Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th September 2010.
What a difference a decade makes. Or two, in my case. It's 20 years since I was last in New York for more than a fleeting visit and how the city has changed. Back then there were whole neighbourhoods – the Lower East Side, the Meatpacking District, Hell's Kitchen, the streets around Times Square – that were simply not fit for consumption.
Back then the city felt thrilling, but also slightly out of control: sirens blared; pavements were cracked; take a wrong turn and you could be in real trouble. London felt like a sleepy village compared with New York.
Today, London has become louder and more vibrant; New York, while far less crime ridden and consequently a much easier place in which to live, has lost some of its edginess and cultural eminence to superficial gloss and good living. But if you want to look beyond the shops and the neon lights, there's never been a better time to scratch the surface of the city.
Don't stand still. Do as we did: go up; go down; go over. Up, first, to the Top of the Rock, the three-deck observation platform beginning on the 67th floor of the Rockefeller Center. With its Art Deco design and iconic skating rink, the Rockefeller Center is in many ways the true heart of New York. Its construction by John D Rockefeller Jnr, comprising 19 buildings, gave hope and jobs to many thousands of immigrant workers during the Depression.
But why choose to view Manhattan from the Top of the Rock, rather than the more famous Empire State Building? "Easy," said the lift attendant (the ride itself, complete with hologram, is worth the €21 entry fee), "you can't see the Empire State Building from the Empire State Building. And you can't see Central Park from there either."
In the distance, way beyond the vast rectangle of Central Park, we can just make out a building on a hill overlooking the Hudson where it flows into countryside between steep, wooded banks. This is The Cloisters, reached in no time on the A train (the subway is fast and cheap).
Constructed in the Thirties, and now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this delightful and highly unlikely assemblage of medieval chapels, halls and cloister gardens from France and Spain is filled with treasures of the period, including the mysterious, wonderfully preserved Unicorn Tapestries, and it makes an oasis of unexpected peace.
There's another place where you can rise above the city, this one recently opened and already hugely popular. It also overlooks the Hudson, though a very different stretch, where the Titanic should have docked and the Lusitania set off on her fatal voyage. An old elevated freight line in the Meatpacking District has been transformed into the High Line Park between 12th and 20th Streets (due to extend to 34th).
It's fun to walk the now verdant rail track above, and then to descend to Chelsea Market (food shops set in an old Nabisco biscuit factory) and the designer stores below. If hungry, try inexpensive Fatty Crab on Hudson or lavish Spice Market on West 13th Street for Asian street food, or the Standard Grill on Washington Street for a modern American menu.
Next, we go downtown, riding the Staten Island ferry (frequent and free) for views of the Statue of Liberty, the skyscrapers of the Financial District and Brooklyn Bridge. Disembarking at South Ferry, we walk past Wall Street to the Lower East Side.
Nowhere in Manhattan does the historic and the hip, the ethnic and the cutting edge mix to such effect than in the LES. For history, the reconstructed apartments in the Tenement Museum on Orchard Street bring to life the desperate conditions for immigrants from the 1890s to the 1930s, and Katz's Jewish deli, famed for its towering pastrami sandwiches and surly waiters, are both well worth seeking out.
For a hip experience, check out the well-hidden bars and restaurants that upscale New Yorkers frequent, such as Freeman's, at the end of tiny Freeman's Alley off Rivington Street (between Bowery and Chrystie) or Apizz on Eldridge (between Stanton and Rivington).
And then we go over: whizzing across Brooklyn Bridge in a yellow cab to the other side of the East River. Where it's as lively as Manhattan, or at least in parts of that giant suburb, namely Williamsburg, but also in the gentle Park Slope Historic District. Here we wander along streets crammed with historic brownstones and lunch in Belleville on Fifth Street, a near-perfect approximation of a retro French bistro filled with locals.
But who can resist uptown New York for long, vibrant streets with dazzling skyscrapers, shops and museums? Stay at the Peninsula Hotel, with its Beaux Arts edifice, on Fifth Avenue, and you are right in the thick of it. Take advantage of their offer of a private after-hours guided tour of MOMA opposite, and your understanding of the museum's great paintings, from its Picassos to its Jackson Pollocks, will be unimaginably increased.
Whether you are heading up, down or over, it takes willpower to leave the Peninsula each day. Late afternoons find us back in the hotel's embrace, for the gorgeous spa, for the rooftop pool and for cocktails in the top-floor Salon de Ning and another seminal view: Fifth Avenue, stretching away to Central Park, by night.
Two decades may have passed but that view has remained the same and very little in any city can match its dynamic, uplifting appeal.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) flies to New York from £341 return.
British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758;www.ba.com/newyork) has packages at a wide range of hotels in New York. Four nights’ room only at the Peninsula (below), based on two sharing, costs from £1,369 per person in October. The Peninsula’s private tour of MOMA costs £313 for up to five people.
THE BEST HOTELS
Chelsea Lodge ££
Elegant and homely European-style townhouse hotel located in a fine brownstone on a beautiful, tucked away block (001 212 243 4499;www.chelsealodge.com; from £80).
The Library £££
As its name suggests, this is paradise for biblio-philes as there are books everywhere, including in the lovely bedrooms, plus a reading room, writers’ den and a rooftop poetry garden. Great Midtown location (983 4500;www.libraryhotel.com; from £290 per night).
The Mark ££££
Spectacular neo-Deco interiors by Jacques Granges in the heart of Upper East Side: this is old elegance combined with modern chic (744 4300;www.themarkhotel.com; from £511 per night).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
The Meatball Shop £
Runaway success in Lower East Side which is famed for selling meatballs only, and excellent ones, too, from classic beef to salmon and veggie, in a retro space with communal tables. Open almost all hours (84 Stanton Street; 982 8895; www.meatballshop.com).
Spice Market £££
Inspired by South-East Asian street food, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s sexy, bazaar style restaurant makes a great place to while away some time in the Meatpacking District (West 13th Street; 675 2322;www.spicemarketnewyork.com)
Le Bernadin ££££
Flawless, old school service (jackets and ties required) and superb seafood at this timeless luxury restaurant (West 51st Street; 554 1515; www.le-bernadin.com).
WHAT TO AVOID
New York taxis are all very well, but their cost mounts up if you use them solely to get around. Don’t eschew the subway, which is cheap and easy to use once you get the hang of it, but not at rush hour: that’s the time to take a cab.
Most hotels don’t include breakfast in their advertised rates and it can be both expensive and inferior. Skip the hotel breakfast and go round the corner to a coffee shop.
Carnegie Deli: a New York institution famed for its giant sandwiches, but also over-hyped and too expensive for what it is. Give it a miss.