New York - DUMBO
When my cousin Keith said he would take us to DUMBO for an evening drink colourful Disney style images flashed into the minds of Lisa and I. We were on our 6th visit to New York and despite thinking we’d just about seen it all, the thought of a new elephant themed attraction was an exciting prospect.
In fact DUMBO is an affectionate acronym for an area of Brooklyn and the locals don’t even seem to notice the comical side of the name. "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges was a revelation. The neighbourhood was originally a ferry landing so industrial and warehouse buildings form the backdrop, but turn towards the mighty Hudson River and you get a unique and breath-taking view of the iconic New York skyline.
And my point is….. How often does somebody tell you?
“We’ve done Rome” – a half day excursion from a cruise ship
“Paris was nice” – a quick weekend involving couple of baguettes and a flit up the Eiffel Tower
“The Greek people are so charming” – the waiter at our 5-star all-inclusive smiled a lot
There is nothing wrong with working your way around the globe ticking off the place names as they fly by your window. I am as guilty as the next man of sitting at the dinner table proudly reeling off my numerous ports of call, but in truth many of them are really just names. How I wish time, budget and the calm that only comes with age had stopped me in my tracks earlier.
Now back to The Big Apple. Lisa and I first visited as part of a Bath Travel four day escorted tour over 18 years ago. We stayed, as virtually all first-timers do, in Times Square. Despite the shackles of a tightly controlled itinerary we fell in love with the city. It has such attitude and confidence in itself you cannot help getting swept-up in the hustle and bustle. We noticed a definite subduing of its immense character in the years immediately following the destruction of the Twin Towers, but like a great old boxer New York has pulled itself off the canvas and now seems more bullish than ever.
I will cover the major tourist sites in a later post, but here I want to dwell on the less obvious and often free attractions at your disposal. The first thing to establish is that the Subway is a must for cheap and speedy travel around the city. The New York underground train system conjures images of graffiti covered trains and dark threatening stations. Let me be absolutely clear it is not like that at all.
Granted buying your weekly Subway (and local bus) Pass on the automated machines with a European credit card can be a little fractious. Persevere because once you have your £25 ticket the city is literally your Oyster. It takes a bit of trial and error to become familiar with the strange use of colours, letters and numbers to map out routes and stops, but after a day or two you’ll be hopping in and out of the stations like a native New Yorker.
Suddenly it hardly matters where on Manhattan you are staying as long as a Subway station is close-by and that in itself can save you a small fortune.
On every visit we head for iconic Times Square almost like a pilgrimage. Although we soon tire of all the commercialism and bright lights it just seems like the right thing to do. However, it’s not long before we’re taking a short stroll down 42nd Street to the comparative calm of pretty Bryant Park with its well-priced food kiosks and picnicking areas. There is often street music or marching band to accompany your promenade around this tree-lined oasis. The overcrowded chaos of Times Square seems a million miles away.
Just around the corner on 5th Avenue “Fortitude” and “Patience”’ possibly the world’s most famous lions after those in our own Trafalgar Square stand guard over the impressive and free New York Public Library. There are some surprising treasures to be found within and that of course is for you to discover.
The same can be said for Grand Central Station a further two blocks along the way. This place will take your breath away and the added attraction of a “pay-what-you-wish two hour tour” and a vast, well-priced food hall will ensure you don’t go hungry. I personally love the Oyster Bar, but get there early; New York’s office workers clearly love it too.
Unless you’ve recently won the lottery it’s perhaps best just to do a little bit of window shopping on 5th Avenue as you head to Rockefeller Centre. If you intend to pay for a rooftop view this is the place, not least because you get a time-slot for your ascent. Queuing at other tall buildings can take a vast chunk out of your day. Bear in mind though many of the city’s hotels have top floor bars where for the price on an exorbitant cocktail the view looked pretty similar to me.
If you’ve taken my advice, apart from venturing back for a Broadway Show or wandering around Central Park, you’ve pretty well done this midtown area and taken those all-important selfies. Now is the opportunity to spread your Subway-wings from whatever base you have chosen;
The bars and restaurants in and around Times Square are expensive and generally lack any sort of charm. That said with tens of thousands of tourists descending on them daily they hardly have to work hard for repeat trade and who could blame them?
Take a chance and exit the Subway in Greenwich Village, Soho or my personal favourite South Ferry and just take a mosey around. Bars in New York are distant cousins of the UK pub and should be regarded more as watering holes than warm and welcoming hostelries. There are of course exceptions and finding them or a quirky family run restaurant is the essence of appreciating the individual character of the neighbourhood. In these outlying areas competition and choice still remains high so expect palate and wallet pleasing daily specials. Just take a chance and walk in, you won’t regret it.
Whatever your itinerary you will run out of time. It’s the main reason we keep going back, there’s always something we planned to do, but didn’t make it.
I suppose leaning against the railings on the riverbank in DUMBO it dawned on me that a place is more than just a collection of photo-opportunities. Memories are made by sharing experiences with your companions and the people you meet along the way. I hope I never catch myself saying “I’ve done New York”
Errors and omissions excepted.
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