NEW YORK CITY on a few dollars a day, not counting your parents' money
New York City is a big city, and a beautiful city, and it’s full of wonders, and oh grandiose introduction introduction introduction introduction.
Suffice it to say that New York City* is, surprisingly, a very reasonable city. I would love to tell you about how you will get mugged, or how I saw rats the size of SmartCars, or how trash and grime covered the street, because then your morbid interest would be aroused, and I wouldn’t have to write as well to hold your attention. However, NYC is very reasonable.
*When I say “New York City” (or “NYC”) here, and in the rest of the guide, I really mean Manhattan. That must drive those of you from the other four boroughs crazy.
I felt very safe pretty much everywhere I went. This may be because I’m naive. Or it may be the courteous criminals, who restrict their most violent activity to the south Bronx and other areas ironically far from tourists' stuffed wallets. Also, things do not cost so much as you might have heard. It’s not twice as expensive as everywhere else; only about 1.4 times. This is the first in the series of New York Being 70% of What It’s Cracked Up To Be. And in many areas, things are very cheap. See: Chinatown produce stands; also, knockoff designer handbags.
But guidebooks do not sell by writing nice paragraphs. So without further ado:
Neighborhoods and Sights
Starting from the tip and working your way up.
1. Financial District
This is where a lot of tall buildings are. Except no more World Trade Center. You can, of course, see Ground Zero: it looks like a big construction site. I guess if you go to the nearby museum, it becomes more touching and vaguely frightening. I am not going to get political here. Anyway, you can get on a Boat, and see the Statue of Liberty, but really, this is boring. Take note: you may find some of the best shady sidewalk vendors here; I actually saw the fabled “Rolex watch suitcase.” Also the designer sunglasses suitcase, from which I should have bought something. Like a leprechaun guarding his pot of eye-protecting gold, he was gone when I returned.
I think there are a lot of great restaurants here. However, they are all new, trendy, and expensive, so we did not go to any.
This is a neat area of shops and restaurants. I think it used to be really hip. As an aspiring hipster, one must always keep track of these things.
4. Chinatown and Little Italy
Chinatown is crowded and cheap, just like China. Little Italy is very nice, all red and green, full of Italian restaurants, and slowly being overtaken by Chinatown, just like Italy. So it goes. You can get cheap produce here. You can also get fish. Finally, you can get designer knockoff handbags. Just ask someone in a shop, and he will pull aside the secret door and act uneasy as you peruse the illegal purses. Later, if you are my mom and sister, you may see the same purse in Bloomingdale’s for $1350. How cool is it that the bit about the secret door is not a joke?
5. Greenwich Village
Ladies and Gentlemen, the winner for Best Neighborhood. This place is cool. I present as evidence: the fact that some writers used to live there. It looks vaguely European. Check out Chumley’s, a former speakeasy with no sign where apparently a lot of famous writers worked. It has no sign. You just go in the door at 86 some street, go through the heavy curtain, and there’s a shabby looking bar. How cool. There is also a British shop where you can get chips and drinks (or at least Marmite and Shreddies), a bakery with a pastry case that is photo-worthy, and a store of spices and herbs. You can see the 9.5-foot-wide house where Edna St. Vincent Millay lived, but that is boring.
6. East Village
This is the sort of place that an aspiring hipster can tell by walking through: this is the new hip place. It’s poorer but getting richer, sort of ethnic, and has some shady looking record stores.
7. Lower Midtown, including Chelsea
Wait, I mean this place is the new hip place. It has Union Square, home to the largest farmer’s market I’ve ever seen. Also the Chelsea Market, which is SO DAMN COOL! Go there! Go see it! It’s really damn cool!
8. Upper Midtown, excluding the Theater District
Well, this is New York. Lots of tall buildings, and Things you can See, Especially if You Are a Tourist, such as the Rockefeller Center which includes the NBC Studio, which you can tour if you’d like to pay $20 and listen to a tour. Also the Empire State Building, etc. But bite the “I’m a tourist” bullet and go ahead and go up in at least one tall building. Go at night when it’s all lit up. Have a religious experience. I did.
9. The Theater District
Hey! Times Square! Julie is incorrect; this place is not awful. This place is a monument. This is man’s response to the Grand Canyon: Look, Mother Nature! I can create something that will be awe-inspiring but in a totally different way! Yeah, it’s crass and commercial. Yeah, okay, there’s an MTV store, there’s a tourist double-decker bus, there’s a scrolling display so we can display more ads in the same place. But you know you love our society that can make wanton consumerism so glamorous.
Oh, and there are shows here too! See some of them! First, go to the TKTS booth in the South Street Seaport (lower Manhattan) in the early afternoon (skip the Times Square TKTS booth; it’s crowded) and get half price tickets. Then, I recommend Spamalot, because you already know you’ll love it. I also recommend Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which I think I enjoyed not just in the campy “this is a musical so you’re going to pretend you enjoy it” sense. Although maybe it was the “this is a show that my dad and I can both watch and we both enjoy and it leaves us feeling good about a night at the Broadway show.” Either way, it’s enjoyable. As far as shows go, the Blue Man Group is pretty good too. However, some of the jokes fell a little flat (come on, making fun of chat room acronyms? That is so five minutes ago dot org.), so I’ll lump it in with the other bits of “New York being 70% of what it’s cracked up to be.” That said, some of their stuff is genius, and their sense of comic timing is not bad.
10. Upper Midtown West
This is a nice area of shops and restaurants. Check out Zabar’s sweet grocery store, not only because it’s the only grocery store I’ve seen with an item topping $1000 (a large quantity of caviar), but also because it’s just awesome. That’s all.
11. Upper Midtown East
I think you can shop here if you’re rich. If not, you can go to museums. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is huge. Go with a guide; a mother who knows a lot about impressionist art will do nicely. If you do, you may find yourself with an appreciation for things you didn’t know you had an appreciation for. Like impressionist art. Really, it’s pretty cool. Same goes for the Museum of Modern Art, which is not in the Upper Midtown East, but is in the middle of Midtown by the Rockefeller Center.
12. Central Park
There is a lot to say about Central Park. Instead of me saying it all, you should rent bicycles and ride around it. It takes about 30 minutes at a leisurely pace. I’m still sort of in awe that such a great park exists in such a great city. That’s all.
13. Harlem, Morningside Heights, all points north, and the other four boroughs
Ignore these; you won’t have time. Plus, Harlem’s dangerous, Queens and Brooklyn are boring, the Bronx has the Yankees, and wasn’t there one more borough? I forget. I hope Rob reads this. Anyway, everything I just said (besides “I hope Rob reads this”) is sarcastic. Get the hell out of Tourist-Mecca Manhattan and see the rest of the city! Be a better city-seer than I!
Places to Stay
How about the Murray Hill Suites? It’s in the middle of everything (39th street and 3rd avenue), has room to comfortably sleep a family of 4, and is at least somewhat reasonably priced, although I have no idea because I wasn’t paying.
Places to Eat
The Pig and Whistle- a great place to go when you’ve just gotten in to New York, you’re wandering around Times Square, and you’re looking for something that the whole family can enjoy. Good old Irish pub.
A Food Cart- served up a half-decent shish kebab. Only half decent though. I expected more from the fabled New York food carts.
A Little Italy Restaurant Whose Name I Didn’t Even Try To Remember- The gnocchi was not half bad. It wasn’t outstanding though.
Sardi’s- The guidebook will tell you to go here after seeing a show because the Broadway stars like to come here. Look on the back of the title page of your guidebook; you’ll see that it’s dated 1972.
Mister Softee Ice Cream Truck- good call! An ice cream truck that actually serves ice cream cones. Soft serve is the same everywhere in the world, and it’s unnatural, and it comes in a big plastic bag… but man, I still love it.
Katz’s Deli- Your guidebook will probably also tell you to go here. You can see a historic New York deli where the immigrants used to eat (although they probably didn’t pay $13 for a sandwich!). You can see the spot in Where Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan famously faked an orgasm. You can see the sign that says “This is where Harry met Sally. No, you can’t order what she had.” Your confused mother who has not heard of this scene can ask the waitress what she had. Your father can tell her he’ll explain it later. Your mother can keep asking. They can beat around the bush a little bit until your mother gets the picture. Your parents can then smile knowingly, because their 17- and 20-year-old kids clearly have no idea; of course, the “o” word is never said because you don’t want to corrupt the kids. They don’t know what an orgasm is yet. This can be an awkward scene for all.
Balthazar- Okay, here we go. This is a New York restaurant like you expect New York restaurants. A little french cafe. I recommend the Salad Nicoise, which I guess is a pretty common thing in France, but I had never had it. It comes with seared rare tuna, which is neat. Also anchovies, artichokes, olives, a hard-boiled egg, green beans, tomatoes, onions, and tasty greens, all in an olive oil and I think balsamic vinegar dressing. This is probably the finest meal I had in New York. Rock on.
Tavern on the Green- It’s a little indulgent to eat dinner here after having lunch at Balthazar. See the title of this guidebook. This place has in fame and ambience what it lacks in food. Don’t get me wrong, loyal reader; the duck confit with mushroom risotto was good, despite your humble author not knowing what the hell “confit” means. But it wasn’t what you expect for the price. Nor was the Filet Mignon, which your author’s parents ordered, but perhaps that’s a function of said parents ordering it cooked medium. The more you learn about food, the more you know you should order things cooked less than you think. At any rate, don’t count me as ungrateful for giving a less-than-glowing review to such a nice place; if I as the author were just to rave about every expensive restaurant, well, I wouldn’t be a very good guide, would I? But enough about shortcomings of the food; this place has lanterns strung about all the trees. All the way up the trees! It’s neat!
Kangsuh- I like Korean food! Between the appetizers (which I’ve seen at a couple of Korean places, and which always seem to be free) and the multi-part meal special, they give you a taste of about nine different things. That, I think, is one of the best things a restaurant can do.
Junior’s- I think that’s what this place is called. It’s unmemorable, at any rate. Its strengths are threefold: its location in the theater district, the menu which is so large that nobody can find it objectionable (although it is all boring american food), and its overly high prices. Perhaps you might think two of those are weaknesses. Perhaps you are right.
Hatsuhana- Here’s a hint. If the rest of your party is going on the NBC studio tour, duck out and spend your $20-plus at this sushi restaurant instead. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a T-shirt that says “Hyland Software 5000”; even though every single other person is wearing a business suit, they will seat you as if they don’t notice. Also, go there on what happens to be “restaurant week,” and you can get a first-rate sushi lunch for $24.07. It includes: cold pumpkin soup and a seaweed salad, tuna with some kind of spicy mayonnaise, yellowtail sashimi, green beans in a ginger sauce, your choice of one sushi roll, and the following nigiri sushi (pieces of fish on rice): tuna, salmon with wasabi mayonnaise, rock salted snapper, and yellowtail with jalapeno. You can sit at the sushi bar and watch your meal being prepared; that’s a feature of every sushi bar, but it is still cool. You can look at the dish marked “Turkey / Brazil” and wonder what the heck is in it. You can pour soy sauce out of a thing that looks like a little teapot. This is a neat experience. Then you can join your party and tell them how great your meal was while they tell you how mediocre the NBC studio tour was.
Europa Cafe- Apparently this is a chain in New York. Well, if you’re getting fast food, I’d go for their sandwiches and salads over a McDonald’s any day. Surprisingly, there are McDonaldses in New York, but there are almost no other fast food chains. Chalk another one up for New York being a very reasonable city.
Lombardi’s- So this is the famous New York thin crust pizza? It’s not bad, but it’s nothing special. 70% of what it’s cracked up to be.
Rice to Riches- Maybe the first exclusively rice pudding store in the country. It’s a great concept- they sell it like ice cream. However, they charge like it’s Coldstone; except it’s more expensive than Coldstone. Still, points for concept, and also for design: it looks neat.
The best way: walking. Walk until your calves hurt because, unbeknownst to you, bad circulation runs in the family. Then collapse.
The second best way: get a Metrocard unlimited pass and ride the subway everywhere. It works, and it’s quick, although it is hot and a little smelly. However, every city should have a subway; New York’s is just further proof.
The third best way: take buses. This works if your family doesn’t want to go into the subway because it’s hot and smelly. It’s also easy because most of Manhattan is in a nice grid shape. Yeah, that’s unnatural, but by god, it works.
This is the end
New York is a very reasonable city, and if you put your expectations at 70% of what they are, it will most often exceed your expectations by 42.8%.
No ferry ride? You should try it the next time you’re there.
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