Beneath its fascinating layers, New York reveals a soft heart, welcoming 50 million visitors each year. Gustasp and Jeroo Irani enjoy the cosmopolitan and all-embracing air.

New York is the mother of all great world cities — ever changing, flexing its muscles, preening and showing off its glass-sheathed towers, its rich cultural heart, ethnic diversity, sights, colour and aromas. This, the ultimate gateway to the US, has featured in songs, poems and movies that eulogise its indomitable spirit, its chutzpah and soul.

New York is a state of mind, confided a local who feels passionately about her city. In this east coast metro, you can feel the pulse of the United States, quick, heady, almost frenetic; sometimes brash and seemingly invincible. Even after the tragic events of September 11, the Big Apple as it is called fondly, has dusted itself off, got to its feet metaphorically and moved on.

Reborn from ashes

Ground Zero or the 9/11 Memorial, its most telling symbol, is located in Lower Manhattan, home to Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange. This is where the Twin Towers fell after the tragic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001; the assaults marked the end of an era and of a cosy sense of security. But today Ground Zero is no longer a gaping wound, smothered in an eight-storey mountain of rubble; it is abuzz with cranes and life.

The reborn World Trade Centre complex (five towers to be spearheaded by the 105-storey World Trade Centre, a tower that will soar to a neck-craning 1,776 ft — the height symbolises the year of the American Declaration of Independence), is expected to be complete by 2016, according to some reports. A spectacular memorial of reflecting pools and cascades (dubbed Reflecting Absence) was unveiled on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

Nearby in Battery Park, New Yorkers meditated on their navels in their lunch hour, or munched a sandwich next to a large dented globe (a symbol of world peace) with an eternal flame that once stood in the lobby of the Twin Towers. Yes, in Lower Manhattan, there are many symbols of the city's deep vulnerability; yet the once-devastated area has re-invented itself to become a hip and trendy neighbourhood.

Most visitors start their journey of discovery with a visit to the two islands, Liberty Island and Ellis Island from where the United States metaphorically embraced the world. After navigating the airline-style gauntlet of security measures, we stopped at Liberty Island to gaze upwards at the torch-bearing, 92.99 m iconic Statue of Liberty. The Mother of Exiles, the tallest statue in the world, beckoned immigrants over the centuries with its alluring message of freedom and liberty, best evoked in Emma Lazarus's poem: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…”

To the beginnings

Ellis Island, where millions of hopefuls streamed into the New World through its immigration station between 1892 and 1924, on the other hand, is the site of a museum which documents the birth of the United States.

As one slowly peels off the layers of the city, New York reveals that it has a soft heart. Despite the wounding inflicted by 9/11, the Big Apple continues to welcome 50.5 million visitors annually and remains stubbornly all embracing and cosmopolitan. These qualities are most evident on its mammoth subway network, the city's lifeline, whose arteries snake across the city. Rivers of people (five million per day) gush on to its streets. They speak in a babble of tongues and there is a multiplicity of skin tones from fair to dark and dusky, raven-haired to red and everything in between.

New York is, in a sense, five cities rolled into one (it has five boroughs) but the borough of Manhattan is the most riveting. This is where the action is — from the twinkling lights of Broadway and Times Square with its marquees, giant advertising screens blinking messages 24/7 to some of the richest museums and breathtaking cloud-piercing skyscrapers that are architectural landmarks such as the classic Empire State Building, the elegant Chrysler building.

We walked down the broad avenues of Manhattan, browsed the museums and the grand New York Public Library, the vaulting, marbled 1913 Grand Central Station; mingled with theatre lovers on Broadway where neon signs advertised musicals like “Chicago”, “Mama Mia”, “Ghost” etc. In Times Square, which has a throbbing youthful vibe, we merged with New Yorkers and tourists who sat sipping coffee at outdoor tables, surrounded by giant gaudy billboards.

Who's who!

Here a man in a tatty coat stood still while he held a Bible and a placard over his head, warning everyone that the end of the world was nigh and one should repent. The “naked cow girl” — an elderly woman in a bikini fashioned out of the American flag, a cowboy hat and knee-high boots pirouetted and posed for pictures and stuck the dollar bills thus earned into her boots. We did not see “the naked cowboy”, who, it was whispered, could not handle the chill of early Spring!

Another woman in a black top hat, slinky red tights and hot pants, presented a refreshing contrast with her youthful good looks and nimble footwork. With a twirl she gave us a flyer advertising Chicago the musical.

But it was Central Park, right in the heart of Manhattan that beckoned each evening. We would walk its lamp-lit paths and sit on the shores of its glassy lakes, just across from our five-star heritage hotel The Pierre (a Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces property).

We got a subtle taste of home amid European style elegance backed by 21st century luxuries at The Pierre which has silently witnessed, since the 1930s, the great events and convulsions that the city of its birth has been through. Frequented by heads of state, literary greats and stars of the celluloid world, The Pierre today pays subtle obeisance to its Indian avatar with a Ganesha statue in the foyer which is also studded with the works of contemporary and modern Indian artists. Indeed The Pierre is so intricately woven into the fabric of the city that iconic Central Park flares like a green skirt outside the windows of its Park View Suite.

And on our last morning in New York, we gazed out at the panorama beyond and saw a typical Big Apple sight — a parade — a Greek parade, in this instance, with decorative floats and costumed immigrants waving to the spectators lined up along the sidewalks. There was a sense of order amid the blazing colour and throbbing drum beats. Ah! New York, New York!