Peter Fynn gets up early in New York
From the balcony of a Greenwich Village apartment block I watch the distant lights of commuter traffic streaming into Manhattan across Brooklyn Bridge. It's 6.15am. Steam billows through the gratings in the street below, just like in the movies, and pale fingers of winter mist are strung out across the sunrise. From Harlem to Battery Park, the city shakes itself free of a fitful slumber. This is a New Yorker's New York - and one the tourist rarely sees.

With the availability of cheap flights and low-season accommodation, New York is a great place for a brief visit in winter. And if you play it right, you won't be too bothered by out-of-state rubberneckers, other tourists, or even that scourge of the transatlantic traveller, jet lag. Make an early start, cram as much into the day as you can, get to bed at a reasonable hour, and you'll be somewhere close to GMT and your normal sleep pattern.

There's so much to absorb in the early morning in this frenetic city that you may not get around to every one of the familiar tourist sights, but you'll have come into contact with the real New York, and isn't that what you're there for? I mean, if all you want to see is the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building you might as well buy yourself a video and stay at home.

So, having made that early start, the first thing to look for is breakfast - a big event in a city where everybody eats out. Small hotels don't have dining rooms, and the larger ones probably won't begin serving until 8am, so hit the street soon after dawn and start looking; most eating places will have either worked all night, or opened their doors at around 6am. The first meal of the day can be as frugal or substantial as you like. I'd recommend you opt for "substantial" and miss lunch. You can tuck in to a fry-up that'll make the best efforts of a British transport cafe look like a Weight Watchers' special - or how about a pile of pancakes and bacon smothered in maple syrup? If you want, you can go for just scrambled eggs on toast, bagels or cereal, but, hey, this is New York.

But by now you'll want to see some action. The best place to head for at this time of the morning is somewhere that sells things. The bustling Union Square Market in the Village at Park Avenue and Broadway starts at 7am on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. If you fancy something more brash, go along to the Fulton Street fish market: it's all about noise, crackling activity and exciting smells. The market will already be open for business when you arrive, and is right next to South Street Seaport's Pier 17 restaurant and shopping complex from where you can take a 60-minute round-trip cruise to see the Statue of Liberty and admire the Manhattan skyline.

From Fulton Street catch the free Loop bus to the World Trade Center on the West Side of Lower Manhattan. This is a truly wondrous edifice, and the observation floor in Tower 2 offers spectacular views over Manhattan, the Hudson and New Jersey. In the same building, on the mezzanine floor, the office of TKTS will sell you cut-price seats for virtually any show in the city's theatres, but you have to be there promptly - they open at 10am. Go for a matinee if you can, and stick to the early-bed, early- rise routine.

If street markets aren't your scene, Central Park at the start of the day almost certainly will be. It comes alive early on, with rollerbladers, cyclists, dog-walkers and joggers crowding into this green clearing in the middle of the steel and concrete. What seems like the whole of Manhattan will be there, from the Quentin Crisp lookalike leading a poodle with a diamante collar to the novice jogger lurching along with elbows pulled in, breath rasping and knees held tightly together. You'll also come across any number of hurtling youths on skateboards or rollerblades; the only threat they pose is that their exuberance at this time of the morning will probably put you to shame.

Although it's still early, street traders will already be out selling coffee, roasted chestnuts and cakes. Despite the current overtly faddish eating habits of the Americans - caffeine-free everything, low-cholesterol eggs and sugarless candy - the whole nation feeds as it always has, in huge volume and with daunting frequency.

As the day unwinds, gently but expansively, you'll come to realise that New York is somehow just what you expected, yet nothing like you thought it would be. The subway trains are free of graffiti and the cops have time for you; the cabs really are yellow; and you'll see plenty of drunks and beggars around. The place will pull at your emotions with a force stronger than gravity. It's brutal and beautiful, rich and poverty-stricken, cosmopolitan and racist. There's nowhere else on earth quite like it.

Manhattan

transfers

Air fares across the Atlantic are at an all-time low. If you are earning the average British wage of just over pounds 350 per week, it will take you less than three days to earn enough to fly from London to New York and back.

To try to find the best bargain, researchers called 20 discount agents anonymously on Wednesday afternoon of this week, and asked for the lowest fare on a London-New York journey departing on 6 February and returning on 10 February. All figures quoted here include tax. The range of responses was surprisingly wide. Lowest fare of all was pounds 185 on Continental Airlines from Gatwick to Newark, through Trailfinders (0171-937 5400). The same seat on the same flight was sold at anything up to pounds 220 by other agents.

On the world's busiest international air route, from Heathrow to JFK, Travel Horizons (0171-580 7000) quoted pounds 200 on Air India. Among US and British airlines, which have a wider choice than Air India's once-daily service, Travelbag (0171-287 5559) quoted pounds 206 on United, pounds 207 on American and pounds 215 on Virgin Atlantic.

The best British Airways fare we found was pounds 208.40 through Campus Travel (0171-730 2101). And if you like the sound of an unusual stopover, then Airline Network (01772 727272) offers one in Rekjavik, on Icelandair for pounds 212.

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