What is it about New York City that harkens millions of urban explorers all year round? The US tourism market is a hotly contested arena whose top 10 players bare names as recognisable on the world stage as a bottle of Coca Cola. Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles are the city’s biggest competition, and if one includes the boundless revellers of Disney Land World Resort in Orlando’s figures then this travel haven is virtually breathing down the Big Apple’s neck.
Miami and Orlando have massive family appeal while Los Angeles is a proverbial holy grail of sun, sea and modern pop culture. I’m by no means arguing that the appeal of these places is superficial, but besides the poster child skyline of Manhattan New York and its other four boroughs (I’d argue) lack a similar spontaneous association.
Say Florida, I say Disneyland; say Los Angeles, I say Hollywood; say Washington DC, I say the US capital. New York’s delights take a little bit of thought to discern because they are so interwoven into the city’s dynamic fabric. People go to New York, because it’s New York.
As if to reinforce my presupposition about what it is that gives New York its spark I later had the fortune of speaking to Alan Locher, who heads up the PR and marketing at On Location Tours. When asked, in as short and sweet a way as possible, what it is about NYC that makes it stand out from other big US cities his reply beamed with the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from someone who knows the city inside out: “It’s the Big Apple! The energy and the people of this city are what make it stand out from the rest. It’s exactly as most people describe, the city that doesn’t sleep. There’s a never ending list of things to see and do (the parks, the buildings, the restaurants).”
I’ll come back to Alan and On Location Tours soon, as he was kind enough to share with me his personal sightseeing recommendations, attraction ideas and favourite restaurants. Until then I’ll capitalise a little on his last sentence by exploring a ‘not so never ending list’ of NYC delights, but just enough to hopefully do some justice to this eclectic city.
I described New York’s visitors earlier as ‘urban explorers’, a phrase I use because the NYC experience means so many different things to so many different people. One person’s journey of discovery might centre on the arts scene, while another’s might be the fulfilment of an itching desire to walk in the footsteps of their favourite stars. It being said that the perfect New York experience is fairly subjective, what are the highlights of this fabulously colourful place?
New York boasts some of the most prestigious cultural and intellectual institutions in the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest and possibly the most diverse art museum in the United States. With 26,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts the Metropolitan houses the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo. It’s 2,500 strong catalogue of European art includes works by Johannes Vermeer, Nicolas Poussin, Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The main building is located on 5th Avenue, but its dedicated Medieval European art branch, ‘The Cloisters’ Museum, is situated in Upper Manhattan atop Fort Tryon Park’s highest point.
The American Museum of Natural History can be found at the west side of Central Park. This renowned institution is apty surrounded by lush arboreal vegetation; a nice continuation of the adjacent park. Within the complex itself you’ll find over 32 million biological, geological and cultural artefacts, as well as amazing lifesize dioramas, objects from outer space and a planetarium.
The Museum of Modern Art, often abbreviated to MoMA, is a venue dedicated entirely to contemporary art. Some of the building’s most recognisable names include Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Paul Gauguin. It also showcases thousands of treasured photos, books, sculptures and films.
The Guggenheim Museum is another Fifth Avenue contemporary art gallery, this time with a special focus on impressionist and post-impressionist works. The building could easily be considered a work of art in its own right- a white washed modernist palace designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
The above institutions have one key thing in common that is of great benefit to a prospective tourist. The individual ticket prices of all four can be negated by buying a New York CityPASS. This comprehensive booklet is available for online purchase and allows visitors to save up to 41% on combined regular box office prices.
For most people the ideal New York experience is not complete without a sightseeing trip around all of the city’s top landmarks and districts. New York City is a place of startling cultural and ethnic diversity. This is not a new phenomenon, the modern cityscape was and still is being shaped by peoples from all across the globe. The city’s unique character is simultaneously the result of hundreds of years worth immigrant integration and the explicit preservation of group identities.
Chinatown and Little Italy in Manhattan are two of New York’s biggest cultural centres. Chinatown is huge, bustling and eclectic, while Little Italy (mostly Mulberry Street) has a charming ‘old school NY’ feel with numerous quaint restaurants. Both neighbourhoods are close to the up-market shopping district of SoHo and are great for a sightseeing stroll.
In Upper Manhattan the large neighbourhood of Harlem has traditionally housed a large African American population. Despite a history of social problems modern Harlem has undergone significant changes which have contributed to rising gentrification. Top attractions in the area include The Apollo Theatre, Mosque No. 7 (from which Malcolm X famously preached), and the Harlem Studio Museum, which showcases significant works by artists of African descent. When in Harlem be sure to also check out the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market, a flea market filled with interesting African goods.
The total number of ethnic enclaves in New York City is too large to list here, though other significant ones include Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Lower East Side, Manhattan, with their strong Jewish connections, and Koreatown in Midtown Manhattan. You’ll find in various parts of the city that Irish culture has made a significant historical impact, and that’s without including the annual St Partricks Day celebrations.
A means of travelling around the New York boroughs that I would personally recommend is the Big Bus New York Sightseeing Bus Tour. As well as all of the cultural centres and museums I’ve so far focused on the Big Bus tour encapsulates the city’s most recognisable landmarks. A 48-hour hop-on hop-off ticket can get you around the likes of the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre and Prospect Park quickly and easily. It should be noted that some of the best vantage points in New York City come from the Empire State Observatory and the ‘Top of the Rock‘, GE Building’s own observation deck located at the Rockefeller Centre. The CityPASS I mentioned earlier can get you fast-track access to both upper decks.
Hop-off at Battery Park on the Big Bus tour, where you can use the CityPASS booklet to catch a cruise to Liberty and Ellis Island. Entrance to the Statue of Liberty is not included but it’s still a great way to get up close to the Lady herself.
Given New York City’s prolific presence on the big screen it’s no wonder that thousands of movie pilgrims make their way to this most filmed of cities each year. What better a time, therefore, to return to On Location Tours and a personal follow up from Alan Locher.
On Location Tours is a group who specialise in guiding visitors around shooting locations from their favourite television programmes and movies. Some tours are based around a specific series, i.e. ‘Sex and the City‘, and others such as the ‘TV and Movie Sites‘ tour involve a comprehensive coach trip around dozens of spots synonymous with all kinds of feature length productions. Many people who come to experience New York’s media magic choose On Location Tours as their main sightseeing trip, no surprise considering the exciting attraction visits, walking portions and entertaining guides.
In addition to helping fulfil the expectations of thousands of annual travellers, Alan Locher was happy to provide his personal wisdom on other great things to see and do in New York City. Have a read and enjoy his list of informed recommendations:
Out of the city’s most popular activities, what would you recommend most to a foreign visitor?
“I would recommend the Top of the Rock for sure. It’s one of the most spectacular views of the city looking in all directions. I would also recommend walking through different neighborhood’s to get a feel for the differences between them. Don’t forget to take in a Broadway show. There’s nothing like live theatre in NY.”
What sights and attractions are your personal favourites?
“Top of the Rock as I mentioned above. Go see Grand Central Station – visitors should look-up the whispering corners before coming to the city. Don’t miss a stroll through the most filmed park in the world, Central Park. Check out the elevated High Line Park that stretches 1.45 miles. It’s a linear park built on a section of disused New York Central Railroad spur called the West Side Line.”
If you were travelling with a partner and or friend/s, what sights and attractions would you prioritise?
“Top of the Rock, the Highline, Central Park, all that I mentioned above.”
What, in your opinion, are the most underrated sights in Manhattan and Brooklyn?
“Sometimes the outer boroughs are left off people’s lists of things to explore. Brooklyn has some beautiful parks and brownstones that are so worth seeing. Take a walking tour through almost any Brooklyn neighborhood. The house at 75 ½ Bedford Street in Manhattan is the city’s narrowest house, with a secret garden. Cary Grant and John Barrymore are two of those who have called that address home. It’s a great little find in the beautiful West Village.”
Any bars or restaurants you’d personally recommend?
“I would recommend checking out Buddakan in the Meatpacking District which is this vast restaurant that was featured in the Sex and the City movie. It’s a modern Asian cuisine. Also, I would check out Mercato a small authentic Italian restaurant in Hells Kitchen. And if you’re a BBQ fan take a ride up to Harlem to experience Dinosaur BBQ.”