And on our first family visit to NYC in 2005 we certainly did that. We’ve been back twice since then for a couple of weeks each time. The most recent two week visit included meeting up and spending five days with our gorgeous English exchange student Britannia and her parents.
When I think over the three visits, some of the most memorable experiences were not those ‘big-ticket tourist items’, they were (in some cases) quieter, unexpected delights. So below is a list of the 10 memorable New York City experiences that have stuck with me, and bring a smile to my face whenever I remember them.
1. FAO Schwarz opening ceremony
FAO Schwarz, 767 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022, Ph: +1 212-644-9400
FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in the United States, opened by some immigrant German brothers in 1856. Nowadays it is owned by the Toys R Us group, but fortunately it has retained its own identify and culture. Most people who don’t instantly recognize the name, nod with recognition when you tell them its the store where Tom Hanks danced on the giant floor piano in the movie Big.
Anyway, the 5th Avenue flagship store is great with an incredible range of quality toys, dolls and games, but the part that is particularly memorable for us is the opening ceremony which we stumbled upon in December 2008. It involved toy soldiers rolling out red carpet and a trumpeted announcement that the store was open. I think that ceremony was only done on weekend mornings. (See this YouTube clip.)
Recently we were there for a regular weekday opening time. The toy soldiers still opened the doors with a flourish (sans red carpet and trumpets) and similar to the 2008 experience, all the staff lined the entry to clap and cheer the customers in. It’s all very rah-rah, but what an uplifting way to start the day!
My tip? Head straight up the escalator to the Big piano and you’ll be first in line to dance on it. Most people get distracted by all the incredible soft toys on the ground floor and take their time getting up there.
2. Pizza on the terrace
The Benjamin Hotel, 125 East 50th Street, New York, NY 10022. Ph: +1212 715 2500
While The Britannia Entourage was in NYC, we all stayed The Benjamin Hotel, a gorgeous boutique hotel in an Emery Roth-designed building on the corner of 50th Street and Lexington. Each family stayed in a Terrace Suite, which are relatively unique as far as New York hotels go, because they have (as the name suggests) a private outdoor terrace. In our case, the terrace was right on the corner of the building with fabulous views up and down Lexington and across 50th Street.
On a warm spring day, after a full morning of formal-dress shopping with Queenie and Britannia (a whole other story…) the Britannia and Fairlie Entourages, plus a New York friend, all converged back onto our terrace for pizzas and liquid refreshments.
HUGE New York pizzas.
With the bustle of the city going on below and around us, we soaked up the sun, devoured the pizza, had a fashion parade of all the girls’ purchases, and enjoyed each other’s company.
And this experience shot straight to the top of everyone’s ‘holiday highlights’ list.
Sometimes you can’t plan the holiday magic, it just happens.
3. The Strand Bookstore
The Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway (cnr 12th St and Broadway), Manhattan, NY 10003-4805 ph: +1 212 473 1452
Spending time in any bookshop is as close to utopia as I can get. The Strand Bookstore in the East Village takes utopia, pumps it full of steroids and blasts it into another universe. This shop boasts 18 miles of books over three floors – over 2 million titles in total.
I spent a lovely hour or so, perusing the shelves. In addition to all the new books, there’s also a section where you can buy or rent books by the foot. Perfect for when you want an instant library (say, for staging a home for sale, or for a photo shoot or a set design) – everything from antique leather-bound volumes through to biographies or cookbooks.
Then, up on the top floor is the Rare Books Room, a light and airy wood-floored room lined from floor to ceiling with shelves containing an array of one-of-a-kind literary works —proofs, first editions, signed and inscribed books and papers.
4. Cycling around Central Park
Central Park Sightseeing. 56 W 56th St, New York, NY, 10019 Ph: +1 212 247 4859
On previous visits to NYC we’ve spent quite a bit of time in Central Park. Walking through it on sweltering July days, taking a horse and carriage ride around it (just like in the movies), and even (because it seemed like a good idea at the time) trudging the whole way across the park after a fresh snow fall. So on the most recent visit, we decided to do it a bit differently and hired bikes to cycle right around the Park.
We collected our bikes from Central Park Sightseeing in W56th St. We had booked on-line the night before to get the internet-only pricing. We could have booked a guided cycle tour, but decided just to go our own way. Once we all had our bikes we headed off. There was no way we were brave enough to actually ride the bikes on Midtown streets, so we (like every other tourist, it seemed) walked our bikes up the pavement to 59th and the start of the Park. Once inside the Park, there was only a small portion of the road where we shared the road with motor vehicles (and there were clearly-marked cycle lanes).
It was a stunning day, weather-wise and we went right around the extremity of the Park on Central Park Drive. It’s a relatively easy ride at just under 10km (6.1 miles), but the slight inclines in the uptown section of the Park are a bit deceptive…my legs felt it the next day. We stopped a few times at points of interest, including the Strawberry Fields Memorial to John Lennon, which is located in the Park opposite the Dakota Building where he was shot.
At the end of our NYC time with Britannia and her parents, when we all named our customary ‘three holiday highlights’, cycling in Central Park featured on almost everyone’s lists.
My tip? Remember to ask for a chain lock at the cycle hire shop if you are intending to get on and off the bikes to see various Park sights that are off Central Park Drive.
5. A walk around the southern tip of Manhattan
It was our last day in New York City, the sky was a brilliant blue, the sun was shining and it seemed too good a day to waste on anything indoors. So after collecting takeaway coffees from Le Pain Quotidien opposite our downtown hotel, we set off to walk right around the southern tip of Manhattan from the Irish Hunger Memorial on Vesey Street in the west to the Brooklyn Bridge in the east.
We’re big advocates for walking as much as possible on foreign land. You see and experience so much more on foot than you do from a tour bus or taxi window.
This glorious walk took us past: the sculptures and art installations along the Esplanade and in the parks and open spaces of Battery Park City, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Skyscraper Museum, Castle Clinton, Battery Park, the helicopters taking off and landing at the Port Authority Downtown Heliport, the historic South Street Seaport and its museum and the Old Fulton Fish Market. At the Brooklyn Bridge, we headed inland across the island, past City Hall and the Courthouses, the Woolworth Building, St Paul’s Chapel (which is the oldest surviving church building in NYC), and the new One WTC Freedom Tower, back to our hotel.
A couple of hours all up, and a really interesting perspective on that end of the Manhattan.
6. Trinity Church and graveyard
Trinity Church. 79 Broadway (near Cnr of Broadway and Wall Streets) New York, NY 10006 Ph: +1 212 602 0800
The Episcopalian Trinity Church plays a significant role in the history of Manhattan. Although the current church building was only completed in 1846 (which makes it relatively new), two earlier Trinity Church buildings occupied this site from 1698 to 1776 and 1790 to 1839 respectively. While the bustling financial district has risen around it, Trinity Church and its neighbouring cemetery has remained a quietly dignified little pocket of Lower Manhattan that harks back to much earlier times.
Outside the massive, intricately carved bronze doors of the neo-Gothic church is a plaque which shows where Queen Elizabeth II stood when she visited the church in 1976. It says that her husband, Prince Phillip, ‘stood nearby’.
During 9/11, people sheltered in the Church while the nearby towers fell and the subsequent dust ruined the Church’s organ pipes. The organ has since been replaced with a computerised one.
The graveyard has a distinctly spooky feel to it, even in broad daylight, and a ramble through it reveals gravestones dating back to the 1700s, including NYC’s oldest surviving carved gravestone – a memorial for Richard Churcher, a boy who died in 1681 at the age of five.
Recently, the Church has been embroiled in a public controversy with one of its parishioners filing a lawsuit over how the Church handles its finances. In the course of the case, it has been revealed that (as a result of a gift in 1705 from Queen Anne to the parish of 215 acres of prime Manhattan farmland) the Trinity parish is worth more than $2 billion dollars.
7. Broadway shows
Time Out New York offers a great guide to Broadway and theatre in NYC.
Broadway shows are one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City. In the 2012-2013 year, Broadway shows grossed over $1.1 billion in ticket sales with over 11 million tickets sold. 66 percent of the tickets were bought by tourists, so there’s a lot of people taking the memory of fabulous Broadway shows home.
What we call ‘Broadway’ consists of 40 theatres, only four of which are actually on the street called Broadway. The area known as Broadway is between 41st and 54th streets from 6th Avenue to 9th Avenue. Generally, to be a Broadway theatre, there must be 500+ seats. (Between 100 and 499 seats are ‘off-Broadway’ theatres, and teeny-tiny theatres with less than 100 seats are ‘off-off-Broadway’ theatres.)
Over various trips to New York, I’ve seen several Broadway shows, but the outstanding ones that I walked out of and wished I could see all over again were: Hairspray (we saw it 10 days before it closed in January 2009), the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular at Radio City (unmissable for tap lovers) and more recently, The Book of Mormon (one of the best and most enjoyable musicals I’ve ever seen, but not one for the easily offended).
My tip? If you really, really want to see a particular show, cough up to pay full-price and book on-line in advance. The TKTS Discount booths have a great range of shows at up to 50% off (if you’re prepared to queue) but they may not have the tickets for the show you want.
8. The Friends apartment building
It seems unbelievable that ten years has passed since the last episode of the hit TV series Friends aired. For ten seasons from 1994 to 2004, we watched Chandler, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe fall in love, fall out of love, get jobs, be out of work, be on a break, get pregnant, have triplets, share apartments, move away. And the constant to it all was the building Monica’s and Joey’s apartments were in, with the Central Perk coffee shop downstairs.
Of course, the actual filming of the action of Friends took place right across the country in sound stages in Hollywood, but there’s still something nostalgic about seeking out the building that was used for those exterior establishing shots.
The apartment building is on the corner of Bedford and Grove Streets in Greenwich Village. Central Perk is a restaurant called Little Owl (which, totally by coincidence, we had tried to get a dinner booking for, but they couldn’t accommodate a table for seven on a Saturday night).
Standing on the street outside the building we all started reminiscing about various episodes we’d enjoyed…wondering which building would have had ugly naked man’s apartment (sub-leased later to Ross)…remarking how much different Central Perk actually was from what we could see in front of us…discussing actors who had guest-starred at various points in the series. It struck me that this shared experience of a TV show between two families who live a whole world apart is quite unique, especially in the current era of multi-channel digital delivery of entertainment options.
And apart from anything else, a wander through the streets of Greenwich Village is a lovely way to spend a spring morning.
9. Wollman ice rink
Wollman (Trump) Ice Rink in Central Park, about a five-minute walk from the south entrance at W. 59th Street and 6th Avenue. The rink is open from late October to early April
Ice-skating in winter seems such a quintessentially New York experience. There’s no shortage of options to experience it. The Rink at Rockefeller Center, Winter Village at Bryant Park, and Central Park’s Wollman (Trump) and Lasker rinks are the best-known, but there’s also been a couple of newer additions in recent years.
After checking out a few, we decided only the Wollman Rink in Central Park would suffice. What isn’t to love about an open-air rink in the middle of one of the world’s most famous parks? Surrounded by snow-covered trees, and encased by the buildings of 5th Avenue, Central Park West and 59th Street, it is a stunning location to get your skates on.
10. A white Christmas in NYC
For a couple of years prior to my last ‘big number birthday’, I declared to anyone who would listen that I really didn’t want to have a party or any fuss. I just wanted to spend that Christmas in New York, and hopefully it would be a white one. In the end, I did have a party. But I got my other wish too.
Christmas is a truly special time to be in New York City. The decorations are over the top, the atmosphere is festive, the Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular is unmissable. Within days of us arriving, the first snow fell.
There was more to come, and there was indeed still snow on the ground on Christmas Day, which technically made it a white Christmas. Santa managed to find the stockings hung near the Christmas tree in our apartment, and we enjoyed a home-cooked Christmas lunch of turkey accompanied by cranberry sauce made from scratch with fresh cranberries (who knew?).
There’s been many memorable Christmases before and since, but this one definitely ranks right up there.
What are your memorable moments?
The Memorable Moments series of posts is now open to guest bloggers of any genre. If you have a memorable travel moment you would like to share, shoot me an email and I will add you to the schedule. You will need to provide one reasonably good quality photograph (can be watermarked), a story of 200-400 words which describes that moment, a short bio, link to your blog and social media handles .
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