Long-haul short breaks: New York

Catch a free concert in Central Park, enjoy the art and a cocktail at Moma, and shop till you drop along Fifth Avenue. Sarah Barrell gives an insider's guide

An air of pre-party excitement always prevails on Virgin's Friday flights into New York (08700-380 2007; www.virgin.com, return flights to New York JFK from £475 economy, £1,860 Upper class, per person). You've watched Melinda and Melinda to get you in the mood for Woody Allen's Manhattan, ordered one too many glasses of bubbly, snagged a couple of hours' sleep, and by the magic of time zone change, you land at almost the same time you left. Hurrah! You get to enjoy that Friday feeling all over again, only with cocktails, yellow cabs, and a large serving of shopping on the side.

Day 1, Friday

Taking the 9.30am flight into JFK you'll arrive around noon, well before Friday afternoon rush hour clogs all arteries in and out of Manhattan. Check into Hotel QT at 125 West 45th Street (001 212 354 2323; www.hotelqt.com, double rooms from $172/£95), the new "budget" billet from hotelier André Balazs (The Mercer, Chateau Marmont), and stretch plane-cramped legs in the pool, complete with swim-up bar, that's the centrepiece of the flashy lobby. Refreshed, it's off to Target Free Friday Night (4-8pm) at the nearby Museum of Modern Art, at 11 West 53rd Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues (001 212 708 9400; www.moma.org) offering free entry to the recently revamped museum's vast, superbly displayed collection of modern art. Further north in Central Park, you still don't have to flash the greenbacks as there's a free concert at the Summer Stage, ( www.summerstage.org), which celebrates its 20th birthday this year with a packed programme of jazz, world music, dance and rock concerts. You skip the finale in order to make last call (8pm) at the Roof Garden Café in the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street (001 212 535 7710; www.metmuseum.org) to sip a cocktail and watch the sun dip beneath the western fringes of the park.

You've made reservations at BLT Fish, at 21 West 17th Street (001 212 691 888; www.bltfish.com), the newest offering from passionate poissonier Laurent Tourondel. Eat buckets of mussels, light crispy piles of fried calamari, and fresh grilled catch of the day with a choice of sauces. The bill (around $60/£33 a head without wine) comes with a little tuft of candyfloss for afters.

Even with a double espresso your hotel pillow will be calling you by now. If you've made it past 11pm you've done well: that's 4am British time.

Day 2, Saturday

The time difference has you up and at 'em before most Manhattanites are groping for their New York Times. Make the most of it. Beat the breakfast queues at Coffee Shop, 29 Union Square, West (001 212 243 7969) and set yourself up for the day with some of the best pancakes in town, eggs done any which way, and hearty Brazilian breakfast fare such as pao de queijo (cheese bread balls) all served by obscenely pretty waiting staff. Take a stroll south along Fifth Avenue, through Washington Square Park, into Soho for some boutique window-shopping, not forgetting to walk east into Nolita and on to the Lower East Side for the chic independent outlets, such as the sneaker temple Alife Rivington Club, 158 Rivington Street, the DDC Lab, 180 Orchard Street, for custom-made jeans, and the novel Lunettes et Chocolat, 25 Prince Street, selling designer shades and deluxe chocolate. Save your appetite however, for the huge cellar of stellar Italian wines at 'Inoteca, 98 Rivington Street, at Ludlow (001 212 614 0473), and its decadent selection of small dishes, such as bruschetta with egg, truffle oil and asparagus.

Staying in the Lower East Side, the Tenement Museum, 90 Orchard Street, between Broome and Delancey streets (001 212 431 0233; www.tenement.org) offers a look back into 19th-century New York, when immigration made this now chi chi neighbourhood the most populated place on the planet. Entrance $13 (£7).

Give Chelsea's galleries a miss (too packed on Saturdays) and head to PS1 (001 718 784 2084; www.ps1.org ) Moma's vanguard sister art gallery, 22-25 Jackson Avenue at 46th Avenue, Long Island City. Every Saturday (July-September, 3-9pm) DJs spin arty tunes while you explore installations dotted about this former school building. Entrance $5 (£3). Take the JMZ subway line under the East River from Delancey Street, and change for the G line to 21st Street; the museum is across the street to the left. Take a cab ride back across the water over the nearby Queensborough Bridge catching jaw-dropping glimpses of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings and the iconic Silver Cup Studio sign (home of Sex and the City), stopping at the hotel for pre-dinner ablutions.

On the other side of the island, the roof bar of the Gansevoort Hotel, 18 Ninth Avenue at 13th Street (001 212 206 6700; www.hotelgansevoort.com) is the best spot to watch the sun go down over the Hudson River while the surrounding Meat Packing District warms up for its Saturday night party. Barhop around the corner to 5 Ninth, 5 Ninth Avenue at Gansevoort Street (001 212 929 9460), to sample an Ace of Clubs or other antique libations whose recipes have been revived from historic New York cocktail lists.

It may be hidden at the end of a dark alley but word is out: Freemans, off Rivington Street between Bowery and Chrystie streets (001 212 420 0012) is the hottest of the Lower East Side's ever burgeoning crop of hip eateries. Eat modern American dishes such as devils on horseback (Stilton-stuffed prunes wrapped in bacon), and macaroni and cheese with chunky Parmesan bits, and try not to feel too scrutinised by the taxidermy wall displays - enormous moose, deer, and wild boar heads ogle the clientele, as they ogle each other. $40 (£33) a head, not including drinks. Reservations for parties of six or more. Expect to wait around 30 minutes for a table.

Stay in the Lower East Side for the best choice of late-night bars, live-music venues and hipster clubs. Try The Slipper Room, 167 Orchard Street at Stanton Street, for kitsch cabaret and a gay-friendly clientele, or the Delancey Bar, 168 Delancy, a sleek rock club, with superb retro rock DJs and a palm-fronded roof terrace overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge.

Day 3, Sunday

Hair of the dog? Hop aboard what looks like a landed 1970s cruise liner, The Lure Fishbar, 142 Mercer Street, at Prince Street, Soho (001 212 431 7676; www.lurefishbar.com). Here mixologist, Rainlove Lampariello (yes, that's really his name) serves the summer cocktail of choice: Bloody Mary Royale, with its signature additions of clam juice and wasabi plus an oyster shooter on the side for $16 (£9). Brunch (eggs Benedict, smoked salmon omelette, steak and eggs) for around $20 (£11) a head.

Take a digestive stroll northwest through leafy West Village to the Hudson River Park (001 212 627 2020; www.hudsonriverpark.org). This five-mile stretch of regenerated riverside from 59th Street to Battery Park comes alive in summer with roller-bladers, bikers and Lycra-clad groups of outdoorsy types. If you don't fancy hiring bikes or kayaks or taking the trapeze lessons on offer, simply find a green bank and watch the world amble by for a couple of hours, before dashing to the airport for your early evening overnight flight back to London.

For further information contact The New York City tourist board: NYC & Co (001 212 397 8222; www.nycvisit.com). Also in the UK (020-7202 6367).