Travel: Give me a break: New York on pounds 500

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City to city: Charing Cross, Friday. You have pounds 500 to spend on a weekend break. Cathy Packe puts her money on Manhattan

Down payment

London-New York is the busiest international air route in the world, with a couple of dozen wide-bodied flights every day. Sadly, the absurd fares of pounds 160 or less expired in March and prices are rising fast as the summer peak approaches. A typical fare is that offered by Check-in USA (01388 747999), pounds 317 return on Virgin Atlantic.

Kennedy airport is possibly the world's worst transportation terminal, but when you eventually track down the free bus to Howard Beach subway, you get access to the excellent NYC underground railway system, and can reach almost anywhere in the city relatively easily.

Instant briefing

The US tourist office in London closed down three years ago; luckily, you can manage New York without too much help.

Manhattan, the long finger of land which stretches down between the Hudson and East rivers, is only one of the five boroughs which make up New York City, but in the course of a weekend it could be considered eccentric not to spend your time there.

Most of Manhattan is laid out on a grid system: the streets run west to east, the avenues (numbered from first to 12th, with a few extras thrown in) north-south. South of first street is Houston, a broad thoroughfare that runs the width of the peninsula and separates the districts of SoHo, Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side from the rest of the city. North of Central Park, the smart Upper West and Upper East sides dissolve into Harlem.

Rest assured

If you are determined to keep within the budget of pounds 500 you will need to aim for the bottom of the range for accommodation. The Vanderbilt YMCA (00 1 212 756 9600) on E47th Street is worth considering; single rooms start at $58 (pounds 36), and you get free use of the swimming pool. If you want to move slightly upmarket try the Pickwick Arms (00 1 212 355 0300) on E51st Street. And if you like your accommodation to be part of the sightseeing tour, book into the Chelsea Hotel (00 1 212 243 3700), variously home, watering hole or inspiration to the likes of Tennessee Williams, Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Must see

Must buy

For the latest in American design, head up 5th Avenue, past Lord and Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. But if you are seriously intending to buy clothes, take a trip to one of the shopping malls of New Jersey; you will find the same stores, but won't have to pay tax.

If you've already hit your credit card limit, call in at a branch of Barnes & Noble. Most of the company's book stores have a cafe inside. For the price of a coffee you can sit all day reading your way through their entire stock of books and magazines.

Must eat

Since the full breakfast of eggs over easy, bacon, hash browns, toast and coffee is available at any corner cafe in Manhattan, brunch has to be something special: a homemade omelette or eggs benedict, washed down with a Bloody Mary. Stop off at Sarabeth's Kitchen (00 1 212 496 6280) on Amsterdam Avenue.

There is no such thing as a light lunchtime snack in New York, but the salads at Chez ma Tante (00 1 212 620 0223), a pleasant neighbourhood bistro on West 10th Street, are less daunting than elsewhere.

For dinner, the Tavern on the Green (00 1 212 873 3200) is in a setting almost too perfect to be true. Located just inside Central Park, the building is swathed in fairy lights and looks like something left over from Christmas. It could dent your spending money, though.

Night moves

To see pure magic, and save some cash, walk across Brooklyn Bridge after dark. Don't look round until you are halfway across (the point at which you feel yourself starting to head downhill). However many times you have seen the New York skyline, the view from here is breathtaking.