New York City: What lies beneath

Expand your view by scaling new depths of the Big Apple.

Photograph by Michael George
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Built in 1926, the InterContinental New York Barclay hotel offers even the most experienced travelers a chance to exchange the hectic New York City streets for timeless sophistication.

Photograph by Michael George

Among North American cities, none stands taller than New York. More than 280 buildings in the city stand at least 492 feet high and approximately 30 more currently are under construction. So, while it’s understandable that visitors typically look skyward, an equally fascinating view of the Big Apple lies at its core: underground. Beneath the buzzing city streets and gleaming skyscrapers is a vast labyrinth of tunnels, walkways, and other man-made spaces. Both in the literal and metaphorical sense, New York City promises endless fascination for those that care to look below the surface.

The expertise to enable visitors to look deeper and truly discover the fascinating beating heart of a city is a skill often only perfected through experience. InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts, with more than seven decades of expertise pioneering luxury travel and providing local, cultural insights in more than 60 countries around the globe, is often a gateway linking visitors with a city’s character and ‘personality’, which in turn shape the people who live there and the experiences that each destination uniquely offers.

One of the city’s most ambitious underground projects was the construction of the Grand Central Terminal, opened in 1913 in Manhattan’s Midtown East. To build the terminal and put the new electrified rail tracks beneath the surface, workers excavated roughly enough rock and dirt to fill a hollow Empire State building about four times. Among the new buildings that quickly sprouted up were grand railroad hotels, such as the Federalist-style InterContinental New York Barclay. Debuting in 1926, this hotel retains the grace and style of rail travel’s early 20th-century heyday. Period 1920s details such as a Carrara marble grand staircase, an elaborate lobby ceiling, and majestic wall murals reminiscent of mid-19th-century Hudson River School landscapes, exude a timeless elegance. The hotel even had its own private platform in Grand Central, allowing guests to arrive by train underground and avoid the elements, noise, and crowds of the city streets above.

The same exceptional level of personal service afforded Barclay guests during the golden age of rail travel continues today, says InterContinental® Ambassador member Steve Koch, who considers the InterContinental® New York Barclay his “home away from home” when working in Manhattan. For Koch, being part of the Ambassador program with InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts —which prides itself on its international know-how and empathy for local cultural wisdom—regularly provides him with opportunities to discover something new whilst being at the heart of what he knows and loves. One recent discovery made, thanks to a recent stay at InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts, he says, was a newfound interest in tennis after watching the epic 2019 US Open Women’s Final between Serena Williams and Bianca Andresecu.

Through the Ambassador program, Koch was treated to courtside seats for the final at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens. His experience showed how being at the heart of the city gives a whole new perspective. “I had never been to the US Open before, and sitting courtside was a whole different experience than watching a tennis match on TV,” says Koch, who admits he wasn’t an ardent tennis fan before attending the match. “It was tantamount to being in a courtside seat at an NBA game. You can hear everything that goes on the courts…You get to see the players up close, rather than from a bird’s-eye view in a suite or the upper level. Especially if you’re not a tennis buff, seeing it courtside will turn you into a tennis buff.”

Besides invitations to special events, Koch says that simply being in New York gives guests at the InterContinental New York Barclay and the InterContinental New York Times Square opportunities to feel a part of city: experiencing life as a local whilst traversing the fine line between explorer and native New Yorker. Koch says he especially enjoys exploring the boroughs beyond Manhattan to discover family-owned restaurants, pizza parlors, and other hidden culinary gems rarely frequented by tourists.

“I gravitate to the neighborhood restaurants in places like Brooklyn, Queens, and on Arthur Avenue up in the Bronx to get away from that ‘rush-you-through-the-door’ restaurant scene in Manhattan,” Koch adds. One of Koch’s favorite places to dine is Ferdinando’s Focacceria, an old-school Sicilian restaurant in Brooklyn with marble-top tables and time-worn wooden floors, run by members of the same family since 1904.

“The food is really authentic and a lot of movies and TV shows are filmed there,” Koch says. “They only take credit cards on weekends and close at eight o’clock during the week. It’s very quirky…and it really is traditional Sicilian food that you would not get in a Midtown Manhattan restaurant.”

That’s not to say that Midtown isn’t a treasure trove of hidden gems. Among the jewels worth discovering in the Turtle Bay area of the city is a “vest-pocket park,” known as Greenacre Park. One of the smallest in the city, the park reflects the enigmatic side of New York. The yin to the city’s boisterous yang, this 6,360 square feet park features a 25-foot waterfall. The cascading water blocks out the city sounds for a quiet escape, maybe for peaceful contemplation, or just to revel in the exhilaration of discovering something so unique. The park has faced many battles over recent years and it’s “Fight for Light” campaign continues to gain strong support from native New Yorkers who understand the special role parks play in their city.

But venturing beneath the busy streets, if it is the underground drinking culture which fascinates, it’s worth noting that Brooklyn is home to an underworld of historic lagering tunnels or caves, used by the former Nassau Brewery of Crown Heights to ferment beer. Dating back to the 1850s and closed during the Prohibition era (1920 to 1933), the cavernous spaces are 30 feet underground and maintain an average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Today, it’s wheels of cheese, not barrels of beer, are stored in the tunnels, now owned by Crown Finish Caves, a cheese-aging facility and dairy plant. Crown Finish Caves also reserves one tunnel for Cave Music, a bi-monthly subterranean concert series. The intimate setting and haunting, natural acoustics of the cave create a sound experience unlike any that could be experienced above ground.

Back in Manhattan, the Financial District (FiDi) offers several hidden experiences easily missed by the casual observer. There’s the Federal Gold Reserve, the largest concentration of gold in the world, locked away beneath the streets in the legendary vault. Few would expect such well-guarded assets to be open to the public, yet public tours are a regular feature; however, visitors must apply one month in advance for security purposes. Meanwhile, nearby 77 Water Street is filled with unexpected finds, including a turn-of-the-century penny candy store replica that is actually open for business.

It’s little wonder that New York retains its fascination for many travelers, with its iconic skyscrapers and landmarks, however for those content to dig deeper and step away from the more obvious tourist traps, the city opens its doors to a real understanding of what it means to be a New Yorker. In a city where the focus is up, going deeper has its rewards—particularly for the curious who seek to broaden their knowledge through travel.

Learn how you can continue fueling your fascination for discovering new places by becoming an InterContinental® Ambassador.

Participating InterContinental® Ambassador members will receive a token gift for their time.

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