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Winter Travel

Return to New York: Broadway’s back and the city is humming

The city that never sleeps is reawakening after its long pandemic hiatus.

The view inside a mirrored room at SUMMIT One Vanderbilt, a skyscraper observatory on Manhattan’s 42nd Street.John Minchillo/Associated Press

It’s just past 8 p.m. on a Saturday and New York, once again, is buzzing. In Midtown, red taillights flow in an excited blur as traffic pushes bullishly toward Times Square, where fun-seekers mix with hawkers, gawkers, and even dog walkers on the colorful, congested sidewalks.

The scene is a far cry from the spring of 2020, when the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the United States shut down the city, startling us with images of an empty Times Square. Gone were the massive crowds of tourists — an eerie absence signaling the seriousness of the pandemic that was beginning to unfurl.

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Here at the tail end of 2021, Times Square’s legendary vivacity — all right, madness — is back. Yes, some storefronts remain darkened, a persistent reminder of the pandemic’s toll. But from Broadway’s return to the opening of a spate of new hotels and attractions, the city that never sleeps — and Midtown Manhattan in particular — is reawakening. It’s full of adventures for the winter visitor, whether you’re here for a week or a 24-hour jaunt.

My weekend adventure starts at the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 40th, the site of Margaritaville Resort Times Square (rooms from $195 per night; margaritavilleresorts.com, 212-221-3007), a gleaming 32-story tower that opened in the spring. Festooned with fake palm trees and all manner of amenities, the resort is the perfect welcome mat for tourists — especially families — seeking a tropical-themed respite, especially in the colder months.

At the ground-floor entrance, people take selfies in front of a giant blue flip-flop (just shy of 14-feet high), a nod to the laid-back style of Jimmy Buffett, who inspired the brand’s concept. The resort’s five restaurants and bars offer Tex-Mex comfort food and, of course, margaritas. During the early evening, the two-tiered rooftop 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar, spanning the 31st and 32nd floors, draws a steady trickle of guests coming out of their rooms for a drink before hitting the town. Later, it beckons folks in from the street for late-night carousing, complete with thumping beats from a DJ and glittering views of the bright city skyline.

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In a few weeks time, of course, Times Square will host New Year’s Eve’s fabled ball drop, but that televised spectacle isn’t the beating heart of Times Square. Rather, it’s the bravado of Broadway’s theaters that makes this area tick — and with their return this fall, the city’s pulse quickened.

Be aware: Most restaurants, bars, theaters, and museums require proof of vaccination, so keep it handy; and masking is mandated indoors at most venues. For COVID updates and information on events and happenings, the best place to check is NYCGO.com.

At the Shubert Theatre, Jeff Daniels stars in To Kill a Mockingbird, Aaron Sorkin’s lauded adaptation of Harper Lee’s timeless novel. The production stars Daniels as Atticus Finch, though Greg Kinnear is set to take over the role at the beginning of January. Nearby, at the St. James Theatre, the marquee announces David Byrne’s American Utopia, which reopened mid-October and runs until March (for all show tickets, go to broadway.com).

At the back of a packed St. James, as I enter a little late, an usher dances in sync with Byrne and his fellow gray-suited performers, as does the sound man in the booth next to her. Indeed, the Afro-Caribbean rhythms parlayed by the all-singing, all-playing, all-dancing cast are infectious. The rousing, consciousness-raising show built around Byrne’s songs already ran in Boston during its national tour. But seeing Byrne on Broadway, a stage he inhabits with great purpose, is alone worth braving the Midtown crowds for.

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David Byrne (foreground) in a scene from "David Byrne’s American Utopia."Associated Press

It’s late Sunday morning in the city, and the frenzied night life has given way to a mellower rhythm. Certainly that’s the vibe at Nearly Ninth’s streetside lounge-cafe on West 38th, where a crisp salad brightened with chicory and pear and a grilled eggplant sandwich, tangy with balsamic vinegar — all washed down with gingery kombucha — make for a tasty brunch.

Nearly Ninth is tucked inside the recently-opened Arlo Midtown, a spacious boutique hotel with wild-looking hanging greenery in its towering atrium lobby (rooms from $179 per night; arlohotels.com/arlo-midtown, 212-343-7000). The 26-story hotel is the third New York location for a brand that offers great social-culinary spaces such as Nearly Ninth, which expands into a full restaurant with a plant-lined courtyard, and continues upward to a rooftop bar with views of the Empire State Building. That grand old icon, by the way, celebrated its 90th birthday (esbnyc.com) this past spring, but it is Midtown’s stunning new, super-tall observation decks that are grabbing the most attention these days.

In Midtown East, SUMMIT One Vanderbilt (summitov.com), by Grand Central Terminal, opened in October atop the new 93-story One Vanderbilt office tower. The attraction combines sleek art installations with breathtaking views at dizzying heights.

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SUMMIT is an incredibly shiny, multiroom experience. Its Levitation section has glass-floored skyboxes that extend from the building and look down on Madison Avenue far below. For the brave, there’s SUMMIT’s all-glass elevator, Ascent, which runs up the side of the building from the main viewing point (1,063 feet) to 1,200 feet, giving visitors the highest views in Midtown.

After waiting in a lengthy line, I make it up to SUMMIT’s glass chambers. The Transcendence section is a mirrored-gallery-turned-playroom where people view themselves among reflections of the skyline; in Affinity, children and adults delight in batting silver balloons about; Reflect features pop artist Yayoi Kusama’s silver, cloud-like globules, which themselves reflect the actual clouds outside; it feels peaceful.

In Midtown West, meanwhile, there’s Edge (edgenyc.com), an outdoor viewing platform that extends 65 feet from the 100th floor of 30 Hudson Yards and features a thrilling glass section in its floor. At 1,131 feet, it’s the highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere.

This fall, Edge introduced City Climb, said to be the highest external building-climb in the world. Climbers can scale a staircase on the outside of the building (a harness and instruction is involved) and lean out from the outdoor platform at the top of the skyscraper.

If cocktails or dinner is more your speed, head up to Peak (peaknyc.com, 332-204-8547), the gorgeous restaurant and bar above Edge on the 101st floor of the building. Tip: Guests at Peak can access Edge for free through a private door.

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Cozied-up inside, you’ll swear a seat at Peak’s sky-level bar has the best views of the city and to the great glittering yonder. Great drinks aside, chef Chris Cryer’s superb flavor pairings, such as tender, golden scallops with a sweet grape juice reduction and a dollop of caviar, or the rich celery root Wellington with portobellos and Swiss chard, add to the bliss of the soothing, silvery interior designed by renowned architect David Rockwell.

People work at Mercado Little Spain in the Hudson Yards development.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There’s plenty to explore at Hudson Yards, a towering West Side office and luxury apartment development that’s been slowly growing since 2019. Below Edge, posh shops are paired with seemingly countless eateries. At ground level, chef José Andrés’s Mercado Little Spain (littlespain.com, 646-495-1242), is a wander-able 35,000-square-foot market with colorful food stalls and restaurants, all centered around La Barra, which is the place for great Spanish wine and authentic tapas.

The towers surround an open-air courtyard facing West Street and the Hudson River. The space is dominated by British architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel, a 150-foot-tall, copper-clad, basket-like sculpture. (Its 154 labyrinthine staircases and 80 viewing platforms remain closed, however, after four people died by suicide from its heights.)

Nearby, another major development is unfolding by the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The 8-acre Manhattan West development (manhattanwestnyc.com), which incorporates new towers with older buildings, has ground-level shops, restaurants, and cafes clustered around a public concourse. Currently, Manhattan West’s neighborhood square is home to Citrovia, an Instagram-friendly outdoor installation that features a light-programmed fabric canopy and over 700 hand-painted lemons. Walk through the surreal scene — it has the feel of a fairy-tale glen — and even play an interactive game by using a QR code.

Since opening in September, Manhattan West now includes a location of Daily Provisions (dailyprovisionsnyc.com, 646-747-8610), an all-purpose cafe chain with seriously good coffee, baked goods, and lunch; an NHL store (Madison Square Garden is a block or so east); and Midnight Theatre (midnighttheatre.com), a comedy and cabaret theater set to open early next year that will also feature live music and other performing arts.

The food scene is also taking shape with the recent opening of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Ci Siamo (cisiamonyc.com, 212-219-6559), an Italian ristorante with an outdoor terrace. Zou Zou’s (zouzousnyc.com, 212-380-8585), an Eastern Mediterranean-inspired restaurant from chefs Madeline Sperling and Juliana Latif that opened earlier this month, has long been a highly anticipated addition to the area.

Zou Zou’s will be the signature restaurant of the sublime new luxury boutique hotel Pendry Manhattan West (rooms from $591 per night; pendry.com, 212-933-7000). The 23-story tower’s glass exterior, which resembles gently rolling waves, adds a soft curviness to the neighborhood. If a stay here is not in your budget, drop into the hotel’s signature cocktail bar, Bar Pendry, for a sip of the glamour. On this Sunday evening, the bar’s caramel-colored couches are packed with joyous, chatty folks whose faces are bathed in the glow of the glimmering gold leaves lining the walls and ceiling. Pendry also includes Vista Lounge, a Havana-chic restaurant and bar lined with palms, and real ones at that.

The newly-completed Moynihan Train Hall.Kevin Hagen/Associated Press

A feat of engineering ingenuity, the developments on Midtown’s western edge are built in part on a platform over the train tracks coming into Penn Station. Bostonians can step onto an Amtrak southbound train at Back Bay or South Station and step out at Penn Station’s handsome new Moynihan Train Hall (amtrak.com), which was unveiled earlier this year.

With winter’s chill, classic seasonal pleasures return to Midtown: Skating has returned at The Rink at Rockefeller Center (rockefellercenter.com, 212-771-7200) — under the signature giant spruce — and, nearby, the Bryant Park Holiday Shops (bryantpark.org), and its southern neighbor, the Union Square Holiday Market (nycgo.com), are once again rallying shoppers.

Soaking up the waning moments of my trip, I think of David Byrne singing the night before at the St. James Theatre. “Same as it ever was, same as it ever was,” he yelped during a performance of Talking Heads’ rousing ‘80s hit “Once in a Lifetime.” Same New York City? Yes, and no, but it remains a once-in-a-lifetime experience.


Linda Laban is a freelance arts and travel writer who splits her time between Boston and New York. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.