Over the past four years my family and I have gathered biannually in New York City to watch my youngest brother's dance performances. Jesse (you can read his guest post here) has been pursuing his BFA in Ballet from Marymount Manhattan College, and will be graduating this weekend. While supporting Jesse has been the primary purpose of these trips, they have also served as precious family time. We've all grown older and moved away from home, so finding time for all five (now seven) of us to get together is more difficult. As Jesse's college dance career comes to a close, I have been reflecting on my family's time getting to know a city as regular tourists, which I believe has been a unique opportunity; "next time" was always an option.
Thanks to my mom's ever growing NYC to-do list, we have experienced a variety of tastes and activities. I know there are days worth of unexplored attractions, but I'm hoping our four years of 36-hour trips will give you ideas for the future.
For David and I, most trips began with the 4.5 hour bus ride from DC to NYC after work on Friday. With any luck, we would arrive to the hotel by 10:30, however, more than once we found ourselves sitting in a parking lot only a few miles from the Lincoln Tunnel. Our family always stayed in a different hotel, a few times my parents found deals in Manhattan, but more often than not we settled in Queens. Since Jesse always lived on the East Side, Queens was more convenient anyways.
Each trip followed the same formula, which was based on attending Jesse's Saturday evening performance; we needed to arrive at the theater around 7:00. Assuming a non-rushed dinner close to school, our schedule allowed for one main Saturday adventure, plus a little extra for strolling. After running around the city on Saturday, we took our time with a relaxing brunch on Sunday's before everyone left to go home.
For someone who easily loses focus in museums, and feels overwhelmed with what to look at first, guided tours provide me structure. The success of a tour heavily relies on the guide or docent, so unfortunately, not all tours are created equal. However, over the last four years my family has explored a number of indoor and outdoor sites with upbeat and knowledgeable individuals.
If you are looking for something free, hop on a one-hour tour of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the main New York Public Library location. Unfortunately, the main reading room was under construction during our visit, and our docent was a little too soft-spoken, but it's still a good option for rainy or cold days. Other low cost options are the plethora of walking tours available through Big Onion Walking Tours. We opted for a scenic stroll through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Walking tours tend to be on the longer side, so if you aren't up for a few hours on your feet this may not be for you, however, at $25 per person they are a great value.
For more indoor choices, I highly recommend both the Radio City Stage Door tour and the Museum Hack tour at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, specifically their Un-Highlights option. Both will cost you; Museum Hack runs $60 per person but includes the admission to the museum, however, it was hands-down the best museum tour I have ever taken. The tour is led by a professional in the art and/or archeology field and is designed to make the exhibits accessible through group activities. For example, in the early American portrait gallery, our guide had us each pick out the most hideous painting and take a selfie with it. Trust me on this one, it's worth your money.
Out of all our tours, however, one stands above the rest for me. The Tenaments, Tales, and Tastes food walking tour with Urban Oyster met all my expectations. Food walking tours are my favorite travel activity, so this had a lot to live up to. Our guide was energetic, and full of recommendations. Over a 3-hour period, we made six stops on the Lower East Side sampling things like authentic Chinese dumplings, and knishes at Yonah Schimmel's.
Not all our time has been spent on guided tours. On a more recent trip, my parents and I rented bikes in Central Park for a few hours to enjoy the beautiful weather. We have also created somewhat of a tradition of visiting the Union Square Holiday Market each year during our November trip. While the market can get crowded, it's the perfect place to pick up unique gifts for even the toughest person on your holiday list. For a less crowded option, try LIC Flea & Food, which also happens to be open year-round.
In nice weather, a walk along the High Line can easily eat up an afternoon. This public park was once a freight rail line on the West Side, which underwent a total transformation starting in 2005. As you walk along, don't forget to stop in Chelsea Market where you will be overwhelmed by all the delicious food options.
For anyone not as much into walking as I am, or if the weather keeps messing up your plans, I suggest buying a ticket to any number of NYC's stand-up or improv comedy clubs. When in doubt, laugh it out! Yes, the venues are often cramped and dingy, but who doesn't love watching people make total fools of themselves simply for your benefit? My family and I have taken in shows at two places, but to be honest, I can't remember which ones. So for anyone with a great comedy show experience, please feel free to share in the comments section. All I can say is I enjoyed myself both times, and laughing together over crude humor can be a wonderful family bonding activity.
One of the best activities, however, was fulfilling my little girl dream of seeing the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the one and only Radio City Rockettes. We've all seen their kick-line perfection on TV, but witnessing it in person brings the Christmas spirit to an entirely new level; and I don't even celebrate Christmas. Take my advice: wake up early for the 9:00 am show. Not only is it cheaper, but you won't be required to stand in line as long. As we left the theater, a gathering of tourists blocks long was waiting to get inside.
As an aside, for anyone wanting to see a show in NYC, you must download the Today Tix app. It's the best way to get discounted and last minute tickets.
Tours, walks, and shows highlight some of the best features of NYC, but let's be honest, taking in the city's culinary scene brings out it's best features. My family rarely made a point to dine at specific locations, rather, we opted for restaurants willing to take a reservation for 6+ people, which in NYC is not always the easiest to find. We also prioritized location for Saturday evening dinners in order to be close to the theater. This means we have eaten at almost every establishment on 2nd Avenue between 71st and 73rd.
I certainly can't remember every snack or coffee break stop we made, but a number of Saturday dinners and Sunday brunches stick out in my mind. Jacob's Pickles was one of our first Sunday brunch experiences, and still holds up as one of the best. Unfortunately, they no longer take reservations since the line often winds around the corner, otherwise, I am sure we would have gone back. If you do decide to stand in line, make sure to at least sample one of their biscuits; proof that this comfort food staple is alive and well in the Northeast.
Many restaurants in NYC simply are not set up to accommodate large groups, so shout out to Cupping Room Cafe in Soho for comfortably seating 9 people for Mother's Day a few years ago. Sanfords in Astoria also did our large party justice with front window seating this past winter. I also remember a pretty outstanding steak and eggs skillet that had me rolling out of the front door. For a less traditional, but equally awesome group brunch experience, pull up a chair at 2nd Avenue Deli, one of the few remaining true Kosher deli's in NYC. This stop was a specific request by my mom after watching Deli Man, a documentary following the history of deli's in the US. Let's just say I was in Jewish girl heaven at this place.
As I mentioned above, my family and I have eaten at almost every restaurant close to Marymount Manhattan, which has managed to cram an impressive array of cuisines into just a few blocks. In the mood for Indian? Try Rangoli. Looking for something a little less spicy? The French inspired dishes at Brasserie Cognac East could be a good option. For groups accommodating picky eaters, stop by The Meatball Shop, which will have something for every dietary need. Just beware, it feels pretty cramped inside. My favorite dinner option along this stretch of 2nd Avenue, however, is Uskudar, a Turkish restaurant churning out classic chicken, seafood, and lamb dishes.
A few final culinary destinations stick in my mind as I wrap up our 4 year touring experiment. On this most recent trip, my siblings and I met for breakfast Sunday morning (our parents already left town). After realizing the wait at Russ and Daughter's Cafe was over an hour, we slipped into the next open door who could immediately seat five. We weren't expecting much, but were all really pleased with the food at Dudley's. The space was very small, and too dark for my liking, but the food was on point. There was also the time at Alobar in Long Island City, where my family arrived just as the place opened, which meant we had the entire place to ourselves for a while. Or the time we sat around a massive round booth for an early dinner at Red Rooster in Harlem. Even three years later I can remember their cornbread.
It's a little sad to realize our twice yearly trip tradition has come to a close, but hopefully it's not the end of our NYC exploration. Jesse is staying in the city for the foreseeable future; auditioning and pursuing his Pilates instructor certification, so I have a feeling the gang will be back at it again before we know it.
Walking enthusiast, kitchen experimenter, sports lover (watching, not playing), and future world traveler.
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