We had an uncle in New York growing up. Journeying to the other side of the world to Uncle Joe was an adventure.
I think I was about 10 years of age when I saw New York for the first time. For a kid from the sleepy suburban hamlet of Churchtown walking into Central Park, going up the Empire State Building (I looked up and imagined King Kong still at the top, fighting off those air planes in the sky) was shock and awe.
The magic of the city, of its people (the way they talked and walked and looked) and the food (you could have steak for breakfast and every kind of pancake with every kind of topping) made you feel like you were in a big motion picture.
I was in love with this metropolis.
At night, I looked out the window and waited to see Batman emerge on to the Manhattan skyline to keep the city safe from crime.
I didn't want to live in lil' ol' Churchtown. I wanted more than anything to live here, in the Big Apple, in Gotham, in the city that never sleeps. Joe Updike said, "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."
And he was on to something. Every time I go back as an adult to this city I always get that sense of wonder, of that first time as a kid, looking up at the skyscrapers, with my mother holding my hand.
So, I went just before Christmas on my own.
Those same emotions rushed back. Jumping out of the yellow cab with a James Cagney-like spring in my step, I checked into The Arthouse Hotel on the Upper West Side, a magnificent home from home for three glorious nights. It being 5pm and I being a little jet-lagged, I had a bourbon at the very fancy bar of the hotel after I checked in and hailed a cab straight into the bright lights of the big city.
Going into Manhattan at night, with the lights and traffic and the people, my heart always does a little dance. I got off in The Village and just strolled out, breathing in the atmosphere, the city even. I love the West Side of New York in the evenings, especially this area that was the bastion of urban bohemia and an eccentric stamping ground of the likes of Isadora Duncan, William Faulkner, and Eugene O'Neill, once upon a time.
I passed No 1 Sheridan Square, where on this site in the late 1930s and 1940s in the nightclub Café Society, the likes of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday made history and changed how we hear music - it was the first racially integrated nightclub in the city.
Later on in the 1960s, in the coffee houses of the Village, everyone from a Mr B Dylan to the Clancy brothers and Joan Baez played. I had a quick beer in Dante on MacDougal Street, bought a New York Times in a shop on the corner, then hailed a cab back to my hotel. I woke up in the beautiful suite of the hotel at 6am, jet-lagged, got dressed and went down and had breakfast of pancakes and bacon and maple syrup in a local diner. I drank a giant mug of coffee and read the New Yorker magazine.
I felt like I belonged and I had only been in town five minutes. "One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years," said Tom Wolfe.
I walked and walked and walked and found myself, eventually, on the edge of Central Park.
I am always in a rush when I'm in New York. On this visit, I had nothing but time. So at my leisure I took in Strawberry Fields, the Sheep Meadow, Cherry Hill, Bow Bridge, the Bethesda Fountain, the Naumburg Bandshell, the Loeb Boathouse, the Hans Christian Andersen Monument, the Conservatory Water's model boats and the Alice in Wonderland statue. I even took a horse carriage ride as well. Four hours later, I was starving; I'd have eaten the horse that brought me around Central Park.
I went to the food hall in the basement of the Plaza Hotel on the corner of Fifth Avenue of Central Park South. It is a great place to people watch and have some great food. I come here every time I am in New York.
At Luke's Lobster, I had fresh lobster, crab, shrimp rolls, and a juice. Afterwards, I walked around a bit and ended up in - of all places - Grand Central Station.
It is America's busiest railway station, with 700,000 people passing through it each day - a cinematic choreography of commuters - on their way somewhere. But I wasn't going anywhere. I just wanted to take in its magnificent architecture, with the sunlight streaming in through its famous windows. It is not for nothing one of the world's most-visited tourist attractions.
After that, because I was in no hurry to be anywhere or meet anyone I took a cab to the Brooklyn Bridge (which officially opened on May 24, 1883) and did that wonderful walk. I was told by someone who I met on my walk that PT Barnum's elephants walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 and that, almost as bizarrely, peregrine falcons allegedly nest on the bridge. It took me sixty-something minutes to walk the pedestrian walkway of roughly 1.6 miles. It was worth it for the view.
My jet lag was starting to kick in, so I got a taxi back to my hotel, and before turning in exhausted for the night, had one of its signature cocktails, the Broadway Martini at the Arthouse Bar, the look of which, with its large zinc bar, was inspired by the speakeasies and Harlem music clubs of the 1920s.
This same bar, as I found out the next morning, offers delish, freshly-baked Kosher pastry from Patis. You'd have to travel to Paris to get pastry as good as this. The coffee was damn fine too.
Ready for another New York day, I set off once more on my journey into the city that I first knew as a kid with my Uncle Joe. I took in the sensory overload of Times Square (I imagine New Yorkers don't think too highly of Times Square - but if you're visiting, it has to be done) and then walked for 20 minutes, stopping in a book shop here, a coffee shop there, along the way, before I found myself looking up at the Empire State Building.
I recalled myself as a 10-year-old boy with my parents going up it for the first time; this incredible monument to vertigo that was officially opened by President Hoover on May 1, 1931. I didn't go up this time. But I still looked and envisaged King Kong at the top.
I went instead to the Museum of Modern Art and feasted on Picasso, and Van Gogh. You can't come to New York without visiting the MoMA.
Then I went for dinner at Morton's in mid-town Manhattan. I had a nice glass of wine and a steak, medium rare, the size of a cab. I finished the night off by another walk around Times Square, this time at night. It seemed extra weird in the dark.
"Yet, as only New Yorkers know, if you can get through twilight, you'll live through the night," said Dorothy Parker.
The following morning - my final day in the Big Apple - I had breakfast in the Arthouse Hotel, before I headed out.
With my flight back to Ireland later that afternoon, I didn't have a lot of time left. And there was one more thing that I wanted to do.
I went to 180 Greenwich Street to the 9/11 Memorial to pay my respects to Joanne Cregan, a school friend of my sister Marina's. Joanne lost her life while working on the 105th floor of the North Tower. She was 32 years old.
Her name (along with the names of 2,982 others) is inscribed on bronze panels, a tribute to those who died in the terror attacks at the World Trade Center site as well as those who died in Flight 93's crash in Pennsylvania, at the Pentagon, and the six people who died in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
It's always difficult to visit New York without thinking of that day. I have told my wife and two young kids that when the virus finally passes, I will take them over to visit this unbreakable city. I can't wait.
The boatman’s call
Fans of You on Netflix will know that Beck asked Joe, “Been to Staten Island yet?” The ferry operates 24 hours a day come rain or shine and is well worth it; one of the best ways to see the city that never sleeps. siferry.com
Top of the world
One World Observatory, in the One World Trade Center building, is an observation deck offering utterly surreal views all around from 1,776 feet — count ‘em! — above the city. oneworldobservatory.com
7 of Barry Egan's best New York stories
1987: Spending a week with Sinead O’Connor for New Musical Express as she recorded Jump In The River with American performance artist, Karen Finley.
1992: Sharing U2’s limo to a late-night party in the Village. This was after their Madison Square Gardens Zoo TV gig. It remains one of the most extraordinary shows I ever witnessed.
1994: Meeting Eric Cantona in a lift on the Upper East Side. As random moments go, spending 45 seconds with the Gallic god is up there with anything else thus far in my life. “Hello Eric,” I said. I added I was over to support Ireland in the World Cup. “They are not bad, non?,” he smiled, and exited the lift.
1999: Irish hotel king of New York, and the most connected, and charming man in Manhattan, the legendary John Fitzpatrick bringing me to meet Bill and Hillary Clinton one summer’s evening.
2000: Hanging out with Gabriel Byrne and Yoko Ono at the penthouse overlooking Strawberry Fields she owned with the late great John Lennon. Nosing through John’s record collection in the kitchen and having a twang or two on his guitar was something I will never forget, to say nothing of playing his and Yoko’s famous piano in the living room.
2005: Bumping into Lou Reed, while out walking on the Upper West Side one winter evening.
2017: Talking to Billy Joel near his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island (he sold his other house to Jerry Seinfeld for $32m) for 90 minutes about his father walking out when he was a child, anti-Semitism, his four wives — and getting lost with Bono in Sag Harbor in the Hamptons not so long ago on one of his motorbikes.
* Arthouse Hotel New York City is bringing hip, vintage hotel charm to the posh Upper West Side. Arthouse Hotel sets a new standard for NYC hotels. Their century-old building retains many of its historic accents, adding warmth to the space you won’t find anywhere else in the area. Custom artwork, an original fireplace, and a 1920s French elevator system in the lobby greet guests to an unparalleled hotel experience. arthousehotelnyc.com
* The CityPASS provides free (and often priority) entry to six of the city’s most iconic attractions and museums. (citypass.com/new-york)
* For travel across New York city’s five boroughs, visit NYC & Company’s website, see nycgo.com
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Sign up for our free travel newsletter!
Love travel? Like what you're reading? Subscribe to our free travel newsletter. 'Travel Insider' is written and curated by our award-winning Travel Editor, Pól Ó Conghaile.