NEW YORK -- You know New York, even if you've never been down Interstate 95 for a visit. So many TV shows and movies are set in this city that we almost assume any urban setting is the Big Apple. Advertising comes from here. The classic symbol of freedom is here. Our financial health is largely decided on Wall Street.
However, visit you must. Until you have experienced New York and rubbed shoulders with the rudest friendly people on earth, you're missing a vital link in understanding your own culture.
Can you afford a New York visit? You bet. Here is some of the best of New York, and tips to help you pay for it.
The subway is your limo. Few things say New York like the subway. Don't be afraid of it. It'll get you everywhere you want to go, and it is people-watching heaven. (Ignore the odd beggar; enjoy the odder drag queen.) It's safe -- just keep your eyes open and stay near the crowd. The minute you hit the city, buy a multiday MetroCard at any station. For $21, you get a week of unlimited subway and local bus rides. Visit www.mta.info.
Eat like a local. One bite of New York pizza and you know why the rest of the world tries to imitate it. Bad restaurants don't last here, so you'll get a good slice anyplace for about $2. You can also save at salad bar/buffets inside some delis. They're tasty, and you pay by weight (often about $5.50 a pound). Try Belly Delly Deli, on Broadway between 49th and 50th. Delicious, cheaper ethnic eats are all along Ninth Avenue. Locals head for East Indian in the East Village, where two can gorge for $20 total at the excellent Panna II (93 First Ave., 212-598-4610, www.panna2.com).
Broadway for a song. See a musical, not a play. For a treat, catch uber-belter Idina Menzel as the Wicked Witch of the West in ''Wicked." (Do hurry. She exits the show Jan. 9.) Or see the hilarious, Tony-winning ''Avenue Q," which feels like a very grown-up ''Sesame Street" (day-of-show tickets are available by lottery; be there by 5:30 p.m.). Biggies like ''The Lion King" and ''The Producers" now feature lesser-known actors, so see those shows on tour. Before you travel, visit www.playbill.com. Join their ''club," then access substantial discounts to many Broadway shows and you won't waste precious time standing in the TKTS discount line in Times Square (www.tdf.org/tkts) -- although that's still a better option than paying full price.
The best view is free. Most tourists miss this, because nobody makes any money promoting it. Hop aboard the A-train to
Lady Liberty, free. You can go inside the Statue of Liberty again (it was closed after 9/11 but reopened in August), but why bother paying to wander Liberty Island? Instead, see the statue the way millions of immigrants did: from shipboard. Hop on the free Staten Island Ferry, which en route sails close to the statue.
''Broadway" for free. Sort of. At the charming cabaret bar Don't Tell Mama (343 W. 46th St., www.donttellmama.com), for the price of a cocktail you'll hear amazing, aspiring Broadway performers belt out show tunes. It's good fun. For a great view of Broadway and over-the-top Times Square, visit the Broadway Lounge at the Marriott Marquis (eighth floor).
Walk in Central Park. It is New York's only true open space, and a great place to stretch and people-watch. Start at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and wander; maps are posted throughout. Especially good are the Literary Walk and nearby Bethesda FountainJust a little farther is Bow Bridge, a superb spot for gazing at Manhattan's high rises and realizing what an oasis the park really is. (The park includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is across the street from the Guggenheim, both excellent for bad weather.)
The amazing Empire State Building. Discounts aren't so frequent for this ''must see," but it's still worth every cent of the $12 admission price to visit the 102nd- floor viewing deck.
Circle the island. Three hours at $26 is a great value for anything in the city. Circle Line's boats (212-563-3200, www.circleline42.com) take you all the way around Manhattan from Pier 83 at W. 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. It's relaxing, and the local guides are great informants on the island's history, architecture, politics, people, and culture. They also take you around the Statue of Liberty.
Stay without breaking the bank. Stay near Times Square. Day or night, it's an eye-popping place. Try the Best Western President Hotel (234 W. 48th St.; 212-246-8800; 212-632-9000). It's not posh, but nice enough. Like many New York hotels, it has a variety of room types and sizes -- and a double bed will be a true double, not a queen. Online, a room for two often goes for just over $100 a night. It's just around the corner from the big Times Square hotels, for a third the price. Also nearby and affordable are Days Inn and Howard Johnson's.
Randall Shirley is a freelance writer in Calgary, Alberta.