Big Apple for starters – a beginner’s guide to New York

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Lady with the lamp – the Statue of Liberty is high on the list of tourist must-sees

New York is one of the greatest cities on Earth – but how do you cram in the sights in a few days?

For me, the key factor is to stay as close to the centre of Manhattan as you can afford. With such limited time, you don’t want to waste hours travelling. Being able to walk to Broadway, Times Square, Fifth Avenue, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station and Central Park will tick a few key things off your to-do list with ease. Strolling is also free – a boon in New York – though expect to be hassled to take a horse-drawn carriage or bicycle rickshaw ride as you approach Central Park. We ignored the street hawkers and chose our horse and carriage, paying $90 for a trip round half of the park, taking in sights such as Strawberry Fields, funded by Yoko Ono after the assassination of John Lennon at the Dakota Building opposite.

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Park life: Central Park is an oasis of calm away from Fifth Avenue

One of the best ways to see the key attractions is to take a hop-on, hop-off open-top bus ride. Downtown routes (or ‘routs’ as they say here) take in the Empire State Building, Macy’s, Madison Square Gardens, China Town and Wall Street. If you have been before and seen the main sights, the uptown routes include Central Park, Harlem and museums. One loop with Gray Line – one of the more established operators – was $49 a person though you could do both uptown and downtown for just $10 more. There are also plenty of tours by a variety of operators for fans of TV shows such as Sex And The City, Gossip Girl and The Sopranos.

To see the Statue of Liberty up close requires a boat trip. Circle Line tours will take you past the island but to get off and visit the monument we took Statue Cruises from Battery Park at the south of Manhattan, with the added bonus of getting a great view of the skyline.

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Manhattan morning: The skyline seen from a tourist boat

For probably the best bird’s eye view of the island, without splashing out on a helicopter ride, head for Top of the Rock, the 70th-storey viewing platform at the Rockefeller Center, home of NBC and the TV series 30 Rock. High-speed lifts shoot you up to the top level for stunning vistas of skyscrapers – including the Empire State and Chrysler buildings – one way, and Central Park the other.

The view, of course, also now includes One World Trade Center, built after the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. If you wish to remember the nearly 3,000 killed in those terrible attacks, there are two huge waterfall-fed pools, surrounded by the names of the victims, at the sites where the towers stood. It’s an incredibly moving experience, if you can ignore the tourists taking smiling pictures of each other posing by the memorial.

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Poignant: The World Trade Center memorial

Other than walking, getting around Manhattan is a choice of using cab, bus or subway. Yellow cabs are relatively cheap compared to London prices, though expect to be stuck in traffic at busy times. If you can work out the subway, it can be much quicker and cheaper. It’s an easy city to navigate, with the streets numbered from south to north and the avenues from east to west.

A New York City Pass will cover six attractions for $106 – a potential saving of $79. However, you can visit three of those main sights – the Empire State Building Observatory, Top of the Rock and Statue of Liberty – for a total of $71 so it only really makes sense if you intend to take in a couple of cultural institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art. Even then, the $22 admission at the natural history museum is only a suggested donation.

Many tourists come for the shopping – it’s fascinating even to browse the likes of Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Saks. Our favourite place to buy affordable designer gifts is Henri Bendel, but it’s also great to hunt for bargains in smaller shops. Broadway shows are spectacular but expensive – try the TKTS discount booths to save money. Hotel concierges can get you good seats – but at a price.

As for food, there’s a whole world of choice. If you want to treat yourself to something different, try the 21 Club, a former speakeasy where immaculate waiters serve some famous guests (all but one of the US presidents have dined here) dishes such as burgers and chicken hash under a ceiling adorned with toy trucks, planes and baseball helmets. I love steaks so we also dined at Smith and Wollensky and The Old Homestead.

If you need a good walk after all that, take a stroll along the High Line, a renovated old railway track in Chelsea.

New York is a fascinating place, full of newcomers from all over the world seeking the American dream. Do take in the sights, but talk to the people too – bar staff, waitresses and shop assistants – and you’ll discover the real core of the Big Apple.

Get much more advice from NYC – The Official Guide here

Dave stayed at the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue.

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Retail therapy: The art deco exterior of Bloomingdales

(Prices correct at Sep 22, 2013) All pictures by author

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