New York, the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, the capital of the world – we’ve all heard it. But what’s NYC like for a first time gay traveller? Dan Harrop-Griffiths gives us his beginners’ guide.
I’d dreamt about going to New York since as long as I can remember, so when I saw that New York City Pride was on 27th June last year (my 26th birthday), I went for it and booked a flight.
I flew to JFK with British Airways in ‘Premium Economy’ – nowhere near as pricey as Business Class but a lot more comfortable and roomy than standard Economy. With my in-seat ‘media centre’ of films, music and games, the 7.5 hours went by very quickly.
JFK airport is a fair way out of the city, so don’t expect a big NY skyline when you land. I was staying with friends in Brooklyn for the first part of my trip, but a standard taxi fare to Manhattan should be a flat ‘off-the-meter’ fee of $45 (£27) plus any extra tolls/taxes.
There’s a lot more to New York than the easily navigable and fairly compact Manhattan Island. There are four other boroughs, with Brooklyn probably the most interesting and lively. The quiet leafy streets of Brooklyn’s Little Italy were a perfect contrast to the craziness of Manhattan. It was laid-back, friendly and not for a moment did I feel unsafe. It’s a bit of a cliché to say the best pizza comes from here, but it really does. I’d had nothing like it before and nothing like it since. The local Italian New Yorkers are tastier still and I could have stayed there for the week just to drool at them and eat their pizza. Check out the craziness of Coney Island, Brighton’s trashier, louder cousin with a drinking problem.
As a Londoner I’m pretty well-trained when it comes to the Tube, but New York’s Metro came as quite a shock. This sprawling mass of numbers and letters are a far cry from London’s easily colour-coded, quaintly named lines. I changed three times and got lost three times on my way into Manhattan, but after asking a few people for help and with a bit of luck I made it. The trains are super-air-conditioned, forming a chilly contrast to the often baking weather of the New York summer. The same goes for most bars and restaurants so it’s worth taking a light jacket or long-sleeved shirt along for the night or you’ll be shivering as soon as you step indoors.
Stepping up from the subway at dusk, metres from the stunning Plaza Hotel, it hit me. The noise, the lights, the skyscrapers towering above. I was in New York. It was just as exciting as I’d imagined.
Getting around Manhattan is pretty easy if you’re any good with basic numbers and left/right directions (I’m not, so saw the whole grid as a kind of advanced level living Sudoku puzzle). The avenue numbers go roughly east to west and the street numbers go roughly south to north. Getting a cab doesn’t cost heaps as the island itself is relatively small, and there’s a Metro stop a few hundred metres in most directions. If you get lost, ask someone (although they’re just as likely to be as lost as you are).
Eating out is fantastic, with tons of choice to suit any budget. But do your research or you might not get what you bargained for. A very standard-looking snack off 5th Avenue turned out to be very pricey. My friend and I ended up with a few curly fries and a beer each for about $30 (£18). If you’re in a rush and on a budget, there are also some great cheap eats in Chinatown. Or grab a pizza as it’s more than likely to be fantastic. For something at the other end of the spectrum, try the Standard Hotel, a building that stands out architecturally even in New York. The Boom Boom Room on the top floor is an ultra VIP club with some of the most spectacular night-time views in the city. No idea how we got in, but get in we did…
Where to stay
I booked into the Distrikt Hotel on West 40th Street the night before Pride. A great location right next to Hell’s Kitchen with some of the coolest gay night spots in town a few minutes walk away. This small to medium sized hotel (by New York standards) had very friendly staff who were happy to dish out directions and local tips, while the room was spacious, comfortable and stylish – a stunning walk in shower with black slate tiles, lots of mirrors and soft greys. The perfect Manhattan pad to get prepped for Pride. A few nights later I moved to The Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street. This giant hotel is just a few minutes from Time Square, so a great place to explore from. The hotel’s lobby is stylish, sexy and decadent and the attached bar does some awesome cocktails to get you started before a night on the town. The suite I stayed in was super-modern and super-cool with red, white and black fittings. With your own living room, bathroom and bedroom, this is the place to stay if you want some space!
New York City Pride is a pretty mind-blowing experience, with a huge parade going for miles down 5th Avenue, before turning off into the Village and filtering through the smaller, quieter streets. There are tons of floats, dancers and performers, with the streets lined with a very friendly audience. I marched with the city’s gay rugby team, The Gotham Knights, hopped on and off a few floats and even sang on one as it passed through the Village, which was very much in a street party mood!
Dance on the Pier
The biggest event of the Pride calendar is undoubtedly the Dance on the Pier. A spectacular outdoor dance event holding thousands, this party starts early (2pm) and ends fairly early too (10:30pm). Last year we saw Sophie Ellis Bexter perform live with The Freemasons – this year its DJ Ana Paula and DJ Vito Fun (Sunday, June 26th 2011).
I was in town a few days before Pride weekend and the scene was buzzing, but these bars would be a hit on any weekend:
The Duplex Piano Bar & Cabaret – relaxed, unpretentious get-up-and-sing fun with a small dance floor and plenty of tables. Friendly staff, friendly drag queens and cheap drinks!
Splash Bar – Something different every night of the week in this gay club/bar/lounge. Look out for ‘crazy karaoke’ on ‘Twink Tuesdays’ or ‘Bingo with the stars’ on Sundays.
Therapy – In Hell’s Kitchen, this former warehouse has two levels, lots of cute boys and some hilarious (if rather scary) entertainment most nights.
Stonewall – Where it all began. Still a fully functioning bar and party hang-out, this is well worth a visit whether you’re a history buff or not.
One great think about New York is the free-pour! No tiny measuring thimbles here, just smile and you’ll get a double-triple if you’re lucky.
There is so much to see and do in New York, it’s hard to know where to begin. A few musts are Central Park, a true oasis that goes on for miles with ponds, lakes, sports facilities and plenty of spots to relax in the shade or soak up some sun. I also went to the ‘Top of the Rock’ (at the top of the historic Rockefeller Center) to get in some classic panoramic New York views. Cheaper than going up the Empire State Building, and a tiny, painless queue in comparison. The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) is also a must, but sadly I ran out of time.
New York is a fantastic place for a gay traveller any time of the year, but its definitely worth checking it out during Pride for a really special trip. You can find more info on this year’s Pride here: http://nycpride.org/