To stroll along Fifth Avenue is to see New York at its glitziest and most glamorous, from the high-class window-shopping at Harry Winston to the knock-out views from the Top of the Rock
Beaches and mountains are really appealing holiday settings but deep down, I’m a city girl. I grew up amidst the hustle and bustle of London, so landing in its spiritual sister city of New York, I felt completely at home.
There’s something about New York. As an urban disciple, I find its brashness, unabashed pride, swift pace of life and sassy attitude mesmerising. Even just the name of Manhattan’s fabled heart, Broadway, resonates with visitors, promising razzamatazz and a huge slice of urban Americana. But for me, Manhattan is at its best on the more sophisticated Fifth Avenue. Fifth is where the city turns on the glamour and glitz and shows off the best of its many incredible sights.
As the sun peeked through the morning cloud, I started my stroll at Washington Square, where Fifth meets Broadway and 23rd Street. The area was buzzing with people meeting friends for brunch, tourists planning a day of shopping or sightseeing and yellow taxis whizzing downtown towards Soho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Greenwich Village.
Amid this frenetic metropolitan drama, I found a quiet corner of the gardens attached to Washington Square and, take-out coffee and bagel in hand, paused to people-watch and, most importantly, observe one of my favourite buildings: the Flatiron.
It’s one that people rarely talk about. When the Flatiron building was constructed in 1902, this 21-storey triangular structure was New York’s tallest skyscraper, but it has long been dwarfed by the giants of the city’s skyline. Still, it’s one not to be missed, for its intricate architecture and challenging-on-the-eye dimensions. The building, shaped like an old-fashioned iron, points me north in the direction of midtown and the rest of Fifth Avenue’s treasures.
To wander through midtown is to see New York at its most commercial, with people racing to work and chatting on mobile phones. This is a city of big business and commerce, and one of the most iconic buildings of New York’s commercial revolution of the early 1930s is the Empire State Building. The straight, sturdy and reliable lines of this Art Deco wonder tell of a time when commercialism wasn’t such a bad word.
The Empire State Building is the tallest in the city and from its 102nd-floor observatory, Manhattan’s grid system peaks with awesome skyscrapers. I take time to breathe in the views and the cooler, smog-free air at this heady height before going back to ground level. As inspiring as the views are from the top, for me this big building’s highlights are in the little details. I love the lettering used on its signage, evocative of the era in which it was built, the old lifts with their marble interiors, and the dazzlingly shiny bronze that adorns the lobby.
Back at street level, I continued my stroll up Fifth Avenue, avoiding its early shopping highlights, before stopping at Bryant Park for a break. Unlike other parks, it isn’t big on green space. Instead, it’s a place to meet friends and attend shows. Pausing there for coffee, I watched New Yorkers flit by in an urban haze of office staff, delivery drivers, shoppers and traffic. Soon I was off again myself, merging into the landscape like one of the city’s skyscrapers.
Around 50th Street I stopped at Gothic St Patricks Cathedral, taking time to enjoy its stained glass windows, the sun shining through them like cat’s eyes to peep light into its dark crevices. Further up the street, I entered the cathedral to capitalism: the shiny black shell of the Trump Tower. Just being inside its famed walls felt special somehow – perhaps it was knowing how many celebrities had taken up residence in one of Donald’s penthouses high above me. But other than to observe the glittering golden waterfall rushing from high up on one wall and to take a few money-making tips from Donald’s book, Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life, on sale in the bookshop, I decided there was little for me there, so continued my navigation uptown.
Aside from brief stops at Tiffany & Co (www.tiffany.com) and to peer longingly into the window of Harry Winston (212 245 2000; www.harrywinston.com) - diamonds are a girl’s best friend, after all - I avoided Fifth’s fabulous shops, but vowed to return, credit card in hand, to visit Saks Fifth Avenue (800 7257 7257; www.saksfifthavenue.com) and Bergdorf Goodman (212 753 7300; www.bergdorfgoodman.com) .
Heading across 59th Street, I breathed in New York’s lungs – Central Park. The park is often talked about but few ever convey its size and grandeur. It is immense, running for 51 blocks north of 59th Street. It also features a multitude of famous views, having been featured on screen time and again. One of my favourites was overlooking the lake and The Plaza hotel from one of the pretty little bridges.
As the afternoon turned to early evening, I made my way down Fifth Avenue towards my hotel, but couldn’t resist a stop at the Rockefeller Center’s Top of the Rock Experience. The Rock, as it's known, doesn’t offer the highest views of the city, but in my opinion they’re the best. From here you can see the Empire State Building in all its majesty against the rest of the city’s incredible skyline.
As day turned to night, the building’s light show slowly twinkled to life. New York isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; it’s brash, in your face and unapologetic - but as the red, white and blue lights of the Empire State Building grew brighter, they spoke of America’s pride in one of its most fabulous cities.
I flew with Virgin Atlantic (01293 562 345; www.virgin-atlantic.com) in their great premium economy cabin. British Airways (0844 493 0 787; www.britishairways.com) , American Airlines (+44-(0)207-365-0777; www.americanairlines.co.uk), Continental (0844 493 0 787; www.continental.com) and United Airlines (0845 8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) also have flights from the UK to New York.
Where to stay
Waldorf Astoria: for old-money New York elegance.
The Chelsea Hotel: hotels in New York are far from cheap but this one is among the most competitively priced in the heart of midtown.
Milford Plaza: a good mid-range hotel near Times Square.