The Been-There-Done-That Guide to NYC

There’s much more to this city than Central Park and a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. (Though both of those things are wonderful.) If you’ve visited a number of times and have exhausted the travel guides, or if you live here but haven’t yet had the chance to really explore, then read on.  I’ve been here 12 years, and I still come across surprises. These are some of my favorites.

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Walk the length of Broadway: Sure, you’ve seen a show on Broadway, but have you walked the entire length of the thoroughfare, starting at 220th street and ending at the Battery? It’s a 13.2 mile walk, so make sure to schedule food and drink stops along the way. Celebrate the finish line with trays of square pepperoni pies at Adrienne’s on Stone Street.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: Some of the best views of Manhattan are found off the island. Take the tram to Roosevelt Island (view from the tram pictured above), and walk to the southern tip. You’ll pass the former smallpox hospital, one of the most haunting buildings in the city. The park itself is pristine and sprawling. The trees are saplings and don’t provide much shade, so wait for a not-scorching day.

City Island: Eat your way through piles of fried seafood on City Island, a picturesque New England-like village off the coast of the Bronx mainland. In addition to a handful of destination restaurants, the main street, City Island Avenue, is lined with familiar small-town spots, like ice cream and candy shops, art galleries and antique stores. Incredibly, it’s all within city limits.

The Morgan Library: Recently named one of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, the Morgan is something out of a fairytale. (I’m reminded of Beast’s castle library in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast). This once-personal library of 19th century financier Pierpont Morgan features a trove of rare materials like early children’s books and music manuscripts.

Unisphere and Queens Museum: Visiting the Unisphere in Queens’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one gets a taste of what it must have felt like to see the structure for the first time at the 1964 World’s Fair. There is a futurist’s optimism to the design; it almost looks like something from a sci-fi film, one in which all nations work together to conquer challenges. Next door, the Queens Museum is home to the Panorama of the City of New York, a to-scale 9,335 square foot model of the city.

Morbid Anatomy Museum: Was Wednesday Addams always your go-to Halloween costume growing up? Do you obsessively look up strange and obscure medical ailments? Are you still not over that whole 90s witch trend? Have I got the museum for you! The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus features a fascinating collection of obscura in its gift shop, rotating exhibits and an intriguing lecture series. Oh, and taxidermy classes, if that’s your thing.

Wave Hill: This former estate on the banks of the Hudson River is a schlep to get to if you live south of Midtown, but the pristine gardens and the Jersey-cliff views make up for the out-of-the-way location. I’d venture to say this Bronx park is one of the most beautiful spots in the five boroughs.

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Nargis Cafe: This Uzbek cafe in Sheepshead Bay has quickly become one of my favorite restaurants in South Brooklyn. Everything here is delicious, but I especially recommend the plov (rice pilaf with lamb), fried manti (Uzbek dumplings), Tashkent salad (lamb and radish salad), lagman soup (spicy noodle soup), and ALL OF THE KEBABS. It’s BYO whatever, but there’s a $5 corkage fee per bottle, so spring for the larger size and bring a crowd. It’s always lively, especially on weekends.

Villabate Alba: Cannoli, made with ricotta imported from Sicily, is what to get at this Sicilian bakery in prime Bensonhurst. I’m also partial to the lobster tails and to gawking at the brightly colored cakes, cookies, and pastries lining the sprawling display shelves.

Taqueria El Mezcal: The tacos at this tiny Sunset Park shop are flavorful and authentic, but what really won me over was their cemita. Made on a traditional, fluffy, sesame seed-covered sandwich bun with avocado, shredded queso, black beans, and, in my case, moist al pastor pork, it might just be the perfect sandwich.

Coppelia: There’s something very old-school New York about this 24-hour Cuban diner (pictured above) on 14th Street. Past midnight it services a cross-section of nighttime revelers, from those out clubbing in the nearby Meatpacking District to local residents out for a late dinner. Dishes and drinks are inventive and way better than they need to be for a 24-hour joint.

San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar: This small, authentic Italian restaurant and sandwich shop is located in an unlikely spot on the Upper East Side. The Neapolitan pies are pretty good, but it’s the panouzzi, sandwich-calzone hybrids made from pizza dough, that are the real standouts.

East Harbor Seafood Palace: Come hungry and with not much money in your pocket to this Bensonhurst dim sum hall with a seafood-inflected menu. It’s the size of a small shopping mall, so while the weekends are busy, the waits are bearable. The shrimp dishes–fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, shrimp dumplings, rice noodle rolls stuffed with shrimp–are winners.

Goa Taco: The pork belly taco as this fusion-y spot on the Lower East Side (with weekend showings at Smorgasburg) was one of my most memorable recent meals. It was perfectly constructed: tender, crispy-skinned pork belly, buttery paratha (an Indian flatbread), red slaw. The entire dish is a master course in how to make fusion cuisine that elevates instead of dilutes.

Wangs: I’m still confused about why this Park Slope takeout spot isn’t a bigger deal. My husband and I have to restrain ourselves every time we walk by, and we’re usually passing by after a filling dinner. Their specialty Korean jumbo fried chicken wings are sticky, crispy, spicy, heavenly. Get them, and the cornbread with salted scallion butter and Thai chili pepper jam, and prepare to fall in love.

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Luckydog: This low-key bar on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue is a dog- and beer-lovers’ dream. It’s an specially good spot for gawkers who don’t actually have a pet of their own. The adorable back yard is like those dog runs you’re only allowed to observe through a chainlink fence, except here, you’re face-to-face with an array of fluffy puppy butts. On a recent weekend night, the place was filled with as many as a half-dozen pooches, from terriers to Pomeranians to labs. Oh, and the beer list is pretty good, too.

The Double Windsor: I’m a huge fan of this comfortable, airy Windsor Terrace bar, and not just because it’s less than a 20-minute walk from my house. It’s the rare spot where one can get an expertly made cocktail, a sought-after beer, and a stellar burger.

Blueprint: “Laid back” and “craft cocktail” aren’t words usually used to describe the same spot. The cocktails at this Park Slope bar are as good if not better than those at more sceney lounges. There’s also a lovely little backyard and a very generous happy hour until 7 p.m.

Covenhoven: There’s absolutely no pretension at this beer nerd’s haven in Prospect Heights. Pick a bottle from their expansive fridge (price vary depending on whether you’re taking out or drinking in) or try something on tap. The backyard, with its small, elevated grassy expanse and iron cafe chairs, is perfect for wiling away summer afternoons.

Ear Inn: Billed as NYC’s oldest bar, this Hudson Square institution has been slinging alcohol continuously since 1817, even during Prohibition. Most out-of-towners go to McSorley’s and miss out on this eccentric spot. Here’s why it’s a can’t-miss: the atmosphere is classic New York, the drinks and food are simple and well-made, and the crowd–a mixture of low-key locals, a post-work crowd, Soho deserters, and a smattering of tourists–is a microcosm of the city.

Red Hook Bait and Tackle: This eclectic Red Hook bar pairs well with a visit to the Morbid Anatomy Museum, mentioned above–the welcoming interior is covered in tchotchkes and an array of taxidermy. It’s not just about the decor, though. It’s also standout for its friendly, laid-back vibe. This bar is the kind of watering hole every neighborhood wishes it had.

PSA: Act More Like a Tourist

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The beauty of seeing something as others see it, like this Jackson Pollock at MoMA

As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m an observer. Yes, it’s important to see the world through your own eyes without incessantly comparing your experience to that of those around you. It can be equally as important, though, to see something from someone else’s perspective. It’s one of the reasons we travel, after all.

I like to sit on a bench on the waterfront near my office and watch as tourists trickle by, posing in front of the Statue of Liberty and the Jersey skyline. Their faces alight when they see the water, especially on breezy days, when that particular part of the city feels entirely removed from the anxious bedlam at its Midtown center. The sun reflects in the churn of the waves. The sailboats tumble across the horizon. The tourists smile at each other. Sometimes, they visibly gasp.

How lucky they are, I tend to think, to be experiencing the city for, perhaps, the very first time. And I’m jealous. Of how new and exciting it all is for them. They’re bookmarking this moment. For me, it’s an unremarkable–albeit pleasurable–lunch break. New York City is home, and when a place is home, its discernible, poetic features tend to fade into a comfortable pastiche. Everything becomes ordinary, everyday.

And so I follow their gazes, and for a moment, I see it for the first time, too. And man, is it fucking beautiful.

Sound Art and Modernity

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Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet at MoMA PS1 in 2012 (image courtesy of Britta Frahm; made available via Creative Commons license)

Maybe you’re like me: you’re a fairly sensitive person who tears up at sad movies or at the endings of tragic novels. Those reactions are guided by specific cues–that of resonance with a character’s plight or the visual impact of someone crying on screen. We can see or feel the emotion, and our brains react to it; there’s a cause-and-effect that feels, at least to me, fairly straightforward. Music, however, provides an altogether different experience. The first few chords of an especially powerful song can make my eyes well up almost immediately. The chords bring on simultaneous feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and melancholy, and those feelings often seem uncoupled from the specificity of the emotion a particular song exudes. I cry just as easily at a powerful song, with booming notes, and crushing cymbals as I do at a mournful ballad played in a minor key.

Science supports the idea that music as an art form is uniquely able to produce a “frisson” , a sensation marked by a shiver, trembling and goosebumps. Unexpected, dramatic musical flourishes, especially those that violate our expectations and startle the nervous system, release dopamine to the brain, creating a similar response in a listener as one he or she might have to drugs and sex.  (Some frisson-inducing songs for me: The Shivers'”Beauty“; Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night“; The Verve’s “Drugs Don’t Work“; DeVotchka’s “Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of…)“)

Sound is uniquely able to give us pleasure, but as an art form, it’s often overshadowed by other mediums. Yes, music is the clearest example of sound as art, but to define it as only music (as in: the kind that gets made by musicians) ignores the versatility of hearing as a sense and how manipulating it can play with our perceptions of reality in the best possible way (the dissonance of a nature recording played in the middle of Times Square, for example). Sound art isn’t just “music” in the same way that fine art isn’t just “painting.”

All of this is to say: I want more! There are sound artists doing amazing things, and museums are catching on, but the form isn’t nearly as widely recognized as older art forms. I’ve been intrigued by the medium ever since I experienced Janet Cardiff’s revelatory “The Forty Part Motet” at MoMA PS1 four years ago. Featuring 40 freestanding speakers that each play the unaccompanied voice of a specific singer, the piece builds momentum as the voices coalesce into the moving, reverential motet composed by 16th century Tudor composer Thomas Thallis. To walk and listen closely to each speaker is to marvel at the building blocks of music the way someone might marvel at the individual bricks of a soaring cathedral. It would be hard to overstate the emotional impact of the piece. (Listen to an excerpt here.)

I felt similarly moved when I viewed Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Black is the Color” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Though not strictly “sound art,” the video installation manipulates sound to give the museum goer an entirely new perspective on the piece of music he or she is hearing. By looping dozens of old televisions showing a Nina Simone performance of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a turn-of-the-20th-century Scottish folk song, the artist creates a haunting round that highlights only the words “Black is the color.” These four words are played on endless repeat–their power amplified by the booming, reverberating quality of Simone’s voice, and the effect is chilling.

Sound art may be the art form most suited to our modern world. It has the ability to completely transport us, to engage with us in a wholly unique way, especially at a time when our attention is pulled in many directions by so much disruptive sound: clicking, beeping, buzzing, honking, jack-hammering. Nowadays, when everyone is looking for something real, something that moves us, something human, perhaps it is sound art that can save us.

 

We’re on Instagram!

We’re sharing tons of lovely photos on our brand new Instagram account. Follow us @notesfromthewondercity.

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Clockwise from top left: Maison Premiere oyster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; cherry blossoms at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; tulips in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattain; Fried Jewish-Roman artichokes at Lupa in Greenwich Village; 1 World Trade Center

We Came, We Saw, We Waited in Line*

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The line for Ample Hills Creamery, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, April 2013

If you’ve been to New York City lately, you might have noticed a disconcerting site reminiscent of Soviet Russia. There are lines for food–lots of them: block-long lines for kooky, Insta-ready milkshakes; lines for Play-Doh-esque rainbow bagels; lines for pizza; more lines for pizza. Wait times for well-reviewed items have been a mainstay for years–think Di Fara, Shake Shack and Katz’s–proving that we want to be seen as  “connoisseurs among connoisseurs,” according to New York magazine. Now, however, there seem to be altogether separate motives for wasting, I mean waiting three hours for a milkshake made from supermarket Blue Bunny ice cream and Chips Ahoy! cookies. (But if that’s your thing, you do you.)

I think the explanation is four-fold. First, photo-sharing apps like Instagram have given us the newfound ability to tempt family and friends, in real-time, with photographic evidence of our food adventures. Who cares if the taste was mediocre? The pictures are beautiful! And on that note, which memory is more likely to last–the taste-bud related one or the visual one, which you can revisit any time?

Second, there’s a shared-experience element to the misery of waiting hours for something. You and your fellow line waiters survived that misery together. “Can you believe we did that?” you’ll giddily say to one another once the whole thing is over. “I waited five hours in the cold rain,” you’ll recount to family and friends. The subtext here is: I’m determined and I’m patient and I don’t give up easily. And aren’t those prized virtues in a world where human attention spans have fallen to an average of eight seconds thanks to smartphones?

Third, everyone seems to have FOMO, as the kids call it; the acronym stands for “fear of missing out.” The line itself is reason enough to stand in it, the thinking goes. Why would people wait if there was nothing worth waiting for? My mother used to tell me about an oft-repeated directive in the U.S.S.R.: If you see a line, join first, then ask about what’s at the other end. In a country with constant scarcity, this was smart. In modern-day NYC, it doesn’t make much sense

Fourth, it’s about making the most of every vacation or outing. Who knows when you’ll be here again? This sentiment points to another acronym, YOLO, “you only live once.” (Is now a good time to start a countdown to a dystopian future where all our communication will be reduced to acronyms?)

I try not to judge all the those waiting in interminable lines around the city. They’re enjoying themselves, I’m sure, and they’re creating lasting memories. I just hope those hours-long waits don’t keep them from experiencing some of the city’s true gems.

My rules for waiting:

-Never in bad weather

-Almost never for brunch

-Not more than 30 minutes or so

-Maybe for the taste, never for the photo, sometimes for the view (ahem, Grand Banks)

-Long restaurant waits are fine if I can leave, and they’ll call or text me when my table’s ready.

What I’ll wait for:

Ample Hills Creamery ice cream. The line moves fairly fast and it’s usually warm out when I crave ice cream.

Katz’s Delicatessen. It’s an institution–a delicious, delectable institution.

Totonno’s. It’s worth a wait, but I’m still only up for it if the line is shorter than four or so parties.

Absolute Bagels. The line is rarely longer than about 15 minutes, and the bagels, my god.

Clinton Street Baking Company. Only during Pancake Month and only for dinnertime pancakes. It’s a years-long tradition with a friend, and I make no excuses.

What foods would you wait for?

*New Yorkers generally use “on line,” but even after nearly a dozen years in the city, I still can’t bring myself to say it. The New York Times wades into the debate.

Sweets I Crave Most

A few months ago, I collected my most frequented pizza spots in one helpful post. Yes, pizza is one of my favorite foods, but a girl can’t live off just one type of simple carb. (That would be unhealthy, obviously.) What of dessert? If you, like me, prefer gluten-based sweets, read on. New York City is swimming, nay, drowning, in exemplary bakeries these days. And these are the treats I choose when I need an afternoon pick-me-up or a post-meal pastry. Best of all, most are under $5.

1. Pretzel croissant at The City Bakery: This original hybrid pastry–introduced nearly 20 years ago–has stood the test of time. Supremely flaky and quite salty, with a pliant, buttery interior, it seems tailor-made for pairing with the bakery’s decadent hot chocolate.

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2. Poppy seed danish at Breads Bakery: Nearly everything at this Jewish-inflected bakery is terrific, but when I crave pastry, few things satisfy more than this airy danish stuffed with poppy seeds. As a Russian and lover of all things poppy, I know to look for the one with the most seeds.

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3. Chocolate chip cookie at Smile To Go: Large discs of Guittard dark chocolate and a hefty sprinkling of sea salt make this chewy CCC one of the best in the city.

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4. Plié au chocolate at Maison Kayser: This monstrous pastry solves the there’s-not-nearly-enough-chocolate-in-this-pain-au-chocolat problem. Featuring pastry dough folded over a very generous sprinkling of chocolate chips and a slather of pastry cream, this concoction will satisfy the neediest sweet tooth.

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5. Any chocolate pie at Four & Twenty Blackbirds: Whether it’s the chocolate julep pie pictured below (chocolate, mint and bourbon), the chocolate chess pie (chocolate custard) or the black-bottom oat pie (chocolate ganache and oats), the chocolate-focused offerings at this demure pie shop on an industrial stretch in Gowanus live up to the media-generated hype. The fillings are luscious, but it’s the buttery, crackly crust that really makes these slices stand out.

 

6. Nutella cookie at Buttermilk Bakeshop: Close your eyes. Are they closed? Okay, good. Now imagine the perfect cookie: an underbaked, super-moist, brownie-like chocolate creation with a large dollop of Nutella and a sprinkling of flaky sea salt. No, this isn’t a drug-fueled fantasy. It’s real life.

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7. Chocolate chip pudding at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery: I wrote about this pudding years ago, and I still haven’t wavered in my love. The softened chocolate chip cookie chunks evoke cookies dunked in milk, childhood, home, family and the existential beauty that defines life itself. In summary: it’s really good.

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8. Brooklyn Blackout doughnut at Doughnut Plant: How do I love thee, Doughnut Plant? Let me count that ways. We can start with this sensational chocolate cake doughnut, which is arguably the moistest cake doughnut I’ve ever had. A thin filling of chocolate pudding and a topping of cake crumbs make this dessert suitable for chocolate-craving emergencies.

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9. Signature bars at Mah Ze Dahr Bakery: The namesake treat from this mostly-online bakery (choice items are also sold at Intelligentsia Coffee inside the High Line Hotel; a brick-and-mortar West Village outpost is slated to open any minute) is all about the ingredients. They’re simple–butter, oats, cream, pecans, fleur de sel, semisweet chocolate, brown sugar, flour, vanilla extract–so it’s a testament to their quality and the expert way in which they’re combined when the result is so delicious.

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Favorite Things Lately, Volume 9

Eldridge Street Synagogue: Founded in the late 1880s, at the start of European Jewry’s mass immigration to the United States, this synagogue had a thriving congregation for more than half a century. In the 1920s, membership began to dwindle and the building fell into disrepair. After being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, it underwent a meticulous renovation, which included a modern artistic reimagining of the focal stained glass window. The sky-blue-and-yellow-star window is striking in person and reason alone to visit the synagogue, but be sure to walk around and take in the rest of the details: the flower-like sconces, the chandelier, the Moorish arches. Stand in the middle and think yourself into another time. The synagogue is now in a bustling section of Chinatown, a reminder of the changing face of the city. (Admission is $12; Mondays, pay what you wish. The quality of the tour on offer depends on the specific guide, but I’d recommended it for those not familiar with Jewish history.)

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Roll-N-Roaster: Maybe I’m on a nostalgia kick, but I’m also in love with the transportive power of this superb Sheepshead Bay roast beef restaurant. Opened in the early 1970s, this place is a master class in the aesthetic of the era–wooden beams, a palette of Brady Bunch-esque citrusy browns, hanging glass light fixutres. It’s Brooklyn in the 20th-century sense: old school and with no tolerance for overreaching modernity. And the food? Crave-worthy. The roast beef on a fresh sesame bun with a ladle of melted cheese is fast food at its finest.

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McNally Jackson Books: Wandering around a bookstore is my favorite lazy-day activity. Visually, there’s something awe-inducing about seeing all those book spines stacked side by side. All that work, all those hours, all those ideas. I’m giddy for both the new authors, who are ready to make their marks on the world, and the old and gone, who enjoy a legacy of literary relevancy. McNally Jackson is one of my favorites. It’s intimate without being confining. It’s just the right size for exploring new releases and tracking down classics. They’ve arranged it in such a way where I want to spend time there, reading the first few pages of every book that catches my eye. I’m sure an architect or designer can help explain the technical whys of this attractive configuration. I just know once I enter, I never want to leave.

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Escaping the city: On the plane ride to Los Angeles over Memorial Day weekend, I watched the local New York news, which featured Mayor Bill de Blasio at a press conference sternly warning New Yorkers to stay indoors as a spate of potentially record-breaking cold approached. I felt as though I had boarded the very last plane out of the city before a zombie horde descended. It was a harrowing escape. In LA that weekend, there was a blessed heatwave–temps climbed into the high 80s. I’m not sure I’m ready to decamp for the West Coast, but boy is it nice to get away from the cold for a weekend. We New Yorkers pride ourselves on our grit, but winter can take a psychological toll. Just one weekend away made me feel as though I can survive the wind and the freezing rain (way worse than snow) through the next two months.

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Venice Canals in the neighborhood of Venice in Los Angeles

 

 

Taking stock of 2015’s “smaller” memories

We’re prone to remembering a specific year as it relates to capital “E” Events: weddings, funerals, new jobs, and new homes. For me, this past year was filled with these sorts of moments–the kind of memories that are solid, unshakable, impossible to forget.

When I took mental stock of my year, other memories pulsed too. Floating, fleeting images of beautiful vistas, honest conversations, important realizations, and carefree nights out in the city. They were swaying and scattered, but these memories also felt heavy and resonant. They begged for permanence, for me to assign them a degree of importance.

I remembered an intense realization from the fall. It came on suddenly, as I stared absentmindedly out the window of my office after a particularly defeating day. I work in a large downtown skyscraper, and from my perch, I have a view of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty and parts of eastern New Jersey. The sun had recently lowered itself behind the horizon, and the sky was an inky blue-black streaked with the remnants of a citrusy sunset. I looked out over the clouds above Newark and saw nearly half a dozen twinkling lights lined up in formation near the city. These were planes waiting to land at Newark airport; I’d seen them dozens of times. Today was different, though. I can’t quite explain why, but the sight of these planes–all perfectly arranged in a row, exhibiting the artistry of the modern ballet that is air travel–felt like a metaphor for the possibility of life. Hundreds of people on those 6 planes alone were coming from cities as divergent as Stockholm and Dubai and Singapore. Hundreds of thousands more were circumnavigating the globe at that exact moment, their airplanes dotting the earth like a swarm of bees around a hive. These travelers were seeing relatives, lovers, flying to new jobs, to vacation destinations, to a new home. They represented movement, and newness, and change, and discovery. They were flying over the North Pole, over treacherous terrain in the Yukon and Siberia–unforgiving landscapes which had bested explorers only a century earlier. 100 years! A yoctosecond in the eyes of the universe, and look how far we’ve come. The planes’ rote lineup took on a sudden miraculousness in my eyes. And did I mention I really REALLY hate to fly?

Granted, this wasn’t a particularly profound realization by any means, but I let the spiritedness of it carry me away. I was a part of this new humanity, this new complexity, and that put an annoying workday into perspective. I know it’s not a wedding or a funeral, but I hope that, many years from now, I can remember that day in the office and what it felt like to be my age, living in this city at this moment in time.

A thought that could have been fleeting was transformed into “memory currency.”

In the spirit of giving weight to these “smaller”, but no-less-important memories, I’ve compiled a list of New York specific-moments that helped shape my year.

Bourbon free-for-all at the closing of Char No. 4: When beloved restaurant Char No. 4 sent out an email that they were closing AND selling off all of their rare and top-shelf bourbon for $6 a pour, the city’s entire bourbon-loving community converged on their bar within the hour. People were sad to see them go, but I’d also never witnessed such earnest giddiness from adults. The bartenders, ready to empty stock, were pouring generously, from bottles that retail for hundreds–if not thousands–of dollars. Customers were ordering 2, 4 pours at a time, sampling bourbon they’d probably never again be able to savor. Everyone was trading tips and calling out favorites, lending the place a sense of intimacy rare for a bar in NYC. “It’s better than Christmas,” the preppy dude next to me and my husband said. He, like everyone else, was grinning like a toddler.

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Perfect summer day in Brooklyn: I’m not sure how one makes a carefree summer Saturday stick out among the rest. It’s just that sometimes, everything falls into place. It helps if you haven’t made elaborate plans with too-high-to-meet expectations. This particular day wasn’t all that unique, but it included a delicious brunch at Rose Water, a relaxing visit to the Brooklyn Museum, a stroll in Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a nighttime rock concert in Prospect Park. Every single destination was within a 10-15 minute walk from our apartment. It’s a cliche to say so in this era of worldwide Brooklyn obsessiveness, but the borough can be pretty fucking incredible.

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Afterwork walks on the water: It’s hard to remember now, in the dead of winter, but there was a time when this city was warm and sunny and when walks in Hudson River Park were an integral part of my commute. If I left work at just the right time, I could see a heavy blazing sun extend out over the river and blanket the city in the softest, most heavenly light. Everything and everyone caught in it looked glowing, hazy, and magical. It was a lovely dichotomy, of which New York has many: the heaviness and grandeur of these tall buildings of industry fronted by the breezy landscape of the light and the water. Soft, sensual edges and a heart of steel and stone.

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Christmas Eve in the city: We started with soup dumplings, pork shoulder and lo mein at Shanghai Cafe Deluxe, moved on to a few relaxed beers at Randolph Beer Bar nearby, walked across town to Washington Square Park for holiday revelry and Christmas carols (and a Neil Patrick Harris sighting), and then on to famed piano bar Marie’s Crisis for three hours of Broadway, Disney and Christmas sing-alongs and ended with a mezcal-and-tres-leches-cake nightcap at 24-hour Cuban diner, Coppelia. The city pulsed with a restrained, almost small-town buzz on Christmas Eve. It felt slightly off-kilter, but in way where you feel as though something out of the ordinary might happen. People were out, but they were reveling in the low-keyness of the streets. The city was almost ours that night; most nights we share it with the world. Inside Marie’s Crisis, we and an eclectic cast of characters (off-duty Broadway types, fashion and culture writers, bedecked songstresses) belted out favorites like “Suddenly Seamore” and “Seasons of Love” as though we were all fast friends who’d decided to share one large karaoke room. At Coppelia, an equally eclectic (but in a different way) crowd dug into piles of modern Latin comfort food. Some were having Christmas Eve dinner, others were on dates. The music was blaring. It was past midnight. On the subway home, the car was packed with Orthodox and Hasidic Jews–women included–frayed from a night out. They wore neon-colored club entrance wristbands. The city was theirs for a night too.

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NYC Do’s and Don’ts: A Guide for Visitors

dosanddonts

Do’s

Do: Buy an unlimited ride 7-day MetroCard (good for all subways and non-express busses) if you’re visiting for 4 or more days. At $31 plus a $1 new card fee, it’s more than worth it for ease, convenience, and peace of mind. Check mta.info before you head out so you’re aware of services changes.

Do: Try not to feel flustered if the local subway train starts going express or if your A train starts running on the F line with no prior warning. Being inconvenienced by train troubles unites all of us as New Yorkers. You’re now this much closer to feeling like a local.

Do: Ask strangers for directions. In fact, ask a few people to get a consensus. Some commuters only know their specific route, so they might give inaccurate advice sometimes. I definitely sent a few British tourists to the opposite of where they needed to be my first few weeks in NYC. Whoops, my bad.

Do: Eat a slice of pizza, folded, while standing against a counter. Here are a few places to try.

Do: Get out of Manhattan and visit an ethnic enclave in an outer borough. New York City is composed of 5 distinct boroughs, so make sure to explore outside the postcard-y center of Manhattan in order to see how the city’s 8 million-plus residents really live. Try Asian enclaves in Flushing, Queens or Sunset Park, Brooklyn; the Russian neighborhood of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn; or the Himalayan, Indian, and South American section of Jackson Heights, Queens.

Do: Follow subway etiquette. Take off your backpack on a full train (seriously, it hurts when it digs into my back), don’t hog the pole, etc. This is a crowded city so be mindful of everyone’s personal space by trying to take up as little room as possible.

Do: Go on a long walk with no set destination. (Be mindful of your surroundings, obviously.)

Do: Go to a Broadway or an Off-Broadway show. There’s a kinetic energy to the theater scene in New York.

Do: Devote half a day to exploring Central Park, especially if you’re blessed with good weather. It’s the size of a small city, and every section has its own vibe.

Do: Pick a spot to people watch and park yourself there for at least an hour or so. A bench in Washington Square Park or one on the Mall in Central Park are two of my favorite spots.

Do: Find a nice perch for sunset. They may be crowded, but Top of the Rock and One World Observatory offer some of the best views.

Do: Dress up and go out to a nice meal, if it’s in your budget. The dressing up part is key–you’ll feel a part of the only-in-NYC nighttime energy. Here are a few restaurants at which to make a reservation. If a fancy meal is out of reach, try a fancy cocktail at one of these spots.

Do: Chat up your bartender if you’re at a low-key spot. It’s not often easy to engage with strangers in New York (as mentioned above, we’re really into maintaining some semblance of personal space), but there are plenty of moments for connection. These can include a shared smile with a fellow subway rider at something ridiculous, or a quick laugh with your bartender. The latter is why my husband and I love eating at the bar at nice restaurants.

Do: Tip good street performers. NYC is filled with world-class musicians, and you’re by no means obliged to tip, but if you enjoyed the music, why not show your appreciation? Please note that busking on an actual subway car is illegal, so you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty for not tipping there.

Do: Walk with purpose if you’re in a crowded spot like Midtown. You’re allowed to stroll, of course, but if you’re going to walk slowly, please move to the outskirts of the sidewalk.

Do: Keep your eyes open. NYC rewards the observant. There’s a surprise lurking around every corner.

Do: Let yourself fall in love with the city. And you will, I can almost guarantee it. (Unless you’re not a city person, in which case, we’re sorry someone dragged you here.)

Don’ts

Don’t: Take anything that’s offered to you on the street, especially CDs or any kind of “peace” medallions. Better to even ignore those handing out seemingly harmless flyers. The two exceptions are free daily papers and weekly magazines–AM New York is handed out each morning and Time Out New York is distributed on Wednesdays only–and free samples given out by businesses outside their storefronts.

Don’t: Try to see everything that’s on offer at the Met museum in one day. Pick a few sections of particular interest and spend a few hours there. I’m of the mind that no person, unless they’re an aficionado, can look at art for more than three hours or so in a single day without getting art-appreciation fatigue.

Don’t: Assume that ballet or opera tickets are out of reach. I once snagged $10 orchestra seats to a New York City Ballet production. The interiors of the various Lincoln Center theaters are something to behold.

Don’t: Get on a suspiciously uncrowded subway car on an otherwise crowded train. No, you did not luck out; it’s empty for a reason.

Don’t: Stare at people doing strange things. If they’re not a danger to themselves or others, let them be.

Don’t: Stay somewhere or near someone next to whom you feel uncomfortable for the sake of being polite. If that same person doing strange things is making you feel at all uneasy, move elsewhere. Trust your instinct, and if the worst that happens is someone thinks you’re rude, that’s a pretty good outcome.

Don’t: Walk in an isolated corner of a park after dark. For the larger parks, like Central and Prospect, yes, it’s a safety issue, but for all parks it’s a rats issue. There are so many rats. It’s like that rat crypt scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but seriously, it’s gross.

Don’t: Be afraid to leave your comfort zone. Whether it’s trying lengua (tongue) tacos in the back of a Mexican grocery or belting out musical theater tunes at a piano bar like Marie’s Crisis, this city is the place to break free of your inhibitions.

Don’t: Leave without making plans to come back. We’ll miss you. Don’t be a stranger.

My Most Frequented Pizza Spots

It’s known the world over that New Yorkers love to complain. We love our city, but man, the weather, and the traffic, and those annoying tourists, and is that new upstairs neighbor a saw musician? Get a New Yorker talking about the city’s most famed food and the complaining will quickly be replaced with unabashed bragging. We’re the best at pizza. THE BEST. (NYC! NYC!) Here, it’s pretty much an essential food group. Along with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and dairy, a thin, crispy slice of cheese (and sometimes sausage or pepperoni) is part of a well-balanced diet. When you live here, you learn to crave it. I rarely go a week or two without eating at least a slice. Below are the places I crave and frequent most.

1. Prince St. Pizza: Have you seen a more beautiful Sicilian slice in your life? The charred pepperoni, the crispy crust–it makes me want to weep. This perpetually crowded spot is in the heart of Soho, perfect for a quick stop when shopping nearby. It’s by far the slice I crave most. (I’m a little obsessed.)

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2. Williamsburg Pizza: This standout joint with locations in Williamsburg and the Lower East Side features quality ingredients and a showcase crust.

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3. Joe’s Pizza: Everyone knows Joe’s. It’s been the place to go for a standard NYC slice since 1975. It’s STILL the place to go in 2015.

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4. Don Antonio by Starita: The signature lightly deep-fried “Pizze Frette” pie at this Midtown restaurant is outstanding, but the “Pistacchio e Salccisia,” a white pie with pistachio pesto and sausage, is the dish I lust after.

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Pizze Frette at Don Antonio by Starita. Courtesy of Garrett Ziegler, Flickr.com. Made available via Creative Commons license.

5. Giuseppina’s: A sort-of offshoot of the impossible-to-get-into Lucali (it’s run by the Lucali owner’s brother), this spot has the freshest ingredients and a quintessential NYC crust that’s not too crackery.

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6. Franny’s: Manhattan crowds park their fancy cars outside this popular Park Slope spot to sample some of the best Neapolitan pies this side of Naples. I’ve been to nearly every buzzy Neapolitan establishment in the city, and I still think Franny’s, which opened 11 years ago, serves the airiest, most flavorful pizza with the best crust. Do you see the clam juice, garlic, parsley, chiles and olive oil marinating on that pie? So freakin’ delicious.

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7. Barboncino: Featuring large and tasty Neapolitan pies in a festive atmosphere, this Crown Heights restaurant is an ideal destination for a low-key date night.

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8. Totonno’s: This throwback coal oven-baked pie, made from the same recipe for nearly a century, is a near-perfect iteration of a classic NYC pizza.

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