New York City’s Midtown is so much more than the tourist jams, the shopping and the dizzying lights of Times Square. This place can, and will, surprise you.
Hear the word ‘Midtown’ and you’ll most likely imagine yourself straining your neck upward to take a photo of the looming Rockefeller Center, salty street-cart pretzel in hand.
You’ll imagine tourists, Broadway ticket touts, the Times Square Naked Cowboy, and more tourists.
What you probably won’t imagine is the smell of soot in the secret chambers below Grand Central Station.
And you probably won’t picture yourself slurping a steaming hot bowl of ramen in a trendy food market below an unassuming Midtown office block.
Here’s why it’s always a good idea to visit the heart of the Big Apple in 2017 – even if you think you’ve seen it all before.
Think you know Grand Central? You ain’t seen nothing yet
Presidents have always known how to keep secrets, and there’s no better proof than at Grand Central Station.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio, which left him paralysed from the waist down but he didn’t want a single American to know.
He needed a way to travel from Grand Central Terminal to the Waldorf Astoria without ever being seen in his wheelchair.
That way was ‘route 61’, a secret carriageway hidden in the terminal’s underbelly.
On a walking tour of every off-limits nook and cranny of this New York landmark, I was lucky enough to discover its most closely guarded secrets.
Some 750,000 people pass through Grand Central every day – an overwhelming majority of which come purely to marvel at the splendour of its architecture.
They only catch the tip of the iceberg, though.
Our tour guide, Grand Central Terminal’s ambassador Dan Brucker, was nothing short of a New York celebrity, famed for his impassioned, fact-filled walking tours.
Dan showed us everything from the gaping heart of the terminal to hidden corridors behind stain glass windows.
If you want to know every secret this place has, from hidden tennis courts to architectural blunders, he’s your guy.
We were even lucky enough to peek inside the Situation Room and we sat around the table where rail industry heads coordinated the successful evacuation of millions of people on 9/11.
Sneaking through corridors like fugitives, our guide told us stories of emergency plans, secret chambers and wartime strategies.
If someone told me my favourite cup of coffee in New York would come from a Ralph Lauren store, I would have laughed and asked them to point me to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.
Just steps from the golden letters of Trump Tower is Polo Ralph Lauren Fifth Avenue.
Walk past the $200 jumpers and riding boots for babies and take the elevator up one floor – there, you’ll find a diner-style coffee shop called Ralph’s.
New Yorkers may roll their eyes, but for an overenthusiastic Brit, this was a true ‘hidden’ Midtown highlight.
The coffee itself is delicious and Ralph’s even makes its own almond milk.
Find yourself a table by the window, nestle a hot cup and glance outside at the bright lights, yellow cabs, shoppers and protesters of Fifth Avenue. You’ll see what I mean.
Look closer – your hotel is also a historic landmark
The New York Hilton Midtown has hosted every US president since JFK and this year they were suitably ahead of the game.
On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump stepped out on a camera-lined stage to make a victory speech that has already changed the world.
This speech will be played in history lessons for generations and will be referred to as the beginning to one of the most controversial presidencies in history.
This speech took place at Trump’s Election Night Party, held in the famed ballroom of the Hilton Midtown.
It seems only fitting that the future Commander-in-Chief would choose to party here.
This is the biggest hotel in New York City and has welcomed The Beatles, Elvis, and the International Emmy Awards.
The lyrics to John Lennon’s iconic ‘Imagine’ were written here, scrawled on a page of Hilton-branded paper.
Discover a foodie’s mecca amongst the office blocks
Midtown gets a tough rep when it comes to food – it’s easy to believe there’s no middle-ground between Starbucks and the Four Seasons.
But lurking in a very unlikely place is the answer to every hungry prayer.
Inside a building with discreet copper letters that read ‘Urbanspace Vanderbilt’, you’ll find an indie-spirited foodie’s paradise right in the heart of the tourist jam
Urbanspace is a vast hall peppered with permanent local food vendor stalls and you’ll find everything from drool-worthy veggie burgers, freshly pressed juices and Neapolitan pizza to lobster mac n cheese and hearty soups.
The hall turns into a lively beer house at night, welcoming in revellers and late-night nibblers.
Explore the MoMA – and eat at a ‘kitchen table’ like no other
Visiting the Museum of Modern Art is a must for any first-time NYC visitor.
It’s one of the most important museums in the States and the exhibits will take you through the most iconic, provocative and fascinating modern art ever produced.
Step away from the white-walled corridors of artwork and you’ll find the museum’s decadent French-American restaurant and bar – The Modern.
Hidden in a corner inside the restaurant’s busy kitchen is a chef’s table that’s right in the heart of the cooking action.
Up to four people can be treated to a tailor-made tasting menu, feasting as you watch the culinary magic unfold.
Where to stay
Rooms at the New York Hilton Midtown start at £141 ($174 USD) per night.
How to get there
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to New York JFK, with a flight time of around eight hours. Prices start at £398.