“We would kindly ask you not to tip our staff. In fact, we will be offended if you do”, read the front of the menu in Restaurant Riki, a fabulous, inexpensive, authentic Japanese sushi and seafood bar on East 45th Street, midtown Manhattan. We at there three times in five days.
“Tip, teep, TIP!” demanded the Chinese manicurist, open hand jabbing angrily towards my handbag. On a rainy afternoon in New York City a manicure and eyebrow trim in downtown Manhattan seemed like a good idea. The prices were reasonable, the manicurist’s demands less so.
New York City is a city of extremes, at every turn.
Stand still and you see every colour, size, shape and peculiarity of tourist, office worker, bar tender, resident, taxi driver, passer-by.
But it’s almost impossible to stand still in the city. Everyone seems to be rushing, or queuing, or eating. Or walking along with huge cups of takeaway coffee.
Buildings are bigger. Streets are wider. Voices are louder. Taxi drivers hate Uber drivers. Uber drivers make the busy streets even busier. Manholes steam. The ground rumbles from the Subway system.
Prices are as high as the buildings. A glass of wine cost $12, a packet of cigarettes $15, a bottle of water $3 or $4 in a drugstore, a hot dog from a street seller around $4.
It is easy to walk around the streets, easy too to use the Subway system. But distances can be great in this 7-mile long city, exacerbated by the throng of taxis and Ubers blocking the roads.
New York City is known as the Big Apple, and so great that Frank Sinatra sung it twice. It is great, a great big man-made metropolis that has to be visited at least once.
Finding the `right’ hotel in the `right’ location is key to a stay in this great city. We were welcomed to the Roger Smith in midtown Manhattan by a brightly lit, cinema style canopy, which led to a reception lined with art and with a huge bowl of shiny red and green apples.
Roger Smith is a rare find in New York City, a family hotel which has been on the site for over 80 years. Its rooms and suites are individually styled and furnished, using an eclectic mix of new and vintage furniture and furnishings. Guests are welcome to take and leave books behind, to grab breakfast of granola, yoghurt and juice and help themselves to the apples. The hotel’s rooftop bar, Henry’s, is a big draw for guests and locals. It feels like someone’s home, an intimate terrace with an open bar and muscly waiters shaking cocktails when it’s fine, umbrellas when it’s not.
Fifth Avenue was a short walk away from the hotel. Here a homeless man lamented the price of cigarettes with us. Strolling around the criss cross of intersecting streets we stumbled across Times Square and Broadway. The Drifters sung about the bright lights, glitter and magic in the air on Broadway but all that happened was a Minion outside the M&M store grabbed hold of me for a Selfie and demanded $5. It was a kind of magic.
The Empire State Building and Grand Central Station are also close to Roger Smith. The former involved lots of walking around to find the `right’ entrance, lots of walking around to find the `right’ elevator, and then we had an uninterrupted view of the mist and rain clouds from the 86th floor. But we can say that we did it and can testify that the world-famous building is a spectacular example of an art deco skyscraper, now dwarfed by so many others.
The best entrance to take into Grand Central Station is through the fresh produce market, a welcome source of fresh bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables in midtown Manhattan. The cathedral like interior of the 1913 station is vast, with 60 shops and 35 places to eat, including an Oyster Bar. And then there are the trains, taking visitors above and below ground to the far extremes of New York City and beyond.
Our train took us down to the financial district of lower Manhattan, passing the stop for Brooklyn Bridge and Wall Street to arrive at Bowling Green where the cruises and ferries for Ellis Island and the Empire State Building embark.
The Manhattan skyline was bathed in mist but out in the Bay, on Liberty Island, the small dot of the U.S.’s symbol of freedom held her torch and her head high.
New York City’s 151’ (46m) high copper statue of `Libertas’, a Roman liberty goddess, was dedicated in 1886 to commemorate U.S. Independence 110 years before and was a gift from the French people. A broken chain lies at her feet, symbolising freedom. We empathised with the sentiment as we queued for tickets, then queued for security and then we queued for the ferry where once afloat, we queued to take turns to take selfies with Libertas.
Savvy travellers note, you are advised to make an online reservation in advance if you want to enter the pedestal or ascend to Libertas’s crown as entry is limited, even if you queue. We did none of these, we stayed on the ferry and returned to dry land, where we queued to take photos of the front and rear end of the 11’ tall (3.4m), 16’ long (4.9m) solid bronze Wall Street Bull.
For a piece of guerrilla art, Wall Street’s charging bull has stood the test of time. He was originally placed in front of the New York City Christmas tree by the artist and the foundry in 1989, to represent the strength and power of the American people. New York City police impounded it the same day, before the authorities granted it a temporary permit to stand on city property at the entrance to Wall Street where he remains today, now almost as popular for tourists as Libertas herself.
For shopping we went to Macy’s and bought Nike’s that won’t be found in European stores for quite some time yet, and to Bloomingdales for their iconic `Little Brown Bags’, at $28 for the small size.
With planning out of the window, we often ate on the hoof, in soup bars, a Burger King opposite Macy’s, a poke bowl and sushi in downtown Manhattan, Thai soups, hot dogs and wraps from street sellers, and late-night snacks of Marguerita pizzas at $1 a slice. Food was good, sometimes pricey, and tips add to the cost at around 20%.
The best part of our stay and a top tip is to find a home from home to return to each day. Our suite in Roger Smith was furnished with style and imagination, but in homely rather than hotel style. We used the compact kitchen in a cupboard for keeping yoghurts, fresh juice and fruit cool, and the hotel as a central and comfortable base for our five days in the city.
Other top tips to be a tourist in New York City:
- Chips are crisps and fries are chips.
- When on the street, walk, don’t stop, or go to one side if you want to dawdle.
- Do masses of online research before travelling, what’s open, when, how long, how much.
- Buy a New York City CityPASS and save 42% off published prices to many attractions*
- Use the subway, it’s easy and fast.
- Carry sanitizer and wipes, touching a subway handrail can be like shaking hands with 10,000 people.
- Plan ahead, before you travel and when you return to the hotel each night.
To book a stay at the Roger Smith hotel visit www.rogersmith.com or call +212 755 1400
For information about New York City visit www.nycgo.com
*Experience NYC’s best attractions and skip most ticket lines with New York City CityPASS. Save 42% on admission to Empire State Building, American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock® Observation Deck OR Guggenheim Museum, and Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island OR Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises, 9/11 Memorial & Museum OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. CityPASS tickets may be purchased online and will be conveniently delivered to your smartphone (tickets may also be printed). Tickets are valid for nine days including the first day of use. More information.