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New York: Go beyond the tourist traps

The Lower East Side is great for exploring.

You are in bustling Times Square with the famous singing cowboy, two naked girls covered in red, white and blue paint and a full-sized moving Statue of Liberty. Add a surging sea of tourists swirling around these attractions , then you hear a loud lady beside you shout, "You know Herb, I'm deep in a superficial way, you understand what I'm saying? You hear what I'm saying?", and you know it's time to exit quickly.

For many a stay in Times Square is the quintessential "Big Apple" experience.  Bright lights, Broadway shows, the shops full of "I love NY" T-shirts – it's the pulsating heart of the city, but as a place to stay and spend a great deal of time? Think again.

Times Square is reminiscent of Disneyland on steroids and can overwhelm your visitor energy levels. For me, it's best seen on the M104 bus travelling south – you can just stare out from behind the glass.

The aroma of pastrami wafts out enticingly from Katz's Deli in the Lower East Side.

Here is my best advice to anyone heading to the city that never sleeps.

Plan early: It sounds obvious, but with this destination it's critical. Hotels often get booked up well in advance around Christmas and during the autumn (September).  Consider where you want to stay and get to know one neighbourhood well, rather than criss-crossing all over the island of Manhattan and spending most of your time in the subway.

It might be booking a Brooklyn brownstone with Airbnb, so you are based in a pretty leafy street, or it could be the new trendy destination, the Lower East Side, where old deserted buildings are being converted into boutique accommodation.  Here you will enjoy the wafting aroma of pastrami from Katz's Deli or the roasting of single-origin fair-trade coffee beans in a small coffee shop. Or spend time over a glass of wine in the new Russ & Daughters Cafe on Orchard St, which means you can wash down their famous and unbelievably good white fish spread in a relaxed and elegant space, rather than jostling with customers in the small original shop, which dates back more than 100 years, just round the corner on E. Houston.

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The wait is worth it for a Shake Shack burger.

Here you will find the last vestiges of Lower East Side colour. To get an insight into this area book a Walks of New York tour, where local history and visits to places you would never find alone are combined with great sampling.  For example, Mr Pickle for delicious barrels brimming with a variety of options from salty to sour gherkins – there's even a guy out front out the front grating fresh horseradish on a power tool, complete with goggles.

The commentary is both informative and entertaining and the visit to the tiny hole-in-the-wall Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge will send your taste buds into a joyous frenzy.  They are incredibly inexpensive and your guide will negotiate the line for you.

Afterwards, take time to visit the Tenement Museum on Orchard St, a personal favourite, as well as the Frick Museum on 5th Ave uptown, closer to Central Park.  When you think about a museum long after you return home, you know it's worth recommending.

Plan to walk: Whether it be over the bridge from Brooklyn or taking a tour, NYC is a super city by foot – it's almost impossible to get lost and when you take into account traffic jams, walking is often faster than taking a cab.

The Walks of New York on the other side of town has the Mario Batali Greenwich Village Food Tour. Don't expect the exuberant red-haired, orange-Croc-wearing chef to lead the tour – the delightful Italian-born Simona Palmisano was our guide, with stops at his famous eateries and a comprehensive introduction to Italian food.  This is a terrific option for people wanting to upskill and try Batali's great food in tiny samples at a variety of his top eateries.

Walk off the tour with a visit to the adjoining Meatpacking District.  Visit the High Line (elevated railroad-turned-park and walkway) and sample great eats at the Chelsea Market.

A quick heads up – if you love the High Line, back in the Lower East Side there is a disused underground railway line right under East Houston. Plans are in motion to turn it into an urban park and shopping precinct underground. This will attract even more visitors to this area, which even 10 years ago was considered less desirable and 25 years ago actually dangerous.

Over the years I have stayed in many locations around the city, but my favourite is the Upper West Side and, in particular, the Hotel Beacon (beaconhotel.com).

The leafy neighbourhood has less of the intensity of many areas. The hotel is near the 72nd St subway and a few blocks from Central Park and the rooms come with little kitchens, so it's easy to really feel like a local rather than a tourist.  After a busy day, picture yourself on a comfy bed with a bowl of soup with great bread from my favourite food store in the city, Fairway, just over the road.  Zabar's, an iconic NYC food store (where Woody Allen used to buy his bagels), is just a few blocks up the street.

Here are some great suggestions for your next trip to the Big Apple.

My top NYC finds

A perfect smart lunch Book at Perry St. The chef and patron is the charming Cedric Vongerichten (son of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten – an international culinary luminary). Here for NZ$43 you can have an amazing three-course fixed price lunch.  During the week you can have a NZ$9 glass of wine or NZ$30 bottle (this is not on the menu, but if you ask they will oblige). You might start with tuna tartare, followed by tempura light fried chicken (with mushy peas and sauce) and a delicious warm chocolate molten dessert with vanilla icecream.  This menu is available Monday to Saturday. Make a reservation and ask for a table with a view of the park and Hudson River over the road. It's in a quieter part of Greenwich Village near the Christopher St subway station and is a welcome oasis of calm. The walk back to the station is a delight – check out the thrift shop on Christopher St. perrystrestaurant.com

Great shopping Besides the wonderful discounts at Century 21 and Macy's, search out artistic, creative, liberal neighbourhoods and explore their thrift shops.

Great pizza and sub sandwich In Greenwich, go to Faicco's at 260 Bleeker St for a great Italian sub sandwich and to Keste over the road at 271 for inexpensive and delicious pizza. Grimaldi's under the Brooklyn Bridge at 1 Front St (eat before you walk from Brooklyn into the city) is still an old favourite. kestepizzeria.com; grimaldis.com

Best lobster roll Red Hook Lobster – check online for locations and truck. They also serve great craft beers on tap in their downtown location as well as excellent seafood soups. redhooklobster.com

Best soup I will always schlep over to the Soupman (remember the Soup Nazi from the Seinfeld episode?)The soup is to go and just around the corner on 8th Ave heading north is a little park area with seats. diggDig Inn Seasonal Market has great seasonal fare including soup/salads – its farm to counter ethos here and many locations – check online. originalsoupman.com; diginn.com

Best coffee Check out neighbourhood roasters like Stumptown. stumptowncoffee.com

Best Asian food Go out to the Flushing neighbourhood in Queens for inexpensive and authentic fare.

Best roast turkey sandwich Viand Coffee Shop between 61st and 62nd on Madison – order one and ask for a second plate and share. It's like a roast turkey dinner on a piece of bread.

Best diner Brooklyn Diner (57th St) is considered a great spot to eat cheesecake. Prices are higher than a traditional diner, but the food is better. Jerry Seinfeld eats there and the original diner where Seinfeld and Larry David met and came up with the idea for the show is Westway on 614 9th Ave. Prices there are more in keeping with a traditional diner. If you want to see the exterior of the diner used in show itself, it's Tom's Diner at Broadway and 112th St. brooklyndiner.com; westwaydiner.com

Best pastrami sandwich Katz's Deli on E. Houston. katzsdelicatessen.com

Best bagel Personal favourites are Ess-a-Bagel (go to the shop near the corner of East 51st and Third Ave) or Absolute Bagels on Broadway and 108th St. These are traditional bagels – hand rolling, then cooking in water. Don't be shy or too polite when in line – quietly ordering your favourite bagel sandwich doesn't cut it with these guys. ess-a-bagel.com; absolutebagels.com

Best burger You have to try Shake Shack – people go crazy over their shakes. Check online for locations and see how long the lines are via their live camera feed. shakeshack.com

Best steak Porter House New York in the Time Warner Building – go for the $24 lunch offer with rib eye and NY cheesecake. Chef Michael Lomonaco is famous for being the Windows of the World chef that was downstairs getting his glasses fixed at the time of the 9/11 attacks and was safely evacuated from the building. 

Best duck – try the Peking Duck House (28 Mott St) in Chinatown.

Great fixed price lunch The City Harvest menu at the bar at Le Bernardin (NZ$75, with $7 donated to the food rescue charity City Harvest). Or my personal favourite is the set lunch at La Nougatine (1 Central Park West) in the Trump Hotel (NZ$58). le-bernardin.com; jean-georges.com/restaurants/united-states/new-york/nougatine/

Great brunch North End Grill in Battery Park.  Make a reservation as brunch is very popular at weekends.

Great local breakfast spot Silver Spurs, 490 LaGuardia Place near Washington Square and NYU. There are also many great eats on 9th Ave – the further you go away from touristy areas, the better the prices .

Fact file
Getting there
 
Air New Zealand will be flying to New York via Houston from December, which will be a quicker option than via LA – about 18 hours' total flying time. 

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