When I arrived in New York I asked a local expert what a visitor should see and do on their first time in the city. “Grab a pretzel and wander,” was their quick response. This advice made me smile because instead of feeling overwhelmed by the enormous list of attractions and landmarks that this magical metropolis has to offer, a trip here should first and foremost be about enjoying the sights and sounds. And when it comes to the real sounds of this iconic city – its music and performers – New York really is top of the pops.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop, which originated in the city’s boroughs. Half a century later it’s one of the many genres that makes New York one of the world’s music capitals. Pretzel in hand, we wandered through Central Park towards Harlem for an introduction to hip hop. Our first stop on this musical tour of the Big Apple.
Hip hop in New York
Tour of Harlem with Hush Tours
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With the help of Hush Tours, we traced hip hop’s evolution from its humble beginnings to global youth culture through Harlem. Our engaging tour guide, rapper RayZa, led us around the neighbourhood imparting his knowledge. From Spanish Harlem, the birthplace of salsa, we walked and listened to all sorts of hilarious anecdotes. RayZa also kept energy levels high throughout the tour by rapping for us which required some audience participation. His freestyle rapping skills had us totally transfixed.
As we pounded the streets, RayZa pointed out historic sights such as the landmark mosque built in memory of civil rights leader Malcolm X, who was assassinated in Harlem in February 1965, and a church attended by Martin Luther King. We also dipped into other aspects of the changing culture as RayZa debuted his latest rap on the subject of gentrification – this was enlightening, moving and it felt so special to be listening to his words.
The last stop of the Harlem tour was at the iconic Apollo Theater, where icons including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald have performed. We reflected on the lively legacy of hip hop and then headed for lunch at Red Rooster – a brilliant place to try authentic African American food in the heart of Harlem. It’s also a favourite of Barack and Michelle Obama. The former president apparently raves about the cornbread here...
Universal Hip Hop Museum
At the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx we gained an understanding of the emergence of the genre through conflict. There were personal snippets of people’s own histories – such as Polaroid photos, cassette tapes, and original, handwritten letters – plus insightful newspaper clippings and video footage which transported us back in time. Talking about hip hop, one interviewee said “that feel of the boom was exciting”, while another said “we cruised African American and Latino, and if you don’t like our music it doesn’t matter because we’re going to play it louder and louder”.
Broadway: feel the energy of musical theatre
A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical
From hip hop to another of New York’s biggest music tourism attractions. Seeing a show on Broadway was an emotion-jerking, electric experience. We watched “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical” at the Broadhurst Theatre, which was a spectacular way to learn about Diamond’s personal life and the power of song-writing. On stage, the dancing was incredible, and the entire audience jumped to their feet for “Sweet Caroline”. In the words of the Brooklyn-born icon: “Good times never seemed so good.” Tickets can be purchased via Broadway Inbound.
Ellen’s Stardust Diner
If you see a show on Broadway then you’ll also need to grab a bite. At Ellen’s Stardust Diner, located at 1650 Broadway on Times Square, you can experience both. Perfect for all ages, the diner is staffed by singing waiters, “The Stardusters”. It’s a must-visit if you’re a musical lover and you enjoy a singalong experience. Ellen's Stardust Diner is open from 7am to midnight and The Stardusters sing all day.
Unearth the history of musicals
For an educational and interactive exhibition about New York’s famous entertainment street, head to the Museum of Broadway. Here visitors will learn about the birth of Broadway to the present day and see behind the curtain into the making of a show.
Attractions and things to see
Radio City Music Hall
It’s incredible that the world’s largest indoor theatre is located in the middle of Midtown Manhattan. Built as part of the Rockefeller development during the 1930s, Radio City Music Hall has undergone a major restoration project bringing it back to its hey-day glory. It’s a vortex of Art Deco design and memories. On a Radio City stage door tour, visitors get to go behind the scenes and stand on the stage that looks out over nearly 6,000 seats. You can also follow in the footsteps of those who’ve performed here and meet a Rockette.
NY Philharmonic concert in Central Park
No trip to New York is complete without getting lost for a few hours around Central Park. With 843 acres, there’s so many attractions and things to see and do, including hiring a rowing boat, riding the vintage carousel or taking a ride on one of the horse-drawn carriages. If you’re planning a trip for next summer, it’s definitely worth trying to see the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual outdoor concert in Central Park. The free event was attended by thousands of people who listened intently for hours under the city’s dazzling skyline. The orchestra also hosts concerts at its home, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
John Lennon and Joe Strummer memorials
In Central Park you’ll also find Strawberry Fields, a memorial to Beatles icon John Lennon who was killed in New York City in 1980. Set over five acres, Strawberry Fields also includes the “Imagine” mosaic. Another British musician to have a memorial in New York is Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash. A mural of the legendary punk-rocker is painted on the side of East Village bar Niagara.
Lincoln Center and other music landmarks
One place that’s worth a visit is the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is home to 11 resident arts organisations and hosts events for music, theatre, dance, film and opera. Other attractions to add to your NYC music bucket list include the historic Carnegie Hall in Midtown Manhattan and Jones Street and West 4th Street, which is where Bob Dylan’s album cover was photographed for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”.
Top of the Rock with CityPASS
If you want to see New York from the ultimate vantage point, then head to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Here you will get 360-degree views of the five boroughs from various indoor and outdoor spots. Top of the Rock is one of the attractions included in the New York CityPASS. Costing $138 for adults and $118 for children (ages 6-17), the pass includes prepaid admission to the Empire State Building and American Museum of Natural History, plus admission to three more attractions of your choice: Top of the Rock Observation Deck; Ferry Access to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island; 9/11 Memorial & Museum; Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises; Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum; and the Guggenheim Museum.
Musical icons born in NYC
In the song “Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sang about how this “concrete jungle” is “where dreams are made of”. And these words often ring true as New York has a long list of musical icons who were born here. As well as Jay-Z (born in Brooklyn) and Alicia Keys (Hell’s Kitchen) the list includes the likes of Tupac Shakur (East Harlem), Lady Gaga (Manhattan), Jennifer Lopez (the Bronx), Billy Joel (the Bronx), Barbra Streisand (Brooklyn), Mary J. Blige (the Bronx) and Art Garfunkel (Queens).
Where to stay: Hard Rock Hotel New York
Frank Sinatra may have been born across the Hudson in Hoboken, New Jersey, but “Ol’ Blue Eyes” was certainly a big part of it in old New York. If music fans want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep, then the Hard Rock Hotel New York is a great option. Guests can slumber like a rock star at this hotel, which sits in the centre of Midtown Manhattan, just round the corner from landmarks including Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center and Broadway. Opened in 2022, the Hard Rock Hotel New York has 36 floors packed with music memorabilia and entertainment spaces, along with 400 guest rooms and 46 suites. Eating and drinking options at the hotel include NYY Steak and the RT60 NYC Rooftop Bar.
Flights: how to get to New York
United Airlines flies direct from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airport in New York and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey. Economy ticket prices from Heathrow start from £434.
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