First We Take Manhattan

22nd May 2015

From the skyscrapers to the shops and the sushi bars, you'll never be short of something to do or see in New York. But once you've taken in the view from the Empire State Building, had a good look at Lady Liberty, and filled a Little (or big) Brown Bag in Bloomingdales, what's next? Plenty, says Jennifer Lipman; you've just got to be in the know. Here are eight top tips to help you take Manhattan – affordably and whatever the weather.

1. Getting around

Arranged in a convenient grid, Manhattan is an easier place to navigate than the older cities this side of the Atlantic, and walking really is the best way to get a feel for the city. So, tempting as it might be to hail a yellow taxi, ignore the cab drivers scoffing that walking from downtown to uptown isn't possible, or promising they know a short-cut. In the city of eternal gridlock, they don't. If it really is a block too far, or temperatures veer too close to freezing, then the subway – while grubbier than its London cousin – is usually the fastest option, including in the small hours.

Buy a seven-day pass for $30 on your first day, and download a subway map app before you go to decipher routes (opaque circles mean a train is a local, for example). Brits might be used to London's zone-by-zone charges, which steepen as you get further from the city centre, but the New York subway doesn't discriminate; a journey from the outer reaches costs the same as two stops in midtown, making the whole of the city your oyster.

2. Food for thought

As America's original melting pot metropolis, you can find pretty much every culinary fare in New York (including the ‘cronut’, created by Dominique Ansel at his Spring Street bakery). Most areas have a distinct foodie feel, from the quirky diners of Brooklyn to the trendy bars of the Meatpacking District. Avoid midtown; it may be where you're sleeping, but overpriced tourist traps serving tasteless ‘American’ cuisine abound. Williamsburg offers hipster coffee shops selling homemade sourdough with pretentious toppings, and is great for a boozy Sunday brunch (akin to a religious ritual for Manhattanites).

Clichéd as it is, Little Italy is always good for a tasty dish of spaghetti, a glass of vino and a serenade, but my favourite eateries are dotted about the residential streets of the Upper West Side. Head to Amsterdam and Columbus from about 76th for low-fuss, high quality food, and try Sugar and Plumm for treats, Sixteen Handles for a frozen yoghurt pick-me-up, and Zabar's for the bagels. In summer, do as New Yorkers do and picnic in Central Park; buy the basics at Trader Joe’s on 72nd and Amsterdam, just minutes from the entrance.

3. Parklife

Yes, Central Park is beautiful, particularly in the 'fall', when the leafy paths most resemble a film set. But Manhattan has plenty of other green spots, from Riverside Park, which overlooks the Hudson River and is great for people-watching (watch out for babies in super-buggies joining their mothers on a jog), to Bryant Park – a little square of calm amid the hubbub.

My favourite is the new(ish) kid on the block; the Highline, a few miles of park on a narrow old elevated freight line in a formerly unsightly part of the Lower West Side. It's ideal for enjoying the cityscape (or snooping in the windows of swanky apartment blocks), and the mix of urban and natural makes it wonderfully scenic. In summer, take a book and grab one of the wooden deckchairs; in winter, enjoy it as a brisk walk, then end up at the indoor Chelsea Market. Once the site of the factory where the Oreo was produced, it's now home to dozens of cafés, and the chocolate ravioli at Giovanni Rana Pastificio e Cucina is a must.

4. The city that's never cheap?

If you're planning on spending all your time shopping on Fifth Avenue or drinking like the Sex and the City ladies, you'll fly home flat broke. Unfortunately, many of the galleries and museums do charge, although it’s often a guide price, and in any case usually good value, given their size.
If you're there in the warmer months, take advantage of the many free activities and events put on around the city, from outdoor screenings (open to anyone with a picnic blanket), to non-ticketed concerts at the Lincoln Centre. In Central Park, the SummerStage initiative includes ticketed and free gigs, while in Bryant Park HBO sponsor an annual summer film festival.

Time Out New York has an updated list of activities for which you can leave your wallet at home. You might have to queue, but you’ll get far more than you pay for.

5. The show must go on

Consensus is that you can’t visit the world’s theatrical capital and not take in a show. But with prices for the top-rated productions above the $100 mark, is it worth it? I'd say it is – after all, it’s Broadway. But while most visitors are aware of the half-price booth in Times Square, insiders know to bypass queuing in the cold. Instead, get tickets for the discounted price – or cheaper – at theatre box offices when they open every morning (usually 10am, but it's worth checking). For the hottest tickets you might have to arrive early but it can pay off.

And if it’s a show you’re desperate to see, it’s also worth asking the box office whether they run a ticket ballot with the chance of winning a pair of great seats for just $30 (most do), if they have Sunday performances, or even whether they offer standing tickets.

6. A bridge too far?

Now 130 years old, the Brooklyn Bridge was once America's longest suspension bridge. But passing over its 480-odd metres, you don't really notice. Of the many spectacular views to appreciate in New York, by far the best is facing Manhattan from the bridge at dusk. Head across the water before sunset and join the army of walkers, cyclists and joggers who commute over every day. The contrast of the majestic metal frame, the lights of the city's skyscrapers and the reddening skies make for a selfie to remember. In the warmer months, go early enough to enjoy Brooklyn Bridge Park, which sits on the East River and boasts various pop-up attractions. Last summer it hosted the Smorgasburg Food Festival, where overdressed hipsters mingled with suburban families munching on burgers in doughnuts (surprisingly delicious) and gargantuan ice cream sandwiches.

7. Retail therapy

Much as we’d all love to Breakfast at Tiffany’s or march into Saks Fifth Avenue waving our credit cards imperiously, few of us have that luxury. But you can still return home with a bulging suitcase. Ask your concierge about a day trip upstate to Woodbury Common in Central Valley, about an hour north of New York city. It's not a scenic tourist destination, but an outlet village where designer goods are often discounted. Covering 800,000 square feet and with more than 200 shops, there's little wonder locals bring suitcases.

If you're short on time, and don’t want to leave Manhattan, try Century 21 for lower prices, and remember to Google to see whether your favourite stores have downtown branches, which tend to be quieter and far easier to browse.

8. Out of the city

If for some unaccountable reason you've tired of New York City, it's an ideal jumping-off point for a day trip, with Boston, New Haven and Washington not too far away. In summer, posh New Yorkers flee to the Hamptons, but for a quicker day at the beach, head to Coney Island. A glamorous boardwalk in its heydey, it's now more Blackpool than Barbados but maintains a retro charm, with a theme park, beachside hotdog vendors and the traditional wooden slats to walk on. The sea is lovely and the sand perfect for sandcastles, plus it’s only an hour or so by subway. In autumn or spring, hire a car or take the Metro North upstate to Hyde Park, the historic home of President Roosevelt, and try to stop off as well at the Vanderbilt Mansion (the Kardashians of the 1890s), which is as grand and fabulous a building as you’re likely to see in or outside of Manhattan.

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