Mad for Manhattan
Ocean View’s editor, Zoe Thomas, spends four nights at The Distrikt Hotel in New York, braving the aftermath of snow storm Juno to visit some of the city’s most indulgent bakeries, famous diners and colossal skyscrapers…
“Flights from JFK International have been grounded as the biggest storm in New York’s history continues to batter the East coast” is not what you want to hear 24 hours before you’re due to fly into JKF airport. Miraculously, the gale-force winds died down, three feet of snow cleared and after an eight hour flight, our Norwegian dreamliner landed safely and soundly in the ‘city that never sleeps’. Except, apparently it did sleep. As our tiny old cab driver accelerated fearlessly through the icy streets of Manhattan, hardly a soul was to be seen. Shops were closed, bars empty and, quite incredibly – Times Square was dark. Broadway was out of action for the first time since Hurricane Sandy.
The Distrikt Hotel is just around the corner from Times Square, on W42 street between a pizza place and the Port Authority bus station. It’s tall and narrow, squeezed onto the side of a large building. We were relieved to step into the warm lobby, which was classically Manhattan with a retro twist – lots of dark woods, pale walls, leather trimmings and contemporary light instalments. If you want a room with a city view, you’ll have to pay slightly more for the privilege – but it’s worth it. We were 19 floors up, about halfway to the top, with a view right across midtown to the river.
“I always tell people to split the map into three parts – uptown, midtown and downtown,” the receptionist advised us after a welcome (and extremely comfortable) sleep in the room’s king-sized bed. The idea of venturing into NYC for the first time in our lives was naturally daunting, so we took the receptionist’s advice and set about planning our tour of midtown over breakfast.
The Distrikt Hotel’s Collage Bistro is windowless and a little uninspiring. You can choose from a number of breakfast options ($13-$16 exc. tax and tips), from the continental buffet (cereals, oatmeal, pastries, bagels, cold meats, eggs and cheese), to the outrageously American banana-nut french toast (brioche dipped in egg batter, lightly fried and topped with sliced bananas and warm Nutella drizzle, served with fruit garnish, maple syrup and applewood smoked bacon or chicken apple sausage).
You can explore the whole of midtown on foot straight from the hotel. We set out west, past Times Square towards the Empire State Building: our first tourist stop for the trip.
Big tip: don’t get swept away by the ticket touts outside the building. We were charmed into buying a ticket for $60, which included the Sky Ride, observation deck and a 60 minute cruise around the Statue of Liberty – but we were told this was the only way to get to the top of the Empire State Building. If you’re not super keen to be taken on a virtual roller-coaster tour around Manhattan with Kevin Bacon (a very bizarre cinema experience with moving seats), then go straight to the counter and buy a Main Deck Only ticket for $29 ($23 for children). Even better, avoid lengthy queues for the lifts by opting for the Express Ticket. We stood inline for about 40 minutes and the city had only been out of hibernation for 12 hours. There is a museum on the 80th floor with information on how the Empire State Building was constructed, but by this stage you will probably be desperate to get out and see the incredible view (we were), so I recommend you stop off on your way back down. And don’t forget to visit the gift shop, where you can get your hands on glittery pink Empire State Building cafetieres and other classy souvenirs.
Empire State Building Facts
- 103 floors, 1,250 feet tall.
- Designed by architect William Lamb.
- 3,400 construction workers built it.
- Completed in 410 days and officially opened on May 1, 1931.
- It was the tallest building in the world until 1972, when it was surpassed by the twin towers.
- An annual race takes place where athletes climb 1,576 steps to the 86th floor.
- 4 million people visit the Empire State every year.
One thing all visits to New York must include is a pizza slice. Luckily, half the city is descended from Italians, so there’s an independent pizza take-away on practically every block. We stumbled into a gem of a place on E 41st St, just off Lexington Avenue, called Previti Pizza. It was satisfyingly ‘New York’, with Nirvana playing on the big screen, Buds in the refrigerators and locals perched on bar stools reading the New York Post. We bought two super-sized slices of cheese pizza and a can of Coke for $5 and found a window seat perfect for people-watching.
All cheesed-out, we continued East towards Grand Central and the iconic Art Deco Chrysler Building – both unmissable stop-offs on your midtown tour. Also worth a visit is the enigmatically named Tudor City, on the eastern edge of the equally enigmatically-named Turtle Bay. We visited purely for the names but a little research showed that this place has an interesting heritage as the world’s first residential skyscraper complex. Before the tall, neo-gothic high rises were built, this area was a slum known as Goat Hill (it was allegedly home to a lot of wandering goats due to nearby slaughterhouses). In the 1920s, a property developer called Fred F. French took his concept of an urban utopia, a ‘human residential enclave’ complete with ‘tulip gardens, small golf courses and private parks’ to the area, creating Tudor City. Although just minutes from the bustle of midtown, it felt to us like a town of its own: noticeably older, incredibly quiet, with untouched snow covering the family SUVs that lined the roads. If you’re looking for a place to escape and get a taste of the ‘old’ New York, this is it.
Our grand plans of tasting Broadways vibrant nightlife were postponed by a quick nap that turned into a 12 hour, jet-lag induced coma. The next morning, we walked two minutes to the metro station and went Downtown, to the World Trade Centre.
One WTC is colossal. Like a giant mirrored finger pointing out of Manhattan, it can be seen from miles around. It stands today as the Western Hemisphere’s tallest building at 104-storeys. There’s a strange feeling around this part of town. The memory of the 911 attacks are still fresh in the minds of New Yorkers, and today two huge recessed pools mark the original footprints of the Twin Towers, embedded in a plaza peppered with swamp white oak trees. The names of those who died are inscribed on the parapets surrounding the memorials.
It is an eerie place to stand. It feels strange to visit a museum about a tragedy that happened just 14 years ago, but the National September 11 Memorial & Museum attracts millions of curious tourists every year. In it you can see parts of the original structure, including the steel pillars that were hit directly by the plane, twisted unrecognisably with the immense force of the impact. You can also see mug-shots of nearly every person who died, and remnants of those lost lives in the form of driving licenses, mobile phones and items of clothing found in the rubble. Visiting the museum was a moving experience, but 911 was a defining moment in New York’s history – and as tragic as it is, it’s important for visitors to understand it.
Lunch in Downtown Manhattan was busy. Here the suited and booted office workers of Wall Street swarm into sandwich shops, cafes and pizza places, and between 12-1pm you’ll find yourself battling through the crowds in most places. By chance we happened upon the bustling Amish Market in Tribeca, a quirky grocery store with a salad bar and communal seating area. This is a top spot for listening into conversations and getting a taste of everyday life in the city. The salad bar was amazing, with hot choices like baked yams (sweet potatoes), pasta dishes and grilled peppers as well as an impressive variety of salads.
In the afternoon we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge – which turned out to be the highlight of the whole trip. Looking back at the huge skyscrapers that dominate Downtown offers a new sense of perspective. It’s refreshing to be away from the relentless traffic and crowded streets, to feel normal-sized again.
Central Park in the snow is unforgettable. Beautiful at all times of year, the park takes on an other-worldly feel in the depths of winter. We took the metro from the hotel to 86th street and followed the running track around the frozen lake. Apart from two brave joggers, we were completely alone. Our destination for the morning was the Museum of the City of New York, located East of the park. We’ve all got our ideas about what New York is, but we wanted to peak under the surface – to see how it all began and the things it’s been through beyond that infamous day in September 2001.
Once you’ve paid the initial $14 fee, you can access all of the museum’s exhibitions, which change routinely. Don’t miss the ongoing 22 minute documentary, Timescapes, which traces the development of the city from its early days as a settlement of a few hundred Europeans, Africans and native Americans, to its present-day status as one of the world’s most iconic cities.
For quite possibly the best cupcake you will ever try, head east to Magnolia’s in the West Village. Cupcake choices include caramel (buttery, rich with meringue buttercream), peanut butter and jelly, red velvet and vanilla chocolate. You can also buy fresh brownies, chunky cookies and occasion cakes. Sex And The City fans should definitely put Magnolia’s on their visit list, as this cupcake shop starred in one episode and is now credited with starting the cupcake craze.
If you’re spending the evening in West Village, head over to Cozy’s Soup & Burger. No, it’s not fine dining. It’s not going to win a Michelin star anytime soon. It’s a classic all-American diner, complete with plastic booths, laminate menus and a wall of fame featuring Adam Sandler and Justin Bieber. But the food is delicious: everything you could want from a diner, and the staff are very friendly.
New York has so much to offer. Each district has a distinct personality – they’re micro cities. It’s worth setting off in any direction, without a plan or a map, and simply seeing what you stumble into. There is a sense of opportunity, a feeling that anything could happen. No two stays in New York are ever the same.