There are good reasons to go to New York throughout the year – to see the big tree and experience Christmas in the magical setting of Miracle on 34th Street and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and up there with that is a spring break visit. While Central Park may not look at its best, all brown trees waiting for the blossom to arrive, it’s still framed by an impressive concrete jungle (copyright Jay Z).
Easter Sunday sees some of the busiest streets in Manhattan closed for a huge Easter parade. It is here you’ll see some of the most elaborate Easter bonnets in the world as well as swing dance flash mobs, buskers and more Easter memorabilia than you can shake a bunny’s tail at.
But that’s not the only reason to visit in April. After an inevitably harsh New York winter, this is when the weather turns a corner. When the sun rears its head over the Chrysler, Empire State and Rockefeller, when the city starts to emerge from the layers it’s wrapped itself in from December through March. The spirit lifts and the excitement is infectious.
Unlike some US cities (Vegas, I’m lookin at you!), you could easily spend more than a week in New York and return several times a year to discover new facets. Last time I was here was for my Christmas honeymoon – a brilliant experience but one totally different to this week-long solo vacation.
There’s no escaping the fact that New York can be very expensive. The hotels don’t need to drop their prices to bargain basement level because there’s always a supply of visitors snapping up the sometimes terrible rooms (read the Tripadvisor reviews before you go). That said, if you’re not someone who needs everything planned out months before you go, then it pays to book last minute – where you can pick up some decent well-placed, highly-rated hotels for the £100 a night mark.
I stayed at the Nylo on the Upper West Side, enjoying what has to be the single most comfy bed I’ve ever slept in. The hotel is both homely and modern, with a lush exposed brickwork bar and dimly lit (in a cool way) lobby. Be aware that most New York hotels charge extra for Wifi access in your room, somewhere between $10-15 a day. Many have free Wifi available in the lobby though.
The Upper West side is a good bet for people who want somewhere a bit less hectic than Downtown Manhattan. It’s quiet and tidy and teeming with good cafes and restaurants (Good Enough to Eat, Bistro Citron and French Roast among others), yet is well linked via the red Subway line and a cab to the heart of the city will only set you back about $10-15 (so get your Wifi in the lobby and you’ve got that covered!). Of course, a great way to explore New York is on foot but it’s not for everyone. I covered up to 12 miles most days – which made me feel way less guilty about all the whisky and pancakes I had!
The subway is far less complicated than the London Underground. It’s a set fare of $3 per ride, however far you go. Buying a Metrocard which you can top up reduces it to $2.75 a journey or less. The lines are a bit more limited, but serve the North to South run fairly well, as well as the L train which runs into Williamsburg and Brooklyn.
There are the usual tourist buses, lots of ferry tours and the Staten Island ferry which is a free commuter ferry from which you’ll get a good view of the Statue of Liberty. But without a doubt, the best way to see Manhattan is from the air. It’s there you get a really good grasp of just how sprawling and fantastic it is. Helicopter Flight Services run regular flights from the Downtown Heliport. There are three price options available but if you can stretch to the deluxe experience it is worth doing. The copter, the quietest on the market, has large padded leather seats and takes you on a smooth ride down over Staten Island and Brooklyn, past the Statue of Liberty and along the Hudson River with exceptional views of Manhattan’s motley bunch of sky scrapers.
There’s much more to New York than Manhattan and if you’re young, hip or into street art and music then you really want to be heading over the bridge to Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Greenpoint. If you know someone from the UK living in New York, chances are this is their hood – it’s way cheaper to live than Manhattan but has a lot going on, not to mention great views across the river. It’s just a short subway ride (or $20 cab ride) and is full of cool bars (Rocka Rolla, Union Pool etc), cafes (Champs) and even a cafe barber shop combo (Cotter) not to mention teeming with vibrant street art and the home of Rise‘s older sibling Rough Trade, which could be the coolest record shop in the world (sorry Amoeba!)
Dive bars are a great alternative to expensive rooftop bars and cocktail places – and they’re ten a penny in Greenwich Village and beyond. Think Mother’s Ruin but with an awesome jukebox and amazing selection of liquor all free-poured to various degrees, depending on how well you tip. Here’s the thing, you should tip a minimum of $1 per drink – but if you tip well on round one, some say double, then your bar tender will look after you well all night. My favourites included The Library on Avenue A, Mona’s on Avenue B and Jimmy’s Corner just off Times Square. The Stonewall Inn is a great LGBT pilgrimage too, with a brilliant back story and the inspiration behind the Stonewall campaign group.
Name a type of food and you’ll be able to find it in New York. There are many culinary dishes New York does well and topping the poll is pizza and Japanese food as well as pancakes and cheesecake. Street food is a good, cheap way to eat and when venues get busy don’t be afraid to eat at the bar – they’re usually nice big spaces and it’s a great spot to make friends, especially when travelling on your own. There is a saying that you should never eat the same place twice in New York as there is so much choice, but some places are so good it would be a massive shame not to return. Go with your gut (literally) and it’s rare you get disappointed by something.
There are obviously some key touristy things to do – visit the 911 Memorial and take a moment to reflect on the world-changing event thanks to the two infinity pools and inscribed names of those who lost their lives in the 2001 terror attack. Just try to ignore the shocking number of people taking smiling selfies here. Head up the Empire State Building (or Rockefeller centre) at day and at night if funds allow. And check out some of the art galleries or museums – Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Natural History Museum, the Guggenheim or the Museum of the City of New York on the Upper East Side is a less obvious but really rewarding choice. When I visited, it was hosting a hip hop exhibition with some brilliant photos of Afrika Bambaataa, MC Lyte and Busta Rhymes.
The famous New York Public Library hosts temporary exhibitions and is free of charge to visit (though donations are welcome). The current offering, Public Eye, is a look at the history of the photograph and how they’ve been used over the years, from early portraits to the modern day selfie.
One of the newer additions to the city is the Highline – a re-appropriated railway which now acts as a new unique green space which takes you on a mile or so walk above the Chelsea area (though there are various points to get on and off). There’s deliberate planting on the route to provide a bit of a haven from the bustle down below and make sure you cast your eyes beyond the wall of the Highline as there’s some great graffiti visible from here. It’s another good free thing to do.
No trip to New York would be complete without an obligatory visit to Times Square. But once may well be enough. A neon circus of weird and wonderful characters – from Mickey Mouse to a dancing baby, naked women covered in body paint of the stars and stripes to every super hero imaginable, it’s busy throughout the day and night. You may need a couple of paracetamol and a lie down in a dark room after a late night visit there though. You have been warned.