Dive bars


The night Elvis introduced himself, he'd just ordered another free hot dog criss-crossed with ketchup and mustard, served near instantly over the bar on a limp paper plate. 
"Did you put this on the jukebox?" quizzed the crumpled-up stranger, crowding into me on the next stool. 

"....yes?" I had, but I'd hesitated because Rudy's didn't seem like a bar that'd embrace a little Burning Love.

"Cool. I love Elvis. My name's Elvis, too. My mom was watching his movie when I was born, made her cry."

"The birth, or the film," I asked.

Elvis the parking attendant chewed up his hot dog and decided it was the former that'd made mom weep (Presley wasn't a great actor, after all) before taking off onto 9th Avenue. The King had left the building, and another of Rudy's equally colourful regulars took his place and eyeballed me.

If you're a stickler for uber-slick lounges selling trendy bottled lager and chilled Pinot Grigio, you're best staying clear of Manhattan's dive bars. If you're keen to sample real life amongst the fizzy lights of New York, this is as real as it gets; in a city where people live on every corner rather than faraway suburbs, these are the bars they choose for chugging down beers and chewing the fat. They're a godawful mess of black ceilings, untreated brickwork and bulging red neon, but they charm you with the cheapest drinks in town, some provide free snacks and most have jukeboxes that'll take you on a magic carpet ride.

Rudy's (9th Ave, between 44th St and 45th St) provides a fun introduction to the genre and is my favourite bar, bar none. It's not a place you'd cross the threshold of in daylight, or while sober. A man-sized statue of Porky Pig eyes you up outside, while inside the year-round Christmas lights and sodium bulbs cast shadows over the clientele; ancient rockers crowded in the tight booths, clocked-out office kids giggling over vanilla stolis and off-duty taxi drivers putting the world right at the far end of the bar.

Uniting them all, pitchers of Budweiser for $9 and pints of real ale for just $3, and of course the free hot dogs, too. There's always a buzzing evening crowd, and every trip of mine to NYC begins at Rudy's with a beer and a shot, and a catch-up with Gary the Glaswegian barman. There's also a beer garden out-back, something of a rarity given the scarcity of space in NYC. 

It was one night in Rudy's that I met Abi and Carole - two of NYPD's finest - who'd dropped by on their evening off for a bourbon and sprite. They suggested Niagra in the East Village (corner of 7th St and Ave A). Niagra is what happens when rich kids want to build an authentic dive bar from scratch. It's a little too shiny, full of East Village hipsters who love the concept of dive bar drinking, as long as it serves Merlot. That said, this long thin slip of bar looking across Tompkins Square Park was perfect to begin a trawl of East Side drinking dens. An added attraction (if you're a fan of The Clash, at least) is a mural of Joe Strummer on the outside wall, which features in the video to Strummer's cover of Redemption Song.

The Three Of Cups (1st Ave, between 5th St and 6th St) and The Library (Ave A, between 1st St and 2nd St) can either be considered as enlightening, or downright nasty. The cellar of The Three Of Cups hasn't seen an interior decorator for 20 years and you'd swear the regular in the boiler suit has killed before. They might be an acquired taste, but both promise a random and colourful end to a night out.

Carole also suggested I take in 1 Fifty 1 (151 Rivington between Suffolk and Clayton) in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Only a dirty bass line grumbling through your feet and the giant in black at the bottom of the cellar stairs suggests any sign of life to the signless venue. Inside, spotlights guide you to the bar and your nose leads you to the bathroom. The DJ behind the decks breaks two key rules of the dive bar - no jukebox and a questionable taste in music - otherwise 1 Fifty 1 stacks up well. Very much a bar for local people, I was warned to keep 1 Fifty 1 to myself.

"This bar is perfect as it is," suggested James the PR man from the East Village, "if too many out-of-towners and tourists find out, we'll all lose something special." 

I'd swore never to tell another soul and went on my way.

Manhattan's fashionable SoHo is a less likely destination for a dive, but Miladys (corner of Prince and Thompson) was the recommendation of Doctor Shannon, a local practitioner of wellness I met in The Three Of Cups.

"Last night, Natalie Portman was in there," the loose-lipped doctor imparted, "but on any evening you'll find local alcoholics in one corner and Prada models in the other."

The two rooms are reasonably well-lit by dive bar standards (I could read the drinks board without the aid of carrots) and Alex - whom the good doctor had promised would "look after me" - was not on shift. The A-listers had also made other plans on the night I visited, but the crowd - college kids and well-off locals - were in high spirits. A pint of Budweiser for $4 in a SoHo bar meant I was, too.

Rough-and-tumble dive bars in NYC always over-deliver. They won't compete with the multi-million dollar boutique venues or attract the rich and rarely-famous, but you'll find a very honest snapshot of New York living - they're a lot sweeter on the pocket and you might just stumble across Elvis.




"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.


NYC kayak


David Whitley gets a very different view of New York City whilst paddling along the Hudson River in a kayak.

It hardly needs saying that the Manhattan skyline is spectacular from pretty much any angle you look at it. But sitting just above the bobbing waters of the Hudson River adds a whole new perspective. From a kayak, New York looks profoundly intimidating. The race for the sky can be put in context; hundreds of separate developments trying to put their own brush strokes on an already hyper-detailed canvas. There’s a temptation to just stare at it, and let your paddle slide off towards the Atlantic. 

Kayaking probably isn’t the most immediately obvious form of transport in New York. Instinct says that the water is liable to be far too cold and that the waterways are liable to be far too busy. The former is mercifully inaccurate, although it all starts to get interesting once you attempt a pier-to-pier dash across a busy ferry terminal.

We have small lights on the fronts of our vessels, but there’s a strong suspicion that a ferry pilot will mistake them for reflections of moonlight on the water and mow on straight through. As such, the chicken run becomes a judicious exercise in granting right of way and waiting for a gap in the traffic. Think of it as being a little bit like walking into the middle of a busy road and waiting for brief respite to appear in the second lane before racing across.

From the boathouse on Pier 66, numerous options are available. According to our guide, Alex, it’d take eight or nine hours to circumnavigate Manhattan, “depending on how strong your arm muscles are”. Another popular option is to do a loop around the Statue of Liberty, which takes around three hours.
My group isn’t that ambitious; we’re going for a 90 minute after dark paddle. It’s an opportunity for an unusual perspective on the city, with the sun down, skyscraper lights on and the water plunged into a murky blackness.

I’m regarded as intermediate purely because I’ve been in a kayak before, while my cohorts are absolute beginners. One girl grabs her paddle as if it’s a spitting cobra and has neglected to bring a change of clothing. Silly mistake, but what do you expect – these guys are native New Yorkers, and most locals probably haven’t even considered seeing the city this way.

But part of the simplistic joy of kayaking is that it’s pretty easy to pick up the basics. Soon enough, the group is gliding in convoy, awed by the sun setting over the New Jersey skyline and the lights sparking into life on Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Of these, the most striking is the Empire State Building. The top of it is lit up in lurid colour. First there’s a swathe of orange, then a band of shocking yellow, and the red spire tops it off. It looks like one of those multi-coloured ice-lollies that is packed with E-numbers and marketed at hyperactive children.

Other, lesser-known buildings stand out too. One Worldwide Plaza looks like a giant, fat pencil – its sharpened end is lit up in a moody blue, with the lead at the very end acting as a yellow beacon.Also illuminated is the USS Intrepid, an enormous decommissioned aircraft carrier that monopolises Pier 86, further up the Hudson. Sidling up alongside it, we realise that the ferries are just small fry. A temptation to grab on to the ladders and board the museum ship pirate-style is wisely resisted.

Ferries aside, kayaking on New York’s waterways is remarkably peaceful. You start to notice things that you’d never see from street level. Take, for example, the night sky. On first glance, it appears sprinkled with stars. Then you notice the stars moving and make a mental note to never apply for a job at air traffic control in New York. The ‘stars’ are, in fact, scores of circulating planes, pirouetting in the skies at marginally different heights. They appear to be spiralling in formation, like water going down a sink after the plug is pulled.

New York may be the city that never sleeps, but gently rocking on the Hudson, it appears to be at rest. The car horns, the flashing signs and the sirens are stripped out to leave a more manageable whole. It becomes more of a singular great beast, and the low hum of traffic rumble, generators and ferry motors becomes its breathing pattern.

And we, the humble kayakers, are the tiny fly that can land on the beast’s back unnoticed.


More information: Manhattankayak.com


Oldest bars



Want to taste 19th Century New York City? Finding a traditional ale house stuck in the past is easy enough; finding the oldest is more problematic, since those bars in a position to make such a claim choose their titles carefully. Which venue is the victor of protracted penmanship is largely irrelevant since they're all worth a pulling up a stool in, so here's a selection of the best:

McSorely’s Old Ale House (7th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenue) swung open its doors in 1854, and claims the title of "New York City's oldest continuously operated saloon". It certainly smells that way. Except for the staff, little has changed in the East Village ale house. Sawdust on the floor. Dust as thick as your thigh. Only two types of ale on tap, light and dark (don't embarrass yourself by asking for a Bud). No wines, no spirits and until 1970, no woman. The walls are cluttered with decades of trinkets and propaganda, sepia-tone photographs of generations dead. A pair of Houdini’s handcuffs rust away on the bar's foot rail. 

The menu, while grudgingly doffing its hat to more contemporary additions, serves up a timeless classic for just a few dollars; a block of ferocious cheddar and crackers, together with a whole onion and complimented by a half-pint glass of mustard so strong it could kill a horse. McSorley's is always popular; stay away in the evenings unless you want to risk wearing your drink. Head there at lunchtime, or early afternoon at the latest - then it’ll be you and the locals, maybe one or two tourists. Take a table in the back, let your eyes play over the memorabilia and fall into the past for an hour or two.

Pete's Tavern (corner of Irving Place and 18th St) claims to be "the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City", although nobody stepped up to the bar until 1864. During prohibition in the early 20th century, the bar continued to sneak beer to patrons while posing as a florists. Pete's is just a minute's walk from the spectacle of Gramercy Park and inside is equally as impressive, with the original tin roof and crowded booths. Toothsome grins of A-list patrons line the walls, and faded photos of American author O. Henry greet customers at the table where he penned short stories. Lunchtimes are quiet, so take full advantage of the lull and get stuck into the menu - the burger with bleu cheese will satisfy the most capacious of appetites.

A short stagger from Pete's is Old Town Bar (18th St between Broadway and Park Ave). In nearly 120 years, almost none of the fixtures and fittings have been changed. It's by no means the oldest bar in New York City but certainly a great example - you'll struggle to get seated downstairs so head up the elderly staircase to the first floor restaurant. 

If you want to raise a glass to the "oldest food and/or drinking establishment on the same site in New York" then wander down to Brooklyn Bridge and head to the Bridge Cafe (279 Water Street), the oldest business in NYC. While the name has changed over the centuries, the building has been at the corner of Water Street in Downtown Manhattan since 1794. At that time it was on the banks of the East River but landfill means the river is now two blocks distant. The oldest business in NYC has also dabbled with the oldest profession - the bar served as a brothel for many years in the late 19th century, and was a regular haunt for pirates that terrorised the East River.

Two more shoreline bars of yesteryear are the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) and the Landmark Tavern (corner of 11th Ave and 46th St). The Ear Inn is a designated Landmark of the City of New York, built in 1817 as a home to an aide of George Washington. It became a bar in the mid-19th century, but renamed nameless and known only to locals as 'The Green Door'. Officially christening the bar would have meant a lengthy review because of its landmark status, so in 1977 the owners painted the curves of the earlier neon BAR sign. The sign then read EAR - the name of the magazine published upstairs at the time - and the inn has been known as such ever since. It's a cramped space with a jaunty nautical theme, but if you can squeeze in you can enjoy live music most nights of the week.

In the 19th Century, the Landmark Tavern served rowdy rabbles of Irish dockworkers who supped at the water's edge in Hell's Kitchen, a neighbourhood dominated at the time by timberyards and slaughterhouses. Landfill means the tavern is now over a block away from the Hudson, and a little lost amongst the axle grease and recent construction work. You should still seek it out, though; the bar brims with character, the restaurant is wholesome, and the building is haunted by a former confederate soldier who was knifed to death in a bar brawl. 

While there are glimpses into Manhattan's 400 year old history scattered across the borough, it's rare to find many amongst the rioting skyline of the Financial District. Little seems to have a sense of history here, but tucked away near Manhattan's southernmost tip, is the island's oldest building. 
The Fraunces Tavern (corner of Pearl Street and Broad Street) has stood in one form or another since 1762. The tavern is best known for the part it played in the American Revolution; a pre-presidential George Washington based himself here after seeing off the British, after which the building provided offices for Congress. The age of the tavern is subject to small print; parts of the building has been torn down and undergone significant modernisation over the centuries; the claim of Manhattan's oldest building is one set by the tavern's own museum.


"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

NYC for free



David Whitley looks at how to tackle the Big Apple without spending a cent.


New York is one of the most expensive cities on the planet, and it’s one where even a short visit can leave you weeping over the impending credit card bill. But play it canny, and you can take advantage of all manner of free stuff whilst in the Big Apple...



There are surprisingly few museums in New York that are permanently free, but there are a couple of notable exceptions. The National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology are arguably the best bets.


However, there are also some museums that work on a suggested donation basis. The Metropolitan Museum of Art makes no bones about the fact that it strongly recommends paying the suggested US$20 fee, but the tight-fisted can shamelessly pay nothing if they wish. The same principle applies at the American Museum of Natural History.


Those with a stouter conscience are advised to do their research and time it right. Almost every museum in New York has a few hours every week where admission is free. These periods tend to be on a Friday or Saturday evening. Of the biggies, the Guggenheim Museum operates on a pay what you wish basis between 5.45pm and 7.15pm on Saturdays, and the International Center of Photography is free between 5pm and 8pm on Fridays.


Tours and Transport

The most famous freebie in New York is the Staten Island ferry. Theoretically designed for commuters, it ploughs the route between St George on Staten Island and the southern tip of Manhattan at least every half hour. Getting on is something of a scrum, but there are excellent views of the city from the deck. You can easily tick off those postcard Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty shots without paying a cent. There’s also a free ferry to Governors Island, a lesser known speck in New York Harbor which is slowly being converted into a parkland escape with a few historic buildings thrown in.


It’s also possible to go on a few guided tours without dipping into your pocket (although expect some disapproving glares if you don’t leave a tip). The Big Apple Greeter programme has been going since 1992, and relies on volunteers giving up their time to show visitors around their neighbourhood. Quality tends to vary, but it’s a good way of dipping into what would otherwise be uncharted waters.


It is, of course, free to make your own way around Central Park but guided walks that concentrate on various areas of the park run in all but the most brutal weather conditions. Other free walking tours include a 90 minute jaunt around Grand Central Station and surrounds every Friday at 12.30pm with the Grand Central Partnership and a flashier alternative in Times Square (Friday at noon).


Activities and entertainment

There’s almost always something going on for free in New York. The NYC and Company website has a good list of upcoming free events ranging from talks to tree planting sessions in the Bronx. Club Free Time, meanwhile, is a brilliant resource for no-charge music concerts, film screenings, theatre productions and gallery exhibitions. It also offers free Off-Broadway show tickets and extra secret free stuff to its members – and the membership costs just $US1.95 for a week.


During the Summer, New York is besieged with free concerts, most of which take place in the city’s parks. The New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera will seemingly play for free in any patch of grassland across the five boroughs, while the Central Park Summerstage at the Rumsey Playfield draws in big names from across the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, gospel and indie.


Bryant Park is also a great freebie hotspot. During the summer months, it hosts gratis performances from Broadway shows every Thursday at 12.30pm. The idea is clearly to get people to shell out for tickets to said shows, but it’s a gifthorse nonetheless.


Other summer activities available at Bryant Park include free weekday petanque lessons between 12pm and 6pm and ping-pong on one of two publically available tables. The sporty theme continues in winter when ice skating on the pond is available without charge to all (although expect to pay for skate hire).



If you’re being astonishingly cheap, it’s just about possible to survive in New York on free food samples handed out by gourmet food stores. The Upper East Side is a good place to kick off – Agata and Valentina on the corner of 79th Street and 1st Avenue has sample portions of artisan breads, Two Little Hens on 85th and 2nd offers cookies and biscotti, while Eli’s on 80th and 3rd has cheeses and olives. Later on, the O’Reilly’s pub on 35th and 5th offers a free hot food buffet from 5pm as part of its happy hour. You’d be surprised how popular this sample crawling is – a Google search for “free food samples New York” brings up 283 million results. Just think of it being like a multi-venue tapas meal...



Accommodation is the biggest wallet-drainer in New York, and pretty much the only way you’re going to get it for free is by signing up for Couch Surfing (couchsurfing.com). Essentially, you beg people for a night or two on their settee by promising to return the favour when someone’s in your neck of the woods. Otherwise, change tack and look for the freebies that hotels are prepared to throw in. The Hilton Gardens Staten Island (hiltongardeninn.hilton.com), for example, offers free shuttle services to Newark airport and the Staten Island ferry terminal – that can amount to a big saving in transport costs. Meanwhile, the Affinia Hotels offer free experience kits that include guide books and iPods with pre-loaded walking tours, while kitting you out with as many travel-sized toiletries as you can cram into a plastic bag. The Kimpton hotels prefer to ply you with booze, hosting a free wine hour every evening.


Disclosure: David was a guest of NYC and Company.


Statue of Liberty



With the exception of Canal Street's market stalls and their "cut-price" DVDs, we rarely associate New York City with pirates. Yet throughout the 1800s the city was plagued by swashbuckling rapscallions; murderers, looters, kidnappers to a man and boy. 


In the 18th century, the majority of residents still lived at the southern tip of Manhattan. During its British occupation, the city's population exploded along the shoreline of the East River. Beyond the gaze of the rest of the city, a plethora of new piers stretched into the waters and when Americans wrestled power back from the British, these wards became the most intense region of shipbuilding in the country. 

Heavy industry drove out the well-to-do and drove down the quality of life, and the neighbourhoods descended into lawless squalor; it was here that the city’s first tenement buildings were built. Sailors, shipbuilding and poverty beyond compare – the conditions were primed for the rise of the pirates in New York City, and not a ship that sailed the East River was safe. 

Albert W. Hicks was the last to be executed in New York City for "the crime of robbery on the high seas." Hicks was caught after attempting to make off with "blood-stained plunder" after murdering a captain and two crew. In June 1860 The New York Times recorded explicit details of Hick's trial, as well as the grave verdict handed down: "The sentence of the law and the Court is that you be taken from this place to the prison from whence you came, there kept in close confinement until Friday, the 13th day of July next, and on that day taken from thence to Ellis' Island or to Bedloe's Island, in the Bay of New-York, as the Marshal for this District may elect, and there, between the hours of 10 o'clock in the morning and 3 o'clock in the afternoon, be hung by the neck until you are dead." 

After a curious encounter with the world-renowned showman PT Barnum, who requested a plaster-cast of Hicks' head for his exhibition (according to The Gangs of New York, Hicks agreed and received "$25 in cash and two boxes of five-cent cigars"), the prisoner was taken to Bedloe’s Island in New York harbour. Such was the notoriety of Hicks, that over 10,000 New Yorkers snapped up tickets to board steamboats and view the spectacle from the bay; newspaper classifieds offered readers "a fine chance... to view the exit of one of the most atrocious of these scourges." Row boats lined the island's shore, ladies twirled their parasols, peanuts were sold and lager was swilled as the roaring crowd watched a man executed.

Why the tales of a forgotten criminal and an unfamiliar island? Because the story leads us to the world's most iconic attraction. In 1811, half a century before Hicks was hung there, a granite battery called Fort Wood was built on Bedloe's Island, shaped like an 11-point star. Within this garrison, architect Richard Morris Hunt constructed an 89-foot-high pedestal, upon which stood a giant metal skeleton, designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel and covered by a skin of copper. 


Bedloe's Island was renamed Liberty Island in 1956; the structure is of course Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi's La Liberté éclairant le monde, better known as the Statue of Liberty, which celebrates its 125th birthday this week. Lost to the seas of time, few know why sightseers first sailed across the harbour, yet every day thousands of visitors retrace the voyage of those ghoulish crowds who cheered on the death of New York's last pirate.


"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.