There are taxis and horse-drawn carts.
There are taxis and horse-drawn carts.
Hell's Kitchen is a convenient escape from the hustle and bustle.
Hell's Kitchen is a convenient escape from the hustle and bustle.

Kevin Ritchie

 

New York - The first thing that strikes you about Manhattan is the heat.

But soon it will be freezing, injunctions on the street verges at the bottom of the concrete canyon proclaim every 10m, “Lift Ploughs”, testimony to the chaos that the snow will bring.

But three-quarters through September, it’s hot and sweltering until you pop into offices, hotels or shops where the air conditioning is set lower than walk-in bottle-store beer refrigerators back home.

The second thing you’ll notice is the sheer volume of humanity. Every intersection feels likes the sea of people heading out of the stadium just after the final whistle at an Ellis Park Test. It happens around the clock as Manhattan moves from the influx of office workers in the morning to the exodus in the early evening and the metamorphosis to a cafe society as the city eats out, spreading onto the pavements. Manhattanites head to their apartments to don lycra to run or pedal down the street or leash their dogs for a walk - and then it’s time for the tourists. The best example of this melting pot, where it is estimated 800 different languages are spoken every day, is Times Square.

The third thing is the overwhelming feeling that you’re walking through your own movie set. It’s not your fault, it goes all the way back to King Kong swinging from the top of the Empire State Building, Batman, Bruce Willis and Die Hard all the way through to Carrie Bradshaw and Sex and the City and romcoms such as While You Were Sleeping, You’ve Got Mail and 27 Dresses - to say nothing of the plethora of prime-time New York-specific TV shows like Friends or NYPD Blue.

Up above the skyscrapers, the Rockefeller Centre, with its iconic depression-era picture of 11 construction workers eating their lunch as their legs dangled over the abyss 69 floors below, eclipses the skyline.

Down on the pavements, steam emerges from the labyrinths below just as it did for Marilyn Monroe on Lexington Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets during the filming of The Seven Year Itch.

So where do you start in this city of five boroughs, of which Manhattan is only one (the other four are Queen’s, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx)? It probably depends on your budget, because Manhattan all on its own can keep you busy for a week, without ever covering all the ground. There are taxis, ferries, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles for hire, the subway - or you can just lace up your takkies and head out.

This is a city that is made for walking. For a start, the pavements are broad and there’s a fantastic, iconic green lung, the eponymous Central Park that has probably been the setting for more movies than any other place in the greater New York area, the world even.

There’s plenty of history both within and without the park - Simon and Garfunkel’s free concert, John Lennon’s assassination on Central Park West outside his apartment or our own Nat Nakasa’s 1965 suicide further up the street.

Central Park is topped by Harlem, flanked by Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, which together define the upper-west side and upper-east side respectively and tailed by Midtown and the unforgettable Times Square. Four kilometres up the sides and 800m across, Central Park is a gigantic green lung in one of the most exciting cities in the world; it’s a place to relax, reflect, even to get lost in as locals jog, kids play soccer, lovers meet for assignations and beggars panhandle. When you leave, refreshed, the sun is probably setting, marking the change of pace for this city that never seems to sleep.

Times Square is where the metamorphosis is most noticeable, Broadway - that world-famous theatre district feeds off it; crowds, most tourists turn it into a veritable Tower of Babel as they throng below the tower best known for the dropping of the Big Apple every year at midnight on December 31 or for the unforgettable picture of a joyful sailor kissing a girl in a white dress to celebrate the official end of World War II.

The square is an absolute magnet for tourists, local and foreign.

There are Hollywoodesque performers dressed in Marvel superhero costumes, who will pose with you for a price; there are Disney characters, body-painted topless women and - in one truly macabre scene - a man clad only in a bobble head and an adult nappy, pushing a pram.

There are speakeasies all over; holes-in-the wall cheek-by-jowl with upmarket eateries and - just two blocks on - little pizza joints selling slices for 99c.

And therein lies one of the truths of the Big Apple. Depending on the size of your wallet (or credit card) it can be eye-wateringly expensive or, if you’re prepared to walk on, remarkably affordable.

A very good option is the food court at Grand Central, itself an unforgettable backdrop to too many movies to remember, but also befitting its status as one of the biggest railway stations in the world. If that’s too expensive you can opt for the traditional New York bagel, a schwarma, a kebab or even a hot dog from one of the food carts at street level on the pavements outside.

While you’re at it, you can be entertained by a dance crew in matching tracksuits breakdancing on the road or be serenaded by a flame-haired lass clad in plaid flawlessly piping Flower of Scotland.

That’s New York - you have to see it to believe it.

Independent Traveller

 

Bucket list of things to do while you’re there

9/11 Memorial and Museum

World Trade Center

7am-9pm

Admission free

180 Greenwich St (Lower Manhattan)

The 9/11 Memorial Museum tells the story of that unforgettable day on September 11, 2001 when terrorists flew two hijacked airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It consists of two enormous reflecting pools set in the footprints of the Twin Towers. The name of every victim who died is inscribed in panels surrounding the pools.

 

Times Square

West 40th to West 50th between 6th and 8th Avenues

Surrounded by neon lights, giant billboards, Broadway theatres, electronic ticker tape and TVs, Times Square is the heart of Midtown Manhattan.

It is also home to the TKTS Discount booth where theatre tickets are sold at up to a 50 percent discount.

 

Empire State Building

350 5th Avenue

8am-2am

Admission: $32-$52 (R440-R715)

Completed in 1931, it remains one of New York’s most recognisable skyscrapers. Lit up every night, the building is visible from much of Manhattan.

Viewing decks are on the 86th and 102nd floors for panoramic vistas by day or night.

 

Grand Central Terminal

87 E42nd St

Returned to its 1913 grandeur after a 2-year restoration projection in the late 1990s, it is one of the iconic spots of New York with its art-deco architecture inside and out, bespoke souvenir shop and home to restaurants and pubs for all pockets - as well as being a central transit spot to use the subway to negotiate Manhattan.

 

Rockefeller Center

45 Rockefeller Plaza

Between 5th and 6th Avenues and 49th and 50th Streets

A complex of stores, offices and open space, it’s famous for its annual Christmas tree-lighting and sunken ice rink. It also has an observation deck on the 70th storey, the Top of the rock, or you can tour the NBC Studios, the home of The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, The Office and 30 Rock.

 

St Patrick’s Cathedral

Admission free

Seat of the archbishop of New York, it’s the physical and spiritual centre of New York’s Roman Catholic community.

 

Central Park

Admission free

Between 5th Avenue and Central Park West and 59th and 110th Streets

The largest park in Manhattan, established in 1857, the iconic green lung counts a zoo, an ice rink, a concert venue, restaurants, running paths, open spaces and large bodies of open water among its many attractions.

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Corner 5th Avenue and 82nd Street

Sunday to Thursday 10am-5.30pm

Friday and Saturday 10am-9pm

Two-million works of art from five millennia of human history. Popular permanent exhibitions include the American Wing, Egyptian Art, especially the enormous room devoted to the Temple of Dendur, and Medieval Art.

 

Museum of Modern Art

53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues

Sunday to Thursday and Saturday 10.30am-5.30pm

Friday 10.30am-8pm

At the forefront of contemporary art, the museum also promotes the understanding of modern art and indeed what constitutes art in the first place. It’s an eye- and mind-opening experience.

 

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

8.30am-5pm

Admission $18 (R248)

Perhaps one of New York’s best-known landmarks, a gift from France to the US, Lady Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. Designed by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustav Eiffel (who built Paris’ eponymous tower), the 92m monument bears a torch in one hand and a tablet in the other, bearing the inscription July IV, MDCCLXXVI, the date of the signing of the American declaration of independence in 1776.

Ellis Island was America’s main entry station between 1892 and 1924 (it closed in 1954). Its American Family Immigration History Center contains millions of passenger arrival records. To get to both, you can get the official ferry from Battery in Lower Manhattan, which leaves every 25 minutes.

Adapted from Bloomberg Philanthropies