The Financial District is where New York City began. The neighbourhood’s historic significance is comparable to parts of Boston and Philadelphia, and arguably even more so when you add in the millions of stories from newly-arrived immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who were processed at Castle Clinton and Ellis Island before gaining their first foothold into this tantalising ‘promised land’.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the area is home to some of the world’s greatest economic powerhouses, including the headquarters of major banks and financial institutions – though there are still some remarkable contrasts to be found if you look closely: modern skyscrapers butting up against century-old red brick buildings, million dollar bonus-earning bankers chowing down fast food from the trucks lined up on the sidewalk. It’s an endlessly fascinating part of Manhattan, and if you’re in town on business you may well find yourself here. Here’s our guide to making the most of your trip.
You might be an experienced business traveller but if it’s your first time in NYC, the Financial District will let you cross some compulsory experiences off your tourist to-do list, many of which can be squeezed between meetings or done after hours. Manhattan’s oldest neighbourhood is the jumping off point for trips to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. It’s where the story of New York’s maritime history reveals itself, brought to life at the South Street Seaport Museum. And it’s where you can begin one of the world’s best urban walks, across the Brooklyn Bridge.
But most of all, this is the global nerve centre of money and power, with Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange twin symbols of a greed-is-good ideology that helped to make this skyscraper-packed thumbprint at the tip of Manhattan the financial hub of America. Before all this came to pass, however, the neighbourhood witnessed some of the city’s finest achievements; the founding of the nation’s first Congress, Supreme Court and the inauguration of George Washington at Federal Hall – now a National Memorial and museum – and the construction of the neo-Gothic Trinity Church, once New York’s tallest building.
Today, the area still throngs with power dressing bankers marching from gilded tower to deal-making lunch and back again, but the current post-recession buzz lacks the brashness of the late 20th/early 21st century boom years. Nonetheless, you can soak up the moneyed vibe on a guided tour of the Federal Reserve Bank and its vault of gold, or by visiting the Museum of American Finance – followed by a quick rub of the Wall Street Charging Bull’s nether regions for good luck.
But it’s not all about cash in the Financial District. As one of Manhattan’s fastest growing residential areas, the neighbourhood is presently in the midst of a housing boom, which means a flourishing restaurant scene, a glut of cultural attractions and an increasing focus on shopping. Here’s our pick of the best ways to discover Downtown in your downtime.
- Stroll through the red brick 19th century Stone Street Historic District, immaculately restored from its previous dark days of neglect and disrepair. Stone Street itself, so named for its worn-smooth cobblestone paving, plays host to a lively scene of restaurants, bars and pavement cafés.
- Visit the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park and explore the city’s enduring love of tall buildings. The current exhibition SKY HIGH looks at the proliferation of pencil-thin luxury high-rise apartments across Manhattan.
- Despite its temporary relocation, the New York City Police Museum is still an absorbing place, where visitors can discover the history, culture, policies and impact of the NYPD over the last three centuries.
- Almost worth visiting for its stunning beaux arts building alone, the National Museum of the American Indian sits within the 1907 Custom House and hosts a regularly changing mix of exhibitions which document Native American culture, beliefs and history, with artefacts from almost every North American Indian tribe.
- Need to pick up new togs for an important client event or some gifts for friends and family back home? Join New York’s obsessive, penny pinching style-seekers on a trip to the discount, mega-department store Century 21 on Cortlandt Street, and get up to 65% off fashion, shoes, bags, accessories, homewares, cosmetics, toiletries and toys.
And of course, no guide to the Financial District would be complete without reference to its most infamous and defining event. In May this year, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum finally opened to the public (the Memorial section opened in 2011) after many years of development and discussion. The site, at the base of the new One World Trade Center, aims to both honour the victims and explore the continued repercussions of the attacks, with a permanent collection of stories, photos, personal effects, recorded testimonies and tributes.
Wining and dining
At lunchtime, business travellers normally fall into one of two camps – the expense account brigade, and those who’ve got no more than ten minutes to grab something and run.
If you fall into the former category, you’re in luck. As you might expect, this neighbourhood is home to some top-class establishments – all the better if you’re on the receiving end of the deal. There’s plenty more reasonable options too, however, should you need to show some restraint. Try the Stone Street Tavern for a quality range of American comfort food and burgers; ‘America’s first restaurant’ Delmonico’s for signature steaks and lobster; casual Parisian bistro Les Halles Downtown for salads, sandwiches, steaks and mussels, or pull out all the stops with a booking at ultra high-end Cipriani Wall Street or The Capital Grille.
Need to eat and walk simultaneously? Check out the super-sized range of sandwiches on offer at beloved deli Pisillo Italian Panini at 97 Nassau Street; grab a roast beef and provolone Philly-style sub at Dave’s Hoagies, or pay a visit to Veronica’s Kitchen food truck on Water Street (between Pine and Wall Street) for a spicy boxful of Trinidadian soul food.
Come nighttime, the Financial District quietens down a bit, but the bar scene still holds its own. Recently awarded the no-pressure title of “World’s Best New Cocktail Bar”, Water Street’s multi-storey Dead Rabbit is the current place to be seen, not just in this neighbourhood but in all Manhattan. Sprawling pub/restaurant Ulysses is similarly lauded, though more for its cosiness than its cocktails. There’s Guiness on tap, plus an extensive beer list. Or spend an evening sampling some of the 80 by-the-glass old world vintages and barrel-aged whiskeys at Vintry Wine & Whiskey and embrace the inevitable hangover.
For the most part, accommodation in the Financial District does a functional job, which is arguably all a business traveller needs. But as the neighbourhood continues to become less of a Monday-to-Friday destination, visitors expect the same kind of emphasis on style and service as they’d find in hotels further uptown, particularly if combining business with leisure.
W Downtown is our top hotel pick, successfully mixing Wall Street chutzpah with a laid back nightclub vibe. The gleaming 58-storey property (including upper floor residences) sprung up several years ago in what must be the most startling location in Manhattan; directly opposite the new World Trade Center and overlooking the two gaping holes previously occupied by the twin towers.
If the view was poignant when the hotel opened in 2010, it is truly extraordinary now. The scars in the ground have become the reflecting pools of the 9/11 Memorial, and the 104-storey 1 WTC is now the nation’s tallest building, with an observation deck scheduled to open in 2015. Gazing down on all of this are the hotel’s minimalist ‘Spectacular’ rooms, which sensibly provide little in the way of visual distraction, sticking to a calming white palette with a few bold flashes of colour here and there. Supremely comfortable pillow-top mattresses, high-tech media systems and custom built-in furniture complete the low-key, streamlined look, and a white leather, full-width window seat offers a perch for watching lines of people no bigger than ants queue up at the Memorial’s entrance – a quietly compelling pastime, if you have no issues with vertigo.
Back at street level, classic American fare and a weekend ‘Bottomless Brunch’ is on offer at the cosy booth-lined BLT Bar & Grill, while the fifth floor open-air Living Room Bar & Terrace offers a sultry spot for downtown’s glamour set to mingle, with similarly unobstructed views. Should you need them, there’s a 1,000 square foot gym and 24-hour business centre too.
W Downtown is also a member of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, a Virgin Atlantic Flying Club hotel partner with over 1100 properties in almost 100 countries. Visit the Flying Club website for details of how you can earn miles with every Starwood stay.
W Downtown, 123 Washington Street, New York 10006. Double rooms from $327 (£195), www.whotels.com/newyorkdowntown
Other solid sleeping bets include sophisticated Gild Hall with its gourmet Dean & Deluca minibars; the luxury Ritz-Carlton which looks out across the waterfront from its Battery Park location, and Club Quarters Wall Street, which offers hotel rooms, full service studios with kitchenettes, and apartments for extended stays.
Header photo: Living Room Bar & Terrace © Starwood Hotels & Resorts
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.