I had been granted one hundred hours in New York, mine to spend at my pleasure. I felt like a kindergartener crossing a street on my own, dizzy with excitement, and a little overwhelmed. Of course, if you do the math a little differently, a hundred hours is just a little more than four days. And there’s so much that is enticing about New York City that it would take several lifetimes to experience it fully.
Planning for four days in New York on a first visit is easy: there are a few things that must be done and places that can’t be skipped: the Statue of Liberty, the top of Empire State Building, the Metropolitan Museum, the works… But I wanted to dive deeper into New York, for the process of discovery to really begin.
New York has five boroughs: Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan, the last of which is more commonly known as New York itself and in the zip code is referred to as New York, New York. This long and roughly oval island is divided easily into neighbourhoods and segments: Upper, Mid and Lower Manhattan, with a clear numbering from bottom to top that would do a math scholar proud. I decided to walk through as many neighbourhoods as I could, starting from the top, and then nip across to Brooklyn to see some of the emerging neighbourhoods that are setting the tone for their style and vibrance.
As neighbourhoods go, the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side encapsulate both the rich cultural hub of New York and the lives of the rich and famous. But I first wanted to glimpse a bit of a neighbourhood that was once considered out of bounds: Harlem.
Harlem: This historically African-American neighbourhood has had its share of bad press, but it has changed in recent years, and tourists have been pouring into the iconic Apollo Theater: some 1.3 million last year! I took the A-train to 125th Street, and looked warily around me, but there was nothing intimidating about it at all. I veered over to the Apollo Theater, where the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and dozens more started out. I rubbed the tree stump outside, like many amateur performers and singers do for luck: it was smooth and well-worn and would, I hoped, bring the promise of good luck for me too.
From there, I headed to the top rim of Central Park, still considered generically to be the dividing line of Harlem, on 110th Street. (Subway lines 2,3; I took a taxi over in the interest of saving time and paid $11, with a 20 percent tip, as is customary in Manhattan.)
I entered the northern end of the park from Fifth Avenue, having planned to make it to the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center for a free salsa class. The educational centre teaches many different things for the price of nothing; we all swayed our hips, and beat our feet, and there was joy in the air. Moments later, I stopped at the counter to collect my free fishing rod and bait and headed for the nearbylake. I watched with envy as an 8-year-old next to me caught one, while I struggled even to hold my fishing rod right. But abiding by the catch-and-release rules, within moments he tossed the fish back into the water, but with ecstasy on his face, transferring some of that radiance to me, even as I rolled in my line and headed out.
Morningside Heights (further West, and on 110th Street) is known the world over for one important institution: Columbia University, the fifth oldest in the US. It also has the block where the TV serial ‘Seinfeld’ was filmed. I wanted to walk through both. I waded straight into the ebullience of a student city, with laughter, books, iPads and earnest discussions at street corners. Just to soak in the atmosphere, I stopped at Brad’s Café at the Journalism School with its big glass windows, and enjoyed its famous La Colombe coffee and the subs.
Upper West Side, where I wanted to go next, was another subway ride down. Broadway curves from 79th Street to touch Columbus Avenue, where the grand Lincoln Center stands, the fountain at its centre adding a kineticism to the static stone all around. It is here that opera performances are enacted at night, and where ballet and music draw the synergies of the performing arts.
I stood at the fountain, dwarfed by the buildings around me. A tourist asked me to take her photo, and as she stood on the edge of the stone parapet around the fountain, I managed to click before a policeman’s firm hand pulled her down.
Upper East Side: A bus ride away across the breadth of Central Park is the neighbourhood with gloved doormen and stately buildings that face Central Park along Fifth Avenue, the envy and ambition of many New Yorkers. Here, dogs walked with their heads in the air, reminding me that I had a purpose too: to see the star point of this neighbourhood for residents and tourists alike, the Metropolitan Museum. I tried to resist the magnetic temptation of the Egyptian temple, and the Rembrandts and Renoirs that beckon me each time — there are two million objects of art in this museuma — but in the end, I succumbed and returned to these that I knew so well, and rejoiced in the recognition of the sheer beauty of art.
This is the essence of New York for many visitors — from 59th Street to approximately 14th Street, with the different neighbourhoods changing the pace and the premise. I started from Sixth Avenue and 50th Street, where the block of Rockefeller Center buildings stand. The place always has an air of celebration, with the 200 flags fluttering at street level, the ice skating rink aglow with activity. In summer, this space is filled up with tables and the restaurants spill over, and yet it’s hard to get in without a reservation.
I had tickets for the Top of the Rock, the observatory deck that rivals that of the Empire State Building. The joy of the journey began with the lift itself, its transparent ceiling making me feel I was shooting off into outer space. From the deck, the expanse of Central Park and Upper Manhattan lay before me like a summary. On the other side were the pride of Midtown — the Chrysler Building and the Grand Central Terminal, which make up the breath-taking part of the New York skyline, and a sight you cannot see from the Empire State Building: the Empire State Building itself!
The other neighbourhoods in the vicinity are all about business: there’s Diamond district, just a few streets away, ironically with a lot of homeless people on the way, and the Garment district around 34th and 7th.
Although Jackson Heights in the Queens is considered ‘Little India’, Manhattan has its own desi cluster, as it does of most other communities of the world; some people refer to it as Little India at Lex, others call it Curry Hill. I decide to make the long walk across to the East Side, 27th and Lexington Avenue, to a street filled with Indian and Pakistani restaurants: Koh-i-noor, Tiffin Wallah, Curry in a Hurry, Tamba Indian Grill & Bar, Haandi. There are Indian grocery stores sprinkled in between (samosas $2 each), small Indian-owned salons for threading ($4 for eyebrows), and shops selling 220-volt electronic gadgets (as opposed to the 110-volt gadgets in regular stores).
I have been to Little India on 6th Street before, where a line of Indian restaurants stands proudly, but the food is of such quality and price that I have sworn never to go there again. But here, although the entrees, starting in the $10-$15 range at most restaurants, are pricey, it’s worth a visit.
At the first hint of evening, I took a tour called The Ride that added both history and laughter to the neighbourhoods around Midtown, and stopped for a quick drink at the Ice Bar, at the Hilton on 57th and 7th. I went in wearing fur, drank out of an ice glass, and came out with a photo to prove that I could have been an Eskimo if I wanted. But I was glad for the evening sun of New York City.
Late evening was reserved for the neighbourhood where it is said that the night is like day: Times Square.There are more than two dozen theatres around Times Square, and I had a reservation to see Motown: The Musical. It turned out to be a fantastic choice: a great true-life story steeped in music and emotion.
The neighbourhoods in Lower Manhattan are more strictly divided into the business area — Wall Street, the reason why New York is the world’s financial capital; City Hall, from where bridal couples emerge, aglow with their new marriage certificates.
But there are a dozen other neighbourhoods hereabouts that have become world-famous either for their food (Chinatown, Little Italy), style (Soho, Noho), or just the nightlife (Greenwich Village, East Village). I saunter through all of them, but it is Chinatown that draws me first: the souvenir shops calling for attention with their ginseng, small stress balls, trinkets that you could well buy in any Chinatown in the US, but larger and more plentiful here. The discount shops at Delancey and Grand Streets have such wild charm (pricing!), although I’m not in it for the shopping this time.
Greenwich Village, on the contrary, is quirky, with delightful shop names (Helianthus, Le Petite Coquette), its souvenirs and clothes anti-establishment, youthful.
My sensibility is transformed as I move towards the two neighbourhoods that look out to river and sky: Battery Park, with its walking and cycling pathways and the views of the Hudson River, and South Street Seaport, facing the East River. The latter has plentiful shops and restaurants, but it is the view of the three bridges — the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge — that captivates me.
Since my legs were worn out from all the walking, I decided to see the neighbourhoods from the boats of the Circle Line Tour, hearing the history of each, curving around the bottom edge of Manhattan, waving to Lady Liberty and Ellis Island. And then I did it once again, on a dinner cruise, to see them and the famed Manhattan skyline by night.
I visited the Brooklyn neighbourhoods on the Slice of Brooklyn bus tour, whose tag line summarises its attitude succinctly: “Manhattan? Fuhgettaboudit!” Brooklyn accents are famous and recognisable, sometimes right down to the neighbourhood they come from. But I remember that, like in Manhattan, there are good neighbourhoods and bad in Brooklyn, and you don’t want to wander the wrong way. Secure in the bus tour, I saw both.
Brooklyn Heights, for example, the genteel part, just across the Brooklyn Bridge, has become a prestigious address for Wall Street bankers. We go to DUMBO, which, despite its name, casts no aspersions on the intellectual level of its residents, but rather simply stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Here, there are galleries, theatres and shops that are hard to ignore. Right by its edge is a ferry to take into New York, a nicer commute than buses and subways, and less widely known. I resolve to try it one day.
There is also Grimaldi’s pizza, the taste of which is spiced by stories of the rivalries of the two adjoining pizza spots; I faithfully went to the original. The pizza is from a wood oven, and has, as a New Yorker might say, some character.
It was the neighbourhood of Bay Ridge, though, that caused that indrawn breath again: million-dollar homes along the scenic Shore Road, including the famous Gingerbread House, which looks good enough to eat.
We ate pizza again, Sicilian-style this time, at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst. If there be only one reason to visit this neighbourhood, it is this pizza place and its legendary ices.
And then there is Coney Island, loved for its crazy roller-coaster rides, its extended beach and boardwalk restaurants. It’s fairly quiet in April, and yet in summer it is the target of every seeker of thrills around the New York area.
But it’s not just about Coney Island or Brooklyn. Visiting New York, walking through its old-faithful neighbourhoods (and the new, trendy ones), each so different from the other, gives life to different sceneries in the mind. Time stretches here and I can, for the first time, begin to understand the term “in a New York minute”: it is far briefer and fuller than a minute anywhere else in the world.
A round-up of the best of New York:
Morningside Heights to see Columbia University
Upper West Side for the Lincoln Center, home of the performing arts; free shows in summer
Upper East Side for the homes of the rich and famous, along Central Park on Fifth Avenue, slipping in and out of Central Park itself; Metropolitan Museum
Rockefeller Center for its historical buildings, ice skating rink, amazing restaurants, Top of the Rock views of Manhattan
Diamond district to see how good some Indian traders have made it; and for the sparkle of jewellery shops and the hum of commerce
Garment district for rolls of fabric, and wholesale shops that have a completely different take on garments
Little India or Curry Hill for samosas, and a taste of Indian food in New York
Times Square for a place to dream in the city that never sleeps; for the two dozen theatres around Broadway; and for its unbelievable energy and street entertainment
Wall Street to see how the financial capital of the world got its name
City Hall and the other government buildings around it to get the sense of political power, and the well-preserved historical buildings
Chinatown for food, trinkets, ginseng, and sheer crowd power
Greenwich Village for all that’s quirky and quintessential novelty
Battery Park for views of the Hudson and for lungfuls of air
South Street Seaport for its ferries, meals, drinks
Brooklyn Heights for its quiet residential, upscale life and its view of the Brooklyn Bridge that one can walk over (highly recommended)
DUMBO, an area that is hot and happening and worth visiting at night
Bay Bridge for its opulent homes
Coney Island for its beach, rollercoaster rides, and wildly indulgent, expensive snacks and holiday spirit
I flew Virgin Airlines Upper Class, New Delhi-New York, with a convenient stopover in London. Round-trip fare: about Rs 2,16,000; economy: about Rs 80,000. Most airlines fly to New York’s JFK airport (recommended), but sometimes there are better deals available for Newark.I took the Super Shuttle (supershuttle.com, 1800 BLUE-VAN) from JFK airport into New York. The 26-km journey to Time Square took about an hour in the shared minibus ($27). Taxifare for the same distance: about $50. Cheapest option: JFK Air train ($7.25) to Sutphin Blvd, change to the E-train to Manhattan ($2.25).
The best way to get around is by subway, and with a pair of sound walking shoes. Taxis are expensive, but if you don’t want to walk, they are the best option. A 15-20 percent tip is expected.
Visa fee $160; form and information at ustraveldocs.com/in/
1 $ = about Rs 59
Where to stay
I stayed at the centrally located Paramount Hotel near Times Square (nycparamount.com, starting $179 plus taxes and breakfast; lowest rates in the first quarter of the year). The lobby is hauntingly youthful, with a fireplace, innovative lighting and plenty of space. Particularly spectacular is their full American breakfast buffet for $28 per person (all inclusive), even if it seems a little excessive.
I also liked The Manhattan (manhattanhoteltimessquare.com; seasonal rates range from $169 to $389 plus taxes and breakfast) for its spacious rooms and lobby. Their breakfast nook is small, but makes up for its size with warmth and hospitality.
Cheaper options include Springhill Suites on 37th Street and 5th Avenue (marriott.com) ranging from $149; New York Marriott Downtown, 85 West Street at Albany Street, from $167.
What to see & do
Top of the Rock (topoftherocknyc.com; adult tickets $29; children $18; Rock tour $17). Go early morning to avoid queues and get a great view; carry sunglasses. It’s still worth it on a cold or a rainy day—with an umbrella!
Minus 5 Ice Bar (minus5experience. com) in the lobby of NY Hilton. Tickets: $20 includes parka, gloves and entry; $75 for a VIP experience, includes all this, one cocktail, a souvenir Russian hat, and a framed 5x7 photo).
Bateaux Dinner Cruise (bateauxnewyork.com/new-york-metro) for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Fares: Sunday to Thursday $129; Friday from $134.90; on Saturday $139.90. Lunch cruises from $54.90
Novotel restaurant Super Nova (supernovanyc.com) The only Novotel in the US is exceptional for two things: an open-air terrace that looks discreetly upon Times Square. And the incredible food, especially the roasted beet and goat cheese salad with hazelnut dresing and roasted brussel sprouts with parmesan ($8).
Staten Island Ferry (siferry.com) for a free ride and great views of the skyline. Plies every half hour between Whitehall in Manhattan and St. George in Staten Island.
New York Water Taxi (http:///nywater taxi.com) for amazing views and a historical understanding of New York, including great details about Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and for a lot of laughs.
A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tour (asliceofbrooklyn.com) Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays at 11 am. Approximately 4.5 hours; Adults: $80