By Mark Hodson, Editor of 101 Holidays
New York is one of my favourite cities. I’ve been five or six times and once spent a short stint working there. I love the energy, the attitude, the constant change. But I’ll admit something: nothing will ever match the visceral thrill of experiencing the place for the first time. You can never get that back.
However, I did recently discover the next best thing: take your kids. Visiting a city you love through the (wide) eyes of children makes you see it anew. It also means you can do all those cheesy tourist things you thought you were too cool for.
Earlier this month I spent four nights in New York with my wife Gillian and our kids Callum, 17, and Helena, 9. Rather than seek out the latest speakeasy on the Lower East Side – as I’d done on previous solo trips – we would be heading straight for Times Square and the Empire State Building.
Here are some of our highlights.
Cycling in Central Park
I’d been to the park many times but only on foot. I realise now I’d only seen a tiny fraction of it. Get on a bike and you can explore the whole marvelous elegant diversity of the place. As you long as you go between 10am and 3pm, the roads are closed to all traffic apart from official park vehicles, so the biggest hazard is joggers.
We rented cycles from Bike and Roll and excitedly whizzed around the 6-mile circuit. Then we did it again, stopping along the way to enjoy the many sights. Take a picnic and you can easily make a day of it. One of my favourite spots was the Conservancy Garden (pictured below).
Sitting in the sunshine watching a baseball game unfold at the home of the Yankees is a classic way to spend a summer’s afternoon in New York. We bought tickets online in the UK (about $100 for four) and painlessly collected them on arrival. Admittedly, we didn’t understand every nuance of the game, but we certainly appreciated the beer and hot dogs.
Empire State Building
Yep, it’s a cliche, you’ll have to queue for an hour or more to get there, but the trip to the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building remains one of the great things to do in New York. Not only are the views sensational, but the story of the construction is fascinating and the Art Deco details of the building are stunning. Even if you don’t want to pay the entry fee, you should check out the stunning lobby.
Who doesn’t love bowling? And there can be few cooler places to hit the lanes than at Brooklyn Bowl, a converted warehouse building in the hip neighbourhood of Williamsburg. The interior is beautifully retro-styled with brick walls, recovered wood and neon signs. In the evening it doubles as a music venue (the B-52′s are playing soon!) and is then for over-21s only, but on weekend afternoons families can rent one of its 16 lanes.
Judging by the numbers of people filing in and out of the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the World Trade Center, I would think this is now New York’s most visited “attraction”. We booked tickets in advance from the website (they are free, but advance booking cuts your queue time) not quite knowing what to expect. I suspected it might be mawkish or overly nationalistic, but I found it thoughtful and powerful. A museum on the site was due to open this year. When it does, the experience will doubtless be much enhanced. But even now it’s well worth a visit.
One thing you must do as a tourist is get on a boat and see Manhattan’s skyline from the water. Getting yourself photographed in front of the Statue of Liberty is also pretty much compulsory. If you don’t want to be a cheesy tourist, take the East River Ferry which runs from East 34th Street to Governors Island, stopping at Greenpoint, Williamsburg and DUMBO in Brooklyn, along with Pier 11 near Wall Street. It has an open-air top deck and is an absolute bargain at $4 for single ride, or $12 for a day pass.
The only problem with the ferry is that it’s so quick and efficient you barely get time to savour the view. So for the full-on tourist experience we also took the hop-on, hop-off New York Water Taxi which departs from South Street Seaport and loops around the Statue of Liberty with stops at Greenwich Village, West 44th Street, DUMBO and Battery Park. As well as being a good way to get about, the onboard commentary is informative and fun.
Washington Square Park
The long-time home of hippies, beatniks, students and protestors, Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village is packed with buskers, eccentric characters, children splashing in the fountains and lovers under the Washington Arch. Some of the old fellas strumming guitars look like they’ve been sitting on the same benches since the 1960s. I really enjoyed sitting in the shade listening to this talented jazz band (pictured above) led by the trumpet player Ryo Sasaki.
Every meal is a meal out in New York. That can put a serious dent in your bankroll, so we ate cheap. One of our favourites was Best Pizza in Brooklyn – it’s funky, friendly and authentic and the 20in cheese pie costs $18 and feeds a family. It was one of the best pizzas we’ve eaten. We also loved the burgers at Shake Shack near Times Square and the salads at Square Diner in Tribeca.
Tell your kids that you’re planning to spend a day walking and the response is likely to be less than enthusiastic. But just get out there and hit the streets and they don’t want to stop, except for the occasional carb-and-sugar reload. My favourite walk was across the Brooklyn Bridge, towards Manhattan, at dusk. The views are astonishing, gently unfolding as you go, suspended over the roaring traffic below.
If you can take your eyes off the skyline there are plenty of information boards explaining the history of the bridge, a masterpiece of engineering. Did you know that when construction began, Brooklyn was the third biggest city in America and 50million ferry passengers crossed the East River each year?
* We stayed at the Affinia Shelburne in Murray Hill (great location) and had a one-day New York Pass, which is a great deal if you’ve got the energy to pack four or five attractions into a single day: you can include the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, the New York Water Taxi, a choice of river cruises, all the main museums, plus a selection of guided food tours.
For more information on New York, visit the official website, www.nycgo.com