New York New York – yes, it's a wonderful town. It's also one that presents first-timers with a delectable dilemma – what to see when you have too much to do and too little time? Here are 10 picks for those taking a first bite of the Big Apple.
1. AIM HIGH
The sweep of Manhattan adorned with its jewel-like bridges and dazzling harbour statue is best appreciated from the skies, and no city offers better vantage points for a bird's-eye view. First-timers must head to The Empire State Building because, well, it's their job as a first-timer, but also because of its glamour, its history, its iconic architecture and An Affair to Remember. Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre is a close second – particularly in winter so you can marvel at the outdoor ice rink. And of course Downtown's soaring marvel, the Freedom Tower – source of much debate and angst after 9/11 – provides the tallest vantage point, albeit one tinged with melancholy. To avoid queues and save, grab a New York CityPASS. See citypass.com/newyork
There is a reason why Broadway is abuzz at night with excited chatter and theatregoers breaking into impromptu dance moves – even in the snow. The breadth of talent and the way it's celebrated and nurtured here is mind boggling. Broadway's many theatres are character-filled, loved-up venues that are warm, inviting and full of ornate furnishings and celebrated histories that can make a newbie heady with excitement. Classics and current faves play alongside each other: Chicago, Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon … No matter what you have tickets for, you are pretty much guaranteed you are seeing the best version of it. After all, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere. We think we peak too early by seeing Kinky Boots on our first night. But then we see Chicago and are blown away. Average ticket prices recently topped $US100 but if you turn up on the night you could score a discount. Or, take a punt on an off Broadway show where you may catch a star in the making.
3. THE STATUE
The sight of New York's grand lady lighting the way for those seeking refuge is particularly moving in these times. Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close cannot be a might do – it's a must. Explore Staten Island if you can – but if not, at least cruise past this grandest of gestures from the French to the Americans. Cruises can also provide entertaining guides (our Ramones fan/lookalike was a gem) and introduce you to the joys of the Downtown waterfront, one of New York's oldest areas, now booming with new restaurants and apartments.
The musts first: hot dogs and bagels from a street vendor, a slice of that cartoonish cheesy pizza and freshly carved pastrami on rye with a dill pickle at Katz's deli. Other must dos are Chinese in Chinatown and spaghetti in Little Italy. Some fab finds: Irish pub food at Downtown's Fraunces Tavern – one of the oldest hotels in the city, see frauncestavern.com And for barflies? Try Good Night Sonny in the East Village, see goodnightsonnynyc.com
Prepare to buy an extra suitcase. There are the big names such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Barney's, and also up-market brands at bargain prices at stores such as Century 21, where designer brands go for a fraction of the price. (You can buy that extra bag here.) There are also great shopping districts such as SoHo and the East Village. Vintage lovers head to the Cure Thrift Shop, see curethriftshop.com And don't miss Chelsea Market or the holiday markets at Union Square and Bryant Park.
National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey uses immersive 3D technology to make you feel as if you are walking under the ocean. Endure rapid currents, witness the changing colours of the sky while under the ocean and have intimate encounters with creatures such as seals and the aptly named thresher shark – all without getting wet. Highlights were losing ourselves in a kelp forest maze and the final section of the exhibit where, in a truly multi-sensory experience, sea creatures, including humpbacks, come at us from all directions. This exhibit is startlingly original and brilliantly entertaining. Takeaway surprising fact: A humpback was spotted in the Hudson River in 2016 – a good news story to do with improved water quality. See natgeoencounter.com
These streets are made for walking. And so are the bridges. Any self-respecting newbie must walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. You can walk it in 25 minutes if you hurry, but don't. The walk starting from the Brooklyn side offers the view of the Manhattan skyline, which is even more spectacular at sunset. And while not technically a bridge, one of New York's newest tourist attractions, The Highline, is also worth wandering on for great views and dotted artworks.
8. IDOL CHATTER
Our American idol? Wit, gem and one-off Dorothy Parker and so we save the (surprisingly reasonably priced) Algonquin for our last night. We sit at the Round Table and become very witty after a Dorothy Parker cocktail at the hotel's Blue Bar – well, maybe not quite as witty as the great one: "I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I'm under the table. After four, I'm under my host." We also pat the hotel's fat cat who can be found reclining on the front desk or snoring on a luggage rack. (Like all the male cats who have risen from rescue shelter to resident over the years he is called Hamlet – a nod to former guest John Barrymore's star role). We also watch fascinated as en elderly woman feeds cake to her dog at a table. With a spoon. See algonquinhotel.com
9. FOR ARTS SAKE
Museums and art. The Museum of Natural History is a no-brainer. As is the Guggenheim. Take a day and a packed lunch. While it may seem that just about every corner of NYC is hosting some form of performance art, the real stuff is housed within MoMA, The Met and The Whitney. We saw Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Rodin, Hockney, Warhol. Prepare to be stunned.
10. PARK IT
Central Park has skating on the frozen lake in winter, sunbathers and Frisbee games in summer, those bridges, the wild Ramble, horse-drawn carriages, Belvedere Castle, squirrels, and Strawberry Fields across from the Dakota building. And then there are the people. In 20 minutes we encounter a group in a tunnel using the acoustics to sing Gospel-style Christmas carols; a man selling Genuine Bad Portraits for $5 a pop (they were very bad and yes people were queuing for them); a film crew recording an episode of The Desk and a man selling beautiful resin and bark rings he made from a park tree to aid a drug program. Spend a day here.
Jane Richards travelled at her own expense and was a guest of National Geographic and NYC and Company.