Home Destinations 5 tips for best experience in NYC, including best bars, free concerts

5 tips for best experience in NYC, including best bars, free concerts

by Andrew Madigan
brooklyn bridge

New York is more than Broadway shows, bus tours, and wondering if the local Olive Garden is better than the one back home. Here’s how to do it right.

Don’t drive to New York City. Take the train for the best experience.

I live just outside Washington, DC. My wife Maura and I decided to take a quick trip to New York, 230 miles due north. It’s a straight shot up I-95, one of the country’s best parking lots. It can take five hours, or six, or eight, and the drive is dead boring. Nothing but car bumpers and concrete barrier walls. Even worse, the bridge, tunnel and highway tolls have become extortionately high; it’s like taking out a second mortgage.

Take the train instead. Amtrack isn’t the world’s best rail system by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s quick, convenient and easy. They have Wi-Fi now in addition to two very important words: Bar Car. We got the party started minutes after leaving the house. I bought a whiskey, sat down, and put on my Walkman.

A perfect way to start any journey, and so much better than gripping the steering wheel and cursing traffic or trudging through TSA two hours before a flight. Of course, the food & beverage attendant did look at me funny when I ordered booze, since it was a morning train ride.

Stay in a neighborhood that’s not popular with tourists.

We choose to stay somewhere not popular with tourists, like the East Village. (Photo by Brittany Petronella/NYC & Company)

Midtown/Times Square is popular among tourists, which is a good sign you don’t want to be there. Find a neighborhood that’s cheaper, cooler, and has more to offer than neon, brand names and overpriced chain stores. Try a neighborhood where people actually live, and by people I don’t mean Mickey Mouse or digitized celebrities on giant screens.

We usually stay in Park Slope, Brooklyn or the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but we’ve also stayed in the East Village and Alphabet City. Don’t be afraid of straying a little off the beaten path. Embrace it. There are things to do, see and discover in every part of the city.

When you stay somewhere different, you end up finding new cafes, new restaurants, new shops and having a completely different experience. Koreatown, Astoria Queens, Little Italy, NoHo. New York is filled with vibrant, colorful, exciting neighborhoods so don’t limit yourself to the most vanilla chunk of real estate in Midtown.

Some of the best food is the least expensive.

New York City has more than 1,600 pizza places. (Photo by Andrew Madigan)

Forget about giant fast-casual warehouses where you order with a QR code, or exclusive restaurants where your server is actually a model/actor/influencer/global brand. Instead, check out the little unassuming places you’ve never heard of and have no preconceived ideas about. In New York, there are literally thousands of them, if not tens of thousands. And I’m using the word literally with literal accuracy.

The terribly named La Bagel Delight in Park Slope has the best bagels in the city and the best croissants. We used to live a few blocks away, which was truly a la delight. But it’s a tiny, cramped, humble joint that you’d miss if you were asking your phone for the nearest Starbucks or Einstein Bros.

The best food in New York is often a slice. There are over 1,600 pizza places in the city. Not every pie is world-class, but many of them are. The pizzerias tend to be tiny and under-decorated with little room to sit, but they serve cheap, quick, delicious food.

My personal favorites are Joe’s in the Village (Carmine and 6th Avenue) and Totonno’s in Coney Island. Pizzatown in Park Slope is also great, but it’s right down the street from a lot of my favorite bars so maybe I’m not being objective. At 3:00 a.m. all pizza tastes great.

Why is the pizza so good in and around NYC? Because of the water source. Most of it comes from the Catskill and Delaware Watersheds, often called “the champagne of drinking water.” It comes out of the tap after traveling through a centuries-old network of pipes and tunnels. The math is simple: great water = great coffee, bagels, pizza, croissants, and whatever else depends on water for its flavor or consistency.

New York is also home to a swarm of great dive bars, ethnic restaurants, cozy snugs, independent coffee shops, food trucks, Italian ice vendors, and anything else you can imagine. Maura and I stopped at Peculier Pub in the Village for a few beers after a busy afternoon eating tacos and shopping for records.

My wife, Maura, at the Peculier Club, which feels like a chapel dedicated to drinking. (Photo by Andrew Madigan)

The bar has over 350 different beers so we drop in whenever we’re craving OB or 33, our favorite Asian tipples that aren’t easy to find. With stained glass windows and old wooden church pews for seats, Peculier Pub feels like a chapel dedicated to drinking. In the old days the bar was called Preachers and, further back in time, a Bible store.

Two of our favorite eateries from this trip: The first is an old favorite, Brookvin, a wine bar in Park Slope. We’ve been going there since it opened in 2010. Located on 7th Avenue in the heart of South Slope, this is a warm understated bar with a cozy back garden. They serve charcuterie, little dishes, and a skillfully curated menu of wines and craft cocktails.

I heartily recommend the Saratoga 75: prosecco, lemon cassis, and Dorothy Parker rose petal gin (snarky witticisms are optional). That’s not a highball you meet every day. A few years back the bartender made me a couple of bourbon cocktails with candied bacon coating the rim of the glass. A great drink and no dinner required.

The second is a new discovery, Kenn’s Broome Street Bar. It’s been around since 1972, but the building looks about 200 years old. Character it’s got, and plenty of it. Tin ceilings, stained glass, dark wood. Kenn’s is crowded, noisy, and everyone’s talking, laughing and having a good time.

It feels like a tavern George Washington might’ve popped into, or beatnik poets back in the 50’s. This is a house of joy. The bartender spins his own music instead of playing a market-tested institutional mix tape designed by robots and marketeers back at corporate HQ. The service is quick, friendly and, mercifully, quite natural.

The waiter wasn’t forced to memorize a fake speech and ask, Have you dined with us before? The food is great and the menu is unusual in the best possible way. Sardine platter! Bratwurst chili dogs! Root beer floats! They serve whatever they want with no corporate overlords to step in and Panera-ize the operation. Everything omelet! Veggie burgers on pita bread! Tofu salad! Pigwich, whatever that is! There’s no rhyme or reason here, except great food.

The best thing about the Broome Street Bar? Maura and I popped in because we were cold and tired after walking about 12 miles from SoHo to Alphabet City and everywhere in between. As we were being seated, I had a thought: I really want a hot toddy, or maybe three. What better way to relax, revive and warm up on a cold winter day? And the thing is, they had toddies right there on the menu. What are the odds?

Skip the obvious choices when it comes to shopping, sightseeing

Wandering in and out of interesting shops is a fun way to spend time in NYC. (Photo by Andrew Madigan)

What should you do with your free time and discretionary income? You can find retail shopping and tall buildings anywhere, and your Nikes won’t look any better because you bought them in Manhattan. Skip the obvious choices and try something a little different. Buy something from a street vendor in SoHo. Sunglasses, scarves, hats, jewelry.

The price is always right. Some of the vendors are local artists trying to get a leg up, and sometimes they don’t even have a cart—just a blanket spread out on the pavement. New York is also home to some of the best thrift shops and “used clothing boutiques” (more expensive thrift shops) in the world. Try them out.

If you’re looking for a museum, try the City Reliquary in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A non-profit community museum, it started life as a display in the owner’s apartment window. This quirky museum features memorabilia from Manhattan and Brooklyn that relates to baseball, burlesque, the 1939 World’s Fair, anything curious or weird. There’s a chunk from the Flatiron Building and a working subway turnstile.

A few years ago, I walked in with a friend and the place was empty. I heard noises coming from a side door and decided to walk through. 100 people were drinking and talking in the back garden. We walked over to the keg, grabbed a few beers, and joined the party. That’s what happens when you go off the beaten track. And aren’t afraid to crash parties.

Williamsburg is ground zero for trendy bars, spotting singers in indie bands, and small art galleries that tend to be more personal and idiosyncratic than the Met. I also recommend the Tenement Museum and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, both on the Lower East Side.

The best way to see New York is to get out there and look around. Yelp isn’t always the answer. (If you can believe it, some of the reviews are just bitter rants that aren’t even true.) There are vintage shops, record stores and used book shops all over the city, especially in places like the East Village and Alphabet City. See a band at Arlene’s Grocery, the Mercury Lounge, Brooklyn Bowl, the Bell House or Pete’s Candy Store. You won’t find any grammy winners at these places, but entrance is cheap, the music is often great, and everyone has a good view of the stage. You’re likely to mingle with the band  after the show, or at least buy an album from them at the merch table.

It was a short trip, but we managed to pop into Barbes in Park Slope. Opened 20 years ago by two French expats, it’s a dark atmospheric bar, simply and beautifully decked out. Half the customers are from the neighborhood, and the other half heard about it through word of mouth. We used to live a few blocks away so it was one of our usual spots. Barbes was opened to provide a space for local artists to showcase their work, especially if it wasn’t commercial. What kind of music will you find here? French, Greek, indie, Americana, jazz, African, Slavic, improvisational. Maura and I once saw an opera in the performance room, which wasn’t much bigger than our tiny apartment kitchen.

You can find plenty of free entertainment like the Celebrate Brooklyn even in Prospect Park. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/NYC & Company)

Speaking of which, we also saw an opera in someone’s Manhattan apartment a few years ago. I bought tickets but the address wasn’t revealed until a few hours before the show. We brought a bottle of wine and set it on the kitchen table with all the others. Then we squeezed into the living room and enjoyed the show. The costumes and props were minimal, but every seat in the house was basically front row. At intermission, we opened the wine, wandered around the apartment, and mingled with strangers. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, a million miles away from the stuffy atmosphere of the Metropolitan Opera. (In actual distance it was just a few blocks away.)

There are also free operas in the summer at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. New York is a great place to find free entertainment, especially under-the-radar live music. Bands used to play at McCarren Park Pool in Williamsburg until they decided to renovate the park and, you know, refill the pool with water. You can also find movies, nature walks, tours and plays: South Street Seaport, Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, Lincoln Center, schools and churches all over the city. One of the best places to see a free concert is Castle Clinton on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. This fortification was built during the War of 1812 to hold off the British. Today it overlooks the Hudson River, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Avoid public transportation and hit the sidewalk instead to get around

For the best experience in NYC, get out and walk the streets. (Photo by Alexander Thompson/NYC & Company)

Avoid tour busses and taxies whenever possible. Why? In New York, so much of what you want to see is on the street, at every corner. Instead of going from Point A to Point M in a car, missing everything in between, just walk. You’ll get to enjoy Points B, C, and all the rest. That’s how I found Barcade in Williamsburg, a bar that features a dozen old-school pinball machines and video games like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.

Here’s a good walk: If you go up Broadway in SoHo, you’ll pass dozens of street vendors and food trucks, not to mention the Museum of Ice Cream. Yeah, that’s a thing. Hang a left on Houston (the Ho in SoHo) and walk toward Greenwich Village. You’ll pass two great art theaters (Film Forum, the Angelika) and, if you turn left on Thompson, you’ll stumble on the Museum of Interesting Things Secret Speakeasy. (It’s next to the Archive of Longwinded Museum Names.) Continue to the Village and enjoy everything it has to offer, including the Peculier Pub, the Comedy Cellar and Caffe Reggio, where the cappuccino was frothed into existence.

Or go right on Houston and head toward the East Village. You’ll pass the legendary Katz’s Deli as well as side streets leading to the New Museum, the Tenement Museum, the Bowery Ballroom music venue, Little Italy, Chinatown… If you explore the city at street level, you won’t miss a thing.

Opened in 1888, Katzs Deli on the Lower East Side is the oldest deli in the city. (Photo by Will Steacy/NYC & Company)

The subway is great too, for people watching, as long as you don’t make eye contact. That’s a New York no-no. But walking is the ideal way to see NYC. It’s free, you get lots of exercise and you enjoy some fresh air. Well, fresh compared to the subway platforms or Chernobyl. Or a New York taxi, for that matter.  

My wife and I did make one nod to Manhattan glitz. We ate dinner at Balthazar, an expensive French brasserie in SoHo. Seinfeld proposed to his wife here, and James Corden got banned for yelling at the staff. The night started with our waiter ignoring us and the meal only went downhill from there. Horrible service, bad attitude, mediocre food. A waiter threw the plates down on the table with apparent disgust. Another dipped his shirt cuff into my cocktail and, for some reason, kept obsessively rearranging the silverware. I could understand why James Corden lost his cool.

$200 later we were on the sidewalk heading back to the hotel. The pizza we had for lunch was so much better and it only cost three dollars a slice. But we stopped off at the Broome Street Bar for a cheap nightcap and the evening suddenly looked a whole lot better.

– Andrew Madigan

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