A Friday morning, just after eight. That close-knit alliance of jet-lag and travel tiredness has conspired to leave me sleeping in spite of the time difference, and the May sunlight has already invaded the corners of my room — one of 93 arty, loft-inspired dwellings — at the NU Hotel in downtown Brooklyn, New York.
Even with tired eyes, it’s an appealing picture — plump white bedding, almost unnoticed at my sleepwalking journey’s end the night before; plain wood furniture, unfussily modern.
And a dramatic mural, displaying key city sights in patches of ‘street’ art — the Statue of Liberty extending her arm, the sturdy form of the Brooklyn Bridge rising over the East River, the Chrysler Building pushing its art deco crown into the blue above Lexington Avenue.
This is as close as I want to come to seeing any of them. My plan for this long weekend in New York is to step away from the obvious. To ignore the well-thumbed ‘city that never sleeps’ of Sinatra’s croon, and imbibe the city of Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ New York — a nest of neighbourhoods where, ‘I walked down there and ended up, in one of them coffee houses on the block’.
To gnaw, too, at the edges of the Big Apple, flitting about by subway, like a singular version of The Warriors in Walter Hill’s 1979 gang movie classic (minus the violence, hopefully). And, where feasible, to throw in the odd indulgence, in whatever surprising guise it might take.
Among the icons
The lobby of the NU Hotel seems a good place to begin. Nobody here is dreaming of the Empire State Building. Tablets are being scanned and style magazines flicked through as I help myself to a breakfast of bagels, orange juice and aromatic coffee and ponder my route.
Outside, Brooklyn buzzes with the self-importance of a borough that has leapt from chorus line to headline act in the last decade. The key avenue of Fulton Street is caught in a state of regeneration, its sportswear stores and electronics outlets falling slowly under the spell of City Point — a high-rise mall poised midway through construction but already huge, and expected to provide a cinema, as well as shops and offices, when it finally comes to fruition.
Behind on Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn Fare is the precise image of an alluring New York deli, its shelves neatly slotted with enticements. Olive oils jostle for attention with marinade sauces and walnut pastes. Old World wines glare imperiously at upstarts of the New. The fruit-and-vegetable aisle is a rainbow of colours; the fish section is a miniature aquarium on ice — catfish, octopus, salmon, scallops and trout.
I grab an early lunch here, unable to resist the ciabatta with lemon chicken, goat’s cheese and sun-dried tomatoes at the sandwich counter, before dipping onto subway line 2, forging four stops east from Nevins Street to Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum.
The latter institution is curiously undersold, the city’s second-ranked in size, but its twentysomethingth in fame, despite hosting a wealth of American icons from the 20th century — from John Singer Sargent and Norman Rockwell to Mark Rothko and Edward Hopper. Up on the fifth floor, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Brooklyn Bridge captures the East River’s greatest adornment in 1949, its vast supporting cables like yacht sails against a cyan sky.
This is a reminder it can be difficult to avoid the Big Apple’s big moments. There is another, back in the north-west of the borough, where Montague Street inches between eateries and red-brick homes, before losing its head to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, from which your gaze is drawn to Manhattan’s financial district across the water.
I absorb the view — the One World Trade Center tower puffing out its chest as the tallest building in the western hemisphere — before retreating to Teresa’s, a Montague Street Polish restaurant where the blintzes (pancakes) are thick with cheese and mushrooms. Manhattan, of course, will always have its say, though I am determined it won’t dominate the discourse with its usual topics.
The following day I swap the busy breakfast bar at the NU Hotel for line 5, dashing two stops west from Nevins Street, under the river and on to Bowling Green. Here, the crowd swirling around Battery Park splits into two, one half heading for the snaking queue by the embarkation point for visits to the Statue of Liberty, the other for the Battery Maritime Building and the ferry to Governors Island.
I join the latter, seeking the outcrop that in 2002, emerged from two centuries of military and coast-guard use to become a popular public space. A good portion of Manhattan seems to be on board for the chugging six-minute ride — families armed with picnics, scooters and an air of excitement; young couples lost in each other’s company; joggers intent on pounding around the curve of the isle’s 172 acres. We’re disgorged at the dock, and while Liberty flirts with us to the west, basking in her celebrity as the Staten Island Ferry passes, there’s enough at our feet for her presence not to be distracting — the lovely 1906 oddity of St Cornelius Chapel, an English country church marooned on the far side of the Atlantic; the 19th-century echo of the Admiral’s House, six staunch columns holding up its neoclassical facade; and the easy sustenance of Backstage Cafe, with its inexpensive bowls of pesto pasta.
I am tempted to linger. But Manhattan is insistent. So I bob back to Bowling Green and hop onto the 4, racing five stops north to Spring Street. Here, on the Bowery, the New Museum pickpockets some of MOMA’s thunder, and is piled upwards like a misaligned stack of silver shoeboxes. The art inside revolves around temporary exhibitions of the thrillingly ‘now’ — whitewashed walls, flashing TVs, and shards of multimedia everywhere.
A high note
Suddenly, it seems plausible to walk north-west through Nolita, to the C-train edition of Spring Street, and head north to 14th Street. Beyond, the Meatpacking District is no New York unknown — but it feels strangely decadent to enter one of its bars in mid-afternoon, long before the evening rush, and order a cocktail. At Serafina Meatpacking, the Jalapeno Martini is just what I want: a mixture of tequila and spice consumed amid stripped brickwork.
I’ve come to this part of Manhattan in search of the High Line, the former freight railway that was reconceived in 2009 as an elevated, mile-long park, stretching from Gansevoort Street to West 30th Street. Quickly, the Meatpacking District’s 3pm slumber fades behind a glow of energy — runners, fleet of foot; parents pushing baby buggies; clusters of people around the flowerbeds, talking and laughing.
I wander north, admiring the sun-flare on the Hudson and continue where the walkway ends, up Ninth Avenue towards Hell’s Kitchen, where Marseille pretends to be French, but still serves a fine New York strip steak. Around the corner on West 46th Street, Don’t Tell Mama hides in another era, reeling me back through the New York of The Strokes, Patrick Bateman and Studio 54 to some cabaret fragment of the early 1970s — an act of time-travel I have to toast with a bourbon-rich Kentucky Flower cocktail.
It’s a long way home from Hell’s Kitchen to Brooklyn, line 2 rumbling hypnotically south from 50th Street. It’s at least a swifter trip north — around half an hour on the C train from Hoyt-Schermerhorn to 116th Street — when I opt to spend my third morning glimpsing a part of New York that still appears only vaguely on visitor radars. Useful, then, that the tours run by Welcome To Harlem offer an in-depth introduction to this district that’s as intrinsic to the soul of the city as any warren of skyscrapers.
The ‘Gospel & Brunch Tour’ departs every Sunday at 9am from the company’s office on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. And if taking a seat at the Memorial Baptist Church on Bishop Preston Road feels like a privileged peek behind a curtain — at a flamboyance and harmony of religion unfamiliar to Europeans — then there’s a giddy joy to lunch at Amy Ruth’s on West 116th Street, where the menu salutes African-American fare with gusto, the ‘President Barack Obama’ revealing itself as a heap of barbecued chicken.
Then there are the landmarks — the hallowed musical hotspot of the Apollo Theater on West 125th Street, leafy Marcus Garvey Park. In the latter, a trumpeter is playing on an outdoor stage. It’s a lovely, mournful noise, and I find myself marvelling again that a metropolis whose story is so well told can still guard so many secrets.
British Airways, American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Delta and United Airlines fly direct from the UK. ba.com aa.com virgin-atlantic.com delta.com united.com
Average flight time: 7h 30m.
Subway and bus network: single tickets from $2.50 (£1.50) with a MetroCard. mta.info
When to go
Spring and autumn when New York shakes off the extremes of summer and winter.
Need to know
Visas: British citizens require an ESTA permit. From $14 (£8.50). esta.cbp.dhs.gov
Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.65.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time difference: GMT -5.
Amy Ruth’s. amyruthsharlem.com
Brooklyn Fare. brooklynfare.com
Brooklyn Museum. brooklynmuseum.org
Don’t Tell Mama. donttellmamanyc.com
Governors Island. govisland.com
The High Line. thehighline.org
New Museum. newmuseum.org
NU Hotel. nuhotelbrooklyn.com
Serafina Meatpacking. meatpacking.serafinarestaurant.com
Teresa’s. T: 00 1 718 797 3996.
Welcome To Harlem. welcometoharlem.com
The Rough Guide to New York City. RRP: £14.99.
How to do it
Four nights at the Marriott At The Brooklyn Bridge, including flights, from £1,078 per person (with two sharing). virginholidays.co.uk
Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPNY
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)