In many ways it’s a relief to visit a city you’ve already been to. It means you can skip most of the biggest tourist traps that you probably saw the first time round, and instead take it easy as you explore some of the cooler, quieter areas in the city.
I first visited New York while my sister was living and working in Manhattan back in 2009, when I was seventeen. I travelled with my parents, and while they stayed in a fancy Park Avenue hotel, I bunked in with my sister in her studio apartment on the Upper East Side. Over the course of 10 days, we hit every tourist attraction on offer, each day planned to a tee by my meticulous mother.
This time round, I was visiting a friend who lived in Bushwick and I was determined to get a more authentic New York experience. I was also really excited to see the city at Christmas. However, as this was just the first stop on what was to be a three-week, multi-city tour, my budget was tight, so I chose to do only what was free, or failing that, cheap.
Rockefeller Christmas Tree Lighting
If Home Alone shaped your childhood Christmases, then you’ll be more than familiar with the giant Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Plaza. Seeing the tree generally tops the list of things to do in the city at Christmas, so you can imagine the levels of squealing when I realised that I would be in New York the day they turned the lights on.
The event is a free for all, but you need to get there early to be in with any chance of getting into the viewing points. The tree lighting itself doesn’t happen until 9pm, at the end of a two-hour televised NBC show which featured performances from Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton on the main stage. Unfortunately for us though, it was a miserable, cold, rainy day in Manhattan, and several times we considered cutting our losses and running for drier land. In the end, we persevered out of stubbornness more than anything, and were glad that we had stuck it out. But if I was there again and the weather forecast sucked, there’s no way I’d do it again.
Christmas Market at Bryant Park
Whether by accident or on purpose, I ended up at the Christmas Market in Bryant Park at least three times over the course of the five days I was in New York. Due to its central location in Midtown, I found myself passing through the park several times, usually on my way to somewhere else. Each time I couldn’t help but browse the stalls there, which had everything from Christmas ornaments to artwork to clothes and homemade jewellery. On the last day of my stay in New York, I decided to go back to the market to buy a print that I had been admiring on previous visits. However, I’d failed to note the day – Saturday. Up until that point, the market, while always busy, was never too packed and could be navigated easily. The weekend in the park – and the whole of Manhattan – is entirely a different matter. Throngs of people lined the paths dividing the various stalls and there was a queue for almost everything. If you can, get to the market midweek for a far more pleasant experience.
New York Public Library
The New York Public Library, located in front of Bryant Park, is a historic landmark and easily one of the city’s most beautiful buildings inside and out. If you’re a huge nerd, then the books alone will be enough to get you excited, but the library also houses art and exhibitions that are completely free to visit. While I was there, the featured exhibition was “Alexander Hamilton: Striver, Stateman, Scoundrel” about the Founding Father and subject of the massive Broadway musical Hamilton. Since I’d been listening to the soundtrack of said musical on repeat for a solid ten months, I was really interested to see what was in the NYPL’s holdings. The exhibition, although small, is an excellent insight into the US’s first Treasury Secretary.
When visiting New York, it’s easy get stuck in Midtown or the Financial District and never find your way out. However you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice by not exploring the neighbourhoods, which show an entirely different side of New York to the hustle and bustle it’s most famous for. Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan is a prime example, where you can walk along quiet residential streets featuring beautiful town houses and apartment buildings. It’s also home to Chelsea Hotel – where many famous artists, writers and musicians lived during the 60’s and 70’s – featured heavily in Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids.
You can easily pass several hours in Chelsea Market, trying different dishes and desserts at the food market and browsing the book store and other shops. Make sure to go hungry.
DUMBO/Brooklyn Bridge Park
Was it not for the fact that I was staying with a friend in Brooklyn, I never would have heard of this great place. DUMBO (short for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn at the edge of the East River. There you can visit the local food trucks to pick up some lunch before bringing it to the park to eat it while looking out at the Manhattan skyline. From there, walk along the river to Brooklyn Bridge Park and get back to the city by walking the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.
All in all, I spent five days in New York, filled my days to bursting point and yet spent very little money in that time. While eating and drinking in the city is undoubtedly expensive, if you’re on a budget, there’s really no need to be throwing cash at tourist attractions when there’s so much you can do for free. If you’re a walker, then don’t waste your money on the subway, Manhattan is much smaller than you think it is and it’s very easy walk around. You’ll also see a lot more than if you spend half your time underground.
Also worth your time and easy on the pocket: Washington Square Park, BYOB Indian at Panna II Garden in the East Village, Street Art in Bushwick, Brooklyn.