From soaring landmarks to awe-inspiring art, luxury shopping and dishes with star quality – Faye Bartle discovers how to put a fresh spin on a timeless classic by mixing the old with the new in the city that never sleeps
With its bold blue swirls blending the hills into the sky and dashes of brilliant yellow and white punctuating the darkness, Van Gogh’s Starry Night has a hypnotising quality. Firmly under its spell, some polite jostling allowed me to make my way to the front of the hushed crowd that had gathered to behold its haunting beauty until I was planted firmly on the viewing line. Smaller than I imagined it would be, but mighty nonetheless, I dared to lean a little further towards it, earning an impressive dose of side-eye from the security guard.
Painted in 1889 during the artist’s stay at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the movement in the masterpiece is infectious. Stifling my urge to reach out and touch it, I took one last mental snapshot for the memory bank before giving way to the next patient row of onlookers.
There was plenty more to see inside New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Having recently re-opened after a massive renovation, which has brought expanded galleries and brand new spaces dedicated to live performances, art creation and sparking conversation, this much-loved institution is buzzing with people seeking a fresh perspective on the Big Apple’s quintessential art experience.
‘You can see Rothko’s best tearjerkers, Dalí’s melting clocks and even Monet’s mural-sized Water Lilies triptych’
Yes, you can see Rothko’s best tearjerkers, Dalí’s melting clocks and even Monet’s dreamy mural-sized Water Lilies triptych. But you can also now view emerging works in the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Studio (the new space for live and experimental programming) which, when I visited, was home to a curious immersive installation by electronic music maestro David Tudor.
As I strolled around the room, turning my ears towards the sounds resonating from the everyday objects suspended in the air (the vintage computer hard disc was my favourite instrument) I found myself craving an altogether different soundtrack – that of New York itself.
The whoosh of a subway train speeding past, the incessant honking of taxi horns, a flurry of shoes click-clacking along the sidewalks, sirens wailing and street vendors enticing you to buy their pretzels and hot dogs in their thick New York drawl… the city’s energetic score may seem mundane to some but, to me, is absolutely thrilling. Formerly a dedicated London rat, a decade in Dubai had me missing the sounds of the streets. And although the winter weather was decidedly fresh – I’d forgotten what it felt like to be slapped in the face by a sub-zero gale – I was determined to spend the majority of my time exploring on foot.
Gloves and woolly hat on, a walk in Central Park was non-negotiable. The last time I had visited, in 2004, there was snow on the ground. On this brisk November morning, however, as skaters glided across the ice rink, the leaves falling from the trees were still heart-warming shades of brown, red and orange.
“Hey, where you from?” shouted a stranger wrapped up like the Michelin Man.
“Dubai,” I offered back.
“I’ve heard it’s a very nice country,” he retorted. I could have explained, but instead, I simply smiled and continued on my city hike. Anyway, I had a lunch date at Marea, the famous Italian on the edge of the park, where you can often spot off-duty A-listers (Sarah Jessica Parker – her shoe boutique is just a hop and a skip away – Jay-Z and Beyoncé and even Barack and Michelle Obama have reportedly eaten there). It’s certainly the place to see and be seen. We craned our necks while sipping our bubbly but alas, the restaurant’s two Michelin stars would have to be enough to dazzle us today – and that they did. My oysters were plump and delicious, and the striped bass with clams was rich in flavour yet light enough for a middle of the day indulgence.
Experiencing New York’s vibrant dining scene while actively trying to avoid falling into a food coma was proving quite the challenge, however. I savoured a divinely rich homemade short rib and boschetto cheese ravioli at yet another Italian great, Ai Fiori [The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue], tasted zingy gazpacho before splitting a humongous lip-smacking black Angus steak at Leña in Mercado Little Spain [10 Hudson Yards], and enjoyed a taste of home at Ilili restaurant [236 5th Avenue], which serves Lebanese Mediterranean food with a twist, such as lamb chops seared with zaatar salsa verde and homemade semolina gnocchi, as well as all your mezze favourites. Everything I tasted was beyond delicious. Even the steaming cup of hot chocolate I sipped to warm my bones on the ferry to Liberty Island was extraordinarily good.
I was heading there for a slice of American history courtesy of the new Statue of Liberty Museum, which opened in May last year – the most significant addition since the monument herself was launched in 1886. Home to three immersive and engaging gallery spaces, it tells the story of Lady Liberty, where she came from, how she was built and what she stands for culminating in an up-close view of the original torch, which was held high for nearly 100 years until it was replaced in 1986. You can practically feel the power surging through it. And while you can’t visit the monument’s real torch today (it has been closed since the Black Tom explosion in 1916), you can climb all the way up to the crown.
I was saving my legs for scaling the Empire State Building, however, which was just around the block from my hotel; The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue. I joined the sunset rush, zooming up in the lift and then climbing the last few flights to the open-air 86th Floor Observation Deck in order to get there before the sun dipped below the horizon. The view was just as magical as I had hoped for, with everything from Times Square to the Brooklyn Bridge, to feast my eyes on, it’s still one of the most romantic ways to get an overview of the city.
Another elevated experience that won a place in my heart was walking The High Line. This public park built on a historic freight rail line above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side is dotted with public art, beautiful gardens and more, delivering surprises at every twist and turn. Peering out from underneath my umbrella, I spotted Robert Indiana’s Love sculptures, canoodling couples and bold political statements as window dressings in the apartments that line the track.
I came back down to ground level at Hudson Yards, yet only with a view to scaling yet another new attraction: The Vessel, which opened in March 2019. The honeycomb-like structure, designed by Thomas Heatherwick, is comprised of 154 intricately interconnecting flights of stairs, challenging you with almost 2,500 steps to take to reach the top. Gritty views of the city, the river and beyond are your reward.
With my trip drawing to a close, I was keen to see what New York had to offer on the shopping front that was different from what I could find back at home. It’s unusual for anything massive to open in Manhattan, which is what makes the flagship Nordstrom, which opened in October 2019 at 57th & Broadway, particularly noteworthy. A behemoth spread over seven floors, it’s one of the first new stores of its size to open on the island since the 1920s. It’s home to a number of exclusives worth splashing your dollars on, including the Nordstrom x Nike trainer boutique (it’s where I found the Air Force 1 Metallic Sneakers of my dreams). You can put your own stamp on anything you buy, with tailoring or monogramming, thanks to the in-store Personalization Studio. The beauty floor is dangerously good, with clever solutions for busy New Yorkers, including the FaceGym where you can give your face a workout with moves designed to lift, sculpt tone and tighten, and the Drybar that turns a messy mane into a head of glorious locks without a drop of water in sight.
‘Peering out from underneath my umbrella, I spotted Robert Indiana’s Love sculptures on The high line’
Perhaps it was because my room at The Langham was like a little apartment (indeed, a large apartment by New York standards), my unfettered view of the Chrysler Building from my supersized tub, and being swept away in a whirlwind of room service and butter-soft bedding. Or perhaps it was the fact that I didn’t suffer an ounce of jet lag thanks to being horizontal for practically the entire flight thanks to Saudia’s Business Class beds, but I’d taken to New York like a mandarin duck to Central Park pond. And while I’d packed a lot into my five-day stay, I learned that even if you’re a seasoned visitor, there are always new ways to discover the city that never sleeps.
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First image credit: Connie Zhou, Nordstrom NYC