There are better-named neighborhoods in New York City — ones whose monikers aren’t evocative of animal slaughter — and yet no ’hood is trendier right now than the Meatpacking District. Nestled against the Hudson in Lower Manhattan, it’s an incongruous place, the humble landscape of brick warehouses and angled cobblestone streets sprinkled with high-end boutiques, sumptuous restaurants and decadent nightclubs. Nothing typifies the changing face of the area quite like the fashionable Hotel Gansevoort, a 14-floor glass-and-concrete structure that rises conspicuously above its grittier neighbors. Inside, the double-height lobby is filled with gorgeous Europeans wielding shopping bags; upstairs, a rooftop bar features panoramic city views, a 45-foot heated pool, and a late-night crowd that’s often celebrity-studded. And of course there are the luxe guest rooms, stocked with gadgets galore (flat-screen TV, iPod docking station, CD player) — none of which hold much appeal, frankly, when compared to the feather bed with goose-down pillows. Less trendy, less obvious, less of-the-moment, but still as New York as a walk through Central Park is the modest but stylish Marcel at Gramercy, a quiet, newly renovated 135-room hotel close to Park Avenue and Gramercy Park, with very reasonable rates and guest rooms done up in a lovely black-and-white-lacquer decor that reminds you of a classic hatbox. Want the best of both big-city worlds? Spend a night in each. Hotel Gansevoort, 18 Ninth Avenue, New York, 212-206-6700, hotelgansevoort.com; the Marcel at Gramercy, 201 East 24th Street, New York, 212-696-3800, themarcelatgramercy.com.
Expect to pay: Rooms at the Gansevoort start at $325 in February and March, and go up to $425 from September to January and April to May. Rooms at the Marcel are a paltry $225 a night (with specials as low as $195). When it comes to extracurriculars, some of the best activities are the cheapest (see below), and meals in the city cost as much or as little as you want.
Be sure to: In the Meatpacking District, go designer window-shopping: Feast your eyes (and, ever so gently, your hands) on gossamer sheaths at Stella McCartney, velvet suits at Hugo Boss, skyscraper heels at Balenciaga, and the stunning collection at Alexander McQueen, where a mirrored bolero jacket will set you back $17,000. (But looking is free.) Gallery-hop in Chelsea, with a pit stop at vast food concourse Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Avenue) for a coffee and a Fat Witch brownie (around $5). Walk the blooming perimeter of famously private Gramercy Park (entrance at Irving and 20th), where only the closest residents are permitted access. Don’t look desperate to enter, but if a bejeweled dowager clutching a big key happens to give you the nod, by all means, sneak in behind her and soak up the gardens. Pretend you don’t notice the celebs lined up to attend the star-studded and not-too-artsy Tribeca Film Festival (April 22nd-May 3rd; among last year’s debuts: Baby Mama). General screening tickets (evenings and weekends) $15; tribecafilm.com.
Eat at: Where to start? At uptown’s Gramercy Tavern (42 East 20th Street, 212-477-0777, gramercytavern.com) — Manhattan’s favorite high-heeled gastropub — endless crowds of regulars (and would-be regulars) gather for lemon-and-razor-clam risotto, lamb pappardelle, and warm chocolate bread pudding. Sushi Samba (245 Park Avenue, 212-475-9377, sushisamba.com) offers a spicy bargain of a brunch: warm churros with caramel and chocolate dips, guava empanadas, whitefish maki rolls … four items for $15 per diner ($8 for children 12 and under). Breakfast or lunch or both at Ess-A Bagel (359 First Avenue, 212-260-2252, ess-a-bagel.com), a hole-in-the-wall bakery that boils them best. (We love the olives and cream cheese on pumpernickel.) Then there’s Mario Batali’s luxurious Del Posto (85 Tenth Avenue) for Italian, low-key The Diner (44 Ninth Avenue) that’s filled with scenesters, and Hector’s Café (44 Little West 12th Street) for comfort food that’s a taste of the old Meatpacking District.
Take this advice: Ask for a west-facing room at the Gansevoort, for a Hudson River view; at the Marcel, request a south-facing corner room to get the most light.
Been there, done that, city slicker? Try this! Looking for another cobblestoned city on a river that has sophistication coming out its oreilles? Montreal is a mere 90-minute flight from Philly. Stay at the boutique hotel Auberge du Vieux-Port for $170 a night, and brush up on your français (97 Rue de la Commune, 888-660-7678). Or try a trip to fabulous Chicago (two hours by plane), where well-known luxury boutique hotel The James sits just steps from Michigan Avenue shopping and Windy City sightseeing (tip: you’ll want to take the Architectural Boat Tour — it’s the best tour in the city) and is just a quick cab ride away from some of the best restaurants in the country. Rooms in April start at around $250 per night, but check the website for package deals, which the hotel offers throughout the year (55 East Ontario Street, Chicago, 312-337-1000, jameshotels.com).