Amy Langfield of NewYorkology.com, a blog about NYC activities and event-listings, answered your questions on New York City.
Amy Langfield: Hi, I'm Amy Langfield and I've signed on to answer some of your questions about NYC. In case you don't know, New York keeps shattering its record-tourism numbers—about 46 million people visited NYC in 2007—but there are still far too few hotel beds. So while crime is also at a record low, you're still likely to feel robbed when it comes to the hotel bill.
One key thing you need to know is that you're supposed to walk to the right, preferably a little faster than you're used to. And when you stop to gawk, which is perfectly acceptable, please just step to the side so the 45 million don't bump into you.
On to the Qs....
Lebanon, Ind.: My adult son and I are registered as contestants in the Crossword Puzzle Tournament to be held at the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott, February 29-March 2, 2008. We will fly into LaGuardia on the evening of February 28, and have reserved a room at that hotel. Since the tournament activities will not begin until 8:00 p.m. on the 29th, we will have most of that day free. Neither of us has experienced NYC. Can you outline a city tour that will include some of the "must see" sites? —Joe
Amy Langfield: Hi, Lebanon. The tournament sounds like great fun. The Brooklyn Bridge Marriott is conveniently close to the Brooklyn Borough Hall (and Jay Street) subway lines, which gives you plenty of easy options to get to Manhattan. However, you're also a short walk to the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an easy—and awesome—way to arrive in Manhattan. Just be sure to stay out of the bike lane while walking the bridge. On the Manhattan side, you come out near City Hall and if you like you can turn south and walk to Wall Street, Federal Hall, the New York Stock Exchange and Ground Zero. Conversely, at the base of the bridge you can take a subway to the Upper East Side and work your way back down. There's the Met Museum and Central Park, working back down Fifth Avenue you'll pass The Plaza hotel (still closed for renovations,) hit Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral, and down to the main branch of the NY Public Library for a walk through the main reading room. From there, swing over to Times Square and have a look around. You can take a subway directly back to Borough Hall from there—or hop on the S subway shuttle that goes directly to Grand Central Terminal. After having a look around there, take the 4 or 5 subway to Borough Hall.
During the tournament, if you have time to sneak out for food, you can walk down toward the base of the Brooklyn Bridge for pizza at Grimaldi's, or for snacks, hit up the nearby Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory or Jacques Torres chocolate shop. In addition to the knockout views of the bridges and Manhattan, you get a severe dose of history with the old warehouses and plaques detailing the waterfront's important role in the battle of Brooklyn. (Not a good day for Gen. George Washington.) In the nearby park between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, there's actually a wee bit of East River sandy beach.
Also by the time you get here, Harlem's much-loved Amy Ruth's should have already opened its new location in the space formerly occupied by the historic Gage & Tollner restaurant which kindly left its gaslamps behind in the restaurant. It's just a short walk from your hotel, just across from the A/C/F trains at Jay Street/Borough Hall.
New York: Funky place to have brunch or lunch before heading to the MET? We are staying in midtown Manhattan.
Amy Langfield: Picnic! Head over to Whole Foods market at the Time Warner Center and grab an assortment of prepared foods to go. Take the escalators up to grab a few extra sweets from the counter at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery. That done, walk across the street and you're in Central Park, where there's always space to be fund to picnic on the grass, on a bench or rock outcropping. From there, walk through the park to the Met.
Cape Elizabeth, Maine: What would you say is the best high quality hotel in NYC for the price?
Amy Langfield: I've been hearing consistently good reports on the Ritz-Carlton, Battery Park. It's on the water near the southern tip of Manhattan and has great views of the harbor, as well as a new spa. Check their specials and packages for better rates.
New York, N.Y.: What suggestions do you have for activities with 2 six-year-olds in NY from March 3-16? We have tickets to 2 Broadway plays for the evenings of March 13 and 14. Looking for day-time suggestions.
Amy Langfield: Hi, Elaine. If you're taking the kids to Broadway both nights, my main concern is that you don't want to wear them out too much during the day. That said, I'd definitely head up to the American Museum of Natural History one morning and let them see the dinosaurs and all the other kid- (and adult-) friendly offerings. (Be aware that their basement cafeteria is far from soothing when crowded, so an early (or late) lunch there is advisable.) When they start getting stir-crazy, merely walk out the front door of the museum, across the street, and they're in Central Park. Take a short path and there are some great rocks to climb on, useful for burning up loads of crazy kid energy.
On the other day, I'd consider the Toys R Us in Times Square, FAO Schwarz at the southeast corner of Central Park, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry or a walk across Brooklyn Bridge. For skyscrapers, I'd pick Top of the Rock over the Empire State Building unless you can convince them it's worth the longer line in order to get to the top of the tallest building in the city. And if they're patient enough to do a second museum, do the Met Museum and get the free kids guide. Since you're trying to cram in a lot, I'd suggest making a bee-line for five or six kid-pleasers and head out, such as the Temple of Dendur and the enormous painting of "George Washington Crossing the Delaware." And if you're going to just make a quick walk through, you can go completely guilt-free by ignoring their "suggested admission" and pay less—as little as a penny per person. Actually, you could pay a penny and stay all day, but they don't really advertise that.
And in case you are taking the kids to Broadway (or even if you aren't) do whatever you can to avoid needing the restrooms at intermission. The lines are long seemingly before the curtain hits the floor of the stage.
Charleston, S.C.: Where is a great hotel in the heart of NYC for a young German couple to take their parents also. They are traveling in Feb and need a great rate.
Amy Langfield: Hotels are always tough. In September, BudgetTravel.com had Charlie Suisman of Manhattan User's Guide answer questions as the Trip Coach and he suggested a few good options including The Pod Hotel. You may also try your luck with the Hampton Inn at the South Street Seaport, the Holiday Inn Express in Park Slope Brooklyn or the Hotel QT just off Times Square, though its lobby pool parties hardly makes this an ideal family-friendly option. Also you may want to keep an eye on new hotels, which tend to have lower rates during their soft-open phase. However, I strongly discourage against booking into a hotel that hopes to open in time for your arrival. For every new hotel that opens its doors on schedule, there are 10 that end up with six months of delays.
While a lot of people think they're going to save money by staying at a cheaper hotel in New Jersey or out by the airports, plenty of them find they make up the difference and then some by blowing it on a cab once a twice a day rather than spend yet another hour on the PATH train/bus/subway from the outer boroughs.
In general, you can expect to pay $200 to $300 for a typical NY hotel room. And if you find a $99 a night deal, hit the Internet and see if the shared bathroom is down the hall, if it's in the right state or if it's twice been voted the dirtiest hotel in the country.
Bellingham, Wash.: My boyfriend & I are planning our first trip to New York April 7 through 11, 2008. We would love some economical recommendations for accommodations in the city. A must see & do list for us first timers would be so helpful as well. Thanks so much! —Michelle
Amy Langfield: Hi, Michelle. Again, the Pod Hotel or Hotel QT might be a good choice for you guys.
If this is your first trip to NYC and you have a few days, I definitely recommend the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty trip. My key bit of advice is to book this online ahead of time, choosing the first boat of the day and most importantly—click the box for the free monument pass. It's the only way you can get into the statue's museum, see up into the statue itself and see the "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...." Poem.
Additionally, if you want to go up to the top of the Empire State Building, when you buy your ticket, tell them you want to spend the extra $15 to get the pass for the 102nd floor. The masses go to the 86th deck, blissfully unaware they could have gone higher. Also, you may want to invest in the fast pass here, which let's you skip much of the absurd lines. But if you truly hate lines, head over to the Top of the Rock at the top of Rockefeller Center, as their timed-ticketing system will whisk you in and out, and give you a heads-and-shoulders view of the Empire State Building.
For couples, there's a great semi-secret thing to do down in Grand Central. Find the Oyster Bar and then stand under the wide archway. You and your boyfriend should then walk to diagonal corners and each get your nose deep into your respective corners. Then start in with the sweet nothings—but just in a whisper. The design of the archway "telegraphs" your voice across the wide arch so that only your significant other can hear you.
Ice skating in Central Park or at Rock Center is always fun, and if you want to splurge, you can take a private before or after-hours tours of the Museum of Modern Art.
Chicago, Ill.: We're meeting our 18-year-old college student in NYC over President's Day Weekend. Problem: she's a true vegetarian. Other than old standby Anjelica's Kitchen, are there any other legitimate vegetarian restaurants in the city? Doesn't need to be vegan. Thanks! —Lisa
Amy Langfield: There are tons of options. We just had a fantastic meal at Red Bamboo in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Have a look at the Super Vegan guide for NYC. I'm also a big fan of OpenTable.com, which lets you make restaurant reservations online, for free. Just plug in your dates, number in your party, preferred time and select vegetarian (or Italian, Chinese, German, etc.) and it lets you know which restaurants have availability at those times.
Australia: Hi, my husband and myself—both seniors—are planning to travel from Boston to New York on June 8. We are considering train? What station does the train arrive at? We have 3 nights prior to our flight from JFK airport at 18:00 on the 11th of June. Where could we visit in our 3 days? Also how do we find information on Broadway shows and costs? Accommodation is expensive, booking now in the city. What would be a good area to stay in both central and out of town to save on costs? Or maybe we could wait and book a last-minute hotel? Any web sites would be helpful. I have been told there are volunteer hosts who are available to show visitors around—is that so? Any other information would be welcome.
Amy Langfield: Hi, Australia! Hopefully I've already provided you enough hotel and NY basics above to get you going, but let me tackle a few of your other ones. Amtrak will bring you into NYC's Penn Station. If you're booking the tickets through Amtrak.com, be sure to check their hot deals page for two-for-one tickets and other promotions. Another good option from Boston is the LimoLiner luxury bus.
As for Broadway shows, Playbill.com has a full list of all the current Broadway and Off-Broadway shows along with a summary of plots, cast and location. The easiest way to get cheap tickets is to head to the TKTS booth just off Times Square and check the list of tickets available at discount, many half-price. See TKTS online to see what's been available lately.
The free volunteer guide service you're thinking of is Big Apple Greeter which you should request in advance. But there are a number of other free walking tours every week, including ones offered by the Central Parks Conservancy, the NYC Urban Rangers, and a number of the business improvement districts such as around Ground Central, Wall Street and Union Square.
Cleveland, Ohio: We have taken our kids to NYC before and hit all the tourist attractions. What are some little known destinations for kids outside of Dillon's Candy Store and the Children's Museum that you don't read about in the guides and the magazines?
Amy Langfield: Cleveland, rock 'n' roll. Not knowing what your kids are into, let me take a shot at a wide range of things that might appeal. The Natural History Museum (mentioned above) and its Rose Center for Earth and Space always have rotating exhibitions and programs, so it's not really the kind of place you can see once and cross off your list for life. (The same goes for the Met Museum, the Bronx Zoo and most of the other museums and galleries.)
Since you mention Dylan's Candy Shop, I should point you to two newer ones, directly across the street from each other on the north end of Times Square: Hershey's and the M&M superstores. The new Papabubble candy shop has also been getting lots of good buzz.
In the past couple of years there's been a new scene of teen rock bands playing gigs at bars and clubs—often on weekend afternoons. If that appeals, also check out the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls.
Also look at some of the neighborhoods in the outer boroughs. This past weekend we took my stepson out to Brighton Beach and he was amazed to see all the signs in Cyrillic and to listen to all the native Russian speakers. He had a ball, and bought a T-Shirt that claimed it was "made in Russia."
Pella, Iowa: What is the cheapest route of transportation from the New Jersey airport to downtown Manhattan? Thanks for your response.
Fairfax, Va.: I am heading to New York City for 2 nights in a few weeks. What restaurant would you recommend that I absolutely eat at without breaking the bank? I love food. Thanks.
Amy Langfield: Food lover, let me introduce you to the absurd world of online food pornographers specializing in New York City. You probably know about the stand-by food guides like Zagat, Gayot and Michelin, as well as the reviews in the major print pubs such as the New York Times and New York magazine. But to dive in head first, check out the food blogs and chat boards. Some of my favorites are Eater.com, Slice.com, Grub Street, Chowhound—and the very efficient Midtown Lunch.
Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada: I am going to visit NYC in September this year with friends. I have been there before but it's been a long time. We'd like to stay in a neighborhood with restaurants and shops in walking distance...a neighborhood with NYers living in it. Which area do you suggest?
Amy Langfield: Hi, Susan. You might want to immerse yourself in the rapidly changing Lower East Side by staying at the Blue Moon Hotel, which was an immigrant tenement building until not too long ago. The neighborhood is steeped in history, shopping, restaurants and bars. The new and old chafes hard here.
Waco, Tex.: I will be traveling in NYC 5/8-5/11 before departing on a cruise. I am traveling with a total of 6 people—from my 15-month-old son to my elderly grandfather who tires out easily. This is my first trip to NYC. We are flying into LGA. What's the best way to get from the airport to a hotel near Times Square? Any good advice for where to stay to be close to the regular tourist sites without breaking the bank completely? I found a tour company—The LimoTour—that will take us on a 4-hour tour of the city on Friday morning for $320 including tips, tolls, taxes, etc. That seems like a good price, but how can I make sure I'm dealing with a reputable place? I can't find any reviews for them. Thanks!
Amy Langfield: Hi, Waco. Another tough one. Normally I'd say to count on a lot of cab rides to make it easier on your granddad, but you can't cram 6 (or even 5 and a half) info a cab, and hailing two at once isn't always easy.
Since I don't know anything about the Limo Tour, I'd be more inclined to stick with the double-decker bus-type tours. Since this sounds like a special family trip, you may want to book a Photo Trek tour, in which a professional photographer is your guide—and photographer.
As for other things you can do that won't tire your grandfather, the Yankees have a homestand against Cleveland while you're here, including one afternoon game. You could do one of the harbor cruises—Circle Line's Zephyr is particularly nice—or even the free Staten Island Ferry.
Central Park might be a good option, including the zoo, as there are places to sit while a youngin' can roam. And maybe even the revolving restaurant atop the Marriott Marquis Times Square. You'll get a 360 in just an hour.
Annandale, Va.: Where did "Big Apple" come from?
Amy Langfield: There is no shortage of definitive, incorrect answers to that one. The book Naming New York by Sanna Feirstein says it could be a jazz term—or from a New Orleans horse track. Take your pick.
New York, N.Y.: Can you recommend a laid back sort of bar with a great view of New York City to take out of town friends to?
Amy Langfield: If the weather works, I'd hit one of the rooftop bars, such as 230 Fifth. White Horse Tavern in the West Village gets you a slower, street-vibe, but very laid back in a classic New York Bar with a room dedicated to too-frequent guest Dylan Thomas.
Austin, Tex.: Hello, my daughter (19-years-old) is going to NYC with two girlfriends on March 7. I would really appreciate if you can tell us anything that could be useful for them, like which area to stay in that is safe (we were planning close to Times Square so they are close to attractions and theaters), what to do in 5 days, and mainly how to enjoy NYC without spending too much money! Thank you! —Ida
Amy Langfield: Hi, Austin. Crime shouldn't be a problem just about anywhere in Manhattan. She may just want to avoid the late-night clubs at closing time when some fights have spilled out onto the sidewalks as of late. Though if your daughter is anything like I was at 19, I'm sure she'd never ever go near a club where they serve alcohol and boys prowl for scantily-clad girls. So don't worry on that count.
As for the not spending too much money, almost all of the museums have free hours each week. Many/most Broadway shows and cultural events have student rush, cheap-seats lotteries or standing-room tickets available. Lots of the city's iconic sights are free—Central Park, the Staten Island Ferry, Times Square, Bryant Park, walking the bridges and the subway's only $2. Oh, and book signings are often overlooked, but they're free and a legit way to get face-time with celebrities. Also, if you want to hit a few "splurge"-type restaurants, do it at lunch rather than dinner.
Oacoma, S.D.: What time of the year is best to visit NYC without all the crowds, but not freezing weather either? Also, for a first-timer in NYC with 5 days, what are some "must-see" activities you'd recommend?
Amy Langfield: You should do OK in April or May with the weather. August feels empty-ish as the New Yorkers head off to the beaches to avoid the heat (but there will still be lots of tourists, in, you know, the tourist spots). September tends to be one of the best months of the year because school vacations are over, everyone's back from the beach and getting down to business. The museums are opening with new exhibitions and the air loses that stench and picks up the first hint of crisp. However, the mood of the city understandably remains melancholy the first half of the month around the September 11 anniversary.
I've discussed a number of the top attractions in the earlier questions, so I won't rehash here—except to caution that you're not gonna see all the "must-sees" in one trip, and if you try you probably won't have a lot of fun. NY is indeed a great city for walking, meandering and spontaneity. Yeah, you've probably got to set foot in Times Square and Central Park but beyond that one of the best way to do it is to have a short list of things that sound fun and then sorta go with the flow and know what you might be able to group together in specific neighborhoods.
Personally, I love Top of the Rock, the Met, MoMA, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge and Ellis Island. And maybe a little shopping in NoLiTa, a drink under the Old King Cole Mural at the St. Regis and a bag of three-for-$1 wedding cookies from City Bakery. But don't let anyone tell you your New York is any less than the next guy's. New York is a lot of things to a lot of people—and it's a whole lot of fun waking up every day finding out what more it has to offer.
Amy Langfield: And maybe that's a good way to wrap this chat up—on this fine February day when the city is celebrating the NY Giants Super Bowl championship with a ticker tape parade through the Canyon of Heroes. Never mind that they actually play in New Jersey, it's about the New York state of mind today, and hopefully that's where you all are if you've stuck with me this long. Thanks again for the great questions and taking part in this chat. If you want to see more of what I do, check out the NewYorkology Travel blog at Newyorkology.com. Cheers!