New York City Off The Tourist Track

I’m taking the liberty of assuming that there is a boatload of information about tourism in New York that will get you to all of the major sites. However, I live here. And, I have different tastes than many people. So, I’m going to provide some information for getting off the beaten track in New York City. Yes, that is possible.

From a New Yorker’s viewpoint, I find it amusing to go through Times Square or 5th Avenue in the 50s. I see the streets so crowded that I end up walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk, especially through Times Square, and imagine all the tourists going home and talking about how overcrowded New York is. Yes. It’s crowded here, but not that crowded. Those areas are crowded with tourists, not residents.

So, for some ways to get out of the crowd, click the more link to see the rest of this post.

Recent Updates

I plan to keep this topic as somewhat of a living document. As I think of things I’ll add them, so check back. Here are the updates since I published the post.

9/30/2007 9:54 AM EDT – Added public restrooms section and link to urban park ranger led walks.
9/30/2007 4:30 PM EDT – Added science lecture section.
10/1/2007 9:42 PM EDT – Added links to the restaurants already mentioned and started a list of different restaurants.

Good. I piqued your interest.

Liberty/Ellis Island I’ll start with an easy one, and this one may be in the guide books, I’m not sure. If you want to see the Statue of Liberty from the water, and don’t have a burning desire to wait in line for a couple of ours to get on the Liberty/Ellis Island ferry only to spend a couple of hours waiting to walk up a very long flight of stairs inside the lady, try the Staten Island Ferry, starboard out port back to be on the side facing the lady. And it’s free!!

Alternately, there are other good ways to get out into New York Harbor, there are a number of sailboats that run hour or two hour sails of the harbor. One is from the South Street Seaport museum, the Pioneer. It looks like at the moment, they are not doing the two hour sail that they used to. Perhaps it is seasonal or perhaps they started using the tug boat instead. This is unfortunate. I would watch to see if they begin these again. The tug might be fun. I’d probably check for other sailing companies myself though.

Birding

Now let’s see about getting farther off track. If you’re into birding, believe it or not, there are two amazing sites for birding in NYC. The city is on three major flyways and is mostly concrete. Therefore, when birds need to take a break, they concentrate in the few remaining naturalistic areas. Central Park has been rated as the eleventh best birding locale in the country. The ramble (72nd – 79th, mid park) is a wooded area great for spring and fall warblers. The ravine at the north end will feel almost like being far from the city. In the more popular areas, the pond near the southeast corner gets good wading birds and many turtles. The model boat pond (really a shallow concrete pool) is right across from where Pale Male, the famous red-tailed hawk, nests each spring. Late May is a good time to see large fuzzballs (chicks) in the nest. Good tours of the park are also led occasionally by the urban park rangers. Here is the page specifically for Central Park, and includes a map link.

A mix of park time and museum time can be had by going a bit farther uptown than many people do. This is also probably in the guidebooks. The Cloisters has the finest French tapestries in the world. A friend of mine is a true Francophile, went to France and saw their best collection of tapestries. She spoke to the guide who acknowledged that the collection in the Cloisters here is actually better than their own. Fort Tryon Park surrounds the Cloisters and has a beautiful flower garden as well as some nice forest. A two block gap separates Fort Tryon Park from Inwood Hill park just to the north. Inwood Hill has the last remaining old growth in Manhattan, though not much of it, and some good birding.

The City’s Neighborhoods and History

The best way to really see particular neighborhoods in the city and hear about their history is to take a Big Onion walking tour. These are great. And, there will be New Yorkers on the tour rather than a lot of tourists. I’ve taken several and loved them. This would probably be my strongest recommendation for really getting to see a part of New York.

Just walk around on your own. Leave enough time to walk from place to place whenever possible in the city. I sometimes walk between uptown and downtown. At a good pace of over a block a minute, it takes around an hour and 45 minutes. Manhattan south of 110th or even 125th Street is so gentrified these days, for good and for bad, that you will be unlikely to find a bad neighborhood. If it’s very late at night, prefer major avenues and two way streets if you get nervous easily and avoid non-residential areas. But, there are so few real areas of concern that I can’t even warn you against anyplace in particular. Oh, and if it’s nice out, a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is quite nice. It is safe to ask New Yorkers for directions. you will usually get polite help. Prefer to pick someone at random and ask them rather than speaking to someone who comes to you offering help because you look lost.

Tip for looking like a native: Cross streets in mid-block whenever the light changes. Do step off the curb and walk forward to be even with the line of parked cars while waiting to cross the streets at intersections. Cross whenever there are no cars coming regardless of the lights. Of course, if you actually attempt this tip, please be careful not to get run over. NYC does have the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country. That we really do this just might be part of the reason.

The subway is the fastest ride around town. Except for the midnight through very early morning hours when traffic is light and the trains infrequent, the subway will beat a taxi or any other means of getting around. If you end up on one of the numbered lines, try getting to the front of the train if you have a few extra minutes on the platform. Many of the numbered lines and a few of the lettered lines, allow you to stand right at the front of the train and look through a front window. There’s something novel about being able to look out of the front of a train speeding through a long tunnel.

For getting around either on foot or on the subway, HopStop can give you good directions for your choice of subway/bus, subway only, walking only. It will also let you choose between less walking and more transfers and more walking fewer transfers. IMHO, choose fewer transfers, unless the weather is terrible or you really hate walking. Living here, I can say that sometimes HopStop doesn’t choose the absolute best route, but it usually does. It always, IME, comes up with something at least reasonable. Once in a while it will make you walk a long route underground to get to the particular subway line you want instead of telling you where the best entrance is. It’s walking directions are consistently the best.

Restaurants

New York has more restaurants than any of us can possibly know what to do with. For a good way to find a moderate to pricey restaurant on short notice, try Open Table. I have not had a bad experience with any of their restaurants. I have never arrived at the restaurant and had any problem with my reservation. You can even print the confirmation in case you’re worried that they may not have it.

For a wider range of restaurants including much more affordable restaurants, and the ability to view the menu in advance, the less perfectly maintained, but much more complete MenuPages is a good way to go. Sometimes their menus are a tad out of date. There is even the slight possibility that the restaurant you choose may have closed. But, no one I know of lists more of New York’s restaurants.

Alternately, just walk around until you find something that looks nice. If you avoid the tourist areas, where a restaurant can survive on one time business, any restaurant that has been around a few years is likely to be at least good. Please though, whatever you do, remember, you didn’t come all the way to New York to eat at McD’s or any chain that exists everywhere. You can find better food for less money and it will arrive to your table faster. At least that describes a huge number of Asian restaurants, especially in Chinatown.

For the top restaurants, you can probably find listings and ratings almost anywhere. Here are a couple of alternatives that are less famous and hence less pricey, though not inexpensive. Aix (pronounced ex) is a personal favorite on the upper west side. The food rivals many of the top restaurants I’ve been to. One If By Land TIBS is considered to be the most romantic restaurant in the city. They are, of course, excellent, but not up to the standards of some of the top restaurants. Get their beef wellington. It’s considered their best dish, and was excellent. There were one or two things on the tasting menu that were not perfect. Ouest, on the upper west side is also very good, though I prefer Aix by just a tad.

Here’s an interesting way to combine a moderate meal in the city with a nice park experience. Try the Boathouse in Central Park. There are a few cool things about this. One, it has a great view of the lake, especially if you sit outside in nice weather. Two, they have a genuine Venetian gondola, a gift from Venice to NYC, with a genuine gondolier that worked in Italy for a while and will sing Sole Mio as you go under Bow Bridge (the bridge in every movie with a park scene). Find out what time sunset is on the date you will go and try to reserve so that either dinner or the gondola ride is right through sunset. Sunset from the lake or from the deck is a beautiful view.

This is a list of good restaurants of a wide variety of price ranges that I find interesting. They are each somehow different from most run of the mill restaurants. Mamluk, Casa, Churrascarias Tribeca & Plataforma (carnivores only on these two sister restaurants), Suenos, (to be continued as I think of more).

Some neighborhoods are also particularly good for specific types of foods, Chinatown for all Asian foods, Little India (Lexington Ave in the upper 20s to low 30s), Little Korea (Low to mid30s around 5th to 6th avenues), Little Italy is mostly tourists now with few (0?) Italians actually living there now.

For a real NYC experience, while walking back from stuffing your face at one restaurant, watch for other restaurants that look interesting.

Theater

New York’s off Broadway and off off Broadway theaters often have quite good performances. Even off Broadway can be quite expensive these days though. Try the Tkts booth near Times Square if you’re willing to wait on a long line for twofers. Personally though, I like audience extras. The problem is that you probably can’t make that pay for itself unless you get to the city at least a few times a year. I’ll try to find some more information about where to get listings for off off Broadway shows and post it another time.

Until then, one I remember well was the Theater By The Blind. This is a truly unique experience. The play we saw was excellent. The acting was excellent. There were only two minor incidents on stage that did not affect the play but did indicate that indeed some of the actors really are blind. Some in the audience are blind as well, so when actors move on stage, if they do not have a line, they speak the stage direction, e.g. Scott goes to the window. This is so that the blind in the audience can follow the voice and know that the person is moving. It was all very well done. (FYI, the two incidents, in one scene an actor was speaking to the wrong character. In another, the actor dropped his hat from the table, felt around for it for a second or two and left it there.) I can’t say what tickets cost without audience extras.

Public Restrooms

NYC is definitely short on public restrooms. I’ve recommended walking around the city. What do you do about biology? For starters, always carry your own water bottle so you don’t need to buy water. NYC public water is excellent. If you taste anything in it, it’s because of the pipes in that particular building.

So, what passes for public restrooms in NYC? Starbucks and Barnes and Noble, are the most common. Home Depot, Crate and Barrel, etc. are also fine. The big department stores have theirs too far away from the door. You’ll be searching for too long. Most public restrooms, though probably not the ones in Starbucks, also have water fountains. Refill your water bottle at every opportunity if walking around for a long time. Central Park’s public restrooms are better than you’d expect and worse than you’d hope for. And, there are water fountains all over the park. The restrooms at Bryant park are quite good and there are fountains there as well.

Science

If you find science entertaining, as I do, there are two great things to know about. The New York Academy of Sciences recently moved downtown to 7 World Trade Center on the 40th Floor!! If you can, try to find a lecure here that interests you and spans sunset. The views from this building are incredible. Many of their lectures also include a reception afterward, typically with food and wine. They do quite a nice job.

The American Museum of Natural History is, by far, my favorite museum in the city. They do excellent lectures on a wide variety of subjects. Walking to the lecture after hours can be quite nice just walking in the museum after everyone else, except the lecture crowd, has gone home. Unless you have your heart set on a particular lecture, they rarely sell out in advance and sell tickets without the service charge at the door. Be a bit early to avoid ending up late due to buying the ticket on line at the door. Be sure to watch for both museum and planetarium lectures. Note: Any lecture in the Lefrak, is likely to sell out and be crowded. Buy tickets in advance. Get their early to get a decent seat. Lefrak is the same theater used for NatureMax films. It is a beautiful and large old theater. The sometimes have lectures from people as famous as Jane Goodall in there. If the lecturer is really famous, expect there to be an overflow room with audio only.

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One Response to New York City Off The Tourist Track

  1. Kris says:

    For an idea of what lectures at the New York Academy of Sciences are like, check out the Science & the City podcast, which features interviews with lecturers and audio recordings of lectures at various venues, including NYAS.

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