Ten things you (probably) didn't know about New York

From Times Square to the Statue of Liberty, New York's icons are recognised worldwide. But, after a year living there, ex-pat Aussie Nick Miller offers up some of the New York highlights you haven't heard about.

1. They turned a railway track into a park.

You'd think you'd be able to rattle off New York's most-visited tourist attractions off the top of your head. Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Centre ...

But more than three million people last year visited one you've probably never heard of.

It's called the High Line, and it has a fascinating history. Back in the early 20th century, the railroad tracks down the West Side of Manhattan caused so much havoc with other traffic that they had to hire men to walk in front of them and wave flags – and even then 10th avenue became known as "Death Avenue".

So in the 1930s they built a huge elevated train track that ran through the middle of blocks and even literally through buildings, from the Meatpacking district right up to midtown.

But it eventually fell into disuse, and after a while grass and shrubs grew on the abandoned tracks – making it a dangerous, but surprisingly beautiful urban secret.

Then three years ago it reopened as an unconventional public park. There's a path that you can walk from one end to the other, which provides unexpected views of the Hudson River, patches of lawn to stretch out on, benches to read on, urban graffiti to puzzle at, and a heap of apartment and hotel windows to peer into (the High Line passes underneath the Standard Hotel, rumoured haunt of exhibitionists).

The whole thing has been planted with greenery that reflects its wild, urban past, and it's all very lovely. Though increasingly crowded.

2. You can't drink in public. Even in parks. For real.

They don't call it the High Line for nothing.

The Parks Department dished out more than 100 summonses last year to people grabbing a sneaky chardonnay up there – the most of any city park – double that of Central Park.

But in fact you'll find it hard to find anywhere public in New York to take a bottle of wine for an afternoon picnic.

And the police are ridiculously militant about it.

Two friends of mine were out in Greenwich Village for dinner, and went to the bar next door for a G&T while waiting for a table.

When they grabbed their drinks and walked the two metres back to the restaurant, a passing police car pulled up, turned on its siren, and the cop chased them into the restaurant and shouted at them.

However, this is also probably an indication that one of the many policemen in Manhattan had nothing better to do, which brings us to…

3. It's really safe. Genuinely safe.

Don't get me wrong, you have to be a little streetwise. New York is a big city. And it's a big city in America. There are crime stats, muggings, rapes, gun murders.

But not many.

In the last two decades the rate of violent crime in America has almost halved. And New York, despite its reputation, doesn't even appear on the top ten most dangerous cities in America. In fact, it's has only the 47th highest rate of violent crime in the FBI's latest city-by-city statistics.

And that's New York as a whole. Once you get over your fears, the island of Manhattan, thanks to its busy streets and high police numbers, feels safer than the centre of any big Australian city, even in the dead of night.

Young women are perfectly happy to catch the subway home from SoHo at 2am, alone.

Of course, there are some dodgier areas. A friend of mine living in a rough part of Brooklyn once thought she was about to be mugged by someone asking to get into her building. But it turned out to be just a hipster on Ambien, who thought the knife he was waving was his front door key.

And then there's the story of another friend, fresh from Australia, who was wandering around a part of Brooklyn that's definitely not safe, in the middle of the night. But, in the end, the dude with the knife on the street corner apologised for nearly stabbing him, and walked him home.

4. People are really helpful and friendly

Yes, they're American, and they're New Yorkers, so they talk very loudly at each other in public.

But don't mistake bravado for aggression. Most New Yorkers are genuinely nice.

A friend and her mum were standing in front of the Rockefeller Center and a man came up and asked if they wanted any advice. They were wary of a scam, but after he explained the history of the building, gave shopping tips and advice on the best tourist spots, they realised he was just a chatty man.

And he's not the only one. People seem happy to serve you in shops. Maybe they aren't, but you'll often get a smile even from those who aren't angling for a tip.

The same friend was getting out of the subway once and got stopped by three different people to who told her she had her shoelace undone, before she had the time to do it up.

5. There's some excellent coffee

If you want to, you can get some really appalling drip coffee in New York. The street carts will be happy to serve you something both scaldingly hot and virtually tasteless. Dunkin Donuts will deliver a caffeine-charged insult to your mouth that you'll never be able to forget.

But if you're after a decent, Australian-style espresso, there are heaps of places you can go – far too many to list here.

And you can even track down a flat white, as New York magazine noted recently.

As you can see in the comments, there are flat whites to be had all over Manhattan and Brooklyn. We've sampled a few – Pie Face in midtown was middle of the road but spot on (I know, I know), and Toby's Estate in Williamsburg delivered everything that a discerning hipster could pretend they were too ironic to care about.

But don't discount drip coffee. When made per-cup, balancing the filter paper above the cup and soaking through some exotic blend (as we've seen at a few places such as the very trendy summer Hester Street Fair), coffee can yield as much pretension to culture as you could wish.

But if you really want a flat white that reminds you of home, Hugh Jackman's Laughing Man in TriBeCa delivers a coffee high on taste and ethics, importing its beans directly from Ethiopia. You don't get a lot of coffee for your dollar, but on the other hand you might be there when Hugh himself is giving his son a go on the espresso machine - it does happen.

6. You really do see famous people everywhere

It's not a myth, or something that happens to other people. With 250 feature films and 100+ TV shows made every year in New York, you're going to bump into someone famous.

One friend of mine walked past a Vogue fashion shoot, then sat in Central Park next to an actor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Another couple of friends walked out of their SoHo apartment one morning to find Will Smith – and a zebra – shooting a scene from Men in Black 3.

My partner has seen, in her three years here, "lots of people from Top Chef and Pro-ject Runway, Zachary Quinto from Heroes and the latest Star Trek film sitting next to us in a bar, Ed Harris walking down the street near NYU, Ethan Hawke walking down the street in Chelsea and Bjork at the opera."

We both saw Billy Crystal sitting at the back of a Broadway audience, and I very nearly saw Tim Robbins walking down the street in Williamsburg, except I thought my partner was trying to warn me about a hole in the pavement, so I looked the wrong way.

But I did spot Steve Martin having a coffee in SoHo.

7. The mixed drinks are deadly

The tipping regime is a whole rant of its own, but it does have the side-effect that bartenders are much more interested in pleasing the customer than their boss.

Which means, if you order a mixed drink, you're going to get a lot of bang for your buck.

An Australian in New York, let's call him Mr X, went to a bar in Greenwich Village and had drinks so strong that he had to go for an unscheduled sleep under a parked car and was only spotted because he's so tall he didn't entirely fit under it.

I've seen bartenders pour vodka and tonics with more vodka than tonic. Often.

It's bad for the brain cells, but good for the wallet.

8. It's (a lot) cheaper than you think

Even apart from the fact that the Aussie dollar currently buys a greenback and change, New York just isn't that expensive.

Sure, if you want to live in a downtown apartment with views of the Hudson River, shop at Tiffany's then go for dinner at some of the best restaurants in the world, you're going to burn through your cash reserves faster than the KLF.

But, accommodation aside (which is an issue), you can eat and drink well for a hell of a lot less than in most Australian cities, especially once you know a few cafes that aren't featured on tourist websites. There's such a foodie culture here that your options are legion, and competition keeps prices down at all but the most sought-after places.

The subway is cheap and efficient, too.

9. The Staten Island ferry is free (and so is the Met)

Back in 1905 it cost a nickel to catch the new ferry from Staten Island (which has little to recommend it) to downtown Manhattan and back.

It cost 25 cents for the next 70 years. Then the fare doubled, then in 1997 it was unexpectedly eliminated altogether (Mayor Giuliani was re-elected shortly afterwards, with a significant Staten Island vote).

Here's the plan: you hop on at the bottom tip of Manhattan, and head straight for the on-board bar where you can purchase a large Fosters for a surprisingly low price. Then you take it up to the deck and enjoy the view of the harbour, including a reasonably close run past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Then you get to Staten Island, flirt briefly with the idea of actually looking around, then catch the ferry back, using the same procedure, and get a stunning view of Manhattan's downtown skyscrapers into the bargain.

By the way the Metropolitan Museum of Art is also free. You might think that it costs $25, but if you look at the small print, it's a voluntary donation to see some of the city's best art. Of course, you feel like a cheapskate when you tell the people at the desk that you're not going to pay anything for the ticket.

10. Brooklyn

It's not just a suburb. If it was excised from New York, it would be the country's fifth biggest city with 2.5 million people – much bigger than Manhattan alone.

And it's well worth a visit. It's close to Manhattan, convenient on the subway and has an incredibly wide range of subcultures, from the home of the hipster, Williamsburg, to the yummy mummy islands of Park Slope and Fort Greene, to the cutting-edge art enclaves of Carroll Gardens and Bushwick and the cut-you-and-take-all-your-money ghetto of Bed-Stuy.

You can find funk parties in the park, obscure galleries, delicious food from about every country on the planet, and also there's an Ikea, that has its own ferry.

And you almost certainly didn't know that.

Did you find any surprises in New York City? Post a comment below.

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