In New York, for every downside there’s an upside. For example, there's constant noise, but everything is available around the clock. Although the city traffic never moves, there are wonderful walking routes everywhere, and while the prices are steep, there’s plenty to do for free. Here are the places to see, and be seen in, for those who are ready to find them

 

Symbols of Downtown

The southern part of Manhattan is home to a number of different worlds crammed into a relatively tight space. The first is the Financial District, the world of money, whose spirit is unbroken despite the crises and terrorists. Getting lost among the cold glass facades brought to my mind the lines from a song "Skyscrapers everywhere, and I feel so small." After the destruction of the World Trade Center, a new building, One World Trade Center, was constructed, housing the highest observation platform in the city. The site of the former symbol of New York is now a memorial, a solemn masterpiece by the architect Michael Arad, in the form of squares reaching into the ground bearing the names of the dead. The second part of the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum complex is the museum, which is partly located in the foundations of the twin towers, and has a collection of over 11 thousand artifacts from the tragedy.

A stone's throw from the lair of the Wolves of Wall Street is the mysterious, but far more colorful world of Chinatown. The faces of the passers-by, the exotic smells coming from the restaurant kitchens and signs bearing Chinese characters speak for themselves. Chinatown is expanding and, slowly but surely, it is putting the squeeze on neighboring Little Italy. The "old homeland" has only a few cafes remaining, which serve gelato and cannoli – just as good as you’d find in Sicily, only more expensive. In the search for more spiritual nourishment, you only need to cross the Bowery, which marks the boundary of Little Italy. At the New Museum of Contemporary Art, which looks a little like a stack of boxes placed carelessly on top of each other, you’ll find contemporary art exhibitions. 

Soho, Tribeca, the East Village, Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side – these neiborhoods represent the world of bohemia. Abandoned shops and warehouses dating back to the industrial revolution were overrun by artists who turned them into their workshops. These days, at every corner you’ll find hipster cafes, art galleries and designer furniture stores. Each district has its own quirks: Soho is famous for its unusual cast iron facades, the Lower East Side – for its graffiti.

Restaurants

  • The Odeon, styled after the Parisian cafe La Coupole, was opened in the 1980s in Tribeca, a desolate area that was full of abandoned warehouses and dying on its feet. Due to its unfortunate location, the restaurant almost went under. It was only saved by one of its regulars, John Belushi, who got drunk there, danced on the tables, threw food at the other diners and, in general, amused himself as much as he could. Word of the actor's antics soon spread via the local newspapers and the place became a hit overnight. The Odeon is still beloved by New York artists and gallery owners.
  • Polo Bar A swanky restaurant by the fashion designer Ralph Lauren and the ideal place to impress business partners or gawp at celebrities. It serves American cuisine: burgers, steaks, salads. There's a strict dress code (men must be suited up). The prices are surprisingly affordable, but good luck getting a table.
  • Russian Tea Room This establishment is set in the neighborhood of Carnegie Hall. Madonna used to work here in the cloakroom. The historic restaurant, which opened in 1927, is worth popping in for dinner before a concert, if for nothing else than to marvel at the kitschy interior a la russe. For Russians with an attack of nostalgia there is a business lunch with borsch.
  • Cafe China The most fashionable Chinese eatery in the city. It has a Michelin star and can be found outside of Chinatown. The interior is shabby and the cuisine is spicy Sichuan. The waiters don't accept tips.
  • abcV A super-popular vegetarian cafe with a very original range of dishes and an impressive menu of fresh juices and smoothies.

Midtown lights

This area, stretching from 14th Street to Central Park, also has its fair share of skyscrapers, but in Midtown they don't feel quite so imposing as they do on Wall Street, because the lower floors are teeming with life – fast food joints, cheap clothing stores, twenty-four-hour pharmacies where you can buy food, cosmetics and even washing powder alongside your medicine. The lookout platforms of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center are magnets for the tourists. The views from the top are as impressive as the queues and ticket prices to get in. There are, however, vantage points where you can get a view of New York's hustle and bustle for free by visiting one of the rooftop bars, for example the 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar. 

The leisurely tourists come to a standstill in Times Square, mesmerized by the flashing ads displayed on the giant screens. The locals only come here on business – to pick up a discount ticket to a Broadway musical at the TKTS box office. (For fans of serious theater, in the kiosk there is a separate window called Play Express which has a much smaller queue). Those looking to loaf around a little prefer Bryant Park, where in the summer office clerks spend their lunch breaks reclining on the lawn chairs, and in winter a free skating rink and Christmas market open up. And all this happens right under the windows of the Public Library, where the entrance won’t cost you a dime, and once inside you can admire the rich interiors from the turn of the 19th century and view rare manuscripts without needing to sign up for a reader’s ticket. 

Art lovers can follow the elevated High Line. This abandoned branch of the above-ground railway was overgrown with grass and trees before the locals got the idea to turn it into a public garden. It starts from the Whitney Museum with its excellent collection of contemporary art and runs right through Chelsea, where private art galleries are packed like sardines in each building, including such illustrious establishments as Gagosian and Zwirner. 

You can view the stars of the international art scene, like Kiefer and Rauschenberg, for free because, after all, every masterpiece is up for sale. (Find out where everything is on display at chelseagallerymap.com). For New York’s pedestrians, the High Line serves as a kind of city express all year round, allowing you to cross half of Midtown without losing even a minute at the traffic lights.

Christmas Markets

  • The very European Columbus Circle Holiday Market in the south-western corner of Central Park, gives New Yorkers a taste of how Christmas in Germany and Scandinavia is celebrated. 
  • The Union Square Holiday Market in Union Square offers a wide selection of handmade products from American craftsmen who have still somehow managed to survive despite stiff competition from the mega-corporations and Chinese imports. 
  • Grand Central Market is organized in the historic building of the Central Station, an Art Deco monument. Most importantly, it’s warm here and you can enjoy the festive atmosphere without fear of exposure to the wind, rain or snow.

The art of Central Park

57th Street has become one of the most prestigious addresses in the entire city, thanks to Carnegie Hall. When Andrew Carnegie opened the concert hall on what was back then outskirts of the city, everyone thought he was a madman. They said that no one would go there. Remember, this was back in the day before the metro existed and the hall was way out from the city center. Touring European celebrities helped to promote the venue. Now, only the most expensive hotels and shops can be found on 57th street, and despite the Metropolitan Opera Company moving to the neighboring Lincoln Center, it has maintained its glory. 

The part of Fifth Avenue, which runs along the park, isn't called the museum mile for nothing. The concentration of cultural treasures reaches its peak on this stretch of the street and its surroundings. The Guggenheim Museum, the Frick Collection with its magnificent horde of old masters and the Neue Galerie (Austrian and German art). The Armory exhibition hall not only holds various expositions (some of which are free to enter by the way), but also hosts evening performances, sometimes outstanding ones.

The only building in the park itself is the Metropolitan Museum, where you can view stunning collections gathered from all four corners of the globe ranging from antiquities to modern fashion. The roof of the museum offers an excellent view of the park and the skyscrapers of Midtown. The abundance of exhibits in this area has a simple explanation: the Upper East Side adjoining the park was the location of choice for the city’s millionaires of the 19th century. It was they who assembled the collections that eventually gave rise to the museums. The public here is still a little fancy – even the dogs on their morning walkies in the park have a somewhat well-groomed and snobbish air about them. 

Central Park is 4 km long and just 800 m wide, but thanks to the cleverly laid paths it seems to go on forever. In summer, there are often free concerts, the Delacorte Theater has Shakespeare in the open air – and the show goes on whatever the weather. Tickets are free, but you'll need to stand in line on the day of the performance. Some of the tickets are up for grabs in an online lottery through the TodayTix app.

For one cent

  • In many museums in New York, the ticket price isn’t fixed, and the hefty amount displayed at the ticket office ($18-25) is only a guideline. Check out the small print to be sure: "Be as generous as you can", "Suggested fee", "Pay what you wish." 
  • Some places will open their doors for free just one evening a week: at the Frick Collection it’s on Wednesdays, the New Museum on Thursdays and in the Whitney on Fridays. The longest line on Friday evening is outside the door of the MoMA, where they let people in free of charge. 

The outer limits of Brooklyn and Queens

It's worth checking out of Manhattan for a while to see for yourself that the majestic panorama that you’ve seen on TV and in the cinema really exists. On board the free Staten Island ferries running from Battery Park to Staten Island, you can admire the Statue of Liberty and the skyscrapers rising above the water. The view is just as good from the Brooklyn Bridge, where above a perpetual traffic jam there is a second tier for pedestrians and cyclists. There’s an above-ground subway outside of Manhattan where you might find yourself staring so hard through the window that you accidentally ride through Brooklyn all the way to Brighton Beach. Spend a little time strolling along the boardwalk by the beach, it’s full of restaurants, some of them have Russian-sounding names like Volna and Tatiana Grill. 

They take dips in the water here whatever the weather – at least the emigrants do. The locals go a little further on to Far Rockaway. The promenade leads to Coney Island and to an ancient amusement park, immortalized by O. Henry; it looks just like every other amusement park the world over. Every year on January 1 a club for local ice swimmers arranges a massive New Year swim here.

Brooklyn’s newest attraction is the Bushwick Collective, a street art gallery, based on the colorful murals of Wynwood in Miami. All the street art here was painted legally and has the consent of the building owners. The art doesn't hang around forever though, every year the walls are repainted. There are around 50 compositions of varying quality to see. It's competition is the Welling Court Mural Project in Queens, located, unlike other similar projects, not on industrial backyards, but in the very center of the residential quarter. The graffiti artists don't decorate warehouses and garages, but instead spray the walls of ordinary two-story townhouses. The art is comparable with that on display in Brooklyn, and the atmosphere is much more pleasant. Another lure of Queens is a branch of MoMA PS1, where avant-garde and experimental exhibitions are held.

Transport

  • AirTrain JFK will take you from JFK Airport to Jamaica and Howard Beach metro stations for $7.75, taking 50 or 60 minutes respectively. The journey to Manhattan by subway and train takes about an hour.
  • Uber You can call a taxi in New York without a local SIM card as there is Wi-Fi everywhere. The cheapest tariff is UberPool, where several passengers travel in one car, if their routes coincide at least partly.
  • Buses mostly run across the island (from east to west and vice versa), the subway runs from north to south. Delays happen on the lines, and the routes change on the weekends. A single trip on the subway costs $ 2.75, while an an unlimited subway and bus pass for a week costs $32. 
 

Published on: September 25, 2018

Text: Ekaterina Wagner