Top tips for visiting New York (from South Africans)

Posted on 16 November 2017

We asked two South Africans (who go there a lot) and an American to each recommend the best things for you to do in the city that never sleeps.

Columbus Circle is the official centre of the city- the place where all distances from New York are measured. Image from iStockphoto.


Africa Melane

Africa loves New York City – so much so that he has travelled to the Big Apple four times in the last five years. He believes that anyone who has the means should go there at least once in their lifetime.

1. The Red Rooster

Whenever I travel to New York, my first stop is The Red Rooster for chef Marcus Samuels son’s simply delicious Mac and Greens as well as the ever so soft and sweet meatballs. Marcus was born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, and now lives near his restaurant in the heart of Harlem. I think he has succeeded in achieving his objective of opening a place that channels the current spirit of the neighbourhood while celebrating its memorable past. Lunch is from R116 ($9). If you are there in the evening, visit Ginny’s Supper Club downstairs and enjoy a cocktail while listening to fantastic music. 310 Lenox Avenue. Subway: #2 or #3 express line to 125th Street-Lenox Avenue Station.


2. Smorgasburg Market

Cheap, local food from over 100 local vendors. Image from Smorgasburg Market

Food lovers descend on the Williamsburg waterfront at the East River State Park in Brooklyn every Saturday from April through to October. More than 100 vendors sell delectable, cheap, local food (reflecting New York’s global tribes) – anything from Filipino halo-halo pudding to spaghetti doughnuts. It gets packed so I’d suggest walking through the entire market to decide what you want to eat. Portion sizes are humongous, and strategy and pacing is key to maximising your gastronomic experience. Once you’ve decided, sit back, tuck in and enjoy the views of the skyline across the water. Kent Avenue and North 7th Street. Subway: the L line to Bedford Avenue Station.


3. City Hall Subway Station

Arched ceilings and electrical chandeliers. Image by Jerry

Opened in October 1904 for the first subway ride, City Hall was the original southern terminal station. It’s a magnificent structure with arched ceilings, lit naturally through several skylights and by electric chandeliers. You can briefly glimpse its Romanesque Revival architecture while travelling through it – trains no longer stop here – by taking the downtown #6 train, for R36 ($2,75). Hop on at any of the 40-odd stations on the line. For those who’d like to walk around this station, only members of the New York Transit Museum can go on a tour of it. These take place just 16 times a year and membership costs R452 ($35).


4. Smoke Jazz Club

The Smoke Jazz is global jazz haven. Image from Smoke Jazz Club

Club Bonafide in Midtown (212 East 52nd Street) is a haven of global jazz crossover, and Subrosa in the Meat- packing District (63 Gansevoort Street) is a mix of jazz sophistication and salsa move-inducing Latin music. But my current favourite is Smoke on the Upper West Side, a jewel created by musicians Paul Stache and Frank Christopher. There are three shows a night, the first two with dinner where you need to reserve a table (or sit at the bar). Entry from R116 ($9), dishes from R168 ($13). 2751 Broadway. Subway: #1 line to 103rd Street Station.


5. Abyssinian Baptist Church

The Abyssinian Baptist Church. Image from iStockphoto

I am not a religious man but I make sure to go to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem the first Sunday I am in the Big Apple. The website strictly forbids tourists and visitors at the 9am service, but I’ve managed to get in by smiling and saying I’m from South Africa. The early service is attended by real New Yorkers, unlike the tourist-populated 11.30am one. Founded in 1808, it is one of the oldest churches in the city. The singing is sublime, the sermons soul- stirring and the spectacle is true genius. Congregation members faint in the aisles, wear oversized hats and greet you with the broadest smiles. 132 West 138th Street. Subway: #2 or #3 line to 135th Street Station.


6. Morgan Library & Museum

The Morgan Library and Museum is free on Friday nights. Image by Sergio Zeiger

If you love books and reading, you will have an out-of-body experience here. The Morgan began as the private library of financier Pierpont Morgan in 1906 before it was shared with the public in 1924. It houses medieval manuscripts, early printed books, music scores, papyrus fragments and a collection of photos. When you stand in front of the handwritten version of Walt Whitman’s mournful tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the deeply moving ‘O Captain, My Captain,’ you’ll weep happy tears. I keep coming back here simply because it is one of the most beautiful places I have come across in New York. Entry R258 ($20), free on Friday nights. 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan. Subway: any line gets you to Grand Central or Penn Station nearby.


7. Grand Banks

Grand Central Oyster Bar in the famous station is legendary, but have you tried Grand Banks? A celebrated, seasonal oyster bar aboard the historic wooden schooner Sherman Zwicker (built 1942), with views of the Hudson River, New York harbour and the Freedom Tower, it’s a fun little spot with very good oysters and tasty small plates – and a principled approach to sustainability. Open April to October, 3pm until midnight (weekends from 11am). About R39 ($3) an oyster, meals from R194 ($15), drinks from R130 ($10). Pier 25, Hudson River Park, Tribeca. Go by ferry or take the #1 subway line to Franklin Street Station, or the #1, 2, 3, A or C trains to Chambers Street Station.

TIP: The Rockefeller Centre’s rooftop garden is one of the most beautiful places in NYC. But it’s not open to the public, so make friends with someone who works there!


Angel Campey

Angel first fell in love with New York in 2001 when she lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, fresh out of school on her gap year. She’s returned often, surviving on a rand-based budget and making her mark on the comedy scene.


1. Free Kayaking

During the summer a handful of volunteer-run kayak stations pop up around the city. For unparalleled views, the best one is at Downtown Boathouse on the Hudson River. All you have to do is show up early (to beat the queue), sign an indemnity waiver, know how to swim, and off you go for 20 minutes a turn. Life jackets are supplied and there’s a safety briefing before you paddle out to see boats passing, the Statue of Liberty in the distance and the majestic Financial District skyline towering behind you. Free and priceless. Bring a change of clothes, as you will get wet; there are lockers to keep your valuables in. All day on weekends plus three weekday evenings. Pier 26 Boathouse, southern end of Hudson River Park. Subway: #1 train to Franklin Street Station, or the A, C or E to Canal Street Station.


2. Comedy in the Village

New York births world-famous comedians (and even took our Trevor Noah), so it would be remiss not to visit Greenwich Village next to New York University, exploring the labyrinth of comedy clubs around Macdougal Street. The Comedy Cellar (at number 117), where legends such as Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock and Louis CK often do drop-ins, is by far the best comedy club in the city. It’s very small, so booking is essential. From R65 ($5), plus there’s a two-drink minimum. For a no- reservation option, try The Lantern (167 Bleecker Street). With so many up-and-coming talents in the city clambering for stage time, you’ll still get plenty of chuckle for your budget. The shows start every hour from 19:00 to midnight and are usually free but with a two-drink minimum; average cost of a drink is from R65 ($5).


3. The Brooklyn Barge

The new cool-kids hang-out in New York City. Image by Angel Campey

Brooklyn is the new cool-kids hang-out in NYC, which means it’s become a bit overcrowded and hip(ster). Enter The Brooklyn Barge. Still in a relatively industrial part of Greenpoint, it’s a floating restaurant on the river but anchored permanently, and it seems to be off the beaten track enough to still enjoy a laid-back atmosphere. Kick back, enjoy a beer and watch the spectacle as the sun sets behind the Empire State Building across the river. There’s no entry fee and drinks are reasonably priced. The menu includes hipster varietals of burgers, prawns and bar fodder. From R77 ($6) a meal. It’s open in summer only (May to October), weather permitting. Intersection of West and Milton streets, Brooklyn. Subway: G train to Greenpoint Avenue Station.


4. LIC Landing in Queens

The best view of New York City’s skyline. Image from iStockphoto

For the best view of NYC’s skyline, you can’t beat those from Long Island City. Looking over the East River at this enchanting vista, with the Queensboro Bridge to your right, it’ll take your breath away at any time of day or night and in any weather. LIC Landing is on the water’s edge and serves locally sourced food. Meals are from R128 ($10), or simply sit and sip wine or a craft beer, from R77 ($6). You can also walk in the park by the river and along the piers for a romantic stroll. LIC Landing is open only in the daytime. Hunters Point South, 52 Centre Boulevard. It is reached by ferry or the #7 train to Vernon Blvd–Jackson Avenue Station.

5. Strawberry Fields (John Lennon Memorial)

The Strawberry fields. Image from iStockphoto

Next to the apartment building where John Lennon was shot and killed, more than 120 countries have planted flowers, donated money for the maintenance and endorsed this as a ‘garden of peace’. In the centre of the garden, under a canopy of elm trees, a black-and-white ‘Imagine’ mosaic, designed by artists from Naples, forms the aesthetic focal point. Usually there are dedicated buskers with guitars here who will play any Beatles song on demand, and encourage passersby to get involved with a tambourine or a group sing-a-long. It’s free but it’s nice to take a flower to leave on the mosaic as a tribute and to tip the buskers. It’s open 24 hours but it’s best to go in daylight. Central Park West, between 71st and 74th streets. Subway: B and C trains to West 72nd Street Station.


6. Roller Skating in Prospect Park

Hop on a train to Brooklyn and explore Prospect Park. Created by the same designers as Central Park, it’s equally impressive but more chilled. Then go full retro at the Lakeside roller-skate rink in the park. Under a giant roof, it’s good for any kind of weather, and with an in-house DJ adding ambience to the slick concrete, you can get your 90s groove on while gazing at the willow-lined lake with pedal boats bumping around. There are also two outdoor winter rinks for ice-skating. Entry is R77 ($6) weekdays, R103 ($8) on weekends, and skate rental costs R77 ($6). 171 East Drive. Subway: Q train to Parkside Avenue Station.


7. Woodlawn Cemetery

Musician Miles Davis was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. Image by Lucia

Spend a day exploring this landmark founded in 1863 and set on 160 beautifully landscaped hectares in the Bronx. It’s full of past icons and architectural mausoleums; political activist Rosa Parks and famous publisher Joseph Pulitzer rest here with over 300 000 others. As NYC is the birth- place of jazz, Woodlawn is the burial place of many musicians, including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. Book a tour online, up to R258 ($20), or download the app and explore it alone. Open daily from 8.30am to 4pm. Webster Avenue & East 233rd Street, the Bronx. Subway: #4 train to Woodlawn Station.


3. Ernest White II

To a starry-eyed Southern boy, New York loomed large in Ernest’s childhood imagination as the ONLY city. He knows better now, but for him it remains the only one with ‘slices, corners, streets from every other city in the world’.


1. St George Theatre

A grand movie palace. Image from St Georges Theatre

Just a 10-minute walk up the hill from the Staten Island ferry terminal, the St George remains a little-known jewel in a rarely visited corner of the city. Opened in 1929 as a grand movie palace, the theatre’s magnificent interiors reflect a mix of baroque and Italian neoclassical design elements, replete with chandeliers and frescoes. In the early 2000s, it narrowly avoided demolition when a local woman and her two daughters started a non-profit organisation and bought the neglected venue, restoring this glorious showpiece. Stop by the box office during business hours for a free tour, and maybe stay for a show before hopping on the ferry back to Manhattan. 35 Hyatt Street, Staten Island.


2. Salsa Brava in the Bronx

Looking for the hottest salsa scene in the city? It’s uptown, baby – way uptown – and not without good reason: some of the music and dance genre’s most formidable musicians, including Willie Colón and Ray Barretto, hail from the Bronx. The percussion and horns play loudest in the district of Throggs Neck, especially along East Tremont Avenue, where Casa Restaurant & Lounge (at number 3607), Travesias (at 3834) and Mamajuana Café (at 3233) mix scrumptious Latin American food and drink with live music and sexy crowds. You’ll need to take Uber because the subway doesn’t go there and catching the bus in stilettos just isn’t cute. There’s generally no cover charge; they make their money on the bar.


3. New York Transit Museum

The New York Transit Musuem. Image by T55Z

This is the most underground museum in the city, sort of. It’s located in a repurposed 1930s subway station. Learn about NYC’s world-famous subway system, including how the first tunnels were carved through Manhattan’s bedrock, why the train lines use letters and numbers, and about the public awareness campaigns to teach riders to cover their mouths when coughing. The tram, commuter rail and bus services – including the double-deckers that operated until the 1070s – are also featured. R130 ($10). It’s on Boerum Place in Brooklyn. Subway: #2, 3, 4, 5 trains to Borough Hall Station; A, C or F trains to Jay Street- MetroTech Station.


4. The Financial Crisis Tour on Wall Street

Wall Street in New York City. Image from iStockphoto

The global financial crisis of 2008 brought down banks and borrowers the world over, yet much remains unchanged on Wall Street in Manhattan. Former inside man James Foytlin gives an eye-opening account of the crisis and all the greed that caused it. The walking tour lasts two hours, but the route rarely strays from the shadows of the big banks. R645 pp ($50), book online.


5. The Frick Collection

Showcasing the striking and expansive art holdings of US industrialist Henry Clay Frick, this museum harks back to New York’s Gilded Age at the turn of the last century. Housed in a neoclassical stone mansion on the fashionable Upper East Side, the collection features expert European portraiture, exquisite oriental rugs and opulent French porcelain, arranged in louche, robber-baron style.The museum has frequent recitals, symposia and an active programme to instill arts appreciation among the younger crowd. Open at night on the first Friday of the month (free); closed on Mondays. Tickets are R284 ($22) but you can ‘pay what you wish’ on Sundays. 1 East 70th Street at Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Subway: #6 train to 68th Street-Hunter College Station.


6. A world of food in Jackson Heights

Are pas, dumplings , curries and crayfish are all up for grabs at the diners and food trucks in Jackson Heights, one of the most ethnically diverse districts of New York’s most mixed borough, Queens. Home to cheap and cheerful Himalayan, Colombian, Indian, Mexican, Cajun, Peruvian and Thai eateries – and yes, even a classic New York pizza joint or two – the neighbourhood serves up the world on a plate. Faves include Phayul (3765 74th Street) for Tibetan, Arepa Lady (7702 Roosevelt Avenue) for Colombian and Guadalajara de Noche (8509 Roosevelt Avenue) for Mexican, though virtually none of the area’s options will disappoint. Subway: #7 train to 74th Street-Broadway Station; or E, F, M and R trains to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue Station.


7. NYC Ferry

New York City transport. Image by Marcia O’Connor

Augmenting what is already the most comprehensive public transportation system in the United States, the NYC Ferry plies the city’s waterways, connecting commuters from far-flung neighbourhoods to Manhattan by boat. From this mode of transport, visitors more easily explore buzzing hideaways such as Astoria and the Rockaways, or see Brooklyn Bridge from underneath. The best part, however, is the spectacular view of Manhattan from the water. It’s time to up your selfie game. Tickets are R36 ($2,75) for a one-way trip.



This story first appeared in the July 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our July issue features the best places to stay in the Midlands, budget family breaks in Durban, and the best (and mostly free) things you have to do in New York. 


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