New York (CNN) — Times Square is the most iconic place in New York City, but it’s also one of the most maligned. Stop any New Yorker and ask them what part of town they avoid at all costs, and the odds are high that they’d say Times Square.
Although Times Square went through a seedy period where you were more likely to find strip joints than coffee shops, times have changed: Now, the area is packed with chain restaurants, Broadway theaters and neon signs.
It can all be pretty overwhelming for a first-time visitor, and many locals avoid the West 40s around Broadway and 7th Avenue to bypass the throngs of people gaping upward and snapping photos.
But Times Square is still Manhattan, which means there’s still treasure to be found — as long as you know where to look.
How to avoid the Olive Garden trap
Sen Sakana has a power lunch without the ’80s Wolf of Wall Street vibe.
Although the American chain restaurants may have the brightest signs, there are plenty of local dining options that don’t require a long walk.
For a fancy midday meal, Sen Sakana has pre-chosen “set meals” that combine Peruvian and Japanese cuisine: Think sushi topped with crunchy quinoa or noodles paired with spicy shellfish.
Xi’an Famous Foods is a New York City mini-chain of Northwestern Chinese restaurants where even the most snobby Manhattanites will wait in line for an hour for spicy lamb soup, hand-pulled noodles and spicy sour dumplings. The best way to experience the canteen-style restaurant is to arrive at a non-peak mealtime (3 p.m., for example) and go solo or with only one other person to increase your odds of snagging one of the few seats.
If you want the feeling of old-school New York, head to The Lambs Club, where the main dining room is lined in red velvet and centered around a fireplace from legendary Gilded Age architect Stanford White. The food, overseen by celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian, has modern (usually healthier) takes on classic menu items like Dover sole and foie gras. And you’ll want to wash the whole thing down with a retro cocktail like an Aviation.
When it comes to drinking, Times Square has some of the highest and lowest options. For the best of the low, stop by beloved dive bar Rudy’s, where cheap beer is plentiful and best paired with one of the bar’s ready-made hot dogs. On the high end, duck into the dimly-lit Rum House for cocktails in a piano bar inside the Hotel Edison.
On the west edge of Bryant Park is Kinokuniya, the first US branch of the mega-popular Japanese bookstore, which can sometimes feel more like an art gallery than a bookshop: There’s everything from manga to stuffed animals to calligraphy pens. Head upstairs to the store’s Cafe Zaiya for mulberry tea and Japanese snacks, and choose a window seat where you can have a bird’s-eye view of the park.
Sen Sakana, 28 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 221-9560
The Rum House, 228 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (646) 490-6924
Kinokuniya, 1073 6th Ave, New York, NY 10018, +1 (212) 869-1700
Broadway and Beyond
The New York Public Library’s main branch has been all over pop culture, from “Seinfeld” to “Ghostbusters.”
Even the most disgruntled New Yorker will come to Times Square to see a Broadway show. The best way to snag last-minute tickets is to hit the TKTS line in the very center of the square. Just look for the bright red staircase and get in line. (We have to break the news now, though: you’re not going to get tickets to “Hamilton.”) You can also use the TodayTix app, but where’s the fun in that?
However, theater isn’t the only artistic offering in Times Square. The pod hotel Yotel hosts film screenings on its roof in the summer, and nearby Bryant Park has outdoor ones on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Bryant Park, just a short walk away, is worth visiting all year round, though: In the winter there’s ice skating and a Christmas market full of pop-up shops, and in warmer months you’ll find office workers on their lunch breaks having picnics or perched on orange chairs reading paperbacks.
The library is a celebriy in its own right–the stunning Beaux-Arts building has been a pop culture mainstay, appearing in everything from “Seinfeld” to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Don’t miss the twin lions out front (their names are Patience and Fortitude) or the recently-renovated Rose Reading Room.
While Mood Fabrics on 37th Street has long been a Garment District staple for fashionistas, the show’s costarring role on “Project Runway” has made it into a tourist attraction. Stop by to gape at the colorful rows of silks and velvets, but don’t miss a chance to get your picture taken with doggie mascot Swatch.
TKTS, W 47th St & 7th avenue, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 912-9770
Rooftop Cinema Club at the Yotel, 570 10th Ave, New York, NY 10036, +1 (646) 449-7700
Bryant Park, 40-42 Sts, 5-6th Avenues, New York, NY 10018
Mood Fabrics, 225 W 37th St, New York, NY 10018, +1 (212) 730-5003
Sleeping in the city that never sleeps
A room in a high floor at the W Times Square makes you feel like you’re floating above the city.
Yes, it is possible to get a good night’s sleep in the busiest quarter of the city. You just have to choose your hotel wisely.
The Knickerbocker Hotel was once known as “the 42nd Street Country Club” for its ability to attract Hollywood stars and Gilded Age elites (it was built by an Astor, after all). Following a thoughtful renovation, the hotel is just as beautiful as ever. But now there’s a Charlie Parker restaurant and a rooftop bar with “sky pods.”
If an end-of-the-day recharge is what you’re after, the health-centric Kimpton Hotel Muse stocks each room with yoga mats and (more importantly) comfortable beds.
The W Times Square may feel clubby in the lobby, but the higher-floor rooms with window seats will make you feel as if you’re flying high above the city–and you can practically see as far as JFK airport.
To end the night in style, stop in for a drink at the sexy glassed-in Refinery Rooftop, arguably the city’s best rooftop bar.
The Muse, 130 W 46th St, New York, NY 10036, +1 (212) 485-2400