On the Hunt for the Perfect Shot: A Photo Walk with NYC Photo Safari


“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
– Richard Avedon

If my marriage hinged solely on my aptitude as an “Instagram Husband”, I would have become a divorcée long ago. Though I greatly admire the artistry found in photographs, I’ve never been particularly keen to play the architect of their creation or the subject of their inspiration. Much of that can be traced back to my father’s overeagerness with a camera throughout my formidable years.

So that brings me to a confession. A confession as embarrassing for an adult as the admission of not knowing how to swim or ride a bike: I never learned how to take a photograph. I’m not talking about pointing a camera in a particular direction and applying a little pressure to a button. In truth, it takes a fair amount of knowledge and skill to take a great, good, or even adequate photograph. That’s perhaps a shocking admission for a blogger, but thankfully, Lynn has happily filled that void. Whenever I’m asked by tourists to take a photo, it’s a foregone conclusion that I will gesture to Lynn and hand her the camera. “Trust me”, I always say, “You’ll want her to take your photo.” I didn’t want them to forfeit a cherished memory.



NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
St. Patrick’s Cathedral photographed with a smartphone

Recently, though, I finally decided enough was enough and set out to find a way to learn some photography basics in an environment that would be both supportive and fun. This is why I was so excited when I stumbled across NYC Photo Safari. They offer a number of photography tours and workshops around the city, and welcome all skill levels. We decided to join the Iconic NY (P1) tour, which explores classic New York City landmarks and locations such as the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and Central Park. The group sizes are small, which allows the experienced professional photographer leading the walk to offer personalized suggestions and feedback to sharpen your photography skills.

We were paired with Zim, who is an accomplished photographer with nearly 30 years of professional experience. She provided valuable tips into composition and lighting, as well as other technical aspects. She explained basics like exposure and shutter speed in simple terms, and before we knew it, we were capturing motion blur on a train pulling into the station. Lynn and I love taking tours, and we know that a guide can make or break the experience. Zim had a great sense of humor and was accommodating at every juncture.



NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Though it rained for a good portion of our tour, we had fun and learned a tremendous amount. Three hours simply flew by. While waiting out the rain, I found myself experimenting with some shots and angles. Something I never would have done before.

If you’re visiting New York City as a tourist, taking a tour with NYC Photo Safari is a great alternative to a regular walking tour (or simply hunting down the main attractions yourself). You can pick up some new skills and take home some unique vacation photographs. But if you’re a local looking to sharpen your photography skills, NYC Photo Safari is also a fantastic way to spend a few hours in the city. You can have as much fun shooting with your smartphone as your hefty DSLR. We loved looking at the buildings with a new eye (and getting the opportunity to spruce up our Instagram feed!).

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
No, I’m not taking pictures of the mannequins at Victoria’s Secret. This window is where you’ll get the reflection shot we posted above 😉
NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A photo of Noguchi’s sculpture we took for our Rockefeller Center post published earlier this year
NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The same sculpture photographed on the walk with a different perspective

At the end of the day, what constitutes a beautiful photograph is subjective. But learning a few tricks and forcing a change in perspective can give you just the right amount of confidence to find your own point of view. Check out all the tours offered by NYC Photo Safari on their website here.

Pro Tip: Dress appropriately for the weather since the tours are rain or shine. You don’t need to own a camera, you can rent one from them too. Camera phones are welcome, though technical limitations will depend on your model.

Thank you to NYC Photo Safari for partnering on this post.



Pair it with:

A meal at Made Nice

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

NYC Photo Safari Walk Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Occasionally, we attempt to eat something on the lighter side. Let’s call it “healthy-adjacent”. That doesn’t mean we’ll accept something mediocre and tasteless, which can often be the compromise in such a pursuit. Enter Made Nice.

This fast-casual dining experience, from Chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park (recently declared World’s Best Restaurant) and The NoMad, opened back in April to much excitement. Made Nice offers a selection of vibrant salads and plates, and a highly popular Chicken Frites dish.

We went with a trio to share: the Nicoise Salad, the Curry Cauliflower Salad, and the Chicken Rice. The Chicken Rice was underwhelming. Maybe after a decade-long love affair with Halal Cart, this was doomed by comparison from the start. I quite enjoyed the Nicoise Salad but the star of the show was the Curry Cauliflower Salad. The combination of Cauliflower Stew, Tofu, Couscous, Coconut, Lemongrass, Watercress, Almond & Grapes was absolutely delicious. I’m eager to return to try out the roasted chicken since our neighbors at an adjacent table were devouring theirs like wild animals. And you might be able to convince me to grab a cup of Milk & Honey Soft Serve Ice Cream with Honey Brittle and Oat Shortbread.

Location:
8 W 28th St

Hours:
Mon – Sat 11:00 am – 10:00 pm
Closed Sundays

– J.

It’s a Small World After All: A Visit to Gulliver’s Gate



I’m not sure if you can tell from the pictures we’ve posted, but I’m kind of… petite. Height-challenged. Runty. Low-profile. Diminutive.  Short, okay, I’m short.

Other shorties know the troubles I’ve seen.  Trying to discreetly jump to reach something on the top shelf in the grocery store, then finally having to ask for help.  Searching for “cute shoes that provide height yet remain comfortable”. (An urban myth, by the way). Having almost every piece of clothing altered. And standing-room concerts? Forget about it.

Studies tell us that taller people are more successful, more attractive, more happy.  Shorter people are supposed to be less accident-prone (yay?), but thanks to depth perception issues, I don’t benefit from that advantage either.  Pretty bleak, I know.  But changing your point of view can be simple: enter Gulliver’s Gate.



Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Brookfield Place’s atrium, including its giant palms
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Miniature buildings call for miniature street art
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Do you see the Hamilton billboard? Yup, still sold out.



Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
A staff member tinkering with the models
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The least crowded Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade you’ll ever attend

Located in the heart of Times Square, Gulliver’s Gate is a miniature model fan’s dream come true. And for a petite girl like me, it’s a fresh change in perspective.  Sprawled before me in a 50,000 sq ft space, there are miniature versions of my favorite New York City landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building.  Some newer additions to the skyline are also included, like the stunning Via 57 West building.  And miniature Times Square comes replete with its own Hamilton billboard (which we FINALLY got to see last month, you can find that post here).

For travel buffs, Gulliver’s Gate is a fun trip around the world — you’ll find recognizable structures from France, India, Russia, and more.  The project is the result of a collaboration between model-makers around the world, which leaves local touches throughout.  It’s also a little bit of a treasure map: you’ll have to look closely to uncover secrets.  Interactive features are built into the models for children (or curious adults that have trouble keeping their hands off things).  With a touch of a button, you can attend a Queen concert, or see the Loch Ness monster (and accompanying miniature paparazzi trying to photograph it), or send Santa off in his sleigh.  

Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Are there miniature copies of Hillary’s emails here?
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Most of the figures in Mecca are in white, which is what men wear when completing the pilgrimage
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Grand Palace of Bangkok



Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Chords Bridge in Jerusalem, which is illuminated with a blue light at night just as pictured
Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
I maybe look kind of tall here, right?

But it’s not just models loaded with playful features, there’s tech too.  If you want to truly immerse yourself in this fantastical universe, you could get 3D-scanned in a giant orb and have miniature versions of yourself placed anywhere in the Gulliver’s Gate world.  Want to get to the top of the Aztec ruins without killing your thighs?  This is how.

Gulliver’s Gate is currently open for previews at a reduced admission rate through May 8.  There are a few incomplete displays but there is still much to see, and if you choose to return after the official launch your admission will be discounted.  This might be a great play if you have friends and family visiting later in the year and you know you’ll be back.  The miniature universe also plans to evolve, so there will continue to be new things to discover.  Visit the Gulliver’s Gate website for additional information and to purchase tickets.

Location:
216 W 44th Street

Hours:
Daily 9 am – 10 pm



Pair it with:

Brunch at Gotan

Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Gulliver's Gate Miniatures New York City - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

We’ve griped about food choices in Midtown many times before.  We regularly cry about chain restaurants and bitch about overpriced food.  So when we find a gem like Gotan, it’s truly something to celebrate.  

Gotan is located in Midtown proper, so we’re not even sending you on a little trek.  It’s a surprisingly large space, with bar seats up front and tables in the back.  The coffee is good (they serve Counter Culture, one of my favorites), and so is the food.  And guess what?  The weekend brunch here is a steal.  You heard me, a bargain brunch in Midtown.

If you order off the brunch menu, you’ll receive orange juice, coffee and an entree for under $14.  Or order off the a la carte menu, which is still reasonably priced.  The avocado toast and the breakfast plate hit the spot.

Location:
20 W 46th Street

Hours:
Mon – Thu 7 am – 5 pm
Fri 7 am – 4 pm
Sat 9 am – 3 pm

– L.

Flatiron Walking Tour



Are you a fan of Serial? How about Making a Murderer? So are we. It seems all the best crime dramas are products of real life. So let us tell you about one that happened in our very own Flatiron district: the sensational murder of acclaimed American architect, Stanford White, by the wealthy Pittsburgh railroad heir, Harry Kendall Thaw.  All you have to do is step back in time to a little over a century ago.  1906, to be exact.

Stanford White was a wealthy, powerful man who maintained a bachelor pad”on 24th Street, just off Madison Square Park.  He was a serial womanizer, and a young model turned chorus girl, Evelyn, soon caught his eye.  White slowly gained the trust of her mother then convinced her to go on an all-expense-paid trip and leave Evelyn in his care.  During this period he drugged and raped the young Evelyn, then swore her to secrecy.  

Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The MetLife Tower was the tallest building in New York City from 1909-1913. The Woolworth Building knocked it off its top spot.



Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Part of the Admiral Farragut Monument. Farragut is known, among other things, for defeating Confederate forces and taking Mobile Bay where he uttered the immortal words: “Damn the torpedoes . . . full speed . . . ahead!”

White eventually moved on to greener pastures and Evelyn found a new suitor in Thaw.  Thaw proposed to Evelyn, but her sordid past prevented her from accepting.  He continued to push, and finally, Evelyn broke down and confessed the truth.  Thaw persisted in his proposals, so she eventually capitulated and became his wife despite his increasingly unstable behavior.  One evening in New York City, prior to attending opening night of a new musical, the married couple dined at a nearby restaurant and found themselves in the company of White.  Thaw became agitated, which continued throughout dinner and the show.  So when White showed up at the tail end of the performance, there on the rooftop of the original location of Madison Square Garden, Thaw marched up to him and shot him three times in the head.

The proceedings were dubbed “The Trial of the Century” since it included all the hallmarks of such a public spectacle: Wealth. Check. Influence. Check. Sex. Check. Insanity. Check. And, of course, murder. Check. Add to all that the rise of tabloid journalism, the first time a jury had to be sequestered and the first successful use of the insanity defense, and it’s just magic.

Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Appellate Division Courthouse Beaux-Arts building, featuring historical, religious, and legendary lawgivers including Confucius and Moses.



Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Statue of William Seward, which is rumored to be Seward’s head added to an existing statue of Lincoln’s body because the employers ran out of funds

And who tipped us off to this true crime bonanza?  It was none other than Mike, our guide during the free walking tour offered through the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership Business Improvement District. That’s right, we said FREE.  The non-profit organization spearheads improvement projects, markets the area for business investment, maintains and increases value for residents and promotes the area to visitors.

Longtime tour guide, Mike Kaback, offered an immersive and passionate discourse on the history of the area and many of the surrounding buildings. Having lived in New York his entire life and worked for decades in the nearby Fashion District, Mike was a veritable trove of information. His love for the city and its rich history was undeniable, from the books he recommended to us for further reading to the scrapbook of notations and photos he carried along with him as he presided over the tour.

Free tours are offered weekly on Sunday at 11:00 am and meet at the southwest corner of Madison Square Park.  We covered the current art installation in the park here, but the tour will cover some of the other art fixtures, the buildings, and the rich history that comes with all of it.  

For additional information on the free Flatiron walking tours, visit the website here.  For additional tours by Mike, visit his website here.  

(And for more a really detailed account of the White murder, with great pictures and news clippings, visit Keith York City’s blog post about it here.  You know you want to.)



Pair it with:

Breakfast at Pondicheri

Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Flatiron Walking Tour - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

As much as we love breakfast — and boy, do we! — the comfort and familiarity of the accustomed breakfast offerings occasionally feel a little Groundhog Day-ish. So that’s how we ended up at Pondicheri, the Houston transplant offering multi-regional Indian fusion cuisine.  Here, the omelet is made with “everything but the kitchen sink” and is available as a vegetarian or non-vegetarian dish.  The non-vegetarian version includes lamb keema, and it promises to wake you up with its curried spices and waves of flavor. If Indian food first thing in the morning makes you nervous, opt for one of their milder options, like the Green Dosa or the Beet Uttapam.  Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are plentiful.  Why not try something different?

Location:
15 West 27th St

Hours:
Mon through Thurs 7:30 am – 10 pm
Friday 7:30 am – 10:30 pm
Saturday 9 am – 10:30 pm
Sunday 9 am – 10 pm

– L. and J.

Tourist for a Day: A Visit to Rockefeller Center



True story: a few years ago on a late December evening, we arrived in Grand Central after visiting with some friends in Connecticut.  We needed to pick up desserts for a friend’s party and Bouchon Bakery was a favorite, so we thought we’d make a quick run to Rockefeller Center.  Well, we collided with the holiday-loving mob, and it took us an hour to navigate the tiny Plaza.  So now, like all other New Yorkers (well, except Mary Lane at New York Cliche), we avoid Rockefeller Center in December.  

Unless it’s late in the season and/or it’s late at night, and it looks like this.

But, now that the holiday madness has subsided, Rockefeller Center is actually a great place to visit.  Come for the skating rink, the television show tapings or Top of the Rock.  But stay for the history, design and amazing art.



Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

The center was one of the most ill-timed projects imaginable: it commenced shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, requiring John D. Rockefeller Jr. to self-finance the project after initial plans were thwarted.  It supported the local economy through the worst parts of the Great Depression, and buoyed spirits when it officially opened in 1933.  The skating rink was originally a temporary installation —  thanks to exciting innovations that finally allowed for artificial outdoor ice skating — to draw attention to the sunken plaza.  It’s been a midtown fixture since 1936.  And Rockefeller Center also played an essential role in World War II efforts, housing operations for both the British and Allied Intelligence.  On Navy Day in 1945, thousands visited the Observation Roof to view the return of the fleet on the Hudson River.

The Art Deco movement was well underway and still massively popular at the time of construction.  The buildings are still landmark examples of the style.  The distinguishing features include simple, clean shapes, geometric ornamentation and unusually varied, often expensive materials.  

And let’s talk about the art.

When I see the gilded cast bronze sculpture of Prometheus, it’s hard not to hear the 30 Rock theme song.  (Or hear Kenneth’s voice).  And impressive as it may be, there are other pieces all around that are equally deserving of some time and attention.  Here are some of my favorites:

Atlas

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Lee Lawrie’s sculpture is the largest one at Rockefeller Center.  It depicts the Ancient Greek Titan condemned by Zeus to stand at the edge of the Earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders.  With its position facing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, some have compared it to Jesus carrying a cross on his back.  

Wisdom

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Another magnificent piece by Lee Lawrie graces the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, or the Comcast Building. The figure presides over a biblical quote from the book of Isaiah which reads, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.”  



News

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

News sits above the entrance to 50 Rockefeller Plaza and depicts five reporters.  (The building was previously home to the Associated Press.)  It’s Isamu Noguchi’s only stainless steel work.  It was a catalyst for his fame, as he was relatively unknown at the time of the unveiling.

Industry and Agriculture

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

At One Rockefeller Plaza, you’ll find two figures: one holds a shovel while the other holds a scythe. Carl Paul Jennewein’s figures symbolize industry and agriculture, which were seen as the roots of prosperity in America.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  The stunning murals by Catalan artist Jose Sert which chart American progress, and the touching portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi with Birds are some of the other inspiring works of art in the area.  Rockefeller Center offers guided tours if you’re interested in more in-depth coverage.  But just strolling around and uncovering the wealth of treasures is a fun way to remind ourselves why the area attracts millions of visitors every year.



Pair it with:

The Halal Guys

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Rockefeller Center - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

We’ve been going to the Halal Guys longer than we care to admit.  Every time we visited New York City, this was a required stop (usually for a late night supper).  Back then you had to be in the know: the cart switched hands during the day, so the legit crew was only available at certain hours.  

Well, our continued patronage (and that of so many others) has paid off in spades.  Now the Halal Guys have multiple carts, a brick-and-mortar location, and a rapidly growing international empire.  But the value and quality remains untouched (the price has only gone up one dollar since we started coming here).  We still crave the magical combination of meat, rice, lettuce, pita and that WHITE SAUCE.  If you’re in the area, join the legions of fans perched on every available bench, stoop, and statue base.  They’re the ones hunched over, completely entranced by their steamy platters.

Multiple locations

– L.

Kyoto Travel Guide: What to See and Where to Eat – Part Two



In case you missed it, I kicked off Part One of our Kyoto travel guide here.  Kyoto’s a really fun place to visit, especially in the fall.  Picking up where I left off, here are some of my other must-see destinations:

Arashiyama

Arashiyama has several worthy attractions, but it’s located away from central Kyoto.  It was actually easiest for us to hop on a bus, though the train might be a more convenient option for others.  Since it was further out, we made sure to get an early start.  We dropped by the Arashiyama train station to check out the Kimono Forest (which is accessible all the time so you’re not limited by opening hours) then we headed to the Iwatayama Monkey Park.  

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The Kimono Forest features multiple 6.5-foot pillars wrapped with Kyoto Yuzen kimono fabrics

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Now, I’m a big fan of animals in general so the Iwatayama Monkey Park was a no-brainer.  I recall reading about the fantastic view but the only thing in my head was “Monkeys! Monkeys! Monkeys!”, which is why I didn’t entirely put it together that the park is situated at the top of a mountain.  And you have to CLIMB said mountain to get there.  (yama, which is Japanese for mountain, probably should have also given it away).  

My parents made the wise decision to opt out.  And note that if anyone in your party does the same, there is the option to take a nice boat ride on Oi River to pass the time.  The rest of us trekked up there, cursing when we came across a sign that indicated we weren’t even at the halfway point.  But we made it, and we were rewarded with a visit with macaque monkeys that took apple slices and peanuts out of our hands.  They were manipulative little creatures, making whiny noises that kept us going back for more apples.

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

We probably spent way more time there than we should have, so by the time we made it to the Bamboo Forest, it was crowded.  We slowly made our way through, and consistently struggled to capture pictures without heads or arms or selfie sticks in them.  So if you’d really like to have the Bamboo Forest to yourself, you might want to create an itinerary that starts here.  We suspect it can be very ethereal when it’s quiet.

Right by the Bamboo Forest you’ll find Tenriyu-ji, which is… *drumroll* another temple.  Tenriyu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage site with a lovely pond and garden, but once again, the crowds can detract from the experience here.  The highlight at this site is the painting of the Cloud Dragon on the ceiling of the Hatto.  It was painted by the renowned nihonga artist Kayama Matazo in 1997.  The Cloud Dragon is rendered in the happo nirami style, so that the dragon appears to be looking directly at the viewer from wherever he or she is located in the Hatto.  You have to pay a separate admission fee just to see this, so I’d personally choose that over the paying admission to see the buildings which offer nothing remarkable.  Just be sure to check on the available viewing times.  (No pictures allowed, but you can see it here.)




Pair it with:

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

I’m not going to lie, this one was a painful loss for us.  We had read about an amazing unagi restaurant, Unagiya Hirokawa, which we anticipated would be busy.  Psshhht, we wait for food all the time in New York City, amirite?  Well, when we got there, the wait was THREE HOURS.  And shortly after we got there, they shut the line down completely.  

Well, even though we could smell the deliciousness, we gave up after noticing the line hadn’t budged hardly at all in a half hour.  So we marched down the street to an Udon restaurant.  (Udon is a safe bet when you’re not sure how good the restaurant is going to be: if you stick to the basics, it’s pretty hard to mess up.)  My best friend actually managed to successfully visit Unagiya Hirokawa by standing in line an hour before open, while she and a friend took turns walking through the Bamboo Forest.  So if you’re keen on visiting this restaurant, then that’s the winning game plan.

Gion

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The delightful old world charm of Hanami-koji-dori
Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
To harness the “power stone” at Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine, worshippers write their wish on a special piece of paper, go back and forth through the stone and then attach their wish to the stone
Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The scenic Shimbashi-dori, which is lined with beautiful willow trees
Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The stone dedicated to poet Isamu Yoshii has one of his poems inscribed on it, which begins “No matter what is said, it is Gion I love”

Gion is most famously known as the geisha district of Kyoto, though that’s largely due to the fact that you’ll find amazing machiyas (traditional wooden townhouses), chayas (teahouses) and exclusive restaurants here.  While we hoped for (and were granted!) a geisha sighting, we didn’t seek out entertainment or dining options for direct access.  We instead enjoyed the neighborhood and its charms, visiting right before dusk so that we could experience how a completely different vibe emerges once it gets dark.  

We completed a self-guided walking tour based on this article from Inside Kyoto.  The article provides historical details that truly bring the neighborhood to life.  Hanami-koji-dori is Gion’s most famous street.  This is where you’ll find Ichiriki Chaya, an exclusive teahouse with a storied background and invitation-only access.  East of Hanami-koji-dori’s southern end, we visited the Yasui Kompira-gu Shrine which was one of the more intimate and captivating shrines from our trip.  We also made sure to visit Shimbashi-dori, which is a scenic alley along the Shirakawa canal that also features a touching memorial to the late poet Isamu Yoshii.  




Pair it with:

Sushi at Izuju

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

Izuju has been around for a hundred years and is conveniently located near the entrance of Yasaka Shrine in Gion.  It serves some of the best Kyoto-style sushi, which is borne of an inventive spirit.  Kyoto is landlocked, so in the olden days they had to find creative ways of making sushi using cured fish, or fish that did not spoil too quickly.  One of the best examples of this is sabazushi, or pickled mackerel on sushi rice.  The sushi is wrapped in kelp then cut into individual pieces.  And Izuju is one of best places to enjoy it.  

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Like most of us, the temple looks a little less festive the morning after, when its painted face comes off
Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The view from the Kiyomizu Stage which hangs over the front of the Main Hall

We visited Kiyomizu-dera Temple towards the end of our trip, and my family’s initial response was, “Another temple??”  Well, if you only visit one temple in Kyoto, this should be it.  Located in Southern Higashiyama, the temple has history that spans over 1200 years.  According to lore, the Otowa Waterfall at the center of the temple was revealed to a monk in a dream.  A warrior came across the monk and was so moved by his teachings that he built a temple and named it Kiyomizu, meaning “pure water,” after the clarity of the waterfall.  Visitors can catch each of the three streams of pure water with ladles and pray for purification and for their wishes to come true.

My sister-in-law loves extracting recommendations from locals, and one suggested an evening visit.  We were lucky to have listened to that advice, because Kiyomizu-dera Temple is beautifully illuminated for night viewings.  On our first visit we stood at the entrance right before 5:00 pm and when the lights went on, the crowd collectively exclaimed.  Our twilight romp was short since the crowds were heavy.  The mob was not unlike the kind you find at Rockefeller Center around Christmas, so it took us a while to get to the main viewing point.  But with the building and the foliage lit up, the wait was well worth it.

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

But we came back during the day and enjoyed a more leisurely visit, which allowed us to visit the Love Stone and Tainai meguri.  The Love Stone claims that if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, then your romantic wishes will be granted.  Tainai meguri is the sanctified area beneath Zuigu-do Hall which represents “a return to the womb of the great merciful mother.”  Visitors are required to keep their left hands free so that when they are plunged into complete darkness they can use it to follow a beaded wooden rail.  At some point you’ll come across a large stone, and according to temple guide, “when you find a light in the dark you will realize you are newborn again”.  Spin the stone and make a wish.  




Pair it with:

Coffee and dessert at Yatsuhashi Cream Puff

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog

There’s only one way in and out of Kiyomizu-dera Temple, so one is hardly surprised to find that the road is lined with shops looking to capitalize on the massive foot traffic.  One of those shops is Yatsuhashi Cream Puff, where you’ll find matcha and vanilla cream puffs.  The choux pastry is light and fluffy, and the delicate dessert pairs perfectly with a cup of warm coffee on a cool fall day.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my family is an oddity in that we have vastly different interests.  While we knew that there were several treasures that we had to experience in Kyoto, we also left large swaths of time open so that each of us could spend some time pursuing personal interests.  

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
The most adorable planters at the entrance of a store on Sanjo-dori
Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC Blog
Nothing comes between a girl and her French desserts!

I took my Mom shopping, which I don’t get to do as much as I’d like to anymore, while my Dad went exploring side streets for a local hardware store.  My older brother found his way to the Manga Museum while my sister-in-law fed her addiction for vintage kimonos.  And after an afternoon of shopping on the charming Sanjo-dori, a few of us landed at Paul, a French patisserie that my younger brother and sister-in-law frequented when they lived in London.  I strongly feel that even if you’re traveling solo, while one’s instinct would be to pack as many sights in as possible, personalizing your trip will give you a more memorable experience.

We continue to learn how to travel as a family, but maintaining flexibility is just one of the insights I’ve gained over the years.  Another thing I’ve learned: while our schedules were flexible, our bodies were not.  There was a cacophony of groans heard as we struggled to get up after dining on tatami mats.  Bad knees run in the family.

We visited several other attractions, but I’ve culled the list to highlight the ones I found most enjoyable.  If you’re making a visit to Kyoto, I’d be happy to offer additional information on these sites and others. We can be reached via email at letschat@madhattersnyc.com.  Start a dialogue on Kyoto, on traveling abroad, or on family — we’re always happy to hear from you.

– L.

Kyoto Travel Guide: What to See and Where to Eat – Part One



Travel seems to be a universal love.  Exploring other locales and cultures is inarguably intoxicating.  But it’s not a universal pursuit.  Many people find themselves restricted by time, money and responsibilities, in any number of combinations.  I started traveling while I was in college, and it often required sacrifices in time and comfort to accommodate a minuscule budget.  To see as much of the world as I could, I sat through timeshare presentations and slept on trains.  And my adventures in lodging have included a middle-of-the-night flooding and relocation to a different hotel (and I confess to using this term rather liberally here).

But the challenges pale in comparison to the experiences and the memories.  So despite such calamities as missed connections and lost luggage, I book the next flight and carry on.  Justin and I have eased up on our travel schedule recently because our 17-year-old cat, Chloe, can no longer be left unsupervised.  But with our families being dispersed all over the map, we still find the need to travel, though we now take turns so that someone is home with Chloe at all times.  My recent turn with the compass came in the form of a family trip to Kyoto.

I’ve always been an obsessive planner when it comes to travel, although the tools have improved vastly from my early days.  My friends and I used to lug around heavy guide books and giant maps, and today all we need is a smartphone and a good data connection.  (In that regard, I can’t recommend Project Fi for eligible Android users enough — my access in Japan was seamless.  And no data roaming charges!)  We started with Google Maps, where my brother created a personalized map, threw on all the points of interest in Kyoto then shared it with the family.  I then started a Google Sheet (Google’s version of Excel), also shared it with everyone, and started plotting out our itinerary using the map as a tool to determine which landmarks were within close proximity of each other.  

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Google Maps also provided detailed routes to and from our lodging to our destinations, which made it easy to come up with realistic travel time frames.  We researched public transportation ahead of time and noted details such as how much the fare was, and that in Kyoto you should board a bus from the rear.  Certain things still had to be discovered, such as using the machine at the front of the bus to get exact change for your fare.  

Once we had a bare-bones itinerary together, I went to work on dining options.  On a previous trip to Turkey we found ourselves dining at very touristy locales out of convenience, which is not dissimilar to eating around Times Square.  Quelle horreur.  I was determined to right that wrong this time around, so I researched dining guides and food blogs to find some popular dining options, then threw them all on the same Google Map.  I also stalked Instagram by location and noted interesting food I might want to try.  Reaching out on social media produced some great recommendations.  After reviewing the choices, I realized there were a few restaurants that required reservations, so I contacted my MasterCard concierge.  If you go this route, it took a few days for them to communicate with their Japan desk, so plan accordingly.




Here are the items from our trip itinerary that I highly recommend on a visit to Kyoto:

Nishiki Market

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

We made Nishiki Market a lunch destination, with the full intention of snacking on a variety of foods as we made our way through the extensive market.  Nishiki Market is five blocks long, and if you intend to walk the entire stretch I recommend starting at the Takakura-dori entrance and moving east so that at the end of your trip you land on Teramachi-dori.  (More on that later.)  At Kyoto’s Nishiki Market you’ll find any number of specialties such as soy milk doughnuts and soy milk ice cream, grilled octopus stuffed with egg, the fluffiest tamago wrapped around oyster, a variety of fish cakes… the list is endless.  Try as much as your stomach will allow.

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC
An umbrella store located just outside of Teramachi-dori

At the end of your culinary journey, you should arrive at Teramachi-dori, which runs perpendicular to Nishiki Market.  Teramachi-dori is a shopping arcade that offers an eclectic mix of stores.  If you can find it, B-Side Label is an awesome sticker shop that also sells pins, posters and postcards with fun, quirky designs.  Walk off your lunch checking out the hat shops, beauty stores and other specialty trading posts.

Pair it with:

A kaiseki dinner at Kinmata

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kinmata is a 200-year-old family-run ryokan, or a traditional Japanese inn.  You can make reservations just to dine here, and you have the option of tatami seating (on the floor) or table seating.  While it definitely qualifies as a splurge, the dining experience was impeccable.  We went with a six-course kaiseki dinner, and each dish was presented by the 8th generation family owner (who, interestingly enough, recently returned to Kyoto after living in New York City for several years).  Each course was described with immaculate detail, with seasonal ingredients carefully highlighted.




Fushimi Inari Shrine

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Inari is the god of rice, and is seen as the patron of business.  Fushimi Inari-taisha is the biggest Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, and his messenger, the fox.  The shrine is made up of thousands of torii gates, and each one is donated by a Japanese business.  The gates wind through the hills of Inariyama, and visiting the shrine requires some hiking.  The trail spans approximately two and a half miles, but the incline makes it a challenge.  There are several stopping points and a decent viewing point midway, which is as far as I got.  (By most accounts there isn’t much to see beyond that point, so it just depends on how much you love torii gates, hiking, or both.)  My parents found an earlier stopping point, then simply enjoyed the shrines and statues at the base of the mountain.

Pair it with:

Unagi Don at Nezameya

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Nezameya is a restaurant that was established in 1540 and was said to have been given its name by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a pre-eminent samurai warrior who had enjoyed a cup of tea there.  Today it’s well known for its unagi don.  Any location this close to a tourist attraction has to turn its tables quickly, so patrons are expected to order one dish each and encouraged not to linger.  Nezameya was closed on the day of our visit (which can happen at random, unfortunately) so we popped into another restaurant along the shrine’s exit.  We abated our disappointment with some goodies from the street food vendors.




Kinkaku-ji Temple, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple, and its defining feature is that the exterior of its top two floors is completely covered in gold leaf.  The building was home to a shogun from the Muromachi period (1368-1394) but it was converted to a temple by his son upon his death, in accordance with his wishes.  Though the Muromachi period was marked by excess, the gold was actually symbolic.  It’s meant to ward off negative feelings towards death.  Kinkaku-ji is a stunning structure that extends over a pond where its mirror image is cast. The site is a must-see for many, so come early to get a chance at a somewhat unobstructed view.

Ryoan-ji Temple, or the Peaceful Dragon Temple

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

There is a cluster of temples located in close proximity to Kinkaku-ji, so you could make a day of visiting each one.  But keep in mind that each temple has its own admission fee, which can add up.  I was fortunate to receive advice that Ryoan-ji was special, so we decided to make that our only other stop.  (There are many temples and shrines in Kyoto, and it’s entirely a personal decision as to how many to visit — my family was pretty templed-out by the end of the trip so we weren’t too disappointed about leaving these out.  And if we come back, there are still some things to see!)

Ryoan-ji is known for its rock garden, which is considered one of the premier examples of kare-sansui, or dry landscaping.  Fifteen rocks of different sizes are carefully arranged in groups amidst the raked pebbles, which symbolize flowing elements such as rivers and creeks. The stones, which in turn symbolize islands or bridges, are carefully arranged so that one can only see no more than fourteen of the fifteen at once from any angle.  The zen garden features a clean and simple aesthetic that inspires meditative thinking.

Pair it with:

Lunch at Ajiro

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Kyoto Travel Guide - Mad Hatters NYC

Following all that contemplation, it seems only fitting to enjoy vegetarian fare at Michelin-starred Ajiro.  Shojin ryori is a type of cooking commonly practiced by monks. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment.  Chef Yoshitaka Senoo worked in the kitchen of one of the Myoshinji Hanazono temples prior to opening Ajiro.  The meals change with the seasons but each dish employs creative use of Kyoto’s specialty: tofu.  There were silken chunks of sesame tofu, soft pieces of yuba, and chewy pieces of wheat gluten that could easily have passed for meat.  Note that reservations are required.

Kyoto is pretty magical, so there are few more must-sees.  Here’s Part Two of this series!

– L.

 

Tourist for a Day: A Visit to Battery Park



Every once in awhile, Conde Nast Traveler or some other travel magazine will publish an article on “How To Not Look Like a Tourist”.  And without fail, it leads to a spirited discussion in the comments section and on social media.  It’s not difficult to understand this ambivalence towards tourists.  New York City received approximately 58 million visitors last year, and locals simply have to accept that it’s a part of city life.  Yes, you’ll encounter those five tourists who decide to walk side-by-side and take up an entire sidewalk. But 2014 statistics show that visitors generated a record $61.3 billion in overall economic impact, supporting 359,000 tourism related jobs and $21 billion in wages.

Personally, I’ve never shied away from the label and all its connotations.  So I get excited about visiting somewhere new.  And maybe I don’t look like I fit in.  Isn’t that part of the experience?  There’s a different energy buzzing inside you when you first embark on uncharted territory.  Your senses are heightened, ready to devour everything you encounter.  And so I shamelessly wander, camera in hand.  There are certain areas in New York City that feel like designated tourist spots which locals avoid like the plague, but I think it’s fun to visit them every now and then.  It can be invigorating to play tourist in your town, and we did just that recently at Battery Park.

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

Battery Park is mainly used as an access point for visits to the Statue of Liberty, as there are several water transportation options that can ferry you to the island or around it.  However, even if you choose to stay rooted on land, you won’t find yourself scrolling through Instagram out of boredom.  Steeped in history, Battery Park is a treasure trove of monuments, memorials and just fun sights.  It’s an excellent locale for a lovely stroll on any given morning, with its well-kept grounds and unparalleled waterfront view.

Here are a few highlights:

The Sphere

sphere_before_sept_11
Image courtesy of Wikipedia: The Sphere prior to 9/11

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

The Sphere is actually a piece salvaged from the original World Trade Center. According to this fascinating article from 2001, the World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki, was heavily influenced by Islamic architecture and design.  Yamasaki replicated the plan of Mecca’s courtyard — a circular pattern anchored by a sculpture and fountain, capped by two minarets.  And thus, the original World Trade Center embodied the marriage of Western and Islamic cultures that could have made it a prime target for the attacks.  After 9/11, the sculpture was recovered with minimal damage.  The original sculptor, Fritz Koenig, oversaw the creation of a new base so that the piece could find a second life as a memorial.  It is now located in Battery Park as a temporary art installation.

World War II East Coast Memorial

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

This memorial commemorates soldiers, sailors, marines, coast guardsmen, merchant marines and airmen who met their deaths in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.  Its axis, marked by the statue of a bronze eagle, is oriented to the Statue of Liberty.  Two rows of four gray granite pylons flank each side of the eagle and contain the name, rank, organization and state of each of the 4,611 missing in the waters of the Atlantic.

Seaglass Carousel

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

Battery Park - Mad Hatters NYC

The Seaglass Carousel pays homage to the first New York Aquarium, which was located in Battery Park from 1896 to 1941.  Unlike most carousels, this one doesn’t revolve around a center pole.  Instead, it’s shaped like a nautilus.  Thirty fiberglass fish (designed after actual fish species) rotate thanks to four turntables located beneath the floor.  Clever LED lighting seeks to replicate the bioluminescence of being underwater.  It’s a visually enchanting experience, and definitely worthy of both a daytime and evening visit.

Not only has The Battery Conservancy done a phenomenal job restoring and maintaining Battery Park, it’s also documented much of the process.  Click through the slideshow below to see its transformation through the years.  Tourist attractions draw crowds for a reason, and I think it’s worth reminding ourselves why Battery Park is one of them.




Pair it with:

A meal at Lox

Lox at Museum of Jewish Heritage - Mad Hatters NYC

Lox at Museum of Jewish Heritage - Mad Hatters NYC

Lox at Museum of Jewish Heritage - Mad Hatters NYC

As you walk west on Battery Place towards the World Trade Center, you’ll come across the Museum of Jewish Heritage.  Pop inside and head to the second floor where their cafe, Lox, is located.  (No museum admission is required.)  As you might expect, you’ll find a selection of Jewish and Russian fare here, from blintzes to babka.  But what’s really worth visiting for, as the name suggests, is the cured fish.  

Chef and owner, David Teyf, actually has Japanese culinary training, which one can glean from the clean aesthetic of the cafe as well as his expert knowledge of fish.  He currently offers five different lox specialties, with an eye to expand the menu further.  The Signature House Lox paired perfectly with a bagel, while the Double Smoked Lox was deliciously complex and amazing with eggs.  We also sampled the other flavors and found the Grapefruit & Gin Lox so refreshing that we took some home with us for later.  If you’re a fan of lox, or contemporary spins on a classic, a visit to this cafe is a must.  We’ll definitely be returning just to discover the interesting new flavors he’ll concoct.

Location:
36 Battery Place

Hours:
Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday 10 A.M. – 5:45 P.M.
Wednesday 10 A.M. – 8 P.M.
Friday 10 A.M. – 5 P.M. Now through November 4, 2016
Friday 10 A.M. – 3 P.M. November 11, 2016 through March 10, 2017

– L.

Exploring Fulton Center via Open House New York



When a girl gets married, she’s supposed to wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue for luck.  Have you ever wondered where that comes from?  According to wedding planning site the knot, it originates from an old English rhyme.  Something old is meant to represent continuity, while something new offers optimism for the future.  Our Open House New York weekend experience captured those sentiments perfectly.  We were able to glimpse back into the past with our visit to a church constructed in 1875, and look to the future with our tour of a fairly new transit hub on which eleven subway lines and 300,000 passengers converge daily.  I’m speaking, of course, of Fulton Center.

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years since our Instagram feeds first blew up with pictures of Fulton Center.  And when you’re standing in the atrium of the transit hub, it’s easy to see why the images were so prolific.  The Sky Reflector-Net and the louvered glass oculus creates an effect that is mesmerizing.  It manages to conjure the one word no one associates with mass transit: light.  This, of course, is no accident.  It’s just one of the many carefully considered design elements.

Fulton Center was one of the “Open Dialogue” sites, which offered on-site talks and tours led by architects and designers.  Ours was led by Christian Hoenigschmid-Grossich, an associate at Grimshaw Architects.  He moved to New York City in 2003 specifically to work on the Fulton Center project.  (Yes, you read correctly: it took 11 years to complete.)  When Grimshaw bid on — and won — the project, the mandate was simple: ease passenger flow.  And that was no easy feat.

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC
The perforated ceiling panels diffuse noise and the circular vents bring in fresh air
Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC
The original tile faces the platform, while the new light blue tile faces the atrium

Grimshaw wanted the new Fulton Center structure to pay homage to its surroundings, blend in seamlessly with its neighboring structures, and still feel contemporary.  And having toured the facilities, we think they succeeded on all fronts.  The futuristic design sometimes made you feel like you were on the Death Star and an army of Stormtroopers was going to march by at any moment.  And yet, you might turn a corner and find you’ve transitioned into a 100-year-old building.  There are perforated ceiling panels designed to diffuse noise, which can be individually lowered for access.  The doors between the subway platform and the atrium serve the dual purpose of limiting sound as well as controlling temperature.  Each detail, from the flooring materials to the color of the tile, was meticulously considered to prolong its lifespan and ease maintenance.  Form and function marry beautifully here.

If you’re dashing through the station at rush hour, it might be difficult to take a moment to savor the details.  So I’ll leave you with this impressive time-lapse video of the installation of the Sky Reflector-Net, the sculpture that has come to define Fulton Center:

Location:
200 Broadway



Pair it with:

A meal at Nish Nush

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

Fulton Center Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

We haven’t been shy about our love for hummus and falafel.  So whenever we find ourselves in Lower Manhattan, we take the opportunity to pop into one of our favorite places to indulge: Nish Nush.  Nish Nush makes its hummus and falafel fresh daily, and the falafel is gluten-free.  We find the roasted red pepper falafel a little on the spicy side for our tastes, but we could eat copious amounts of the classic green falafel or the spinach and mushroom falafel anytime.  The falafel platter is our go-to, which comes with hummus, a selection of salads and pita bread.  And I’m not embarrassed to admit that there’s not a lick left when we’re done.

Location:
41 John St

Hours:
Mon – Fri 11am – 9pm
Sat – Sun 11am – 8pm

– L.

Exploring the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church via Open House New York



We walk through these streets every day, on our way to work, on our return home, but above the roar of street traffic, the glaring lights, the high tide of daydreaming tourists and jaded daily commuters, we hardly notice that it’s lined on all sides by an imposing steel, stone and concrete forest. These brownstone row houses, brick tenements and glass and steel skyscrapers are the trees of our great city.

The common expression is “couldn’t see the forest for the trees”, but in our case, that’s not the dilemma. All we see is the forest. So what’s it like to break the treeline, to venture into the woods, to examine a grand Methuselah up close and personal? Well, Open House New York offers an answer to that question.

Open House New York follows in the footsteps of a program pioneered in London, in which participants are offered “unparalleled access to the extraordinary architecture of New York and to the people who help design, build, and preserve the city”. This incredible opportunity is available through programming throughout the year, but also during the annual Open House New York weekend.

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

During our Open House New York weekend experience, we visited the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church’s 141-year-old sanctuary for a special feature called Restoring This Old Brownstone.  The charming and informative lecture was delivered by Robert Henn, a trustee of the church, on the challenges of restoring and maintaining its magnificent brownstone facade.

Brownstone facades were incredibly popular throughout the latter half of the 19th century, and much of that stone originated in nearby New Jersey quarries. Architect Carl Frey’s incredible design for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, constructed in 1875, epitomizes the usage of this famous material in one of the more unique architectural sites in the city.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Henn elucidated, brownstone is also a relatively unstable material. The stone has a layered composition and high porosity, which means it isn’t particularly suitable for the harsh freeze-thaw cycles of the Northeast and deteriorates over time with exposure to the elements. And that leads right to the core of Restoring This Old Brownstone: the $8 million restoration of the church.

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

There was a burning question on everyone’s mind throughout Mr. Henn’s discourse, which was perfectly articulated by one of the attendees during the Q&A. If the material will simply continue to deteriorate over time, why not replace it altogether instead of restoring it? Well, there are two salient considerations.  First, the cost to remove the facade and replace it with another material would be simply cost prohibitive. And second, the historic and aesthetic cityscape would be irrevocably changed. Particularly on that last note, we couldn’t agree more.

In just a few short weeks, much of the upper scaffolding will be removed. The rebuilt spire and reset cross, as well as the refurbished clocktower, will once again grace the city skyline. If you missed the presentation during Open House New York weekend, don’t despair.  The church offers an insider’s tour monthly, and on all other Sundays (excluding Easter), docent-led tours of the Sanctuary, Kirkland Chapel and the Gallery take place following the 11 am worship service. Click here for a tour schedule.

Location:
7 W 55th St



Pair it with:

Brunch at Norma’s

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC

FAPC Open House New York - Mad Hatters NYC
A picture of us at Norma’s in 2007. We both had lots more hair.

Years ago, trying to get a reservation at Norma’s in the Le Parker Meridien hotel was like arguing with a bus driver: pointless. But we persevered. I ordered some absurdly rich and, admittedly, delicious French Toast made from slices of chocolate bread (quite possibly cake) and topped with strawberries, pistachios and chocolate sauce. It’s the type of thing a younger, less refined palate would find alluring. (It’s still on the menu, BTW.)

Fast forward nine years and Norma’s doesn’t have quite the same pedigree. Reservation requests are more like a conversation with a reasonably attentive concierge. In fact, we recently wandered in on Saturday morning and waited 15 minutes for a table, sans reservations. That’s not to say the food or the service has suffered. It’s actually still quite delicious and the service is still that of a high-end dining room. I ordered the Artichoke Benny: two eggs perched on top of artichoke hearts, with sauteed potatoes and spinach, drizzled with a light truffle porcini cream sauce. It was excellent.

During the Restoring This Old Brownstone presentation, Robert Henn joked that he had to warn the congregants to adjust their expectations because after the siding comes down, the church will still be brown. It’s not going to be shiny and new. Norma’s isn’t shiny or new, but therein lies its charm.

Location:
119 W 56th St

Hours:
Mon-Fri 7am-3pm
Sat-Sun 7:30am-3pm

– J.

Washington Heights Walking Tour



Every neighborhood in New York has a story, but only a neighborhood within a neighborhood has secrets. Unfortunately, the prerequisite for discovering these secrets is usually the possession of an address within its boundaries, with time and growing familiarity eventually earning the distinction of being accepted within the community as a “local”.

And that’s exactly where Local Expeditions comes into play. Billed as the “anti-tour” and offering “unique 2-3 hour excursions designed by locals for a true New York experience”, the previously mentioned prerequisites are graciously waived.  We spied a new tour available on the website billed as the “Cabrini Heights/Fort Washington” tour, and we got slightly nostalgic for a previous visit during which we stayed with my cousin in Washington Heights.  It was a whirlwind trip that didn’t permit us much time to explore the area and we hadn’t been back since, so we signed up.

Commendably, the business model for Local Expeditions incorporates a 5% charitable donation, as well as a generous wage for the guide, giving back to the community and supporting the wider New York economy.  In the interest of full disclosure, at $40 per person, the cost of the tour is still on the higher end of the market, even factoring the 5% donation in.  Most tours average $20 per person, while tours from established names like the Municipal Art Society and Untapped Cities run at $30 per person.

Washington Heights
Fort Washington was located at the highest point on the island, now in Bennett Park
George Washington Bridge
The Little Red Lighthouse and the George Washington Bridge

The tour guide, Jim, used to live in the area.  The larger neighborhood covered is Washington Heights, with greater emphasis on the section mostly known as Hudson Heights.  The tour started off with some time at the St. Frances Cabrini Shrine, then moved on to highlight some of the history pertaining to the Battle of Fort Washington, took us past some interesting local architecture and then down to Fort Washington Park for an up-close view of the George Washington Bridge and the Little Red Lighthouse.

Washington Heights
One of the many Art Deco apartment buildings in the neighborhood
Washington Heights
Hudson View Gardens housing cooperative with Tudor-style arhictectural elements

While there was much to see, we feel it necessary to highlight some things to consider: the amount of walking was definitely more advanced than what you would find in other walking tours, partly due to the steep drop from the neighborhood into Fort Washington Park (and the necessary sharp incline back once the tour is over).  Jim’s knowledge displayed a sincere affection for the neighborhood, but there were many significant historical events that could have been better explained — the area has experienced displacement (the Munsee tribe), warfare (Revolutionary), migration (prewar German and Austrian Jews followed by post-Soviet Eastern Europeans), a crime wave (the 80’s crack epidemic) and, most recently, a sustained period of gentrification — but most of this was missing from his commentary.   

At the end of the day, it’s still a great, off-the-beaten-path tour that highlights a unique New York City neighborhood, with some kinks to be worked out.  Check out the Local Expeditions website for all the tours available.



Pair it with:

Brunch at Le Chéile

Le Cheile

Le Cheile

Le Cheile

Here’s what you’re unlikely to ever find at Le Chéile (pronounced leh key-lah, just so you don’t embarrass yourself like we did): burrata, foie gras, caviar, chorizo foam or anything “truffle-infused”. What you will find is solid, no-frills pub food and a number of interesting vegetarian offerings (a few on the breakfast and lunch menus, many more on the dinner menu). And of course, served alongside the food are an eclectic selection of old favorites and local craft brews on tap — it is, after all, a pub! Whether it’s hearty egg-based basics, traditional Irish dishes or one of the more interesting and tasty veggie burgers I’ve ever had the pleasure to put to the test (a pattie, akin to a croquette, on a brioche bun with all the fixings), Le Chéile didn’t mislead or oversell and will more than meet a hungry (or thirsty!) adventurer’s needs.

Location:
839 W 181st St

Hours:
Mon-Fri: 11 am – 3 am
Sat & Sun: 10 am – 3 am

– J.