Anyone who has not yet visited New York already knows two things; that it is a “Big Apple” and that it was so good they named it twice. After my last visit to New York I think that I may have found the common theme to both these observations – Brooklyn, the vast, varied and comparatively greener borough of the city. While Manhattan is the core of the apple, Brooklyn, once a city in its own right, is the greener coating on the outside and offers a tangible reason for New York being titled more than once.
Staying in Brooklyn’s trendy Park Slope area (one of many gentrified areas to choose from that also include “hipster” Williamsburg and Red Hook) and zipping into town on the dilapidated yet convenient subway system provided the perfect balance for my trip, and it’s no wonder that so many young professionals that I met live there. On the one hand you can thrive on feeling the energy of the vibrant boulevards of Manhattan and on the other hand you can experience a much needed breather while sauntering down the leafy Brownstone streets of Brooklyn where people relax on their stoops and popping to the numerous coffee shops, occasionally fighting for space with the local yummy mummies – like a home from home if you live in Clapham like I do.
Contrast is key to the New York experience. As a Londoner I can sum it up as being somewhere that is just a little-off centre of being familiar, a kind of mild culture shock, different enough to be refreshing but not foreign enough to be completely disorientating. After all how could orientation be a problem in a place where the streets are organised on a grid system?
But don’t let the planning fool you both Brooklyn’s and Manhattan’s neighbourhoods are plenty distinct enough.
Taking Manhattan first, you can wander from the Parisian-style chic of the Upper West Side down through the hustle and bustle of Midtown to the still free-form Greenwich Village and the many trendy and lively districts that stem from it.
Perhaps the best way to start seeing the high spots of Manhattan would be to take this literally and go to the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and take in the leafiest view you will ever see of the city across the treetops of Central Park.
If you are still in the museum state of mind then you are spoilt for choice further up on the east side of the park with The Guggenheim and the Museum of The City of New York which has a permanent theatre exhibition and many other fascinating insights into the city’s life.
If you cross Central Park into the Upper West Side you can walk down to another must-see museum, The American Museum of Natural History and after all that culture you would be well advised to restore yourself at The Popover Café (551 Amsterdam Ave, New York, between 86th and 87th Sts). This is a popular haunt based around the “popover” which is a variation on Yorkshire pudding, a light, hollow egg batter roll that ‘pops’ over the cooking tin when it is cooking.
Whatever refreshment you choose to take you will need to be suitably refreshed for Madison Avenue, Midtown and the Times Square area packed full of stores such as Macys, Bloomingdales and Barney’s to name but a few. Shopping in New York, of course, is made all the more attractive a prospect by the recent favourable exchange rates.
Meanwhile, two great places to duck out of the mayhem of “store central” are the New York Public Library, a beautiful building with comfortable reading rooms, and right next to it the pretty Bryant Park (a superb spot with a somewhat seedy history, and an example of the ailing fortunes of New York on the 70s and 80s) where you will find people reading at park café or checking their email, an easy thing to do in New York as the wi-fi cover is excellent.
For dinner I would heartily recommend wandering into the West Village, where you may well run into people on the Sex in the City tour that stops at the Magnolia Bakery, used in the series. You will want to save the cup cake for dessert especially as there are a multitude of restaurant options in the Village and you could totally spoil yourself for choice if you end up wandering into Soho, Tribeca and Little Italy.
Post-meal entertainment is of course limitless in New York with on and off Broadway theatre offering a huge range of edifying entertainment and for something equally satisfying you could try one of the many comedy clubs from the mainstream Carolines On Broadway to the more indie feel of The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre that programmes mainly improv.
You would, of course, be wise not to pack all the above attractions into one day, though that may feel like the only ways to pack as much as possible in over a long weekend. As well as museums and shops you might want to factor in some of the more obvious attractions such as the Chrysler Building and The Empire State Building and why not wander down to the UN and experience what it is really like to be on international territory rather than just duty free at an airport?
As for forays out of the city this is where Brooklyn comes into its own especially with the chance to visit the seaside at Coney Island and Brighton Beach. Coney Island is undergoing large-scale redevelopment and some of the beachside bars and shops that I visited will sadly not be around for too much longer. It’s another chapter in a roller-coaster past for the area that echoes the mixed fortunes of New York at large.
However, one place that will probably survive is Nathans, the original of the celebrated hot dog restaurant chain that started way back in 1916. I munched on a lunch of classic hot dog and mustard and crinkle cut fries as I walked down the front from Coney Island to Brighton Beach over the very Boardwalk that The Drifters once sang about going under. You can only go over the Boardwalk now but you can see some beautiful buildings from that viewpoint, stroll past people playing handball and immerse yourself in the bustling Russian community that dominates much of the area now.
Brooklyn also offers great cultural highlights such as The Brooklyn Museum that attracts top- notch art exhibitions, and green spaces such as the Botanic Garden and Prospect Park, which is seemingly choc-full of middle-class parents and their offspring playing Little League baseball. It’s a memory from Prospect Park that best sums up the whole New York experience for me, walking through there one day I heard a father say to his kids: “Go, have adventures, discover things!” Cheesy though this may sound to an English ear, it’s also the best advice I can give the New York tourist.