In Central Park, outside the Dakota Building, I got chatting to a guy selling John Lennon memorabilia. He ran through a check-list of things every visitor should see in his home city. ‘Get down to Grand Central station,’ he suggested. ‘The restaurant there is superb.’
‘Is it expensive?’ I asked.
He looked at me as if I was mad. ‘Of course, it’s expensive! This is New York.’
Indeed, much as I love this soaring giant of a city, we found it hard to make the money go round. In a Brooklyn restaurant, for example, we paid over $60 for an average bottle of wine. And don’t get me started on the tipping thing. But notwithstanding the cost of accommodation (ouch) and eating out, it is possible to see a lot of New York on a tight budget.
Invest in a Metro Card which, at $33 buys unlimited subway travel for 7 days; and with average single-ride tickets costing $3, it’s worth every dime. The card also includes getting to and from the airport (which usually cost around $50 for a one-way taxi ride) and covers the last leg on the Airtrain to JFK. Seniors (65 or over) get the pass for half price.
The views of Brooklyn bridge across the East River to Lower Manhattan – where the twin towers used to be – are straight out of a movie. This is what we really came to see, I thought, and since we were staying in Brooklyn, we saw it in the morning, at dusk and at night, taking the subway to, say, York Street (on the south side) or City Hall, and crossing the 1600-ft structure on foot. The bridge, by the way, was built in 1883, and was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. Around 4000 people walk the walk every day. On a Sunday afternoon it feels like they are all there at the same time.
The High Line
If you are expecting to see the overgrown ribbon of inner-city wilderness that was famously depicted by Joel Sternfield (see above) in the first edition of his book Walking the High Line, you might be disappointed. Since his photographic essay brought this abandoned elevated railway to world attention in 2003, the High Line – which runs for 1.45 miles along the West side of Manhattan – has been well and truly tamed. Now its hemmed in by housing developments (a swanky apartment block by Zaha Hadid) and billboards inviting you to ‘live by the High Line’. But still, it’s a public park, furnished with artworks and nature (thickets of dogwood, sassafras and bottlebrush buckeye), it’s free and it penetrates bits of NYC you might not otherwise see (the gentrified Meat Packing District or the developing Hudson Yards area). thehighline.org
Happy hours at the museums
If you were to visit all of New York’s museums on full-price tickets, you would soon run short of dollars, but many of the entry fees are ‘discretionary’ (the small print might suggest making an optional donation), and most of the biggies do a free-admission slot once a week. The 9/11 Memorial Museum is free after 5pm on Tuesdays, the Museum of Modern Art (usually $24.50 per person) is free after 4pm on Fridays, the Guggenheim does ‘pay what you will’ after 5pm on Saturdays – and so on. The American Folk Art Museum is one of a number that offer free admission all the time.
Empire State Building
If you want to splash out on one big visitor-centre treat, make it the Empire State Building. At $46 per person, it’s a bit steep, but the 102-storey art deco skyscraper – the tallest in the world when it was completed in 1931 – is a true icon. Lifts whizz you up to the visitor centre on the 80thfloor and on to the open-air observatory on the 86th. The views are unforgettable. Top tip: go at dusk, just as the city begins to light up for the night (see picture). There is a school of thought that says the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre is a. better option (partly because you see the Empire State building). If you want to do both (and a lot more) it’s worth investing in an NYC visitor pass (www.newyorkpass.com). Pricey at $200 but valid for two years and free entry to all the classic New York sights.
Staten Island Ferry
A boat trip for free? Yes please. Basically, it’s a no-frills, commuter ferry service crossing the harbour between Whitehall in Manhattan and the St George Terminal on Staten Island. That said, it’s always crowded with tourists: not only do you get to see the Statue of Liberty – albeit from quite a distance – but it’s also historic. Before the bridges, were built this is how New Yorkers got around; the original steamboat company started in 1817; and the service is one of the last of its kind still in operation. Ferries run every 20 minutes or so, 24/7. The trip takes about 25 minutes each way. siferry.com
Here’s another way of seeing the Brooklyn Bridge: get down below, on the East River waterfront, by the Empire Fulton Ferry. Here, in tiny Brooklyn Bridge Park, is an original 1920s fairground gallopers, featuring 48 horses and two chariots, and all encased in a glass pavilion. Magical and slightly surreal, it’s only $2 a go. janescarousel.com
Hire a bike (Central Park)
Ballpark rates are around $10 an hour per adult, but on a cold winter morning, four of us managed to knock them down to $10 each for two hours, more than enough time to do the 6-mile circuit around Central Park; maybe not quite enough time for frequent stop-offs – the lake, the Conservatory Garden, the Guggenheim or Strawberry Fields’ which honours John Lennon, the Beatle who lived (and died) across the street in the Dakota Apartments. Online bookings are 10% cheaper. Bike Rent NYC
operates from six locations including West 59th Street Central Park and Grand Army Plaza.
Gospel Mass in Harlem.
Most guides will suggest the First Corinthian Baptist Church, but we recommend you go for one of the smaller churches. The First Corinthian was our first port of call, but when we were turned away (it was already full) we crossed the road and found two others – you can literally just wander randomly around Harlem until you find one (though you will have to be seated before the morning mass begins – there are usually two). You will be ushered up to balcony seats with the other tourists, but it’s welcoming, joyously uplifting, utterly authentic and doesn’t cost anything more than a donation to the collection box. Oh, and the jerk chicken we picked up from a Harlem takeaway after the service, was the tastiest, and the cheapest lunch of the whole trip.
Walk the walk
We walked – for miles. Times Square? Overrated. Grand Central Station? Magnificent. The 9/11 Memorial? Humbling. We also did the lobby of the Chrysler Building (the janitor let us peer in); we found the Flat Iron Building without even looking; we marvelled at shop window displays on Fifth Avenue; got chatting to the anti-Trump demonstrators outside Trump Tower. There’s so much to discover in this great city. Need the loo? Good luck with that.
For more info check out the official NYC guide.
Trip tip: Use your local airport
Instead of trekking up to Heathrow or Gatwick, we flew from Bristol via Amsterdam with KLM. There was an hour or so to wait in transit, but it was no more expensive than flying direct from a larger airport (and we saved the cost of getting there – bus, train, car-parking etc). From Bristol, you can also fly with Aer Lingus via Dublin. Other regional airports will offer different options.