Americans do Christmas right – and a White Christmas in New York is the fairy-tale festive holiday. We spent a whimsical week discovering Manhattan and got exactly what we wished for.
As Manhattan slips into view, so does the Empire State Building and its brightly illuminated spire. I turn to my wife and put on my best impression of Frank Sinatra’s low baritone and sing “New York, New York”. It’s no exaggeration that we are both giddy with excitement to explore the Empire City of fashionistas, yellow cabs, and cream cheese bagels.
It’s impossible to walk a block in The City That Never Sleeps without making a brand-new discovery. And like New Yorkers themselves, every square inch has its own unique story to share. When doing homework for our Yankee Christmas break, we learnt that New York has many faces and we had to be selective about which of these we wanted to see. Because like the rest of the 55 million tourists that visit the island each year, we can’t get much more than a taste of what Lady Liberty has to offer. Our efforts are focused in the city’s birthplace of Manhattan. After all, it’s the core of the Big Apple, and home to many of the city’s most celebrated attractions.
The New York City Subway connecting the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, is a convenient way to get around. Navigating the 468 stations can be stressful at peak times – numbers, letters, shapes and colours all differentiate the 36 lines. Once masters of the underground, the city’s logical layout on terra firma – avenues north to south, streets west to east – makes commuting easy.
One last thing about the underground: New Yorkers are very friendly and accommodating people, but we soon learn not to test their patience on the subway. After all, they are likely commuting for work while we gallivant around on holiday. Fair enough.
Walk on the right, pass left. Keep moving, and don’t look behind you. When exiting a busy train, say ‘excuse me’ and push – or miss your stop. These are the unspoken rules of the underground.
Obey, or get the stink eye.
I realise that all the landmarks which immediately sprang to mind when I had imagined New York prior to visiting were in Midtown – the NYC of pretty postcards. The district is an ideal first stop for any newbie because of the must-see attractions. It’s the world’s largest business district (retail rentals soar above $30 000/m2) but it’s not all white-collar – there’s plenty of fun to be had here too.
Arriving in Midtown by rail, we are met with the wonder of Grand Central Station’s celestial vaulted ceiling. We try out the ‘whispering gallery’ under the station’s archways on the way down to the concourse. Standing at opposite ends of the underpass facing the wall, we can hear one another talking clearly over the noise of the busy station. It’s a nifty trick of physics.
We make our first Midtown stop the New York Public Library, where a regal pair of marble lions called Patience and Fortitude guard the building’s impressive facade. The library’s carefully curated revolving exhibitions are trumped only by its early twentieth-century Beaux-Arts architecture. Opulence is under-selling the Rose Main Reading Room, where an ingeniously designed ‘book train’ conveyor system connects its literary resources with the Milstein Research Stacks underground.
From the library, we are just a short walk to the high-end shopping district of Fifth Avenue. Our December visit – amidst the gently falling snow – is in time to see the colourfully embellished department store windows which bring Christmas to life for even the most miserable of Grinches.
At the Rockefeller Centre we meet throngs of tourists and a barricade of selfie-sticks, but end up being grateful for stopping by. On the plaza there are as many as fourteen original Art Deco buildings steeped in history and an ice-skating rink built right beneath New York’s biggest Christmas tree. Before leaving we take the elevator up 70 floors to the observation deck for views which rival even those from the Empire State Building.
With its mesmerising lights and unashamed mass-marketing, Times Square – for love or hate – takes us right in, as we rubberneck our way around one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections. We take good advice and buy our Broadway show tickets from the TKTS booth on the square far more affordable than anywhere else. After some belly-aching laughs watching Avenue Q, we drop in at one of Broadway’s many swanky bars and regret not keeping a closer eye on the tab.
Lower (Downtown) Manhattan
No New York neighbourhood is historically more significant than Lower Manhattan – also the financial district. It was here that the city first began and where many defining moments in US history transpired. Some structures we see downtown went up when New York was still a British colony, and the contrast between old and new becomes apparent while walking its streets lined with skyscrapers tall enough to induce vertigo from below.
The face of American politics changed forever on September 11, 2001 – and our visit to the 9/11 memorial in remembrance of those who lost their lives is humbling.
Surrounded by a plaza planted with hundreds of white oak trees, two large reflecting pools stand in place of the Twin Towers. Inscribed on bronze panels around the glorious water features are the names of the 3000 deceased.
Immigrants flooding into the US seeking economic opportunity led to the creation of places like New York’s Chinatown. Fast-speaking locals smoke furiously on sidewalks over intense games of Mahjong in this neighbourhood unrivalled for personality. Its heaving sidewalks spill over with markets selling everything from bubble tea, to fresh fish, spices, herbs, and New York Yankees caps. We enjoy a non-traditional Christmas Day lunch at a busy restaurant just off famous Doyers Street, where the authentic dumplings and pork buns are more than worth our wrestle for a table.
Crossing the iconic Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for new arrivals in New York. An inspiration for painters, poets and writers, this steel-wire masterpiece of architecture links Brooklyn to Manhattan over the East River. Suspended between the two boroughs, commuters like ourselves are afforded magnificent cityscapes, but for the most idyllic view of the bridge itself we take a look from adjacent Manhattan Bridge – and it’s postcard-perfect.
Hopping on the Staten Island Ferry gives us yet another fresh perspective of Manhattan, but we make the rookie error of leaving the terminal on the other side. The island – New York’s southernmost borough – has some attractions, loosely speaking, which include a zoo, children’s museum and art gallery. But we kick ourselves for not turning around.
Central Park feels like a film set – and of course it is, as scenes from some of our favourite Hollywood movies were shot here. Another joy of wintery Manhattan is watching bundled-up children ice-skate across the frozen lakes and reservoir. We also pose for photographs with characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, visit the Strawberry Fields living memorial dedicated to John Lennon, and stroll along the picturesque Ramble and Lake.
On the park’s western border we find the American Museum of Natural History, where beautifully curated dioramic displays of plant and animal species pay homage to the rich diversity of the natural world. Just across Central Park (technically the East Side) we visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, housing a fascinating collection of artworks and artefacts dating from prehistory to present, and from every corner of the globe.
Our best night out is spent bar-hopping in the hip and fashionable West Village, which happens to be the first permanent address of music legend Bob Dylan. Its quaint streets – some still cobblestoned – are lined with Federal-style townhouses, jazz clubs, piano bars, cabarets and theatres. It’s easy to see how ‘The Village’ is the preferred residence of the city’s artists and has become the bohemian capital of New York.
It is with some degree of regret, but understandable, that we don’t see nearly enough of Manhattan – never mind New York – during our stay. Had the mercury risen anywhere above freezing, we would have loved to experience sights like the Highline – a public park built on an old freight rail line elevated above Manhattan’s West Side.
Uptown and the East Side are districts of Manhattan that time constraints never allowed us to explore fully. For now, these areas are visages of New York that will have to remain a mystery to us – that is, of course, until we visit again.
Museum of the Moving Image – Astoria, Queens
An incredible find outside of Manhattan, this 3-storey modern museum is dedicated to film history, techniques, costume and design. Visitors can lay down sound effects and music to famous movie scenes, or create their own stop motion animation at interactive installations. Another highlight is the permanent Jim Henson exhibition which lets you delve into the mind of the creative genius behind The Muppets.
Story by Simon Capstick-Dale