New York City. Sky scrapers and yellow taxis. A cacophony of relentless noise and the kind of crowd claustrophobia you can only get in a dense city of some 8.5 million. It’s gritty and grungy yet sleek and shiny. It’s a playground and a fighting pit.
If you haven’t guessed it from my tone already, I’m not a massive New York fan. Give me Seattle or Vancouver any day. In the Big Apple, my senses are on constant alert for the taxi drivers willing to run me over as I’m crossing on a pedestrian light and the steaming vents that waft pungent smells up my dress as I’m treading the footpaths.
But travel makes you determined to see the light, the goodness, in every scenario. And I can’t deny it: New York has some gems. Times Square, Broadway and Wall Street aside, NY is home to some beautiful havens you can retreat to and enjoy some respite from the big city chaos.
1. Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is an iconic locale right in the centre of New York City, yet it oozes calm and tranquility. Every time I’ve been here, I’ve been entranced by my surroundings, from the Washington Square Arch and the central fountain to the surrounding New York University buildings. There’s something special about this place.
On my first visit, a pianist sat at his grand piano right beneath the arch and played the most eloquent ballads I’ve ever seen performed. I spent two hours watching him work his magic.
On my latest visit, the park was slightly more boisterous. Sunday morning families came down to the fountain to enjoy the cool water under the humid late-July sun. A street performer used long ropes to create huge bubbles that floated over the area. Children chased the rainbow tainted shapes until they descended low enough to be burst with gleeful shrieks from the kids.
2. Hudson River Greenway
Hudson River Greenway reminds you that Manhattan really is surrounded by water. This park is part of the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway and seems to be the place for locals to congregate to get a serious workout. There’s some outdoor gym equipment where Manhattan’s finest lads like to strip down and compare their impeccably sculpted and tanned abs. Ladies, you have been warned.
But what’s really lovely about this walkway is the piers, many of which have been repurposed into public parks. These piers jut into the river and are far enough away to offer calm from the vehicular hordes of inner Manhattan while still maintaining some fantastic views of the skyline. It’s a must.
3. The High Line
OK, this one is my personal favourite, though it’s increasing in popularity which means it’s not quite as tranquil as it once was. Still, it’s a required visit.
The High Line is a model of repurposing done well. This was an old heavy cargo train line built between 1929 and 1934. It was a big project at the time, lifting the train line above the roads to eliminate crossings. Meat, produce and dairy products were then unloaded onto the third levels of the adjacent buildings. It was so important it was called the Life Line of New York.
When trucks started becoming the more popular form of freight transport, the line became neglected. The southernmost portion was torn down, and the rest scheduled for demolition.
But some observant citizens noticed that Mother Nature was starting to reclaim the train line and petitioned to preserve and repurpose the structure. In 2002, the city committed to their idea and commenced turning the High Line into a unique urban park.
And it is unique.
It sits high above the city, above the traffic and the noise. You can hear it all and see it all, but you’re not a part of it all. The line has been boarded over, with lush gardens either side and the original train tracks peeping through. There are steps to viewing platforms where you can watch the world below, as well as deck chairs up top to catch some rays. Honestly, if I were a New Yorker, I’d be headed here everyday day for a bit of R&R.
4. SoHo and Little Italy
You’ll notice a trend with my recommendations so far, but it doesn’t actually have to be all about the gardens. Right in the very centre of Manhattan are the cutest cobblestoned laneways and quiet backstreets dotted with fancy boutiques and hipster cafes.
The Iron Historic District is where you want to head in SoHo. It started out as an artsy district, and though the vibe remains, it’s been gentrified somewhat. But the streets appear emptied of New York’s usual aggressive traffic, making it a positive haven in the middle of the hustle and bustle.
Little Italy is, well, little. But it shares the same relaxed vibe as SoHo, with cafes spilling out onto the footpath amid quiet urban surrounds (you wouldn’t believe it, with chaotic Chinatown right on its doorstep).
Both these places are the perfect place to come with a laptop or your travel journal and spill your thoughts out onto paper (or screen) as you sip a latte in some bohemian or Italian-themed cafe.
5. Bryant Park
Only one thing needs to be said about Bryant Park to convince you of its tranquility: it backs onto a library. Say no more.
But OK, a little more than that. Bryant Park is in a louder part of the city than the High Line – and it’s not as big as Central Park to drown out the noise completely – but it’s got a lush lawn to relax on, free WiFi, and … a pause for effect … a book corner. You heard me. There’s a little section just off the lawn where you can nab a book, find a table, and become deafened to the world as you immerse yourself in a literary adventure.
Another bonus in summer of course is the FREE Shakespeare in the Park. The productions are simple affairs with little stage theatrics, but what’s lacking in props is more than compensated for with gusto by the actors, and it makes for a truly memorable night in New York City.
6. Central Park
Fine, I really can’t finish this missive without mentioning Central Park, which is naturally the obvious go-to spot for tranquility if you’re happy to brave the pestering hordes of bicycle hire boys and horse and carriage drivers fighting it out for your patronage on the outskirts of the park.
Once you’re past the throng though, you can venture to any number of peaceful corners of the park. Seriously, it’s big enough that you’re bound to find some decent cove away from the unceasing gaze of the public.
My stays in New York have been short-lived and jam-packed, so please, if you’ve found you’re own secret nook you absolutely must share it with me below. Though I don’t strive to return to New York any time soon, your advice may be a lifesaver should I find myself stranded in that overpopulated bedlam again!