Cheap and cheerful NYC (yes, really)

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Doing a week in The Big Apple on a budget

New York, cheap? And cheerful? You read that right. While this bucket-list destination can be an expensive trip, even when our dollar is doing well, I found ways to make a springtime week in The Big Apple a reasonably-priced venture. And I’m not just talking subways and guest house accommodation. My stay also included walking tours, several Broadway shows, an evening of jazz clubs and New York cheesecake, cheesecake, and more cheesecake. You can indeed enjoy one of the world’s favourite cities without having to take out a second mortgage.

Doing it right in Harlem

If New York City is the place where dreams are made, I followed that sentiment with memorable moments in historical Harlem – home of jazz, the Apollo Theatre and a largely African-American residential, cultural and business hub. Tree-lined streets of brownstone homes, which once sold for a dollar apiece when the area was struggling in the 1970s and ’80s, Sugar Hill (where a transplanted Alexander Hamilton’s home is now a museum), and fried chicken and waffles: these are but a few highlights of this diverse neighbourhood just north of Central Park.

On a rainy Sunday evening, who would think the jazz clubs of Harlem would be thick with music and jammed with patrons who know where to find it? I lucked out booking a Juke Joints of Harlem jazz tour with Big Apple Jazz Tours (a $99 U.S. splurge), where charming host and Harlem songstress Amanda Humes squeezed our small group into out-of-the-way spots we’d have never found on our own.

Looking especially dapper in a white suit and hat, owner of Paris Blues Bar, Samuel Hargress Jr. greeted each patron personally as we ducked into his Bohemian-style space. While Amanda took a turn at the mic for a little Route 66, someone at the bar shared slices of birthday cake. It was similar one stop earlier at The Shrine, when no one needed to twist my arm as the Lu Reid All Stars backed me up on keyboard, bass and drums during the weekly open jam.

“You’ve Changed, in the key of D,” I told the bandleader boldly, as I stumbled through a few verses and chorus for the room full of jazz lovers. “Keep on singing and sharing your talents,” cheered Amanda, as we finished our drinks and headed to the next club on the itinerary. And in the too-crowded basement of a brownstone, we found hot sax, trumpet and Hammond organ playing that’d turn any listener into a jazz fan: good music is good music.

And what hasn’t been said about the storied Apollo Theatre in Harlem – where musical legends such as Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown and Aretha Franklin took to the stage to make their mark decades ago. I got to take in the atmosphere of this legendary space when I shuffled in for a free taping of Steve Harvey’s Showtime at the Apollo talent competition.

“I got my start on this stage too – there’s no place like The Apollo,” said Harvey to the energized audience while pointing to the stump of the Tree of Hope in its permanent spot on the stage. As the story goes, the stump came from a cut tree on 125 St., where the Apollo still sits – a tree wanna-be stars used to perform under in hopes of getting a shot on stage. Today, everyone who comes on stage must rub the tree stump for luck, or be booed off the stage if they don’t.

More than Manhattan

Watch any movie based in New York City, and chances are there’ll be a scene with characters walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a must-do, quintessential and free activity that affords great views of the lower Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn side. I met Josh, a lifelong New Yorker, for one of several Free Tours by Foot I booked on this stay. The price is right for these popular jaunts: pay nothing or pay whatever you think the tour is worth.

On this go-round, we spent three hours walking around DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), a now gentrified area of Brooklyn with rehabilitated warehouses, shops and galleries; a perfect spot to enjoy a Brooklyn-side ice cream and watch the many couples taking wedding shots at the harbour.

“I used to drive cab, and would dread getting called for a fare in Brooklyn. I was never sure I was going to make it back safely to Manhattan,” says Josh, a retired teacher who now runs several Tours by Foot each week.

Times have definitely changed, and Brooklyn is now one of the hottest boroughs for homebuyers, especially young families and professionals. “You can feel the difference – the quiet – as soon as you cross the bridge.”

Broadway bound

Taking in a few Broadway shows is a must anytime I’m in NYC – me and millions of others. Did you know that Broadway shows take in more revenue each year than all the major NYC sports teams combined? This time, I was entranced by Come From Away, Dear Evan Hanson and The Great Comet. I bought discounted tickets online before leaving home, but same-day tickets to many Broadway shows are up to half-off at TKTS booths in Times Square and other locations.

My visit happened to be the lead-up week to the Tony Awards (Broadway’s finest), so I also enjoyed a free concert in Schubert Alley in the heart of the theatre district, and cheap eats and more free entertainment at the Taste of Times Square event. Sitting on a building’s stoop, cheesecake in hand and listening to big band music from across the way felt like a very New York thing to do. And the Junior’s Restaurant classic New York cheesecake was sublime, as always.

If you go

Each year, more than 50 million people visit New York City, including more than 12 million international guests, most from the U.K. and Canada. Tourists drop over $40 billion annually, on accommodation, show tickets, shopping and sight-seeing at spots like the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Central Park and Times Square. Online or through travel agencies (AMA Travel and Vision Travel will help you book air/hotel and tours) self-made vacations are the way to go when it comes to NYC.

Robin Hutnan, vacation adviser at Vision Travel in St. Albert, says New York is one of those destinations on many people’s bucket lists, but is often included as a pre- or post-stop in conjunction with a cruise.

“Even if the dollar is weak, people are going. It’s busy at all times of year,” she says. “Shoppers go to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre, while others want sports games or to be in the audience for TV shows. But spring and fall are the nicest time to be there.” Indeed, New York City has one of the highest hotel occupancy rates in the U.S. and with the exception of holidays (Thanksgiving through New Year), visitor arrivals are stable year-round.

Leo House Guest House in Chelsea (leohousenyc.org) offers clean, simple accommodation (bed, sink, toilet, TV, with a shower down the hall) for as little as $100 U.S. per night, including a big buffet breakfast that’ll hold you until mid-afternoon.

Yellow NYC cabs can be convenient, but the best way to get around is by subway. A seven-day Metro Card costs $31 and runs round the clock to every borough in NYC. It’s your best budget-saving value by far. (mta.info)

Free Tours by Foot is also an awesome value – pay what you want – for tours that cover all aspects of NYC, from food, historical neighbourhoods and sight-seeing, to full days in Central Park or at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. I did a Ghost Tour of Broadway, Harlem historical tour and DUMBO tour for peanuts – get it? DUMBO, peanuts … (freetoursbyfoot.com)

Big Apple Jazz Tours – Trip Advisor loves this tour, and I did too. Amanda and Gordon are the experts to lead you through the jazz clubs of Harlem and Greenwich Village. (Bigapplejazz.com)

Free Museums – stop in at a visitor welcome centre (one near Times Square) for a brochure on museum openings. Most have one free-admission day (or part of a day) every week. My visit to MOMA was free on a Friday evening – 24 bucks otherwise.

Plan your priorities

When budgeting for your trip to NYC, plan your must-dos and splurge on those. Maybe that’s tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway (good luck with that), or a carriage ride through Central Park. For everything else, it’s not hard – and even fun – to do NYC the cheap and cheerful way.

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About Author

Lucy Haines

Lucy Haines has been a freelancer writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2012. She writes features on travel, food, seniors, homes and gardens.