Thursday, December 13, 2007

A New York state of mind

In the rivalry between Boston and New York, it was never a contest. I lived in Boston for five years, and it was the first big city I got to know and love. As Carrie Bradshaw says, I'm a bona fide city girl. But New York City was always a mystery. It seemed dangerous and intimidating. I remember seeing "The Out of Towners," with Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as the Ohio couple whose trip to the Big Apple goes horribly wrong, and it left an impression.

I knew that crime was way down and Times Square had been cleaned up and New York is now one of the safest cities in the country, but I was still a little apprehensive before my April trip to see Kevin Spacey on Broadway in "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

Well, with the Red Sox safely in possession of another World Series trophy and three trips to New York City in the past six months under my belt, I can admit this without sounding like a turncoat: there's simply no comparison. I'm not going to switch sports allegiances, and I'm not talking about quality of life or cost of living or job opportunities. But speaking simply as a tourist, given a choice, I'd pick New York City over Boston.

New York completely won me over. It's now my favorite city in the world. I hate to shatter any cherished sterotypes, but New Yorkers are incredibly friendly. When I asked for directions, almost everyone was helpful and gracious. I felt safe everywhere I went. I didn't have any problem navigating the subway. In fact, people went out of their way to be helpful when I was having trouble figuring out how to add money to my subway farecard. I loved every minute of my three trips to the city this year. (With the possible exception of the 45-minute cab ride from Penn Station while the driver tried to find my hotel in Times Square). I can't believe I was ever intimidated or unsure about going by myself.

So, in honor of my appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman," here are my Top 10 things to do in New York City:

1) See a show on Broadway. Sure, there are cities with great things to do during the day. But no other city has as much to do at night, so much entertainment packed into the space of 10 blocks. Broadway has stories and spectacles that will appeal to you no matter what your interest. I've seen more than a dozen plays and musicals, and there's a dozen more I want to see. And there's even more just off Broadway. I was a little nervous about the prospect of walking through Times Square by myself after a show, but I needn't have worried. I felt completely safe and comfortable. It's great to know that I can walk around all day sightseeing, treat myself to a nice dinner, then experience some terrific theater at night before walking back to my hotel. It's my number one thing to do in New York and it's what makes New York my favorite city in the world.

2) Take a long walk. This was my first long walk in Manhattan, and it's my favorite. Start at Macy's, on 34th Street, the world's largest department store. Then make your way up Broadway, past Columbus Circle. Take a short detour to Lincoln Center for a glimpse of the fountain made famous in movies such as "Moonstruck." (If you're hungry, stop at the Whole Foods at Time Warner Center). Then continue along Central Park West to the Museum of Natural History. Along the way, you'll pass the Dakota, John Lennon's last home. Nearby is Strawberry Fields, a memorial to Lennon in Central Park. Cross the park and walk down Fifth Avenue for some window-shopping. Then stop at Rockefeller Center for a bird's-eye view of the city from the Top of the Rock, and head back to Times Square. It's a terrific 5-mile walk through midtown Manhattan.

3) Visit a part of history. It's said that more than 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry through Ellis Island. With the current political debate, there's no better time to visit the place where the American dream began for generations of European immigrants. There's a self-guided audio tour through the Great Hall, where immigrants were processed. While it was obviously an anxious process for millions of people, I was surprised that only 2 percent were denied entrance to the United States. It's a fascinating place. The ferry to Ellis Island stops at the Statue of Liberty. Despite seeing it in countless pictures and movies over the years, I was struck by how beautiful it is up close.

4) Go to Brooklyn, and then come back. I've been to Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx, but I'd never been to Brooklyn, and I've always wanted to go. I've never been crazy about heights, but I really wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, and I'm so glad I did. It was a terrific experience. The walkway is in the middle of the span, above traffic, so I was fine. I took the subway there, then walked back. The view of the Manhattan skyline is breathtaking and the bridge is crowded with walkers and cyclists. It's only a mile each way, but don't rush. Take a leisurely stroll. If you're there alone, people are happy to take your picture, and I took a few pictures of other walkers in return.

5) Stroll through a neighborhood. Times Square is fine, but no one really lives there. I loved venturing out to some other parts of the city. Even going a couple blocks away, to Hell's Kitchen, will give you a different view of the city. I've walked around the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, explored my non-existent roots on the Lower East Side, and sat in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village and thought about what it would have been like to go to NYU.

6) Spend an afternoon at a museum. I love museums, especially on rainy days. Too often, I just race through them so I can cram as much sightseeing into daylight hours as possible. But when it's raining, there's really no incentive to make a mad dash. I spent a great rainy day slowly going through each floor at the Museum of Modern Art, checking out Andy Warhol's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, along with the Picassos and Cezannes and Van Goghs. New York doesn't have my favorite museum in the world - that distinction belongs to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, which is closed for renovations until next summer. And unlike the Smithsonian, New York's museums aren't free. Still, there's a lot to see, and I've only scratched the surface. So far, I've also been to the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My to-do list includes the Whitney, the Museum of the Moving Image, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. I'm sure there are many more I'm leaving out.

7) Be on television. When I went to New York in April, I didn't intend to be on television, but it just worked out that way. I was walking by the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of "The Late Show with David Letterman," when I saw that tickets were available for that afternoon's tapings. The whole process took the better part of an afternoon, and I don't know whether I'd do it again - there are just too many other things to see - but I'm so glad I did it once. It was pretty exciting, and when the camera panned the audience, well, I didn't get a close-up, but if you look quickly, I'm there. Here's information about how to be part of a tv audience.

8) Treat your palate. I love a city where the default bread is rye and the delis have Eastern European Jewish staples that I've heard about but would never dream of eating, like kasha varnishkes. This is New York, be adventurous. Try to avoid the national chains. Eat something ethnic. Get a real, water-boiled bagel, a schmear of cream cheese and lox. Some of my favorites are Peanut Butter & Co., a quirky little restaurant in Greenwich Village; Xing, in Hell's Kitchen, a great place for a pre-theater meal, and for a splurge on some delicious seafood, the Blue Fin, at The W Times Square hotel. I've been there three times by myself and each time, the wait staff has been incredibly kind and attentive.

9) Go to a movie set. New York has been the setting for countless movies and television shows, and it's fun to visit some of those locations. I had lunch at Katz's Deli in the Lower East Side, where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan filmed the orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally." Katz's, a Lower East Side tradition since 1888, is known for its slogan, "Send a salami to your boy in the Army." Someday, I still want to make it to Tom's Restaurant, whose facade is featured in "Seinfeld."

10) Pay your respects at ground zero. The place where the World Trade Center's twin towers once stood is a giant construction site, but it's still a sobering, important place to visit. "Post No Bills" has been stenciled in white around the walkway, and people from all over the world have written messages of support on them. For me, the most emotional part was walking over to the fire station across the street, where there's a memorial to the firefighters who were killed on Sept. 11. I came to ground zero from Ellis Island, and I couldn't help but think how many people descended from immigrants who came through Ellis Island had been killed on that horrific day.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

All sage advice, GV! Nice to see your picks for good eating included (you know how much I like Xing...)!

Esther said...

Thanks Steve!

I think New York should be a culinary experience as well as a sightseeing experience. With a little bit of effort you don't have to settle for a place you could find in any mall or strip shopping center in the United States.

And thanks for recommending Xing. I've had the cod twice, and it's been excellent both times. I thought the prices were very reasonable for New York City, too.

I forgot to mention the delicious whole wheat pancakes at Pershing Square, another one of your favorite places. Of course I loved going to theater hangouts Sardi's and Angus McIndoe's. And totally by accident, I found a great vegan restaurant called Blossom near the Museum of Natural History, where I had a delicious veggie burger.

Ok, I'm getting hungry!

SarahB said...

Baby, there's no place like New York!

Esther said...

You are so right Sarah! Wish I were there right now instead of shoveling snow!