Travel black book: New York

Who: Joshua Kangming Tan, 37. The Singaporean is associate conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and assistant director of the Guiyang Symphony Orchestra.

Favourite city: New York Why: I actually hated New York when I first set foot in the city in 1997.

Everyone had talked about how wonderful it was but I found it so dirty and the subway was old and smelt really bad. It was also crowded. But when I moved there 10 years later, I fell in love with it. It's a real melting pot.

There are people from literally all over the world and they have made the neighbourhoods they live in very distinctive in character. So many people are also there to pursue a dream and that makes the city a very open, vibrant place, especially artistically. That can't be compared with anywhere else in the world.

Favourite hotel

The Milford New York Hotel, which used to be called the Milford Plaza Hotel (700 8th Avenue, tel: +1-212-869-3600), is my favourite for sentimental reasons. It was where I stayed when I was in New York to audition for the Juilliard School in 2007. I remember spending my every waking moment preparing for the audition.

It's in a very good location, close to Times Square and the Port Authority bus station. If it's your first time in the city, it's a great place to start out. It's also one of the more affordable hotels in the city, which is known for its astronomically high rents and hotel rates. Rooms here start from US$220 (S$274) a night.

Favourite neighbourhood

I love the Upper West Side of New York, between Central Park and the Hudson River. It starts from around West 60th Street and goes past West 100th Street. It's where Juilliard is and I lived near West 72nd Street, so I'm familiar with the area.

I really don't like the Times Square area - there are too many shops selling the exact same knick-knacks and it's too touristy.

So I prefer spending time in the Upper West Side. I'd recommend walking along the main arteries of the area - Amsterdam Avenue or Columbus Avenue - from 72nd Street until you get to Columbia University.

This is where you can feel what New York City is really about. It's not Times Square.

There is a great mix of shops and outdoor cafes, as well as interesting and famous buildings along the way, such as the Dakota Apartments (1 West 72nd Street) where John Lennon was shot. It's a safe area to walk around in and it's very hip and artsy. You might even bump into some actors who live in the area, such as Al Pacino.

Best hidden find

I found Levain Bakery (167 West 74th Street, New York, tel: +1-212-874-6080, open Mondays to Saturdays from 8am to 7pm and Sundays from 9am to 7pm) while out jogging and exploring the neighbourhood one day.

It was two streets away from where I was living at the time. It's a small, hole-in-the- wall bakery that has the most out-of-this-world cookies. Every flavour there is worth trying, but the double chocolate is one of my favourites.

Favourite place for breakfast

Aroma Espresso Bar (161 West 72nd Street, New York, tel: +1-212-595-7700, open daily from 7am to 11pm) serves really good coffee and a great typical New York breakfast of smoked salmon on bagels.

That's what I would recommend for good food.

For a must-try New York experience, stop by Gray's Papaya (2090 Broadway, between West 72nd Street and 73rd Street, tel: +1-212-799-0243, open 24 hours) one morning.

It's a New York City institution and many people grab a hotdog and coffee for breakfast from there. I've done so several times myself while on the way to school. I don't really like hotdogs that much but it's really cheap - about US$2 for a hotdog and less than US$1 for a coffee. Must-do cultural activity

Go to a concert or performance at the Juilliard School (60 Lincoln Center Plaza, tel: +1-212-799-5000).

I'm not just saying this because I'm biased. Many students there are really world-class and there is a performance almost every day. It's a good chance to catch the stars of tomorrow before they become famous and the performances are either very inexpensive or free. When I was there, I had several schoolmates who were already very accomplished. You can also do a lot of classical music star-spotting, if you're interested in that.

The faculty list reads like a who's who of the classical music scene and includes people such as Israeli-American violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman.

There are usually many visiting artists and alumni giving performances too. Another must-do is to catch a performance at Carnegie Hall (881 7th Avenue, tel: +1-212-247-7800). It is my favourite place to go to watch performances. I used to go there at least twice a month. The acoustics are very good. Many major orchestras perform there - I've performed there once too. One thing concertgoers must prepare for, though, is the cramped seating. The seats are really uncomfortable, especially for people with long legs.

jennanid@sph.com.sg


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