A reluctant novice’s guide to New York City

The grounds of Ellis Island offer a panoramic view of Manhattan and the New York Harbor.
The grounds of Ellis Island offer a panoramic view of Manhattan and the New York Harbor.

I’ll be the first to tell you I was wrong about New York City.

Wrong about the people: Like the guy at the Apple store at Grand Central Terminal who gave us his subway card.

Wrong about the sights: I had no interest in seeing a Broadway show until I saw Broadway.

Wrong about the energy: The city may never sleep, but its thrum has a mesmerizing nature to it.

Up until a few months ago, I was firmly against spending any precious vacation time in an overpriced, overhyped East Coast metropolis filled with high-strung jerks.

But when my cousin announced he was getting married in Virginia in April, my wife suggested we make the most of the trip and include a detour to NYC.

So we cashed in our United miles, put the kids on independent study and off we went.

Because the end of the trip included the wedding in southern Virginia, we flew into Washington, D.C., which was both centrally located for our destinations and home to family we hadn’t seen in years. That meant we got to rent a car and drive to New York, arriving at the centrally located Belvedere Hotel in the heart of Broadway at 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening.

First impression: Times Square isn’t as big as I imagined, but the light and color exceeded my expectations, illuminating nearby blocks in all its grand commercial glory. Also exceeding my expectations was the cold, which was below 40 degrees in spring and persisted for our entire four-day visit.

Bargain hunting

The next morning, our first full day in the city did not begin with a tour of the sights, but rather with some online prep work.

While a lot of activities in New York are pricey, there are also some remarkable deals to be found.

Before you go out and reserve a bunch of face-value tickets, do a little research.

Our first task involved securing free tickets to the 9/11 Memorial, which can be reserved online for three-hour visits on Tuesday nights. They become available starting at 9 a.m. Monday for a 5 p.m. entrance the next day.

We also entered the ticket lottery for “Phantom of the Opera,” which, if you win, allows you to score two seats at $27 a piece.

Monday is a dark night for many shows on Broadway, and though we’d seen “Phantom” twice before many years ago in Los Angeles, because it was one of the only options that night and the kids hadn’t seen it, we decided to give the lottery a shot.

Billy Joel tour

With that homework completed and because the forecast called for a steady rain, Day 1 ended up being a field trip to Long Island because the seventh-grader is a big Billy Joel fan and he decided that no trip to New York would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Piano Man’s boyhood home.

Little did we know that plugging one address into Google Maps would launch a day of lead-chasing that took us from the nondescript white house on Meeting Lane in Hicksville, to the nearby high school where a plaque among 70-some Hall of Fame members identifies him as an “internationally known singer, composer and musician,” to the motorcycle shop where Billy buys his bikes.

From there, we were directed to 20th Century Cycles, Billy’s motorcycle museum in Oyster Bay, and then to Centre Island, where his current 35,000-square-foot waterfront home is located. The motorcycle museum features more than 75 vintage bikes, but we only got to peer at them through the window, because the museum is mostly open on weekends only.

The seventh-grader is a big Billy Joel fan, and he decided that no trip to New York would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Piano Man’s boyhood home.

By then it was time to head back into the city, and it was on the way that we received a text alerting us that of our three entries, Little Miss 10th-Grader’s hit pay dirt.

“Phantom” on Broadway

“Phantom of the Opera” is the longest-running show in Broadway history, now in its 28th year with more than 11,300 performances to date. So it’s about as classic as it comes to a Broadway experience.

While I was initially unexcited about spending money to go see a show when we can always catch touring productions at home, the prospect of grabbing a deal on the real deal was too good to pass up.

After buying another couple tickets at the discount booth in Times Square for $99 a piece, our total bill for four seats came to $252. Not bad.

When we got to the theater and discovered where the two lottery seats were located, that good deal got even better: Front row left in a section of the orchestra that retails for $145 a ticket.

And the show itself left me a Broadway convert. Not only was the ornate theater far more intimate and compact than most, putting you right close to the action, but it also had much more character than our modern Performing Arts Center, as nice as it is.

Add in the world-class talent, elaborate costumes and sets, and you get an unforgettable performance.

Everyone may be talking about “Hamilton” these days, but never discount one of the all-time greats. “Phantom” is still a crowd-pleaser.

History lessons

The next day dawned clear and sunny but with temperatures in the high 30s and a biting wind. The agenda for the day was a big dose of history, including the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the 9/11 Memorial.

But first, we dashed over for breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the famed restaurant whose singing waiters and waitresses serve meals while belting out show tunes.

Ellen’s prides itself on being a launching pad for Broadway careers, which is a pretty good hook. The wait staff takes requests, and the performers have bona fide talent.

Too bad those skills don’t extend to the kitchen.

While we enjoyed the floor show, our pancakes, omelet and even the toast were the worst of each I’ve ever had, hands down.

After breakfast, we hopped on the subway and headed for Battery Park, where we were met with the first of what would be a day of lines and security checks.

The Statue of Liberty is pretty much a must-see for any New York novice, and you should plan ahead. If you want to get up into the crown, you’ll need to reserve your tickets months in advance. They’re already sold out through August. Even if you just want the basic ticket, buy online ahead of time to avoid long waits.

I was more interested in the Ellis Island portion of the two-stop ferry tour, because my grandparents passed through the Registry Room in 1921, en route from Italy to Chicago.

According to Wikipedia, this makes me one of more than 100 million Americans who can trace their heritage to immigrants who arrived via Ellis Island.

More than 12 million people passed through the processing facility between 1892 and 1954. An informative audio tour tells the story of this historic place, and it serves as a reminder of how our nation has served as a beacon of hope for people all over the world.

9/11 Memorial

After waiting more than hour for the ferry back to Manhattan, we were running late for our 5 p.m. entry to the 9/11 Memorial, which had me agitated as it was the No. 1 thing I wanted to do on this trip.

After dashing through Wall Street, we got to spend another 20 minutes getting scanned again before descending into the depths of the museum, which lies beneath the solemn plaza and the reflecting pools that mark the footprints of the two World Trade Center towers.

A mix of art, artifacts and stories and photos of the victims, the museum is a vivid reminder of the terror and tragedy that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.

Listening to streaming audio recordings over video of the sequence of events alongside carefully selected mementos carries a visceral punch unlike any museum I’ve ever visited.

The museum features an impressive array of items, from the twisted wreckage of a fire engine to the goodbye letter a trapped WTC businessman wrote to his family.

That detail put our daughter over the edge. She didn’t even make it to the part that said the man survived, turning away in tears and silence for the remainder of our visit.

One World Observatory

Before leaving Ground Zero, we had a final stop on our day’s itinerary, one that would prove to be simultaneously ominous and uplifting: a sunset visit to the observation floor of the 104-story One World Trade Center tower next door.

First off, after immersing yourself in the story of the Sept. 11 attacks, about the last thing you naturally want to do is ride an elevator to the top of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

We spent more than an hour circling the floor, watching day turn to night as the sun retreated and the city lights illuminated the scene in its place.

On the other hand, if you want to raise your spirits, the 60-second ride that features a computer-generated time-lapse video of the rise of New York City pretty well does the trick.

It’s a brilliant bit of design, syncing the evolution of the city over more than 400 years with your ascent of the building. As you physically rise, you see the city grow around you. As soon as you step into the elevator, start videoing, and don’t stop until you step out and watch as a partitioned curtain rises to reveal the stunning actual view out the windows.


We spent more than an hour circling the floor, watching day turn to night as the sun retreated and the city lights illuminated the scene in its place.

Back to nature

Compared to the hustle and crowds of the day before, our final one in the city would be a walk in the park, literally.

But it also proved to be our most strenuous, as we logged nearly 10 miles on foot, trudging from Times Square to Rockefeller Center to Saks Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Central Park to the Guggenheim and back.

Before we did all that, however, we had to stop at the Winter Garden Theatre at 9 a.m. to buy same-day rush tickets for “School of Rock” that evening. For less than $150, we picked up four seats in the back of the orchestra. Deal!

Proceeding on our way, we grabbed some selfies at the ice-skating rink outside NBC’s studios and popped into Saks for a glimpse at how the 1 percent lives, which is apparently by wasting thousands of dollars on ostentatious outfits while being waited on hand and foot by clerks who mostly had nothing to do on a random Wednesday morning.

From there, we continued our stroll up 5th Avenue until we stumbled upon Trump Tower for a quick brush with the most 1 percent of all 1 percenters. Of course, this demanded a photo of the kids positioned below the building’s sign brandishing justifiably appropriate scowls. Classic NY moment.

When we finally arrived at the park, my wife, the animal doctor, made a beeline for the horses and carriages, and next thing you know, we’re clip-clopping along, our laps warmed by thick blankets while the Jamaican driver pointed out where the park’s most famous movie scenes were filmed.

Central Park is truly a marvelous place, with its many paths, lakes, rocky outcroppings and lush, expansive sports fields — all with views of the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings.

A visit to Trump Tower demanded a photo of the kids positioned below the building’s sign brandishing justifiably appropriate scowls. Classic NY moment.

My favorite spot was the Alice in Wonderland sculpture, near the lake where you can rent remote-controlled mini sailboats. It’s a bronze scene of Alice sitting on a toadstool with the White Rabbit, Mad Hatter and others. The best thing about it is how it invites visitors to climb up and sit beside Alice for a photo or a break from your walk in the park. All sculptures should be as polished from touch and loving use as this one.

By the time we’d reached the middle of the park, we’d worked up a good appetite, so we plopped down on a bench near a bed of bright-red tulips across from the Guggenheim Museum and enjoyed a lunch of gyros from a street vendor.

Then, it was off to see some art.

Art and theater

In a high-priced city like New York, the Guggenheim offers another good value for a world-class cultural experience. All four of us got in for a total of $68, thanks to the 12-year-old’s free entry.

The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed museum has been an architectural landmark since its opening in 1959. The cylindrical inverted ziggurat design creates a unique main gallery that follows a spiral ramp from the ground floor to the top.

When we visited, the main installation was by a pair of quirky Swiss artists, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose creations ranged from a series of whimsical unfired clay sculptures to the “The Way Things Go,” a mesmerizing 30-minute loop film that follows the sequence of a seemingly never-ending Rube Goldberg assembly built from the flotsam and jetsam of their studio.

The kids found the movie to be particularly entrancing, and they perched for some time side by side on a bench, glued to the screen as the forces of gravity and physics propelled the action forward.

After the Guggenheim, we headed back to Broadway to see “School of Rock,” a live-action version of the Jack Black movie. The show, which opened in December, is a comedic and musical romp, combining all the best songs and lines from Hollywood with an expanded score written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It’s a great choice for kids and dropped the curtain of our New York trip on a memorable note.

After three full days of running around the city day and night, we’d reached a state of accomplished, happy exhaustion.

We’d seen all the things we wanted to see, but still only scratched the surface. We didn’t go to Carnegie Hall or Madison Square Garden. We didn’t visit the High Line park or the Tenement Museum. We didn’t get tickets to see “Saturday Night Live” or “The Tonight Show.”

Aside from paying $15 to drive through Lincoln Tunnel, we had next to no negative experiences. We learned to dash across streets whenever traffic allowed. We rode the subway without getting mugged.

For as large and larger-than-life a city as New York is, it’s still got a lot of small-town charm.

If you go

The Belvedere Hotel: Reasonable rates that start around $150 in the off-season. Great location two blocks from Times Square, 319 West 48th St.

“Phantom of the Opera”: Playing at the Majestic Theatre, 247 West 44th St. Tickets are $79-$155. Enter the daily lottery for a chance to buy two tickets at $27 a piece.

“School of Rock”: Playing at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. Tickets are $79-$165. Daily $37 rush tickets go on sale at the box office starting at 9 a.m.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island: Ferry from Battery Park or New Jersey stops at both locations. Plan for at least 3 hours to do both. Tickets are $25 for adults, $16 for kids and $21 for seniors. Tickets to access the crown are extra and must be reserved months in advance.

Ellen’s Stardust Diner: Home of the singing waitstaff, serves typical diner food in a ’50s decor, 1650 Broadway.

9/11 Memorial: Museum tells the story and honors the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. 180 Greenwich St. Tickets are $15-$24. Admission is free on Tuesday nights; tickets can be reserved online or picked up at the door.

One World Observatory: The observation deck at the top of the new One World Trade Center building offers expansive views of the city and multiple dining options. Tickets are $26-$32, with a 4-pack special for $99. 285 Fulton St.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: Features modern and contemporary art in a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Tickets are $18-$25. 1071 5th Ave.