Really awesome neighborhood

Chelsea

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The hotel is an energetic, desperate haven for scores of gifted hustling children from every rung of the ladder. Guitar bums and stand-out beauties in Victorian dresses. Junkie poets, playwrights, broke-down filmmakers, and French actors. Everybody passing through here is somebody, if nobody in the outside world.

Although Patti Smith was specifically talking about Hotel Chelsea in this passage from Just Kids, her words are applicable to the entire neighborhood that the landmark building calls its home. Many of the people Smith describes may now be priced out of the gigantic expanse that is Chelsea, but their spirit remains.

Bound by 14th Street on its south side and 30th Street to the north, Chelsea sits squarely between Seventh Avenue and the deep west. Tree-lined streets and quaint brownstones dot the neighborhood, yet the bustle of the city lives on up and down the avenues. One of New York’s finest recent attractions, the High Line, winds its way through Chelsea. It’s a raised park with native (to what, I’m not sure) grasses and welcoming benches in the cavernous former El train tracks. Views of the Hudson River and New Jersey, a Frank Gehry building, and streams of taxi-cab traffic traveling below are on offer, so be certain to bring your camera (and zoom lens, if you’d like to get an upclose photo of NJ, which I’m sure you do).

If you’re not the outdoorsy type, you may want to stop by Chelsea’s incredible selection of art galleries. You’ll find ones where you can buy Andy Warhol prints and others, such as Metro Pictures, where groundbreaking Cindy Sherman photos are displayed. You can walk in and out of the spaces as you please, while the gallery personnel type fastidiously on their Mac computers as they sit in vintage Eames chairs, obtusely paying no mind to you or your crew. Art not your thing? Take in a little bowling, dancing, golf, football, gymnastics, and more at Chelsea Piers. The prices aren’t cheap, but it may be a good bargaining chip if you’d like to negotiate with the kids some time at the art galleries. There’s also a good Clearview movie theater near Eighth Avenue on 23rd Street that plays a decent variety of films, is relatively clean, and has comfortable seats.

Chelsea eats are among the most delectable in the city. You’ve got the best-ever artichoke pizza at Artichoke Basille’s ($) and outstanding fancier fare at Cook Shop ($$$). (Note: Cook Shop’s owners also owned the now defunct Five Points, which was among my favorite restaurants in the city. Make your reservation at Cook Shop today; it’s a good option for New Year’s Eve.) Good ol’ American food is available at Empire Diner ($$), which has undergone significant transformations over the past 10 years and is now a fantastic place to go for lunch or brunch before/after your art gallery trip. Cafeteria offers delicious brunch and dinner, as well, with a decent burger on the menu. Avoid Rocking Horse Café (cheap-flavored Mexican) and Dallas BBQ (poorly executed barbecue) at all costs, but do try Billy’s Bakery ($) and Empire Cakes ($) for delicious confections (read more about them here).

One of the food Meccas of New York City is undoubtedly Chelsea Market, so ensure you visit while you’re in the neighborhood. They’ve got lobster, baked goods, gourmet soup, farm-to-table fare, and much, much more. Recently, I tried Japanese-inspired Mexican nachos at a little stand called Takumi Taco ($)—very good, but not entirely Japanese.

You can spend an entire day perambulating about Chelsea, so grab some cash and get on the C/E and head on down to 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue to begin your journey. Remember, everybody passing through Chelsea is somebody, and that means you.

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Union Square

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There’s an element of wonder to New York City. The natives feel it—it’s probably what keeps them trekking across macadam streets and marching down concrete sidewalks day after month after year, even in the darkest depths of winter. And the tourists surely feel it—after all, it’s the wonder that attracts them in flocks, with rhythmic certainty like gravity pushing us downward.

Union Square adds a bit of wonder to the cityscape. From the lush Union Square Greenmarket to the diversity of the dog park, the neighborhood has a grand feel to it. Sure, there are homeless people in the park and Hare Krishnas chanting from sun up to sun down, but there’s something about the wide expanse of flattened cobble that is liberating. Once Broadway and Park Avenue South hit 17th Street, the whole grid you’ve come to rely on begins to disintegrate, with streets narrowing, bending and stretching down into the West Village. Union Square is the liminal prelude to the navigation pandemonium that ensues further downtown.

These days, the square is flanked by big-box stores, such as Best Buy, DSW, Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods (unanimously the most irritating one in the city—don’t go there). But, if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find some gems. The Strand is the best bookstore in the city, and don’t let anyone tell you different. You’ll find every book you’d ever want (or need), and the prices are on par with Amazon. Staff are attentive and extremely knowledgeable, and they won’t judge you for buying an E.L. James book. (Well, maybe just a little.) Around the corner from The Strand is an excellent Nordstrom Rack, where brand-name clothes are on offer (though they may be from last season) and down the street the worst-ever Trade Joe’s is found. You’ll want to shop at the one on Sixth Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets instead.

If you have the opportunity to see a live act at Irving Plaza, take it. The venue’s main ballroom is spacious with a neat little bar in the rear. Decent bands end up there, too, so it’s no slouch as far as music spaces go.

For a bite, check out Clarke’s Standard for easily the best turkey burger I’ve ever had or the Pret a Manger just across the way; it’s among the better Prets in this concrete jungle of ours. Around the corner from Pret, there’s a frozen fruit (think frozen yogurt but made with only fresh fruit, water and “a touch of” cane sugar) hole-in-the-wall called Chloe’s, and I’d advise you to pass on the fare. City Bakery is a few blocks away and they have the good stuff, like giant chocolate chip cookies and outrageously thick hot chocolate in winter months. A few doors down from Chloe’s there’s Lily’s Victorian Establishment, typically packed with locals tipping back bourbons at a clip in a lively, throw-way-back setting. Another bar that seems to get overlooked but consistently delights is Pop Pub, which has an impressive collection of drafts on tap. Nice occasions call for the likes of Blue Water Grill, a seafood restaurant where they even deshell your lobster for you (now, that’s classy!), or Rosa Mexicano, an upscale Mexican place with a unique menu. The Five Napkin Burger on east 14th Street features clean, white subway tile on the walls and some of the best burgers in the city. Grey Dog serves up delectable brunch, but best of luck trying to get a table. And if you’ve only got about $5 for lunch, go to Vanessa’s Dumplings for a sesame pancake and the eponymous steamed dumplings; it’s not the best one (the LES one is far better), but it’ll do in a pinch.

Don’t miss the quaint holiday shops that appear in the square in late November either. I’ve bought many a Christmas present there, and I think you’ll find something (hand-made puppets, candles, nice jewelry and other notables) that you’d like to bring home.

So, hop on the yellow or green subway lines to Union Square and experience its wonder.

Morningside Heights

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I remember the first time I went to Morningside Heights. It was for an interview at one of the schools up there, in the aptly named “academic acropolis.” I hopped on the 2 train at Times Square, and, instead of switching to the 1 at 96th Street, I mistakenly took it all the way to 116th Street. In Harlem. I was 17 years old and all alone at the time. My “I-live-near-New-York-so-I-know-where-to-go” hubris had gotten the best of me. It was the middle of the day, and a kind cab driver (likely the only one ever) pulled aside, picked me up and brought me over to Broadway and 116th, my intended destination.

Of course, the heart and soul of Morningside Heights is Columbia University and its undergraduate and graduate schools, as well as its affiliates, such as Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The Manhattan School of Music has its home just north of Columbia, and I even lived in one of its dorms (randomly) during one of my years as an undergraduate.

When I took the above picture, everyone was gathered around “alma mater,” which is actually a bronze sculpture of the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, not a visual representation of the school’s song. They all seemed to regard this sculpture as the focal point of the campus, but I imagine few realized who she was or the fact that she has a small owl tucked within her robe. Columbia is unique because, unlike NYU, Hunter and Baruch (for a few examples of colleges/universities in the city), it is truly a campus, bound by Broadway and Amsterdam and unfettered by the interruptions of city life. Situated on one of the highest points in Manhattan, Columbia boasts some of the grandest buildings in all the land, including Butler Library and Low Memorial Library (which is actually an administrative building, not a library) that sit opposite one another on the gorgeous campus.

But Columbia is not the only attraction in Morningside Heights. Located near 122nd Street and Riverside Drive, Grant’s Tomb is the final resting place of President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife, Julia, and is a gorgeous site to see. The Cathedral of St. John the Divine sits on 112th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, and is a favorite stopping point on many tour buses. The smart tourists skip across the street to Hungarian Pastry Shop ($), arguably one of the best bakeries and purveyors of coffee in the city, for some delectable treats. The cathedral’s imposing Gothic Revival style adds a certain distinction to the neighborhood. You can take a tour of the humbling interior during the day (7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and make sure you check out the grounds surrounding the cathedral, as they have peacocks (two albinos and one standard) walking about.

Since you’ll likely spend several hours to a half-day exploring the area, I have a few recommendations (and warnings) regarding where to eat. For the uninitiated, Tom’s Restaurant ($$) a.k.a. Monk’s: the Seinfeld Diner may seem like an enticing spot to grab a bite, but you can definitely do better (and cheaper). The best thing about Tom’s is their milkshakes, and the one to get isn’t even on the menu (it’s called the Broadway shake, featuring coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup—delish!). For improved diner-esque food, try Deluxe ($$) just a block north of Tom’s. The dwindling Chinese food chain Ollie’s ($) has an outpost up on 116th Street, and their fare is decent at best. Community Food and Juice ($$) has a seasonal, organic, local (whatever) menu, but, diet soda drinkers beware, they only have “natural” offerings on the menu; food is pretty good, but probably overpriced. Now, what you must try are roti rolls, which are a form of Indian street food, from Bombay Frankie ($) (over on 110th and Amsterdam); they are fantastic and cheap! Although Morningside Heights technically begins at 110th Street, I’ll clue you into one of the best Mexican spots, on 108th Street and Amsterdam: Taqueria Y Fonda La Mexicana ($). Expect giant burritos filled with incredible meat, cheese and more, as well as cheap beers and fabulous chips and salsa to begin your meal. It’s a small place, so you may want to take your food to go and eat it in the small park with the insane/intriguing sculpture near St. John the Divine. (You’ll know what I’m referring to when you get there.) If you’re looking for burgers, try Mel’s Burger Bar ($$), which also has boozy shakes for the adults. And, if you want something different, go to Koronet ($) for a giant slice of pizza.

If you’re just passing through the neighborhood, try Tea Magic ($) for some of the best bubble tea in the city. They’ve also got sweet and savory food options. And don’t forget about Hungarian Pastry Shop—their coffee is top notch and my favorite cookie (pink and green leaf cookies) make an appearance in their wide, inclusive pastry case. You’ll want to take something home with you, for certain.

I recommend trekking up to Morningside Heights in the late morning or early afternoon, eating your way downtown and then walking off the meals by navigating into the Upper West Side. Rather than going down Broadway, you could take the scenic route through bucolic Riverside Park, but make sure the sun is still out.

Flatiron

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Tourists, tourists everywhere. When you exit the subway (N/R) at 23rd and Broadway/Fifth Avenue, that’s all you see: tourists. And they’re all looking up. At what, you may wonder? Well, either the Flatiron Building on 23rd Street, or, to the North, the Empire State Building up on 34th Street.

There’s much more to Flatiron than a few notable buildings, of course.

Let’s start with Madison Square Park. Spanning three blocks long and one avenue wide, this 6.2 acre park is where Madison Square Garden was first located before they moved it west. (Seems obvious now, doesn’t it?) Nowadays, it’s best known as the park where the first Shake Shack opened. Beyond burgers, they’ve got rotating public art installations (fascinating!) and events put on by the Madison Square Park Conservancy on a fairly regular basis. Plus, every few months, they hold Madison Square Eats, where some of the best food vendors in New York set up shop for a few weeks.

Once you’ve toured the park, walk over to Eataly to experience the mecca of all things Italian that was co-created by chef Mario Batali. Expect long lines (of tourists, naturally) and somewhat exorbitant prices for various foods ranging from cured meats and gelato to fresh pasta and exotic chocolates. Stop by their Nutella bar, in the space once inhabited by Eataly’s wine shop, for a sugar-induced coma or two, and take the elevator to the roof to try the Birreria for some beer, antipasti and salumi.

For the adults, the Museum of Sex is a stimulating way to spend an afternoon, but you may be more interested in their gift shop, filled with erotic books and paraphernalia, on the first floor.

Now, what about food? Flatiron has plenty of it to go around, some good and some not so good. Hill Country Barbecue ($$) serves up decent ribs, brisket and macaroni and cheese, but don’t count on a cheap meal—your meal ticket items add up quick! Across the park and veering on Murray Hill territory is Blue Smoke ($$), which has arguably better barbecue than Hill Country, for a slightly steeper price. Bo’s ($$) (review here) offers delicious Southern-inspired flavors and, down the road, newcomer Café El Presidente ($) (cousin to NoLita’s Tacombi, review here) has a fair selection of tacos at an affordable price point, but their esquites and rice and beans are not nearly as good as Tacombi’s. For the whiskey enthusiast, there’s Maysville ($$) (review here), which has an extraordinary bourbon list (they measure your 2 oz. drink with a jigger, by the way) and passable food that doesn’t seem to be worth the price. I would steer clear of Obicà ($$$) (review here) and try SD26 ($$ – $$$) for their Italian fare instead. If you’re looking for grilled cheese (of course you are), go to Birch ($) instead of Melt Shop ($), and sample Birch’s delectable treats and coffees while you’re at it.

After eating, unwind to the tune of live music at Toshi’s Living Room on 26th and Broadway.

And, don’t worry, Starbucks has got you covered. There’s at least four that I know of within short walking distance of Madison Square Park.

If you can stomach the shutterbugs stopping mid-sidewalk to take a selfie with a building, be my guest and spend an afternoon or evening in Flatiron.

Coney Island

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Hop on the N (or Q or D or F) with me and take a trip to Coney Island.

Some people don’t care for Coney Island, but I’ve always been fascinated by it. It’s no resort town, I’ll give you that—nothing like Cape May, NJ, for example. Yet, it’s got a certain charm and populist quality that makes it stand out as a winner to me. People from all walks of life (and shapes and sizes, as you’ll see on the beach) come together to celebrate the summer and sand.

I recommend going to Coney Island on a weekday, if you can, but it’s tolerable on the weekend, too. I’ve noticed that it’s mostly New Yorkers on the boards, which is a plus.

For the adventurous, Luna Park has expanded to include a bevy of new, exciting rides, including an exhilarating roller coaster, the Thunderbolt. A 90-degree vertical climb sends those who dare through a 100-foot loop, zero gravity rolls, corkscrews and dives. You likely need an ironclad stomach to withstand this two-minute ride.

Erected in 1920, the Wonder Wheel is a departure from the thrills and chills of the other options at Luna Park. A sight to see in itself, it’s got the best view of the beach and ocean in all the land.

Since I have a soft spot for animals (as you’ll learn by reading this blog), I always stop at the New York Aquarium for a quick look at the walruses, sea otters, seals, sea lions, black-foot penguins and various fish. If you’re into all things aquatic, budget about an hour for this stop. It will likely take you less time, but if you happen to arrive when feedings are happening, you’ll want to stick around.

To dine, Nathan’s Famous is the best option. Try the original, off the boardwalk, down on Surf Avenue, for the full experience. Even if you don’t like hot dogs, they’ve got you covered: lobster rolls, clams, burgers and many other items populate its menu. Onions, sauerkraut and a handful of other toppings are free on the dogs. The thick, crinkle cut fries are top notch, and they even have draft beer.

Pizza from Famiglia and fried foods at Paul’s Daughter are passable and can be consumed on the boardwalk. Coney’s Cones, an ice cream parlor, serves up homemade ice cream flavors, which are decent at best.

If you haven’t been to Coney Island, make it a priority to visit this summer. But don’t write off the place in the off-season either. It’s quiet and eerie come wintertime, but Nathan’s is open (and empty for a change).