I feel like a glutton. On a business trip over five days in Manhattan, I attended a conference and took four walking tours in different parts of the city. Tired? Oh yes, but so satisfied and filled with inspirations for the next time I return. It was a feast; my feet were sore, my mind was blown and I don’t want to recover. Here’s part one about what four walking tours in New York helped me discover.
It was not a typical tourist foray. I was on my own completely. On previous trips with family and friends, I’d seen shows on and off-Broadway, been to museums and many of the main attractions. This time I wanted to get on the street, to explore neighborhoods and get a sense of what living in New York might feel like.
Springtime in Manhattan is disarming. From the moment my airport bus rolled across Park Avenue and I first saw rows of trees covered in pink blossoms, I knew this trip was going to be special. Over the next few days I passed flower shops spilling over with blooms, strolled down streets dotted with sidewalk gardens where tall tulips and daffodils stood at attention, and wandered Central Park, daubed with fresh color from tree tops to fields of bright blossoms.
I’d wrangled an AirBnB room in a tiny apartment on the Upper East Side close to the subway and soon felt like an honorary New Yorker, climbing up and down four flights of worn marble stairs to the street markets and shops. My first morning was bright and windy as I headed out to find Highline Park. After reading about the new landmark in Chelsea, I used my Smartphone GPS to finally find it and a short subway transfer later stood looking up at people strolling above the street along the old railway trestle.
The Highline was initially conceived in the 1930s as a response to the city’s devastating frequency of train crashes. Things on the ground got so bad, in fact, that 10th Avenue came to be called “Death Avenue,” and men in cowboy hats (exquisitely dubbed “West Side Cowboys”) were called in to ride in front of trains on horses, waving red flags for safety. Over years the line fell into disrepair and was partially dismantled. A pair of forward thinking philanthropists decided there was still a fine future for what remained of the rails.
Today the unique park is a wonder of civic pride and interaction. There are stepped bleachers, gardens, art projects and a very particular kind of culinary popup above 15th Street where a small cadre of food vendors nourish Highline hikers seasonally in the shelter of a deep archway.
I warmed up at the Blue Bottle Coffee stand and met the enthusiastic crew led by Javier St. Martin. The company, originally from San Francisco, has been serving warm, ethically-sourced coffee here for four years. They’re side by side with sandwich makers, a curmudgeon who sells unique New York magnets and a young woman who found a patch of sunshine for her Mexican inspired dessert cart. She tempted me with a lilting mantra, “It’s always time for ice cream,” but I declined, deciding to walk off more calories before treating myself to lunch.
Construction continues at the north end of the Highline, where it looks like the walk will culminate at the riverfront. The rest of the park is peppered with sculptures, murals above and below, surprising glimpses of the Chrysler building and across rooftops. All around me I heard different languages, admired lunchtime picnics and watched school kids circling for lessons.
At the end of the trail, the Chelsea district beckoned and as I was solo without a guidebook, I decided to stroll until I found someplace intriguing for lunch. The Red Cat couldn’t have been more perfect. I ordered a light Leek soup and the Beet salad was a wonder of layers. A tower of frisee greens topped by carrot curls sat above soft beets on a bed of creamy feta . It was a vision set apart by a tasty sprinkling of toasted scallion bits and pumpkin seeds. That, a bottomless ice tea and a copy of the foodie magazine, Edible Manhattan, kept me company too.
Soon enough I was back on the street, walking and wandering. I checked out the Tribeca Film Festival, walked through the Guitar Store, glanced at the old rock n’roll icon, the Chelsea Hotel, which was under construction, and discovered Doughnut Plant. Stuffed donut pillow sculptures lined the wall, donut tiles covered the benches and of course, dozens of confections waited behind the counter. I reveled in a dense chocolate doughnut, not the one with mousse inside (hold the decadence for later.) Absolutely perfect and the rest of the day unfolded with the equal ease.
Day two was graced with blue skies and a bit warmer. I found my way down to City Hall by subway to meet David Naczycz, amateur historian, tour guide and co-founder of the local company Urban Oyster, which is part of the internationally known, Urban Adventures.
Luckily the subway disgorged me in front of the park where he waited with the rest of our tiny group. Over the next three hours his passion for the waves of immigrants that settled at the end of Manhattan Island and their foods, was contagious. Almost immediately we were handed a Dutch cookie in honor of the first residents, walked a couple of blocks to the touching African Burial Ground National Monument, had Chinese dumplings on the edge of an Irish-Italian neighborhood and walked through the touristy remnants of their presence in Nolita.
We sampled freshly made Mozzarella with thin Prosciutto slices at one of the last family-run Italian delis, Alleva, and had room to split the tenderest Potato Knish possible at the Yonah Shimmel Knisherie. The tour concluded quaffing well-earned flights of German beer at Lorely before our group disbanded.
I don’t know how David does it but year round he’s on the streets, making his love of history thrilling and supporting the local companies that keep New York’s culinary history alive.
Next week: Part two of my urban walking tours and about the NY Trav Fest.
Have you ever been on a trip where you packed every minute walking around your destination? Send in your favorite urban walking tours and I’ll add them to my bucket list. Someday I’ll be returning for more walking tours in New York.