New York is a uniquely idiosyncratic city - and it's almost impossible to chart in a simple travel guide. The only advice? Make sure you know Fifth and Seventh Avenues!
It’s extraordinarily difficult to write a travel guide for New York – I hope you know that. It’s difficult not just because of the fact that there is such a large and diverse list of things that must be done (a visit to Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s; a trip up Fifth Avenue; see the Statue of Liberty; gawp from the top of the Empire State Building; the Rockefeller Center; Radio City Music Hall; Central Park; Times Square; The Bronx; sit down in SoHo; Chelsea…) but because New York isn’t really a place, per se. To really get the most out of the city, you have to adapt to its lifestyle.
And adapting to its lifestyle is something that doesn’t stretch to 800 words of review. It can be boiled down to several key concepts. Number one: Don’t ever look at a map. Ever. If you look at a map the New Yorkers know you’re not from around here. They will run you over as they powerwalk past with their latte-no-whip-chai-foam-double-mocha-shot, and they won’t look back as the unfurled map flaps about in the gutter. Number two: Don’t ever stop for traffic. If you do, then you should probably swear at the driver, then at yourself, then at the guy standing next to you who’s swearing at you for having stopped. New York is an inimitable place – it’s one of the few places in the world where the clichés really do ring true. You have to take every moment like it’s your last New York Minute – purely because those around you won’t wait around while they’re living theirs.
If at all possible you should avoid JFK airport. It’s sweaty, it’s decrepit and it’s dark (like some of the less salubrious districts of Manhattan). Instead fly in to Newark if you can. Technically you land in New Jersey (and true New Yorkers will hate you for it), but the airport is clean, spacious and modern, and you’ll have the added bonus of getting the cab drive of your life as New York’s world-famous skyline pops up in front of you, one skyscraper at a time.
You’ll never forget your first New York experience, or the cab journey taking you there. Mine was from Newark, and it involved being involved in a heated argument with a local driving alongside us near Fifth Avenue. Remember that it’s a lifestyle, not a city. Until you’ve got into a slanging match with a local trying to get somewhere fast, you’ve not been to New York.
The sheer pace at which New York passes you by means that you’ll need somewhere to stay that’s the complete opposite; the fact that the city is so hallowed should give you a little leeway when it comes to budgetary matters. If at all possible, stretch to one of the Holiday Inn Express right on Times Square (Seventh Avenue). The Holiday Inn places you right at the beating pulse of the most gaudy and fast-moving section of New York, all neons and looping video clips.
For somewhere altogether more luxurious and relaxing as a safe haven from the freneticism of New York choose the most popular hotel on the most popular street: Fifth Avenue. The Waldorf Astoria is one of the plushest hotels in Manhattan – and has one of the longest and most interesting histories too. It’s here that many superstars like to come and stay when they’re in the city, steeping themselves in the tradition and reticence that underpin this grand old dame of the Big Apple. The Waldorf salad was invented here, and you can taste it as it was meant to be made to the same recipe as the original in your room while looking out over Fifth Avenue as the rat race goes on below you.
All gilt gold and mahogany, the Waldorf-Astoria is a status symbol of New York because of its history, with an ornate reception area led up to by a split staircase. The back entrance is almost as impressive as the front: if you come by taxi or car, you’ll be dropped off at the parking garage where spotlights shine down on the drop-off area, waiting to illuminate the latest celebrity to stay there.
Equally salubrious and similarly laid back is The Plaza, on the fringes of Central Park. With the stamping of tour horses just across the road from this hundred-year old hotel, it manages to be within and completely outside the city at the same time. If you want rest and relaxation, the upper-class interiors and nearby Central Park can give you that; if, however, you want to experience the adrenaline rush of rush hour New York City, then throngs of commuters pass by here daily on their way to work.
The Plaza is famous, much like the Waldorf-Astoria, for moonlighting as a movie backdrop. If you’ve seen almost any movie centred around New York (Home Alone 2, Brewster’s Millions, Sleepless in Seattle, North by Northwest) then you’ve seen the Plaza. It’s this instant familiarity and almost-unconscious linking with the New York of the movies that will have you reeling if you’re lucky enough to stay here.
Fifth Avenue is the central spine of New York City, and it’s along this great long road that you’ll find most of the important attractions that Manhattan has to offer. As well as The Waldorf Astoria hotel being sandwiched between Park (Fourth) Avenue and Fifth, you’ll find as you head south Central Park (a must for an early morning walk amongst the determined joggers of Manhattan) and the Plaza Hotel, famous shops like FAO Schwarz and Tiffany & Co., the Trump Tower, and the Empire State Building.
The most famous building in New York spans 33rd and 34th Street as well as facing out onto Fifth Avenue, and is a must see, day or night. You’ll never be able to escape its shadow, and the extra $15 on top of the entrance fee of $20 (adult, $18 65+ and $14 children) to see the view from the 102nd floor observation deck is a must. From there you’ll truly get an impression of just how impressive the architecture is in this idiosyncratic city, and at what premium real estate is.
It’s difficult to tell you what to do in New York City: it’s more a city that tells you what to do. Truthfully, you can’t do much wrong at all, and by committing Fifth and Seventh Avenues to your memory you’ll be assured to have an authentic and amazing time. Immerse yourself if you can in the world of the Manhattanites, and you’ll be sure to come away with an experience you’ll never forget.