“ONE belongs to New York instantly,” novelist Tom Wolfe once said. “One belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” Standing on a Saturday night in Times Square certainly feels like déjà vu. The flashing Christmas lights. The whirring klaxons (or is that just another Broadway preview stunt?). Rushing crowds, most clasping shopping bags, are drawn from every corner of the world.

There are few cities as familiar as New York. The Big Apple has played a starring role in more movies than even the biggest Hollywood box office banker. Times Square. Central Park. Fifth Avenue. Even before you step foot in any, you have already seen them.

But New York’s charms, like those of so many cities, lie just off the beaten track, especially during the bustling holiday season. Only a few streets away from the upmarket department stores of 34th Street and Times Square’s relentless din, lie the subtler charms of Hell’s Kitchen.

As the name suggests, Hell’s Kitchen used to be less than salubrious address. Hell’s Kitchen has a history that’s rich with gangsters and ghosts, streetwalkers and speakeasies, mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders. These days, however, this chunk of Midtown, which stretches from 34th Street to 59th Street between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, is one of the liveliest spots in the city.

In recent years, Hell’s Kitchen has developed a reputation as a chic spot for eating and drinking. I started my evening in Aria, a candlelit Italian tapas bar with an authentic taverna feel to it. Here the focus is on traditional Venetian small plates also known as “cicchetti”. The food menu is quite extensive with a mix of tapas and classic Italian dishes, all definitely made for sharing.

For something a little more down and dirty, I drop into Rudy’s. Calling itself "New York’s most famous dive bar", Rudy’s walks it like it talks: the beer is cheap, the hotdogs are free, Rolling Stone called its jukebox the best in the city and the seats are held together by duct tape. The bar boasts some big -ame former patrons, including Al Capone and Drew Barrymore.

Nearby, on 9th Avenue, Valhalla boasts the longest beer menu in the city. We installed ourselves at the long pale wood bar and attempted to make a dent in the 48-plus taps and more than 40 varieties of bottled beer. The links with the eponymous mythological Norse warrior heaven aren’t hard to spot either – Viking paraphernalia lines the interior.

There are no such rustic ambitions in the Manhattan NYCP. Our hotel, part of the celebrated Affinia collection, is nestled on Seventh Avenue just a stone’s throw from Hell’s Kitchen. The style is beautifully clean, almost Scandinavian, from the exquisitely marbled lobby to the spacious rooms affording views out across the Hudson and New Jersey with suites fitted with their own kitchenettes so you can breakfast in bed. The Manhattan NYC is also well-placed for some seasonal shopping and entertainment: Madison Square Garden is literally just across the street, and Macy’s, the legendary department store, is barely five minutes’ walk away. Even during my early November visit, I can’t resist buying my first presents …

My journey to New York is another personal first: I sent my first tweet from 35,000 feet thanks to Aer Lingus’s board wifi! The prospect of emailing from the sky is not the only reason to fly via Dublin with the Irish national carrier, which connects to every major Scottish airport.

Ireland is the only country in Europe that offers all travellers to the US full customs and border pre-clearance at departure. So when I arrived in Newark I didn’t have to spend hours in line queueing at immigration but instead just stepped straight off the plane, collected by baggage and was in New York City within the hour.

Now happily settled in city, I head for another too often neglected neighbourhood, the southern tip of Manhattan. On a bright, autumn morning with the golden leaves drifting off the trees, I take a wander around the South Street Seaport. Centred where Fulton Street meets the East River, and adjacent to the financial district, the Seaport is a designated historic district, featuring some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan, and includes the largest concentration of restored early 19th-century commercial buildings in the city. This includes renovated original mercantile buildings, renovated sailing ships, the former Fulton Fish Market, and modern tourist malls featuring food, shopping, and nightlife, with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

A short stroll away is probably the most talked about piece of contemporary New York architecture: the recently rebuilt World Trade Centre Station. Designed by the renowned Spanish “stararchitect” Santiago Calatrava, this soaring 160ft gleaming white sepulchre which opened earlier this year has not been without controversy. At around $4bn, the station was almost twice over budget, and carries far fewer passengers than either Grand Central or Pennsylvania Station. But the symbolism is what really matters here: built to replace the Port Authority Trans-Hudson rail station destroyed on September 11, 2001, the new World Trade Centre Station is as much a monument to those who lost their lives as it is a transport hub. Inside, gaggles of tourists brandishing selfie sticks snap wildly.

New York’s financial heart doesn't quite resemble the stuffy streets that Tom Wolfe evoked in Bonfire Of The Vanities in the 1980s. The “Masters of the Universe”, all sharp suits and cellphone, are still there, but there is a touch more class to this corner of Manhattan these days.

Earlier this year, the famous hotelier brothers Larry and Brad Korman opened their first downtown Manhattan property, AKA Wall Street, in what’s being called “New Downtown”. The Kormans tapped Edward Asfour of Asfour Guzy Architects to preserve the original sculptured, 1907 façade of rusticated white marble, terracotta and brick. The entrance, on a prime corner of William Street and Maiden Lane, is topped by mythic creatures clutching a gilded clock. As well as bright, airy studio apartments, there is a spectacular rooftop with a gracious outdoor space and terrace. Plans are also afoot for an outdoor cinema, with views of One World Trade Center and the city providing a panoramic backdrop.

A pleasant 30-minute stroll, but another world away, is my favourite place in the whole of New York: the Strand bookshop. The Strand was born in 1927 on Fourth Avenue on what was then called Book Row. Book Row covered six city blocks and housed 48 bookstores. Ben Bass, an entrepreneur at heart and a reader by nature, was all of 25 years old when he began his modest used bookstore with 300 dollars of his own and 300 dollars that he borrowed from a friend.

The Strand quickly became a Greenwich Village institution where writers went to converse, sell their books and find hidden treasures to buy. Today, the Strand is the sole survivor of Book Row’s colourful past, boasting more than 18 miles of new, used and rare books. As ever, I go in for a browse promising to buy nothing, and come out with two bags filled with paperbacks.

That most revered of American writers Mark Twain once said: “Make your mark in New York and you are a made man.” On a short winter break, you might not make your mark on New York, but the city will definitely leave its impression on you.

Peter Geoghegan was a guest of Aer Lingus. Fares from Scotland to New York via Dublin start from £199 each-way including taxes and charges. www.aerlingus.com