It's the city that never sleeps; the Big Apple; anything can happen in a New York minute; if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere; etc. Clichés aside, one thing they say about New York is true: there's nowhere else quite like it. For visitors, though, it can seem overcrowded, over-hyped and overpriced – New York City basically invented the tourist trap. To experience the city like a local, there are some dos and don'ts. Follow our advice and you'll blend right in.
Don’t join the tourists in line for observation decks. Visitors in cargo shorts and comfy shoes queue up to shuffle to the Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Center or the Empire State Building’s observation deck to view the glory of New York City from on high – and for a pretty penny.
Instead take the subway uptown to Morningside Heights for the best view of the city from The Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, which claims to be the world’s largest cathedral. On Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street, the Gothic Revival leviathan is a treasure-trove of art (the bronze and gold triptych altarpiece was Keith Haring’s last work), culture (the funerals of James Gandolfini and Nikola Tesla and a memorial service for Jim Henson were held here) and history (construction began in 1892 and continues to this day). It’s not about the stained-glass windows, 17th-century tapestries and three-tonne bronze doors, though – it’s all about the view. On the Vertical Tour, climb a narrow staircase to the first level for a glimpse of the cathedral’s interior before ascending higher until you’re level with elaborate stained-glass windows depicting saints and disciples (elsewhere, the windows illustrate human endeavour - one modern one even features a television). Climb higher still until you’re almost in the heavens, higher even than the cathedral ceiling. Finally, head outside through a low door and you’re greeted with the magnificent sight of the city skyline. Spot the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, gaze upon the Children’s Sculpture Park directly below and marvel at the serenity.
Don’t pay upwards of $US155 for a hansom cab ride. The reality of a horse-drawn carriage ride around Central Park is significantly less romantic than it appears on film. For one thing, you can’t smell the horse manure on-screen. The driver is unlikely to have a magical sparkle in his eye and it’s impossible to tell when that blanket was last washed.
Instead rent a bike and pedal around the park. Central Park is probably the most remarkable public parklands in the world. This extensive urban green space runs from 59th Street to 110th Street and covers an area of 341 hectares. Within the space there’s a zoo, a castle, several ice-skating rinks, a marionette theatre, an ancient Egyptian obelisk and Strawberry Fields, which is dedicated to the memory of John Lennon. Rent a Citi Bike from one of the many stands around the city and start pedalling. You’re going to want to stop and smell the roses, not the manure.
Don’t go to Little Italy for authentic Italian-American cuisine. It was once the beating heart of Italian-American culture in New York City but as Chinatown has encroached, Little Italy has become a measly strip where the penne alla vodka or baked ziti come with inflated prices aimed squarely at the clueless tourist. The annual Feast of San Gennaro notwithstanding, Little Italy is a shadow of its former self.
Instead head to Arthur Avenue in The Bronx for a real taste of Italo-America. Here, in the city’s northernmost borough, Italian bakeries, delis, grocery stores, pizzerias and restaurants line Arthur Avenue and East 187th Street. Try Dominick’s Restaurant for an old-school dining experience (red-checked tablecloths, candles in Chianti bottles) and Tony & Tina’s Pizzeria for a New York slice. As a critic from New York Magazine put it, “the restaurants of Arthur Avenue make Mulberry Street’s [Little Italy] look like stepchildren of the Olive Garden [Italian restaurant chain]”.
Don’t fight your way through Times Square. From the 1960s to the 1990s, it was an infamously seedy precinct best avoided by respectable types. But at least it was interesting. Nowadays, Times Square is shunned or despised by locals as a soulless ode to commercialism. Billboards, chain stores and tourists make up the Times Square of today. When you’re in a city bursting with life, culture and personality, why spend even a second there? If you need to see the Naked Cowboy (incidentally, a Trump supporter), Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. or a fully grown human in an Elmo suit, by all means walk (quickly) through Times Square. However, we recommend…
Instead experience the atmosphere at Union Square. There’s the fantastic Greenmarket on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Buskers, breakdancers, hug-givers and dog-walkers proliferate and it’s a great place to watch New Yorkers going about their business.
Don’t pay a small fortune to see the Statue of Liberty. Don’t get us wrong, that colossal monument in New York Harbor has to be seen – but a trip to Liberty Island isn’t necessary. Visitors are subject to rigorous security screening similar to that at an American airport. While it’s possible to enter the base of the statue, climbing up to the crown requires a special ticket that must be reserved up to a year in advance – and only 240 people may ascend each day.
Instead hitch a ride right past Lady Liberty and see her in all her glory from aboard the free Staten Island Ferry, which runs 24 hours a day. The half-hour trip takes you from the Whitehall Terminal, near Battery Park, to the St George Terminal at Staten Island. It’s possible to turn around and head straight back to Manhattan but Staten Island is an underrated borough worthy of exploration. It’s currently undergoing the so-called Staten Island Renaissance, which has seen billions of dollars invested in the area. A giant Ferris wheel, named the New York Wheel, is under construction.
Don’t line up for Insta-famous baked goods. Yes, we know, Carrie Bradshaw once consumed an enticing-looking cupcake heavy with icing (frosting, rather) at The Magnolia Bakery and it was just too perfect. And we know that Dominique Ansel’s Cronuts have spawned copycats around the world – but they’re also responsible for a queue down the block at his SoHo bakery.
Instead do as a New Yorker like Carrie would do. She’d head somewhere a little less obvious, like Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side for an enormous, melty choc-chip cookie, or Dough in Brooklyn or Flat Iron for a Mocha Almond Crunch doughnut. If you must have a cupcake, try Buttercup Bake Shop’s Chunky Monkey: banana cake topped with chocolate buttercream and chocolate chips. Trust us.
This article was originally published in March 2017 and has been updated