Tuesday 17 July 2018

Finding a New York state of mind in the world's greatest city break

Short breaks in the US

The Manhattan skyline is dominated by the One World Trade Centre tower where a visit to the 9-11 museum on Ground Zero is highly recommended Manhatten
The Manhattan skyline is dominated by the One World Trade Centre tower where a visit to the 9-11 museum on Ground Zero is highly recommended Manhatten
Fearghal in the Big Apple

Fearghal O'Connor

Walking the canyon streets of lower Manhattan for the first time in 20 years I felt unaccountably nervous.

For two days I had feverishly walked up streets, down avenues, through the subway and around the parks, happily breathing in every bit of atmosphere the greatest city on earth could offer.

Must-sees, tourist traps, awe-inspiring vistas, trendy East Village hangouts and old haunts full of memories had all been ticked off the list. Walking around Manhattan, with only half a purpose in mind has always been one of life's great pleasures and, once again, it had not disappointed. But I had left the lower tip of Manhattan island, with its towering buildings and financial types, until last on my whirlwind reacquaintance trip.

Like the rest of the world I had watched the events of 9-11 unfold from afar in horror. Now as I walked up Broadway from Battery Park towards the place where the twin towers once stood I felt trepidation. During a long happy summer in the city in the early 90s I had loved bringing New York newbies here to see them gasp, and to gasp anew myself. We would ritually walk to the bottom of the twin towers, put our hands on the mighty structure and then travel to the 107th floor of the North Tower to the Windows on the World restaurant to admire the city spread out below. I had not been back since and I was surprised how emotional it felt to be walking towards what had tragically become known as Ground Zero.

Fearghal in the Big Apple
Fearghal in the Big Apple

Over the previous 48 hours New York had, thankfully, proven to still be very much New York but, I wondered, was this where I would find that unattractive, bullish, hyper patriotic atmosphere that in the intervening years seemed, from afar, to have become the vibe of America?

But I need not have been afraid. The 9-11 museum is a truly magnificent memorial to those lost that day. The enormous subtlety of the two tower footprint pools, beneath the massive but strangely understated One World Trade Centre tower sets the tone. The museum itself winds its sombre, delicate way down into the raw foundations of the now destroyed buildings. It is deeply moving and awe inspiring and silently pronounces a different type of greatness to that which some now preach for America.

But there are many other great - and less sombre - reasons to visit New York. In 1994 I had hung around the then new bar of Fitzpatrick's Hotel on Lexington Avenue looking (successfully!) for tickets to the famous Ireland v Italy match in the Giants Stadium. The centrally located hotel continues to be a Mecca for Irish visitors to the city after 25 years doing business. Staying at the hotel so many years after the heady days of '94 when it was far out of a then meagre budget was a treat and one that did not disappoint.

In some ways the city has changed very little but 21st Century Manhattan can feel a little like a theme park version of the grittier city of days gone by. The streets are sanitised compared to what they were in the 1990s, less edgy. Nowhere is this as obvious as Times Square. For the visitor it is a big improvement. A safer environment means a growing number of family attractions. Smaller kids might like the miniature world at the Gulliver's Gate exhibition. For older kids and adults alike the new National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey, which uses high tech graphics and virtual reality to create an amazing underwater experience, is unmissable.

911 Museum, New York. A visitor pauses by a photo of the Manhattan skyline taken around 8.30am on September 11, 2001.
911 Museum, New York. A visitor pauses by a photo of the Manhattan skyline taken around 8.30am on September 11, 2001.
9/11 Memorial, Financial District, Manhattan
Inside the 911 Museum, New York
911 Memorial, New York, overlooked by the 'Freedom Tower'
Inside the 911 Museum, New York
Ladder 3 fire engine; 911 Memorial, New York
911 Museum, New York - an original heritage sign for the Twin Towers
NEW YORK: in The Statue of Liberty stands in the foreground as Lower Manhattan is viewed at dusk, September 8, 2016 in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11, 2001: Smoke pours from the twin towers of the World Trade Center after they were hit by two hijacked airliners in a terrorist attack September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)
Oculus Center, the new World Trade Center Transportation Hub
A single red rose is placed in the wall at the 9/11 Memorial during ceremony during a ceremony marking the 12th Anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York September 11, 2013. REUTERS/David Handschuh/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ANNIVERSARY)
NEW YORK: An aerial view of the top of One World Trade Center and its spire, on September 8, 2016. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Of course, the Broadway theatres are still the main attraction here. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is currently playing and is an amusing, foot tapping take on the singer songwriter's troubled rise to success.

Eating out has always been one of the great joys of Manhattan but the sheer variety of options has only grown. I visited during NYC Restaurant Week, which has been running for 25 years, and will run again in February: a good value way to visit top restaurants that might otherwise be out of reach. I ate in the Great Northern Food Hall near Grand Central Station, in the Ribbon on the Upper West Side and Sea Grill at the Rockefeller Centre. All were good but Sea Grill's midtown location is particularly spectacular.

My favourite new addition to Manhattan's already huge list of attractions is the High Line park. It is a 1.45 mile-long abandoned elevated train track that winds its way from Hudson Yards, where brand new skyscrapers are springing up, to trendy Chelsea. The planting is delicate and thoughtful and the photo opportunities, with the Empire State Building and other landmarks in the background, are superb.

A good idea if on a quick trip to the city is to buy the CityPASS. It provides free (and often priority) entry to six of the city's most iconic attractions and museums, including must-see attractions like the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock and the aforementioned 9-11 museum. Full details on this pass can be found at www.citypass.com/new-york. Combine it with a handy Subway Pass and your whirlwind tour of what New York has to offer will be much easier.

There is, of course, more to New York than Manhattan. Across the East River lies the city of Brooklyn. You can stroll across the famous Brooklyn Bridge, taking copious photographs of Manhattan's towering skyline as you go. But to really understand Brooklyn you must venture deeper into its infamous but now largely gentrified streets.

A truly unique way to visit the borough is to take the hugely enjoyable A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour. It literally provides a taste of the borough with visits to some of its most famous pizza establishments, streets, neighbourhoods, film locations and the rejuvenated Coney Island. Then it's back across the Brooklyn Bridge, re-energised through the magic of pizza, and ready for more walking.

Times Square, New York City. Photo: Deposit
Times Square, New York City. Photo: Deposit

For anyone who watches the news night after night and wonders what has happened to the real America, a trip to still feisty New York City will reassure that it is still there, just waiting to be rediscovered.

Getting there

For details of Fitzpatrick Hotel Manhattan, which is celebrating 25 years in business, go to fitzpatrickhotels.com.

United offers non-stop services from Dublin to New York/Newark and Washington Dulles as well as Chicago seasonally, and seasonal services from Shannon to Chicago and New York/Newark.

Return economy fares from Dublin to Newark start from €443.88 including taxes. Return fares in United Business from Dublin to Newark start from in €1,769.88 including taxes. For the latest fare information, visit united.com or call 1-890-925-252.

A great website for ideas before travelling is nycgo.com.

Read more:

The New York Bucket List: 25 things to do in the Big Apple before you die!

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