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It is not possible to tire of New York – it’s always thrilling and there is always something new to discover. Winter is a particularly good time to go – hotel prices drop dramatically post New Year, sales are commonplace and the Tourist Board, nycgo.com run several incentive weeks with cut price deals at restaurants, attractions and tickets for Broadway shows. The sun does shine (if you are lucky) but this is a city that works in any weather and, when it does snow (so long as not too much!), it can be magical.
Having stayed in Manhattan on previous trips, on my last visit I wanted to see more so we spent our first two nights across the East River in Brooklyn where there’s a good choice of affordable hotels. We stayed at one of the latest openings, the Hilton Brooklyn, an uber modern refurb of an old rope factory. Easy to get to from JFK via the Airtrain and subway A line the journey from the airport took about an hour and cost just $7.75.
Staying in the boroughs has the advantage of being cheaper, quieter and also opens up the possibility to spend time exploring the neighbourhoods where ordinary folk live. In recent years Brooklyn has become more of a destination in its own right – a thriving hub for creatives and entrepreneurs who can no longer afford to be Manhattan based. As a result, there are endless choices when it comes to hip bars, restaurants and cool places to hang out.
Through TV and films, if Manhattan seems instantly familiar to first timers, Brooklyn has also had its fair share of the limelight. Famously, John Travolta strutted its streets in Saturday Night Fever and more recently, the box office hit ‘Brooklyn’ followed the fortunes of Irish immigrants arriving there in the 1950’s. You know its Brooklyn when you see the distinctive ‘brownstone’ buildings which you find in the Park Slope, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights neighbourhoods.
Although much of Brooklyn’s appeal is outdoors – the green spaces of Prospect Park, music festivals, markets and the spectacular views to be had from Brooklyn Heights – Brooklyn Museum is a winner at any time of year. The vast building is home to close on 1.5 million art exhibits and can easily swallow up the best part of a day. If that’s too high brow, how about a beer? Brooklyn is renowned for its craft beer makers. The Daddy of them all is the Brooklyn Brewery on Northside – a group tour (free at weekends) is a perfect way to warm your cockles if its chilly outside. Another thing I like to do in the States, especially if the weather is not great, is to catch a new film and Brooklyn has the best choice of movie theatres. We liked the one on Grand St in trendy Williamsburg – the latest movies, classic plush seats and the biggest buckets of popcorn I have EVER seen.
Sooner or later though, the magnetic draw of Manhattan takes a grip. From Brooklyn, its just a 10 minute subway ride or you can walk it and take in those incredible skyline views as you cross the famous Brooklyn Bridge.
For the second half of our trip we stayed at the Roger Smith Hotel, which proved a perfect choice in midtown Manhattan. One of the few remaining family owned hotels in the city, it is a quirky property, full of character . Best of all is its location, just across the street from Central Station with easy access to the subway and within walking distance of several major attractions.
After checking in, we strolled the four blocks (around 4 minutes!) to the Rockefeller Centre. Romantics opt for the Empire State but I think the Top of the Rock observation deck is better for its unobstructed sweeping views from Central Park over the skyscrapers of midtown and downtown. And when you are done with the views, the outdoor skating rink at the base of the building is one of the city’s iconic winter venues.
Sightseeing is fun but another way to keep warm on a winter break is to spend your time testing some of New York’s 24,000 eating establishments. By fluke, our February visit coincided with the nycgo.com’s ‘Restaurant Week’ – this is a fantastic bi-annual promotion across around 400 restaurants. To participate, they all come up with a 3 course set menu to showcase their food. It’s a fixed price no matter where you go – $29 for lunch and $42 for dinner. Not cheap but its a chance to dine in some of the city’s finest for roughly half the normal price. For foodies, its definitely worth timing your visit when its on.
Staying with food, I’d also recommend Urban Adventures ‘Tenements, Tales and Tastes’ guided walking tour. The three hour tour took us off the beaten path through some of New York’s best known immigrant districts. Our guide, native New Yorker, Josh shared all sorts of fascinating insights and pointed out details that we certainly would have missed. Better still, as the name implies, there were generous tastings involved along the way – pork dumplings in Chinatown, prosciutto and mozzarella in Little Italy, Knishe in the Jewish Quarter and finally pretzels and beer in a German beerkeller. No lunch needed after that!
Back on the tourist trail, there are always new things to see and do in New York but in recent years all eyes have been on the redevelopment of Ground Zero. Even now its still ongoing but three major sites are once again drawing crowds downtown. The haunting 9/11 Memorial and Museum is one that has to be done but, be warned, it’s truly harrowing to relive the events of that awful day. Right next door is the dramatic Oculus Centre – a shopping centre would feel weird here were it not for the staggering architecture of the building. From the outside it’s design suggests the wings of a dove, inside its dramatic, bone white arched ‘ribs’ make you feel like you’ve been swallowed by a gigantic dinosaur.
The jewel in the crown though, and a must on any visit to New York now is the One World Observatory occupying the 102nd floor of the glass clad One World Trade Centre. A lift whisks you up there in less than a minute and then you are ushered in to a multi-screen room for a powerful tribute film to the city and its people. As the film ends, the screens slowly roll up… cue a collective intake of breath as one of the most incredible views in the world is revealed.
New York can be eye wateringly expensive but, timing is everything. If you are looking to take a bite of the Big Apple on a budget, winter time is a winner.
* A version of this article was published in Take A Break magazine
Norwegian operate a twice-daily service between London Gatwick and New York JFK on the state-of-the-art Boeing 787 Dreamliner from £149 one way in economy and £419 in Premium.
There are endless hotel choices in New York – Cathy stayed at two mid range properties: hiltonbrooklyn.com and rogersmith.com. Rates vary but in winter can be as low as $170 per room per night.