By: Janice Fuhrman

Bargains in New York City? Ask a native and he’s bound to snarl, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” This world capital has the shopping, museums, celebrity hot spots, sumptuous hotels, and sophisticated restaurants that all scream Expensive with a capital E.

But my quest, on a recent short trip with my husband to Manhattan, was to find bargains and possibly even free activities that could keep us enthralled and entertained. This, I knew, would not involve staying at the Plaza ($600 a night and up), or dining at the Russian Tea Room ($295 an ounce for Imperial Iranian Osetra). But it did include temporary bargains due to the idling economy, and others always available to visitors: ambling through Central Park, people-watching in Greenwich Village, window shopping on 5th Avenue, low-cost concert tickets and free museum visits.

In New York, as elsewhere, restaurants and shops are trying to lure customers in due to a nationwide drop-off in consumer spending. Just walking through the fragrance department at Bloomingdales triggered countless offers of samples and gifts. Upstairs, when I tried to pay for a silk blouse that was already 50% off, a saleswoman directed me to the International Visitors Office where I was given a card for an additional 10% off anything in the store simply because I was a visitor. This, combined with no sales tax on items under $110, turned my blouse into an incredible deal.

Afterward, at the legendary 21 Club, we enjoyed an excellent three-course lunch for a song. The restaurant is offering a prix fixe lunch for $24, a true bargain for quality food at a status venue. We went there to raise a glass to my recently deceased father-in-law, who used to lunch at 21 in the 1960s when he worked nearby, and were taken by surprise by the value.

Many other New York eateries are offering special prix fixe menus at eye-popping prices. David Burke at Bloomingdales offers a $20.09 three-course prix fixe nightly with full-size portions. Burke’s sustainable seafood restaurant Fishtail and David Burke Townhouse both offer $20.09 three-course menus Sunday nights.

Other discounts to watch out for taking place during Restaurant Week, which actually lasts three weeks from July 12 to July 31. Restaurants around the city offer three-course special menus for $24.07/lunch and $35/dinner, including the new Italian eatery Montenapo, in the New York Times building. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner in this stunning setting.

Then there’s street food. For really low-cost food that will provide sustenance as you wend your way through New York, everything from soft-serve ice cream and hot dogs to more refined offerings like designer cupcakes and Belgian waffles is available on the sidewalks.

Want free meals in New York? Do what we did and stay at any of the four hotels that comprise the HK Hotels collection in Manhattan. At Hotel Giraffe (365 Park Ave. South) and Hotel Elysee (60 East 54th Street), we enjoyed the free continental breakfast and a three-hour wine and hors d’œuvre reception each evening. The breakfasts (bagels, pastries, fruit, cereals, yogurts, and even cappuccino and lattes) can be enjoyed in a tranquil lounge or in your room or suite and were enough to get you off to a good start for the day. One evening, we even skipped dinner because the spread of cheese, crackers, bread, olives, nuts, and other snacks at the evening reception was so satisfying.

With rates at both these elegant and well-located hotels starting at $229 for the rest of the summer, we felt these were genuine New York bargains. As my husband said, “You might find a cheaper hotel, but not experience New York better for this price.” Two other hotels in the HKHotels group, the Library Hotel (299 Madison Ave.) and the Casablanca Hotel (147 West 43rd St.) offer the same amenities.

It may sound like my husband and I are only interested in food and drink, but we also like to digest culture, especially museums and music. New York offers a cornucopia of each, but until I started chasing bargains, I had purchased $100-plus tickets to the New York Philharmonic and $25 admissions to the Museum of Modern Art. I didn’t know that MOMA offers free admission on Fridays from 4pm to 8pm, or that the New Museum of Contemporary Art is free on Thursday evenings from 7pm to 10pm. Or that both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum offer a “pay-what-you-wish” option (at the latter, this is possible only on Friday evenings beginning at 5:45pm).

Another good option is the City Pass, which includes admission to the Empire State Building, MOMA, the Met, and a Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island tour at a total savings of about 25%. Not only do you save money, but you bypass long lines if you have the pass.

For music lovers, if you don’t want to pay high-ticket prices to see a concert or there is no concert that interests you while you’re in town, tour New York’s famous musical venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. A one-hour guided tour of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts takes you through several venues, including the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall, at $15 for adults and $12 for students/seniors. Carnegie Hall tours, led every day from September through June, are $10 for adults, $7 students/seniors, and provide an insider’s view of its construction and the legacy of the artists who have performed there.

If you’re 40 or younger, Carnegie Hall’s $20 Club 57th & 7th Pass gets you $20 concert tickets, up to a month before, without having to wait in rush ticket lines, a savings of up to 80% off regularly priced tickets, plus invitations to social events and additional ticket offers.

For jazz fans, the city is full of great jazz venues, but one of the most glamorous, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, can also be surprisingly inexpensive. Dizzy’s offers jazz greats for a $20 to $35 cover charge and $10 drink minimum and at Late Nights, starting at 11 pm, for only a $10 to $20 cover. Throw in a sparkling view of Central Park and this deal cannot be outclassed.

By day, nothing beats a long walk or jog in the city’s green centerpiece, America’s first public park. One afternoon, we found ourselves meandering on paths that led to new and unexpected places. If you want some history with your exercise, take advantage of the free, guided walking tours offered by the Central Park Conservancy year round. Other free walking tours in the city include a 90-minute tour of the historic Flatiron District sponsored by the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership, and a two-hour tour of the Lower East Side.

So, bargains can be found in New York City: eating, drinking, walking, people-watching, eating, listening to music, seeing great art and — did I mention eating?

Janice Fuhrman is a freelance travel and wine writer who lives outside San Francisco.


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