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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the United States of America.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the United States of America.
A cinephile’s paradise, The Film Forum (pictured above) has been New York’s leading movie house for indie premieres, classic and foreign films, and director retrospectives since 1970 when it began with 50 folding chairs and one screen. On any given week you could, for example, catch an original Godzilla movie, see part of a Robert Altman retrospective, watch a restored print of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, or attend a premiere of the latest documentary by D. A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) with the director on hand for questions after the screening.
People complain the three screens in the theatre are small and the seats uncomfortable, but film- lovers agree it just wouldn’t be the same in the city without the Film Forum’s eclectic and well-thought- out screening programs.
A great place for a drink or bar meal (burgers, steak and fries) afterwards is the historic Ear Inn.
Built in 1817 by the water’s edge to serve thirsty longshoremen working the docks, it’s been called the Ear Inn since the 1970s, after the ‘B’ in the neon ‘Bar’ sign was transformed with a few dabs of paint into an ‘E’ by members of The Ear music magazine, then published on the premises. Thanks to landfill and development, the former speakeasy now sits a few blocks inland. It has become a city institution where people come to enjoy a drink or meal in a relaxed atmosphere and maybe catch some live jazz if it’s a music night.
Philadelphia is one of the most historic cities in America. Most first time visitors go to the usual sites like Independence Hall and stand in line for half an hour or more to see the Liberty Bell, before walking through Independence Park and Reading Terminal Market. Maybe they visit Valley Forge National Park. However, a walking tour is one of the best ways to experience this city.
I had been there five times previously, visiting the regular attractions and walking the city. This time, I wanted to go deep into Philly’s history and find some new food hot spots.
My base at the Windsor Suites Hotel put me right near Philadelphia’s epicenter and its major sites – City Hall, Drexel College’s Academy of Natural Sciences, The Franklin Institute, The Barnes Foundation, Chestnut Street, Market Street and more attractions.
However, the plan to get to know Philly better was to pass on these usual attractions and head into the neighborhoods. When William Penn laid out the city plan for Philadelphia, he was one of the first to use the grid pattern now common in North America. The grid design makes Philly easy to walk and find addresses.
My wife joined me the next day, and we took the City Food Tours “Flavors of Philly” option. This 2-1/2 hour tour took us in and around Philly’s core. Our plan was to try the famous tomato pie, soft pretzels, cheesesteak, cookies, and donuts before ending up at Reading Terminal Market.
We met our guide Judy, a fourth generation Philly native, and lined up for the briefing along with 11 other ready and hungry souls.
Our first stop was Joe’s Pizza for tomato pie, which is somewhat like pizza, except this pie has no cheese; it’s just dough and sauce. The owner – Zio Toto – had left Sicily after an earthquake destroyed his farm where he grew San Marzano tomatoes. Zio packed up his family and moved to the U.S. instead of rebuilding in the shadow of the destructive Mt. Etna and the earthquakes it spawns.
Joe’s Pizza is where we found Mr. Toto’s son, Ernesto, carrying on the tradition. Even though he is around 90 years old, he still comes in every day and makes this delicious red sauce from San Marzano tomatoes. Our group went upstairs to hear the story of the disputed origins of the tomato pie. Some say Trenton, New Jersey or Utica, New York are the home of the saucy red pie. Who cares? I just wanted to taste this regional treat and hear the story.
Upstairs we saw a gorgeous wall-to-wall mural of the owner’s home in Sicily showing the fertile green landscape and the menacing volcano that ushered his family to Pennsylvania. Our pie arrived and we devoured it. All agreed it was a great tasting, low-calorie version of pizza.
On our way downstairs, 1 noticed Mr. Toto and asked if I could take his photo before leaving. I told him how good the pie was, even though he doesn’t speak much English, and thanked him. We then sped off to join the group on the way to the Philly Pretzel Factory.
Here we learned that Pennsylvania makes 80 percent of the pretzels in the U.S. We were given a hot pretzel each and led to the mustard station. There was regular “ballpark” mustard, spicy brown, and very hot mustard to paint on our pretzels. I passed on the boring ballpark mustard and tried the very hot variety plus a bit of the spicy brown just for good measure. While the pretzels were tasty, I thought they needed a beer to make the most of the experience.
The heart of Chinatown, Canal Street is hectic with pedestrian traffic and vociferous street vendors. It has long been the place to go for counterfeit designer products, but a police crackdown has cut down on the number of knockoff handbags, watches, jewelry, and shades displayed in the open on this crowded street. Customers are not at risk of arrest, but vendors are. Still, it hasn’t dissuaded intrepid salespeople from reaching out to tourists who crowd the street in the afternoons and on weekends – they’ve simply become stealthier.
If you’re looking for a fake designer accessory, watch for men on street corners with wallet-size plastic catalogs of product photos. Then, either they’ll lead you down the back stairwell of a store, or around a corner to another address. What happens afterwards is not for the faint of heart: you’ll be taken into rooms that may then be locked behind you. Spread out on the floor will be a selection of faux brand-name accoutrements to choose from – Gucci, Cartier, Prada – you name it, there’s a fake for it.
Alternatively, locate one of the minivans parked just off Canal Street, used by mobile vendors who are ready to move on at the slightest sign of police activity.
Game-playing New Yorkers have a field day at Fat Cat, a vast subterranean games room which holds 10 pool tables, 10 ping-pong tables, along with half a dozen foosball and shuffleboard tables, chessboards, and a bar area where people can sit and play Scrabble or backgammon.
The place is dark, crowded, and usually noisy, and adding to the energetic mayhem are jazz, soul, or Gospel bands playing on a small stage tucked to the side. Three groups play each night from 7pm–2am, with an informal jazz jam session taking over until closing at 4.30am. At night the place is generally packed with 20–30-year-olds and the NYU student set looking for an inexpensive and fun alternative to nightclubs and restaurants.
Bowlmor Lanes near Union Square is also a nighttime destination for New Yorkers looking for something different to do. The management at Bowlmor spiffed up a neglected three-floor bowling alley about a decade ago, turning it into a retro-hip spot with glow-in-the-dark bowling, big-screen videos, a huge sound system and a couple of bars. Some complain both the drinks and the bowling are too expensive ($24 for shoes and unlimited bowling from 9pm–1am), but others counter that the place is well managed and conveniently located.
The cafe Doma, meaning ‘home’ in Czech, is certainly home for many freelance scribblers, actors, filmmakers, and other creative types who use this cafe as a more spacious alterative to their tiny apartments nearby. Although often as quiet as a library (albeit a see-and-be-seen library, where eyes swoop to the door when it opens), the cafe has an unspoken rule that sitting at the central table means you’re open to conversation – friendships, romances, and business deals have all sprouted here. Doma (pictured above) also serves light cafe fare (omelets, salads, and gourmet sandwiches), as well as wine and beer in the evenings.
Set in a former garage, Grounded is a more hipster alternative to Doma, priding itself on a post-hippie, lived-in feel with kitschy thrift-shop mugs, politically-correct coffee, and a soundtrack that alternates between ‘70s staples and current indie Brooklyn bands. Like Doma, Grounded has a social common area of wooden benches and a couch grouped around a coffee table, where it’s acceptable to chat with the person next to you.
Joe’s has won best cafe in the New York press because of the quality of the coffee, but the atmosphere isn’t quite as enticing as at Doma or Grounded. It’s smaller here, usually quite crowded, and the tables and chairs are less comfortable. However, getting a spot outside on one of two benches and watching activity on this pretty street is an ideal way to spend an hour or two on a warm day. There’s a second Joe’s by Union Square (9 E. 13th St), where it’s easier to get a table.
A great way to kick off a tour of New York’s neighborhood-of-the-moment is to get a glimpse of fashionable life in the 1800s at Merchant’s House on East Fourth Street. This elegant red-brick row house was home to a prosperous merchant family, and today it’s the only home in New York preserved intact from the mid-19th century, with much of the original furniture, decor, and family belongings still in place.
A block away is the Bowery, a once dodgy thoroughfare now home to some of the city’s hippest new hotels and buzz-worthy restaurants. Have a drink at the sleek cocktail bar at The Marlton Hotel (pictured above) or enjoy the intimacy of the vaulted dining room that’s lined with quaint shuttered windows and trailing plants.
Down the street is The Lobby Bar at the Bowery Hotel, where Ashton threw a birthday party for Demi, and Mark Anthony for J-Lo. Settle into oversized velvet chairs and take in the opulent French château hunting-lodge feel of the place with its marble fireplaces, wall-mounted antlers, and oriental carpets. The hotel’s rustic restaurant Gemma is a good place for a casual meal or coffee.
Big-name chefs are now on the Bowery: Daniel Boulud’s DBGB’s Kitchen and Bar (299 Bowery, tel: 212-933-5300) – named in homage to the Bowery’s defunct rock club CBGB’s – features upscale burgers and sausages, while hit-making restaurateur Keith McNally has opened his latest rustic Italian, Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria (282 Bowery, tel: 212-226-1966) on this trendy stretch.
Following a $16 million renovation which took over six years to complete, Washington Square Park is a pleasant spot to sit on a bench with a paper and maybe a spot of lunch, listen to music, and enjoy the ebb and flow of Villagers, bohemians, tourists, students and academics from surrounding NYU buildings, workers on breaks, and local residents with their dogs.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be there when the fragrant food cart of Sri Lankan-born Thiru Kumar is parked on the south edge of the park at Sullivan Street (Mon–Fri 11am–4pm, but times can vary depending on the weather). His mild or spicy dosas are praised by foodies across the city.
The park has been a draw for musicians since World War II, when folkies would gather near the fountain on weekend afternoons. Buddy Holly, Woodie Guthrie, and Bob Dylan have all jammed here over the years, and the tradition continues. Classical concerts are held in the northeast corner of the park in July, and Christmas caroling takes place around the arch in December.
In the southeast corner of the park, regular chess players do battle, while ‘chess hustlers’ take on passersby in an attempt to make a few bucks. On Sundays, champions from the National Scrabble Club gather here to compete.
Over the past decade, more than $400 million have been poured into converting industrial land and abandoned piers along the Hudson River into the Hudson River Park (www.hudsonriverpark.org) a 5½-mile stretch of parks, bike and pedestrian paths, tennis and basketball courts, and places to fish or launch a kayak. It’s quickly become a favorite escape for nature-starved, stressed-out New Yorkers and tourists. The paths run from Battery Park up to 59th Street, passing more than half a dozen converted piers with green space, outdoor theaters, and benches. But most New Yorkers agree the best stretch lies below 23rd Street.
Pier 45 is perfect for lying out on the grass and taking in a rare sense of open space. Enjoy the views of the Statue of Liberty and the New Jersey shoreline, a sunset, or watch the river traffic ballet of police and tourist helicopters, tugboats, cruise-ships, and kayaks. The last can be rented for free for 20-minute trips further south at the Downtown Boathouse, Pier 40 (www.downtownboathouse.org, Sat–Sun 9am–6pm, life jackets and brief instruction provided.
For intrepid individuals looking for an upside-down view of the Hudson River, the New York Trapeze School offers 2-hour lessons for about $50–60, also at Pier 40 (tel: 212-242-TSNY; www.newyork.trapezeschool.com).
But one of the best ways to enjoy the new park is on two wheels. Bike rentals are available in Midtown from Pier 84 at 44th Street (www.bikeandroll.com) or at Battery Park.
The city that never sleeps is especially nocturnal in Korea Town, as 32nd Street between Sixth and Fifth avenues is known. On the block-long strip you can dig into Korean barbecue, sing karaoke, or soak in a spa around the clock.
In dozens of restaurants, galbi (thinly sliced beef short ribs), jeyook gui (broiled pork), bugogi (sirloin), saeoo gae (jumbo shrimp), and other specialties are prepared at your table – either grilled over coals or sautéed on a hot griddle. Accompaniments are bibimbop (rice and vegetables) and bi bim naeng myun (noodles topped with kimchi, or pickled vegetables). Among the favorite places on the street to enjoy these delicacies are Shilla (37 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-1880), with a three-story tall dining room; Mandoo Bar (2 W 32nd St, tel: 212-279-3075), with its dumplings being made in the front window; and BCD Tofu House (17 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-1900), where a hearty tofu stew is the house specialty.
Wherever you dine, and whatever you order, you will probably wash down your meal with soju, a clear, potent liquor that looks and tastes quite a bit like vodka. After a few glasses, you will be well primed to partake of K Town’s other great diversion, karaoke. The neighborhood’s two most popular venues are Chorus Karaoke (25 W. 32nd St, tel: 212-967-2244), and Duet 35 (53 W. 35th St, tel: 646-473-0827).
Should these exertions wear you out, the Juvenix Spa (25 W. 32nd St, fifth floor) is open at all hours to provide a sweat in a sauna made of semiprecious stones and a soak in a tub filled with sake, tea, and algae. If the weather is good, and midnight has not yet struck, you might want to make a stop at La Quinta Inn (17 W. 32nd St). Ascend to the Sun Roof, a pleasant aerie where cocktails are served until midnight – when the night is still young in this 24-hour neighborhood.
Not too much gets a unanimous nod of approval from New Yorkers, but the High Line is one of those rare exceptions. Just about everyone seems to have something good to say about this elevated promenade, a refreshing strip of greenery that cuts an aerial swath through the heart of Chelsea, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues all the way from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street.
The High Line is a disused railway trestle that once handled train traffic up and down the West Side, a supply route for factories and warehouses. Fountains, patches of greenery (some cultivated from the wild plants that took root on the abandoned tracks), and benches line the route, reached by staircases from the streets below.
As you follow the High Line you can peer down into the Meatpacking District and other old industrial neighborhoods below. At 17th Street, the view south extends all the way across New York Harbor to the Statue of Liberty. At 18th Street, the Empire State Building looms into view. Some of New York’s most exciting new architecture has risen around the High Line, including a curvaceous glass creation by Frank Gehry at Eleventh Avenue and 18th Street.
At sunset, an orange glow hangs over the Hudson River, and discreet lighting along the route ensures that the night sky, enlivened here and there with a faint star, provides a romantic canopy above the route. Weekday mornings the walkways are uncrowded, a quiet sanctuary as the workaday city rushes by below.