Tuesday, April 7, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 7)

  There are cities all over the world known for their beaches. Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Honolulu, Barcelona, Miami, Los Angeles, and others are cities where the beach is to focus of life and culture. But do you ever think of the beach when you think of New York City? Almost certainly you don't. And you're wrong. New York may not be a world class beach town, but we have long stretches of sand that makes for a great day on the ocean by anyone's standards. And I don't mean a tiny little pebbly cove with beach chairs. New York City actually has about 20 miles of sandy beach to enjoy along the coastal edges of the city. But the biggest by far is a 14-mile long barrier peninsula in Queens, the longest urban beach in the USA: Rockaway Beach. So Day 7 is a day to ditch the summer heat of Manhattan, and get some sand between your toes.

Day 7 - The Rockaways

Morning: Rockaway Beach is one of New York's favorite summer playgrounds and has been for more almost 200 years. This prime shoreline was once a beachside destination of great fame. The first resort and spa opened in 1833, and all through the 19th century well-to-do New Yorkers took summers and weekends at the dozens of resorts along the beach, reached by new turnpikes, railroads, and ferries. Rockaway Beach even got into the amusement game rivaling Coney Island's attractions with the construction of Rockaway Playland in 1902. The beaches attracted more summer visitors with the construction of tidy bungalows in the 1920s for working class vacationers. The heyday wouldn't last though, and by the time The Ramones write their hit "Rockaway Beach" in 1977, much of The Rockaways had devolved into gritty, forgotten shoreline. Rockaway never went away though, and many more people are re-discovering Queens' shoreline these days and joining longtime fans of the long sandy shore. The past few years have been hard, however, particularly the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy in October, 2012. The storm destroyed more than a hundred homes and flooded almost every structure on the peninsula. The boardwalk was destroyed, businesses lost, and seven lives were lost on The Rockaways. The area is recovering, and is back to welcoming visitors every summer who still help provide the bulk of the economic activity in The Rockaways. So despite the damage, a visit is one where most of the amenities and businesses have returned.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Broadway Alternatives - Rockwood Music Hall

   Rockwood Music Hall on the Lower East Side is a fantastic small music space and makes for a great casual evening out. There's a ton of great music venues in New York for independent music. But unless you are an expert in the local NYC music scene, it's hard to know what type of evening you're in for. That's what's so great about Rockwood Music Hall. The music emanates from multiple stages in about every style imaginable and if something doesn't tickle your fancy you can move down the block.

A photo posted by Shawn (@nytourguy) on

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 6)

On day 6 it's back to Brooklyn to explore some of the historic neighborhoods and major landmarks of the city's most populous borough. Brooklyn was once an independent city with its own government, parks, landmarks, and culture. Brooklyn grew up around its waterfront and the ferries to New York, but with the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, development multiplied in Brooklyn. Day 6's itinerary covers some of Brooklyn's most notable historic landmarks as well as neighborhoods that have become some of the trendiest in the city. This is an itinerary best done on a weekend to take advantage of programs like the Brooklyn Flea Market.

DAY 6 - Prospect Park and Brownstone Brooklyn

Morning: Head to Grand Army Plaza to start the day. Don't confuse this with the landmark of the same name on 5th Ave in Manhattan. Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza is New York's answer to the Champs-Elysees. It's not quite up to the grandeur of Paris, but it's not too shabby either. As Flatbush Avenue approaches Prospect Park a large traffic circle forms around New York's biggest triumphal arch, the Soldier's and Sailor's Monument. The arch was built to honor the fighters for the Union in the American Civil War and is actually much bigger and grander than the Washington Arch in Manhattan . This is the central intersection of Brooklyn and it also forms the northern entrance to Prospect Park, Brooklyn's 585 acre emerald jewel.
   Prospect Park was designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmstead in 1865. Both were in the midst of building their first project, Manhattan's Central Park, when they were brought in to propose a new plan for the new Brooklyn park. They proposed a realignment of the park's borders and designed a sylvan, rustic park in the same style as Central Park. Vaux and Olmstead's parks heavily borrowed from nature and shunned formal architecture. In Manhattan, they had been forced to create many small natural spaces but in Brooklyn they amplified their design scheme and created three major landscapes: a large lake and shoreline, a rugged woodland, and the first sight when you enter Prospect Park the Long Meadow. The designer's themselves thought the Prospect Park design superior to Central Park and many New Yorkers agree. Have a walk through the meadow, which undulates and winds almost a mile down the spine of the park. Just past the picnic house on the right, you'll see a lake and stream on the left side of the meadow. Cross the rustic Esdale Bridge into the Ravine. This is a rugged, rocky, hilly forest built onto the natural glacial hills of Long island. These hills provided a line of defense during the Revolutionary War and George Washington led the ill-fated Battle of Long Island among these hills in Prospect Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. The Ravine is easy to get lost in so stick to following the stream downriver through the woods. Eventually you'll reach the beautiful PRospect Park Boathouse. From here you can walk behind the boathouse and exit the park.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 5)

   Day 3's activities took in the stretch of Midtown south of 42nd Street. Now, it's time to partner that with the stretch of Midtown north. This is the busiest business district in North America and is always jammed with crowds of workers and tourists. Weekdays often mean shorter lines at museums and attractions, but they also mean surges of office workers on the sidewalks in the morning and evening rush hour, and especially around lunch. So just be wary of those lunch crowds and you'll be all set. Grab a hearty breakfast before setting out and head over to Rockefeller Center

DAY 5 - Midtown North

Morning: Start the day exploring Rockefeller Center. This is one of the greatest architectural treasures of New York City. The complex cover three blocks between 51st and 48th Streets and was built during the depths of the Great Depression. It's a masterpiece of understated Art Deco design, but is also one of the most forward-thinking commercial spaces ever built. Rockefeller Center was built so that it's buildings would all gracefully fit together. It was designed with public promenades and gardens, and even some private gardens on rooftops. There's places to sit, shops to visit, and a large underground concourse of shops and services. It was built with truck loading bays and subway connections underground so the sidewalks aren't quite as packed with trucks and office workers as other parts of Midtown. And since it opened in 1933, it has housed NBC studios. If you arrive before 9 AM, you'll be able to check out the broadcast of Today that usually wraps up with a number of outdoor segments. I've gone by around 9:00 before and always found there to be lots of space from which to watch the last few segments as they're broadcast live to the whole East Coast. Inside the GE Building (aka 30 Rock) there is the studios of The Tonight Show, NBC Nightly News, Saturday Night Live, and other NBC classics. There are studio tours offered but it's hard to know exactly what you'll see on the tour. Tours obviously don't get into studios that are in use. So it can be fun or a disappointment depending on what you see. More reliable is the tour of Radio City Music Hall, which is a world icon of Art Deco and coordinated kicking. The theater is sparklingly restored and the opportunity to see it without seeing a show is worthwhile.  Tours run every half hour and take a little more than an hour.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Puttin' on the Ritz

   The Lower East Side was a place that the multitudes came for a new life. They stormed the shores of New York harbor on ships from Hamburg, Liverpool, Cork, Palermo, Naples, and many others. And for a time, the greatest number were fleeing the lands of Eastern Europe. Jewish immigrants from all over the Russian Empire joined the rest of Europe in one of the great migrations of modern time. And they crowded themselves into Lower Manhattan. So thick they were that a square mile of the neighborhood was home to 500,000 residents. Over the generations these families would rise up out of the slums, but there were a lucky few who made it big. One of these lucky few was a young man who came with his family from the Russian Empire in 1893. His name was Israel Baline, but the world knows him as Irving Berlin.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

30 Days in NYC (Day 4)

 So far, the first three days have taken in some classic sights of the city. Even the trip to Brooklyn Heights doesn't venture too far off the beaten track. So now that you've gotten your feet under you, it's time to check out New York's forgotten borough. Day 4 heads to Staten Island. This day's itinerary will be written with an eye to the future however. By summer of 2017, the shoreline of Staten Island will be very different.

Day 4 - Staten Island

Morning: Staten Island is often considered the forgotten borough of New York. The island's busiest hub is five miles across the harbor from Lower Manhattan. The only connections to the rest of NYC are the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn and the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan. In fact, there are three bridges to New Jersey, making the island much more connected to the nearby state than the rest of its own city. In addition, the island is much more suburban than the rest of the city. More cars, fewer apartments, and more single-family homes. But there's still some awesome coastline and some great food to be had, so it's time to hop on the ferry,
   The Staten Island Ferry is one of my indispensable New York experiences. There's plenty of nice harbor tours, but the ferry is truly part of the commute of tens of thousands of Staten Islanders. It's a blue-collar kind of commute. The snack bar reaches the height of its culinary prowess with bags of popcorn. Best of all, the city-operated boat doesn't need to pay liquor taxes, so $3.50 tallboys of Budwesier make this one of the best floating bars in America. The ferry used to carry a small fee, but political protest by Staten Islanders in the 90s led to the fare being eliminated. So now, one of the most beautiful ferry rides in the world is free for all passengers. The ride begins at Whitehall Terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan. My strategy on the ferry has always been to ignore the crowds going to the front decks and west railings and instead to park myself on the rear decks where you first board the ferry. There are multiple decks and any of them will do, though the bottom deck is almost always nearly empty. Standing on the back deck, the city recedes slowly from view. The skyscrapers that begin as looming behemoths gradually shrink. Before long the Statue of Liberty comes alongside the ferry and the reward for waiting to see her is no jostling crowd to compete with for the great views.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

How to navigate short-term rentals in NYC

   The vacation rental business is booming New York City. Record numbers of tourists have been flocking to New York City every year, 56.4 million in 2014 according to the city's tourism agency NYC & Co. And while hotel construction has kept up with the new arrivals, hotel rates continue to be some of the highest in the world, with an average room often running more than $300/night. The booming numbers of visitors has led to a surge in the market for short-term apartment rentals, as visitors look to find less costly alternatives to hotels.
   There's a lot of appeal to these kinds of accommodations for many travelers. Large groups of family or friends are often forced to book multiple hotel rooms, significantly expanding the cost of a trip. Families with more than two kids feel the extra burden on the checkbook particularly acutely. So cost is a major factor in how popular vacation rentals are. Apartments also come with more residential amenities like full kitchens and living rooms with places to sit. This is a big benefit for visitors staying for more than a few days and for those who want to save some money by having some meals or snacks at home. Finally, there's the experience of staying in an apartment. It isn't just the sights of New York that are iconic, but the lifestyle. Everything from the local pubs, quaint coffee shops, tree-lined blocks of high stoops, and cups of soup at the deli have entered public consciousness through TV and movies. The experience of not just being in New York, but in some sense being a New Yorker are big draws for people visiting the city. Not to mention that staying in a residential area gives much greater access to grocers, bars, restaurants, shops, and some of the amenities that draw people to the city. There's a lot of good reasons to ditch the hotel and stay in an apartment. There's a catch though.
   In New York City, it's almost always illegal.