As you approach New York City, you will undoubtedly be dazzled by its glittering famous skyline, but up close you're going to have to dig a little deeper to uncover the cooler, more creative side to the Big Apple.
The untrammelled, explosive attitude to entrepreneurship behind such visual chaos will definitely spark your imagination. Everywhere you’ll go, you’ll find new ideas, creative energy and an infectious sense of overriding ambition. As the song goes: “Now you’re in New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of... these streets will make you feel brand new.” And they really will.
Despite being packed with an overwhelming number of bars, restaurants, clubs, theatres, museums, art galleries and tourist attractions, it’s surprisingly easy to get around, is based on a grid system that takes about two minutes to pick up. If you have the time and energy, you can walk everywhere in the central borough of Manhattan, and there are good and cheap public transport links to neighbouring Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.
There’s so much going on, though, that it can be a little overwhelming. So – as I work at Shillington over on Madison Avenue – I'll attempt to offer some local knowledge and a few pointers to get you started.
The agency scene
It won’t surprise you to know that New York is not short of creative agencies. Since the Mad Men era, the cultural and commercial capital of the USA has been one location every creative company wants offices in. And nothing has changed in recent years; quite the reverse.
In New York today, you’ll find big institutional advertising agencies, such as JWT, Leo Burnett, R/GA and DDB; you’ll also find new upstarts snapping at their heels, like StrawberryFrog, Mother, Anomaly and Droga5. You’ll find hot design agencies (Huge, Firstborn, Fantasy Interactive), digital agencies (Big Spaceship, The Barbarian Group, DigitasLBi), marketing agencies (Blue Fountain Media, Razorfish), as well as social media agencies, video and animation production houses, web development agencies… you name it.
Even the tech startup scene is making big inroads into the Big Apple. Although it’s unlikely to rival Silicon Valley anytime soon, money is nonetheless pouring into the city’s startups, with several valued at more than $1 billion dollars apiece, including Etsy, Blue Apron, FanDuel and ZocDoc. And all this is having a knock-on effect on New York’s media scene (which is in itself becoming a subset of the tech industry), with the likes of Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Vice rapidly redefining how we consume and produce news and media content.
In short, whatever area of creativity and design you want to work in, the opportunities that New York offers are immense. And the dynamic and ever-changing nature of its economy means that new opportunities are always appearing, for the right person in the right place at the right time.
Cool co-working spaces
If you’re doing a spot of freelance in New York, coffee shops are the standard fallback. But with increasingly unreliable WiFi, high coffee prices and annoying, shouted conversations, you’d be better off checking out some of the cool co-working spaces on offer. You’ll have a better working environment, reliable internet and you’ll be less paranoid about leaving your stuff on your table every time you visit the toilet.
It can also end up cheaper, with places like The Farm Soho charging just $25 for a single day (9am-5pm) or $100 a month. With a suitably rustic interior, this space feels more like a country pub than an oppressive office, and its engaged community of designers, developers, artists and entrepreneurs offer the possibility of some useful networking to boot. (At the very least, overheard conversations are more likely to be interesting than annoying.)
Another good option is The Productive, an affordable co-working studio dedicated to providing an energetic working environment for entrepreneurs and creative professionals, where prices start at $30 a day or $200 a month. Developers, animators, digital artists, designers, writers and editors are all welcome at the space, which offers computers with dual monitors, tablets and software such as Illustrator, InDesign and Photoshop. You can even work there for free in exchange for volunteering.
The New York coworking space is a dynamic and rapidly expanding scene, and companies are getting increasingly imaginative with their offerings. A great example is the yoga studio New York Love City, which offers a combination of minimalist workspace to declutter your mind in, along with unlimited with unlimited yoga for $40/day, $100/week or $300 per month.
Wonderful watering holes
There is an overwhelming number of places to wet your whistle in New York’s ever-changing bar scene, but here are just a few that have caught our eye lately.
If you fancy a slice of old New York, try Fine & Rare, where you can relax on midcentury-style Chesterfield sofas, and admire the roaring fireplace, Art Deco wallpaper and vintage windows sourced from the nearby Grand Central Terminal. Here you can find rum and rye-based cocktails and small plates like burrata with blood orange and pistachio, although be warned, it is a little expensive.
For something more affordable, try The Drift, a wood-panelled, cabin-themed “next-generation dive bar” in Brooklyn. Check out the tequila cocktails and artisanal bar snacks, such as low-country boiled peanuts and jalapeño-capped deviled eggs, before having a spin on the Kiss themed pinball machine.
Talking of which, if retro gaming is your thing then head to the self-explanatory Barcade, also in Brooklyn, which boasts 35 classic quarter machines including Asteroids, Donkey Kong and Ms Pac-Man, as well as a constantly changing selection of (American only) microbrewery beers across its 24 taps.
Whilst you're over that way, head over to Bar Velo, a neat little place that makes you think you've landed in early 20th century Paris, rather than a bar in Williamsburg. There's live music from Tuesday through to Saturday, and lots of refreshing cocktails to try – such as the No.3, a mixture of whiskey, tomato and basil.
Of course, New York bars aren’t only about New York culture: representatives of every nation on Earth, it seems, have a bar here. And so you might want to try, for example, Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, a tree-covered Czech beer garden that’s been running since 1910, where you can find cheap sausages and both imported and domestic beers. Or there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House: not an Irish theme bar, but an actual Irish bar, established in 1854 and famously only offering two choices of drink: McSorley’s Dark Ale and McSorley’s Light Ale.
We could go on like this forever, but you get the idea. New York is positively bursting with intriguing, interesting and imaginative drinking establishments, and there’s absolutely no reason you should settle for a mass-produced beer in TGI Friday’s.
New York has some of the best restaurants on the planet, from budget through mid-range to very expensive. And those for a taste for adventure will find plenty to amuse and intrigue their palates in some of the city’s more unusual restaurants.
For instance, for a new take on veggie, why not head to Dirt Candy on the Lower East Side for their highly-rated broccoli dogs and onion chocolate tarts? Or for a very different take on Mexican food, you could visit The Black Ant in the East Village, where they serve insect-related fayres such as grasshopper-crusted shrimp and black ant guacamole.
If you’re looking for more traditional food but still a different experience, then there’s Camaje Bistro’s Dinner in the Dark, where you’re blindfolded as you eat, to heighten your sense of smell and taste. There’s also the horror-themed Jekyll and Hyde Club, where the restaurant is filled with scary decor, sounds and characters wandering about; or Ninja New York, a Japanese restaurant whose waiters are dressed like ninjas and perform nunchuck tricks and assassin moves as you graze.
For breakfast, one simply cannot miss Russ & Daughters on Orchard Street. It's a cafe run by the legendary, world-famous NYC institution, and named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best new restaurants in the Big Apple. Try one of the delicious Boards or Platters, washed down with a Breakfast Martini.
Five touristy things you should do in New York
Ok, so you're creative – and you want to avoid the usual tourist traps, I get it. But if this is your first trip to New York, it would be criminal not to see at least some of the famous sights. And because it’s kind of an impossible task to list all the things to do in NYC, here are just five things you simply can’t miss.
First, The Empire State Building. Yes, it is as jaw-droppingly awesome in reality as you expect. And despite the queues (and many who'll tell you the Rockefeller Center is better), it’s really worth checking the incredible art deco interior. The view from the 1,454-foot top is pretty awe-inspiring too.
Next up, another famous outsized work of art: the Statue of Liberty. There are a number of ways to view Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s stunning creation. The cheapest is catching the Staten Island ferry, but that does mean you only really see it from a distance. We’d recommend if you can, a combination cruise-and-tour ticket, so you can get a look inside the statute as well as out. The museum on Liberty Island is well worth a look too.
Coming back down to earth, your next stop has to be the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA for short). They say you can spend an entire day in this amazing place, where it seems there’s an iconic piece of art history at every turn, from Van Gogh’s Starry Night to Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. And that’s not to mention the special exhibitions. These stand as a continuing monument to brave and imaginative curation; most notably, last autumn’s display of the original set of 176 emojis from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.
Fourth on our list is Grand Central Terminal. In most cities, the train station is where you disembark from, not an attraction in its own right. But Grand Central is one of the must-sees in New York thanks to its grandiose Beaux-Arts architecture, its celestial ceiling mural, the sculptural chandelier above the entrance to the market, the four-faced opal clock topping the main information booth… In short, the whole place is a thing of (bustling) beauty. As you might expect, it’s also often the unwitting venue for random acts of installation art, photography exhibits and performance art.
If we could only pick one more destination for the New York-bound creative it would have to be the Guggenheim (or the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, to give it its full title). This building is quite incredible: an inverted concrete ziggernaut designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, its unique ramp gallery extends up from ground level in a long, continuous spiral along the outer edges of the building to end just under the ceiling skylight. Take the elevator to the top and follow the gentle slope down; it’s a unique and inspiring way to experience art by the likes of Picasso, Cezanne, Manet and Kandinsky.