Nothing has made me feel more at home in New York than acting as a tour guide for others. Last month we hosted a range of friends and family members in our new city and I’m beginning to feel like quite the expert. When we found out we were coming to live here, an acquaintance emailed me to say, “I really recommend the Empire State Building – it’s a famous building in Manhattan.” Having spent 18 months mocking this person’s expert insight, I’m now about to repeat his banality. Living in New York, I receive recommendations all the time about things to do and I’m beginning to realize my friend was cleverer than I knew. Most people suggest hipster restaurants, breweries, walking tours and experiences. We’re in danger of forsaking the best tourist attractions in favor of Time Out’s Top Ten Cat Cafes. So here is my list of obvious but worthwhile tourist attractions in New York.
The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is the flagship of the New York Public Library system. It is entirely free to access, hosts interesting free exhibitions, has fascinating architecture and history, and provides informative free tours. The famous reading room is beautiful and peaceful and usually has space for visitors to sit and read, work, or conduct research. The map room has large maps of most of the world available for free, as well as free computerized access to digitized maps. Check the website for hours. Not every room is open on Sundays.
Bar 65 at the Rockefeller Center, part of the famous ‘Rainbow Room’, boasts New York’s highest outdoor bar terrace. It is a great way to get a cheap view of the Manhattan skyline. We booked a table in advance and when we arrived were ushered straight in – no waiting or queuing. There is a one drink minimum per person, and they’re not cheap at around $17 per cocktail, but that is much less than you’d pay to go up the Empire State Building or One World Trade Center. There is a smart dress code but it’s not very strictly enforced so don’t worry if you’ve come to New York without your LBD. We went at sunset, which I certainly recommend as the changing colors were magical. If the website suggests they’re full, it might be worth sending an email. We went for a special occasion and a pleading email secured us a table even though it was apparently booked.
Central Park continues to impress me, even though I go most weeks. I only recently discovered the Conservatory Garden, a formal garden at around East 100th Street on the footprint of a former glasshouse. Beautiful spring bulbs of various colors surrounded gentle fountains and lawns when I visited. It’s slightly awkward to get to from the main thoroughfare through that part of the park, which makes it feel a little more remote, adding to the atmosphere. The North Woods is also worth visiting, especially because a lot of the paths and decks have recently been refurbished. On a short trip there, we saw a red cardinal, a few different woodpeckers, a blue jay, some heron, a red-winged blackbird, as well as the more common American robins and starlings. None of these bird are remarkable to locals, but for visitors from Europe they are strange enough to feel exotic and have you reaching for the camera. I’ve also see lovely families of Raccoons up there. I know they’re pests but to foreign eyes they’re simply adorable.
The iconic Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is now my favorite art museum. I’ve generally felt inadequate in the past when attempting to enjoy abstract art, but the guided flowing layout of the Guggenheim, combined with an excellent audio guide, made it great fun. I’m naive enough about art to find a lot of things that genuinely surprised and intrigued me. The range of Picasso covered is quite thought provoking and particularly moving is his Woman Ironing. It’s not all abstract, despite the Museum’s original name (The Museum of Non-Objective Painting). There are a handful of temporary exhibitions, all included in the entrance price, although some require timed tickets.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have frequently been dismissed by people recommending New York sights to me. “Just get the Staten Island Ferry,” they say. “It’s much cheaper and you can see the statue really well from it!” While that’s true, the ferry is cheap and you can see the statue from it, it does not compare at all to standing at the base of the statue and looking up. The history of its design and construction is interesting and the political messages attributed to it of democracy, republicanism and immigration are compelling and feel relevant at the moment. It wears its patriotism well as an attraction and it was even a little moving taking a slow walk around the statue and imagining the many people for whom a first glimpse of it heralded a new home. There is an array of confusing options for how to enjoy the day. Tickets to visit the crown are very limited and must be booked months in advance. Tickets to climb the pedestal are less scarce but still need to be bought ahead. On Ellis Island there is the option of a private ‘Hard Hat Hospital Tour’, on which a guide shares with you the history of the hospitals which operated on the island for decades, first as treatment centers for people who weren’t well enough to enter the country, and later as prisons. I loved the tour. The hospitals were quite badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, but enough of the original wards and equipment remain to make it atmospheric. Beware of fraudsters selling boat trips to the islands. The only way to step foot on either island is by booking through Statue Cruises – the official retailer.
The One World Observatory and The Empire State Building are famous tall buildings in Manhattan! The Empire State Building has such historical interest, as well as evocative decor and a great outdoor viewing gallery. The One World Observatory is the highest view you can get of Manhattan, and its location near the southern tip gives a very different view from all the other tall buildings. It has an imaginative and dramatic elevator ride and the reveal at the top is breathtaking. On the other hand, you don’t get to go outside so you do spent quite a lot of the time peering through children’s finger smears. One World also seem very keen to sell you things as you go – extra photos, apps, etc. Of the two, Empire State is far and away the better experience. Both are quite expensive and both warn you may need to queue. However, I went on a weekday in Spring Break and lines weren’t very long at all.
If, despite my list, you would like to try something a little less mainstream, might I suggest a certain hamburger place run by a clown with a Scottish surname?