New York City has always been a city of superlatives: largest, tallest, trendiest, best. It's also one of the world's most dynamic places. The skyline seems to be ever-changing, and exciting new restaurants and shops continue to pop up in unexpected neighborhoods. First-time visitors and natives alike will experience variety at every turn.
New York offers more to see and do than you can manage in one visit. You'll find the finest selection of entertainment, museums and restaurants in the world. Some stunning new attractions have opened, and some old favorites have been rebuilt and refurbished like an old Broadway musical. But the New York City skyline is still the awe-inspiring star. Two amazing icons are still mourned, but the Freedom Tower has already taken its place among the city's other world-famous landmarks: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Lincoln Center, the Flatiron Building and the bridges—Brooklyn, Queensboro, Verrazano—to name just a few. Most reassuring of all: The Statue of Liberty is still there, waiting to say hello.
When most people think of New York City, they think of Manhattan, a skinny island about 13 mi/21 km long and just more than 2 mi/4 km across at its widest point. Manhattan is bordered on the west by the Hudson River and on the east by the East River (which is actually a tidal estuary rather than a true river). The Harlem River defines the northern tip, and New York Bay, which leads out to the Atlantic, is at the south end of the island.
New York City includes four other boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx. Brooklyn and Queens are on the western end of Long Island. Only The Bronx (the definite article is part of the official name) is located on the mainland. New Jersey is just across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
Manhattan can be roughly divided into three regions: Downtown is the southern end of the island, including Wall Street; Midtown begins around 31st Street and extends north to the southern end of Central Park (59th Street); Uptown is anywhere farther north. The city is further divided into numerous sections within these regions. Chelsea, Gramercy Park, SoHo, the East and West villages, the Lower East Side, Hell's Kitchen and Harlem are just a few of the famous areas of New York.
Manhattan streets generally follow a simple grid pattern, with a few notoriously confusing exceptions, such as the twisty streets of lower Manhattan, Greenwich Village and the diagonal swath cut by Broadway. Numbered streets (15th Street, 16th Street) run east-west with the numbers increasing as you go north. Numbered avenues (Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue) run north-south with the numbers increasing as you go west. Fifth Avenue is conventionally the dividing line between the East and West sides of the city. This grid system makes getting around quite easy. If you're ever lost, just look for the cross streets, and you will inevitably find your way.
A few avenues with names can cause additional confusion. In Midtown and on the Upper East Side, the avenues east of Fifth are, in order: Madison, Park, Lexington, Third, Second, First, York (north of 60th Street) and East End (north of 79th Street). At Columbus Circle (59th Street) on the Upper West Side, Eighth Avenue becomes Central Park West. West of that you'll find Columbus (it's Ninth Avenue south of there), Amsterdam (10th), Broadway, West End (11th) and Riverside Drive. And south of Houston Street (in SoHo and TriBeCa—"South of Houston" and "Triangle Below Canal"), the numbered streets are replaced by names. This lower part of Manhattan has been known to cause confusion for even the most steadfast New Yorker.
Ships have been crucial to the city's development since Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano landed on Staten Island in 1524. Henry Hudson, an Englishman employed by the Dutch East India Co., was the first European (in 1609) to set foot on the island now known as Manhattan—the Dutch named the place Nieuw Amsterdam. They went on to buy it from the native population at a now infamous bargain-basement price (supposedly worth about US$24 in today's dollars). Rule over the colony changed hands between the Dutch and English three times, until England won final possession in the late 1660s. By 1700, some 7,000 people lived in the city now called New York.
Manhattan played a key role in the American Revolution. It was designated the new country's temporary capital in 1785, and George Washington assumed the presidency there in 1789. The city's excellent natural harbor led to its increasing importance, as it became a commercial shipping center and a major port of entry for immigrants. By 1800, the city's population had swelled to 60,000—more than any other city in the U.S.
The area around Manhattan grew at the same time, of course. With the completion of bridges that spanned the area waterways (the Brooklyn Bridge was the first in 1883), the door was opened for the creation of today's five-borough New York City. The union of Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island in 1898 made it a metropolis—an engine that would lead the continent and the world in such diverse realms as finance, banking, shipping, advertising, art, theater, media, garment and other manufacturing, and, of course, tourism.
Of course, the city has faced its share of adversity. Traffic jams, crime and pollution are all persistent issues, though most New Yorkers will be quick to point out that the city is a good bit safer than it was even 15 years ago—and if you happen to come across a photo of New York subways in the 1970s-80s, today's absence of graffiti will seem like a shock.
The 2001 terrorist attacks caused profound trauma to New York. A memorial at the site—and ones at firehouses and other locations throughout the city—serve to remind families, friends and New Yorkers of the human cost. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy caused considerable destruction across the region, flooding nearly one-fifth of the city and damaging more than 150,000 homes.
The city showed its resiliency and completed more than US$1 billion worth of recovery efforts, and plans are underway to construct extensive levees to secure the city from rising sea levels.
There's more to see in New York City than ever before, and all five of the city's boroughs have things to offer.
Manhattan still reigns supreme in terms of tourist attractions. Beginning at the southern tip of the island, near the financial district and Wall Street, you can hop a free ride on the Staten Island Ferry. The chunky orange boats offer views of the city as well as the Statue of Liberty. Although many tourists simply get right back on the boat for the return trip, Staten Island offers centuries of architecture to admire, great museums, minor-league baseball, lush parks to stroll through and spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline.
You can take a trip to Ellis and Liberty islands for tours of the city's original immigration center and the Statue of Liberty. While downtown, many visitors pay their respects at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum that opened on the 10th anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks.
Also in the area are the venerable Brooklyn Bridge, which enters Downtown on the southeast side of the island, and two striking, if lesser known, sites—the African Burial Ground National Monument and the Irish Hunger Memorial. A little farther north, spend at least one afternoon strolling the streets of SoHo to admire the art galleries and upscale boutiques, or explore Greenwich Village for excellent cafes and restaurants.
East of SoHo and the Village are the East Village and the Lower East Side. Once a first stop for poor immigrants and crammed with crowded tenements, small shops and warehouses, the area is now home to chic restaurants and boutiques and some of the city's coolest nightclubs, bars and music venues.
In Midtown, the heart of the city, pay a visit to Grand Central Terminal (be sure to look up at the magnificent arched ceiling, decorated with images of the constellations of the zodiac). Walk through Rockefeller Center. Join the throngs gawking at the huge neon signs of Times Square (most impressive at night). Great museum choices in Midtown include the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Paley Center.
Uptown you'll find Central Park, where there are green meadows, grand rock formations, lakes, the carousel and the Central Park Wildlife Center (better known as "the Zoo"). Many of the city's best museums flank Central Park, along Fifth Avenue and Central Park West.
Farther north is Harlem, with the historic African American neighborhoods that nurtured the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, as well as walking tours, gospel brunches and several worthwhile museums. At the northern tip of Manhattan is the Cloisters, a building constructed from sections of several European monasteries and containing unique treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval collections.
Across the Harlem River above Manhattan, the city's northernmost borough, The Bronx, has several enclaves worth exploring—including the New York Botanical Garden and the "other" Little Italy—located along Belmont and Arthur avenues just south of Fordham Road. The Yankees earned their nickname "Bronx Bombers" from the venerable Yankee Stadium, "the house that Ruth built," which was replaced by a stadium right next door in 2009.
Brooklyn, across the East River from Downtown, has changed in recent years—some areas have become as popular and chic as Manhattan. Baby boomers in search of more affordable housing moved across the Brooklyn Bridge to the elegant brownstone neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, while younger artists and musicians headed for lofts and rehabbed industrial spaces in Williamsburg and DUMBO ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass"). Williamsburg, especially, has become a bohemian hot spot, boasting some of the city's most interesting up-and-coming art galleries, music venues and boutiques—and neighboring Bushwick, just to the east, is rapidly gentrifying.
The borough is home to the beautiful Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Academy of Music (or BAM), Prospect Park (which houses a small zoo), and the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. Many consider Prospect Park as fine as Central Park—though on a less grand scale. Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed both parks in the 19th century.
North of Brooklyn and just across the East River from Midtown, Queens has neighborhoods full of historic houses, amazing ethnic restaurants and a plethora of intriguing museums, such as P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, the Museum of the Moving Image (a must-see for movie buffs) and The Isamu Noguchi Sculpture Museum. The Mets call Citi Field home, and the U.S. Open is held late every summer at the Arthur Ashe Stadium of the USTA Billy Jean King National Tennis Center.
The city that never sleeps boasts more nightlife than most cities will ever dream of: topflight jazz, reggae, rock 'n' roll, salsa and blues clubs, friendly Irish pubs, neighborhood bars and even clubs that encompass all of the above under one roof. Most stay open and lively on weekends until 4 am, and until 1 or 2 am during the week. It's recommended to call ahead to check that venues are open and operating as usual. And don't forget to include Brooklyn in your planning—much of the city's music scene has shifted there.
Because of the city's ban on indoor smoking, you may see a crowd smoking outdoors in front of the most popular spots.
At fine restaurants in New York City, it's often possible to enjoy the same divine cuisine at lunch as at dinner—for much less money. At the hot spots you've heard or read about, it's advisable to make dinner reservations one or two months in advance, particularly for weekend nights. Many restaurants allow reservations through their websites or through OpenTable for no additional charge.
Some restaurants require you to confirm a reservation a day in advance or they will release it—ask about this when you make the reservation. Other dining spots secure the reservation with a credit card and will charge a fee if you don't show.
Some of New York's most interesting culinary options are low cost—serving everything from Vietnamese sandwiches to Jamaican meat pies. There are abundant opportunities for a good, quick bite at reasonable prices. Nearly every street in Manhattan seems to have either a Greek diner or a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, and many street corners are presided over by pushcart vendors selling hot dogs, chicken kebabs, potato knishes, pretzels and sugary-sweet roasted peanuts.
If you're fortunate enough to travel to New York during Restaurant Week, you'll have the opportunity to sample some of the city's top restaurants, such as Gotham Bar and Grill or Union Square Cafe. Special three-course prix-fixe menus at more than 100 restaurants are offered for US$26 at lunch and US$42 at dinner (plus beverages, tax and gratuities). This is your chance to savor the cuisine of the city's most talented chefs and to experience the quality, variety and hospitality that make New York the best restaurant city in the world.
Restaurant Week is offered two or three times each year for a two-week period (usually late January-early February, and again in mid-July) although some restaurants have extended their prix-fixe option indefinitely. It's advisable to make reservations as soon as Restaurant Week is announced—which is generally one month prior to the event. Visit https://www.nycgo.com/restaurant-week-about for more information.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch and 5-10 pm (or later) for dinner. However, New York is the city that never sleeps. You can always find a place to eat at any hour of the day or night.
Manhattan restaurants are considerably more expensive than those in other U.S. cities. Be prepared to pay almost double your normal price for a meal. Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, excluding drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than US$30; $$ = US$31-$75; $$$ = US$76-$100; $$$$ = more than US$100.
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