By Meghan Brennan
As a New Yorker, I get to live in the greatest city in the world (we’ve never pretended to humility). And it breaks my heart that every day, visitors come from around the world to see New York and miss out on so much of the best stuff it has, because they’re sticking strictly to the guidebooks. If you want to see New York like a local, it’s time to get off the beaten path (figuratively – there’s a lot of pavement here; you can’t avoid it all) and see things a little differently.
Where To Stay?
When picking where in New York City to rest your head, the first thing to realize is how many incredibly diverse neighborhoods it has. Even conservative estimates grant that there are at least 20 distinct areas, and realistically there are easily twice as many. Want a quiet spot? Avoid Hell’s Kitchen, where the party never stops. Love high-end shopping? The closer to Soho you are, the happier you’ll be. The Upper East Side is pricey, but near all the best museums (and iconic Fifth Avenue), while the Lower East Side is home to incredible music venues and still holds on to its historic immigrant culture.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even stay in Queens or Brooklyn – hotels near those boroughs’ waterfronts will have stunning views of Manhattan, and the subway can get you there in no time. Personally, I’m partial to my own area of Yorkville, a quieter, historically German neighborhood full of great restaurants that sits between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem.
Just don’t stay near Times Square. It’s very loud, very busy, and very expensive. Come for the requisite photos and a little people-watching, and then head for more interesting parts of this fascinating city.
Related: Traveling is Divine with Denihan
What To Do?
Talk about a loaded question! There’s so much to do in New York that it would take a lifetime to do it all. Museum Mile alone is home to nine world-class institutions; there’s countless theater, opera, ballet, and more; it’s easy to lose a day wandering Central Park; there are cafes, restaurants, and bars to last you years; and from the Metropolitan Opera to Madison Square Garden to the basement of a bar in Chelsea, we’ve got the best live music venues anywhere.
That’s before we even get to the seasonal stuff. The A train takes you to the beach without even leaving the city (they’re called the Rockaways, they’re in Queens, and they’re less crowded and cleaner than Coney Island), a great day trip in the summer. In the fall, check out rooftop farms’ bountiful harvests or the foliage at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Winter is magical in New York, with ice-skating and holiday markets. And once spring arrives, join the throngs of people heading for the parks, check out the Orchid Festival, or visit the Macy’s Flower Show.
Where To Eat?
OK, you’re really going to test me, aren’t you? You can very literally find just about anything to eat in this city, but sure, here are some favorites:
52nd St. and 9th Ave.
Casellula calls itself a “cheese & wine café,” and while they do have other things on the menu – from various meats to substantial sandwiches – that really is what they’re all about. It’s reasonably priced, and I’m convinced it’s staffed with geniuses. Each cheese comes with an accompanying side (blue cheese with peanut butter fudge is a revelation) and they’re happy to help you pick out a glass of wine. It’s the perfect spot for an after-work happy hour or a light pre-theater supper – just don’t be surprised if you’re tempted to come back after the show.
111th St. and 3rd Ave.
I’m a little obsessed with Cuban food, and this spot in Spanish Harlem is the perfect place to sate my cravings. The ropa vieja is tender and scrumptious, the croquetas simply divine. The all-time champ, though, has to be the maduros, fried sweet plantains. Wash it all down with a pitcher of homemade sangria and relax while listening to the live music.
53rd St. and 6th Ave.
The age of the street vendor hot dog is over. Sayonara, hot pretzels. And a fond farewell to roasted nuts of all varieties. The star of the New York street food scene is halal, platters of rice, lettuce, meat (chicken or gyro, sometimes both) or falafel, and pita. And the best place to get it is at the Halal Guys, recognizable by their bright yellow signs and plastic bags. For five to seven dollars, you can get a substantial, tasty meal. Don’t miss the white sauce, and ask for the red as well if you like your food spicy – if not, I strongly recommend barbecue sauce. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
As a personal favor to me, I’d ask that you not eat at any chains you can have at home – New York is full of so much incredible food that it seems a shame to eat something you could have any time (I admit, if you’re traveling with small children, there are exceptions that can be made to this rule). That’s not to say you can’t eat at touristy places, though – one of my favorites when I’m in the mood to splurge on something silly is Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a 1950s-themed spot in midtown where the servers sing – and do so astonishingly well! Former staff members appear in almost every Broadway and Off-Broadway production.
And while you’re eating here, try our bagels and our pizza. I don’t want to brag, but they’re the best in the world. Wait, is it bragging if it’s true?
Where To Shop?
You can find almost anything in New York City; it only depends on how hard you’re willing to look. Of course, we have the chain stores and all the iconic sights like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, but for a real slice of New York shopping, you should look a little further afield.
St Mark’s Place
Between Third Avenue and Avenue A, 8th Street is known as St. Mark’s Place, and this stretch is packed with small shops and restaurants. Once an emblem of the East Village, this thoroughfare has lost some of its edge – along with many of its most iconic spots – but if you like bargain hunting, it’s worth a wander. Music and inexpensive jewelry abound, and the famed St. Mark’s Comics is still here. If you get hungry, grab a falafel at Mamoun’s – it’s one of the best in the city.
Part residence of the stars, part outdoor shopping mall, part artsy enclave, Soho defies explanation, probably because of how much it’s changed in the last few decades. Whatever it’s been, though, it now boasts countless shopping options, from world-famous chains to small boutiques. While you shop, keep an eye on the buildings around you – this neighborhood is home to the largest collection of cast-iron architecture in the world. If you really want to fit in in Soho, you should know the area gets its name from being South of Houston Street (pronounced “How-ston,” not like the city in Texas).
Along Fifth Avenue, between 49th and 60th streets, you’ll find one of the most expensive shopping areas in the world. Whether you’re window shopping or picking up a few luxe items, you’ll find glamour beyond your wildest dreams in the stores along these blocks. Famous names include Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Harry Winston, Bergdorf Goodman, Saks, and New York favorite Tiffany & Co.
New York isn’t the most walkable city in the world (that’s why we have such an extensive public transportation system), but those who go by foot are rewarded, especially in the summer, by the wealth of street fairs the city has to offer. Everything from jewelry to clothes to art to furniture is on sale at these events, which can take place in an area as small as a school’s playground or as large as a mile of one of Brooklyn’s busiest avenues – which gets completely shut down for the event, of course (did I mention that you really shouldn’t drive in NYC?).
So there you have it – your introduction to New York City. Yes, introduction. This city is way bigger and more incredible than any Internet article can ever explain, and the only way to really get it is to come here and explore it yourself. And don’t worry about famously cranky New Yorkers. Once you realize our primary language is sarcasm, we’re lovely people. Really.
About Meghan Brennan