New York, New York

New York, New York

A visit to the Big Apple is a crazy, wondrous onslaught. Tess Paterson took her first bite and was hooked from the start

From Midnight Cowboy to Kramer vs Kramer; Seinfeld to Mad About You, first impressions of New York City are mostly informed by film and TV. As a teenager in 1983, I was so smitten with Simon & Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park album that I learned every single word by rote. In the late ’90s it was Spin City, with its fictitious and hilarious NYC mayor, Randall Winston. 30 Rock and Mad Men followed, each giving glimpses into the city’s persona. I was fascinated by doughnut-eating cops and the fact that Bruce Springsteen grew up just an hour from NYC in Freehold, New Jersey. My first-time visit was something to be savoured.

Essential NYC

Midtown Manhattan is as good a starting place as any, and Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street has to be one of the world’s most glorious landmarks. A testament to early 20th-century industrialisation, it’s a mix of beaux-art elegance and gritty transport hub. Some 750 000 people move through here each day, from Armani-clad traders to sunburnt backpackers. I expected, well, a big station. What you get is a vast light-filled concourse with floors of pale Tennessee marble. High above, a sea-green ceiling is etched with zodiacal constellations in gold leaf. Chandeliers glimmer in the voluminous space like colossal Fabergé eggs; flags the size of a Winnebago remind you that you’re in the land of the free. As public spaces go, it’s quite simply a stunner.

Beneath all the grandeur is a bustling food court. There’s everything from sushi at Shiro of Japan, to Jacques Torres artisanal ice cream. If, like me, you’re always ravenous when travelling, try a ’Shroom burger at the Shake Shack. Yes it’s fast food, but it’s properly delicious. I also discovered an exquisite almond croissant at Zaro’s Family Bakery. Together with a small bottle of H₂O, it came to an eye-watering R90. But hey, this is NYC – get used it.

From Grand Central, it’s an easy walk to St Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s a gorgeous bit of gothic architecture that dominated the landscape when it opened its doors in 1879. Now dwarfed by skyscrapers, the ornately carved facade is a striking contrast to all the towering glass and steel. It’s opposite the Rockefeller Centre, and it’s at the Top of the Rock where I get my first real dose of the city’s madness. Until you’ve witnessed the skyline from 70 storeys up, it’s impossible to comprehend the soaring verticality. All around is a vast Legoland of steroid-taking skyscrapers. Central Park is a slim band of green amid the concrete; the Hudson River gleams like pewter beyond. If you’re the competitive type, there are higher viewing points. The One World Trade Center lift will whisk you to the 102nd floor in a staggering 47 seconds.

Head outdoors

NYC is a great city for walking, and Central Park offers a welcome breathing space. I meander across Sheep Meadow, stroll over the iconic Bow Bridge, take photos of the horse-drawn carriages (touristy, but a must-do at least once). Delighted children launch sailboats on the Conservatory Water – all around is green and very pleasant and feels truly like a holiday.

Should you hit it lucky with a warm, dry spell, head to the High Line – an elevated green space that connects the Meatpacking District at Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street. The antithesis of cottagey and curated, it’s constructed on a former railway line. Planting designer Piet Oudolf has worked his inimitable magic, inspired by the self-seeded landscape that emerged in the post-train era. Textural, hardy and ablaze with seasonal colour, it’s a worthwhile stroll of just over 2 km.

Hungry as ever, I detour from the High Line to the Chelsea Market. This upbeat industrial space sells everything from bratwurst and culinary equipment to corn dogs and crêpes, and is also home to the very cool co-operative, Artists & Fleas. I gaze longingly at a gorgeous blouse in Anthropologie, before remembering the exchange rate and settling for a short Americano. The market is best avoided at lunchtime in August, unless you really enjoy being crushed by the passing fray.

Talking of crowds, you can hardly come all this way and not walk across Brooklyn Bridge. A marvel of 19th-century construction, it links Manhattan and Brooklyn above the East River, multi-tasking as a conduit for both pedestrians and cars. I arrive on a sunny Saturday at noon – not the smartest move, as on any given weekend day around 27 000 people will do the same. Be warned, the adjacent narrow cycling lane is filled with speeding, vaguely psychotic bikers. So if you need to overtake a dawdling walker, make sure it’s clear first. Ideally, walk the bridge at sunset when the light is spectacular. Either way, you’ll get a wonderful perspective on the city’s geography.

Another worthwhile outing is a trip on a New York Water Taxi. Hopping aboard at Brooklyn Bridge we cruised past Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty – an excellent photo op for WhatsApp profile pics. As we circled about, speakers blared forth Neil Diamond’s ‘America’. They’re not without a sense of comedy, these New Yorkers. Later I hopped off at Pier 11 and walked to the World Trade Center. The 9/11 Memorial was completed six years ago, yet no amount of googling can convey how enormously poignant this space is. Each square pool is around an acre in size; the constantly flowing water and surrounding swamp white oaks imparting a tangible sense of peace. It’s powerful, heart-rending, and quite unforgettable.

Window shopping

One thing that the movies convey quite accurately is the energy and visual chaos that is NYC. Yellow taxis abound, the Stars and Stripes are on constant, prominent display. There’s non-stop hooting and wailing sirens and I’ve never heard people talk so stridently anywhere else on the planet. Shopping-wise, the extraordinary affluence of the east coast is reflected in some of the most jaw-dropping window displays. At Tiffany & Co’s Fifth Avenue store, I spot an array of deep red, glossy toffee apples. Circling one of the sticks are three diamond and ruby rings – whispering their presence in the way of considerable wealth. Cartier’s shop front is a chic commingling of red, white and blue, with the French, British and American flags billowing in the breeze.

Exploring Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, I felt instantly at home. Rows of top brands such as Intermix, Cynthia Rowley and Orla Kiely are housed in small-scale, intimate stores – far more approachable than the massive flagship outlets. Saying no to a Kate Spade ‘Ma Cherie Antoine’ bag, with its French bulldog design was possibly the most difficult decision of the trip.

I realise, of course, that I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’d still like to eat a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen and go ice-skating on Central Park’s Wollman Rink. I want to return to the Metropolitan Museum of Art again and again. Renowned New Yorker Anthony Bourdain sums up his city this way: ‘…a fantastic, unruly, aggressive, eccentric, hyperactive stew.’ Amen to that.

Photography: gallo/gettyimages, istockphoto

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