The Tourist Trap Escape: New York’s Alternative Agenda
Friday’s – yeah, that Friday’s – is coming to Union Square, and we’re scared. For us, yeah, but especially for tourists: every year, hundreds of thousands pour into New York, and hit the same, godawful places everyone else does, or worse, the ones they could hit at home. You can’t (entirely) blame them: they don’t know any better, besides which, doing touristy things in New York isn’t the worst way to see this city! Some things – like hitting up a deli, roaming New York’s parks, trying to get a good view of the urban landscape, or taking in the epicenter of the action in midtown – really aren’t to be missed, or begrudged. But why waste away at the same spots, doing the same things that’ve been done time and time again? They’re generally mediocre experiences. We polled our staff panel of self-proclaimed Manhattanites, and came up with a list of alternatives to the turns many a tourist takes wrong. We’ve consciously omitted Brooklyn and Queens, who deserve their own list; for now, here’re your 2009 New York Tourist Trap Alternatives.
Financial District Excursions
Overrated: South Street Seaport. Glorified mall and chain restaurants on Pier 17 overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge have a nice view, but are the same things you can get anywhere else. Take pictures with the big boat and leave. Though the cobblestone on Fulton Street may at first appear quaint, the tweens regurgitated from the mouth of a nearby Abercrombie and Fitch are dealbreakers. Overpriced food, drinks, and tourist friendly boat trips are as disingenuous and quintessentially New York as, I don’t know, Tyra Banks.
Underrated: Staten Island Ferry. 25-minute boat trip services the daily commute for Staten Island residents, and also provides awesome views of the New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and downtown Manhattan. Turn around and get back on as soon as you get to the other side for a total of 50 minutes of fun. And thanks to our egregiously high taxes, tourists, you get to ride this moving bar for free. Yes, they sell beer, along with a few snacks, as well. Take it at Sunset: it’s one of the most underrated experiences you can have (and creative dates you can take someone on) in New York.
The best booze cruise in town. Just don’t get marooned on the other side.
Manhattan’s Best View
Overrated: The Empire State Building. $20, average waiting/trip time is two hours. The Observatory is on the 86th floor, where the views look just about the same as they would from any midtown office complex, except you have a giant, grated gate in front of you. Final verdict: anticlimactic. And if you’re going to go to the top of an annoying building, at least make it Rockefeller Center.
Underrated: The Cloisters. Medieval Branch of the Met in Fort Tryon Park in Northern Manhattan. Recommended donation, so admission price is up to you (i.e. free…for assholes) and getting there is straightforward: you must take the A train. The monastery gardens are straight out of some majestic childhood story about a girl in a secret garden and a handsome prince, or something. Either way, it’s an incredible Metropolitan Medieval Museum with a terrace offering unparalleled views of the Hudson and city below it.
The Midtown Epicenter Experience
Overrated: Times Square. Ah, Times Square: hell. Yes, it looks exactly the same as it does in every cheesy chick flick you’ve ever seen it in. No real Manhattanite ventures into the Times Square perimeter unless (A) you got comped a pair of Broadway tickets, (B) in-laws are visiting from Wisconsin or (C) you’re a Summer Intern, lost on your way to the Conde Nast building. Tourists walk slow, the food uniformly sucks, and people are wearing fanny packs. Fan. Ny. Packs. ‘Nuff said.
Underrated: Grand Central. Campbell Apartment and Oyster Bar are valid destinations on their own. New York’s main train depot is also one of the city’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces. The towering, vaulted ceilings of the terminal hold more prestige than the first episode of Gossip Girl gave up. Campbell Apartment has décor of a Florentine palace, even when full to capacity, feels like a hideaway. Oyster Bar boasts an incredible oyster roast, a great place to get clam chowder on a rainy day, and some of the city’s freshest bivalves. Don’t forget to find the “whispering gallery“, where you can talk into one of the curved walls and have the sound go directly to one of your friends, on the opposite side of the room: one of many of Grand Central’s nice little secrets.
Yeah, dude. We’re sick of this Broadway shit, too. Tell Mom they have Bas-kee-aht at Rose Bar. She’ll be down.
Luxe Manhattan Boozing Spot
Overrated: Hudson Bar at Hudson Hotel. The design’s one part David Lynch, two parts Alice in Wonderland. Though the space might be worth a look, the overall effect gets sullied by a cheesy Euro-crowd, Heather Locklear doubles, and “ballin” popped collars. Uncomfortable chairs, and awkward seating arrangements also detract from this Ian Schrager “gem.” You can do much better.
Underrated: Rose Bar & Jade Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Concession: yes, it gets the celebrity crowd. Yes, the doormen, after a certain hour, turn into Bridge Trolls. And yes: the drinks are pricy. But hands down, no question, the better Schrager alternative is farther downtown, as is everything else these days. Here, the unfaltering velvet sex appeal makes Hudson Bar look like a bad acid-trip. Go before 10 to get a glimpse of the big art (Basquiat, Twombly, and…Schnabel), and why no one gets past the velvet rope thereafter.
Downtown Park Experience
Overrated: Union Square. The history of Union Square is unquestionable: just steps from its bad teenage skateboarders, and its incredible greenmarket, Andy Warhol once kept his factory. Unfortunately, the remnants of this culture dissolved into touristy, bland, and “faux” downtown restaurants like Blue Water Grill and the Ford Model farm team that is Coffee Shop. Shopping, like Babies ‘R’ Us, Whole Foods, and Barnes and Noble make this place no better than your average suburban strip mall. Pile that all on an excess of never-ending construction, the fact that you can barely get on the grass, and the rats running rampant through the parts you can walk? You have absolutely every reason to avoid it.
Underrated: Madison Square Park. Less than ten blocks north of said terrible tourist pit, Madison Square Park sprawls in unmatched serenity, and brims with culinary attraction. Comfortable lawns are cared for, though not overly manicured. The classic New York 45 minute-wait-for-lowbrow-food experience – Shake Shack – supplies afternoons with perfect park bench meals, even at night. For an upgrade, the recently four-starred Eleven Madison Park, Danny Meyer’s haute Indian cuisine destination Tabla, and one of New York’s best BBQ experiences, Hill Country, are just steps from the quiet park.
If you think this is great, wait until we show you Cherry Tavern. Seriously.
Romantic Central Park Date
Overrated: Horse-buggy rides. It’s a cruel practice, horses smell, they’re expensive, locals will stare at you, it’s cliche, it’s not exciting, and you might as well just take a taxi and tell him to drive slow. Or walk. Also, karma could come around, and one day, those horses might be taking a human-buggy ride. Wouldn’t that suck?
Underrated: Rowboats on the Central Park Lake. It’s cheap, for one thing: $12 for the first hour, $10 for every hour after that, and a refundable $20 deposit, assuming you’re not stupid enough to capsize the boat. You can bring booze (and other assorted libations), and drink them (or smoke them) in the middle of the lake, or under a tree in a “cove.” It’s beautiful, and you can explore parts of Central Park you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. You’re in control, and have you ever been on a rowboat? It’s fun! Go during the week and you won’t experience a wait (unlike every other tourist trap in the city). This is also the best way to catch some sun in the park not on the otherwise overcrowded Sheep’s Meadow. And if you really want to go all out, have their resident Italian take out a Gondola for you: $30 every half hour, but he’ll serenade you in Italian if you ask nicely.
Downtown Punk Dive.
Overrated: Max Fish. Who the hell goes to Max Fish? So many people. Again: who? We don’t know when everyone decided this place was punk, or who they heard it from (Vice, like, four years ago?), but they need to know better: this place is about as pedestrian as the Lower East Side gets. Jersey’s second-rate hipster imports afraid to make their way to Billyburg mix in with kids on teen tours with good fake I.D’s. The pool table’s occupied by LES sleaze trying to take home some of the fresh meat. We’re having none of it.
Underrated: Cherry Tavern. You want sleaze? How about a jukebox that doesn’t even pretend to be remotely interesting (The Strokes, Taking Back Sunday, The Cars, Talking Heads) or drink deals (a $6 Tecate and shot of bottom shelf tequila: the famous Tijuana Special) concieved with the intention of possibly killing the shithead patrons who dare step in here. Bankers, lawyers, punks, assholes, pool sharks, cokefiends, deliquents, outlaws: for some reason, the Cherry Tavern’s managed to keep attracting one of the worst – and most interesting – crowds in town. The later you stay, the younger (and brasher) it gets, so stick around until the wee hours, especially on weekends. Oh, and: on the off chance you’re drunk enough to get a number here, write it down somewhere safe, and make sure you never call it, unless you’re fishing for STDs.
You are what you eat. Or sometimes, who you’re served by. In this case: bad tongue and dicks.
The Great New York Deli
Overrated: Carnegie Deli or Stage Deli. The service is awful: old New Yorkers who think dishing out contrived attitudes bigger than their deli’s respective tastes? Bullshit. Same goes for the crowds, who enjoy being bossed around by the fake attitude, and the bush-league, overpriced preparations that sold their souls long ago to keep paying the rent and maintaining the brand. Avoid at all costs.
Underrated: Katz’s Delicatessen. In a classically Jewish neighborhood, a classically Jewish deli, one based around ritual and almost pathological habit, where none of the attitude is contrived, the meats are hand-sliced, the Cel-Ray flows freely, and fake orgasms alchemize into epiphanies. Grab a pink ticket at the door, know what you’re going to order at the counter when you get there so you don’t get growled at. Speak it loudly, be confident, and get the only thing – and seriously, the only thing – you really should order: pastrami on rye. Don’t balk when they offer you a taste of the meat on a plate as they slide it down the counter, and when they ask you what kind of pickles you want, you’ll take both, thanks. Get some Cel-Ray, sit down, make sure you don’t lose that ticket, tip graciously, and pad out into the Lower East Side. Breathe that fresh air: you’re still surrounded by tourists, but at least the fanny pack wearing families are far removed from some of the excellent bars in proximity. Hit them, and drink away the New York you wish you knew, and – against all odds – are still trying to find.
[Reporting by Eiseley Tauginas, Cayte Grieve, and Foster Kamer.]