Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A Family Guide to New York

"New York, just like I pictured it...skyscrapers and everything..." So goes the interlude in one of my favourite Stevie Wonder songs, a phrase that encapsulates the sense of wide-eyed wonder that most first time visitors experience to one of the world's most dynamic, unique cities. When I first went, some 20 years ago, the city really was just like I pictured it. Back then - when Sex and the City had exploded on TV screens and everyone wanted a slice of Carrie Bradshaw's impossibly cosmopolitan lifestyle - the New York of my imagination came to life as we wandered the streets of Greenwich Village, sipped on coffees in Dean & Deluca and spent all our wages in Urban Outfitters (this was in the days before the store had outposts across the globe) and Saks Fifth Avenue.

We got manicures at Korean nail bars, took in the art at the Guggenheim and gazed at the chi-chi apartment buildings in the Upper East Side. This was pre-9/11 and we scaled the precipitous towers we'd seen in a million and one movies and photographs. New York was everything I'd imagined, a city shaped in my mind from countless films, from Mean Streets to Falling in Love, Ghostbusters to Annie Hall. But would the city still leave me under its spell almost of a quarter of a century later, and with two kids in tow too? Well, it's New York! How could it not...

If you're thinking at this point, "Really? It wasn't stressful and frenetic and exhausting and just, well, too much, with children?" I have to point out that I wouldn't have undertaken this trip with children younger than my two (15 and 11). We'd specifically waited a few years to do our first long-haul adventure, holding off until we felt that our boys would truly appreciate the experience and that we wouldn't have to cope with jet lag and whining or find that the trip would be exhausting rather than life-enhancing. 

On reflection, we did the right thing; we had no trouble with jet lag, the boys were able to cover huge distances each day and they embraced everything we wanted to share with them, from eating breakfast at quirky Jewish diners to hanging out in Carrie Bradshaw's old neighbourhood. 

When money is an object (as it is in our case) I don't see the point in attempting a longer trip until your children can truly embrace it. In the case of New York, flights, accommodation and eating out can rack up significant costs. New York is a pricey place. We were lucky enough to have a friend to stay with for some of our stay, decamping to an Airbnb in Brooklyn for the remainder. This helped us stay within our budget, though Airbnb bargains in good locations in the city are quite hard to come by. 

I'd really recommend looking outside of central Manhattan - while parts of Brooklyn trade on their hipster credentials and can be just as expensive, when I was researching accommodation it felt like stepping across the water made prices a little more wallet friendly.

We decided to do just one major tourist attraction. As there's so much you can do free of charge in NYC, this didn't feel like a hardship. But if you want to pack in the major sights - skyscrapers, ferries to Liberty Island, a basketball game or a Broadway show - you'll can expect to pay upwards of £100 dollars per family for each experience. We opted to visit the Top of the Rock, an observation deck at the top of the Rockefeller Building. Having scaled the Empire State on my previous trip, I enjoyed this experience more. 

While you can't quite see my favourite skyscraper in full glory - The Chrysler - you do get spectacular panoramas across Manhattan, including an uninterrupted view of the Empire State. I think it's also better if you're not keen on heights; there's more room to hang back at Top of the Rock and, weirdly, the upper platform was fine for me - a vertigo sufferer - as you're not looking directly out against a sheer drop. You can spend as long as you want lapping it all up and there are indoor and outdoor areas where you can gaze across New York's inimitable skyline. Book tickets in advance to secure a time slot that suits you.

It's worth noting that you can easily 'do' lots of other must-see New York icons - the Empire State, Flatiron, Chrysler and Grand Central Terminal are all located in central Manhattan and you don't need to pay to enter these impressive buildings. The lobbies of the Chrysler and Empire State are beautiful spaces, endowed with spectacular Art Deco features, while Grand Central is breathtaking. Younger kids will know it from Madagascar while parents will undoubtedly reference that scene from The Untouchables. 

I always say this when writing about our travel experiences, but I don't think the true joy and authenticity of a place is to be found in the more touristy places; sure, when in NY, you'll want to pop your head into Times Square, stroll down Fifth Avenue and visit Macy's. But we probably had our best moments just absorbing the city's unique atmosphere rather than joining the masses for the more obvious attractions.

Eating donuts in Tompkins Square Gardens, strolling through Chinatown and Little Italy, visiting a lesser known gallery for a wonderful Basquiat exhibition...all of these felt like truly quintessential New York experiences costing us virtually nothing. Another free must-do is the High Line, a brilliant way to experience the city from another perspective. There are lots of interesting examples of modern architecture to look out for as you traverse this disused rail road, including the recent additions of The Shed and The Vessel at Hudson Yards.

Dissecting the interesting Meatpacking and Chelsea neighbourhoods, there's lots of cool stuff in this area, from the foodie heaven of Chelsea Market to the exhibitions at the Whitney Museum. We did a lot of walking around here, taking in the cooler than cool Bowery district and enjoying brunch in the gorgeous surroundings of Freemans.

On the subject of food, this is basically where all our spending money went. Eating as essentially a family of 4 adults made this a significant expense for us - if you want to venture beyond the standard chain burger joints and similar (and really you will want to - New York has a fabulous food scene) you'll find you rack up a pretty hefty bill. 

We had lunch at Eataly a couple of times, a vast food hall dedicated to all things Italian where you can take away slices of pizza or sit at communal tables and enjoy pasta and other dishes. It's a bit like the Harrods food hall but much, much bigger, and there are branches at various locations in the city. A brilliant option for keeping hungry kids topped up. 

Brunch is a must while in New York - it's something they do really well here and it's a good way of making breakfast go further so you can skip lunch when you're out and about. I loved the brunch at Mud Cafe in the East Village - the burritos and pancakes here are insane, as is the coffee (the best I had in NY). For something cheap and very authentic, also in the East Village, try B&H Dairy. 

Sit at the Formica bar and order Jewish specialities and huge pancakes, washed down with endless cups of coffee. It's a no-frills place, rather like Soho's Bar Italia. The kids didn't quite get the pared-back vibe, but I loved it. An impressive selection of bagels can be found at Tompkins Square Bagels with a cream cheese selection to match, while over in Williamsburg, Bedford Avenue is home to Bagelsmith, another great place to fuel up for the day.

Before we headed over to Williamsburg for the second part of our stay, we spent a morning at Central Park (an absolute must-do) and visited the Freedom Tower and memorial to 9/11. Having been up the original World Trade Tower previously, it was at once interesting and incredibly moving to be back at the spot where those iconic buildings once stood. I did wonder if it would feel mawkish coming to see this area, but it doesn't. It's a very respectful place, not least as a tree - the Survivor Tree - found charred but still standing in the wreckage of 9/11, has been replanted in the shadow of the new building, reminding visitors of the city's resilience in the face of such terrible tragedy. 

It's also worth taking a look inside the Oculus while you're here, and then heading towards Wall Street and the beating heart of the world's financial markets. People queue to photograph the Charging Bull while it's a bit easier (and more meaningful, I think) to take a moment to appreciate the steely determination of the Fearless Girl.

You can easily access Battery Park and its ferries over to the Statue of Liberty here (the queues looked pretty off putting, though) or just take a moment in the park to cast your eyes on this indelible symbol of the American Dream. 

You might be wondering where shopping - another NY institution - fitted into all this. In short, it didn't. In today's globalised world where you can get anything online we shocked ourselves (both me and my other half do quite enjoy shopping) by not really being bothered about hitting the department stores or West Village boutiques. I had a browse in Sephora, the boys had their minds blown at Nike Town and we shopped for baseball hats at Lids, but aside from that, shopping just didn't feature. 

My 20s-something self would scarcely have believed it, given that on our previous trip involved lots of cheap Calvin Klein, a trolley dash around Century 21 and a lengthy perusal of Bloomingdales. The rubbish exchange rate and ability to buy most things back home now just didn't spark the desire - instead we came home with sweets from Dylan's Candy Bar (colour-coded candy heaven), a couple of mugs from Fishs Eddy (a brilliantly bonkers homeware store) and a vintage poster from Chelsea Market. 

The savings made on lack of retail therapy helped to justify expensive cocktails at Westlight, a personal highlight of our trip. If you find yourself in Williamsburg you must go here - it offers cocktails with a side order of incredible views across Manhattan. We really enjoyed exploring a different side of New York's persona in Brooklyn. From mooching about in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and crossing that iconic bridge to people watching on super-cool Bedford Avenue, this area has a very different feel to Manhattan. 

There's street art on every corner and amazing cafes, boutiques and bars to explore. It's worth remembering that in the US ID is required when visiting bars and that there's a pretty strict policy regards taking children into drinking establishments. You may find that many don't allow children after 6pm (as was the case with Westlight). 

Furthermore, some of the cooler restaurants might not feel quite so inclusive as similar places in the UK; a great family-friendly option in Brooklyn that we really enjoyed (and felt comfortable eating at) is Sweet Chick.

We ticked off a lot of New York traditions on our 6-day trip, concluding our stay with a wander through the West Village. When we last came, we had coffees in the sunshine on Bleeker Street and it felt like Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte might stroll by at any time. Some 20 years on, we walked past Carrie's fictional Perry Street Brownstone (and yes, people still sit on the stoop to have their picture taken) but New York has changed a lot since the late '90s. It's more expensive and a little more polished than I remember. 

There's still the sense that something is missing on that incredible skyline, even now. I don't think my 20-something self would have imagined that one day I'd be sitting in the middle of a New York Nike store, surrounded by insanely expensive trainers whilst two boys, amazed at the sense of scale of this special city, would look over to their mum and smile because I'd brought them to New York.

It's was a completely different experience coming to New York with children but a brilliant one. In the words of that aforementioned sportswear brand, if you're thinking of planning a family trip to New York yourself, Just Do It...

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