The first time I went to The Big Apple – namely the most famous of New York City’s five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) – I was a wide-eyed teenager enthralled with skyscrapers, city lights and the Manhattan skyline. I was there with my childhood friend, Liz, and her parents for a long weekend. It happened to be over New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade as I remember eating free, green bagels. I also recall Radio City Music Hall, where some famous singer exited among a sea of fans.
I went back to Manhattan about a decade later to visit my friend, Felicia, who moved there after university. I returned again and again. We lived by night, going to cool bars, swanky restaurants and half the city’s nightclubs. We recovered by day at Tal Bagels, a Midtown institution that still exists.
After I moved to Brussels in 2015, I missed taking bites of The Big Apple (FYI, this nickname came from a reference to horse-racing). Sadly, it lost its good taste in recent years due to various crises but now it’s ripe again for visiting. Recently, thanks to my friend, Lauren, I rediscovered New York City almost exactly as I remembered it, with a few notable exceptions:
- Fifth Avenue is no longer exclusively high-brow. Even H&M and Uniqlo have made it onto the famed luxury strip! (If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.)
- Penn station and Grand Central Station got facelifts. Penn Station is full of light thanks to a retrofit of its steel frame with a glass roof. Grand Central is grander than ever with an extension into a stunning, old post office (which still functions as such) and a new, swanky food court.
- Hudson Yards near Chelsea is a hot, new development area. It includes a shopping center, The Vessel walkway tower (which sadly closed due to suicides), a pickle ball court and an outdoor movie theater. Nearby is Edge, a 100-story skyscraper with an outdoor, glass platform that non-vertigo-hindered people can traverse for stunning views of Manhattan in all directions.
- Architect Zaha Hadid left one last legacy in Manhattan before she died in 2016: a residential building, 520 West 28th Street, with highly stylized facades. It is best viewed from the High Line, a two-kilometer above-ground walkway on an old train track that’s landscaped for a city escape (nevermind lots of people!).
- While the High Line has been around for a decade, it was new to me. It is the gateway to Chelsea art galleries and you can hop on and off the High Line for the high life.
- The Summit at the top of the Vanderbilt One building is a new, immersive experience with stunning views of Manhattan. It includes a hall of mirrors and lights, rooms with silver floating balls as well as stationary and moving clouds. (The best deal is the no-drink ticket for $50.)
- Fotografiska Museum opened in 2010 as an art center focused on photography, which includes a cool bar and restaurant called Veronika. For members, you can get your spirits on in a church bar next door. Currently, the works of pop art photog David LaChapelle are on exhibit — highly recommended if you’re into contemporary art.
A new “High Line” called the Manhattan Greenway is being built along the East River from Midtown up to Central Park. This will even out car-free pedestrian walkways in the city, which currently favor southern Manhattan.
Of course, classic experiences in Manhattan never get old like Central Park, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Broadway. (Lauren and I just saw two-time Tony-award wining “MJ the Musical” — we recommend it as it focuses on the music we love, not the parts of Michael Jackson we don’t). And I’m always thrilled to see Rockefeller Plaza, the Empire State Building (which also offers wonderful views from the top), Times Square, 9-11 Memorial, Flatiron building and the Statue of Liberty. The latter remains one of America’s greatest symbols, representing our Melting Pot of immigrants and foundational democracy. (Coming off the U.S. mid-term elections, these assets are important to remember!)
For foodies, New York City is one of the best cities in the world, offering many Michelin-starred restaurants — for example, MoMA’s contemporary art expands to the kitchen in its restaurant The Modern — and even terrific street food trucks. The ambiance of venues is second to none, whether sophisticated and swanky or authentic and gritty. (I was thrilled to see no-frills Tal Bagels still standing tall and wider than before with extended space to consume the city’s best bagel sandwiches.) Even Harlem in upper Manhattan has a burgeoning gastronomy scene.
Sip in style at some of New York’s gourmet cocktail bars like the no longer secret Campbell’s Apartment at Grand Central Station, clandestine Apotheke Chinatown or Valerie. Just be prepared for sobering sticker shock as cocktails average $20 apiece nowadays!
While COVID-19 and civil strife drove some longtime New York City residents out for good, those who stayed were rewarded with unprecedented mortgage rates, more housing options and fewer queues. While crime is at an all-time high — the city’s 9 million residents are called for jury duty every two years and it is now unsafe to ride the Manhattan subway at night — it is a greater crime to shun America’s biggest city and cultural epicenter. New York City will always have its charm, energy and vibrancy in spite of reality checks with humanity.
While I’ve had many tasty bites of The Big Apple, it will take years to fully consume this city that never sleeps and always evolves.* I can’t wait …