NYC for free

 

 

David Whitley looks at how to tackle the Big Apple without spending a cent.

 

New York is one of the most expensive cities on the planet, and it’s one where even a short visit can leave you weeping over the impending credit card bill. But play it canny, and you can take advantage of all manner of free stuff whilst in the Big Apple...

 

Museums

There are surprisingly few museums in New York that are permanently free, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. The National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology are arguably the best bets.

 

However, there are also some museums that work on a suggested donation basis. The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes no bones about the fact that it strongly recommends paying the suggested US$20 fee, but the tight-fisted can shamelessly pay nothing if they wish. The same principle applies at the American Museum of Natural History.

 

Those with a stouter conscience are advised to do their research and time it right. Almost every museum in New York has a few hours every week where admission is free. These periods tend to be on a Friday or Saturday evening. Of the biggies, the Guggenheim Museum operates on a pay what you wish basis between 5.45pm and 7.15pm on Saturdays, and the International Center of Photography is free between 5pm and 8pm on Fridays.

 

Tours and Transport

The most famous freebie in New York is the Staten Island ferry. Theoretically designed for commuters, it ploughs the route between St George on Staten Island and the southern tip of Manhattan at least every half hour. Getting on is something of a scrum, but there are excellent views of the city from the deck. You can easily tick off those postcard Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty shots without paying a cent. There’s also a free ferry to Governors Island, a lesser known speck in New York Harbor which is slowly being converted into a parkland escape with a few historic buildings thrown in.

 

It’s also possible to go on a few guided tours without dipping into your pocket (although expect some disapproving glares if you don’t leave a tip). The Big Apple Greeter programme has been going since 1992, and relies on volunteers giving up their time to show visitors around their neighbourhood. Quality tends to vary, but it’s a good way of dipping into what would otherwise be uncharted waters.

 

It is, of course, free to make your own way around Central Park but guided walks that concentrate on various areas of the park run in all but the most brutal weather conditions. Other free walking tours include a 90 minute jaunt around Grand Central Station and surrounds every Friday at 12.30pm with the Grand Central Partnership and a flashier alternative in Times Square (Friday at noon).

 

Activities and entertainment

There’s almost always something going on for free in New York. The NYC and Company website has a good list of upcoming free events ranging from talks to tree planting sessions in the Bronx. Club Free Time, meanwhile, is a brilliant resource for no-charge music concerts, film screenings, theatre productions and gallery exhibitions. It also offers free Off-Broadway show tickets and extra secret free stuff to its members – and the membership costs just $US1.95 for a week.

 

During the Summer, New York is besieged with free concerts, most of which take place in the city’s parks. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera will seemingly play for free in any patch of grassland across the five boroughs, while the Central Park Summerstage at the Rumsey Playfield draws in big names from across the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, gospel and indie.

 

Bryant Park is also a great freebie hotspot. During the summer months, it hosts gratis performances from Broadway shows every Thursday at 12.30pm. The idea is clearly to get people to shell out for tickets to said shows, but it’s a gifthorse nonetheless.

 

Other summer activities available at Bryant Park include free weekday petanque lessons between 12pm and 6pm and ping-pong on one of two publically available tables. The sporty theme continues in winter when ice skating on the pond is available without charge to all (although expect to pay for skate hire).

 

Food

If you’re being astonishingly cheap, it’s just about possible to survive in New York on free food samples handed out by gourmet food stores. The Upper East Side is a good place to kick off – Agata and Valentina on the corner of 79th Street and 1st Avenue has sample portions of artisan breads, Two Little Hens on 85th and 2nd offers cookies and biscotti, while Eli’s on 80th and 3rd has cheeses and olives. Later on, the O’Reilly’s pub on 35th and 5th offers a free hot food buffet from 5pm as part of its happy hour. You’d be surprised how popular this sample crawling is – a Google search for “free food samples New York” brings up 283 million results. Just think of it being like a multi-venue tapas meal...

 

Accommodation

Accommodation is the biggest wallet-drainer in New York, and pretty much the only way you’re going to get it for free is by signing up for Couch Surfing (couchsurfing.com). Essentially, you beg people for a night or two on their settee by promising to return the favour when someone’s in your neck of the woods. Otherwise, change tack and look for the freebies that hotels are prepared to throw in. The Hilton Gardens Staten Island (hiltongardeninn.hilton.com), for example, offers free shuttle services to Newark airport and the Staten Island ferry terminal – that can amount to a big saving in transport costs. Meanwhile, the Affinia Hotels offer free experience kits that include guide books and iPods with pre-loaded walking tours, while kitting you out with as many travel-sized toiletries as you can cram into a plastic bag. The Kimpton hotels prefer to ply you with booze, hosting a free wine hour every evening.

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of NYC and Company.

 

Statue of Liberty

 

 

With the exception of Canal Street's market stalls and their "cut-price" DVDs, we rarely associate New York City with pirates. Yet throughout the 1800s the city was plagued by swashbuckling rapscallions; murderers, looters, kidnappers to a man and boy. 

 

In the 18th century, the majority of residents still lived at the southern tip of Manhattan. During its British occupation, the city's population exploded along the shoreline of the East River. Beyond the gaze of the rest of the city, a plethora of new piers stretched into the waters and when Americans wrestled power back from the British, these wards became the most intense region of shipbuilding in the country. 

Heavy industry drove out the well-to-do and drove down the quality of life, and the neighbourhoods descended into lawless squalor; it was here that the city’s first tenement buildings were built. Sailors, shipbuilding and poverty beyond compare – the conditions were primed for the rise of the pirates in New York City, and not a ship that sailed the East River was safe. 

Albert W. Hicks was the last to be executed in New York City for "the crime of robbery on the high seas." Hicks was caught after attempting to make off with "blood-stained plunder" after murdering a captain and two crew. In June 1860 The New York Times recorded explicit details of Hick's trial, as well as the grave verdict handed down: "The sentence of the law and the Court is that you be taken from this place to the prison from whence you came, there kept in close confinement until Friday, the 13th day of July next, and on that day taken from thence to Ellis' Island or to Bedloe's Island, in the Bay of New-York, as the Marshal for this District may elect, and there, between the hours of 10 o'clock in the morning and 3 o'clock in the afternoon, be hung by the neck until you are dead." 

After a curious encounter with the world-renowned showman PT Barnum, who requested a plaster-cast of Hicks' head for his exhibition (according to The Gangs of New York, Hicks agreed and received "$25 in cash and two boxes of five-cent cigars"), the prisoner was taken to Bedloe’s Island in New York harbour. Such was the notoriety of Hicks, that over 10,000 New Yorkers snapped up tickets to board steamboats and view the spectacle from the bay; newspaper classifieds offered readers "a fine chance... to view the exit of one of the most atrocious of these scourges." Row boats lined the island's shore, ladies twirled their parasols, peanuts were sold and lager was swilled as the roaring crowd watched a man executed.

Why the tales of a forgotten criminal and an unfamiliar island? Because the story leads us to the world's most iconic attraction. In 1811, half a century before Hicks was hung there, a granite battery called Fort Wood was built on Bedloe's Island, shaped like an 11-point star. Within this garrison, architect Richard Morris Hunt constructed an 89-foot-high pedestal, upon which stood a giant metal skeleton, designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel and covered by a skin of copper. 

 

Bedloe's Island was renamed Liberty Island in 1956; the structure is of course Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi's La Liberté éclairant le monde, better known as the Statue of Liberty, which celebrates its 125th birthday this week. Lost to the seas of time, few know why sightseers first sailed across the harbour, yet every day thousands of visitors retrace the voyage of those ghoulish crowds who cheered on the death of New York's last pirate.

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

10 NYC tips

 

 
 
Gah, it's another power-list, the last resort of the travel writer. You're probably expecting one reasonable tip for visiting NYC and a lot of flimsy drivel to make up the numbers, or subjective recommendations based on limited research and passed off as objective facts. Fortunately, this list encapsulates some of the lessons I've learnt and gleaned from other travellers, as well as wisdom passed on by locals from across the five boroughs. 
 
1. Get ahead at US Immigrations at JFK

How long it takes to clear US Immigration at JFK varies between five minutes on a good day, and 90 minutes on a bad one. Obviously queues are an issue at most airports, but JFK is a popular place; its international terminals land big planes and lots of them. The terminal you land at can make a big difference too: terminal 4's immigration hall is bright, spacious and usually well-manned, while terminal 7 is a dull and oppressive bunker - hot, cramped and far fewer desks. If a couple of full 747s land just before your flight, you're in for a miserable wait.

To cut down your waiting time, simply get to the front of the queue. It sounds like blindingly common sense but the fact is most passengers don't follow it. The walk between the plane and the immigration hall can take several minutes but the corridors at JFK are usually nice and broad, so march quickly and with purpose all the way. If those ahead are slow, a polite 'excuse me' will see you through. Do it. Several times I've sat at rear of the plane and ended up in the first couple of dozen through the desks. Reaching the immigration hall 30 seconds earlier can make a massive difference if another flight arrives at the same time, and it can mean another hour spent in the city instead of a queue.

2. Choose the right airport transfer from JFK

roundtheworldflights.com has an in-depth guide to transfers from JFK airport to NYC - you can save a lot of money and plenty of time by choosing the right transfer options for your party here

3. Stay where the bargains are

The most popular tourist hotels are in Manhattan's Midtown area, while the likes of Soho, Tribeca and Chelsea have no trouble with charging hundreds of dollars per night. These neighbourhoods are preferred by most visitors because they fear unfamiliar place names and streets they consider out the way. 

There are nearly 13,000 cabs in New York, plus the subway network is cheap, extensive and pretty fast for the most part. In other words, if you find a better deal in another part of the city, don’t dismiss it. Check out the Upper West Side and Brooklyn in particular; popular neighbourhoods in Queens are just 10 minutes from Midtown by subway.

4. Check in with hotel websites before you book

They may be expensive, but there's still healthy competition between hotels in NYC. Many will publish exclusive deals and prices on their websites that aren't necessarily featured on sites like Hotels.com or Travelocity. For example, hotels have offered packages for three night's accommodation, and booking two of these direct has saved money compared to booking a six night stay through a third party website.

If it's your first time travelling to NYC then you won't know which hotel websites to look at - fortunately you can still use the search tools and maps on the likes of Hotels.com to find hotels you'd consider booking, then search for the hotel name online and check their site direct. One word of caution - prices displayed on hotel websites probably won't include taxes in their initial quotes, so check the final total before deciding to book. roundtheworldflights.com also have pretty good tour and hotel deals here

5. If breakfast isn’t included in the room price, don’t pay for it

There are good local diners, delis and cafes everywhere in New York City, and you’ll always pay less than the price on the hotel menu.

6. Buy your 7 day unlimited Metrocard early in the day

If you’re in the city for longer than a few days, a 7 day unlimited Metrocard is a godsend. It costs $29 for unlimited rides on the subway and local buses (and even the Roosevelt Island tramway) for seven days. 

Well, almost. The 7 day expiry is a little too literal; your card isn’t valid for 7 x 24 hours, but on seven consecutive days. In other words, if you buy and use your card at 11pm on a Monday, it’ll expire at midnight the following Sunday – 6 days and one hour later. To get the best value for your money, consider buying a single fare if it means you can then buy your Metrocard after midnight, or early the next morning.

7. Save time sightseeing

Queues for the big attractions in NYC are stupidly long. Want to hit the Statue of Liberty? You can be stood in line for two or three hours. If you’re going to visit, get there early – before 9am. The same is true of the Empire State Building - arrive before 9am and you'll breeze through. The ESB is also very quiet after 8pm so there'll be no long queues and you'll enjoy outstanding nighttime views.

While they're not ticketed attractions, the same is also true of popular locations such as Brooklyn Bridge or the increasingly popular High Line. Start your day early and you're guaranteed to avoid the crowds every time. Again, it might seem like common sense stuff to you but nearly every visitor will ignore it and then complain about the queues. 

8. 'Pre-walk' the subway

Because of NYC's grid system of streets and avenues, it's easy to save time while waiting for a subway train, even if it's your first time in the city. Two facts you need to know:

- subway trains and platforms are four blocks long, i.e. a single train will cover four blocks underground from, say, 2nd St to 6th St

- many subway stations (though not all) tend to have exits in the middle of the platform and at either end

Knowing this means you can often walk to the correct end of the platform while you wait. For example, if you're heading to a restaurant on 31st St and taking the subway to a station on 34th St, the platform will stretch from 32nd St to 36th St. Walking to the correct end of the platform means you'll likely step off the train at an exit on 32nd St. 

9. See NYC for less (and free)

Want to visit the Guggenheim for just a couple of dollars? Nearly all museums in New York charge for entry, but it's a little known fact that many operate pay-what-you-want hours at specific times of the week. 

10. Catch cabs in the right direction

The majority of streets and avenues of NYC are one-way, so if you catch a cab facing the wrong direction, your driver may have to travel up, around, down and across a block before you get any closer to your destination. Bear in mind where you're heading and hail a cab that's already heading the right way; just crossing the street beforehand could save you money.


   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.

Chinatown

 


 

When a you buy a stranger a beer and in return he offers a gastronomic tour of Manhattan's Chinatown, you can't say no. Well you could, but you'd be an idiot. There are other Asian communities in NYC such as Koreatown and Little Tokyo, and there are neighbourhoods in Queens that look like scenes straight out of Shanghai, but most visitors think of the swathe of streets and avenues in the east of Manhattan, south of the Lower East Side and north of the Financial District. New York City has the largest ethnic Chinese population outside the native continent, and Manhattan's Chinatown is a sprawling mess of city blocks that can intimidate the first time visitor.


So at the invite of a Chinese American called Erik that I met in a Hell's Kitchen bar, we took an afternoon out to explore the sights and tastes of Chinatown. We started at Joe's Shanghai on Pell St, a popular call for locals and visitors alike. Give your party name to the waitress and expect a wait on the sidewalk for your table. It's nothing special in terms of decor with bad lighting and scrappy furniture, but the reviews are consistently good. Their speciality is the soup dumplings; we tried two types, one with filled with pork, the other with crab. The meats are wrapped in a thin dumpling wrapper so wrestling them onto your plate with the spoon requires a delicate touch. The meats are good, but what makes them moreish is the savory 'soup' (the fat) that oozes down your chin when you take a bite and burst the wrapper.

We also tried other traditional dishes: drunken chicken (chicken marinated in a white wine sauce), fake duck (a soy bean wrapper filled with mushrooms, then braised in a soy based sauce), and Shanghainese green beans (dry fried in spices). Perfection to a mouthful. 

From Joe's Shanghai we turned left towards Mott Street and walked past Doyers Street
 , one of the more unusual streets you'll see in New York City. Aside from the low-rise buildings with side, what catches your eye is that this street has a tight curve - you don't see too many of them in Manhattan. This is the “"Bloody Angle", the site of many street battles and gang murders in the dark days of the late 19th and early 20th century - behind the store fronts are said to be a network of tunnels where gang members could make a quick getaway. Take a moment to look at the trinkets and oddities in the window of Ting’s Gift Shop on the corner of Doyers and Pell.

Our stomachs still wanting, we walked on to Ping's Seafood on Mott St for dim sum. This would traditionally involve elderly Chinese ladies pushing steel carts around the restaurant, shouting out what each cart has to offer. With space being limited, Ping's does this with tray service instead. We tried traditional dim sum staples including har gow (shrimp dumplings) and shui mai (pork, shrimp, and mushroom dumplings, as well as zha leung (Chinese fried doughnut wrapped in rice noodles and dipped in oyster sauce & scallions) and Chinese sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves (you don't eat the leaves, as I was informed after the first attempt to). Everything is tender and fresh, nothing is overpowering; courses aren't served in a jacuzzi of sauce as seems mandatory for the British palette.
 

I wasn't sure about the next stop. Ping's Famous Beef Jerkey
 on Mulberry St isn't much more than a hole in the wall behind which is a junkyard of knackered televisions and furniture, something that might have once blow-dried hair in a salon and oh yes, a lot of raw meat. "You're a good sport to check out this," said Erik. It turned my stomach over more than once. The jerkey here is made from a family recipe and offered in several different flavors. "It's so popular, they're usually completely sold out before 3pm," said Erik. 

Our final stop is Fried Dumpling
 on Mosco St. A tiny waiting area overlooks two very hot and bothered Chinese ladies hand-making and frying dumplings. Their English isn't good, but it's infinitely better than your Chinese, so don't ask questions or be difficult - it's $1 for 5 pork dumplings with optional hot sauce, take it or leave it. It's not the only place you can eat street food for a dollar in Manhattan, but it's probably the tastiest.

 

 



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

 

Halloween

 

 

Halloween is a half-hearted affair in the UK. Students will mix concoctions in punchbowls, couples will revel in the novelty of a fancy-dress party next door, while parents guide small children from house to house where people like me sit in darkness and fail to acknowledge the existence of their front door.

Meanwhile in New York City, the world's biggest party is kicking off and blowing away the cobwebs. Halloween in the US is more than trick-or-treating and a smear of fake blood, and the centuries old Gaelic tradition is a big deal in the Big Apple. You may be passing through at the end of October or you may consider making a trip solely to see the city explode in costume and colour, so here's what you can expect from Halloween in New York City: 


NYC Halloween Parade 

There are few official parades where the public can turn up unannounced and participate, but if you're in costume then join up to 60,000 others as well as dozens of bands, puppets, dancers and floats. If you're not part of it, make sure you're a spectator - it's wild, unpredictable, loud and fantastical. 2017 is the 44th annual Halloween Parade in NYC, and takes place on Tuesday 31st from 7pm to 11pm, up Manhattan's 6th Avenue from Spring Street to 16th Street.

Hit the underworld
 
There'll be a maze of road closures throughout Soho, Greenwich and the West Village before and during the Halloween Parade and traffic will be at a standstill in nearby neighbourhoods, as oppose to its usual gnat's pace. Skip the cabs and jump on the subway - chances are you'll be straphanging with a zombie or two.

 



Party time! 

NYC will most likely be partying throughout the weekend before Halloween - Saturday 28th around Bleeker St and MacDougal St in Greenwich Village will be a fury of party-goers in costumes. Plenty of bars will capitalise on the good times and charge a cover; you'll find a handful that won't charge but expect a queue. Many restaurants and clubs will throw Halloween parties - these are usually ticketed events.

Costumes are mandatory 

Obviously costumes aren't mandatory, but you will be in the minority if you're in Greenwich Village and not wearing one. Costumes don't have to be Halloween-related; last year I spotted 33 Chilean miners in one bar and Spongebob Squarepants being felt up by Catwoman in another. If you're going to be part of Halloween in NYC, embrace it!

Family friendly 

Children can enjoy Halloween in New York City as much as the adults. Head to some of the more residential neighbourhoods such as Manhattan's Upper West Side or Astoria in Queens, and every store will have candy and treats to hand out to the miniature Spidermen and princesses that dot the sidewalks. Make sure you hit the stores with the kids before late afternoon - that's when window signs appear to report all the goodies have gone.

Scares everywhere
 
There are parties, cruises and tours for boozers across NYC on Halloween - you can take your pick from hundreds of events. If you want to indulge in another New York tradition, buy a ticket quick and head to the upper reaches of Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Cathedral Church of St John the Devine has a screening of Nosferatu accompanied by the church's Great Organ, followed by the Procession of the Ghouls on Friday 27th. You can also find details of Halloween tours and children's workshops on their website.



   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.