I’ve always wanted to ‘do’ New York, so last year – as an impending milestone birthday loomed, I decided that it was time to tick it off my bucket list.
We (VIP and I) spent a total of five days in the city and, wanting to ‘see it all’ our feet never quite touched the floor; so much so that I ended up getting ill by overdoing it.
The good news is that we managed to do pretty much all of the touristy things – and a few ‘off the cuff’ experiences to boot, so despite getting ill, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Here’s what I can tell you…
I had read prior to travelling to New York that you should expect to tip for pretty much all services received, so upon check-in at the four-star New York Midtown Hilton Hotel (from £149 per night) when my bags were whisked away as if by magic, I whipped out my dollars only to find $10 notes in my hand.
The porter was probably used to people like me who hadn’t thought to get small change, but instead of rolling his eyes, he flashed a smile and carried out his duties.
The polite and professional manner extended to all the other staff members at the hotel, who seemed to want to go out of their way to ensure a comfortable stay.
The hotel offers a good location within walking distance of Central Park and Times Square.
The rooms themselves featured great views (if you're on the upper floors), a huge flat screen TV and the usual bathroom toiletries.
There's free Wi-Fi in the lobby or if you are a Hilton HHonors member (you can sign up at reception!) you also receive in-room Wi-Fi.
After a few days at the Hilton we moved on to the three-star Metro NYC, which offered more of a central location.
I have to say, Metro NYC was just my bag – this unassuming, boutique-style hotel was located down what I’d call a side road, just a stone’s throw from all the action of Times Square and a few roads away from the theatre district, Fifth Avenue shopping and New York City's midtown.
The great thing about this hotel is that when you step inside it’s like escaping from all the noise, hustle and bustle of the city.
It had a sense of calm about it – and their complimentary afternoon tea and muffins went down a storm.
Other highlights included free 24-hour tea and coffee facilities, free Wi-Fi, Gilchrist & Soames toiletries, the Art Deco style decor and the friendliest reception staff and concierge I've ever come across.
I wouldn't hesitate in recommending this hotel to my nearest and dearest and that's saying a lot. Rates vary depending on when you book – from $150 in low season and $250 in high season.
Behold the sights!
When you travel west, it takes at least a couple of days for your body clock to adjust, but waking up early the first few days does have its advantages.
One of them is arriving at the Empire State Building at 8am to make use of our CityPASS (see the top tips below). Fast forward a few hours and you’d probably be jostling around to get a good view.
A CITYPass is well worth a purchase as, if you’re looking to do most of the tourist stuff, offers significant savings.
It covers a selection of top attractions such as Liberty Island and Ellis Island, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and the Rockefeller.
Over the next couple of days I wanted to make sure I knew the city like the back of my hand.
What better way to do this than take a few tours – and there are literally hundreds to choose from – from a gentle cycle tour in Central Park to a luxury cruise trip on the Hudson River, there is something to suit all budgets.
All my tours were organised through DoSomethingDifferent.com, which offers a huge range of options to entice clients to explore the city in more depth.
I chose a Chocolate, Wine & Dessert walking tour and a Flavours of New York walking tour. Prices start from £40 for two-and-a-half hours.
Both were expertly guided with at least six stops on each tour, giving you the chance to sample New York's finest cafés, specialty shops and restaurants and fill your belly at the same time.
Apart from the food, I was mostly impressed with the abundant amount of knowledge both guides displayed and how passionate they were.
Chocolate, Wine & Dessert walking tour
We sampled rum-soaked brioche bread pudding from Grandaisy’s, quaffed Riesling and Lambrusco at one of the oldest liquor stores in Manhattan and teased our palates (well VIP did) with the subtle mustards at the Maille store.
The best was yet to come, however, as we parted with more than we bargained for Le Palais des Thés (money that is!), and then reached scone heaven at Alice’s Tea Cup – a super-cute homage to drinking tea and eating cakes right in the heart of Manhattan.
One more visit to go and this time to the esteemed Levain Bakery (a local secret). Here we gorged on walnut and chocolate cookies, the gooiness of which cannot be adequately put into words!
The popularity of the cookie shop speaks for itself; every day there are queues, but it’s WELL worth the wait.
Flavours of New York walking tour (Greenwich Village)
We enjoyed hotdogs from Papaya King, Israeli falafel from Mamoun’s, Ukrainian borscht from Veselka and maize fries from Otto’s Tacos.
Further stops ‘around the world’ included Iggy’s Pizza and traditional Italian cheeses from Russo’s. The day was topped off with some cannolis from Veniero’s.
Enjoy THE RIDE!
Another unique way of seeing the city is by hopping on board THE RIDE. The attraction takes place on coach that is kitted out with state-of-the-art audio/visual technology and takes passengers through the city for a theatrical event that blurs the boundary between tour and performance.
The ‘travelling theatre' is designed with coliseum seating and floor-to-ceiling glass windows and the hosts (trained in improvisation) are superb, ensuring each performance is fresh depending on what’s happening on the street that day.
Unique? Definitely. One to recommend? Absolutely.
Other must-do sights to see & things to do in New York
Obviously, head to Times Square! But see if you can spot the famous Naked Cowboy. Sorry to disappoint – he’s not naked, but he does wear some pretty tight underwear. Ahem.
Take a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and check out the view of New York from the other side – it’s awesome!
Possibly one of my favourite memories was hiring a bicycle and riding around Central Park for an hour.
We saw the settings of some of New York’s famous film scenes (Home Alone 2, When Harry Met Sally) but it was lovely to be able to cycle at leisure in peaceful surroundings (until we got yelled out by a local for not sticking to the paths – oops!)
For a more relaxed vibe, head to Greenwich Village and Soho and take in the many different cuisines and independent shops.
We also took the subway to The Bronx (I just had to experience it). On stepping out of the subway, we were greeted by a street rapper, who proceeded to rap about how he was ‘gonna kill us’.
Needless to say, we felt a tad uncomfortable, but I did insist we visit the nearby thrift shop as I can’t resist hunting for a bargain. Following a few more (longer than welcomed) stares in our direction (we stood out a mile!), we decided to call it a day and head back to the hustle and bustle of the city.
A visit to Restaurant Row in Hell’s Kitchen is a must – just so that you can say you’ve eaten there!
Take a walk along the Highline – a 1.45 mile abandoned railway line, which has been reclaimed as a green space. There’s not a great deal to see, but if you feel like escaping the city for some leisurely downtime, this is a good bet.
If you’re yearning for a retail therapy fix (and want to avoid some of the pricier shops in the city), catch a bus to Woodbury Village, which offers a great mix of shops that offer discounts galore.
I spent a good few hours there and picked up some Yankee Candles. They’re a fortune if you buy them in the UK, but less than half the price in the states!
Go celeb-spotting! We spotted a grumpy looking Alec Baldwin popping out of his Central Park apartment and jumping into a car. Well, I say ‘we’ – it was VIP as I’m hopeless at spotting famous faces.
I wouldn’t know it if the queen herself walked past me. Oblivious should be my middle name.
If you fancy doing something a bit different, consider going to a comedy show. It gives you a great insight into what Americans actually find funny – and believe it or not, it appears they have a great sense of humour.
Getting on a ferry bound for Liberty Island and Ellis Island is a must, as are the views from either the Rockefeller Centre (Top of the Rock) or the Empire State Building.
The site of Ground-zero and the 9/11 Museum were particularly poignant.
We also took in Macy’s (department store), Grand Central Terminal (the architecture is amazing!) and the Natural History Museum, where we braved the crowds to try and spot scenes from the film Night at the Museum and the Easter Island head, which was a popular photo opportunity.
A special occasion
Another tour worth making time for is a Bateaux Dinner cruise on the Hudson, with prices from £106.
It’s a great idea if you’re in the city for a special occasion and want to treat someone; the three-hour cruise along the Hudson River allows guests to soak up breathtaking night views of the city while enjoying a delectable three-course meal and live musical entertainment.
The highlight of the cruise? Admiring Lady Liberty herself up close and personal in all her glory.
TOP NEW YORK TIPS
Get hold of a New York CityPASS, which includes admission to NYC’s top six attractions and offers up to 42% savings. The pass is valid for nine days from the first day of use and costs $114 ($89 for children aged six-17). See www.nycgo.com
Starbucks seems to be on every street corner, sorry, I mean every ‘block’. We made the most of them by satisfying our need for coffee and free Wi-Fi to FaceTime the kids back home.
For attractions and activities not covered by the CityPASS, try booking tours and passes in advance as this will again save you pounds while away.
Travel by subway is by far the quickest way to get around the city and, like London, you’ll no doubt spot some interesting characters on your travels.
However, if the weather’s nice, make good use of the unlimited loop bus tours (offered with the CityPASS). The tour commentary provides insights into the history, architecture, people and districts of the city – a great way to spend your time and learn something at the same time.
However you spend your time in the City That Never Sleeps, make sure you take lots of pictures to capture those special memories you create along the way!