Why Lower Manhattan?
The bottom tip of Manhattan island was where New York began – with Dutch fur trappers finding it a handy harbour and trading site. Today, the trading is done on the New York Stock Exchange and in the giant office towers that compete for skyline space.
But among the gleaming glass are remnants of a past that goes back much further than it does elsewhere in the city. Eighteenth-century buildings survive among the modern melee, and that mix of old and new – combined with a gripping collection of niche museums – makes Lower Manhattan much more appealing than many New Yorkers give it credit for.
A comfortable bed
The independently owned Wall Street Inn (www.thewallstreetinn.com) has something of a time-warp charm factor. There’s a country hotel homeliness, but a recent renovation has prevented anything from looking tired. Queen rooms cost from US$232 (Dh852).
Much sassier is Gild Hall (www.thompsonhotels.com). Steepling bookshelves, draughts sets and bizarre leather rhinos in the lobby give way to high ceilings and leather-padded headboards that sprawl all the way across the back wall in the rooms. Doubles cost from $437 (Dh1,605).
Relative bargains can be had at the Club Quarters Wall Street (www.clubquarters.com), where business-orientated rooms brim with plug sockets, have microwaves and crockery and come equipped with fold-out beds for kids. Doubles cost from $186 (Dh683).
Find your feet
For a solid grounding in Lower Manhattan’s back story, Context (www.contexttravel.com) runs an excellent History of Finance tour, led by a Wall Street veteran, who has seen how the area has changed over the decades. The tour delves into the surprisingly fascinating history of finance, starting with a visit to the gravestone of Alexander Hamilton – the man who effectively set up the American financial system and died fighting a duel with the vice president Aaron Burr.
Most interesting of all are the tales of how within two decades, crowded trading floors, awash in paper and shouting and stressed people, have given way to people calmly staring at computer screens.
There’s even more detail on how Wall Street works at the Museum of American Finance (www.moaf.org), while the grand old Custom House is now home to the National Museum of the American Indian (www.nmai.si.edu). Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the storytelling here is surprisingly poor, but the artefacts on display are superb. Incredibly intricate weapons, clothing and pottery have been collected from all over the Americas.
Finish off at The Skyscraper Museum (www.skyscraper.org), which tells the tale of the race to become the world’s tallest building, complete with lots of three-dimensional scale models.
Meet the locals
The western edges of Lower Manhattan aren’t thronging with workers and visitors quite as much. A series of thin, narrow parks can be found behind the skyscrapers. Resident joggers keep in shape there, and the views out to New Jersey are pretty impressive.
Book a table
Fraunces Tavern (www.frauncestavern.com) is steeped in history. George Washington bade farewell to his officers here at the end of the War of Independence, while key government departments were run from inside the tavern during New York’s brief tenure as national capital. The food tries its best to match up to the heritage, with the $26 (Dh95) jambalaya being a pretty good bet.
For modern-day celeb chefs rather than historic celeb guests, try Anthony Bourdain’s take on the French brasserie, Les Halles (www.leshalles.net). Beef tenderloin with Béarnaise sauce costs $36 (Dh132).
The tip of Manhattan is hardly New York’s prime shopping area, but the Century 21 discount department store at 22 Cortlandt Street is a very notable exception. Spread over six floors, it sells brands such as John Varvatos, Calvin Klein, Burberry and DKNY, slashing up to 65 per cent off the normal price. The Mysterious Bookshop at 58 Warren Street is properly old-fashioned, with shelves climbing the walls, all filled with thousands of crime novels.
What to avoid
If you want to throw yourself into the New York buzz, then Lower Manhattan isn’t the place to be at weekends. When the office workers aren’t there, it’s surprisingly sleepy. On the flip side, hotel rates are much cheaper at weekends – there are some bargains to be had.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum (www.911memorial.org) on the site of the former World Trade Center is hugely moving and very tastefully done. Two giant cascading pools take the place of the Twin Towers, while the museum goes through the events of September 11, 2001, in forensic detail. The use of video and audio eyewitness accounts, in particular, brings a lump to the throat.