Why go - It’s still one of the most vibrant, interesting cities in the world
Why not go - Hotel rooms are small or expensive – or both
You have to go to New York. Sure, it's expensive, although not exorbitantly so if you plan your visit right. And like all big cities, it can be crowded and a hassle. But without question, New York is a one of the World's great cities, not just in reputation but in actual fact. (As one reader once said about Shakespeare “Everyone said he was great, but he really was great!”)
Generally speaking, New York is a much kinder and gentler place than it was when we first started visiting. Crime in most areas is way down, and there is not the air of paranoia that used to grip tourists who had heard all the stories about bad old New York. A New Yorker might ask to borrow your phone, even while they can tell you clearly look like an out of towner. A Japanese tourist might ask for you to take their picture; there is not so much the fear of interaction there once was. Some people might say they miss the grit and sleaze of old Times Square, but these are generally people who have never been traumatized by a mugging.
We despise Mayor Bloomberg, one of the most arrogant men on earth, who has basically used his huge wealth to try to remake the city as a nanny state in his own image, like outlawing large soft drinks, as well as smoking. Having said that, the city is more pedestrian friendly, and it's pretty cool to see the bikers and runners take over Park Avenue on the weekends. Tourism has grown quite a bit in New York City, because it’s generally a nice place to visit. However, the rise in tourism is itself a problem, as one of the main attractions of New York has always been that it’s a real, working city, with a vibrant local culture, unlike say, a place like Venice Italy, which is completely tourist oriented. There are certain areas, like midtown along 5th avenue, where the tourists wildly outnumber the locals, but other areas much less so.
New Yorkers, or at least those living in Manhattan, used to have a reputation as being sophisticated, both in appearance and otherwise. Generally, New Yorkers have succumbed to the casual disease which has overtaken America and much of the rest of the world, but they are still better dressed than in most cities. Of course, these days, that is not saying too much, but if you look into one of the fancy cafes on the upper east side on a weekend at lunch time, you’ll still see entire families that have that distinct well heeled upper east side look. And downtown you’ll see the hipsters sporting whatever the uniform of the day might be. There’s a lot of talk about the resurgence of men’s fashion in the US, and lots of stores selling interesting men’s clothing, but, still you’ll see very few really well dressed men even in trendy areas of New York.
We’ve been on something like 17 or 18 separate trips to New York, maybe more. So we know our way around the city. But like all dynamic places, it’s constantly changing. Traditionally, Manhattan has been the place to be, with the outer boroughs receiving very little tourist attention, or any attention at all for that matter, despite the fact that most New Yorkers don’t live or work in Manhattan. Lately that has all changed, as Brooklyn, and specifically the Williamsburg and Park Slope areas of Brooklyn, have become super hyped. Allegedly, the cool new restaurants are in Brooklyn, and all the creative types – writers and artists, have moved to take advantage of Brooklyn’s lower rents. Like all hype, there is some grain of truth to this; rents used to be lower in Brooklyn, many cool restaurants and shops have been opened there, and many creative types have moved there – which to a large extent accounts for the volume of articles about Brooklyn, as its so convenient to write about the place you live.
But the hype is overblown, and the real place to live or visit in New York right now is the lower east side, which has an amazing selection of restaurants, bars and clothing shops. See our article about Prince and Orchard Streets in particular in the Coolest Streets essay. In addition to being the heart of cool, the lower east side also offers easy proximity to other locations. Just walk or bike across the Williamsburg bridge to get to Brooklyn, or go the opposite direction for quick trip by cab or train to midtown or, a little further up, Central Park. Soho is a (fairly easy) walk, and Chinatown is right next door.
While New York can be an expensive place, it’s also possible to find bargains, to a large extent dictated by the small size of New York apartments, especially in places like the lower east side. Most people don’t have decent kitchens, which fosters an amazing number of restaurants at both high and lower ends of the spectrum. (Okay, truth be told, most of the locals have no intention of cooking in any event, but lack of kitchen is a good excuse). Unlike most places in America, most of the older apartments have no washer or dryer, which sounds like a drag until you realize you can go to a Laundromat in China town or the lower east side and have someone do your laundry for you for 65 cents a pound, or maybe $6, and nicely folded. All you have to do is drop it off and pick it up.
Ultimately, what makes a place interesting is interesting people. The best places to go are the places, like the lower east side, that attract young entrepreneurs who are willing to throw all their creative energy into a small restaurant or a tiny new line of clothing. This is really what distinguishes areas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the lower east side from, say, midtown. The latter is a great stroll. You can stay at one of the huge famous establishment hotels like the Waldorf Astoria or the Palace and stroll up Madison or 5th Avenue; this is certainly worth doing, and you’ll see every fashion brand that ever heard of or seen advertised in a glossy magazine. All varieties of Armani, Ralph Lauren, or Gucci; the flagship store of Cartier on 5th Avenue. Even the discount chains like H&M and Uniqlo have flagships on 5th that are worth a visit. There is probably no better place to window shop, or to buy if you’re loaded and like famous brands, then 5th Avenue and Madison in midtown. But if you want to find the unique and the new, you need to head downtown or to Brooklyn. One thing you’ll notice in these areas that hasn’t changed too much, surprisingly, is that despite the endless laws, taxes, and anti-smoking propaganda, New York’s young and hip are still lighting up.
Chelsea is another famous, hip neighborhood and is probably the contemporary art capitol of the US, perhaps the world right now, but that, strangely enough, does not mean it is a good place to see art, unless you are an insider with insider access. The galleries are hard to find, often difficult to access, and hardly worth the trouble. The gallerists generally have absolutely no interest in dealing with tourists or, actually, anyone they don’t know. The best reason to visit Chelsea is to walk the high line park, which shows what can be done with derelict real estate with a lot of creativity and a few determined and visionary people; urban renovation at it’s best.
A Sunny Spring Sunday in New York's Central Park