Autumn in New York--Why does it seem so inviting?

The Big Apple. Shiny-bright, luscious, eternally tempting.

Go on, open wide and take a bite. A big chunk from the Battery to Broadway, from Central Park to the Cloisters, a weekend crammed with Broadway shows, fascinating strolls, elegant shops, fine restaurants, renowned museums and breathtaking views.

If you're afraid the Big Apple will take too big a bite out of your budget, take heart. Nothing this good comes cheap, of course. But if you know where to look you can find bargains on fares, hotels, dinners, theater tickets and cultural attractions. And some of the best things in New York -- such as a stroll around Gramercy Park or a hike across the Brooklyn Bridge -- are absolutely free.

Getting there, for example, can cost you either a mint or a relatively modest sum. Our family of four took the train -- not the Metroliner which would have cost us $222 but the regular Amtrak train on a family- plan round-trip fare of $128.

The best train left on the Washington- New York run is not a Metroliner anyway, but the Montrealer, which leaves Washington every evening at 5:35 and pulls into Pennsylvania Station at 9:54. It takes 50 minutes longer than the Metroliner, but it's the only Washington-to-New York train left where you can while away the miles in a dining car -- a real diner with white linen tablecloths, fresh flowers and waiters. The food is not exactly wagon-lits quality, but it's hearty American fare, well served and reasonably priced. Steak dinners for adults and Cokes, desserts and coffee cost us $34.75, including tip. Best of all, we finished our main courses as the train crossed the bridge over the Susquehanna, lingered over coffee and dessert until past Philadelphia, and by the time we had walked back to our seats we were in Trenton. There was just enough time to organize our belongings and peer across the darkened Jersey Meadows for a glimpse of the World Trade Center towers before tunneling under the river.

In an obituary for the demolished grand old Penn Station, critic Vincent Scully wrote: "Through it one entered the city like a god . . . One scuttles in now like a rat." True, the replacement station is underground and oppressively nondescript. But one can leave it in style by hailing not an ordinary taxi, but an old-style Checker, a roomy cab that transports you high off the street and has two pull-down seats. These cabs cost no more, but you have to take some time, cause some confusion and risk some rancor turning down other cabs until your chariot comes along. Once properly ensconced, we were whisked across town to the Eastgate Tower Hotel -- a $3 metered ride plus a 50 cent night surcharge and a $1 tip.

The Eastgate Tower, at 222 East 29th Street, architecturally undistinguished but with a nicely decorated lobby, is one of three hotels (the others are the Beekman Tower and the Shelburne) that offer what is probably the best deal for families in Manhattan. We wanted to stay at the Beekman Tower, an Art Deco landmark on the East River, but it was filled and we were offered similar accommodations at the Eastgate. For a weekend rate of $50 a night, each hotel offers a one-bedroom apartment with two double beds, a king-size pull-out sofa, living room with color television, 11/2 baths, full kitchen and dining area.

The cupboard was bare when we woke up Saturday morning and, rather than go to a nearby Gristede's -- a cross between Larimer's and a 7-Eleven that's on almost every East Side block -- we went out to breakfast, taking the Third Avenue bus (60 cents in exact change) uptown to 53rd Street and walking west two blocks to the Seagram Building and its basement restaurant, the Brasserie.

"One of the great buildings of the 20th century," a New York Times architecture critic called this bronze curtain of a skyscraper, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson in 1958. The Brasserie, as modern in style as the building, is a landmark in that it is open 24-hours a day and you can drop in for a croissant, a plate of snails or a complete dinner. Breakfast, including fresh squeezed orange juice all around, a grilled cheese sandwich, a danish, a croissant with butter and jam, french toast with glazed orange slices, sausages, two hot chocolates, cafe au lait and cappuccino came to $20.60, tip included. It was all delicious, but when we had walked over to Fifth Avenue and saw vendors selling fresh-squeezed orange juice and hot soft pretzels we almost wished we had just bought such a breakfast and eaten it while gazing longingly into Tiffany's windows as Holly Golightly used to do.

After admiring Tiffany's display of needlepoint Newport "cottages" decorously draped with diamonds, we backtracked across the avenue to St. Thomas Church, a 1914 Gothic structure with a beautiful sculptured wall behind the altar, and caught an organ rehearsal. Next on our stroll up the avenue was F.A.O. Schwarz, whose five floors of fabulous toys make the branch at Mazza Gallerie pale by comparison. Resisting the Pierre Cardin dolls and $130 rocking dogs, we headed resolutely toward our destination: Central Park.

Lovers that bless the dark

On benches in Central Park

Greet autumn in New York --

It's good to live it again.

In the zoo, the polar bear was pacing and the seals were playing king of the mountain on their platform in the pool. We passed under the Delacorte clock -- waiting a few minutes to watch the hippo dance and the monkey strike the hour -- and entered the children's zoo (admission: 10 cents) to pet the lambs, greet the three little pigs in their variously constructed houses and tour the Hansel-and-Gretel gingerbread house.

Hiking past the Dairy, a small stone Gothic barn built to house the cows that once supplied milk to nursing mothers in the park, we took a ride on the antique carousel (50 cents each). The other "must" for children at the south end of the park -- the pony cart ride -- was just getting ready to open, so we shelled out another 50 cents per child and watched our kids pulled once around a fast, quarter-mile track. A cafeteria-style "Pub in the Park" with outdoor tables that look out on the seal pool was tempting, but we were more hungry for culture than for lunch, so we took the Madison Avenue bus to 88th Street and headed uptown to "museum mile" -- Fifth Avenue between about 80th Street and 104th Street, where there's a major museum in just about every block. There's the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you can wander through the Temple of Dendur, study all the developments in Greek pottery, gaze at Goyas and gawk at medieval armor. There's the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim, where you can look at Gorkys and Picassos while your children run -- quietly -- around the circular ramps that form the exhibit space. But since we'd visited those museums not too long ago, we headed for the Cooper-Hewitt at Fifth Avenue and 91st Street.

Washingtonians are spoiled by all the free museums, and it came as a bit of a shock to shell out for every New York museum we visited. At the Cooper-Hewitt, however, which is owned by the Smithsonian, card- carrying Smithsonian Associates get in free. Others pay $1.50. Housed in the former Carnegie mansion, the Cooper-Hewitt features American Design and, when we dropped in, was showing the Victorian furniture of John Henry Belter. Next on our tour was the Museum of the City of New York, at Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. Here we concentrated on the rooms showing how New Yorkers lived in different periods and the doll houses, which showed the same thing in miniature. Especially admired was the 1920s brownstone, where the maid kisses the butler below stairs, the flapper-dressed hostess receives in the parlor and a man in white tie rides up and down the elevator.

The next museum was too far to walk to: The Cloisters, which houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval collection in an assemblage of old and new buildings on the bluffs above the Hudson River. To get there requires a 45-minute ride on the M-4 Madison Avenue bus, a ride through Harlem and past the buildings of Columbia University, Grant's Tomb and the Riverside Church, with vistas of the George Washington Bridge thrown in. At the Cloisters ("suggested" donation $3.50), the show we saw featured sculpture, stained glass and other artifacts from the 12th-century Abbey of St. Denis in France. On permanent exhibition are some reassembled medieval cloisters and chapels from France and Spain and the famous tapestries that tell the tale of a hunt for the unicorn. A walk along the ramparts took us to the Unicorn Cafe for a late lunch of hot dogs and lemonade ($6) to fortify us for the return to midtown via subway.

The New York subway looks dirtier than ours, goes faster and farther, and is much more challenging to find your way around in. We rattled to Times Square in about 15 minutes, then went our separate ways -- husband and children back to the hotel for a brief nap, me to the TKTS office in Times Square to stand in line for half-price theater tickets.

Autumn in New York --

It spells the thrill of first-nighting . . .

Times Square is really a triangle and the TKTS kiosk is near the apex -- just follow the snaking line of people. Open at 3 every day and at noon on matinee days, TKTS sells seats for that day at Broadway and off- Broadway shows for half-price plus a $1 per- ticket service charge. After a 45-minute wait -- plenty of time to study the blazing neon signs and the statue of George M. Cohan and to reject the discount tickets to "Oh Calcutta!" peddled to people in line -- I was at the window trying to decide between "Barnum," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine" and several others.

Deciding on four $20 mezzanine tickets to "A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine," for a total of $44, I taxied back to the hotel for a quick change before our six o'clock pre-theater dinner at the Rainbow Room.

On the 65th floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center, the glittering, Art Deco Rainbow Room frames spectacular views in its soaring windows. If you promise to leave before 8, when the music and dancing begin, you can have a four-course dinner for $17.50 per person. As we watched the lights come on in the skyscrapers a bunch of balloons, probably lost by a vendor, made their way skyward through the canyons of buildings. It was perfect -- as was the service and the meal. Our daughters, whom the captain and waiters treated like little princesses, had fruit salad, beef Wellington with braised celery, salad and chocolate mousse. My husband chose a shrimp appetizer, duck a l'orange with wild rice, salad and chocolate cake. I had an excellent duck pate, veal Orloff with braised lettuce, salad and tartufo en sorpresa, a frozen mousse in a hard chocolate shell. With cocktails, Shirley Temples, a half-bottle of wine, tea, espressos and a generous and well-deserved tip, the dinner cost $108.

We literally ran to the theater, arriving during the opening number of this engaging musical spoof of the movies of the Thirties and Forties. The first half -- the day in Hollywood -- had the ushers in Grauman's Chinese Theater regaling the audience with songs, dances and dialogue from the movies. The second act -- the night in the Ukraine -- was a comic farce with Marx Brothers lookalikes and slapstick so broad even our kids roared with laughter.

Sunday morning we were up at 8 -- packing our suitcases to be checked at Penn Station while we enjoyed a final day in New York. Across Eighth Avenue from Penn station we found an Automat -- perfect for a cheap breakfast and an educational experience for the kids and a nostalgia trip for the adults. Breakfast was good and cheap -- $8.35 for juice, coffee, cereal, pancakes, bacon and eggs and a danish -- but the place was not the sleek tech-moderne vending extravanganza of our youth. It's been colonialized and, while the coffee comes out of the old spouts and there are some pastries and sandwiches in the old windows, you don't put coins in the slots but simply take the item to the cashier with the rest of the cafeteria fare. (Since I returned home, however, I learned that there is still one real money-in-the-slot Automat at 42nd Street and Third. It is not an original Automat building but is in Thirties style, according to a Horn and Hardart spokesman, and the windows and the marble-countered change booth are original.)

From our less-authentic Automat, it was a short walk through Herald Square -- empty, on a Sunday morning, of the usual Macy's-induced bustle -- to the Empire State Building, open daily from 9:30 a.m. until midnight and a must on our older daughter's list. Waiting on line for the elevator to take us to the 80th floor to change to an elevator to the 86th-floor observatory, from which we may take still another elevator to the 102nd-floor observatory, with other tourists speaking Japanese, French, German, and British-accented English, we had time to admire the Art Deco stainless steel reliefs in the marble lobby. From the top -- it was a clear day -- we could see 80 miles, we were told. Uptown were all the places we had toured yesterday; downtown were all the places we would see, at closer range, that day.

. . . Glittering crowds

And shimmering clouds,

In canyons of steel --

They're making me feel

I'm home . . .

Heading downtown on the Fifth Avenue bus, we passed several buildings we had seen from above: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building with its campanile, the gilt pyramid of the New York Life Insurance Company and the rusticated limestone triangle of the Flatiron Building. Getting off the bus at 20th Street, we walked east to the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace and took the 50-cent National Park Service tour. The classic New York brownstone was actually torn down in 1910 and rebuilt, by public subscription, in 1921. Still, most of the furniture is original to the house or belonged to T.R. at one time or another -- including the desk he used as Secretary of the Navy, complete with ships carved out of the mahogany. After embarrassing the guide with probing questions about the toilet practices of the Roosevelts -- the house originally lacked indoor plumbing -- we strolled east toward Gramercy Park, a picture-perfect, quiet, London-like square lined with brownstones. One of them, at 15 Gramercy Park South, with carved faces projecting from the facade, was once the home of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden and is currently being restored. Next door is the Player's Club, once the home of actor Edwin Booth.

Making our way to the subway station at Union Square, we traveled farther downtown to the City Hall station and stepped out onto the Brooklyn Bridge. New Yorkers don't have to wait for a once-a-year-day, but can walk or bike across the Brooklyn Bridge any old time. On the day we did it, the boardwalk down the center of the bridge (but raised above the traffic) held a steady stream of hikers and bikers. Some do it for the views of the South Street seaport and the lower New York skyline, which includes what architecture critic Paul Goldberger calls "the Mozart of skyscrapers," the 1913 Woolworth Building. Some do it for the bridge itself, an interplay of steel cables and Gothic stone arches and an engineering wonder when it was built in 1883. And some do it to get to the other side: Brooklyn.

Our destination in Brooklyn was the River Cafe, a barge moored in the shadow of the bridge at 1 Water Street and reached by turning right as you come off the bridge and making your way down to the waterfront. Since our plans were fluid, we had not made reservations, and the barge-restaurant was booked solid. iaStill, we were offered an umbrella table on a terrace next to the barge, where we sipped fresh-squeezed orange juice, ate the restaurant's excellent homemade pastries and watched the boats go by.

To catch our own boat -- the Staten Island Ferry -- we asked a bus driver if he was headed back across the bridge. He wasn't, but he gave us a free ride to the nearest subway station -- High Street -- and we took the train under the river to Bowling Green, a pleasant walk through Battery Park from the ferry slip.

The ferries run only every half-hour on Sunday, but it's worth a wait to cruise out among the big freighters and Little Toots, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, to smell the harbor and hear the seagulls and look back at a receding Manhattan. The round trip costs 25 cents.

Still in a nautical mood, we hiked from the Battery to the South Street Seaport Museum, a grouping of old ships, piers and waterfront buildings, and toured the Ambrose lightship, which once marked the outer entrance to New York harbor, the Lettie G. Howard, an 1893 Gloucester schooner, and the Peking, a four-masted steel bark.

Two hours until train time, there was one more "must" on our older daughter's list: the twin towers of the World Trade Center. We had gazed at them, from the bridge, from the ferry -- and tended to agree with Goldberger's assessment of the building as "so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha." But, after trudging to it through the Sunday- quiet, crooked streets of the financial district -- built before street-straightening -- and taking the elevator to the 107th floor, we found a redeeming feature: Windows on the World. A mirrored hallway decorated with minerals and geoids led to the Hors d'Oeuverie where, for $42.44 including tax, tip and cover charge, we enjoyed an early supper of sushi, sashimi, steak tartare, yakitori and pork sate with peanut sauce and drinks. Not to mention the view -- a wrap- around view of a great port city with ships passing under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and putting out to sea. Our younger daughter's thoughts, however turned toward home.

"Can we see Washington from here?" she asked.

Well, not quite, but it was only a subway ride and a train trip away.

Autumn in New York --

. . . Dreamers with empty hands

May sigh for exotic lands;

It's autumn in New York --

It's good to live it again.

BIG APPLE TIPS

Our recent weekend for a family of four, including train fares, hotel, meals, theater tickets, admissions, subway, bus, taxi and ferry fares, tips and taxes, cost $580.39. Had we taken advantage of the kitchen in our hotel suite, we obviously could have shaved this figure, but we wouldn't have enjoyed it so much.

If you want the family rate on the train, be sure to ask for it, as the ticket clerks may not automatically give it. Other transportation bargains include New York Air -- $29 each way for one noon flight on Friday and almost all flights Saturday and Sunday -- otherwise it's $49 one way. Greyhound and Trailways are $47.75 roundtrip. For reservations at the Eastgate Tower, the Beekman Tower or the Shelburne, call 800/223-6663. For weekend packages in other hotels -- some of them including meals, theater tickets as so forth -- write to the New York Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2 Columbus Circle, New York, N.Y. 10019 for a Vacation Packages Directory. The bureau also offers a free map and schedule of events.

Another useful publication is New York on $20 A Day (Frommer/Pasmantier), $4.95 -- if you don't take the $20 figure literally. They plan to put out a new edition this year and raise it to $25 a day. Also, there's The City Observed: A Guide to the Architecture of Manhattan, by Paul Goldberger (Vintage), $7.95 -- if you like buildings.

Transit maps may be purchased at most subway token booths.

Song lyrics are from Vernon Duke's "Autumn in New York."(c) Copyright 1934 (renewed) Warner Bros. Inc. All rights reserved.