aloft the beacon of hope, is about as big a thrill as you can get.
Central Park is the green and gentle yin to Manhattan’s yang of concrete, crowds and noise. It covers an area of 153 city blocks – north to south from 110th to 59th Street and from 5th Avenue in the east to Central Park West. (Tip: you get the best sense of its size from the top of the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Centre).
New Yorkers and visitors vanish into its leafy bosom to escape the city’s roar. The park is all soft edges and organic curves – forest pathways, oval meadows and placid lakes crossed by gracefully arched bridges: a visual antidote to the straight lines and right angles of the city’s geometric street grid. Duck into Central Park Dairy – the heritage building that houses the Visitor Information Centre – for tips on exploring the park.
Join a guided walk or, like me, wander where you will and let Central Park unfold in her own good time. Slightly east of mid-park, circled by trees that ignite into blazing autumn colour, stands the “Indian Hunter” – the first sculpture created for the park by an American artist. The bronze statue of a Native American and his faithful dog has stood vigil there since 1868.
Ambling west, you’ll come across another evocative artwork: the “Imagine” mosaic memorial to John Lennon, only steps from the Dakota building where he was gunned down.
Wandering south will bring you to a famous Central Park winter scene: skaters in full flight across Wollman Ice Rink. You can hire skates and lockers there – or simply sit and watch the chilly fun as New York high-rises provide a photo-worthy frame.
Central Park Boathouse – another recognizable movie set – is open for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner or drinks overlooking the lake where romantic couples row to their entwined hearts’ content.
Meet the MET
The Metropolitan Museum of Art – pithily known as “The Met” – is deserving of days, make that weeks, of attention. Sadly, I had only a few hours so my mission was to cram, rather than contemplate, the contents of its incredible collection.
The building itself is an imposing work of art, standing on the eastern edge of Central Park along 5th Avenue. It’s the United States’ biggest art museum and among the world’s most visited.
Inside the Egyptian wing, there are respectfully quiet rooms of antiquities, statuary and sarcophagi – but it’s the Temple of Dendur most come to see. Brought to America in pieces and painstakingly reassembled, the temple is a small treasure in a grand setting – a cavernous gallery where reflective ponds mirror the reedy Nile and daylight spills in from a glass wall overlooking Central Park.
I’d never been there before but the place was immediately familiar – and I’m not alluding to a past life as Cleopatra. The gallery appears in a scene from my favourite New York movie, “When Harry Met Sally”.
Seems I’m more into pop culture than fine art – but the Met holds works even a troglodyte would recognise. It took me a fraction of the day to find the following: Impressionist masterpieces by Van Gogh, Renoir and Monet; a hall of medieval armour that includes Henry VIII’s battle kit; exquisite stained glass windows in the Art Nouveau style by Louis Comfort Tiffany (son of the famous jewellery store’s founder); Gustav Klimt’s ethereal portrait of Serena Pulitzer Lederer; and in an upstairs gallery, that quintessentially American painting by Emanuel Leutze of George Washington striking an imperious pose as he crosses the Delaware.
Walk on the High Side
If you want to walk off the results of eating too many American French fries (the ones from Schnipper’s Kitchen in the New York Times Building on 8th Avenue are damn good), then take to the High Line – an elevated footpath on Manhattan’s west-side.
It tracks a disused freight line that was formerly part of the old New York Central Railroad. Green thumbed volunteers have transformed the abandoned track into a linear park of trees, shrubs and flowerbeds – an oasis hovering above Manhattan’s traffic maelstrom.
Entering at the northern access, you get great views of the Hudson River. The walkway heads east then doglegs south for 2.3 kilometres, terminating in the Meat Packing District. It’s an easy stroll but there are plenty of benches to rest the legs along the way. Admire the street art, the lovingly tended gardens and passing parade of pedestrians – all of whom seem uncharacteristically chilled out for New York.
I exited the High Line at Chelsea. The district is home to great restaurants and a famous indoor food market. It’s also a good starting point for exploring downtown Manhattan on foot. I seriously loved this more peaceful part of New York. The streets of West Village and Greenwich Village are generously lined with shady trees, traditional brownstones and postage-stamp parks.
Being a fan of “Sex in the City”, my colleague let out a yelp of delight when we happened across the original “Magnolia Bakery” in Bleecker Street. The bakery has starred in movies and sit-coms, but is possibly best known for the SITC episode where Carrie confesses a crush to Miranda while scarfing down one of the bakery’s exquisite (and yes, they are divine) cupcakes.
The Flatiron and Fettucine
It’s one of New York’s most curious buildings – an architectural optical illusion. Approaching from either side, you could easily pass it by without a second glance. But stand at the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway, on a little traffic island across from Madison Square Park, and the slender triangle of the famous Flatiron building magically appears.
While the Empire State Building is soaring art deco, the Flatiron is a 22-story wedge of renaissance finery. Built in 1909, it joins the line-up of enduring New York symbols. It’s also my sister’s favourite NYC building so out came the camera for copious snaps.
The Flatiron lends its name to the surrounding district where you’ll find another curious attraction, shorter on history but long on epicurean appeal. Not far from the Flatiron is Eataly – a modern indoor temple to Italian food and wine. It’s a concept born in the old country but embraced with gusto by New Yorkers. The open plan marketplace covers nearly 5,000 square metres – packed with pasta, pizza and fine dining restaurants; pasticceria and gelateria; coffee dens and fresh produce counters. There’s even a cooking school.
Italy in New York
For Italophiles (and I am a card-carrying member), Eataly is Heaven on a Grissini breadstick. Enter via the 23rd Street door and you can enlist a staff member to take you for the cook’s tour. I wandered sans guide – a happy hedonist drooling (figuratively) over mountains of Italian cheeses, meats, pastries and freshly made pasta. Reminiscent of a Roman marketplace, the ambient buzz is cheerful and lively without being overwhelming. The only difference is this particular mercato is populated by Italians with a delightful New York drawl.