Can I speak frankly? Few cities are harder to see from an insider’s point of view than New York. I remember visiting Manhattan on business as a young journalist, and I was in a constant state of worry. That I would never make an appointment on time. That I would wind up on the East Side when I should be on the West Side. That I’d pay too much for everything and be considered a rube.
It took years of visits and the eventual purchase of a co-op in Manhattan to understand that beyond the obvious tourist attractions–from the Empire State Building and Ellis Island to Broadway and Radio City Music Hall–there’s another New York, one made of neighborhoods and parks, farmers’ markets and riverside promenades. And there are so many quiet little cafes and appealing specialty stores that you could eat and shop in a different place every day for a year without once hitting a theme restaurant or braving the hordes at Macy’s.
The point is, in its own way, New York is a small town. And the best way to experience the city that way is to find lodging slightly off the beaten track. True, the city is bursting with chic, wildly expensive places to stay; in the past couple of years, opening a hotel has become the Thing To Do, the way opening a club used to be. But New York also has a great sampling of smaller, boutique hotels that can both save you money and give you an authentic Manhattan experience. Plus, since the city is so easy to navigate via public transportation or its beloved yellow cabs, you’re never more than a quick ride away from anything.
I asked New Yorker Joan Warner to share her list of favorite hotels based on ambience, location, and price– almost all offer rooms for less than $220 a night. Most of Joan’s picks are in residential areas, each with its own energy and charm. Instead of rubbing elbows with other out-of-towners (except, possibly, in the lobby or breakfast room), you’ll feel like a resident.
When it comes to hipness, downtown Manhattan has long had the edge on uptown, ever since Greenwich Village nurtured the Beat generation in the ’50s. Although students and artists were priced out of the Village, SoHo, and TriBeCa neighborhoods long ago, New York’s young heart still beats at its southern end. And in Manhattan, “downtown” has crept north. For one thing, NYU has spread up and east from Washington Square. For another, the tech boom of the late 1990s turned the formerly soulless East 20s into Silicon Alley, with hot restaurants and stores following the dotcoms. It would make an old hippie cry, but 14th Street no longer represents the Great Divide.
To taste the best of the new downtown, you could spend $300 to $700 for a room at the ultra-hip “W” Union Square. Or you could go a couple of blocks away to Hotel 17, a 100-year-old landmark building whose 120 funky and eclectically decorated rooms start at $70 for a single and $85 for a double. If the place looks familiar, it may be because it appeared in Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. Madonna and friends posed for her Sex book here. And the rooftop penthouse still hosts fashion shoots for top magazines. Time Out New York dubbed this “the ultimate dive hotel”– bathrooms are shared, and if you want air-conditioning and TV you have to say so, because not all rooms have them. Kids under 18 aren’t allowed, perhaps because the aspiring models and musicians who stay here don’t really want to hear the pitter-patter of little feet at the crack of dawn. Hotel 17 is clean, comfy, and close to everywhere you want to be. But take note: It accepts only cash and traveler’s checks.
Spend the money you’re saving at the Union Square Greenmarket, Joan suggests, where a gaggle of farmers and merchants sell not only fresh produce, flowers, and organic meat and cheese, but also candles and homemade preserves that can come in handy as gifts. It’s open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from early morning until about 6 p.m., and it’s where the neighborhood shops–especially on Saturdays, when the market turns into a sort of outdoor party, complete with street music. Don’t miss the little stand nestled in the park at 16th Street, where you can browse through amusing vintage postcards and hard-to-find used CDs.
Two of Manhattan’s best restaurants are nearby. The Blue Water Grill on Union Square West and Gotham on 12th Street have both won kudos from Zagat as the city’s ultimate eateries for several years running. And if you’re really intent on celebrity-spotting, you can always climb onto your Manolo Blahnik stilettos and head to the “W” for a wallet-shattering Cosmopolitan in the lobby or a meal at Olives.
The Gramercy Park area, a few blocks up, isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, and at first glance it might seem dull. But the neighborhood just happens to be home to two of the city’s best hotel bargains. In fact, the Carlton Arms is practically a cult. Owned by Irish expats and beloved by European students (and trysting locals), it’s the next-best thing to staying in a New York gallery. Each of the Carlton’s 52 cozy rooms was lovingly painted during the late 1980s by local and foreign artists who decided to transform the former shelter for addicts, prostitutes, and other transients into a lodging experience for the graphically discerning. Each room is different: The popular 12B has a jungle theme, with zebra-striped fabric and cheetah faces peering from the walls; 9D looks like an old barn, complete with timbered roof; 6C has a sunny, tropical motif whose exquisite trompe l’oeil may make you think you’re in the Caribbean; and 8B is completely red.
The Carlton boasts handwoven Costa Rican toilet paper– and that’s about where the amenities end. But it also boasts fabulous rates. You can get a double with private bath for $100, and the hotel discounts its prices for students and foreign travelers, who can book a double with shared bath for $80 a night. If the hallucinogenic murals whet your appetite for more painting, hop on the 23rd Street crosstown bus to Chelsea, where almost every storefront is a gallery. Native’s tip: The Carlton is also around the corner from Little India, which you’ll find along Lexington Avenue above Gramercy Park. Cheap, healthful, and delicious food from the sub-continent abounds, and you can hang out with New York taxi drivers, most of whom speak eight languages, have a Ph.D. in economics, and know everything.
Want to go a bit more upscale? The Marcel Hotel, a block away, offers 115 rooms with private baths, a lobby with a fireplace, free continental breakfast, and cable TV–and it still charges only $140 for a standard room. The accommodations are tiny (one might be in Tokyo), but pristine, and you get free newspapers–a must for New Yorkers. While the rest of the tourists go down to SoHo for overpriced merchandise that you can get at any mall in America, you can buy vintage clothes at Oly’s, on 21st Street toward Second Avenue. In the evening, stroll down Third Avenue to watch the Yankees and shoot some pool at Barfly on 20th Street, whose unpretentious burgers and fries are so superb that top NYC chefs stop here when their shifts are over. Or have a cocktail at the gorgeous yet friendly bar in the lobby of the old Gramercy Park Hotel.
If you read The New Yorker and have always wondered where the cartoonist Koren gets his ideas, stay on the Upper West Side. When Joan was little, this neighborhood was a warm enclave of Puerto Ricans and furry liberals–now it’s home to the yuppiest of Wall Street yuppies and stores where a bath towel costs $150. But it’s still true Manhattan and beautiful to boot, sandwiched between the Hudson River and Central Park. At the Hotel Belleclaire, you’ll find Norwegian art deco rooms with New Wave furniture, cable TV and e- mail access, and CD players in the rooms–all for prices starting at $149 for a standard double (share the bathroom and it’s $129). Kids under seven stay free.
But the best thing about the Belleclaire is its location. Walk up Broadway and you’re at Zabar’s, the ultimate New York deli. Walk down Broadway and you’re at Lincoln Center. Walk toward Central Park and you’re at the Museum of Natural History, where you can channel Holden Caufield before taking the kids to the fabulous Planetarium. Insider’s caveat: Don’t dine on the Upper West Side. Restaurateurs have taken advantage of the yuppies to serve unspeakable food at astronomic prices, with attitude thrown in. If the weather is fine, join the smart locals at the 79th Street Boathouse on the Hudson for decent, affordable seafood, barbecue, and margaritas overlooking the river. Otherwise, take the #1 train down to Christopher Street, the city’s gay artery, where there’s no such thing as a bad meal.
Were you born to shop? Check into the Bentley, near the 59th Street Bridge. This neighborhood, a few blocks away from upscale Sutton Place, is far from subways, but within easy walking distance of Bloomingdale’s (remember, this was the original), the D&D Building (a decorator’s paradise), and 57th Street (lined with galleries and home to Hammacher Schlemmer, in case you need a robot dog or a cordless foot massager). The Bentley will make you feel like a truly rich Manhattanite, Joan says. Standard doubles start at just $195, but it’s worth springing for digs with an East River view. The 196 rooms have sleek, stylish furniture, CD players and data ports, and marble bathrooms stocked with English towels and custom toiletries. The linens are Belgian and the comforters are goose down. There’s a complimentary, 24-hour cappuccino bar and library, plus a rooftop restaurant and bar from which you can savor the skyline. Breakfast and newspapers are included in your room rate.
Tourists almost never stay on the Upper East Side (except for First Ladies, who traditionally take a suite at the Carlyle on Madison Avenue), and I don’t know why not. Manhattan’s most opulent neighborhood is also in many ways its loveliest, full of prewar architecture, gorgeous stores, and art everywhere. Nothing is cheap up here, but the Hotel Wales is a little-known bargain, whose many amenities and extras are well worth the $300-a-night rack rate. The Wales is in a landmark building in the Carnegie Hill section; walk a block west, to Fifth Avenue, and you’re on Museum Mile, where you can work your way down through the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, the Jewish Museum, and eventually the Museum of Modern Art, if your feet hold out. Or stay on Madison and window-shop some of the planet’s ritziest retailers and art collections.
Joan says The Wales is so hospitable, you may find it hard to leave. The rooms are snug but lush, with high ceilings, original oak moldings, and classic furniture, and they come with CD players, VCRs, and Neutrogena toiletries. Espresso, cappuccino, and bottled water are available all day. On Sunday evenings, you can listen to live chamber music in the Pied Piper room, surrounded by fresh flowers and brocade. The Wales even has a fitness studio–though for $15 a day, guests have access to the terrific gym at the 92nd Street Y on Lexington Avenue. You don’t even have to go out to eat; Sarabeth’s Kitchen, a New York favorite, is on premises and delivers room service. Or cross the street to Bistro du Nord, a hangout for Mayor Giuliani and friends, for steak frites or perfect mussels in white wine.
While we’re mentioning politicians, Bill Clinton just opened his office in Harlem, and you can put down roots there too, if only temporarily. At the Urban Jem Guest House on Fifth Avenue near 125th Street, you’ll live like a citizen in a stunningly renovated, 19th-century brownstone whose original details include marble fireplace mantels and 14-foot ceilings with neo- Victorian woodwork. There are only four rooms, priced from $100 to $220, depending on whether you share the bath and how many beds you need, but they come with kitchenettes, so you can save big-time on meals. There’s cable TV and air conditioning, and breakfast is included. Be sure to ask about the Parlor Jazz evenings.
Harlem is not only beautiful and fun, but it’s super- convenient; you can ride the Fifth Avenue bus down to Museum Mile or midtown, and the 125th Street subway station is also a Metro North commuter rail stop, in case you want to venture into the opulent suburbs of Westchester County or Connecticut. But don’t leave without going to Sylvia’s on Lenox Avenue–the best soul food you will find north of the Mason-Dixon Line. You just might run into Clinton at lunch.
JUST THE FACTS: GOTHAM HOTELS
– Bentley Hotel: 500 East 62nd St., 212-644-6000.
– Carlton Arms: 160 East 25th St., 212-679-0680, www.carltonarms.com.
– Hotel Belleclaire: 250 West 77th St., 877-HOTELBC, www.hotelbelleclairenewyork.com.
– Hotel 17: 225 East 17th St., 212-475-2845, www.hotel17.citysearch.com.
– Hotel Wales: 1295 Madison Ave., 212-876-6000, www.waleshotel.com.
– Marcel Hotel: 201 East 24th St., 212-696-3800.
– Urban Jem Guest House: 2005 Fifth Ave., 888-264-8811, www.urbanjem.com.