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City Life: New York

Free film screenings, street fairs and supper-club style theatrics… the city that never sleeps never stands still either, with an ever-changing array of attractions, restaurants, shops and, er, beaches. If you think you’ve seen New York, think again

City Life: New York
Le Bain rooftop lounge at The Standard Hotel. Image: Claudia Uripos.

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Summer in the city: this is the season to be spending evenings if not on the stoop, then outside on one of New York’s sky-scraping roof terraces. The Big Apple turns its focus outside in the hot, hazy months and, with a host of events and openings, there’s no escaping the pavements, parks and pools.

The big splash this summer is La Piscine at the new Hotel Americano, whose two-storey terrace towers above the High Line park with a rather lovely little pool to pose around. There’s something quite LA about this new place although nothing tops Le Bain at the nearby Standard hotel for Californian cool, standing astride the High Line, decked out with AstroTurf, with a diminutive pool and an enduring fashionista crowd.

The development of the High Line, a park set on a reclaimed stretch of an old, elevated freight railway has done much to spruce up the Chelsea docks, bringing new hotels, bars and restaurants to its 20-block reach. With picture-perfect city and Hudson River views and a fairly constant breeze off the water, this is one of the best places for a summer stroll. Pack a picnic from nearby Chelsea Market, sit under a shady tree and snap up the panorama; every angle of this artfully designed, 1.45-mile park begs a photo. Hop off at the High Line’s southern end, head one block west and you can continue the traffic-free walk, along the lovely waterfront Hudson River Park.

There’s now a greenway circling the whole of Manhattan and while this isn’t something to walk in one stint, hop aboard a bike, rented from the city’s newly launched Citi Bike share scheme, and cycle the island’s 32-mile circumference, a uniquely peaceful way to take in the sights — bridges, islands and iconic skyscrapers.

Too hot in the city? Then head to the beach. Many Brits don’t realise just how close the wide sands of New York’s Atlantic coast are — many within an hour’s subway ride. Coney Island’s kiss-me-quick boardwalk fun is a blast but my favourite has to be Rockaway Beach (not least for the eponymous Ramones song it inspired) and the quieter Far Rockaway, a little further east. Around-the-clock repairs have cleaned up damage from Hurricane Sandy and the Rockaways are ready to welcome the million or so visitors they attract each summer. So do as the locals do: pack a cooler, slap on a hat and head for the ocean.

Sights

The island symbolising mass immigration-era New York is once again open to the public. Liberty Island, site of New York’s iconic green lady, reopened on 4 July (Independence Day) after years of renovations that were hampered at the last hurdle by Hurricane Sandy.

Make a well-timed visit to New York’s greenest landmark, and you’ll have some live entertainment thrown in. Over the summer, Central Park is the stage for a series of free concerts, from classical music to Shakespeare, world music to opera and pop. For those New Yorkers who don’t retreat to the Hamptons, these concerts, notably those by the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, are a highlight of summer in the city.

Besides baseball fans on a pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium, few Brits make it up to the Bronx but this overlooked borough is home to one of New York’s loveliest green spaces: the Botanical Garden. Along with highlights such as the Victorian greenhouses, orchid gardens and tropical rainforest, a new addition this year is the 3.5-acre Native Plant Garden, home to some 100,000 wildflowers, ferns and grasses set around a 230ft water feature that begs to be swum in (but don’t yield to temptation).

Elsewhere, New York’s elegant Grand Central Terminal turned 100 this year. There’s a packed programme of events and exhibitions throughout 2013 but regardless, a visit to this dreamy beaux arts building is a must no matter when or how often you come to New York.

Shopping

Dowdy old American department store Macy’s has had a facelift worthy of an Upper East Side dowager. The revamp of the 34th Street flagship store cost in excess of £260m (serious bucks for a shop makeover, even by Manhattan standards) and includes a Champagne bar, a restaurant overlooking the Empire State Building and what’s being billed as ‘the world’s largest shoe floor’ (or the ‘shoe zoo’ according to the New York Times, which was rather disparaging about the tourist scrum that’s ensued). For old money, however, nothing dazzles like Midtown grande dame department store Bergdorf Goodman, especially for the sweeping views of Central Park from its upper floors.

Heading downtown, indie boutique American Two Shot delivers exemplary SoHo style as it used to be, before the big franchises muscled in. Set on SoHo’s southern boundaries, this edgy store-cum-cafe is a veritable gallery of young American designers, most of whom you’ll probably never have heard of; “If that’s the case, we’re doing our job right,” said owner Stephanie Krasnoff when I visited. Shop for vintage and contemporary clothes for men and women, unusual perfumes, quirky accessories and decidedly cheeky art.

Over in Brooklyn, Joinery is another eclectic emporium showcasing local talent. This is where Williamsburg’s hipsters go to shop now they’ve grown up and had kids. Clothing, furnishings and jewellery in muted colours and natural fibres plus curiosities that included, when I was last in, an oddly captivating black and white photography book of grain elevators.

If you can’t stand the idea of shopping inside on a sunny day, then track down one of New York’s regular summer street fairs. On most weekends up until October, you’ll find one of the city’s avenues part-closed to traffic and lined with craft stalls, local farmers’ produce and food stands with ethnic eats often reflecting the neighbourhood’s cultural make-up.

Stay

Everything changes in a New York minute, and this Big Apple aphorism is never better applied than to the city’s hotel scene. In the summer the competition hots up as newcomer hotels unveil ever more elaborate roof terraces, pools and skyscraping VIP bars. Returning for a second summer season is the glamorous and gimmicky al fresco bedroom at the AKA Central Park. Book the penthouse and your wrap-around terrace comes with a bed, wood-burning fire, and telescope. At £1,300 per night, this is about as five-star as glamping gets, although in densely packed New York you don’t need a telescope to spy on your neighbours… so perhaps this is one for exhibitionists only.

Set in a former hat factory, The Refinery has just opened with 197 guest rooms (from £153 a night) complete with Singer sewing machine-style tables, a 1920s aesthetic and soaring 12ft ceilings. The soon-to-open 13th-floor terrace has a fully retractable roof and looks set to be a hotspot whatever the weather, especially given this is the first hotel from New York hospitality mavens, In Good Company — creators of tried and tested addresses like the Lower East Side’s Libation and the Bungalow beach bar in Rockaway.

While Manhattan’s old Garment District is putting on new glad rags with hotels such as the Refinery and a slew of sleek bars, the gentrification in Williamsburg in Brooklyn now seems so established the place can feel more Manhattan than Manhattan itself. At least this is the case at the Wythe Hotel (rooms from £208) in north Williamsburg where, if it wasn’t for the classic skyline across the river, the preppy, moneyed scene could pass for that of the West Village. This red-brick former factory stands head and shoulders above the surrounding warehouses of the Williamsburg waterfront, and its roof bar, The Ides, creates queues around the block at weekends.

Eat

Sure to be a food hotspot once again this summer is Smorgasburg, a buzzing outdoor market on the Williamsburg waterfront. On a sunny Saturday there’s little better than hopping on the East River Ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn’s North 6th Street dock to explore East River State Park, busting with the borough’s best food purveyors. From Asian hotdogs to Anarchy In A Jar (preserves) and plenty of ribs, tacos, lobsters, oysters and black and white cookies (a sweet New York thing) in between, the only limit will be how many meals you can squeeze in. Given that Smorgasburg runs 11am-6pm (Saturdays) and there’s the adjoining Brooklyn Flea market to explore, along with the polished bohemian landscape of surrounding north Williamsburg, it’s easy to make a day of it. Failing that, Smorgasburg has a selection of pop-up stalls across the river at Whole Foods Bowery.

As one hip hood supersedes another, it’s easy to imagine it’s all about gentrification in New York, and brunch — a citywide weekend convention — is no exception. It can be as upmarket or unpretentious as you want but my favourite is the determinedly scruffy and superlatively named Upper West Side diner institution, Barney Greengrass, Sturgeon King. Jewish fare here includes the stupendous scrambled eggs with sturgeon and Nova Scotia salmon served with either a bagel or, in my opinion, a superior bialey (a round baked roll).

But what’s new? Well, if you’re after the latest must-dine spot you could do worse than make a booking (and you’ll need to) at Alder, the new ‘gastro pub’ from envelope-pushing chef Wylie Dufresne, of the Lower East Side’s pioneering wd~50 restaurant. More modest than Dufresne’s trademark molecular gastronomy, it dishes up familiar New York fare — chowder, chicken livers, pickled beets — but always displays some palate-popping innovation.

Nightlife

Even if you’re not into big Broadway productions, there’s always a show worth seeing in New York. This year’s alternative box office hit takes place in a massive circus tent located next to the High Line. A pseudo-operatic musical adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace sounds an unlikely pitch but Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 is bringing crowds of theatregoers down to the Meatpacking District night after night. Tickets come with cabaret-style seating, dinner and a shot of vodka for this supper club-style performance.

For those who like to rock out, there are few better, more esteemed venues than the Bowery Ballroom for live music in Manhattan — at least since the closure of CBGBs. This 1920s building only holds around 500 people, so performances are intimate and the acoustics superb. Despite its modest size, some highly regarded indie, folk and rock acts have graced the elegant stage, along with plenty of emerging artists. The downstairs lounge is a sociable place to hang between sets but for pre- or post-gig drinks, the surrounding Lower East Side delivers a serious choice of watering holes, lounges, dive bars, gentrified roof terraces and pretty much everything in between.

Many venues worth their Time Out rating have opened up sister acts across the water in Williamsburg. Once example is Lit Lounge, an established arts and music hub whose owners recently opened up shop, or rather speakeasy-style bar The Flat, in South Williamsburg. The setting may be sketchy, under the Hewes J-Train stop but the scene is relaxed and friendly, the music edgy and the decor louche and loud.

Rather than sweating it out at a club, how about some cult classics under the stars? During the summer, free film screenings take place around the city on hotel roof terraces and parks such as Bryant Park, Central Park, Coney Island, Hudson River Park and McCarren Park in Brooklyn.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
Airlines offering direct flights between New York and the UK include: American Airlines, British Airways, Delta, Kuwait Airlines, Iberia, Pakistan International Airlines, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. aa.com   ba.com   delta.com   kuwait-airways.com   iberia.com   piac.com.pk   united.com   virgin-atlantic.com
Average flight time: 7h.

 

Getting around
A taxi into the city from either JFK or Newark will cost upwards of $60 (£39). Alternatively, taking the AirTrain (airport express) then the E Train (Metro line) from JFK costs a little more than a tenth of that. The AirTrain and New Jersey Transit (overland rail), or Newark Airport Express bus offer the most economical Newark connections. Allow at least an hour for all routes. panynj.gov/airports/jfk.html
Shared taxis services include SuperShuttle and Airlink, bookable online or at hotels and airports. supershuttle.com   goairlinkshuttle.com
In the city, the best way to get around is on foot. When legs tire, buy a MetroCard (like London’s Oyster cards) and use the subway system. Cheaper than taxis, it’s efficient and 24/7. mta.info

 

When to go
This is a year-round destination but autumn colours, enduring sunshine and a Halloween/Thanksgiving buzz in the air makes autumn a fantastic time to visit.

 

Need to know
Visas: Purchase an Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) online, no less than 72 hours before travelling. $14 (£9). https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $.1.54.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time difference: GMT-5.

 

Sights
Hotel Amerciano. hotel-americano.com
The Standard. standardhotels.com/high-line
The High Line. thehighline.org
Manhattan Waterfront Greenway. nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/mwg/mwghome.shtml
Citi Bike scheme. citibikenyc.com
Ellis and Liberty islands. statuecruises.com
Chelsea Market. chelseamarket.com
Central Park. centralpark.com
Botanical Gardens. nybg.org
Grand Central. grandcentralterminal.com

 

Shopping
Macys. macys.com
Berdorf Goodman. bergdorfgoodman.com
Amercian Two Shot. americantwoshot.com
Joinery. joinerynyc.com

 

Stays
AKA Central Park. stayaka.com
Refinery Hotel. refineryhotelnewyork.com
Wythe Hotel. wythehotel.com

 

Eat
Smorgasburg. smorgasburg.com
Brooklyn Flea. brooklynflea.com
Barney Greengrass. barneygreengrass.com
Alder. aldernyc.com

 

Nightlife
Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. kazinonyc.com
Bowery Ballroom. boweryballroom.com
The Flat. theflatbkny.com
Movie nights. filmlinc.com/films/series/midnight-movies

 

More info
nycgo.com
gothamist.com
manhattanusersguide.com

 

How to do it
Virgin Holidays has three nights from £555 per person, including flights with Virgin Atlantic from Heathrow, and B&B accommodation at the ‘3V’ rated Hotel Metro in Midtown. virginholidays.co.uk

 

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Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)