NYC Food Experiences

NYC Food Experiences

By Jessica Festa

One of the best ways to explore a new destination is through the palate. For those traveling to New York City, you’ll have no limit to the number of food-focused activities you can partake in. From ambient aerial dining to learning to make your own pizza, here is a guide to NYC’s top food experiences.

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1. Head to a rooftop

Is there anything more ambient than dining on a rooftop? Luckily, New York City has plenty. One recommendation is Upstairs at the Kimberly, where farm-to-fork tapas (the spiced duck cigars with pomegranate dipping sauce are amazing!) and craft cocktails are paired with front-row views of the Chrysler Building, its spires especially beautiful at night when illuminated. Another great option is the Gallow Green , which sits on top of the quirky McKittrick Hotel, a warehouse-turned-live theater for the interactive Sleep No More performance. In the rooftop eatery overlooking Manhattan’s West Side, strings of bare bulbs, pebble garden floors and weathered wooden tables create a whimsical ambience, while punch bowls, glazed quail skewers, mini pork pies and elderflower cheesecake satisfy the palate.

2. Take a cooking class

Taking a cooking class in NYC is not only fun, it can help you really appreciate your food. While there are myriad of courses to choose from, it’s best to go with a class that reflects the local culture. During a pizza-making class with Pizza A Casa you’ll learn to make your own dough all the way to topping your creation, baking it and eating. Another yummy class is an Artisan Pretzel course with the Institute of Culinary Education, where you’ll leave understanding how to make delicious giant soft pretzels from scratch, complete with sweet and savory toppings and dipping sauces. While not a cooking class, per say, a Foraging Tour with “Wildman” Steve Brill  educates you how to put together truly local meals using the bounty of NYC parks.

3. Savor the best of NYC pizza

New York City is littered with 99 cent pizza shops and storefronts claiming to be “New York’s Best Pizza.” While I’m not saying these venues are bad, you should spend your money savoring pizza only from the top NYC shops. One local favorite is Artichoke Basille’s Pizza , known for hearty pizza wedges topped with everything from olive oil and fresh basil to crab sauce to spinach artichoke dip — not to mention beer and wine at their Chelsea location. If you like Sicilian pies, take the train into Brooklyn and visit L&B Spumoni Gardens , renowned for their square slices topped with tangy tomato sauce atop fresh mozzarella (and homemade spumoni). And at Tavola  in Hell’s Kitchen, Chef and Owner Nicola Accardi draws from his travels through Italy and serves out-of-this-world pizzas cooked to perfection in a 7,000-pound wood burning double oven made from Vesuvio volcanic clay. Yum!

4. Explore desserts in the West Village

Those with a sweet tooth should head to Manhattan’s West Village, home to NYC’s best sweeteries. Like cupcakes? Choose between Sweet Revenge, which specializes in pairing made-from-scratch cupcakes (think peanut butter cake stuffed with ganache and topped with peanut butter fudge) with wine and beer, or Molly’s Cupcakes  where you can make your own treat or choose from the decadent display case before sitting at one of the their courter swings or playing a board game from their expansive selection. If it’s gelato you’re after, Popbar serves artisanal gelato made fresh each day and dipped in sweet sauces before being coated in toppings. There’s also Grom , an Italian gelato company sourcing only the best ingredients, like organic stone fruits from Piedmont and lemons from Sicily. And at Ayza Wine & Chocolate Bar  one can indulge their cocoa craving with a selection of chocolate martinis, fondue, a chocolate fountain, dessert pizza, truffles, molten cake and more.

5. Go farm-to-fork

One way to get a true taste of local culture is through a farm-to-fork restaurant serving dishes crafted from locally-sourced ingredients. If you head to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and walk down Bedford Avenue and its surrounds, you’ll find almost nothing but, with sustainable eateries like Wild, Allswell , Traif  and Brooklyn Oenology , a New York winery also serving local nibbles. In Manhattan, don’t miss ABC Kitchen , where ingredients are not only locally and humanely sourced, but healthy and free of any chemicals or hormones. The grilled bread topped with house-made ricotta and fig compote, and the fried organic chicken with collard greens are both menu standouts.

Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture  as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey . She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.  You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram.

NYC on a Budget

By Jessica Festa


(Photo by Erik Drost)

While NYC is known for being pricey, it doesn’t have to be. All you need are a few insider tips and you’ll enjoy the best of the Big Apple on a budget. From free tours to complimentary nibbles, here are some top tips for New York on a budget, as told by a local.

1. Opt for free experiences

It’s a myth that everything in NYC costs a fortune. In fact, the city is full of complimentary experiences to enjoy. Wander lush and fun-filled grounds like Central and Prospect Parks, head to Bryant Park to learn juggling or take a yoga class, wander the inspiring Socrates Sculpture Park, see a show at Upright Citizens Brigade ($0-$10), take a free class at the New York Public Library, and keep your eyes peeled for free tastings at wine shops like Astor Wines & Spirits and Big Tree Bottles.

A number of world class museums offer donation-only based entry, like the American Museum of Natural History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, National Museum of the American Indian and the Leslie–Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. If a museum isn’t free, check their website to see if they offer any special free days or evenings, as many do.4487307969_35184152e4_z

 (Photo by Tassilo von Parseval)

2. Skip the taxi

Depending where you need to go, you’ll often be able to reach a destination quicker when taking the subway, as you’ll skip the street traffic. Although NYC’s extensive transport map appears similar to a scary alien creature when you first look at it, it’s actually simple to understand — and can take you literally anywhere you need to go. The easiest way to navigate the subway is with an app like Embark  or HopStop, which both tell you exactly what you need to do to get from Point A to Point B. If you don’t have a smartphone, HopStop provides subway directions through its website.

3. Complimentary walking tours that rock

When planning a budget-friendly trip to NYC, don’t just book the first excursion that shows up in a Google search. First, check the offerings of Free Tours by Foot . This sightseeing company works on a tips-only basis, so the  walking excursions themselves are no charge. You’ll just need to make a reservation to reserve your spot. To show you just how varied their tour offerings are, some options include Ghosts of Greenwich Village, Gramercy Thrift and Vintage Shopping Day, Central Park, Brooklyn Graffiti And Street Art, and Harlem Food, to name a few.

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(Photo by Phil Roeder.)

 4. Use tools for hotel savings

Accommodation is often the most expensive part of an NYC stay. Save money by downloading apps and using tools designed just for that. For example, Hotel Tonight   allows you to save on unsold hotel rooms up to seven days before your trip. Moreover, Tingo  is a travel booking website that offers price drop refunds, meaning if your hotel room becomes cheaper after you book you’ll get the difference back. And with Priceline you can bid on hotel rooms — although you’ll only know the class of the hotel before you pay — and often score business and luxury class hotels for 50% or more off. You can also use tools like Groupon  and LivingSocial to find discounted hotels and travel packages — not to mention attractions and restaurants — typically offered at more than half off the original price.


hotel room via Jessica Festa

(Photo by Jessica Festa)

5. Find happy hours serving free food

Happy hour is a great time to score discounted food and drinks. Not only that, but at select venues in NYC you can also get free food, often with the purchase of a drink. While Agozar!  offers free tapas between 5 and 8pm, The Watering Hole  serves a free buffet between 5:30pm to 6:30pm on weekdays. Head to restaurants like Crocodile Lounge, Alligator Lounge  and Charleston  and you’ll be savoring your very own personal pizza pie. Do some research to see where you can stretch those dining dollars even farther with complimentary bites.


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Jessica Festa is the editor of the online food, culture and responsible travel magazine, Epicure & Culture as the solo and offbeat travel blog, Jessie on a Journey.  Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.  You can also follow Jessie’s adventures on Facebook , Twitter  and Instagram.




NYC dusk_shutterstock_reduced

An Interview with Tour Guide Bryce Hill – New York City!

California Tours introduces a new series of interviews with the tour guides who lead our tours around the US. They’ll share funny stories, travel tips, and details about the destinations that they visit so often.

Bryce Hill is a tour guide based in the New York area, with expertise in New York City, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New England and Montreal.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
My background includes BA degrees in Speech/English/History and a MA degree in Theatre Directing.  For over 20 years I ran the theatre department at a Performing Arts summer camp.  Several of my former students are currently on Broadway.  I also got the opportunity to work at a Relais Chateau hotel property doing special events.

So how did you get started as a tour guide? 
While online looking for a new career path, Tour Directing popped up.  It encompassed several of my personal passions: directing, teaching, travel and meeting new people.  It seemed liked the perfect fit for me.

How did you end up in New York?
When I was 5 years old I saw the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in color for the first time.  When the Radio City Rockettes arrived with Santa, I walked up to the TV screen and announced to my family that I was moving to NYC.  From that moment on it was just a matter of time.  Three of my former students are now Rockettes!

What do you like about being a tour guide?
Sharing the places I love with others and being the first to show it to them.

What is challenging about it?
Trying to remember what it was like when I first saw something and trying to give my guests that first “wow” moment.

How do you prepare your trips?
First, I get the logistics part of the trip out of the way, the nitty gritty stuff – how to get from point A to point B on time.  Then I focus on the “fun” stuff of the trip – these are the things that my guests will always remember.

What is the “creative process” for a tour guide?
This is really the best part of being a Tour Guide.  We get to bring each place to life for our guests.  It is really similar to putting on a play.  Everything has to have a beginning, middle, and end. People really want to hear the stories about each place, not just see the places.  It is the stories that they remember.

Can you recommend any getaways, outdoors or otherwise, near New York?
I recommend a side trip to West Point, the military academy, which is just over an hour away from Midtown Manhattan.  It is a beautiful drive up the Hudson River into the mountains (who knew NYC is less than an hour away from mountains!). It is beautiful any time of year.  The campus is on a dramatic cliff above the river.  The best day to go is on a Sunday, when you can have Sunday Brunch with the Cadets at the historic Hotel Thayer right on the campus.

What is your dream itinerary for New York and the surrounding area?
I would hope that you have at least 4 days, if not a week.  But the must-see places include a trip to: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Wall Street, the World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial. Chinatown, Soho and Greenwich Village. Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center. Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And make sure to see at least two Broadway shows! If you have more time, then I would recommend walking across the Brooklyn Bridge and exploring Brooklyn. Other sights that take you out of Manhattan include Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, the Staten Island Ferry and Coney Island!

Visit these links on the travel blogosphere for more on New York:


California Tours - Empire State Building

Above the 86th Floor — The Empire State Building

California Tours - Empire State BuildingYears before I lived in New York City and worked at the Empire State Building, I was a new tourist, navigating the overwhelming streets for the first time, my head continuously tilted back to take in the towering view above me.

My first stop in the city was the top of the Empire State Building. My mom and I got up early to be at the front of the line for the ear-popping ride up 86 floors. Immortalized in movies from King Kong to Sleepless in Seattle, the classic art deco icon stands so tall, you can walk past it on the street level without noticing. But from far away, it is a beacon, marking midtown and standing as a reminder of New York’s grand past when tall buildings, such as the Chrysler Building and 30 Rockefeller Center, were shaping New York’s skyline. In New England towns, it’s the church steeples that stick up above the rooftops and connect a town to its past – in New York, it’s the radio spire of the Empire State Building.

Now I work in the 34th floor of the Empire State Building, and the platform at the top is one of my favorite corners of the city where I frequently take visiting friends and relatives. It is on this level that you can go outside into the New York breeze above pigeon level and water towers and skyscrapers. The entire city is stretched out to the horizon and up into the sky. The old-fashioned view finders stand at the corners, witnesses to how many people must have gazed out over the city, trying to spot the distant figure of the Statue of Liberty.

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

The Empire State Building lights up for Christmas

Yellow dots of taxis fill the narrow streets below. You can pick out the bridges to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and New Jersey, and point out rooftop swimming pools and restaurants. Central Park is a patch of green against the city gray; the curve of Madison Square Garden peeks around 34th St.; 30 Rockefeller Center stretches high; the top of the Chrysler building gleams. And through the buildings, just a flicker of Times Square lights flash. You can see how the skyline dips lower between the skyscrapers of Midtown and the tall buildings of downtown. At night, the lights spread for miles. In the winter, tiny moving figures glide across the skating rinks in Bryant Park and Central Park.

Tourists from around the world gather to pick out their favorite sites in Manhattan, or to see the sites for the first time – from over 86 stories up.

This is not quite the top, though. Another small, old-fashioned elevator goes into the needle. An elevator operator pulls the gate shut and takes visitors up 16 stories, answering questions if there are any. One kind operator even held my friend’s hand as she braved her way to the top, although she was terrified of heights.

The needle is smaller, enclosed, and quieter. I find it to be the most peaceful place in the city. You duck around steel beams to get a 360 degree view out the windows of the city spread below. The taxis are even smaller, the harbor even further. It is truly the highest spot you can go in the city – and the swirl of the streets is that much farther away.

California Tours - Empire State Building

The Empire State Building by day

I found a postcard of the Empire State Building from my grandfather to his father in 1936, describing in his yellowed cursive being above the clouds after the fog rolled in and covered the “wonderful view.” I imagine the view from the Empire State Building has changed dramatically since he was there – buildings have risen and some have fallen. But the Empire State Building itself seems to never change.

I often leave work late, through the quiet, polished lobby where men are buffing the floors and shining the classic adornments. They are prepping the building for another day, keeping it fresh for the next batch of new faces to pass through the halls.

Drake Lucas is a former journalist based in Brooklyn, now working in communications for a non-profit organization. She loves a good travel adventure wherever it comes, whether it’s a spontaneous safari in India or stumbling onto a movie set during a hike in Yosemite. Follow her on Twitter: @drake_lucas.

California Tours offers customizable vacation packages to New York. For more information, please visit New York Vacation Packages by California Tours.

Thanksgiving - Travel Tips for the Holiday

Travel Tips and Activity Ideas for Thanksgiving

Autumn Leaves at ThanksgivingLet’s admit it: American Thanksgiving has changed drastically from a hallowed day of giving thanks and celebrating the pilgrims’ discovery of North America, to a commercialized occasion for eating egregiously and flailing over football. However, one thing that has not changed about Thanksgiving, held on the fourth Thursday of November, is the tradition of Americans spending time with their loved ones — consequently ramping up travel business by driving or flying hundreds of miles per capita over a mere four days.

Travel tips
Because Thanksgiving is a hectic time for travel, we suggest finalizing your plans now. Advance tickets and accommodations are more available in October than they will be even in early November. Furthermore, planes will be stuffed like a traditional turkey with all the passengers jetting cross-country, so pack light to eliminate checked bag fees and ensure you have space in the overhead bins. Roads will be more crowded on Thursday for trips under 100 miles, so consider driving on Wednesday for short distances. Likewise, airport and road traffic will be heavy Sunday, so plan accordingly!

Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving - Travel Tips for the Holiday

Turkey Trots and Football
Americans often gain several pounds from November to January — after all, can you really refuse Nana’s third offering of mashed potatoes with gravy? Tripwolf’s blog paints a caricature of the typical Thanksgiving post-prandial state: “TV and movies don’t usually show the very unsexy parts of Thanksgiving where you’re watching football in a half-comatose state after having covertly unbuttoned your jeans.” So get out of that house or hotel!

Burn off those two (ok, three) slices of pumpkin pie by finding a Turkey Trot run or race near you. This is great for family bonding and guilt reduction, and many events allow you to run for a good cause. Check’s event listings for a race in your city. You might also opt to start a friendly game of (American!) football in lieu of watching the NFL game on TV with 39 million others — to kill time while the chefs are in the kitchen!

Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York - Snoopy Balloon

© musicwala

Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York
The famous parade of performers, floats and giant cartoon characters is a Thanksgiving tradition for many families as they anticipate the evening meal. For those not in New York, catch the parade on TV from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Thursday. For a good seat when viewing in person, layer up, arrive as early as 6 a.m., and sip on hot chocolate while you wait. For less stress, head to the Museum of Natural History at Columbus and 77th on Wednesday around 4 p.m. to watch the giant balloons being inflated!

Black Friday and Cyber Monday
On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, try your luck alongside the millions of others nationwide who will line up early for store sales beginning at 5 AM, but be safe! Overly enthusiastic shoppers have been known to trample and fight others just to get their deal. Cyber Monday, an online discount shopping event following Thanksgiving weekend, should prove slightly more calm!

Travel Extras

What are your plans for Thanksgiving? Any advice for the best travel at this time of year?