Warhol's Campbell's Soup

Ways to enjoy New York on the cheap

From the first time I ever visited New York, back in January 2008, I have loved it with an abiding passion. Part of it is the energy of Manhattan – the density of people and buildings makes it feel like a true metropolis. Another part is just the idea of New York – everyone has goals and ideas and they are there getting them done. It’s a constant striving for greatness that is why they build skyscrapers there, why they put on huge musicals, why people sell off their possessions and take terrible jobs to go and live as near as they can to it.

It can be a very expensive city as well, so here are my best tips for getting the best of New York if you’re a bit strapped for cash

The ensemble of Pippin.

The ensemble of Pippin.

Theatre
Rush/Standing Room Only/Lottery tickets are the way to go. I have written extensively on this in my other blog, Travels with Totoro. To put it briefly here though, New York is the international capital of theatre and if you don’t go to see at least SOMETHING, you are totally daft. Consult Broadway for Broke People for a top-notch summary of ways to get your hands on much, much cheaper tickets than the regular price. Beware: some are only for students, some are only for youth, some are cash-only. I saw one of my favourite musicals, Pippin (pictured left) in its first revival after being first played on Broadway 40 years ago for $37.50, and it was the best $37.50 I’ve spent in my life. Even if I had to get up at 5.15am to spend it.

Eat in parks

This is most feasible when done in summer. But basically, if you eat in a restaurant, there is a whole raft of unseen extras. Well, two: tax and tips. If you take away you are alleviated of at least tips. Get food from a self-serve deli or takeaway joint and enjoy the sunshine. We also packed lunches a few times for picnics in Central Park and Hudson River Park. I  highly recommend doing a grocery shop at Trader Joe’s – it’s both budget and local/organic (who knows how they manage this!) but it’s totally amazing. It’d even be worth making sure you’re in walking distance of a Trader Joe’s when you’re planning your accommodation.

Attractions

Warhol's Campbell's Soup

Andy Warh-lols

Unlike in London, museums in New York have paid entry. BUT, there are certain days of the week when you can pay suggested entry fees. The Natural History Museum has a suggested entry fee (BUT you have to line up and buy a ticket, and the sign gives stupidly expensive “suggestions”. I had a very bad experience with a very mean lady behind the counter, so my advice is BUY THEM ONLINE and collect from a machine, it will probably be more polite and you won’t have to go through the social embarrassment of paying a $5 entry fee when it suggests $20 on the sign. However, it’s a pretty dated museum for the most part so I don’t highly recommend going). MoMa has free Friday nights. There are queues, of course, but it’s worth it, especially if you like Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, or if you are sick of seeing reproductions of Warhol and want to see the original (art theory lovers: note that this is irony).

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New York Birthday

Joint 50th: Amy and me on our 25th birthday

Joint 50th: Amy and me on our 25th birthday

One of my travel missions is to spend my birthdays in as many different countries as possible. It’s partially a challenge to make sure I go somewhere I haven’t been at least once a year, and partially something I realised when, at 24 I had just happened to have birthdays in four different countries. So, now it’s five because I turned 25 last week in the USA – specifically, New York.

What was particularly special about the trip was that I would be spending my 25th with my oldest friend, Amy, who is currently living in New York and happens to share my birthday (June 6, 1988 – if you were wondering). We’ve known each other for 20 years and went to primary school, high school and university together, so it was pretty damn special to stay with her. Here’s how we spent the day:

Got up at 5.15am to queue for cheap tickets to Pippin, one of my favourite musicals. (Post coming soon about how to nab discounted seats to Broadway shows). Amy, Jon and I sat in the line on the pavement for over 4 hours so we could be guaranteed seats to the show. It sounds like an awful thing to do on your birthday, but it is actually lots of fun. We met some lovely guys who were both professional musical theatre performers, Family Feud and Sporcle and chatted about musicals to pass the time. We were also interviewed for Japanese TV about Broadway and the Tonys (it was only a few days before the Tony Awards ceremony happened).

Following our ticket coup (box seats!) we went home for a nap (ROCK AND ROLL!), and spent quite a lot of time choosing birthday outfits before heading out to Grimaldi’s pizzeria in Brooklyn. A New York institution, Grimaldi’s does big pizza at low prices. You get a base for $14, and then add your desired toppings for $2 each. As a menu, it can’t be beaten for expediency – they don’t do salad, or even pasta, just pizza for mains, an antipasto starter and home-made cannoli for dessert. Brilliant.

CHALLENGE

CHALLENGE

Grimaldi’s is also perfectly placed for a wander around Brooklyn Bridge Park, which affords a stunning view of the skyline of downtown Manhattan, and, very small in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. It would be a great place for a picnic, as there was loads of seating, tables and barbecues, plus courts for some kind of sporting endeavour (although not much grass or open space).

Next, Amy and I treated ourselves to shopping at criminally cheap Forever 21 at Times Square and each bought ourselves a birthday dress. Then, we went for a cocktail at a small hotel bar, so we tried to get birthday special treatment. The awkward conversation went something like this:

Us: Is there anything very special on the menu?

Waiter: All the cocktails are special.

Us: But, you see, it’s our birthday, so we’re looking for something special.

Waiter: Special event doesn’t make the cocktails any better. All the cocktails are special.

Us: Right, okay, it’s just that it’s our birthday so want a special drink.

Waiter: All the cocktails are special.

We were not subtle, and it was pretty awkward. But he eventually cottoned on and brought out some mini hamburgers. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite calculate the tip in line with the waiter’s expectations so he followed us out and asked if there had been a mistake. We all felt guilty and went and gave him extra. Lesson: if you’ve been a bit demanding, always tip generously. I will do another post on tipping soon because it’s a fascinating and strange and highly annoying world.

And to top off the day: Pippin.

Pippin is a much under-appreciated and very beautiful early work of the great composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Pocohontas, Godspell, The Prince of Egypt, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). It’s about Pippin, the son mediaeval king Charlemagne on a classic “hero’s journey”, feeling he is destined for greatness and trying to find it in all the wrong places.

But it is more than a simple “coming of age” story: the whole thing is witnessed – and sometimes, meddled with – by a troupe of players, helmed by the Leading Player, a kind of ringmaster (an aspect brought to the fore in this circus-inspired production), and is a meta-theatrical masterpiece. Each aspect of Pippin’s journey is introduced in the first song, Magic To Do, which also is very aware of its own theatricality:

The ensemble of Pippin.

The ensemble of Pippin.

“We’ve got magic to do
Just for you
We’ve got miracle plays to play
We’ve got parts to perform
Hearts to warm
Kings and things to take by storm
As we go along our way”

It’s dark and compelling and sexy, with a classic Broadway sound and incredible performances from some extremely talented carnies (seriously, some of the cast were 5th-generation theatre folk), and there was all kinds of clever staging, contortion, balancing, tumbling and trapeze.

I laughed and cried, gave a standing ovation IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SHOW, and couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. It is one of the greatest things I’ve ever witnessed on stage. It was the perfect way to finish the day: next birthday has a LOT to live up to.

Birthday/travel announcement!

times-square

One of my travel projects is to try and spend every birthday in a different country (or, as many different countries as possible). This is because I spent birthdays 1 to 22 in Australia (barring 11 in Fiji), then 23 in England and 24 in France. I turn 25 next month and I will officially be spending it in New York City with my boyfriend and my oldest friend, Amy, whom I’ve known for 20 years and who shares my birthday.

I last went to New York five years ago, even though I swore at the time that I would be back at least once a year. I spent two and a half weeks falling in love with the theatres, the delis, the museums, the shopping, the Park and the Ben and Jerry’s shop we used to check our email in (no laptop, iPad or iPhone back then!). I went with my musical theatre friend Benita and we saw 24 shows. Yep, that is a show every single day and sometimes two. We had a very comprehensive schedule of when rush/student/lottery tickets were on for different shows and we managed to see a lot of them for $20-$30. Did I mention we were also below the legal drinking age at the time (not that that stopped us)? Benita is moving to

Me with the Naked Cowboy

Me with the Naked Cowboy

New York later this year to begin the prestigious Master of Fine Arts (Directing) at Columbia University, so I’m sure to be back again.

Luckily, both of my companions for my upcoming sojourn are massively into theatre (particularly musicals) as well, so I am looking forward to catching some shows this time round, and also getting some higher quality pictures than last time round, when my camera was mega shitty and I had no sense of framing. I’m also looking forward to revisiting the first place I ever travelled to without my parents as someone who has now done a lot of travelling.

So, from June 2 to June 9, watch out world! I will be hitting the Big Apple with two of the humans I love best, turning a quarter-century with my oldest friend and “twin.” Can’t wait.