Travel: My Rough Guide - New York City - The best light show this side of the Apocalypse

Memorable experience

Without hesitation I'd recommend a helicopter sightseeing trip. For a mere $39 (pounds 25) you can whiz around Manhattan Island, skim Central Park and hover amid the skyscrapers. By day it's an awesome display of architectural might: by night it's the most impressive light show this side of the Apocalypse. If you follow one piece of advice from this article, make it this one.

Best restaurant

In New York? You're joking - this city thrives on food culture: talking about what to eat and where to eat it is a consuming New York passion. To choose a single restaurant is impossible. Here's what I dream of: almost every street has a pizza place that does slices to go that taste better than anything available in the UK and, probably, heaven itself. If you want to sit down with your pizza, go to John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street, where the crusts are thin and coal-charred, which is just how they should be. If you fancy any other cuisine, from Senegalese to Swedish, at any time of day, New York City has it.

Biggest disappointment

Greenwich Village ("The Village"), an area of quaint residential side streets and stunning brownstone houses, is heavily lauded as New York's "bohemian" quarter. It may once have been a hangout for spliffed-out folk- singing radicals (and Bob Dylan), and everyone from Auden to Warhol may once have lived in the neighbourhood, but today it's about as alternative as McDonald's. Henry James's Washington Square is now populated by bewildered (mostly American) tourists wondering where the action is, and the only tangible reason to explore is the restaurants that clutter every corner.

Fondest memory

Taking tea with Quentin Crisp, who contributed to the first edition of the Rough Guide. After courteously listening to my fumbling comments on life, literature and the Lower East Side, he said: "Aahh, Mr Holland, your thoughts remind me of something Miss Garbo once said to me." I hovered an ethereal inch off my chair for the rest of the conversation.

Best ancient site

In the 19th century the East Coast's millionaires decided that as they had no domestic "culture" they'd import some from the Old World. Robber Barons like John D Rockefeller Jr shipped over the best of medieval Europe that was going: Romanesque chapels and Gothic halls were transplanted brick by brick, and now house a great collection of medieval art known as the Cloisters. While impressive, to me it feels something of a Frankenstein's monster: an assemblage of parts to make a distorted whole. But it's undeniably ancient.

Best bar

For some reason, my evening's drinking usually ends up in one of a huge number of bars that claim to be Irish (Blarney Stone, Shamrock Inne etc). These are notable for their cheap beer, a barman called Al with hairy arms who considers himself a wit, a pro-active smoking policy, filthy loos and the odd fight, but are far more fun than posher places - unless you're a woman. You have been warned/advised.

Favourite hotel

Manhattan has two of the East Coast's best hotels. Neither are cheap. Morgan's, Madison Avenue, is one of the chicest places in town - cutting- edge style, yet understated, which makes it unique in NYC. Or you can hang out with the celebs, mediacrats and rock stars at the gorgeous Philippe Starck-designed Royalton, further uptown.

In the real world, the Vanderbilt YMCA is neatly placed in midtown Manhattan. Its inexpensive restaurant, pool, gym and laundrette were all I really needed on my first trip.

fact file

Accommodation

Morgans, 237 Madison Ave (686-0300)

Royalton, 44 W 44th St (869-4400)

Vanderbilt YMCA, 224 E 47th St (756-9600). Singles $53, doubles $66.

Food

John's Pizzeria, 278 Bleecker St (between 6th and 7th Avenues) 243-1680. No takeaways. Uptown branches at 408 E 64th St (between 1st and York Avenues) 935-2895; and 48 W 65th St (between Columbus Ave and Central Park West) 721-7001.

Helicopter tours

Island Helicopter, at the far eastern end of E 34th Street (683-4575), and Liberty Helicopter Tours, at the western end of 30th Street or from the Wall St heliport at Pier 6 (967-6464), offer flights from $44 upwards - buy your ticket ahead of time (at a hotel or tour operator) to avoid a $5 surcharge.

Jack Holland co-wrote'The Rough Guide to New York City'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

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