Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Phil's Travel Guide to: New York City

Holy f**k I’m bored. Things are a little slow, which means I feel more compelled to keep my brain working via this blog.

You lucky bastards.

Anyhoo, I was contemplating what was worth writing about when I remembered I had promised a friend I would tell her about my recent trip to New York City and give her pointers for a potential trip later this summer – what’s good, what’s not, what’s hot.

So, here it is - Phil’s Travel Guide to: New York City.

I’ve been to NYC three times over the years; once for a day trip (we parked below the Twin Towers), once for a week about 5 years ago, and of course for a week just this month.

Timing – New York City is very humid. In the summer, it can be almost unbearable. Some people think Toronto is humid…not even close. The most uncomfortable place to be in NYC in the summer is on a subway platform. Ugh. I’d suggest NYC in the spring, but if you really wanna go in the summer to try to avoid the rain, be prepared to pay in sweat.

LayoutNYC is pretty easy to navigate because it’s based largely on a grid system. Avenues run north-south and are relatively far apart while streets run east-west and are pretty close together. So the distance between Times Square (42nd Street) and the Empire State Building (34th Street) is not a bad walk and about as far as walking from 8th Avenue to 5th Avenue. Or so it seems. Downtown (Lower Manhattan) is at the south end and includes sights such as the Statue of Liberty, the former World Trade Center site, Wall Street, the South Street Seaport, and the Brooklyn Bridge. Moving northward, you run into areas with shops and cafes like Tribeca (“Triangle below Canal Street”), Greenwich Village, SoHo (“south of Houston Street”) and Chinatown. Further north you start running into Midtown with its big lights and big buildings, where you’ll find Times Square, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Grand Central Station and the Ed Sullivan Theatre. North of that is Central Park along with the Upper East Side and Upper West Side (relative to the park, of course) where you’ll find the Met, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Natural History. North of the park is Harlem (I haven’t been). Walking within each neighbourhood is certainly doable, but if you’re going to be going from Midtown to Downtown you’ll wanna take the subway unless you feel like wearing out your shoes. It’s a nice walk, but I wouldn’t do it more than once.

Where to stay – It depends what you wanna do, but I think Midtown is best. It’s the area around Times Square between, say, the Empire State Building (34th Street) and the park (59th). It’s convenient walking distance to lots of stuff but also features main subway hubs if you’re going more than 10 blocks. It’s certainly where the tourist action is at with lots of bright lights, restaurants, theatres and gift shops. You can find quieter and cheaper places elsewhere but be prepared to take the subway more often. I stayed at the Milford Plaza during this last trip. It doesn’t get much respect from TripAdvisor or other sites, but my understanding is that it recently came under new management and has cleaned up a lot. It’s not fancy, but if you just want a clean bed and bathroom that is central, I don’t think you can top this for convenience. The decent complimentary breakfast saved us a good amount of dough and the plays we saw were literally around the corner.

Getting around – The Milford is a couple of short blocks from the Port Authority Bus Terminal (42nd & 8th), so we found the airport bus service a better deal than taking a cab. It depends which airport you fly into, but basically you’re looking at $22 each for a roundtrip. Not bad at all. Figure on spending about $40 for a cab ride each way. In town, you can walk a great deal and there’s lots of stuff to see as you do. If you’re going a fair distance, though, do yourself a favour and take the subway. It’ll save you time which you can spend on activities or browsing as opposed to “destination walking”. Fare is $2 per ride or you can spring for a week pass for $25 (worth it if you take 13 rides and don’t wanna bother with buying a fare each time).

Attraction deals – I bought an Entertainment Book a week before leaving. This is basically a coupon book with lots of 2-for-1 deals inside. It’s $30 normally, but $15 come the springtime (book is valid from November to November). The book didn’t seem as good this year as it was 5 years ago, but it was still worth it. It included a 2-for-1 for the Circle Line Island Cruise which is a nice way to appreciate the island. We used the book for a couple of restaurants, ice cream treats and museums. But if you’re gonna hit the highlights, the City Pass is the way to go. It offers admission to the big boys (Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, Empire State Building, Met, Natural History Museum, Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art) for $79US, which is almost half price. It also allows you to skip ticket lines at each of these venues, which is a big plus. The Empire State Building line can be a bitch, especially in the summer.

Theatre – we saw a few shows this time which featured tv/film stars such as Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden, Joan Allen, Jeremy Irons and others. They were good shows. Tickets for Broadway shows are normally $60-120. Off-Broadway tix are about half that and Off-Off-Broadway is half of that. For Broadway shows (around Times Square), you can pay full price to guarantee a seat in advance or you can try the TKTS booth in Times Square (or South Street Seaport) the afternoon-of to get what’s left at half price. My advice is that if you are seeing a “straight play” (as opposed to a musical) that you shell out for the big tickets whether it’s in advance or at TKTS. For musicals it may not be such a big deal to be in the nosebleeds, but otherwise you wanna be able to read the actors’ faces. The long shot option is to try a lottery. Some shows will have a lottery at around 6pm, offering a pair of tix (likely front row) for big musicals for $25 a pop if your name is one of, say, ten chosen out of a hat. I got to see Wicked that way and can no longer say “I never win anything”, ‘cause there must have been 300 people in that lottery and my name was the first one called. Oh, we also took in a one-man show by John Leguizamo in a small theatre in Greenwich Village which was a highlight of the trip. You don’t have to break the bank to find these gems – it was $20. I just happened across the theatre as I strolled down 7th Avenue, but I imagine some websurfing would yield results, too.

Museums – I still have not been to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which is the one gaping hole in my NYC experience. I’m not particularly a museum person, though, so I’ll live. I did the Louvre in an hour and a half, stopping only twice, so that gives you an idea of how much time I think is necessary to drink in what a museum has to offer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) is the big daddy. Located about halfway up the east side of the park, it has all the sorts of stuff you would expect from an all-encompassing art museum. Its size can be a little overwhelming if you don’t have the energy to spend 4 hours walking around looking at statues, artifacts and paintings. It’s pay-what-you-can, but $20 is suggested. The Guggenheim is just up the street and, in my opinion, is highly overrated. The admission price was about $18 from what I recall but offers a fraction of what other museum have. The building itself is the main attraction with its spiral atrium. Collections change regularly, I imagine, but my experience was less than satisfying. The Museum of Natural History is pretty massive and covers 4 floors. The dioramas are interesting enough, but you’d have to spend a week there to read all the accompanying text. The City Pass gets you into the planetarium as well, but don’t sweat it if you can’t squeeze in the only so-so show. Still, the museum is a great place for families and the dinosaur exhibit alone makes it worth a look. The Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum is located on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier moored at 46th and the Hudson River (close to where that plane landed in the water). For history buffs or gearheads, this museum offers sights such as fighter aircraft, helicopters, flight simulators and the opportunity to crawl around the tight quarters of the Intrepid herself. I spent two hours there, browsing around. It’s one thing to look at history behind a display case, but another thing entirely to walk around within it. The Museum of Sex was a last-minute adventure we squeezed in on our last days. The Museum featured three main areas – the exhibit on sex in the animal kingdom was fascinating, but was quickly contrasted by the crassness of the “history of porn” room which featured clips from porn films over the years including recent celebrity sex tapes. Standing in that room with a bunch of strangers watching porn somehow made me feel like Paul Reubens. The third area was a sex art/toy display that was more what I had expected going in, and was meh.

Empire State Building – pretty much a must-see. The view of the city is spectacular. Most people will aim for a sunset viewing, so lines can be long in the late afternoon. We checked it out after a show and were delighted to find no lines. The observation deck is open until 1 or 2am, so if you don’t mind seeing lights instead of brick, this is the time to go. The City Pass also included an audio tour of sorts which was actually a nice bonus, though certainly not necessary.

Central Park – make time to stroll through the park either on your way to one of the museums or on its own. There are lots of winding paths, so you’ll likely not cover the whole thing, but each path has its own sights. Highlights include the bridges, merry-go-round, and Belvedere Castle (near 79th Street on the wets side).

The Village – Definitely worth a stroll. Lots of nice cafes and shops and atmosphere. I’d recommend a day of strolling the whole area encompassing Greenwich Village, SoHo, Tribeca, etc.

World Trade Centre – It’s now a construction site with boarding. There really isn’t anything to see other than this big expanse of open space amongst downtown buildings.

Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island – If you wanna visit inside, book in advance (like a week or more) since you can’t buy tix on the island itself and I imagine getting them last minute is dicey. You can’t go up into the crown (thanks, terrorists) but that’ll change come the fourth of July 2009. Still, I imagine getting tix for that portion will be super difficult since admission is quite limited (150/day, I think). We settled for walking once around the statue from the outside, which was fine. We then moved on to Ellis Island which has a fairly interesting (if sparse) museum chronicling some of the hardships new arrivals to the United States faced many moons ago. The museum starts off with some rather weak statistical displays and a shitty cafeteria, but picks up upstairs once you get to the picture galleries.

Brooklyn Bridge – some may argue it, but I think this is a walk worth taking. Take the subway across to Brooklyn and walk back to Manhattan before taking in some of the downtown sights. The bridge offers nice views of the city but is a beauty in and of itself. Just watch out for the morons who can’t seem to grasp the walkway/cycle path divide.

5th Avenue – I’d recommend walking this route to the park or the MoMA so that you can take in Rockefeller Centre and the fancy-dancy shops like Tiffany & Co and FAO Schwartz. Don’t plan on recreating that shot of Audrey Hepburn, though – the windows are covered by displays.

United Nations – Located on the east side near Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building, this might be worth visiting if you’re a politics nut. The General Assembly is only viewable if you take the $18 tour, which also features strange gifts from various countries as well as some naïve displays on how to solve the problems of the world. Still, a visit to the building is pretty useless unless you pony up for the tour. If you just wanna see the building, you can do that while knocking off the boat cruise or strolling by Grand Central.

Madison Square Garden – I had time to kill alone, so I took in the tour of “the world’s most famous arena”. Notice it is not “the best”. I’d have preferred to see it during a game or event, but nothing was going on while I was there (thanks, Rangers and Knicks). Can’t say I’d recommend the tour unless you’re a hard core sports fanatic. Not much to see, especially for $20.

Hot dogs – I’d generally avoid street meat, but at the very least don’t expect Toronto-style sausages. These New York dogs are strictly the thin Schneiders variety. Check out Papaya Dog at 42nd and 9th for a super-cheap hotdog/burger meal...if you dare.

What else…? Dunno.

If you have any questions, I’ll either respond or edit this post.

I’m hungry. I’m gonna go eat.

1 comment:

Michelle Sullivan said...

Good post! (no, that was not said in a condescending tone)

Since your big sister has travelled to India and Egypt but has yet to see NYC, this one is definitely bookmark worthy. Your UFC blog posts? Hmm .. less so.

Museum of Sex .. again??! I would have thought Barcelona would have been enough for you, but I guess there are things about my little brother I still don't (or am still not willing to) know.

Suggestion for a next post: the different neighbourhoods in NYC and what's cool about each one. I'm still torn about where I should spend my time while I'm there. Or, NYC restaurants : what to hit and what to miss.

I sense a series coming on ..