I’m inside New York’s last hidden architectural treasure, The Beekman, waiting for a table at celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s Temple Court. It’s minus several degrees outside, a little after six, but sunny enough to enjoy the light that streams in through the hotel’s majestic pyramidal skylight. The Beekman, an iconic landmark building at the corner of Nassau and Beekman Streets, was built in the late 19th century as one of the city’s first skyscrapers, and nestles in the epicentre of Lower Manhattan’s vibrant ‘New Downtown’.

It’s busy inside The Beekman as local New Yorkers and tourists create a happy buzz to signal the start of the weekend with dinner plans at this popular restaurant that serves modern American dishes and cuisine from the turn of the century. Skyscraper-dotted Lower Manhattan, that houses the historic Wall Street and the rest of the Financial District, now boasts of 13 million tourists annually. Many choose to leave the more predictable delights of Times Square to explore the attractions of this part of town steeped in centuries of history. But the transformation from a completely business and financial district to a more touristy mixed-use area where residential and retail both thrive, happened in the years that followed the September 11 attacks.

Like the One World Trade Center that rose like a phoenix in 2014 after the emotional and economic devastation of the 9/11 attacks, Lower Manhattan picked up where life stopped on that terrifying day in September. It successfully rebuild itself to transform into New York’s most attractive tourist and residential areas, with an ever-growing list of designer stores, restaurants, lounges, services, schools, parks, entertainment venues and transportation hubs. Layers of development, and investment, have produced that intriguing contrast of old and new here – where cobblestoned streets of early Dutch settlements thrive with fancy hotels and shopping malls.

The Beekman – a site that once hosted the New York City debut of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as the Clinton Hall that housed an expansive literary collection, and spaces where writers such as Edgar Allan Poe honed their craft, and the launch of New York University’s inaugural classes in 1832 – is emblematic of that past.

It is surrounded by some of Lower Manhattan’s most iconic attractions, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the iconic Woolworth building and, most of all, the 104-story One World Trade Center, the tallest and most expensive building in the Western Hemisphere.

Art deco landmark One Wall Street is a gleaming example of New York’s adeptness at merging history and modernity

It is the building that sparked it all off, and is the most symbolic of this dynamic transformation.

On Ground Zero

Weeklong, tourists throng Ground Zero, the 9/11 Memorial Museum (which documents and displays the tragic history and significance surrounding the events of September 11 with artefacts, archives, and multimedia displays) and the sunken memorial pools that sit on the place where the World Trade Center twin towers fell. The names of those who died in the terrorist attacks are inscribed in bronze on the memorial’s walls. But as with every end there is a new beginning, so has been the case of Ground Zero. Around it has blossomed condos where new families have arrived, there are walkable neighbourhoods, chic night clubs and restaurants.

And to experience the beauty of New York, oh New York, where you belong instantly (as much in five minutes as you would in five years), you reach the One World Observatory via a high-speed sky-pod elevator, 1,250 feet above street level. The observatory spans the 100th, 101st, and 102nd floors and you can’t help but gape at the jaw-dropping beauty of the Hudson River, Empire State Building, the Brooklyn bridge, the New York Harbour and the Statue of Liberty with its flame of freedom, and Battery Park City.

The monumental Statue of Liberty (the most powerful testament to America’s 19th- and 20th-century immigrant history) is a must for any first-time visitor to NYC and the crowds on the ferry that takes you to Liberty Island from Battery Park, with a stop off at neighbouring Ellis Island, prove just that.

Battery Park and the Bowling Green

As you walk north of Battery Park, there are many significant landmarks that form the core of NYC’s Financial District, near the world-famous Wall Street. To make it more tourist friendly, there have been initiatives to improve the area around the New York Stock Exchange, creating an identity and sense of place for it, enhancing pedestrian environment, and improving mobility. Tourists here jostle for space for a photo op with the fierce 7,000-pound bronze Charging Bull sculpture by Italian sculptor Arturo Di Modica in the tiny Bowling Green Park (the city’s first public park), which has become emblematic of the stock market. As you walk north on Broadway, you find the historic Trinity Church that dates to the late 17th century and where Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of America, lays buried. The popularity of the musical Hamilton has sparked off an interest in this historical figure, resulting in curious onlookers around the Church area.

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Opposite the NYSE is the Greek Revival-style Federal Hall National Monument where George Washington was sworn in as the first US president in 1789. One can also book a tour to the Federal Reserve Bank on 33 Liberty St, which reportedly has the largest depository of gold in the world.

The biggest symbol of change in the Financial District is perhaps the bronze sculpture of the Fearless Girl by Kristen Visbal, who was reinstalled from the Bowling Green to face the New York Stock Exchange last year. Today, she is more than a symbol of female empowerment, one who keeps a steady watch on all the business going on here, the life and times of a new chapter in New York’s history.

Old timers living in the Financial District say the area’s successful makeover is its change from a typical nine-to-five neighbourhood to one that has more character and variety.  Gone are the days when Lower Manhattan’s residents had little to do when the sun went down. Now the evenings rock the entertainment and social scene. South Street Seaport is enjoying its renaissance with the concert venue at Pier 17 drawing a huge crowd. Bordered by the East River, Pearl Street, Dover Street, and John Street, visitors can stroll through the shopping mall on Pier 17 or grab a light bite or drink at some of the really cool restaurants here.

But there are also voices that tell you that the money that was invested to make this place more tourist friendly could have been invested to buy more affordable housing or to make public-funded healthcare a reality and to alleviate the increasing homelessness crisis. Filmmaker and software developer Arthur Vincie, who was born in the Bronx and has lived in New York for most of his life, says ‘While I’m happy that tourists are coming to the city and spending their money, I’m not very happy with the transformation of the financial district. The Oculus was built with public funds at a time when affordable housing is at a premium. The building is pretty but I would rather have seen the money spent somewhere else.’

The winged Oculus

Meanwhile, nearby cobblestoned Fulton Street is dotted with shops and cafés that are running full. Danny Meyer’s newest restaurant, Manhatta, on the 60th floor of 28 Liberty, is booming, while neighbourhood favourite The Dead Rabbit has expanded its space on Water Street, more than doubling its capacity. The neighbourhood’s new, unique hotel brands have added 7,700 rooms, offering new kinds of amenities to draw guests, such as co-working spaces, destination lounges, film screening rooms and more. Santiago Calatrava’s winged Oculus that stands guarding the One World Trade Center now houses the Westfield WTC Mall and the massive transportation system underground connects commuters from New Jersey and the rest of New York as well.

Broker Jason Walker embodies the spirit of the city in so many ways – he travels to China several times a year to rescue dogs, and gives them away as closing gifts to his clients

Jason Walker, who I meet during my time in New York, says, ‘just walking around the neighbourhood, experiencing the sights and sounds, can foster incredible memories’. Walker has grown up in New York and is a top performing broker in the city. What makes him special is that he travels to China multiple times a year to rescue as many dogs as possible and then hands them over as closing gifts to his clients in Manhattan with every beautiful home he sells. His dogs, Stanley the 14-year-old English springer spaniel and Simba, the five-year-old slaughter house survivor from China, follow him everywhere he goes. ‘My daily routine is dropping my dogs at Biscuits and Bath, where they are taken care of, and then getting a morning coffee at one of the many patisseries such as Financier. I love losing myself in New York’s history. My grandfather was the President of the Fulton Fish Market. I feel a tremendous connection to the Financial District and Seaport neighbourhoods. I experienced 9/11 first hand, and am extremely proud of the re-birth and gentrification of the Financial District and Seaport neighbourhoods.’

Food paradise

A visit to Lower Manhattan isn’t complete without the food on offer. Renowned chefs rub shoulders here with neighbourhood restaurants. There is Augustine, a Brasserie-style eatery from Keith McNally of Balthazar and Minetta Tavern that offers an all-day menu of high-end French classics set against the backdrop of old-world chandeliers, intricate tile work, painted mouldings and intimate booths. For some eating, shopping and people watching, head to 10 Corso Como – it houses a shoe boutique by Sarah Jessica Parker and long-term pop-ups by Roberto Cavalli. And for ultra-fine dining book in an evening at Cipriani in Wall Street. The Fulton by Jean-Georges also boasts of some amazing food, while nearby cobbled Stone Street is fun with lots of casual restaurants.

Santiago Calatrava’s winged Oculus stands guarding the One World Trade Centre

The most beautiful part of the visit to Lower Manhattan is a walk along the architecturally stunning, neo-Gothic iconic Brooklyn Bridge that dates to 1883. It is still one of the world’s loveliest bridges, and the views from its pedestrian walkway, which connect the NYC boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, certainly don’t disappoint. It is that connection between the old and the new, the past and the present that keeps the area so alive, and so full of meaning.

Memories of New Downtown

As I retraced my steps to The Beekman, the nine-storey red brick and terra cotta structure that was once the real Temple Court, with offices of accountants and lawyers who needed to be close to the city’s courthouses, I realised why New York was special. It celebrates history and modernity unabashedly. Buildings here that date back to 100 years celebrate their structural and architectural integrity with great pride. Victorian cast iron railings and balustrades and beautiful old facades are just as precious here as a modern architectural landmark. The magnitude of both is awesome, as Walker points out. ‘And the best memories that you can create in the “new downtown” are those of just walking around and taking it all in. Whether you sit on the steps of a building and watch people go by or choose to grab a bite at a trendy restaurant or visit the sites and be a part of history, you become a New Yorker. That’s the magic of this place.’