Last Weekend: New York's swagger can't be beaten

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It sounds an extravagant solution to the pre-Christmas blues, but if you want to escape the relentless gloom on this side of the Atlantic try a weekend in New York.

It is not just that the US seems to be coming out of recession a bit ahead of Europe, nor even that the city remains the largest retail market on the planet. It is that New York in the run-up to Christmas displays a swagger that London or Paris cannot quite match. The shops, the theatres, the museums, the parks, the streets, the people – they all want to celebrate.

With £1 barely above $1.50, the city is not the bargain it was at $2, so shop with discretion but do appreciate the drive with which Manhattan has lifted itself out of the doldrums.

The joke: when the going gets tough, the tough get shopping.

Besides, lots of things in New York are free. There are two new urban spaces that have been created with huge ingenuity. One is Times Square, which until three years ago was not really a square at all, just a grotty junction. Mayor Bloomberg got the Danish architects who revolutionised traffic in Copenhagen to redesign the road space.

Simply by using flower pots as bollards to block off areas of street and painting it blue, and adding some cheap seats and tables, the city suddenly has a new place for people to sit, chat, have coffee – and look at the Christmas lights.

The other new urban space is the High Line, an elevated park built on an old railway track running up the east side of lower Manhattan, which has a new extension that opened last summer. You now meander along landscaped gardens 50ft above the streets, with glimpses of skyscrapers to the east and the Hudson to the west.

But the key to making such a short time in a great city work is not to feel guilty about not using the time efficiently. Instead, enjoy the small serendipitous surprises. For us, these included Julianne Moore standing next to us at MoMA; the cabbie who insisted on listening to the BBC World Service because, he said, that was the only way of knowing what was happening in the world; or singing plainsong Matins in the stalls at the Episcopalian church opposite our hotel.

One other thing to stop a weekend in New York being exhausting is to stay more or less on British time. If you take an early flight over on the Saturday you are in the city by lunchtime. Go to bed early, using the early morning and the afternoon rather than the evening. Then take a day flight back on the Monday morning.

With a decent tailwind you're only five-and-a-half hours in the air: back in time for dinner. A wasted day? Well, some may think so, but there was at least the time to write this article sitting at the back of the bus on the BA178 last Monday.

Hamish McRae is chief economics commentator for The Independent