How Hudson Yards will transform New York City

With the opening of the most expensive mega-project in the US, we discover Manhattan is evolving once again

Ferries are a popular way of seeing the sights in New York. Courtesy NYC Ferry
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Ten years ago, New York's riverfront between West 30th Street and West 43rd Street was simply rail yards and wasteland. Now it's the site of the $25 billion (Dh92bn), 28-acre Hudson Yards, the largest mega-project in the city since the Rockefeller Center opened in the 1930s, and the most expensive development in the US. Much like the Rockefeller Center helped transform Fifth Avenue from a grand residential area into the city's main shopping street, so Hudson Yards is about to transform New York.

The complex – which the New York Times described as "a city within a city" – opened in March, with a seven-storey mall, 25 restaurants, The Shed performing arts centre and a 46-metre-tall structure designed by Thomas Heatherwick called Vessel, which comprises 154 interlocking staircases and instantly became an essential Instagram selfie backdrop. There are also glass-walled high-rise apartment blocks worth between $4.3m and $32m, for which billionaires are abandoning their gloomy Upper East Side townhouses, and office space providing new headquarters for CNN, Warner Bros and L'Oreal. It's all about the view, you see. And West Side sunsets are stupendous.

An interior view of the Vessel at Hudson Yards. Courtesy Forbes Massie-Heatherwick Studio

The development of more than 16 skyscrapers won't be completed until 2024 and its star attraction, an open-air observation deck on the 100th floor of the 30 Hudson Yards building – the highest in the Western Hemisphere – is still under construction. But I'm getting a preview, so I'm inching up the side of the building in one of those scary metal cagelifts. As I step out on to the deck – still stacked with cables and sacks of cement – my eyes unexpectedly fill with tears. The 130-­kilometre view is simply overwhelming.

Far below, the Hudson River snakes off into America. The Empire State Building, once the tallest building in the world, looks like a model of itself and Central Park resembles a carpet sample. The tall, thin buildings that have been springing up across Manhattan, as developers squeeze into narrow lots and claim the air-rights of surrounding blocks, look as snappable as matches. Three docked cruise ships look so small I feel I could pick them up in my fingers, and on the horizon, way beyond a tiny Statue of Liberty, I can make out the Coney Island fairground wheel. It's mesmerising. When the deck opens this winter, with a Thomas Keller restaurant on the 101st floor, I can't imagine it will be anything but a massive success – a 100 per cent must-visit for locals, as well as tourists.

Back on ground level and still elated, I walk into the mall – sorry, "vertical retail experience". Anchored by a Neiman Marcus department store, the 100 shops include a prudent mix of the inexpensive and extortionate. That means Muji, Uniqlo, H&M and Zara, rubbing shoulders with Dior, Fendi and Cartier, as well as local start-ups previously only operating online. There are also novelties such as a meditation room and sleep pods to hire by the half-hour. I buy some $1.50 Muji gel pens, do a double take at some $700 Tod's trainers and, as I leave the gleaming citadel and walk out on to scruffy Eleventh Avenue, almost trip over a pothole.

Project: Hudson Yards
Client: Related
Location: New York, NY.

That contrast is so New York. This city is always evolving, but in some ways it doesn't change at all. The traffic's still chaotic and the streets and stations are crumbling. You still seem to wait forever as yet another subway train is delayed. But there's always something new in New York, something to make it feel fresh and fun all over again. And what's new this year will quicken your pulse.

The opening of Hudson Yards is the big story, because you can't escape the feeling it's going to help shift the heart of Manhattan west. Beside a gleaming new Hudson Yards subway station at 34th St to tempt everyone into this glossy new neighbourhood (five minutes on the 7 from Times Square), a new spur added to the famous High Line means the overhead park now runs all the way from the Hudson Yards plaza at W34th St to the Whitney Museum and a new riverside park at W12th St. En route, you can reach out and almost touch the new residential and office buildings springing up along the length of the High Line. Almost 300 art galleries now operate in the streets below, in the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, creating a powerful sense that the cultural centre of Manhattan, at least, is starting to move away from Fifth Avenue.

Not that the city's great art museums would take any challenge to their pre-­eminence lying down. All have new blockbusters to delight the public. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute has outfits worn by celebrities to its Met Ball on show until September 8 (as seen above). The Guggenheim's Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective runs from June 21 to November 6. The Museum of Modern Art, closing on June 15, reopens on October 21 with a new exhibition space. A Statue of Liberty museum will also open this summer.

Entertainment in the city is taking a retro turn, because that's the way New York is: always springing a surprise. Nostalgia is the name of the game at the new Colour Factory, where it's play time for millennials who, energised by the sugary treats laid out in each room, can dive into a ball pit, take a spin on a roundabout, dance on coloured discs and, thanks to wall-mounted cameras, they don't even have to stop for selfies.

But anyone who wants to get into the atmospheric old Village Vanguard, one of the last remaining 1940s basement jazz clubs, and which you could once stroll into, now definitely needs to book ahead.

Broadway shows also have their roots in distant decades this year: cue musicals such as Tootsie, Moulin Rouge, Tea at Five – with Faye Dunaway as Katharine Hepburn – a 75th anniversary production of Oklahoma! and (can this also be the Hudson Yards effect?) a revival of West Side Story. But with the cost of most Broadway tickets starting at an exorbitant $250, live theatre recordings of podcasts have now become a thing. Harking back to the 1950s heyday of radio and theatre, shabby old theatres are enjoying a new lease of life as millennials happily pay $15 to watch actors read aloud on stage, scripts in hand.

Shopping is still so integral to New York and yet it's a shock to see how many stores have closed down, even on Madison and Fifth. But perhaps it shouldn't be, given how prices have risen and with most people now choosing to shop online. One reason the traffic is so bad in the city is probably Net-a-Porter's one-hour delivery service. But while the mall-ification of New York continues – Hudson Yards' mall is the city's third, joining Brookfield Place and Westfield World Trade Center malls downtown – the one-off stores that characterise New York continue to emerge.

Shopping is still so integral to New York and yet it's a shock to see how many stores have closed down, even on Madison and Fifth.

In the past six months or so, must-see "future of retail" openings have included the first branch outside Italy of Milan concept fashion store 10 Corso Como; Showfields, self-styled as the "most interesting store in the world"; and Amazon's bricks and mortar outlet in SoHo. In the Meatpacking District, there's Restoration Hardware, with its rooftop restaurant and barista bar, with an 11-room guesthouse to follow, and the new Hermès store, with a cafe, rooftop event space, and stools and tables to encourage discussion of its never-­more-zeitgeisty artisan traditions. On Staten Island, which is about to become a real tourist destination, Empire Outlets, New York's first outlet destination, opens this summer near a new hotel and restaurant complex looking across at Manhattan from the ferry terminal.

Ferries have really taken off, too, providing great sightseeing even if you don't disembark. Yellow cabs bouncing over the steam vents are becoming a rarer sight, thanks to the ubiquity of Ubers in the city, and locals and tourists alike increasingly wobble around on Citi Bikes.

And although any traveller will be cheered by the news that JFK and Newark airports are both getting new terminals, NYC&Co, the city's tourist authority (and purveyor of the CityPass museum discounts), is especially thrilled about New York's new-old airport, New York Stewart International. About 97 kilometres north of the city in the Catskills, with an express-bus link, it's tiny but expanding, and with landing charges much lower than those at JFK and Newark, there is the potential of much cheaper fares.

Hotels, meanwhile, are going up at a remarkable rate. Gilding, excess and bling are out, replaced by pared-down everything. From the newly fashionable Lower Manhattan, an area still undergoing huge post-9/11 restoration, where new hotels include Mr C Seaport from Venice's Cipriani family, good-value Citizen M and Ian Schrager's brilliant Public, with its shop, Trade, which is stocked with stuff you actually want to buy.

There is also Schrager's cool new Edition Hotel Times Square, which proves the trend is for intelligent luxury. That means top-quality bed linen, great Wi-Fi and coffee, plenty of plug points and sofas to make lobby lounges cool local hang-outs, creating an exciting NY vibe for guests, with an emphasis on healthy living. The first Equinox hotel, run by the New York gym chain, exemplifies that last point.It opens this summer at (you guessed it), Hudson Yards.

The wellness craze runs deep, and has made vegetarian and vegan restaurants such as Dirt Candy in the East Village hot and happening as young New Yorkers turn against America's industrial farms. California's meat-free Impossible Burgers have arrived, while ingredients like Brussels sprouts and whole roasted cauliflower are having a moment.

Meanwhile, Instagrammers are keeping the craze of cosy Australian breakfast cafes such as Hutch & Waldo alive, alongside photogenically themed pop-up tea-rooms (think Barbie's Party, Cake 'n' Cats, Girl Scouts Cookie Time).

And until Keller's 101st floor restaurant opens, the best places to eat at Hudson Yards are Legacy Records (fabulous fish) and the huge indoor-outdoor Spanish answer to Eataly, Mercado (New York is finally discovering tapas). But the restaurant with the best view in Manhattan is Manhatta, located on the 60th floor of the 28 Liberty building, near Wall Street at the tip of the island.

As ever, it's hard to say goodbye. This city never gets old. I cried on arrival, but as I leave, an advertisement on the train to JFK for makes me grin. It shows a black, threatening sky, Godzilla clambering across New York's rooftops, and three lines of type: "NY is the worst. I love it. I'll never leave."