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New York City: through the eyes of travel writers

A given on any best city list, NYC is the metropolis that always amazes, from its highbrow culture to sky-high views

By Sarah Barrell, Ben Lerwill
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:14 BST
The High Line, New York
The High Line, Manhattan.
Photograph by Getty Images

When did NYC first make sense to you?

Sarah Barrell: A few weeks after moving to Manhattan, I conceded that my favoured lunch on the run, a tuna sandwich and a bottle of water, was a goner. Ordered in an English accent, it’s a perfect storm of short vowels and hard ‘T’s that baffles Americans. Affecting a New York accent only made it worse. Deli staff would fix me with me with an irate ‘don’t mess with me, lady, time is money’ look. Finally, the penny dropped: this was a hard-assed island with a dollar-driven edge — not a touristy funfair ride. Time to switch to a Diet Coke and pastrami on rye.

Ben Lerwill: I ran the New York Marathon in November 2001, less than two months after 9/11, and it was as if the event had given the city a release. The entire population of Brooklyn and Queens seemed to have poured onto the streets. On Lafayette Avenue, a boy leant out of the crowd and pressed jelly beans into my hand. In Manhattan, where the route turns onto First Avenue, the energy was electric. What it underlined was that as well as the city being one of the most eulogised on the planet, for millions of people it’s home.   

If you were there now, what would you do first? 

Sarah Barrell: I’d walk my old manor: north along Lexington from Midtown, the Chrysler Building’s scalloped peaks appearing at intervals as I do so. Into the tatty Tramway Plaza thoroughfare, where cable-cars lift commuters to Roosevelt Island, and the hulking Queensboro Bridge stretches across to Queens. North, through genteel areas. West, along tree-lined streets where buildings gather ornate gargoyles and elegant awnings. At their end, Central Park: a vast clearing amid the skyscrapers. Here I’d step into the green and kick off my shoes to feel the city’s pulse under my feet. 

What do you love most about this city?

Ben Lerwill: It’s so explorable. You can walk past a hip restaurant, then seconds later be outside a hosiery store that looks stuck in the 1950s. It’s so familiar too, even for first-time visitors — from the cab drivers to the zigzagging fire escapes and the sidewalk hustlers.  

Describe an ideal day in NYC

Sarah Barrell: Start with an long brunch somewhere — just be sure it includes breakfast potatoes (a sterling North American invention). Walk off the excess along the Hudson River’s gentrifying boardwalks, onto the High Line elevated park. Drift through Chelsea’s galleries and Soho’s overpriced boutiques, and into Nolita, where bar-hoppers have a rainbow of choice. Then funnel into a gig at a Lower East Side venue, after which stumble across the wind-blasted Williamsburg Bridge to Bedford Avenue for tacos and dancing.

What’s your favourite neighbourhood? 

Ben Lerwill: Greenpoint in Brooklyn — it’s become hip but still feels authentic.

Sarah Barrell: The Lower East Side for immigration-era tenements and indie music joints. 

Take a tour of New York led by a local, covering everything from art and architecture to where to find the best pizza and Central Park hikes. Duration and prices vary:

Sarah Barrell is the associate editor of National Geographic Traveller

Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in the UK

Click to see the full list of our travel writers favourite cities.

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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