My kind of place This fast-paced New York borough offers plenty to see, eat and do. It's also a place for designer bargains, says Adriaane Pielou.
Welcome to the high life
Why anywhere else? On a crisp autumn Saturday morning, there's nowhere else I'd rather be than walking across Central Park, takeaway cup of coffee in hand, facing a delectable array of experiences at museums, shops, and restaurants - none more than about 20 minutes away. Even in a recession, no other city feels as fun and as full of life and promise. And there is nowhere on the planet that is more exciting at first glimpse, especially at night, as you come in from JFK, when the lights of the city suddenly become visible.
The most envelopingly blissful bed to sink into - in deep-pile deluxe at about US$700 (Dh2,571) a night - is at the grand, 1930s-era Carlyle, on the Upper East Side. Lovely if you like the romance of an open fire in your bedroom, 1871 House on East 62nd has studios to rent (four nights minimum) at a relatively bargain price of $255 (Dh936) a night (www.1871house.com).
But neither has the buzz of the new hotels that have opened recently downtown. Robert de Niro's dark, cosy, old-fashionedly clubbish Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca (www.thegreenwichhotel.com), where rates range from about $475 (Dh1,745), including taxes, to $1,250 (Dh4,591) and more for the top suites, is the really hot place, but there's also The Bowery, the Ace Hotel on West 29th, the W Times Square, the minimalist Alex on East 45th, Gild Hall near Wall Street, the Jane, Maritime and Standard - all in the hyper-fashionable, cobblestoned Meatpacking District, and the about-to-open Crosby Street hotel in SoHo, the first New York hotel from the owners of the Haymarket Hotel in London.
Five steps will do it: 1) Buy a copy of the New Yorker and a coffee from a diner. Makes you feel an instant local. 2) Dive into the subway, buy yourself a Metro card (good for subways and buses) and get the 4,5 or 6 line - yes, it seems noisy and overwhelming at first but you can do it - to Grand Central Terminal. Have a quick look around the magnificent main concourse before going out onto 42nd Street and getting the M42 Crosstown 42nd Street Pier bus to the Circle Line ferry terminal. Now you know how to use the transport system.
3) Take the two-hour Lower Manhattan Circle Line ferry ride ($30, Dh110; www.circleline42.com), which takes you around the bottom of the 13-mile-by-three island of Manhattan and shows you the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building but omits the dreary bits at the top of the island that you have to sit through on the full, three-hour circumnavigation. This gives you a sense of what's where and how it all fits together.
4) Once off the ferry, cab across to 42nd Street and Times Square, newly pedestrianised, but which still somehow feels like the centre of the world, and then walk across to Fifth Avenue and up Fifth to 58th Street, where you have Bergdorf Goodman, the city's most expensive department store, and The Plaza hotel on one side, the world's biggest toy store, FAO Schwarz, on the other, and Central Park in front of you. Coffee cup discarded, have a quick zip around Bergdorf's, always a good gauge of the mood of the city. 5) Jump into a cab again to shoot up Fifth Avenue, passing the Metropolitan Museum of Art on your left, to the Museum of the City of New York at 103rd (www.mcny.org). Wonderful old photos - and if you haven't already fallen in love with the city, you will here.
Late openings at the museums, which tourists seem not to know about, are a good way of meeting or at least looking at and eavesdropping on New Yorkers. The Metropolitan stays open to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays and always feels extra civilised then, especially in winter, when it's cosily dark.
The Art After Dark events at the Guggenheim on Fifth at 89th Street happen on the first Friday of each month, 9pm to 1am, with cocktails and DJs and the chance to roam around Frank Lloyd Wright's famous gallery space. "It's the hot singles spot for art nerds," confides the 22-year-old daughter of a New Yorker friend. There's no late night at my favourite museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or MoMA (www.moma.org), on Fifth at West 53rd, where the big exhibition this winter is Monet's Water Lilies. But the big treat here is to join one of their private tours, led by one of MoMA's art historians, before the museum opens to the public. It costs $75 (Dh275) for the 9.30am tour on December 20; absolutely worth it.
Hotel restaurants are suddenly the thing again, perhaps because they convey solidity and staying power and are a relatively inexpensive way of experiencing the hot hang-outs. The current look is dark and cosy. Locanda Verde at the Greenwich Hotel (www.locandeverde.nyc.com) is a hugely inviting bookshelved haven with an open wood-burning oven and robust dishes such as My Grandmother's Ravioli ($17; Dh62), and roasted scallops with lentils and apple, ($25; Dh92). The Maritime Hotel's wooden-booth-lined Japanese restaurant Matsuri and Italian La Botega have both become manically lively local hangouts, with a devastatingly delicious menu of Japanese tapas (from about $11; Dh40) at the former (www.themaritimehotel.com). In the same trendy neighbourhood, the much anticipated Abe & Arthur's opens this month (www.abeandarthursrestaurant.com), named after the owners' grandfathers.
Every day, giant delivery lorries collect unsold merchandise from the uptown department stores and lumber downtown to unload Armani, Prada, Gucci and other luxury brands of clothes and accessories at Century 21, a place of discount delirium. You either love Century 21 or despise it (in which case you are either outrageously wealthy or just haven't worked out that it's best trawled early; it's only in the late afternoon that it falls into meltdown madness).
The Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Overcrowded and better seen from a distance. It's good that New York is much safer than it was 20 years ago, thanks to Rudy Guiliani and his eminently copiable zero-tolerance policy on crime, but the downside is that the rest of America now cheerily lumbers into the city at every opportunity and tourist sights have become oppressively er, touristy. Outrageous! Don't they realise this is my city?
Remnants of old New York. The Corner Bistro on West 4th Street, for instance, is one of the last unreconstructed bars in Greenwich Village, open since the 1940s. Or the wood-panelled Campbell Apartment cocktail bar in Grand Central Station, in the 1920s the office of railway tycoon John Campbell (www.hospitalityholdings.com). And diners. There aren't many of the old type left - wood counter, plastic-domed cake stands, red leatherette-topped stools, battered booths, world-weary elderly waitress. One of my best New York experiences was sitting in a diner as snow fell one December afternoon, having tea and cake with a friend and her 70-year-old mother who was reminiscing about working as a student as a cigarette girl with a tray in Times Square clubs in the late 1940s.