I Went on a 'Sex and the City' Tour of a Bizarro Version of New York City
Welcome to a strange world where cocktails are $30 and people call the Meatpacking District "MePa."
Aboard the 'Sex and the City' tour bus in 2008. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty
Sex and the City, that much-maligned, much-beloved, HBO show about women, fashion, orgasms, dating, and New York City (not necessarily in that order), has been off the air for 11 years. If Carrie Bradshaw were a real person, she'd be 48. Even the second Sex and the City movie is five years old. The franchise is dead, and along with it its dreamlike world of late-90s Manhattan where people could smoke in restaurants and afford apartments big enough to house massive shoe collections by writing something like 500 words a week.
The show lives on, however—in our hearts and minds, sure, but also in syndication, on HBO Go, and in the form of the Sex and the City Hotspots Tour, which promises to allow you to "Venture into the trendy neighborhood, MePa, where the girls frequent." Despite that grammar, and the made-up/hideous nickname for the Meatpacking District, the tour is so popular that when I tried to buy tickets (for about $50) on a recent Friday afternoon, both an 11 AM bus for that Sunday, and another one strictly for German speakers, had only already sold out.
Why would Germans want to go on a Sex and the City tour? Why would anyone? Why would I? The short answer is that since I moved back to New York, my life has been decidedly lacking in female friendship. When I left the city, I was 22 and had been living with my best friend and getting into shenanigans that often bordered on the absurd. When I returned at 25, we moved back in together, but her boyfriend was there too, and our lifestyles had become so different that I mostly felt like a disruption to her newfound domesticity. I kept myself busy by hanging out with a group of friends that, perhaps alarmingly, consisted almost entirely of bros. For a while, the only interactions I was having outside of a sports bar revolved around making fun of Sex and the City with my friend at dinnertime. Over time, our watching it ironically turned into my watching it in earnest, alone. I couldn't articulate why I liked SATC, but maybe my fellow pilgrims on the tour would be able to explain it to me. At worst, I figured, I would at least be surrounded by estrogen.
On the 3 PM bus I ended up on, there were the expected number of middle-aged women—the sort of people who say things like, "I am such a Samantha"—but also a fair number of college girls, and even eight men (all husbands or boyfriends).
"Are you in the right place, gentlemen?" our perky tour guide teased. "This isn't a Sopranos tour."
That's thing thing about Sex and the City: It's a popular show, even a cultural touchstone for multiple generations of women, but it's not exactly regarded as a good show. Nor is it mentioned in the same breath as often-violent, male-centric prestige dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Game of Thrones, or Mad Men. Not that it aims at the same targets as those programs—SATC has its rough edges and moments of drama, but it's always threatening to veer into farce or schmaltz or some awful combination of the two. It also hasn't aged well, with its shocking lack of diversity and its awkward insistence on gender tropes, among other offenses. It's very difficult to imagine a show today getting away with calling people "trannies," like Samantha did throughout season three, for instance, or with Carrie talking about her fondness for "ghetto gold," like she did in one episode when referring to her nameplate necklace.
The bus was like a bachelorette party where the women didn't know each other, weren't allowed to drink alcohol, and were constantly being told to have fun.
But for all it's problems, I fell for Sex and the City, like Carrie sucked in by her inescapable, gravity-like attraction to Big. Admitting you like the show generally comes attached to a certain kind of shame; it's too basic or trashy or too obviously girly—if you like The Sopranos, no one will accuse you of idolizing mob hit men, but if you like SATC everyone will imagine you have a fondness for cosmos and overpriced shoes. Or that's what it feels like anyway.
Not that anyone on the tour was wearing designer dresses—it was a sweatshirt-and-jeans crowd, a collection of mostly tourists who had no interest in living in Manhattan, let alone participating in the mostly-consequence-free sexcapades of Carrie and the gang. The bus was like a bachelorette party where the women didn't know each other, weren't allowed to drink alcohol, and were constantly being told to have fun.
As the bus took off from near Columbus Circle in downtown Manhattan, the tour guide played us a clip on the LCD screens that hung from the ceiling. In it, diagnosable nymphomaniac and PR professional Samantha Jones has just had sex with a much older gentleman. As he walks to the "little boy's room," she becomes repulsed.
This scene was evidently shown as part of an icebreaking technique. "Repeat after me," the guide instructed. "Saggy ass. Saggy ass. Saggy ass." We all went along with the chant, sounding like a somehow more demented version of the "one of us" scene in Freaks.
Once we were good and comfortable discussing fictional fucking, the comedienne went on to lay down the day's agenda. As the website promised, we would venture into MePa, "visit the site of Carrie and Big's wedding rehearsal dinner," and "scout the bar owned by Steve and Aidan."
That bar is where we'd all stop and pose with cosmos, which are to SATC as motorcycles are to Sons of Anarchy. "And I know the idea of a pink drink might not appeal to you men," the guide teased again. "But just think: There's a nice cold beer awaiting you at the end of this. That can be your mantra: Beer, beer, beer."
At this point in her reductive comedy routine, I couldn't help but wonder: What was I doing here? I only wear jeans, can barely make rent, and think the idea of boys and girls kissing is gross—which is to say, I am not a Carrie, a Miranda, a Samantha, or a Charlotte. I can't even really argue too much with the criticisms that have described the SATC ladies as vapid, obsessed with men, and not particularly nice to one another.
To hear the tour tell it, though, Sex and the City is mostly an awesome and fun show about glamorous ladies who live in New York City, the most glamorous city on the planet! As we rolled into the West Village, we were told to keep our eyes peeled for celebrities. Our host told us that Suri Cruise frequented a playground we passed, and the rest of the tour would be littered with TMZ arcana, like where Richard Gere liked to eat. I've never run into a famous person while living here, but almost on command, a wild A-lister appeared in the form of Jesse Eisenberg, glowering on a street corner and tuning out the world with his Apple earbuds.
And then there were the detours. First we stopped at a sex shop in the West Village, where we had the "opportunity" of buying a Rabbit vibrator at something like a $1 discount, but no one on the bus actually made a purchase, perhaps because they didn't want to buy a sex toy in front of strangers then carry it with them to a bar. Then we went to the building that served Carrie's stoop and were told we could take pictures from really far away so as to not harass the people who lived in the building. Next was Michael Kors, where we'd get a 10 percent discount if if we spent $300 during the ten-minute pit stop.
The New York of the Sex and the City Hotspots Tour is the New York of the show—in this version of NYC, the Lower East Side is still cool, the outer boroughs are still verboten, and public transportation is still for the lower classes. (In one SATC episode, Carrie's financial circumstances are so reduced, she has to take the bus, which is treated as a humiliating sacrifice.)
"Who here has ever taken the subway?" the host asked, as a few people raised their hands. "Who here would never take the subway?" The rhetorical questions turned into a warning to the gentlemen on board about guarding their wallets if they ever ventured into the tunnels.
"Now, in Manhattan, it's not uncommon to pay $20, $25, or even $30 for a cocktail," the host said, blatantly lying now.
The hyperbole about the BIG, BAD, EXPENSIVE city continued as we approached Onieal's, a bar in Little Italy that served as the set for Steve and Aiden's business in the series. "Now, in Manhattan, it's not uncommon to pay $20, $25, or even $30 for a cocktail," the host said, blatantly lying now. "But we've managed to get a special deal with the people over at Onieal's so that you can order a cosmo for only $10."
Despite the propaganda—I get $2.50 well drinks right in my neighborhood, thanks—the stop at Onieal's actually provided me a chance to do something I'd been wanting to do the entire time. This was a chance to ask other people and find out why they were there and what they had gotten out of it.
Sipping my overpriced cosmo, I met Sebastian and Alex, a couple from France who were living in Australia but had come all the way to New York to take the tour as part of their honeymoon, such is the depths of their love for the show. There was also a group of college girls from Alaska, one of whom claimed her favorite character was "Melinda." There was also the fabulously chill couple Gene and Jeannine, who were from Philadelphia and just adored tours, which they traveled all over the country to take on a regular basis. "It's just a great way to get to know a city," Jeannine told me.
Why did all these people like Sex and the City in the first place? That was one thing they couldn't tell me—all I got were shrug-y answers like "It's funny" or "I don't know, it's just good!" SATC tends to inspire fans, not fanatics. It's designed mostly to be a disposable show that wears its cheesiness on its sleeve and dramatizes some fairly obvious relationship advice. There's little ambiguity, few literary allusions, and the violence is emotional rather than physical, setting it apart from the most critically-acclaimed programs on TV today. But for all that talk about how television shows are the "new novels" or whatever, it's nice to take a trip back to the days when a show could just be an excuse to hang out with a group of female friends—something that TV is still fairly terrible at depicting, incidentally.
For all of Sex and the City's surface glitz, it's ultimately about how hard it is for women to acquire the simple security of a healthy relationship with a partner, to settle down and find the sort of friend-filled happiness that can anchor you. It may seem fun to live the carefree "MePa" existence, spending $50 on cocktails and $40,000 on shoes, and never taking the subway because you got rich writing stories about your friends' sexual encounters. But Carrie's world is like New York City for tourists—a nice place to visit for a half-hour at a time, but you'd never, ever want to live there.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.
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