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Even if you’re visiting New York for the first time, you’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this city before. Its images are ubiquitous—in movies and on television, in novels high- and low-brow, in songs, in classic photographs, and on the nightly news. The truth is, each of these facets of New York life contains an element of truth, but what makes the city so intense is that it’s beyond any single cliché—and more than all of them put together. You could spend your whole life exploring New York and never exhaust its riches.
For many tourists, Manhattan is New York City, and, while parts of the outer boroughs are definitely worth exploring, Manhattan is the city’s undisputed heart. New York City is made up of 5 boroughs in total. With Manhattan at the core, New York spreads out from this dense concrete jungle into the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The Bronx is home to the New York City’s zoo and the birth of hip-hop. Queens is one of the more diverse boroughs, with fantastic art, global cuisine, and where you can watch the NY Mets play baseball or tennis at the US Open. Brooklyn is the hippest of the boroughs, featuring the famous Brooklyn Bridge, live music, and Prospect Park. Staten Island, a short ferry ride away from Manhattan, has the most historic parts of the city complimented by gorgeous garden views.
You could spend your whole life exploring New York and never exhaust its riches. As the most densely populated city in the United States, New York City is brimming with culture. Though touristy, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, and Rockfeller Center are always worth the visit. But once you have visited the essentials, don’t forget to venture out a bit further because each neighborhood creates its own unique personality, making them feel like a city of their own.
Though there is no doubt you will stumble upon some gem with any step you take in New York, we have come up with the list of must-sees to make sure you make the most of your time. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
While the food offered in New York is as diverse as its eight million residents, the city is united by a love of eating—and an interest in virtually every kind of food imaginable. The stereotypes associated with distinctive New York City cuisine tend toward the lowbrow. Be sure to start your day with a bagel, perhaps with lox or a “schmear” (that is, of cream cheese). At lunchtime, the streets of Manhattan teem with culinary choices from myriad fast-food carts. A New York City hot dog usually comes doused in ketchup and mustard and loaded with onion, sauerkraut, or chili. Pizza is greasy and thin, and locals often enjoy eating an oversized slize by folding it into a sandwich. Falafels, shawarma, burritos, pretzels, and knishes (Eastern European Jewish dumplings with fillings like mashed potatoes, meat, cheese, or spinach) are just some of the ethnically inflected street-cart delicacies that New Yorkers, from construction workers to investment bankers, line up side-by-side for. If you feel like a snack in the afternoon, try a giant salt-encrusted pretzel or some roasted chestnuts.
In contrast to the democratism of street food, restaurant-going in New York can be elitist. Though the city abounds with restaurants of every stripe, securing a table at a hip new bistro, a sexy sushi bar, or a gastronomic temple can be a blood sport. The level of decadence at the pinnacle of the New York restaurant world soars ever skyward. The menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se looks simple, but dishes like “Macaroni and Cheese” and “Bacon and Eggs” actually include items ranging from expensive caviar to butter-poached lobster which can be garnished with four different kinds of salt. Del Posto, an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, sits patrons’ handbags on specially designed upholstered stools. Power brokers lunching at The Grill Room at the Four Seasons Hotel eat alongside an enormous and invaluable Picasso-designed stage curtain.
But between these two extremes lies an enormous and delicious middle ground waiting to be explored. The city overflows with cafes specializing in brunch, designer bistros, sedate business-oriented dining rooms, and every type of ethnic restaurant you can imagine. The popular website Fresh Direct (www.freshdirect.com) offers next-day delivery of high quality groceries throughout the city, and gourmet grocery stores like Dean and DeLuca in SoHo and Zabar’s on the Upper West Side are a feast for the eyes, even if your wallet can’t afford such a feast for your taste buds.
In the early years of European settlement on Manhattan, the city expanded without planning or regulation. The maze of wooden structures that first grew up on Lower Manhattan left its mark on the irregular street plan still characteristic of the area. For a taste of old New York, visit Saint Paul’s Chapel, and the houses on Charlton St., Vandam St., and in the South Street Seaport area. Be sure to check out Old City Hall as well, built in 1802.
During the Revolutionary War, two large fires burned swaths of the city to the ground. New York hastily rebuilt, but officials realized that greater order would have to be imposed. John Randel’s 1811 Randel Plan required undeveloped portions of Manhattan to be built according to a strict grid pattern—which explains why the cityscape changes so dramatically at 14th St. Between 1820 and 1850, Manhattan’s population quadrupled. To make room for the 843-acre Central Park, conceived as an effort to unite the stately elegance of Europe’s gardens with the democratic populism of America, the city had to drain uptown’s swamps and demolish the shantytowns of poor immigrants and African Americans that sprawled among them. In the 1930s, urban planner Robert Moses became New York’s most powerful official, creating 36 parks, a network of roads and highways to make them accessible to the public, 12 bridges and tunnels (including the enormous Triborough Bridge), Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, and numerous housing projects.
Manhattan’s most memorable feature is its skyline. The modern skyscraper, made possible through the combination of steel-frame construction and the elevator, allowed the city to expand skyward, even when land had long since vanished. In 1889 an 11-story “tower” was called “idiotic”; in 1899, a 30-floor Park Row apartment building became the world’s tallest; and by 1913, the 60-floor Woolworth Building assumed this honor, dubbing itself the “Cathedral of Commerce.” The iconic Flatiron Building, with its triangular shape and limestone-and-terra-cotta facade, rose at Broadway and Fifth Ave. in 1902. The Chrysler Building’s stainless-steel spire, meant to resemble a radiator cap from a Chrysler car, rose in 1930. One year later, the Art Deco Empire State Building began its 42-year reign as the world’s tallest building, a title it held until the World Trade Center was completed in 1973. The Twin Towers were an integral part of the Lower Manhattan skyline until their destruction on 9/11.
New York’s literary history includes such figures as Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, John Updike, and Paul Auster, and the city’s neighborhoods are entwined with the lives of the authors they have hosted and influenced. Henry James (1843-1916) grew up at Washington Square in Greenwich Village, and made it the setting of his novel of the same name. Willa Cather lived at the Square near the turn of the century, and early 20th-century poet Edna St. Vincent Millay also lived nearby. In 1919 the wits of the Round Table—Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Wolcott, and Edna Ferber—adopted the legendary Algonquin Hotel (59 W 44th St.) for their famous weekly meetings. The New Yorker magazine, founded by Harold Ross in 1925, was conceived during these debaucherous luncheons. The African-American artistic renaissance of 1920s Harlem gave birth to such classics as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nella Larsen’s Passing, and the poetry of Langston Hughes.
Columbia University has been an intellectual magnet on the Upper West Side for much of the 20th century. The Beat crowd roved the area in the late 1940s when Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac studied there. Public School #6, also on the Upper West Side, boasts J.D. Salinger as an alumnus. The New York School of poets, including Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, congregated in Greenwich Village. Later, the East Village became a literary center when Ginsberg and Kerouac moved in next to Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones) and W.H. Auden. Around the same time, poet Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern. Many a writer wiled away his or her dying days in relative obscurity at the Chelsea Hotelon 23rd St. between 7th and 8th Ave. Former tenants include Arthur Miller and Vladimir Nabokov.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 by American businessmen. In 1880, it moved to its current location near Central Park. The present facade was completed in 1926. Many of the city’s wealthiest residents donated their private collections to the Met. The museum held its first large show of American art in 1909, but the the city soon needed exhibition space for more modern art. The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929, the Whitney in 1931, and the Guggenheim, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1959. These museums contributed to the promotion of such New York movements as the Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism.
Much of the art enshrined in New York museums was produced by artists working nearby. In the 19th century, Manhattan was home to the Hudson River School, based at the Tenth Street Studio in Greenwich Village. In 1900, famous photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen opened their New York photo gallery. The New York Armory Show of 1913 brought in works Europeans such as Cézanne, Duchamp, Kandinsky, and Picasso. The show nearly caused riots, and went on to inspire more artists. In the 1950s, the Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman, congregated downtown, interacting with the New York School of poets.
New York remains a mecca of artistic creativity today. SoHo’s galleries and studios sprung up after 1971 zoning changes allowed the growing arts community to flourish in lofts south of Houston St. The gentrification of recent years, however, has made SoHo’s loft prices a little too lofty for starving artists. Many galleries have shifted their venues to Chelsea. The most recent community of galleries has sprung up in cheaper Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
New York houses the finest classical music in the US. The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians, is the country’s oldest symphony orchestra. The Metropolitan Opera House, built in 1883, has been stage to the world’s finest, including tenor Enrico Caruso (1903). New Yorkers take their theater very seriously. The Astor Place Riot (May 10, 1849) began when a crowd of some 15,000 people gathered outside the Astor Place Opera House to protest the appearance of the English Shakespearean actor, Charles Macready. The crowd supported Edwin Forrest, an American-born actor. Even then, New Yorkers were sure of their tastes. Broadway—christened “The Great White Way” in 1904 because of its bright moving electric signs—sprang from lowly beginnings as a forum for vaudeville acts to host such American classics as Oklahoma! (1943), West Side Story (1956), My Fair Lady (1958), The Sound of Music (1959), and Hair (1968). But chorus lines were not the only forum for dancers. Martha Graham opened her dance studio in 1926, and the New York City Ballet was founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein in 1948. Today, the School of American Ballet continues to train young hopefuls at Lincoln Center Plaza in a newly renovated space.
The institutionalized arts often took their cue from the street. Long before Benny Goodman played jazz at Carnegie Hall (1938), big band sounds thrived in city clubs. Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem was home to Thelonious Monk and gave rise to bebop, a sophisticated jazz variant. Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others contributed to the sound of the late 1940s and 50s. New York’s most recent contribution to the music scene is the emergence of hip hop. In 1973, Bronx DJ Kool Herc began prolonging songs’ funky drum “break” sections by using two turntables and two copies of the same record, switching and doubling back. Out of the 174th St. area by the Bronx River, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash joined Kool to birth the art of DJing. In 1981, Grandmaster Flash opened for the Clash, epitomizing the fusion characteristic of the New York music scene.
As the undisputed literary capital of the US, New York is where many of the nation’s most important newspapers, magazines, and books are written, published, and subsequently torn to pieces by reviewers. Though the range of daily papers published in New York has shrunk drastically in recent years, the city still hosts some 100 daily and weekly newspapers—small and large, English and foreign-language. The New York Times, nicknamed “the old gray lady” for its sedate restraint, aspires to be the nation’s paper of record, and despite a steady stream of scandals in recent years, it continues to provide sophisticated international, national, and municipal coverage. The paper’s Wednesday “Dining” and “Sunday Styles” sections are trendsetters in the city, and arts coverage throughout the week is extensive. There’s a common joke, though, that, while the brainy New York Times is written for people who think they should run the world, The Wall Street Journal, with its financially focused coverage, is written for the people who actually do run the world. The city’s two major tabloids, theNew York Post and The Daily News are great sources of local color, battling to outdo each other in the size of the headline on their front pages, the gruesomeness of the crimes they describe, and the number of pages they devote to sports. The Post tends to be politically conservative, and its gossip column, “Page Six,” is a salacious record of the lives of the rich and famous. The slim and free Metro newspaper is ubiquitous in the subway.
The Village Voice, available free at many street corners and newsstands, is the country’s largest alternative newspaper. This left-leaning, Greenwich Village-based weekly stages lively political debates, sponsors excellent investigative reporting, and hosts the city’s most intriguing set of personal ads. The real estate and nightlife listings are indispensable. The widely respected New Yorker contains invaluable museum, concert, theater, and movie listings for the tourist.
Myriad ethnic papers cater to the African-American, Chinese, Greek, Hispanic, Indian, Irish, and Korean communities, among others. Highlights include El Diario, a Spanish-language daily; Haitian Times; Irish Echo; and Forward, a Jewish weekly published in English, Russian, and Yiddish.
In the US, good table manners means quiet eating. Loud chewing, talking with food in your mouth, or slurping are seen as rude, and burping or flatulence is not seen as complementary to the chef. Servers at sitdown restaurants usually expect to be tipped 15-20%.
Dress in the US tends to be more modest than in Europe. Toplessness, particularly in women, should be avoided. Many establishments will require a customer to wear a shirt and shoes. The most acceptable forms of public affection are hugging and holding hands; kissing in public will usually draw some glances. Although most cities are tolerant of homosexuality, gay or lesbian couples should be aware that they may receive unwanted attention for public displays of affection, especially in rural areas. Also, note that many American will say “see you later” without really intending to make future plans.
One of the most offensive gestures in the US is extending your middle finger at someone. Known as “giving someone the finger,” this gesture is considered not only rude, but obscene. On the other hand, a “thumbs up” gesture is a sign of approval and a widely recognized signal for hitchhiking.