My City: New York... by Travelzoo's Ryan Haase
Planning a trip to New York? Let Big Apple resident, Travelzoo's very own Ryan Haase, show you around...
You should visit New York for the same reasons people move here. Opportunities are endless in all directions. You like culture? There are amazing museums covering every subject matter. You like food? There are all kinds of cuisines at all kinds of price points. You like fashion? Every big brand and many little brands have their best stores here. You like nightlife? There are oodles of businesses open to the wee hours - not just bars, but shops, theatres, landmarks. You like diversity? Every ethnic group and social group has a toehold here.
The first thing you should do is head to Central Park. No matter the season, it’s a dazzler. Other cities have big, beautiful parks, but this one is a heart-stealer. Manhattan is mostly a roiling tide of skyscrapers, but when they abruptly part at the park’s southern edge, the contrast between soaring steel and low, ambling shrub is dramatic.
Take my advice and avoid the flagship Macy’s store, which is still coasting on the charm of “Miracle On 34th Street”. Take away the slick advertising and it’s a run-of-the-mill department store, but far more beleaguered. The merchandise is nothing special and is listlessly scattered and smudged, because the sheer volume of people clamouring through makes it impossible to keep the place tidy.
My favourite place in the city that tourists don’t know about is anywhere outside Manhattan. None of my friends are billionaires, as far as I know, so few of them can afford to live in pricey Manhattan. Queens and Brooklyn, while they may not have as many boldfaced tourist sights as Manhattan, excel at a lifestyle that’s more affordable than city centre (although you could argue Brooklyn is just as pricey). Charming local restaurants and bars — the places where you’ll get more bang for your buck along with heaps of local flavour — are in these outer boroughs.
If you try only one dish in New York, make it the chocolate babka from Breads Bakery. It haunts my dreams. This Eastern European pastry is threaded with chocolate and Nutella and when eaten warm feels like the best part of my day. Also the pretzel croissant from The City Bakery — a shatteringly crisp salty shell around a pillowy warm interior - I rearrange my weekend errands to stop in for one.
Decades-old French bistro Café Loup in the West Village is "old New York" in the best ways: an unfussy patina, spacious and cosy, hearty and comforting, with a clientele of devoted, artistic locals. For slightly more polish I go to Cafe Cluny (pictured below), deeper in the West Village on a postcard-worthy street corner. It’s a small, bustling dining room serving Instagrammable, sophisticated dishes, made all the more tasty by the bargain ‘prix fixe’ option available from 5:30pm–6:30pm each night.
If the last few years were dominated by ramen restaurants, nowadays it’s all about poke. This Hawaiian dish of raw fish is everywhere, with people standing in line to essentially get a deconstructed version of the sushi that’s for sale at every bodega. I know that oversimplification will get me into trouble.
As for drinking, the towering cost of real estate is already built into cocktail prices here, and the tab climbs only higher the nicer the ambiance, but it’s sometimes worth the treat. Take the lobby bar at The Beekman hotel, which opened in Lower Manhattan at the end of 2016 following a thorough re-polishing of its 1890s interiors. A popular local blogger “re-discovered” the place a few years ago when it was still in disrepair, drawing attention to the stunning 9-storey lobby atrium trimmed with wrought-iron balconies. Now the place glows golden in the evenings with a swank crowd.
Stylish clothing stores open all the time, particularly in Williamsburg and in NoLita, which is a slightly more boutiquey offshoot of thoroughly mainstream SoHo. While strolls in these areas feed the fashionable, the store I return to all the time is ABC Carpet & Home. It’s a huge, creaking, 6-floor furniture store just north of Union Square that’s enormously expensive and aspirational. Sheets come from the finest French weavers, furnishings come from the burliest Brooklyn woodworkers, antiques from the most ancient Nepalese temples. I know I’ll never afford this stuff, or find the square footage in this compact city to accommodate such full-size pieces, but that doesn’t stop me from going there all the time.
Take my advice and never bring up “Sex & The City”. That show ended more than a decade ago, and set wildly unrealistic expectations about what people should expect when they come to the city. New York is indeed fashionable and exciting and sexy and full of opportunity, but the TV show conditioned millions of tourists to expect something inordinately upscale and out of touch.
New Yorkers exhibit a behaviour that outsiders may call rude, but it’s more precise to call it efficient. New Yorkers are open, curious, enthusiastic, proud, welcoming people. However, there are a lot of us. And a lot of you. Press millions of locals and visitors into one small land area served by one ageing transit system and you have to develop methods to survive. This is why New Yorkers may seem rude — there are constantly a lot of people all around them, and there isn’t time to tend to each individual, so they keep interactions to the point.
The best thing about living here? This is one of the most accommodating, round-the-clock cities. Do you need a Halloween costume at midnight? A birthday cake at 4am? A specific brand of butter from a tiny region of France? A salon for curly brown hair? A face cream for people who are allergic to face cream? We carry it.
And the worst? Some of our main transit hubs are exceptionally out of date. It somehow takes no time at all to erect super towers like One World Trade Center or 432 Park Avenue (the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere, which also happens to be the Travelzoo office’s next door neighbour). Yet try to lift LaGuardia Airport or Amtrak’s Penn Station out of their depressing dregs and it becomes an impossible odyssey. Do not judge the city by these places if they are how you happen to arrive.
This piece originally appeared in issue five of our online magazine, Travelzoo Experience. Click here to see the article in full, plus more on Barbados, Florence, and how to score a cruise bargain
Check out our full New York destination guide