Keys to the city

Williamsburg street artIt feels like everybody but me is in New York at the moment, or headed there soon. Friends, I am both excited for you and wildly jealous. I am also starting to tire of typing the same email full of recommendations to everybody, so have decided to compile a rough guide here in a central location. Herewith, my top five day or half-day explorations of New York. It’s a city you have to explore at street level, so get some comfy shoes or hire a bike and get that camera ready. I’m a tightarse so most of these things are free, but be sure to allow some pocket money for drinks and delicious food.

Go West

cakes at Magnolia

Brownstone buildings, cool quiet streets, hidden parks and greenery: the West Village is the New York most my friends fall in love with. Each street you turn into seems more beautiful, every stoop looks like Carrie Bradshaw’s, and Sarah Jessica Parker does actually live here. Start in the Meatpacking District where designers’ ateliers have replaced slaughterhouses, but cobblestone streets remain. Walk the Highline, the public park on the old elevated subway line that runs from Gansevoort Street up to the 30s. See if you can see any exhibitionists doing rude things with the curtains open in the Standard Hotel. Look down on Chelsea’s galleries and then head down into the Village proper. Grab a feed at any one of the cute cafes tucked amid the cute bookstores and fashion stores and pet boutiques, or really Carrie Bradshaw it up and visit Magnolia Bakery for the cupcakes that started it all. Later, drop into Fat Cat on Christopher Street, an underground bar which somehow combines live jazz performances with ping-pong tables, air hockey and shuffleboard. There’s a miniscule cover charge to get in but the beers are cheap AND it feels like hanging out in someone’s basement back in high school.


view from Cafe Gitane

Once you head below Houston Street you can bid farewell to the easy navigability of the numbered street grid, but this is a great place to get lost.  That’s how you find the best treasures! Petula Clark was right, everything’s waiting for you downtown. That includes chainstore shopping in SoHo (my friend Madge would never forgive me if I don’t tell you to visit Kate Spade on Mercer and Broome), edgier boutiques as you head east, gelati in Little Italy, dive bars in the Lower East Side, dumplings in Chinatown and generally cool people doing cool things. Nolita (short for North Of Little ITAly) is a nebulous little neighbourhood and one of my favourites: pretty shaded streets, great street art, lots of people who look like models smoking in sidewalk cafes and ducking into little boutiques. Aussies seem to have a few toeholds in this neck of the woods; be sure to stop by gorgeous Cafe Gitane on Mott and Prince, where you can get a flat white and even some vegemite on toast. The food more generally is French and Moroccan influenced but according to legend the owner once dated an Aussie girl and her influence lives on. You can also get a Coopers and a burger complete with beetroot at Bondi Road (Rivington St) or Eight Mile Creek (Mulberry St). On East Houston Street you’ll see lots of tourists heading for Katz’s deli, made famous my Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. It’s all about their famous pastrami-on-rye sandwich. Now I have tried this sandwich and it is INSANE the amount of meat they put on it. It is also insane that they charge $14 dollars for it. If you want my advice, save your lunch money for the infinitely cooler Schiller’s diner bar down on Rivington, or Mikey’s Burger on Ludlow.

Cliche day

view from Top Of The Rock

Prepare to spend a day feeling constant pop-culture déjà vu. Start with a stroll around Central Park, then head down 5th Avenue. Don’t go too far from the park just yet, you need to explore the amazing toystore FAO Schwarz. You’ll know it by the guys in soldier outfits at the door. Make sure you find and dance upon the giant piano. Wipe the smile off your face and stick your nose into the air to check out the posh department stores like Saks, Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendels. I’m not much into shopping but I do like trying on turbans and pretending to the fourth wife of an oil tycoon, although I haven’t raised the courage yet to go into Saks’ “Fur Salon”. Now for some perspective. I don’t much like queuing so I’ve avoided the Empire State Building, but you need to get way up on top of a building to get a good sense of the grandeur of the city. I have to admit the Top Of The Rock, a sky-high vantage point from up above the Rockerfeller Center was worth the price of admission. Once you’re back on street level, keep heading down 5th Avenue to 42nd Street. Around here you can see some of the city’s most famous architecture – particularly the Beaux Arts-style New York Public Library, the exquisite great hall at Grand Central Station. If it’s winter you can have a turn about the ice-skating rink at Bryant Park. In summer the park has free movie screenings, but again you’ll have to battle the crowds. Grab a cocktail at the Campbell Apartment, a dim, decadent bar in Grand Central, and give your poor feet a rest.

Hipster heartland

Brooklyn Bowl

Grab your scarf and glasses and try not to look too excited about anything: we’re going to Williamsburg. Yes, it’s outside Manhattan but it’s not far. Take the L train from 14th Street, or if you’re feeling energetic walk across the Williamsburg Bridge (it connects Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Brooklyn). Ground zero for hipster people-watching is Bedford Avenue; there are loads of cafes and bars here as well as vintage shopping, and guys selling second hands books and records on the sidewalk. Turn down North 11th St for local landmarks Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Bowl (check the gig guide or The Roots’ ?uestlove has a DJ “Bowl Train” residency on Thursday nights), and huge vintage store Beacons Closet. Nearby McCarren Pool is reopening this summer as an actual pool (after years as an abandoned wasteland, then a music venue, then a construction site again). You can catch great shows at the Music Hall of Williamsburg or even sometimes on the Williamsburg Waterfront. I hope you’ve been keeping all your quarters because you’ll need them at Barcade, home of vintage video games and craft beers. Round out a night in my old stomping grounds on Grand Street, with an affordable rustic French feed at Le Barricou and some old country tunes on the award-winning jukebox at Lady Jay’s.

Art attack

frames in storage at The Met

Museums aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d argue New York has a museum for everyone. Pretend you’re in The Royal Tenenbaums while you pose with taxidermied tableaux in the Natural History Museum, or stroll museum mile on 5th Avenue. If you’re smart and don’t mind queueing you’ll go when the museums have free entry. But I usually don’t mind paying the entry charge to have more peace and quiet. MoMA is full of must-sees but I’m also a huge fan of the Whitney (American art), the Neue Galerie (German & Austrian art and antiques in an incredible mansion) and the New Museum downtown for cutting edge exhibitions. But the mother of them all is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with everything from ancient Egypt to impressionist masterpieces, suits of armour, a rooftop sculpture garden, musical instruments and fashion throughout the ages in the Costume Institute. It’s heaven, and technically you can pay whatever you like any day (the suggested donation is $20). The Met also has outstanding special exhibitions. The Alexander McQueen retrospective “Savage Beauty” on show last year was painstakingly curated and the most intense museum experience I’ve ever had. So if you need to take cover on a rainy day, or hide out in some air-conditioning during a heatwave, you could do a lot worse than the Met.