Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New York for beginners (letter to a London friend before her visit).

New York travel advice for the novice May 2008:

Food is not the main reason for going to New York. But in such a large city there is no excuse for eating poorly either. More about food later in another posting.

Your ‘tour’ should depend on your budget, how much time you have and whether you are EVER likely to go back there. The shopping in New York is fabulous: choices, sizes, variety and bargains. Macy’s and Bloomingdales are the top department stores and you could easily spend a day in each (but you would not want to with so much else a-happening). You can check most things on the internet but there is nothing like just being there and watching the “65% off everything for the next hour” sign go up! And when they say ‘65% off‘, they mean off the ticketed price which may already be discounted. People from out of town often get a 10% discount in addition to any other reduction - just go to the Macy’s Visitors’ Centre on the mezzanine level or the left side of the ground floor (called ‘first floor’ in America) at Bloomingdales. You might need your passport but just having an Australian accent may be good enough. Also worth a visit is Bergdorf Goodman, the classy department store on 58th Street and Fifth Avenue oppostive the Plaza Hotel concourse and Central Park.

New York consists of lots of villages, they say. In fact they are all cities within a city. Another determinant of what you do is where you are staying. In fact there are wonderful gardens, museums, zoos, etc in Brooklyn and the Bronx as well as Manhattan but you are probably best to concentrate on Manhattan in such a short stay.

If your budget is limited then you need to concentrate on the free things and there are lots and lots of those. (1) Central Park is one of the great urban parks of the world and a walk thru any part of it, any time, is worthwhile. (2) The Staten Island ferry ride is magnificent … but probably not necessary to stay any time on Staten Island as there is little of interest near the wharf anyway. Just turn around and catch the SAME boat back unless you know somebody on the island to visit. Get the subway train (Line No 1, the red one) to ‘South Ferry’ and make sure you are in the front 5 carriages since it is a turn-around station. (3) The Metropolitan Museum is a MUST as is technically free. They ask for a donation (recommendation was $12) and you must get a ticket/badge to be let into the galleries. You may say: “I’ve been here three times this week” or “I’m a poor student” or “I only want to pay $5” if that’s all you have. Or you might want to pay $25 because it is one of the greatest museums in the world. You cannot see everything but most people look thru EITHER the new Greco-Roman galleries on the left of the main entrance OR the classic old Egyptian collection on the right of the huge main entrance lobby. Directly ahead of the entrance and up the stairs are the magnificent paintings, ceramics, and usually one or two special exhibitions (eg. ‘Classy Fakes’ or Rembrandt’s toilet etchings, etc).

A more manageable museum in many ways is the nearby “Frick” collection which is about $12 entry. It is housed in one of the last mansions on Central Park and is a more relaxed 2 hour visit to see everything, including some of the most famous paintings in the world (on chocolate boxes, calendars, etc). New York has lots of ‘small’, specialty museums and it will depend on your interests which ones you would choose to go to. Jewish heritage, Mediterranean, Irish Famine Memorial, Medieval (Cloisters at north end of island is a branch of the Met), modern art (MOMA, Whitney, Guggenheim), flight, Holocaust, German (Neue Gallerie), etc, etc, etc. There is probably a museum of existentialist butterfly collecting! Just Google it!

Up to September 2008 there is an interesting (and free) collection of Minoan relics in 5th Avenue near St Patrick’s Cathedral at the Onassis Center. The entrance is round the corner (second entrance) from the jewelry store (which is probably also worth looking at) on 645 Fifth Avenue. Around 52nd Street if my memory serves me correctly. It is north of St Pats and Saks Fifth Avenue). http://www.onassisusa.org/occ.htm

You need to buy a Metro-Card the first time you get a Subway train and it costs $20 for about 12 rides then you top it up as necessary or give it to a poor person the day you leave if is has a couple of rides left (you pay when you get ON the train in the City). You can also get the cross city bus for the same price within the same hour. There are also deals for unlimited travel for certain periods and a monthly ticket may be a good idea if staying longer as this is only around $80.

If you are travelling with a friend, a cab is often about the same as two subway fares for local trips on Manhattan. The same coming from the airport (JFK) ‘cheap and cheerful’ - well it’s not that cheap, but it’s probably the best bet and the ONLY bet if you have a lot of luggage. Just wait in ‘the line’ (they don’t use the correct word ‘queue’). Americans line up just like the English do. Australians tend to scrum or ‘crowd’ instead. It is a fixed price from JFK to anywhere in Manhattan but you have to pay tips and tolls in addition to that. So what might be US$45 becomes about $55 with the five dollar toll and a (lousy, Australian) tip of $5 - they normally expect 15%!!). Note that the trip to Manhattan is also a scenic tour of grimy suburbs, bridges and the skyline of the city gets closer and closer. The view from the Triborough Bridge and Riker’s Island Prison (which you pass on the way) is spectacular.

A limo is about the same price, but the trouble is finding one is impossible. Coming back, it is a different story so just call 212 777 7777 and tell them the time you want (usually allow 50 minutes, more in rush hours) and give your credit card details and address. They are efficient, obliging and quick (unlike Yellow Taxi cabs who are usually impersonal, dirty and ‘hairy’ on the roads (but relatively cheap for local ‘around town’ journeys which nearly always cost $7 in my experience - as above).

If you can easily carry your luggage you might want to attempt the public transport to JFK which recently introduced the SkyTrain elevated railroad which connects with some distant Subway station eventually … and it PROBABLY works reasonably well but with big suitcases it could be a nightmare once you got into the Subway system.

In fact some of the best things in New York are the unexpected, amazing (free) things which happen almost everyday you go out and onto the street. We walked out our door one day and RIGHT INTO a film shoot of ‘Law and Order’ with the famous actor Chris Noth standing RIGHT THERE, chatting to our doorman!! Another time we found ourselves in a ‘goose chase’ in Central Park by some terrible exterminator mob call The Geese Police! Yet another occasion saw us walking next to a 5 metre high blow-up teddy bear on 72nd Street.

You could run into a street fair where the whole street (or more usually an Avenue) is closed off. The Pope or Queen of Sheba might just whisk by when you least expect it. So ALWAYS have your camera with you and at the ready. You will notice that the faces in the street are even more varied than in London (and they are more often smiling!).

Have a great time!!

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (May 2008)

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