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On the 5th of March this year, a huge dream of mine came true- I picked up the keys to my dream apartment in New York City. As I stood by the gorgeous enveloping windows that span the living room, and looked out at the stunning views being on the 41st floor gave me, I had to almost pinch myself to know I wasn’t dreaming. While writing for the Weekend magazine of Khaleej Times, I’d often written about my love for the Big Apple and how complete the city made me feel. In one article, I’d compared my love for the city to that of a great relationship- the city nurtured me, loved me, and most importantly, accepted me totally and completely.
But this relationship is definitely not one based on love at first sight! You’d probably be surprised to know that I hated New York the first few times I visited. My first visit took place when I was in boarding school in Switzerland, and had flown there with a group of students and teachers to check out colleges in the East Coast. I’d never been to America before, and on our first night in NY, we were taken, as all tourists are, to Times Square. I’d looked up at the jarring lights, looked around at the mad hustle and bustle, turned my nose up at the yellow cabs and the smell wafting from the hot dogs made of mystery meat, and knew immediately that this was not where I wanted to spend my four years at college. While my decision to attend University in Boston was one of the best ones I’ve ever made, New York romanced me slowly and quietly during my frequent visits there, and before I knew it, I was in love. Now I laugh back at those faded unpleasant memories, and remember the days I’d spend quality father-daughter time when I’d fly down from Boston during my father’s frequent business trips there. I remember the fun times I spent during summer when my friends and I would skip summer school, drive to NY and camp out in someone’s living room for days on end. I reminisce about attending my best friend’s wedding there or the year I celebrated Christmas Eve with her family, or more recently, bringing in my 30th birthday there with my closest friends. New York holds a lot of great memories for me, and ensures the making of a lot of new ones with every visit.
While approaching New York as a tourist is almost guaranteeing an unpleasant experience for yourself and all involved, approaching New York as a tourist from Dubai, is a disaster of gigantic proportions. The thought process is this- While New York has the Empire State Building, we have our Burj Khalifa. New York has the dynamic Wall Street and their bull, we have the alluring DIFC and the Gate. While New York shoppers have to suffer in the heat walking through gigantic stores on Fifth Ave, we have the world’s best boutiques and offerings in the air-conditioned comforts of Dubai Mall. It really is a non-starter and you’ll come back home wondering what all the fuss was about. While a visit to the Statue of Liberty will get you some nice pictures to show proof of visit, you’ll never be able to understand the soul of the city, which is entirely a city of soul. The best way to visit New York is just to attack it, and let it then be your guide. (Refer to sidenar 1)
While a lot of people hate New York and the sea of people that walk through its streets every day, I love the feeling of getting lost amongst its madness. While dressing up in Dubai to even visit the supermarket is de rigueur, I love the fact that I can go shopping, dressed in track pants to the most exclusive of boutiques there (and still get served). Or alternatively I love dressing up, taking a book and treating myself out to a fancy three course lunch alone, and not feel out of place (or attract pitiful stares from people). While some days I decide to be designer friendly, on other days I decide to be shabby chic (think more shabby, less chic) and on some, I just step out onto the streets and let New York give me the experience it desires. On some days, these experiences can be interesting, and on some, even downright bizarre. On my most recent visit there, me and my best friend somehow ended up as the sampling girls for the day at the Whole foods in the city (largest chain of Organic Supermarkets) handing out little cups of chiken tikka masala and channa masala to unsuspecting Americans who walked by (I wore Chanel and served food out of chafing dishes she’d brought over in her S class Benz parked outside). On another occasion I wanted to protect my hairdo against the pouring rain so I stuck a plastic bag on my head with tiny holes for the eyes and nose and I promise, didn’t attract a second glance from anyone. I also remember the time as a young college student I’d gone shopping with my father one day. Being in a family with only women, my father used to jokingly refer to my mother, my two sisters and I as his “four girlfriends.” My father, in the absence of my mother, wanted to spoil me and so took me to a store and said to the salesgirl, “give my gorgeous girlfriend here anything her heart desires!” I remember the salesgirl looking at the then eighteen year old me and saying, “you’re so lucky your man loves you so much!” “He’s my FATHER!” I said by way of alarmed explanation. “Oh oops,” she’d said to me unflustered, “This is New York honey, you never know.”
What to do, Where to go:
Rent a cycle and ride through Central Park instead of sweating on the hotel treadmill for your morning workout.
Steer clear of the hop on-hop off bus and hail a taxi or ride the subway instead. Make sure while you attend the best shows on Broadway (“Avenue Q” and “The Lion King” are my most recent favourites) you also try to catch some very talented off-Broadway productions. Also while you can get your hotel concierge to order your Broadway tickets for you, you could also try to go to the Box Office an hour before show time and get a heavily discounted seat for shows that aren’t sold out.
If visiting during the summer months, check out “Shakespeare in the Park”- a free performance for a few weeks every summer, of at least one of Shakespeare’s plays each season.
Skip a visit to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building and instead visit the Museums- The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) are worth going to. Go to at least one major sporting event or massive concert while you’re there, even if you don’t understand the sport or have never heard the artist’s music, the energy is electrifying and you’ll be glad you did.
Have Sunday brunch in Soho and then take a walk around the smaller boutiques or browse the interesting artifacts being sold on the road there.
Go to the Meat Packing District to survey the night life and check out some of the best bars and clubs there.
Alternatively, go to a comedy club to see some of the best stand up comedy in the world (Dangerfield’s is always a good bet).
Visit the Apple Store on 5th Ave even if you have no intentions of buying anything.
And a random last tip- if during the day, you see people lining up for no apparent reason (New Yorkers somehow love doing that!) get in line behind them. Whether good or bad, whatever is at the end of the line will surprise you and be worth the wait.
My most favourite eating places:
Nello’s- After an exhaustive shopping trip on Madisson Avenue, visit Nello’s at lunch for celeb-spotting and the best Pasta in the city.
Mr Chow’s- The best Chinese in the world as far as I’m concerned. It’s more Chinese Fusion than traditional and you’ll either love it or hate it. Don’t be alarmed if they don’t give you menus and ask you instead to “trust them.” Do. Or visit the newer “Philippe” for the same food and trendier atmosphere.
L’Atelier de Joel Rubichon- For years I complained that Americans just did not know how to do French food right but “L’Atelier” at the Four Seasons, changed that. Everything on the menu is great, and get the truffled mashed potatoes off the menu, on the side.
Serafina’s- Visit the one on Madisson and 61st for great pizza and pasta anytime during the day.
Nobu still remains the best Japanese in New York.
For budget friendly options:
Grab a slice of the traditional New York style Ray’s pizza.
Try the famous “chicken and rice” sold from a cart at night from the corner of 53rd and 6th Ave. The line leading up to the front of the cart can be your indication for the exact one.
Menchenko in a small hole in the wall with the best Japanese noodle soups.
Café Spice Express at Grand Central Station- the best Indian in town at the best price
Bunny Chow- Great South African food and very reasonably priced, owned by a dear friend of mine. If you visit, try the Bunny Chow or Veg Burger and then ask for Manu and tell him I said hi!
And at all costs avoid ANY chain restaurants like TGIF’s and the Olive Garden or anything else at Times Square!
The view from my apartment: