The USA has always been a subject of great fascination for me — its larger than life people and buildings, plus featuring in a huge proportion of films/media, mean that despite the fact I had never been , it was somewhere I desperately wanted to visit and even live.
I actually chose American Studies as my undergraduate degree, but it took up until earlier this month to follow my dream through and visit arguably the most famous city in the world — New York. The three of us (me, my Mum and my brother) decided to go close to Christmas to hopefully engage with the magic that seems to ooze from every street corner. We had an amazing time, but New York was still a little different than I’d imagined.
Here are some highlights/quick tips from a first-time visitor to NYC…
One of the first things you’ll notice about New York, regardless of where in the world you’re from, is the traffic — there’s tonnes of it. We live in outer London but still see our fair share of central gridlock and M25 madness, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer volume and craziness of New York traffic.
Even getting from JFK to the hotel was a hair-raising experience, as some cab drivers seem to have no idea of speed-limits or the fact that they’re about to merge lanes, and indicators are unheard of for many too.
Even as a pedestrian it’s an odd system, as the block system is all one way, and the pedestrian crossings can be a dice with death if you’re not paying attention. But I will say that I did love all the American cars that we saw — more SUVs than you can shake a stick at, and the number of private hire cars was very high…something I’ll talk about in another upcoming post.
Given the expense and madness of taking a cab, I’d suggest only using them to get to/from the airport. There’s a set fee of around $52 + tolls, which isn’t bad at all considering the traffic can turn a 30-minute journey into a 2-hour one. Otherwise though, there’s not much point unless you really can’t stomach the subway.
The subway was nothing like I’d expected, as for starters it’s so close to street level that you can even see the trains through the gratings on the pavement. Admittedly not the cleanest or easiest to figure out, the subway has lots of different numbered/lettered lines, which run in groups of three. For example there is 1,2,3 and A,B,C…in Manhattan each trio tend to stop at the same stops, except one of them will be an ‘Express’ train that only stops at big stations — would be a handy but impossible addition to the tube network!
Just be aware with the subway that the payment system is very long and annoying — a lot of stations only have machines, which often only take the exact change. Also it may be worth investigating a Metrocard, which I think would’ve made things easier.
We ended up walking a lot, which was a lot easier than you might think because of the Avenue/Street system. Just be aware that the pedestrian crossings can slow you down a lot…and your feet will ache!
A lot of people go to New York around Christmas time in order to do some shopping. That wasn’t the primary reason we decided to go, but it had some appeal (especially for me) given the amazing prices that a lot of people had told us about.
The main cluster of shops is around the Central-Park end of 5th Avenue, but there’s also plenty of shops around the Times Square area, and some people like to take the opportunity to visit an out-of-town discount mall…not something we did but if you’re after shopping then it’s certainly something to consider.
The deals in some stores aren’t quite as good as you might expect, but still a good amount cheaper than the UK, and of course it depends on the £/$ exchange rate too. It’s also worth knowing something about American shopping chains, so here’s a very quick guide:
massive department store near the Empire State Building, some prices not bad, especially around Xmas
Bloomingdales – Macy’s premium offshoot, located near the Park, we didn’t go in though
Saks 5th Avenue –
very festive looking store near the top of 5th Avenue, rubbish lifts but very busy inside…like Selfridges
Walgreens – pharmacy brand which also does food and drink, think Boots on steroids
Duane Reade – Wallgreen’s offshoot, offering a more supermarket experience. They are everywhere!
Century 21 – cheaper department store with lots of brands on discount…think a posher TK Maxx
Central Park is definitely up there in terms of famous New York locations, but we didn’t end up spending a whole lot of time there. We did do the traditional tourist thing of doing a horse-drawn carriage through the park, but at $50 for a 15 minute trip it wasn’t especially cheap, and although our Irish driver was polite and knowledgable, we saw some who weren’t quite as bright and twinkly-eyed.
The park is massive and you’d need a good half-day at least to explore it, so we just stuck to the south part near the Plaza Hotel and 5th Avenue. There was a skating rink and of course the Zoo, plus a few nice cafes and a posh bar — we didn’t have the time to do these properly, but if you’re after a more chilled time then it might be nice to sit and people-watch.
There are so many iconic places to visit in New York and we tried to squeeze as many in as possible, here’s another quick guide…
Empire State Building –
a must do really, worth doing at night or early in the morning to beat queues. Outside deck is really cool but a bit overwhelming if you don’t like heights/getting blown around. The higher floor is around $30 more, and probably only worth doing once.
One World Trade Centre –
the tallest building in the Western hemisphere, and a very different experience to the Empire State (we did in the morning so the difference was even more stark). Impressive lift, great views, but not-so-good for taking pictures as the glass leaves a reflection. Don’t bother with iPad guides ($10), but overall an amazing view inside and out.
9/11 Memorial –
one of the main reasons I wanted to visit New York, the memorial is incredibly silent and moving both inside and out. A lot of walking and reading so can be hard on your feet, but worth it in my opinion. Not many areas inside where you can take pictures, especially inside the ‘cores’ of the towers.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island –
if you want to go inside at all, then book well in advance! Great views on the boat across, just sit on the right-side (unlike us). Plenty of good views on Liberty Island itself, but worth doing Podium level at least if you can to get inside the famous monument. ‘Crown’ level gets you inside the statue’s head, but a lot of steps to get up there, and not much room at the top! Ellis Island was interesting, but not if you’ve spent ages climbing statues and standing all day. Both things are worth a whole day between them.
Rockerfeller Centre –
beautiful building near 5th Avenue, in December there is the famous tree (featured in Home Alone 2), plus an ice rink. Top of the Rock is something we didn’t have time for, but offers great views of the park and an outside viewing platform.
Chinatown/Little Italy –
best to do in the daytime, and filled with stereotypes. Definitely somewhere to go if you’re looking for something to eat, but make sure you know what you’re ordering!
Times Square and Broadway – tourist central, but there are loads of good shops and it’s a good central location to stay and get your bearings from. Broadway shows are expensive but apparently spectacular.
Financial District –
an interesting detour if you’re going close to Lower Manhattan, plenty of iconic buildings near Wall Street, and eerily quiet at the weekend.
High Line –
a disused railway track that has been turned into a park, the High Line meanders above street level throughout the West Side and offers you a different perspective on the city. Surprisingly entertaining and it’s free.
Brooklyn Bridge –
an iconic structure that you can actually walk on, we did it at night but I suspect would probably feel a little safer in the day, although the view was spectacular.
Grand Central Station –
another famous landmark, Grand Central is Midtown and near the likes of the Chrysler Building and the MetLife Building. Amazing architecture inside, we also found an expensive market inside, and there’s apparently restaurants somewhere too.
Chrysler Building –
an Art Deco skyscraper that you, alas, can’t go up, the Chrysler Building is beautiful and the lobby is worth a walk through just to see the interior design.
New York City Library –
somewhere we stumbled across, another famous structure that you can wander around to your heart’s content. Cool library shop too.
The places to eat in New York are endless, but you can be as adventurous as you’d like given the variety of food on offer. We got a few recommendations before we went, but if you’re a first timer then you can’t really go wrong with sticking to what you’re used to.
Breakfasts – we tried to stick to lighter food for breakfast, but unless you stick to a pastry and a coffee then it’s pretty hard to do so. Our highlight was an amazing bagel joint (where they queued out the door), but also tried an American diner and Wendys, as well as safer/less fatty places.
Lunch/Snacks – in the UK there are some many sandwich-type places that if you get stuck for lunch, then you can wander into a Tesco Express and get a £3 meal deal! In New York lunches tend to be heavier, and if you want a sandwich then it tends to be a massive fatty one that’s been made in front of you. We avoided street food but I’m sure it’s no longer as bad as its reputation was.
Dinner – really it depends on what kind of cuisine you’re after, and how adventurous you feel. A lot of the time we had American-type food, so deep fried chicken/shellfish and fries (shout out to Bubba Gump’s at Time Sq.), but we also ate in Chinatown with dubious results.
Where to stay
Our hotel was just around the corner from Times Square, which in my opinion was perfect as we were close to the tourist-y areas that we wanted to see. Admittedly it was noisy, and the room was not especially generous for the price we paid, but as a base it was fine.
Other people I know have stayed closer to Midtown, or even outside Manhattan. That’s fine if you know what you want to do on your trip, but try and get a good idea of locations before you go.
One last thing…
Definitely the oddest thing I found in New York was the toilets! I won’t go into any great detail, but the very low and wide bowl was just unpleasant, and public toilets had massive gaps between the stall doors so that it was very possible to see between them! Also nasty was the fact that those doors were very short, so anyone tall could just see over!