Financial District — Situated at the lower tip of Manhattan where the streets have names instead of numbers, this area includes Wall Street, the stock exchanges, the site of the 9/11 destruction and loads of wonderful old buildings, like Trinity Church, that offer a glimpse of historic Manhattan. It’s also home to a cluster of museums, like the South Street Seaport Museum, Museum of the American Indian, Museum of Jewish Heritage and Fraunces Tavern, and offers the sweetest views of the Statue of Liberty.
Below 14th Street — Gateway to Downtown, ie cool Manhattan. The grid ends here, more or less, the skyline lowers despite a slew of tall new buildings, and the streets become narrow and crisscross each other like those in London. You can take the subway or a cab, but foot power is often the most satisfying way to traverse the downtown ‘hoods — the Meatpacking District, Greenwich Village, the East Village, Soho, NoLita, the Bowery, Tribeca, the Lower East Side, Little Italy and Chinatown. Each has its own personality, restaurants, shops, even architecture. And each has at least one hotel.
20s through 14th Street — If 14th Street is the gateway to cool Manhattan, the 20s are a preview, especially Chelsea, the neighborhood west of Fifth Avenue. Besides dozens of restaurants from hip to hangouts (and Chelsea Market, the ultimate cool food mall), Chelsea boasts the Joyce Theater (a superb venue for modern dance), Chelsea Piers (jock central with an ice rink, uber-gym, bowling alley, gymnastics and golf overlooking the Hudson) and a superb lineup of contemporary art galleries. Move east for Union Square and the city’s premiere farmer’s market, the iconic Flatiron building, Madison Square Park (home to the original Shake Shack) and Gramercy Park, gated but poetic.
East 30s — Murray Hill, a gracious residential district sprinkled with brownstones and restaurants, covers a chunk of this nondescript but civilized area. And a few landmarks poke through. The Morgan Library & Museum, the exquisite mansion and book collection of financier J. P. Morgan, is better than ever thanks to a handsome addition that includes a gallery, restaurant and shop. The New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business branch on the site of the old B. Altman department store is a splendid resource. And this is a great place to stay if you need to be near midtown but don’t want to be in the thick of things.
West 30s — This area isn’t known for its beauty. Pennsylvania Station, the largely subterranean nerve center for the Long Island Railroad and Amtrak trains, is a candidate for ugliest building in Manhattan. The sprawling Javits Center, New York’s premiere convention and exhibition hall, and low-slung Garment District offices and factories aren’t a lot prettier. And good luck finding a park. But Madison Square Garden is here (go Knicks). So are Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. And, drum roll please, the Empire State Building, a beacon of elegance and, yes, romance, looms over all.
East 40s — Midtown starts rolling with prime attractions like the Chrysler Building, the United Nations (memories of North by Northwest), a branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Grand Central Station, known as much for the storied Oyster Bar — and more recently, a fleet of shops and restaurants like Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse — as for its breathtaking, early 20th-century architecture. Shopping on Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue revs up, too, with the original outposts of Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart and an enormous Sephora.
West 40s — Times Square is either fascinating or hideous, depending upon your sensibilities. This bustling, neon-lit area is packed tight with humanity and every entertainment imaginable — Broadway theaters, restaurants, hotels, multiplex movie theaters and attractions like Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Odditorium and the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum — everything except monastic silence. The gracious New York Public Library is nearby. And tree-lined Bryant Park, home to a carousel, ice rink and, until recently, the biannual fashion shows, provides a welcome patch of green.
East 50s — Besides big-name shopping on Fifth Avenue (Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany) and Lexington Avenue (Bloomingdales), this nicely manicured area boasts two breathtaking churches (St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Bartholomew’s), the D & D building (buying headquarters for interior decorators) and a tram to Roosevelt Island. This is midtown central, so restaurants are plenteous.
West 50s — There’s Fifth Avenue shopping (Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Juicy Couture, an Abercrombie with a velvet rope), but this side of the 50s is also culturally enriched. The Museum of Modern Art, the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Radio and Television), the Museum of Arts and Design, the Ed Sullivan Theater (home to the David Letterman show), City Center and — ta da (or la la) — Carnegie Hall are here. Want more? Count in Rockefeller Center with its outdoor ice skating rink, Top of the Rock observation tower and Radio City Music Hall. Not surprisingly, restaurants abound.
East Side — Uptown East Side (as in east of Central Park) brims with residences — stylish townhouses, classic apartment buildings on Fifth Avenue and Park, and Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official abode, even if he doesn’t live in it. Museums are almost as plentiful. Fifth Avenue between 79th and 104th Street is Museum Mile, with a lineup that includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, the exquisite Neue Gallery and El Museo del Barrio. And only slightly further afield are the Frick Collection and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Restaurants and shops abound too — posh on Madison Avenue, quirky on Lexington Avenue. And Central Park — home to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir running track, the Swedish Marionette Theater, the Boathouse Restaurant, Wolman Rink and Red-Tailed Hawks like Pale Male and Lola— is nearby.
West Side — This smart, laid back residential district is also a cultural hub. Lincoln Center is home to the Metropolitan Opera House, Avery Fisher Hall (New York Philharmonic), David H. Koch Theater (New York City Ballet and New York City Opera), Vivian Beaumont Theater (Broadway plays), the Julliard School, Jazz at Lincoln Center and more. Museums abound including the American Museum of Natural History, New-York Historical Society, American Folk Art Museum and the Nicholas Roerich Museum. Columbia University looms in the upper reaches. And Central Park and Riverside Park, which runs along the Hudson, act as bookends.
Brooklyn — It’s not just an easy commute to Manhattan. New York’s biggest borough is cool and crunchy, with a baseball team (go Cyclones), great expanses of green (Prospect Park), history (the Brooklyn Bridge was the world’s first steel suspension bridge) and culture (the Brooklyn Museum, Bargemusic for chamber music and BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, for cutting edge theater and movies). But neighborhoods rule. DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) bursts with hip galleries, restaurants and shops. Atlantic Avenue’s environs boast antique shops, restaurants and a casual air. Boerum Hill’s Smith Street is restaurant central. And the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is one of the sweetest strolls in town.
Airports and Queens — Airport hotels, an obvious choice when you’ve got an early flight, can also be a smart pick if you’re looking for a deal. LaGuardia Airport hotels, closer to Manhattan than those at JFK, can be cheaper than comparable hotels in Manhattan. LaGuardia is also near Citi Field, successor to Shea Stadium as home of the New York Mets, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, site of the US Open. Also in Queens are the Noguchi Garden Museum, American Museum of the Moving Image and the New York Hall of Science.
Business — Expect well-equipped business centers, meeting rooms, WiFi, a ballroom perhaps and, if you’re lucky, a lobby, restaurant and/or bar where you can meet clients or colleagues. Rooms should be comfortable with no surprises. Downside: can be anonymous, uniform and cold.
Classic — A cooler term for traditional, ie hotels that look like hotels in old movies, with lobbies built for lingering and trappings like chandeliers, marble, carved wood furniture, elaborate curtains and porters sporting epaulettes (forget black collarless jackets). Downside: can be pompous and/or dowdy.
Contemporary — The updated version of a classic hotel. Expect a bed with modern headboard, usually tall, tufted and rectangular, furniture with clutter-free lines and neutral hues. Downside: can be predictable and bland.
Hip — Style rules. Hip hotels aim to be clever, cutting-edge and fun. Usually bursting with high-end amenities like Frette sheets, Molton Brown bath products and adventurous minibars (pleasure kits next to the Dean & Deluca chocolates). Downside: rooms are often small; service isn’t always a priority.
Historic — Oldies but goodies. Includes all New York City properties acknowledged by the gold standard National Trust Historic Hotels of America as well as non-trust hotels with obvious historical connections. Downside: they’re old and, in some cases, look it.
Romantic — Romance is subjective, but some hotels seem tailored for a honeymoon, a tryst or a long luxuriant weekend for two. Romantic hotel decor can be lush or minimal (not everyone wants rose petals in the bathtub), but expect exquisite sheets, chic toiletries, lavish room service and, if you’re lucky, late checkout. Downside: sometimes you’re just not in the mood for romance.
Tourist — Expect computers you can rent by the minute and a large rack bursting with brochures for Broadway shows, tour bus lines, restaurants and shops. Rooms are often frill free but generally clean and comfortable. Downside: everyone’s a tourist.
Fixed rates are history. Prices today dart around like tennis balls at Wimbledon, so it’s impossible for us to provide precise figures. Consider these categories as guidelines. During low seasons, room rates at moderate to expensive hotels can drop $100 or more, for example. And they can rise just as dramatically if it’s the month of October, Fashion Week or a huge convention is in town. Often you’ll get the best rates from a consolidator, like Expedia, Orbitz or Quikbook. But it pays to shop around. Some hotels prefer guests to book directly and will meet lower rates quoted elsewhere. Online rates or packages offered on a hotel’s website can be the sweetest deal you’ll find. Conversely, some hotels admit you’ll pay less booking through a consolidator. In short, every hotel is different; there’s no single formula.
Budget – Expect less for your money at a budget hotel in New York compared to one in, say, San Francisco, Philadelphia or even Paris. Under $150 before taxes qualifies as budget here. And during high season, the threshold can leap to $200. But inexpensive properties can be found, if you’re not too picky. Shared bathrooms are a feature at some as are hostel-style rooms with bunk beds, which can cost as little as $60. A budget hotel might be a walk-up or offer tiny, pod-style rooms. Or it can be a nice small hotel with en suite baths that’s off the beaten track. Just don’t expect room service.
Moderate – This category embraces hotels in the $200-plus range, rising when capacity is tight and falling below $200 in low seasons. Expect larger rooms the farther you stray from in-demand areas, like mainstream Midtown and Downtown’s hipper reaches. Surprisingly, moderately priced hotels often come with sweeteners, like free WiFi, 24-hour coffee service or complementary continental breakfasts. And many have fitness rooms or access to nearby gyms.
Moderate to Expensive – Numerous hotels fall into this category, largely due to the vagaries of price fluctuations. Though rates generally start around $200 – or less if you’re lucky – they can rise to $400-plus heights when the stars align (or should we say misalign). Expect plenteous goodies, such as a fitness room, restaurant, minibars, room service, 24-hour coffee service (perhaps), a comp continental breakfast (perhaps), high-thread-count sheets and a concierge.
Expensive – Starting prices hover around $400, but expect a full complement of dining options, bars and services, like a spa or in-room spa treatments, a good fitness center, conference rooms and plenty of staff. Rooms in prime areas of town should be larger than in lower price ranges, feature a large bathroom, often with a soaking tub and stall shower, and come with high-end sheets and bath products. And in this range, a room that doesn’t have some style is inexcusable.
Expensive Plus – These are the city’s super-luxe properties, with prices starting at $500 and going up – and up and up. They trump hotels in lower categories by their room size, individualized service, views and, in many instances, one-of-a-kind rooms, outfitted with accoutrements like fireplaces, soaking tubs and stall showers, distinctive furniture and appealing details, like wood floors, high-end stone in the bathrooms and telescopes if the room overlooks a river. Curiously, WiFi is rarely complimentary in this category. But the staff better know your name.