Through a series of unfortunate circumstances we wound up not traveling this past anniversary, and instead decided to simply take a day or two off and do some stuff on the island in which we live. We are not snobs and would have been happy to travel to the bigger long island nearby or even the mainland up north or to the west, but as it turned out, we stayed close to home.
So, in case you may be visiting, here are few tips from our recent travels:
In really inclement weather, when especially tired, the better half and I have been known to hop into a cab. Taxis are expensive and depending on where you are going and when, they can be slow, but they are plentiful. Despite Sex in the City, most real people take trains and buses most of the time. The “yellow” cabs all use meters. If you happen to be staying north of 110th street or in the boroughs, and a strange black car pulls up beside you, chances are the driver is not a serial killer. If the license plate says: TLC, then it is a livery or “gypsy” cab. It is technically illegal for them to stop and pick up passengers on the street, but it’s commonplace especially in neighborhoods that aren’t served by a lot of cabs. They have set prices although who knows what they are? Generally, you can negotiate a bit with the driver. They may not be willing to take you too far out of their comfort zone.
The subway is generally the best choice. There are parts of Manhattan that may be a few long blocks east or west from the station, but most New Yorkers are walkers and can handle it. While the bus system is great, buses are amazingly slow and if I were a tourist with a limited amount of time, I’d avoid them altogether. There used to be good discounts for buying Metrocards costing $20 or more. They’ve now lowered the discount to a flat 7% on all cards costing $10 or more, so those cards aren’t as much of a bargain. If you think you’ll be using the system at least one round trip each day, then invest in a seven-day unlimited Metrocard for $29.
While I don’t want to get sued if you get stabbed or killed on the subway, I will tell you that the subway is very safe and runs frequently 24/7. Weekends, however, things get weird as a lot of repair work gets done and this causes route changes and delays. The MTA website offers updates and travel advisories. There are maps in every station and in most train cars. You can use the “trip planner” on the MTA site or on HopStop for directions. As a native, I’ve found both these sites a bit hinky, but Hopstop offers a little more flexibility. You also should not be shy about ASKING a New Yorker if you aren’t sure what train to take. New Yorkers LOVE to talk and will be happy to give you directions. If they know languages, they LOVE to speak them, so even if you are a fluent in English, you can always mess with us by speaking something else and seeing if there’s anyone who can help you.
There’s no reason to see a film in New York City. There are better things to do that you can’t do at home. Back in the day, there were tons of revival and art houses in the city where one could watch film “classics” and foreign films on big screens. The revival houses are long gone. Most of the smaller art houses as well, but there are a couple of places left that still show foreign and indie films. Our two favorites are the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center. Lincoln Plaza, which the better half and I have taken to calling the Lincoln Plaza Home for Adults, because it tends to skew old, is located near Lincoln Center, barely north of midtown on the southern tip of the Upper West Side. It’s not that far from us, but it’s not the one we’d be most likely to recommend to tourists. Ever since the nearby Barnes & Noble closed, there’s not much to do if you get there early or need to meet someone. The lobby is small and crowded, and the employees tend to be a surly bunch.
Angelika on the other hand, makes a night at the movies a worthy destination. It features a lobby level cafe with plenty of tables and no ticket required. Though the coffees may be overpriced, it’s located on Houston Street at the border between the East Village and Soho, with big glass walls that allow for street watching. The staff is helpful and friendly. When I balked at a $4.00 charge for bottled water, I was given a paper cup with cold water free of charge. While that may seem like a small thing, believe me in this town, it’s anything but.
Personally, I think they could better use the space, add a bookstore, or throw in a small laundry service where locals could drop off, go to a movie and pick up their stuff when they leave, but that’s just my obsession with maximizing real estate. The theatres themselves are small, but well designed and clean.
Times Square and the Theater
I get it. Most tourists want to go see a Broadway Show. Whatever. There’s a lot of live theatre to be seen in New York that’s not on Broadway. Actors live here. You can see plays that aren’t on Broadway for the fraction of the price, but over the last few days, we went to see a Broadway show, so I’ll give you the scoop on discount tickets.
You’ve probably heard of the half-price day of the show, TKTS booth. Not all shows area available, and those that are, aren’t necessarily half-price, but it’s still a great resource. The website will even tell you what was available within the last week. (There’s an app that gives you real time information about availability.) There are now satellite counters in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan that offer matinee tickets a day in advance. The discounts range from 30-50%. A particular show might only have a discount of 30% and only on the most expensive seats, so you still may wind up spending a lot, especially for musicals.
Even if the show you want to see has been available at TKTS, that doesn’t mean that the day you get on the line it will be available, so if you really want to see something specific, you might consider just getting your ticket online before you come to town. Generally, on a weekday especially in lousy weather, if you get to the line 50 minutes before it opens, you won’t have to wait more than ten minutes once it opens. If you arrive later, you could be waiting more than an hour. If you do come later, some of what was available might be sold out, but sometimes new shows are added write before the curtain goes up. One feature that’s relatively new, or that I didn’t know about is “Play Express.” Play Express is a separate line for non-musical plays at discounted prices. Because most tourists want to see musicals, the Play Express line tends to be very short, and availability is pretty good. We saw Chinglish with 8th row orchestra seats, and completely enjoyed the show, which unfortunately will close January 29th. So if you are a “culture vulture” who just wants to see great (non-musical) theatre and doesn’t want to spend your whole afternoon waiting in line, Play Express is the option for you.
Times Square itself is a nightmare. It’s like some horrid outdoor mall in hell. Gone is any trace of grit. It is Disneyfied and family friendly, although absurdly overpriced. There are no good restaurants in Times Square, but if you have to use the bathroom there are a couple of McDonald’s (including an extremely large one on 42nd street). There is also a homey Starbucks with clean restrooms across from the TCKTS booth. Feel free to ignore any signs suggesting that bathrooms are for customers’ use. If you’ve ever bought anything at a McDonald’s or a Starbucks, you are a customer.
I would avoid at all costs the “Discovery Store.” We got to Times Square before TCKTS opened, but then decided to use Play Express, so there was no need to wait on line. (In New York you wait on line. You skate in line.) One of the giant billboards was hawking “the Dead Sea Scrolls” at Discovery Times Square, so we decided to check it out. The admission was a whopping $27.00 for adults and $19.50 for kids 4-12. Maybe it’s a great exhibition, but there are many terrific museums with outstanding regular collections and special exhibitions in this city. None of them are this overpriced. Some are by donations. Some have special “free” days or evenings. By all means enjoy our museums, the real ones, not the Discovery Store or Madame Toussand’s.
(Tip: If you want to go to a museum between the time you pick up your evening tickets and get to the theater, MOMA is walking distance (or a very short cab ride) from the TKTS booth. They have “free” Friday nights starting at 4:00. So if you get to TKTS before it opens at 3:00, and then go to the museum for a couple of hours, you’ll still have time for dinner before the show.)
Real New Yorkers are appalled by chains, with the possible exception of Dunkin Donuts which is local. There are a few Applebee’s mostly in outer borough malls or Times Square. There’s an Olive Garden in Chelsea that people eat at ironically, but I’m not sure that’s good for your digestion. Generally, the better half and I go for ethnic food in Queens because chances are it will be more authentic, better and a whole lot cheaper than in Manhattan. However, I’m trying to stick to our recent tourism, so I’ll tell you where we ate this week. On our movie night at Angelika we had planned to go to Angelica Kitchen, no relation, a popular vegan/organic place. It was packed. I’m not sure whether or not they take reservations, but I’d recommend calling to check and/or being prepared to wait. Because we couldn’t go there, we went to our favorite place for comfort food, Veselka’s. Veselka’s describes itself as Ukranian soul food and was in the East Village when the East Village had edge — still easy on the wallet, and authentically delish.
When we went to the show, the plan was to dine after the theater, and we wanted to stay in the area. This does not mean we would consider Times Square itself. 46th Street starting at 8th Avenue is known as New York’s “restaurant row” and is a short walk from the Broadway theaters. There are some very good restaurants there that aren’t tourist traps. MenuPages offers tips and “real people” reviews for almost all. . We chose to avoid the row and head for 9th Avenue away from the hubbub. This is the area now called Clinton that used to be known as Hell’s Kitchen. Like the rest of Manhattan, it’s ridiculously safe for a major city. While plenty of people may go to 9th Avenue, it’s not a tourist trap. We had a craving for Indonesian food which isn’t as ubiquitous as other cuisines. We chose Bali Nusa Indah and were not disappointed.
Honestly, I don’t write enough about things to do in the city or getting around. Seriously, if you are planning a trip and have some specific questions, write me, I’ll either blog about it or get back to you via email.