Springtime Ideal for Washingtonians To (Re)Visit Neighbor to the North
Ever since New York City lost its status as the nation’s first capital in 1790 — when Congress decided to build a “site for the permanent seat of government” on what was then essentially swampland — Manhattan has somewhat regarded Washington, D.C., as its ugly stepchild. And as their city blossomed from the swampland, for diehard Washingtonians, the feeling is pretty much mutual — a smugness that’s only been amplified by the economic crisis, as our Beltway politicians bail out New York’s crippled Wall Street financiers.
In fact, I’m often amazed at the number of Washingtonians who either constantly travel to New York City for business, yet never see any of its sights, or who haven’t even bothered to visit in five, 10 or 20 years.
Now, as a lifelong Washingtonian, the nation’s capital is not only the capital of world power, to me it’s also the livable version of New York. But to be begrudgingly fair, the Big Apple is big on everything other than politics, from finance to sheer fun. It’s not only the country’s most populous city, it’s one of the world’s most iconic. And with spring approaching, Manhattan only a few hours’ drive from D.C., and some great deals sprouting out of the economic turmoil, there’s no better time for Washingtonians to put aside their sibling rivalry — or inferiority complex — and revisit their neighbor to the north.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles First, you’ve got to figure out how to traverse the 225 miles between the two cities, roughly a four-hour journey. Train is a popular method, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not always the cheapest. A one-way Amtrak ticket from Union Station to New York’s Penn Station in early April costs around 0 (a option is available at 3 and 4 a.m.), leaving in the morning and lasting a little less than three and a half hours. The quicker Acela option takes about two hours and 45 minutes and ranges in price from 5 to 7 each way (although a fare is available at 6 a.m.).
So for two people, the total round-trip train ride is likely to cost around 0 with taxi fees and taxes. On the other hand, most hotels charge around to per night for parking your car, while tolls will run you about each way, plus gas. So depending on your comfort level navigating a car in Manhattan, driving might be the better route, although trains are more hassle-free. But the other negative with trains is that for just a little more money, you could fly to New York in about half the time. Most flights average about 0 one way and take about an hour and a half, though you’ll have to factor in security and check-in times.
A Night in NYC The next major decision is where to stay, and there’s no shortage of options, from the divine to the dives. Expedia alone lists about 500 properties from which to choose. Start by plotting what part of town you prefer. Not a fan of trendy or bohemian chic — SoHo and Greenwich probably won’t be up your alley. Generally Midtown, specifically the area between Central Park and Times Square, offers a nice vantage point to visit most of the city’s major sights. It’s also not too far from the United Nations, which is located to the east along 42nd Street overlooking the East River. But if you’re conducting business at the U.N., it’s best to find a hotel directly nearby because there’s no sense sitting in traffic when you’re there on business (the Millennium UN Plaza is a convenient pick).
Even though the economic slump has led to a wealth of spring specials, April and May are also a peak travel season, so don’t be sticker-shocked with hotel prices starting at 0 and easily jumping to 0 a night and beyond.
At the upper end of the lodging luxury spectrum, the city’s top hotels include Le Parker Meridien (which was featuring rates as low as 0 a night on Expedia for early April, incredibly reasonable by Manhattan standards), as well as the opulent Ritz-Carlton by Central Park, the Plaza, St. Regis off Fifth Avenue, the I.M. Pei-designed Four Seasons and the classically elegant Carlyle.
But there are plenty of other stylish yet cost-saving options throughout city. Various three-star hotels in Midtown — such as the Milford Plaza, Roosevelt Hotel and Radisson Lexington — can easily be had for around 0 per night in early April. A critics’ pick in the 0 range is the Marcel at Gramercy, a recently renovated modern boutique property in the heart of the Gramercy Park Historic District. An even cheaper choice is the Larchmont on a charming side street in Greenwich Village. Rates at the “European style” hotel range from to 5, but the “European” part entails a shared bathroom, so the price-friendly property might be too friendly for some tastes.
The field begins to open up at the 0 to 5 per night category. Good bets among these include: the famed Waldorf Astoria (very limited basic packages in that price range though), the Excelsior, Hotel Chandler, the New Yorker, Vincci Avalon, Millennium Broadway Hotel at Times Square, Wingate by Wyndham Manhattan Midtown, the Benjamin, the Alex, the Kimberly, Affinia 50 Hotel and Affinia Manhattan, Fitzpatrick Grand Central Hotel, Shelburne Murray Hill, Night, Ameritania, Washington Jefferson Hotel, Hilton Garden Inn Times Square, W New York, Empire Hotel, Michelangelo and Grand Hyatt.
Still, narrowing down the choices can be daunting, so it may be simpler to just pick a chain you’re comfortable with. Embassy Suites, Comfort Inn (along with Clarion), Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Hyatt, Radisson, Sheraton, Westin, Wyndham and W Hotels all have properties throughout the city. But for me, Marriott is a tried-and-true choice, perhaps because as a Washingtonian, it’s a hometown favorite (even with Hilton moving its headquarters to D.C.).
The company has 10 hotels in New York, including two for just over 0 a night (Courtyard Midtown East and Courtyard New York City-Fifth Avenue), both of which are centrally located.
Marquis Experience But another property, smack dab in the heart of Times Square, is ideally situated for sightseeing. The New York Marriott Marquis, located on Broadway, is minutes from attractions such as Fifth Avenue shopping, Radio City Music Hall and Central Park. It boasts more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space, so it attracts a mix of business and leisure travelers.
More than a dozen high-speed elevators whisk guests to the 1,949 rooms — including 50 suites — at the Las Vegas-style property, which features contemporary décor that blends Broadway flair with subdued elegance. It’s definitely big, but not gaudy. The rooms and shared spaces, for instance, have an almost “Alice in Wonderland”-type feel, with swanky shapes and bright colors tempered by lighter accents that bring out the familiar comfort Marriott loyalists are accustomed to.
Likewise, service at the Marquis shines — a reflection of the impeccable standards throughout Marriott, a company that consistently ranks as one of the top employers in the Washington area, which in turn shows in the quality of its employees.
The Marquis costs a bit more than some of Marriott’s other properties in New York, with rates ranging from about 0 to 0 a night and up. For that extra money though, guests get spectacular vistas of Broadway and the New York skyline. In fact, the hotel’s View Restaurant is the only revolving rooftop restaurant in the city, and its 4,000-square-foot state-of-the-art fitness center overlooks Times Square.
For travelers looking for a quiet, intimate hotel experience, the big, bustling Marquis won’t quite fit the bill, though it’s not meant to. Rather, the hotel fits in perfectly with the frenetic energy of its environment — a fast-paced spectacle of tourists, business travelers and New York natives jostling past Broadway’s lights and action.
And given Broadway’s transformation from a seedy outpost of decadence to a family-friendly entertainment mecca (again reminiscent of Vegas), the Marquis works well for families too, wedged among theaters offering tame shows such as Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and “Mary Poppins.”
Making Most of Manhattan As much as Broadway has to offer, it can overwhelm any visitor after a while, and though it seems intrinsically New York, most New Yorkers don’t associate their city with the artificial glitz of Times Square.
Rather, the area provides a good starting point to see the city’s varied treasures. If you only have a few days to explore, there are a few essential walking trails that can help you make the most of your Manhattan stay.
First, if you have time, good weather and stamina, a loop around Broadway, Fifth Avenue and up Central Park hits many of New York’s major attractions.
Begin by visiting Carnegie Hall at 7th Avenue and W. 57th Street. From there, head down 7th just to take in a few blocks of city life. Turn left at W. 48th Street, which takes you right past Rockefeller Center. If the weather’s nice, take a break in one of the cafés at Rockefeller Plaza and soak up the art deco architecture, palm tree-lined concourse, and of course the famed gilded statue of Prometheus that watches over the busy center.
Another famous statue nearby is the “Atlas” figure along Fifth Avenue, who faces St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Despite being dwarfed by the skyscrapers now towering over it, the neo-gothic cathedral maintains an imposing presence thanks in part to its ornate twin spires jutting up 330 feet into the sky (its predecessor, the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, is further down on Mulberry Street).
From there, your taste will dictate your next stops. St. Patrick’s Cathedral sits next door to the holy house of worship for shoppers, Saks Fifth Avenue, which anchors the cornucopia of stores lining Fifth Avenue. From Jimmy Choo and FAO Schwarz to Trump Tower and Tiffany, dozens of high-end shops fan out along this stretch of Fifth Avenue east of Central Park.
If studying treasures instead of shopping for them is your preference, the area also houses some of New York’s finest museums, notably the Museum of Modern Art. The smaller Museum of Arts and Design and Museum of Television and Radio surround MoMA, and from there, you can take a stroll along “museum mile” going north on Fifth Avenue from 79th Street all the way up to 98th Street.
The upscale route once dubbed Millionaire’s Row, which abuts Central Park, is dotted with prestigious havens of art, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, Jewish Museum and Neue Galerie. If you’re a culture buff, the museum mile alone could take up your entire day — assuming Fifth Avenue doesn’t consume too much of your time, and money.
Nature’s Enduring Call It’s ironic that in a city known for its urban grittiness that a natural oasis would be one of its defining characteristics. But Central Park is so much more than a park carved out in the middle of New York. It’s a sanctuary of calm oddly buffeted against the jungle of skyscrapers enveloping it. Here, Manhattan’s modernity is no match for Mother Nature.
Nearly 60 miles of paths wind their way through 843 acres filled with lolling hills, lakes and ponds, playing fields, monuments, gardens, parks and lush foliage— all juxtaposed against the gleaming buildings looming over it. Spend at least an entire afternoon mingling among New Yorkers in the retreat that they created in the late 1800s to give their growing city some breathing room.
Today, the park is a staple of city life, attracting some 25 million visitors annually. It’s also much safer than it was in the 1970s and ’80s, though it’s still wise to avoid deserted patches.
Highlights include the Wollman Memorial Rink, Wildlife Center, Loeb Boathouse, the Conservatory Water pond and its bronze “Alice in Wonderland” sculpture, and the Belvedere Castle.
Another tranquil getaway is Strawberry Fields, the park dedicated to John Lennon that sits next to the Dakota luxury residential building where the Beatles icon lived and where he was fatally shot in 1980. His wife, Yoko Ono, still maintains an apartment there.
Further down Strawberry Fields on the edge of Central Park is Tavern on the Green, a landmark restaurant that has withstood the test of time, trends and tourist invasions, somehow with its magical allure intact. Outside, twinkling lights and lanterns streaming from a canopy of tree branches make for a dazzling terrace, while inside, various rooms filled with regal chandeliers and hand-carved mirrors create another fantastical setting. It’s a popular if somewhat pricey and clichéd experience, though if you don’t feel like clamoring for a reservation, a good tip is to just stop in for a quick bite on the patio, which is open from June to September and has first-come-first-served seating.
Coming out of Central Park from Tavern on the Green, you’ll be in the vicinity to check out the Lincoln Center at 65th and Broadway. From there, take Broadway down to Columbus Circle, a popular meeting spot and a mosaic of people. A few blocks down is Carnegie Hall, which wraps up your Midtown-Central Park loop.
A Look Lower The next day or two can be devoted to the sights south of Times Square, namely the Flatiron District, Gramercy Park, Greenwich, SoHo, Little Italy and the Financial District.
Lower Manhattan is a collection of eccentric enclaves that to a large degree give the city its personality. The three overlapping neighborhoods of Union Square, the Flatiron District and Gramercy Park boast an abundance of historic charm and unparalleled architecture — epitomized by the Flatiron Building at Broadway and E. 23rd Street. Radiating out from the striking triangular structure are several intimate parks, including Madison Square and Union Square Park, as well as a plethora of restaurants, shops and quaint residential townhouses. Be sure to check out the Shake Shack inside Madison Square Park. It’s an unassuming burger joint, but you won’t miss the always-present long lines of people snaking around the park that stand as a testament to the quality of food there.
Once you’ve had your fill, head down to Greenwich Village, a largely residential bohemian bastion of funk and independent spirit (though its radical thinkers have mostly been replaced by celebrities). At its heart is Washington Square Park, where skateboarders mix with street musicians and students from the adjacent New York University (the Washington Square Arch is in fact the unofficial symbol of NYU).
Likewise, Bleeker Street is a hub of activity in Greenwich, abuzz with coffeehouses, ethnic cafés, vintage clothing stores and late-night clubs. There’s even a speakeasy, or at least the remnants of one, at Chumley’s, a former speakeasy on Bedford Street frequented by famous writers that maintains an aura of the forbidden thanks to a secret unmarked entrance.
Bordering Greenwich is SoHo, which literally refers to the area South of Houston Street (which, for some reason only New Yorkers understand, is pronounced how-stun). Stylish boutiques, galleries and art studios lend an exclusive though somewhat pretentious air to SoHo. Go on a weekend for a leisurely stroll along Spring Street, which is peppered with vendors hawking everything from the strange to the prosaic. Though crowded with people, it’s still a relaxing experience, with few cars and a laidback attitude.
More diversity can be found next door at Little Italy, which is now actually populated by a large Chinese community. Most of the Italian-inspired offerings moved up to NoLita (north of Little Italy) — not to be confused with the nearby NoHo (north of Houston) and East Village, once the seat of American hippy culture that today is more of a hip melting pot of ethnicities and lifestyles.
It All Comes Down to Money Finally, the lower tip of Manhattan, where the East and Hudson rivers meet, is also where New York City began — and where the world of money has seen its share of turbulent times over the years. Battered by Sept. 11, 2001, and now the economic crisis that’s leached capital from the country’s financial capital, Wall Street remains a lifeblood of commerce and investment that pumps money into both the city and the world.
In addition to high-rise skyscrapers, the Financial District also features numerous grand neoclassical buildings, not the least of which are the still-powerful New York Stock Exchange and Federal Reserve Bank.
The district was also once home to the World Trade Center, which is now marked by a gigantic hole of construction and scaffolding where the Freedom Tower is being built. A lone American Flag waves at the site where the 9/11 attacks took down the massive Twin Towers, along with a small visitor center nearby. For now though, until a permanent memorial is erected, there’s not much to see at the strangely busy yet barren site.
A more poignant tribute of sorts can be found at St. Paul’s Chapel, directly across Ground Zero. The tiny 18th-century house of worship was completely spared from the 9/11 wreckage even though it was just yards away from where building 5 of the World Trade Center collapsed. After the attack, hundreds of volunteers at St. Paul’s worked 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, as part of the rescue effort.
The chapel now stands as a peaceful haven not just against the Ground Zero construction cranes but also the driven financial hustle of Wall Street — proof in a sense of New York’s own enduring spirit. It may not be the nation’s capital anymore, but it’s survived worse, and as Manhattan marches on, Washingtonians should stop to take a new look at an old friend.
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.