It was already late afternoon and we had evening plans in the city – tickets booked for the sunset hours at Top of the Rock, one of the three observations decks to choose from in New York City.
Now we just had to find our way to the nearest New Jersey Transit station and catch the PATH train the few stops into Manhattan. Sounded simple enough and we’d researched train times, routes to get to midtown and where to get tickets from. What we hadn’t prepared for, was rail works meaning the line we needed to get to midtown was closed. This, coupled with there being less trains because of the Sunday service timetable, put us into a bit of a panic that we wouldn’t make our Top of the Rock timeslot!
The only trains running into Manhattan were running to the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan which meant we’d then have to catch a subway train up to the Rockefeller Centre. Luckily, I’d spent enough time in New York over the years (this would be my 10th visit to the city) that I was pretty familiar with the transport system.
The platform at the New Jersey stop was extremely busy but when the train arrived, we managed to squeeze on. We were given free transfer tickets to use on the subway at the other end to make up for the inconvenience and were soon on our way on the uptown line to the Rockefeller Centre. From here, we quickly found our way to the Top of the Rock entrance just in time for our timed entry slot.
Top of the Rock has always been my favourite of the three observation decks on offer in New York. There’s more space on the viewing decks than the Empire State Building and I prefer the view, especially as you get the iconic Empire State Building in your pictures. I also prefer my observation decks to have an outdoor viewing area so you can avoid glare from windows in your photos, something the Freedom Tower’s observation deck lacks. Historically, I’d always found Top of the Rock to be the quietest of the three attractions too and had never had to fight my way into a space to take a photo.
That was until tonight anyway. Whether it was because we’d booked one of the sunset viewing slots or because it was a just a busy Sunday summer evening,I had never seen so many people up there! It made our visit a lot less relaxed than my previous visits had been and we stayed for less time than we probably would have done otherwise.
Despite the crowds, the views from the top were as amazing as ever.
After our Top of the Rock visit, the only thing on our mind was food. We had originally planned to eat before our Top of the Rock timeslot but our delays driving through New Jersey followed by the train problems getting into Manhattan meant we didn’t have time. It was late and we didn’t really want to hop on a subway to a different part of the city but Times Square was busy and everywhere we looked at either had queues or, predictably, an overpriced menu. So instead, we decided to catch the train back to New Jersey figuring we’d be able to find something once back there.
With the train delays, it took us a while to get back and once we did, we found the malls we had passed walking to the station earlier closed for the night along with the restaurants. Luckily, the McDonalds not too far from our motel was still open so we resorted to grabbing some fast food from there to satisfy us.
The next morning, the trains were back to running as normal so after breakfast, we walked to the station to head into Manhattan. Despite it being my tenth visit to the city, there is always something new to experience and I like to make sure I always do something I haven’t done before.
This time, I would be returning to Liberty Island to visit the iconic Statue of Liberty but for the first time, actually going inside the statue. Despite visiting Liberty Island twice before, I’d always had an island only ticket so not even been as far in as the pedestal which the statue stands on.
Once in downtown Manhattan, we made our way to Battery Park to catch the ferry across, enjoying the skyline views as we looked back at the city. Our tickets this time, gave us access to the crown of the statue and we knew there were a lot of steps to climb to reach this so, with some trepidation, we handed our tickets in at the entrance to the pedestal and began our climb. There was an option to take an elevator to the pedestal for anyone who didn’t want to climb the entire up but we decided to walk it taking our time and enjoying the views whilst catching our breath once we reached the lookout point.
Then, from the pedestal, we began our climb up to the crown. It was a strange feeling being inside the huge statue and being able to make out the shape of the the gown as we climbed up through the hollow structure. The stirs got narrower the further we climbed and when we finally reached the crown, the viewing deck there was extremely compact meaning we didn’t feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. After a quick chat with the park ranger who told us a bit about the statue and what we could see, we took a few photos of the view and what was visible of the structure itself and then began our descent. It was a really interesting experience getting to climb up inside the statue and if you can manage the 354 steps to the crown (or just 162 from the pedestal if you use the elevator!) then I’d definitely recommend going up there!
After our climb, we caught the ferry over to Ellis Island where the Immigration Museum stands. Having both visited the museum previous trips, we opted to stay on the ferry and continue back to Manhattan.
That afternoon, we had plans to meet up with a friend from the Trek America Northern states tour we’d done, a New York native. Our meeting point was the amazing Grand Central Station and from here we made our way to Washington Square Park, one of those places I had passed many times over the years but never actually stopped at. The small park was buzzing as groups sat around the central fountain. Walking out of the park under its large, marble arch, we made our way towards Nolita. We were in search of ice cream and our friend recommended the area’s Milk Bar, a ‘hole in the wall’ dessert shop specialising in milk flavoured products. Here, I tried their ‘cereal milk’ flavoured ice cream, supposed to taste like the milk left in the bottom of the bowl after a bowl of sugary cereal. I was a little unsure after my first taste – the smell was more of sour milk than cereal milk! – but found myself quite enjoying it by the time I took my last spoonful!!
From Nolita, we strolled west into Greenwich Village to find the ‘Friends apartment’ – the building used for the exterior, between-scene shots in the famous comedy show. Being a huge fan of the series, I’d visited before but my friend hadn’t so we thought we’d stop by while we weren’t too far away.
After taking a few photos with the building, we continued west along to the Hudson River Park, the pedestrianised greenway which runs north to south along the west side of Manhattan. Strolling along the walkway and along some of its piers, we paused to take photos of the views across the river and of the downtown skyline as the sun started to dip.
In need of some proper food, we then walked in land again towards Chelsea Market. The market is known for its abundance of food stalls but with so much on offer, we couldn’t settle on anything. Deciding to see what else the area had to offer, we eventually decided to grab some typical New York pizza from a local pizzeria before heading back across the Hudson River to our New Jersey motel.
We had one more day left in the city and plenty more to pack in. First up was a trip back to the Rockefeller Centre where this time, we’d be visiting the NBC Studios. I love doing the studio tours in LA and while I knew there wasn’t a lot in the way of films and major TV shows filmed here, I’m a fan of old skool Saturday Night Live and mainly wanted to see the studio it is filmed in. The studio, and that used for Jimmy Fallon’s late night chat show, were so much smaller than they appear on TV!
Despite not being familiar with a great deal of the shows mentioned by our guide, it was still really interesting to get a look inside both of these studios as well as a news studio and various other production areas.
From the Rockefeller Centre, we headed uptown, popping to Bloomingdales for a bit of shopping and then Dylan’s Candy Bar for some souvenirs and snacks to keep us going on the road for the next few days! It was almost lunch time and while we knew we wanted to eat at the always entertaining but rather touristy Ella’s Stardust Diner that evening, we also really wanted to visit Serendipity, a New York restaurant that had been on my places to visit list for years but I hadn’t yet made it to!
What we really wanted to try was it’s frozen hot chocolate but after being seated in the quirky dining room, we noticed there was a minimum charge per person that was quite a bit higher than the cost of the frozen hot chocolate between us would have been.
We debated just leaving but really wanting to try the famous dessert, eventually found settled on a plate of fries to share and a drink to just tip is over the minimum spend once the frozen hot chocolate was added in.
It was worth it as the dessert was delicious, like a huge, extremely cold, chocolate milkshake!
After demolishing the delicious dessert, we started to work it off by walking to Central Park where we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine.
While in the park, we made sure to tick off our favourite park highlights including some of the bronze statues, the boating pond, the lake, Bow Bridge and Bethesda Fountain.
After all that walking, we were soon hungry again so made our way out of the park and back towards Times Square to visit the nearby Ella’s Stardust Diner. A complete contrast to the small, cute surrounding of Serendipity earlier, Ella’s Diner is a huge, loud diner where the waitstaff are all Broadway wannabes who sing to entertain you as you eat. It’s always great fun and this time was no different.
After dinner, we walked to Times Square to take some last minute photos of the bright lights. You can;t visit New York without taking in a show so we finished our trip to the city at the theatre watching Frozen on Broadway.
Heading back to our New Jersey motel, I was sad to once again say goodbye to the bright lights and noise of the city. We’d crammed a lot in to our short visit but there was lots we hadn’t got round to. Hopefully sometime in the future I can return again. For now it was back on the road ready to visit some of the states of New England.
Despite having visited New York multiple times (you can read my guide to the city here), it had always been at Easter or during the summer. As a teacher, I was only able to take trips in the school holidays and it usually worked out that the Christmas break began right before Christmas itself and then continued into the New Year meaning unless I wanted to be away for Christmas Day – which I didn’t – there was never time to fit in a short break before Christmas and make it back in time.
So as soon as I made the decision to take a break from my teaching career, the first trip I booked was a mid-December visit to New York City. We made the decision to stay outside of Manhattan for the first time, just across the East River in the borough of Queens, to cut costs. We ensured the hotel was just a short walk from the nearest subway station and therefore it took us no longer to get to and from midtown Manhattan than it would have staying in lower Manhattan. The main problem our location caused us was getting to and from the airport as we were flying into Newark, New Jersey, west of Manhattan. We pre-booked a taxi service for our arrival but were met with unexpected costs from toll roads and bridges to get to Queens so for the return trip, we cancelled our booking with the same service and instead got the subway into Manhattan then a yellow cab to Penn Station and used the NJ airport express train to get to the airport from here. Taking luggage on the subway wasn’t ideal but the journey not only cost a lot less than the outbound taxi but also took a lot less time!
We arrived at our hotel late afternoon and after checking in, caught the subway straight into the city getting off at the Rockefeller Centre for our first glimpse of the famous tree. Being a Sunday evening at this point, Rockefeller Plaza was ridiculously busy with huge crowds of people trying to get in and out while police controlled the various entrances and exits to the area. Deciding to come back when it would be quieter, we instead walked down towards Times Square and went for dinner at one of my favourite places to eat in the city, Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is the restaurant where all of the waitstaff are wannabe Broadway performers and entertain diners with a song in between serving them and is a really fun place to eat!
We had purchased a New York Pass each valid for the duration of our stay and wanting to make the most of it, decided to head to one of the few places open late, Madame Tussaud’s, to make use of our card. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why so many people flock to these wax museums around the World – just hang out at a stage door and you can meet the actual celebrities! – but if it’s included on a pass then as long as you go in the evening when it’s quiet it can be a fun way to spend an hour.
One of our must do Christmas activities for the city was a trip to Macy’s Santaland to meet the man himself. I had researched beforehand and heard that it got very busy, especially on weekends but was open til reasonable late and that the best time to go was after 8pm so after leaving Madame Tussaud’s, we walked down to Herald Square and made our way to the top floor grotto. Luckily, the wait time was around 20 minutes and within 10 minutes we had entered the grotto area and were surrounded by gingerbread houses, enchanted trees, dancing snowmen and elves making their way up and down the line checking everyone was having a good time.
I hadn’t been to a Christmas grotto since I was a kid but I’d still say that this was one of, if not the, best grotto I’d ever been too and passing slowly along the line, it didn’t feel like we were queuing at all as there was so much to see and take in. All too soon, we reached Santa’s house and were taken in to meet Santa Claus. Surprisingly, we were allowed to have photos with Santa taken on our own cameras, rather than being forced to buy the official ones and we were given a Santaland badge as a souvenir of our visit!
Before leaving Macy’s, we spent some time looking around their Christmas store where the millions of tree decorations were already heavily discounted and we made a few purchases. Then it was back on the subway to head back to our hotel in Queens for the evening.
The next day, we had a rest from Christmas and instead took the ferry across to Liberty Island as this was included on our New York passes. The pass gave us access to the island and audio guides but did not allow us entrance into the pedestal or to climb the Statue itself. We were glad we had wrapped up warm as it was freezing out on Liberty Island! We spent some time exploring and listening to the commentary on our audio guides before catching a second ferry over to Ellis Island. Although I had visited Ellis Island and its immigration museum before, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time there so this time, I took more time exploring and found the museum to be really interesting.
Once back in Manhattan, we spent some time exploring downtown and visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum This small museum, separate to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, presents stories from people that were actually there such as survivors, responders and volunteers and is definitely worth a visit.
After dinner at Denny’s, we walked the short distance to China town then wandered through Little Italy where Mulberry Street was decorated for Christmas and we found some Christmas stores to look around. Then that evening, we headed to Broadway to see a show.
Day 3 and we decided to make use of our tourist passes along the museum mile. We started off at the Museum of the City of New York, a museum I hadn’t visited on my previous trips to the city. The museum houses ever-changing exhibits showcasing its collection of art and artefacts from the city’s past and was an interesting way to spend an hour.
Next up was the Guggenheim to scratch our heads at the displays of modern art and then onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art where a huge Christmas tree stood in the main atrium. From here, we walked across Central Park to the Museum of Natural History where a Christmassy looking dinosaur had been erected outside!
As we left the museum and walked down towards the south end of Central Park, we stumbled across a small Christmas market at Columbus Circle and spent some time wandering through, browsing the stalls.
All museumed out, we decided to return to Rockefeller Plaza to see if the crowds had died down from the weekend. Luckily, it was a lot quieter now and we could get close enough to the famous Christmas tree to take some photos with it. It is just as impressive as it looks in all the photos and movies!
Next stop on a jam-packed day was Grand Central Terminus where we found another Christmas market – the Grand Central Holiday Fair – in full swing! Across the road from the station, at Bryant Park, the Christmas spirit was in full swing and an ice rink and Christmas tree had been erected along side another Christmas market. Unable to resist purchasing something any longer, we picked up a few more trinkets to take back for our tree at home!
For that evening, we had booked ourselves on an organised Christmas lights tour which would take us out of Manhattan to a Brooklyn neighbourhood where competitive residents dress the houses, gardens and anything else they can find in an array of bright lights and glowing ornaments!! It was a fun tour and some of the displays were jaw-dropping. Along the way, the coach stopped regularly so we could walk up and down the streets admiring the decorations and take photos. One house even had a Christmas song on rotation being broadcast on an unused frequency and invited cars to tune in as the watched its Christmas lights ‘dance’ in time to the song!
Once we’d been dropped back in the city, we decided to make the most of what was left of the evening with a late night trip up the Empire State Building.
I knew from past experience that it was always a lot quieter late at night and as expected we didn’t have to queue to get in and once at the observation deck, we had plenty of room to move around. New York always looks amazing lit up at night so it’s a good time to go all round!
After an extremely busy day, we decided to take it a bit easier the following day and spent most of the morning on Fifth Avenue to see the stores’ Christmas windows.
We then made use of our tourist passes by jumping on a walking tour of the Rockefeller Center which was really interesting giving us some access to parts of the complex you can’t otherwise enter as well as pointing out a lot of the art and sculpture in and around the building, much of it which I must have walked past many times before but never really noticed.
The weather today wasn’t great and was getting colder and cloudier by the second but as it was our last full day in the city, we decided to use our passes to take a trip up to Top of the Rock. We were warned by the staff that it was currently zero visibility at the top but as it was the only time we’d have to go, took a chance and luckily, it had cleared enough that there was some kind of view from up there. While at the top, it started to snow although when we got back down to ground level, it hadn’t quite reached the pavements of Manhattan just yet!
To get out of the cold for a while, we used our passes to take another walking tour, this time, a tour of Radio City Music Hall. This again gave us behind the scenes access to parts of the building you ca’t otherwise enter as well as giving us some history of the building. At the end of the tour, we got to peer into the live Christmas Spectacular show going on and then to meet one of its stars, a Rockette. It really made me wish I’d bought tickets to see the show while in the city for Christmas but maybe I’ll get the chance again one day.
That evening, after dinner at a branch of Dallas BBQ, we went to see an off-Broadway show. These shows tend to be held in much smaller theatres but ticket prices are a lot less than the bigger shows and there’s usually some really good productions on!
As it was our last night in the city, we finished the evening off with one last visit to the Rockefeller Centre, this time, to see the tree all lit up at night. While there we also happened to catch the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Laser Light show which was beamed onto the walls of the building!
We had one morning left in the city before catching our flight home and we’d booked tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This was a really moving experience and despite allowing ourselves the recommended few hours to go around the museum, we ran out of time in the end and had to rush through the later part of the museum.
Christmas time in New York had been everything I was expecting and more and had definitely put us all in the Christmas spirit! It’s something I would definitely recommend doing if you can!
Watch a video montage of my Christmas trip to the New York City here:
After taking the plunge and joining the 3-week Southern BLT with Trek America earlier in the year, I couldn’t wait to get on the road again so within weeks of returning, I booked my second adventure with them to depart that summer.
My last adventure had been in the winter months and we’d repeatedly ran into heavy snow throughout the trip so I was hoping for some sunshine and warmth this time around! Once again, I’d be travelling coast to coast over 3 weeks but this time, East to West from New York to Los Angeles through the Northern states.
With 2 months to go til the trip departed, I once again made use of the Trek America forums, posting a message asking if anyone else was taking the same trip. After getting a couple of replies, we set up a Facebook group dedicated to our trip and posted a link on the Trek site. Within a few weeks, we had found all members of our tour and were eagerly discussing our upcoming adventure on line.
As most of the group were staying in New York for a night or so prior to the tour departing, we began to make plans together in the city for those few days with me and one of the other girls even deciding to share a hotel room there to cut costs.
So in early June, I flew to New York and made my way to our midtown hotel. My group mate turned up about an hour later and, after chatting online for the last few weeks, it was as if we’d been friends for years. After freshening up, we headed out into the city to meet with another group member and walked up towards Times Square to find dinner. We settled on Applebee’s and were joined by a forth member of our group. We spent the evening excitedly chatting and our upcoming, getting to know each other and making plans for the next day.
Our second day in the city and some of the others had plans to visit the 9/11 Museum. As I had visited already just a few months ago, I instead caught the subway across to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and took a wander around the many Sunday flea markets, even finding myself a few unexpected bargains! After walking along the East River, enjoying the views of Manhattan, I caught the subway back to downtown Manhattan to meet up with my group mates and a few new members who had now arrived in the city.
We spent the afternoon at Coney Island sat on the beach chatting and riding the famous Coney Island Wonder Wheel then that evening we all went for dinner together at a pizzeria in midtown.
The next day we were all moving to our Trek America gateway hotel in New Jersey and the rest of the group would all be arriving into the US. While some of the group would be getting in late and had opted to stay in the hotel, most of the group planned on coming into the city that afternoon and we had booked tickets to go up to the newly opened Freedom Tower observation deck.
With the morning to spare before the remainder of our new friends arrived, some of us decided to walk up to Central Park and visit the zoo. Then, it was time to go and meet up with a few more group arrivals.
Before heading downtown, we made a quick stop in Greenwich Village to go and see the ‘Friends’ apartment block. Then we caught the subway down to Battery Park, finding somewhere to have dinner nearby before our sunset trip up the Freedom Tower.
After spending some time enjoying the views, those of us who’d been staying in the city all went to retrieve our luggage before meeting back up with everyone at Penn Station to catch the train out to the gateway hotel.
After a great few days in the city and with everyone already getting on great, we were all even more excited for the weeks ahead and couldn’t wait for our Trek America adventure to get properly started!
This was it. The end. After 3 weeks travelling cross country through the southern states of America with this eclectic bunch of people who had now become friends, today we would reach our final destination of New York City and say our goodbyes. But first we had today’s journey ahead of us with a stop in Philadelphia then New Jersey for our final group meal. So after a busy couple of days sight-seeing in Washington D.C., we loaded our luggage onto the Trek van’s trailer for the very last time.
En route to Philadelphia, we passed through the state of Delaware but unfortunately didn’t stop, not even for gas, leaving me uncertain as to whether I could officially say it was a state I had visited!!
Our first stop once we reached the city was on the outskirts at 9th Street where two rival Philly Cheese steak vendors sit across the street from each other. Both restaurants are popular with locals and tourists alike with queues often reaching around the block. We were given the choice of which we got lunch from and faced with an impossible decision, all ended up following our Trek guide to Pat’s. In hindsight, we should have split up, ordered cheese steaks from both and then halved them between us so we could have tried both but I guess I’ll just have to return to try a Geno’s cheese steak another time! I went for the basic sandwich with steak and cheese whizz and it was one of the most delicious things I had ever tasted !
Once we’d all eaten, it was back of the van to head to the main historic district of the city. We parked by Independence Hall and were given a hour to look around. We all joined the short queue to see the Liberty Bell. It was a lot smaller than I expected! Then we broke off into smaller groups. We wandered around the outside of Independence Hall as unfortunately, entrance was by advance ticketing only and there were no tickets available for the current time, and then walked down to the tomb of the unknown soldier before going to a visitors centre to get some souvenirs.
At the request of one of our group, we made one more stop in Philly at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This is where the famous scene from the Rocky movie was filmed and we all did our best to run to the top of the steps in one go!
From Philadelphia, we drove towards the last state of our trip – New Jersey where we’d be stopping in Jersey City at an Italian restaurant for our last group meal, pizza, and then there was just one more stop left, at Liberty Park to view the Manhattan skyline.
Unfortunately, as for much of our trip, the weather was not on our side and we arrived to torrential rain and heavy cloud obscuring a lot of the view. After one final group photo, we boarded the Trek van one last time and headed to the gateway hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Only a few of the group were staying there, most of us had booked accommodation into the city. All but one group member, who had a flight out that evening, had planned to meet up in the city that evening so, our guide let those staying in New Jersey drop their luggage then took us all to the subway station.
After saying our goodbyes and thank-yous to our guide, we all caught the subway into Manhattan, briefly separating to drop bags at our various hotels & AirBnB’s before reuniting in Times Square an hour later. Not wanting our experience to end just yet, we made plans to meet again the next morning for breakfast and spend time in the city together.
The next day, the group started to shrink as one by one, members drifted away to catch flights or just do their own thing. A few of us stuck together to do as much sightseeing as we could in day before 2 members caught a flight home that evening.
We began downtown, visiting Battery Park for a slightly clearer view of the Statue of Liberty than we had had from Liberty Park the previous day then walked half way across the Brooklyn Bridge before catching a subway uptown to window shop along 5th Avenue and go for a walk in Central Park. Lunch was at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where the singing waitstaff just happened to sing ‘Let It Go’ which had, with the weather we’d experienced, become our Trek tour anthem! Then we ended the afternoon with a trip up to Top of the Rock before saying goodbye to those who had to get to the airport.
That evening, I went alone to watch Kinky Boots on Broadway after queuing at the Time Square TKTS booth to get discount tickets and then met up with the only group member remaining in the city to take a late night trip up the Empire State Building.
The next day we met up again at Chelsea Market and after strolling through past all the food vendors, spent some time walking the Highline, one of New York’s newest green spaces formed from reclaimed land from an old elevated railway track.
From here, we took a subway to Brooklyn to explore the galleries and bookstores of the DUMBO area, take a ride on Jane’s carousel and enjoy the impressive views of downtown Manhattan before walking back across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan then it was off to Greenwich Village where we tried some cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street.
After another trip to the theatre that evening, this time with discounted tickets to see Jersey Boys on Broadway, it was time to say goodbye to the last of my Trek companions.
It was odd returning to being a lone traveller the next day, eating breakfast by myself at the IHOP and walking around the city alone. I had a few hours to spare before heading to the airport to catch my flight that evening so I decided to join a ‘free’ walking tour of Grand Central Station and the surrounding area that had been recommended t me by a friend. The tour was really interesting and we got to see inside buildings in the area that are otherwise off-limits to the general public.
Walking tour over, I strolled back to my midtown hotel to pick up my luggage then across the road to Penn Station to catch the train to Newark airport and await my flight back to the UK. It had been an amazing 4 weeks, travelling solo for the first time and joining a group tour for the first time and I was absolutely exhausted from the experience. But I had seen some incredible places and made some great new friends and I couldn’t wait do it all again!
Watch my Trek America adventures in Philadelphia and New York here:
Right, let’s get this out of the way. As the slogan says, I Love NY. I really do. I’ve made multiple trips out there already and can’t wait to return someday for what will be my 11th visit. It wasn’t even somewhere that was ever on my radar to go when I was younger, in fact the USA at all was never top of my list. My first visit only happened when I was invited to join my friend on a trip to New York with her parents. When that fell through, we decided to go anyway, just the 2 of us. And that was it. I was smitten. There’s just something about it, an atmosphere, a buzz, an energy – the bright lights, the constant noise, the endless list of things to do… That first trip was in 2005. I went back in 2007. And again in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. The first thing I did when I quit my job? Booked a December break to the city to experience it at Christmas time.
So I guess I see myself as a bit of a New York expert. I certainly know my way around the city enough to give directions when stopped and asked (apparently I look like someone who knows where they’re going rather than a tourist now as I’m often stopped and asked!) and to show friends who around the city on their first visits.
My visits have ranged in length from 2 nights (as part of a
multi-city trip) to 6 nights but I’d say for a first visit, 4 nights like my
own first trip was, is enough to see the essentials.
If at all possible, I would definitely recommend going with someone who has been before the first time you visit but if this isn’t an option, then definitely do your research, get an idea of the layout of Manhattan and plan what to do in each area to save time and get the most out of your visit.
Having been to the city so many times, I’ve arrived into Manhattan in a few different ways. I have a friend who once insisted we got a flight that arrived into New York’s JFK rather than Newark in New Jersey as it was more ‘iconic’ but honestly, I really don’t think it matters and I mainly just got for the cheapest, most convenient flights no matter which of the 2 airports they land at. My first trip to the city we booked through a travel agent as a package with Virgin Holidays so our transfers from the airport to the hotel and back were included. All my other trips I’ve booked independently, usually using a site like Expedia and I’ve therefore organised the transfers myself. I tried a shared shuttle service once – never again. We were, of course, one of the last drop offs so it took forever before we were at our hotel then we were one of the first pick ups returning, after which, we seemingly spent hours driving around JFK Airport dropping other passengers off at various terminals before we finally got to ours – we’d wondered why our pick up time was so early! Not only that but the driver’s driving was crazy, horns were blasting constantly, and we didn’t feel safe travelling in either direction! I’ve had good experiences with shared shuttle services elsewhere – even with the same company this particular trip was with – but that one put me off using one for New York again. My next few visits, we used taxis from the airport into the city. At JFK, this involved fighting our way through a throng of drivers from private companies trying to talk tourists into their sedans and limos for which they charge hiked up fares to the standard yellow taxi cabs. If you plan on getting a taxi from the airport, make sure you turn down any offers from driver stood around inside and outside the terminal and instead follow the signs to the official New York Taxi ranks.
If you’re combining a New York trip with another east coast city then train is the perfect way to get to the city. We once caught the Amtrak from Boston which took about 3 hours to arrive into Penn Station in midtown Manhattan. The train was roomy and comfortable and for a tip, we had help boarding our train with our luggage from a ‘red cap’ – like a station concierge. You can also arrive into Penn Station if you decide to use public transport to get into the city from Newark Airport. The airport train is a quick, easy and relatively cheap way of getting between the airport and the city. Once you’ve arrived at Penn Station, if your hotel isn’t walkable then I’d recommend taking a taxi as the New York subway system is not easy to navigate with large suitcases! Unlike the London Underground, the subway has very few wide barriers for you to get your luggage through and many stations have a lot of stairs to climb with no lifts or escalators.
It is possible to travel from JFK to Manhattan on public transport too using the AirTrain which links up to the subway but I’ve not had experience of this myself as the one time I was going to use it, it was closed and I had to get a replacement bus – which took forever in rush hour traffic! – instead.
For the most part, Manhattan Island is laid out in a typical
American grid system which, in my opinion, makes getting around a piece of
cake. Streets run east to west with numbers ascending as you head ‘uptown’ or
north and descending as you walk ‘downtown’ or south. Avenues run north to south with the 1st
Ave being furthest east and 12th Avenue being furthest west. Broadway kinda cuts across diagonally. Therefore, you get out of any subway station
unsure of where you are and it doesn’t really matter just note the street you
are on, walk a block and see if the street numbers increase or decrease to know
if you’re walking in the right direction. The iconic tall buildings are also
great for determining location as if you know where the Empire State Building,
for example, is, you just need to look for it and head in that direction to
reach lower midtown. Things get a bit
complicated downtown in the financial district as this is below where the grid
system starts and roads just have normal street names rather than numbers but
everything is well signposted.
I mentioned exiting a subway station but the first couple of
times I visited the city, I didn’t make use of the metro system. Instead, we bought tickets for one of the hop
on/off tourist buses that runs in the city and used this to get downtown,
hopping back on later to get back to midtown and walked everywhere else. We
also did a complete loop on the Uptown bus route taking us up and around
Central Park but stayed on the whole way round that time. This worked fine on a
short visit with a bit of planning. We decided the only place we’d need to hop
off would be at Battery Park, the southernmost point of Manhattan from where
you can see the Statue of Liberty so while we were in that area we made sure we
ticked everything down there off our list so we wouldn’t have to return.
The first time I did attempt the metro was on the longest of my visits, a 6-night trip in 2008. On my previous trips I had stayed in midtown making many attractions walkable but this time we stayed a bit further downtown at Union Square on 15th Street meaning a short commute on the subway each day to get to where we were going that day. And I have to say, when I first looked at the map, I found it a really complicated system compared to London’s underground. I don’t know if it was the use of numbers and letters that confused me or lines of the same colour branching out to different places but I just couldn’t get my head around it! We bought a 7-day metro pass (cheaper than a one-day London underground pass at the time!) and after a couple of days, what had seemed impossible to navigate that first evening was a piece of cake!
Where to stay
New York City, and Manhattan especially, is not a cheap place to stay. Midtown is probably the most convenient location – close to many of the attractions, not too far to get uptown or downtown – but it will cost you for that convenience. On my first visit, we stayed in Midtown, a block from the Empire State Building. Macy’s was at the end of our street, Times Square was a 10 minute walk away cutting up Broadway. I’ve stayed in a few hotels in this area and it’s always a very convenient location. I’ve also stayed near Grand Central Station, in the Times Square area and by Columbus Circle at the south end of Central Park. I’ve always tried not to stay any further uptown than this as it always feels a bit out of it to me and it’s a long way to downtown but as long as you’re near a metro station and don’t mind using the subway, it shouldn’t matter too much. I’ve never stayed downtown in the financial district either but there are bargains to be had there if you don’t mind the subway trip to midtown every time.
Despite being slightly downtown of the main attractions, I found Union Square to also be a convenient location as a few of the midtown serving subway lines crossed here meaning we could get to Times Square, Rockefeller or Central Park without having to change lines or to the financial district easily when heading further downtown. To cut costs on my last few visits, I’ve stayed outside of Manhattan, firstly at a motel a couple of stops across the East River in the borough of Queens. We made sure we researched the area before booking and that the motel was just a short walk from a subway station. It mainly worked fine although the subways from there were not as regular as they can be in Manhattan and there was no opportunity to pop back at any point in the day like there often was when I’ve stayed more central as it was too out of the way – once we were out for the day, we were out. The same applied to the motel we stayed at in Jersey City on my last visit to the city. We chose that location as we were visiting the city midway through an East Coast roadtrip and didn’t fancy driving in Manhattan! Again, staying out of the city mainly worked fine except for rail works on the Sunday we arrived causing us to take a lengthy diversion downtown on another line, almost curtailing a pre-booked time-slot dependent visit to the Top of the Rock observation deck!
Getting the most out of your visit
The first thing I would say here is don’t waste any
time. Yes, it might be getting late by
the time you’ve cleared the long lines at customs, made your way into the city
and checked in and yes, you might be tired from a long flight but this is New
York. Things stay open late here. Despite it being dark on my arrival to the
city before I once fitted in a visit to the bright lights of Times Square (and
a little shopping while there!) followed by a post-midnight trip up the Empire
State Building – there’s a lot less people and a lot more room up on the
observation deck at that time of night! Another time we went straight for a
meal at a favourite restaurant, visited Madame Tussauds and met Father
Christmas in Macy’s Santaland again taking advantage of their being less people
around that there would have been visiting these places during the day.
As I said before, have a plan and when you’re visiting an
area, especially one that might be a further ride out from where you’re
staying, do everything in that area while you’re there so you don’t have to go
out of your way to return.
I’m a big fan of tourist cards and there’s a few options to
choose from for these with New York. I’ve found the most comprehensive to be
the New York Pass. You choose a pass by
the number of days you need and for that period it gives you access to a long
list of attractions as well as discounts and offers at shops and restaurants –
we found a daily $10 off at Planet Hollywood (which could be used in the
restaurant or shop) and a daily free scoop of ice cream at Dylan’s Candy Bar
one year to be particularly useful but these offers vary from time to
time. The pass also allows you to skip
the line at some attractions which can save time at the more popular ones
although it is just the ticket-buying queue you skip, you can still have a long
wait in the security lines.
Purchasing these passes requires a bit of research
beforehand. Make a list of what you want to do – being realistic about what you
can fit in – and work out how much it would cost you to pay for these on the
door/online in advance and weigh this up against the price of the pass. I’ve
always managed to get more than my money’s worth from the pass but being
familiar with the city and the subway system have definitely helped me here as
I can get around from one attraction to another relatively quickly and easily.
The other pass I have tried is the City Pass. This works
well if you like museums as it includes all the main ones along with a trip up
the Empire State Building and a boat ride around lower Manhattan and past the
Statue of Liberty and also includes some skip the line privileges.
Empire State Building, Top of the Rock or One World Observatory
There are currently 3 observation decks in New York. So how
do you choose which one to visit? Ideally, I’d say to do all 3 if you can!
Being positioned in different points of Manhattan, all offer unique views of
the sprawling metropolis that is New York City.
If you’re thinking of picking 2, then one during the day, one at night
is a good option. But if you’re short on time or want to save money, here’s my
perspective on the 3.
The Empire State Building is the most iconic of the 3 buildings and arguably the most recognisable but the problem with being on top of building is that it’ll be missing from the skyline in your photos! While queuing for the elevator to get to the top, you’ll be asked to pose for a souvenir photo in which the building will be superimposed in to make up for this but obviously this photo will cost you a few extra bucks to keep. That’s not to say that the view from the top isn’t worth it – the first time I visited was on a busy Easter Monday and it took 3 hours to reach the top but as soon as I saw the view, it made it all worth it! The building is perfectly situated in midtown meaning you’re pretty central with views of downtown, One World Tower and even the Statue of Liberty way in the distance to the south and Times Square and the Rockefeller Centre buildings to the north. Straight down is Macy’s and the nearby Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the highly recognisable Chrysler Building is also close by. The main observation deck is on the 86th floor but there is the option of purchasing a ticket to a smaller deck way up on the 102nd floor. While I wouldn’t say visiting this higher floor is essential, it does feel higher and make some difference to the view. Whereas the main observation deck is open, the view from the higher deck is through small glass windows. I’ve visited the Empire State Building at various times of day and queue times seem to be pot luck. The quickest I’ve ever made it to the top was when I visited after midnight, the longest it ever took was 9am on the Easter Monday. Having pre-booked tickets or a tourist pass to skip the main queue definitely helps but you will still need to queue to get through security and then join whatever queue there is for the elevators. If it’s busy waiting to get up, it’s going to be busy on the deck itself. Most times I’ve been, space up top has been limited and finding a space to get your photos can be a bit of a mission. First thing in the morning or last thing at night tends to be the quietest time to visit.
On the whole, I have always found Top of the Rock to be a much more enjoyable experience. I have never had to queue extensively for it, most times finding myself in the elevator to the top within 10 minutes of arrival and once at the top there is a lot more room that at the Empire State Building. The one time this wasn’t the case was when we’d pre-booked sunset tickets for a Sunday in the summer but every other time it’s been fine. As soon as you arrive at the observation deck it is tempting to take photos straight away through the large glass windows but be patient and find the escalator up to the roof level where it is more open and you won’t have any reflections from the glass. The main selling point of this observation deck is that you get an amazing view of the Empire State Building in your photos looking South. The building is also well-situated for views of Central Park which you can’t see from the Empire State although this view gets more and more obscured everytime I visit with taller and taller skyscrapers being built and blocking the park out which is a real shame. On a clear day you can still see to downtown but the Statue of Liberty looks minuscule from here!
The newest of the New York observation decks is at the One
World Tower downtown. I’ve only visited
this observation deck once, a sunset visit not long after it had opened so
until I’ve been back I feel like it’s not the best of circumstances to judge it
on. Queue times-wise it was a quick
amount of time from arrival to getting to the top compared to the Empire State
Building. Once at the top, the observation decks are spread across 2 floors.
Unlike the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock, all the views are through
large glass windows so be prepared for some reflection in your photos. We did find it difficult to get up close to
the windows, not because it was particularly busy up there but because for some
reason a lot of people seemed to be sat on the ledges all around, not even
looking out at the view but chatting or making use of the free wifi!! The
location of the building means great views across to the Statue of Liberty and
Ellis Island and the Empire State Building will once again be in your photos
looking uptown. But overall I prefer the views from the midtown observation
decks to this one downtown.
Seeing a show on Broadway is often on people’s to do list in New York. I’ve always tried to see shows that are not currently on in the West End although as it’s turned out, most of the shows I have seen did eventually transfer here. Tickets are probably not going to be cheap so you might not want to risk going for a newer show that you’ve not heard of but if something is previewing over there, this is usually where the ticket bargains can be found – back in 2007, we saw Legally Blonde during it’s preview period for just $25. Once the show had officially opened just a few weeks later, the same seats were more than twice this price! I’ve also used the Times Square TKTS booth on a couple of occasions. This is an official Broadway ticketing booth where last minute available tickets are sold at a reduced price, the same as the one in Leicester Square, London. I don’t recommend this if you have a specific show in mind that you want to see as the shows available vary daily and even if they do have the show you want when the ticket booth opens, one the tickets have gone, that is it. Both times I have used the Times Square TKT booth, the queue has moved quickly and there was a good choice of shows once I reached the counter. I got excellent stalls tickets to Kinky Boots one night and to Jersey Boys another at half the usual cost. There are further TKTs booths downtown at South Street Seaport and uptown at the Lincoln Center if you happen to be in those areas. I’ve not used the Lincoln Center one but found the South Street Seaport booth to be a lot quieter than Times Square if you happen to be in that area!
If Broadway is too expensive then consider and off-Broadway show. Sometimes well-known shows such as Avenue Q, show off Broadway but even if it’s a show you’ve not heard of it could be worth a try. I saw a hilarious musical spoof of Saved By The Bell off-Broadway a few years ago that cost under $30 a ticket and enjoyed it as much as the show I saw on Broadway on the same visit that cost 4 times the price!
can be magical, especially at night – the bright lights, the noise, the
atmosphere. But it can also be a nightmare – the crowds of people stopping
without warning to take pictures when you’re just trying to make your way
through, the traffic, the crazy-expensive restaurants and bars… But I find it difficult
to avoid and it’s a great marker when trying to find your way around – walkable
to the Rockefeller Center, 5th Avenue shops and even Central Park
heading uptown and to the Empire State Building and Macy’s heading downtown as
well as being the point where various subway lines cross if you’re heading
elsewhere in the city. While I try to avoid most of the restaurants in the
Times Square area, there is one just slightly uptown of it which I do like to
visit and that’s Ellen’s Stardust Diner, home of the singing waitstaff. The
queue is often around the block but it moves quickly – someone usually comes
along the line asking how many are in your party and if a table comes up for
your number you might even get to jump the queue. The staff are all Broadway wannabes awaiting
their lucky break and will be serving you food and drinks the one minute and
serenading the whole diner the next. It’s loud and not the place to go if you
want to hold a conversation over dinner but it’s great fun.
Take a stroll uptown along 5th Avenue heading
towards Central Park and opposite St Patricks Cathedral and Saks 5th Avenue you
will find Rockefeller Plaza. Home of a
shopping centre, a subway station, offices, TV studios, the famous Rainbow Room
restaurant, Top of the Rock and Radio City Music Hall, the famous gold
Prometheus statue, the popular ice rink in the winter and, of course, the huge
tree at Christmas! I’ve already talked about the merits of the Top of the Rock
viewing deck but it’s not the only thing I’d recommend doing while in the
area. The Rockefeller Centre guided tour
is really interesting with the guide taking you into parts of the centre you
wouldn’t otherwise be able to access as well as giving you a bit of the history
of the building and pointing out some fascinating architectural features that
would probably otherwise go unnoticed.
As a fan of Saturday Night Live, I was eager to tour the NBC
studios but after failing to fit it into my itinerary on earlier visits to the
city, I found it closed on later visits. Luckily, the tours are now running
again and I finally made it there on my last visit to the city. The tour again took us into parts of the
Rockefeller Centre you wouldn’t usually be able to access and we were taken
into 3 different studios – an NBC newsroom, the Saturday Night Live Studios and
the studio used by Jimmy Fallon in his later night chat show – SO much smaller
than I imagined it from watching it on TV!! While some of the tour was a bit
over my head not being familiar with a lot of the shows or presenters
mentioned, it was still interesting to see active studios and NBC employees in
action. As a side note, even if you
don’t do the tour, look out for the Centre’s NBC Store selling a variety of
merchandise from it’s most popular shows including Friends!
The Radio City Music Hall tour is another interesting one.
The venue has a lot of history with many music icons having played there over
the years. While we were touring, the
famous Rockettes Christmas show was running and we got to peep in as the show
ran before meeting a Rockette at the end of the tour.
Honestly, shopping is not really my thing. In fact, I go out
of my way to avoid it! So I’m probably not the best person to ask for New York
shopping advice. My go to stores in Manhattan were always the big toy stores,
Toys R Us in Times Square with it’s indoor ferris wheel and FAO Schwartz on 5th
Avenue, home of the giant piano made famous in Tom Hanks’ classic, Big. But
unfortunately these have now closed down along with my other favourites, the
old World of Disney store with it’s
character meet and greets and Times Square’s huge Virgin Megastore – I really
don’t have much luck when it comes to my favourite NY stores!! But all is not lost. A new Disney Store
opened a few years ago in Times Square. It’s no World of Disney but is still a
pretty comprehensive Disney shop. And the giant piano from FAO Schwartz can now
be found in Macy’s in midtown. Talking
of Macy’s, that is one New York store I do like to wander around. Taking up an
entire block, it is the World’s largest department store. As well as the giant
piano, look out for the furniture department where I’m always amused to find
people having a snooze in the comfy chairs and settees on display!
If you’re downtown near the World Trade Centre then Century
21 is a good call for bargains on designer wear and accessories and is in a
similar vein to our TK Maxx stores. For your full price designer clobber, 5th
Avenue has it all and is where you’ll find well known department stores Saks
and Bergdorf Goodman as well as Tiffany’s, the Apple Store and many more.
Further uptown, a couple of blocks east of Central Park, is Bloomingdales, another famous and impressively large department store notable for its photo-worthy art-deco design.
While in the area, I always like to pay a visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a huge sweet store with ‘candy stairs’ and an ice cream parlour on the top floor often serving unusual flavours – the Oreo cheesecake flavour is my personal favourite!
The thing I love about Central Park is that it’s such an
oasis of calm and serenity despite being in the middle of the craziest,
busiest, noisiest city I’ve ever been to! Take a walk into the park and the
tall buildings, the crowds, the sounds of sirens blaring out all but
disappears. My exploration of Central Park has mainly been resigned to the
southern end but the park actually stretches over 50 blocks right up to Harlem.
In the winter, Wollman rink is at the south end of the park – a cheaper alternative
to the Rockefeller Centre for skating. Nearby is the Victorian carousel. Wandering further North through the park you
will probably eventually stumble on Bethesda Fountain, recognisable from many
New York-set films. Another smaller
fountain not too far from this, the Cherry Hill fountain, is said by many to be
the one the fountain in the opening credits of Friends is based on though it’s
not the actually one as it was shot at a set in LA!
Another location you might find familiar from various films
is the Central Park Boating Lake with it’s lakeside restaurant the Loeb
Boathouse and Bow Bridge crossing over it. Hiring a rowing boat is a fun
activity in the summer although the rowing part is harder than it looks and it
gets quite busy out there – I managed to crash into another boat a couple of
On the east side of the park is Central Park Zoo, not the
biggest of zoos but worth a look if you’ve got it include on a tourist pass.
Not far from the zoo you’ll find another boating lake, this one for small
motorised boats, and some of the Central Park sculptures including the popular
Alice In Wonderland sculpture – useful tip, don’t get too close to it on a hot
day, it gets red hot!!!
In the summer months, keep an eye out for Central Park
events going on. We saw Jonas Brothers
perform in the park for free as part of Good Morning America’s concert series
and there’s often other shows and performances going on including the free
Shakespeare in the Park performances at the Delacorte Theater. Sometimes you might
even stumble across a bit of filming in the park. We found ourselves
inadvertenly becoming blurry extras in a Jonas Blue/Liam Payne video after
sitting by Bethesda Fountain just as a film crew rocked up. We had no idea at
the time what was begin filmed until I happened to see the video on a music
channel a month or so later!
Across the road from Central Park on the West Side is the
Dakota Building, infamous as the building where John Lennon lived and was shot
outside of in 1980. Inside the park just opposite is Strawberry Fields a
pretty, landscaped section of the park dedicated to his memory.
Walking a bit further north in the park you might find Belvedere Castle, a popular Central Park wedding venue but it’s quite a walk from the south end of the park. If you want to see more of the park or want to get around a bit quicker, there are a few bike hire companies at the south end, some of which offer guided tours or a highlights map to do a self-guided tour. Official walking tours are offered by the Central Park Conservancy and companies such as Free Tours By Foot also offer walking tours of the area. You’ll see Rickshaw/Pedicab rides being offered around the park too but be careful as some charge by the distance you go or by the minute rather than having a set price for a 30 minute or 1 hour tour. There is also the Central Park Carriage rides – you will see (and smell) the horses lined up at the south end of the park and they loop around the bottom end of the park with the guides pointing out sites of interest. The prices for these are not always set in stone so haggle a price if you do want a carriage ride!
TV and film locations
Another reason I love New York – and America in general for
that matter – is that it’s like being on one giant film set. Everything is
recognisable from some TV show or film you’ve seen. There are companies which offer guided tours
of filming locations. While I’ve never been on a general location tour, I have
been on a couple of TV show specific ones, namely the Sex and the City tour and
the Gossip Girl location tour. On both
occasions we were taken around the city on an air conditioned coach and shown
clips from the show before pulling up at that location and hopping off the bus
for photos! While both tours were enjoyable, the Sex and the City one had the
edge, mainly because of the free Magnolia Cupcake from the popular Greenwich
Village bakery and maybe also because the series had finished at that point –
the first film had just come out at cinemas – so they had 6 seasons worth of
episodes to raid for locations whereas Gossip Girl was only a few series in at
the point that I did that tour and the tour itself was quite new.
It’s pretty easy to look up movie sites and find out where
they are in the city before your visit. One that I’ve been to a few times
having visited the city with various friends that have all wanted to see it, is
the Friends apartment in Greenwich Village. Another favourite of mine was the
restaurant from THAT scene in When Harry Met Sally, Katz’ Diner, which serves
the biggest deli sandwiches I’ve ever seen.
I’ve also visited the Empire hotel ‘owned’ by Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl,
the bar at which serves themed Gossip Girl and Sex and the City cocktails and
McGee’s – the pub at which McClaren’s in How I Met Your Mother is based on.
Venturing away from Manhattan
While most of the main attraction you’ll want to see in New
York are on the island of Manhattan, there are things to do away from the city
and the subway system makes it pretty easy and quick to get to other New York
boroughs. For unparalleled views of Manhattan’s skyline, head across the East
River into Brooklyn either by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into DUMBO or
catching the subway to Williamsburg. As well as the views, you’ll find various
flea markets while strolling through Williamsburg on a Sunday while across the
Brooklyn Bridge in DUMBO there’s galleries and bookstores galore, the famous
Grimaldi’s pizza restaurant and Jane’s Carousel in the waterfront park.
A bit further out but still in Brooklyn, why not take a trip
to the seaside and visit Coney Island? Here, you can ride the famous Coney
Island Cyclone coaster or the Wonder Wheel in one of the amusement parks,
indulge in a hot dog from the original Nathan’s, watch a ‘freak show’, walk along
the boardwalk or relax on the large sandy beach! To reach Coney Island, just
take a downtown bound NRQ train out of the city. It takes about 40 minutes from
If gambling is your thing, take the Greyhound bus out to Atlantic
City, New Jersey – the setting of HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire. Here,
casinos line the boardwalk alongside souvenir stores, fast food outlets and
stores selling every possible flavour of salt water taffy. If you’re tired from
walking along the boardwalk then take a ‘rolling chair’ – a tradition dating
back to the 1880s, this is exactly what it sounds like, sit in a chair on
wheels while someone runs behind pushing you along the boardwalk!!
If you like museums, New York has plenty, from the grand,
traditional art and history museums to the more obscure, smaller niche museums,
you’re sure to find something that interests you. You’ll find many of the museums bordering
Central Park including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and The
Museum of the History of New York on the east side of the park and the Natural
History Museum on the west. Many of
these museums are included in the various tourist passes although it’s worth
knowing that the stated usual admission prices for some of the museums are
actually voluntary donations and if you’re not using a tourist pass, you have
every right to donate as little as you like for entry when you reach the
counter. I’ve never had the nerve myself
but I have friends who have paid just a dollar for entry to the Met! Another
tip is that some of the museums advertise one afternoon/evening a week as being
free entry so you might want to take advantage of this.
I loved seeing the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum –
although don’t expect everything to be in the same place it appears to be in
the film ‘Night at the Museum’!! – and my friend spent hours admiring the
sculpture collection in the Greek and Roman section of the Met. The Guggenheim
is worth a visit just for the quirky building but if it’s contemporary art you’re
into, I much preferred MoMA – the Museum
of Modern Art – in midtown.
The Statue of Liberty
There are plenty of options for seeing the Statue of Liberty
depending on how close you want to get.
There are great views from Battery Park at the southernmost point of
Manhattan and where the boats to Liberty Island depart from or if you have
chance to get into New Jersey, Liberty Park offers amazing views of her along
with the Manhattan skyline. But if you want to get closer, you’ll need to take
a boat. If you’re on a budget, the
Staten Island Ferry is a great option. This free commuter ferry makes regular
crossings to and from Staten Island passing right by the Statue of Liberty and
giving great views of the New York skyline. You can catch it from the ferry
terminal near Battery Park. I’ve never stuck around in Staten Island long
enough to explore, always getting the next ferry back but there’s usually a
20-30 minute period between arriving and the next departure which is long
enough to grab some food at the terminal or to go for a short walk. The one
time I caught the ferry, a National Park Service Ranger was on board and gave a
commentary as we made our way across to Staten Island before taking anyone who
wanted to join him down to the 9/11 memorial, ‘Postcards’, explaining some of
its significance to use in the short time before the next ferry back to
Manhattan departed. I’m not sure how
often Rangers are on board the Staten Island ferry but something to keep a look
out if you do make the trip!
Another way of getting close to Liberty Island without
setting foot on it is on a Circle Line boat tour. This tour company runs a
variety of cruises departing from a west side pier including a 3-hour cruise
all the way around the island of Manhattan and the shorter semi-circle cruise
around the south part of the island. Both pass close by to the Statue of
Liberty for photo opportunities with the added bonus of a commentary on the New
York skyline pointing out some of the buildings you can see along the way.
The only way of getting to Liberty Island itself, is on the
official boats which depart from Battery Park in downtown Manhattan or from
Liberty Park in New Jersey. Tickets can be booked in advance on the official
website or can be bought from Castle Clinton nearby to where the ferry leaves
from. Booking in advance is definitely recommended as queues at the Castle
Clinton ticket offices can get quite long. An advance ticket – or using a
tourist pass such as the New York Pass – allows you to bypass these queues and head
straight to the security queues to board a ferry. General tickets just give you
access to the island and include an audio tour which you can pick up on arrival
to the island. The island is a National
Park Service site which means Park Rangers are on hand to talk to and they give
regular guided walks leaving from the flag pole.
If you want to go into the Statue building, there are 2
options – a Pedestal ticket which lets you into the base of the Statue and a
Crown ticket which allows you to climb a long, narrow staircase winding up the
middle of the Statue to a tiny observation deck in the crown. These tickets are very limited and need to be
booked well in advance.
All ticket types give you access to Ellis Island too. The ferry back from Liberty Island will stop here on the way back to Manhattan giving you the option to either disembark or continue back to Manhattan. It’s definitely worth stopping for a look around the Immigration Museum and again there are free Ranger tours offered if you want to find out more.
Now I’m into my sports even less than I’m into shopping and that’s saying something. However, my for some unknown reason, my friend and I decided we wanted to experience attending a US sporting event and as it was late summer, baseball was pretty much the only option. there happened to be a Mets baseball game on at CitiField while we were in the city so we used the team’s official site to book cheap seats at the back of the bleechers. The experience wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It seemed that for a lot of the crowd, attending the game was more of a social thing and for the most part, people were sat around chatting, eating and drinking rather than paying the blindest bit of attention to the game. At that time I thought maybe this was an unfortunate consequence of buying the cheap seats but after giving baseball another go at a higher profile game in Boston with much better seats, I found the crowd’s participation to be pretty much the same!
Needless to say, we had no idea what was going on game-wise. It seemed very slow with more time spent out of play than in play. Occasionally, the audience would come alive out of nowhere with chants of “Let’s Go Mets!” repeated for a few minutes before everyone settled back down to their conversations again and, highlight of the evening for me, as the game was being televised, everytime there was an ad-break, the crowd was treated to some ridiculous game or stunt to pass the time such as ‘pass the pizza along the row’ (the quickest row got to keep the pizza to share between them!) or the kiss-cam was on!
So even if you’re not a sports fan, it’s worth going to a game of some kind if you get chance just for the experience! As well as the Mets baseball team, New York also has, of course, the Yankees baseball team. Games are schedules on various afternoons and evenings in the summer season and you can also book to do tours of the stadiums – while I’ve not toured the New York teams’ grounds, I did do a tour of Fenway Park in Boston which I enjoyed despite my cluelessness on the sport! If you’re in the city over the winter months then there’s a bit more choice sports-wise with basketball and ice hockey games going on. I’ve not attended games for either of these sports but I’m sure there’s fun to be had at both!
Other notable sites
I feel wrong putting Grand Central Terminus in the ‘other
notable sites’ category seeing as it would be one of my top places to visit in
New York but I just haven’t got round to mentioning it yet so I will at least
put it at the top of this section! Situated on 42nd Street, right on
Park Avenue, it is essentially a train station and yet so much more offering a
range of stores and dining options not to mention the impressive building
itself. The word ‘Grand’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. The main concourse with its famous clock in
the centre, grand staircases and the zodiac mural adorning the ceiling is
jaw-dropping. If you’re hungry then there’s plenty of choices at the huge food
court – I highly recommend Two Boots’ pizza! If you want to find out more about
the station, you can pick up audio guides from the information point under the
clock but if you have a bit more time, take the free walking tour of the area
starting across the street from the station on Friday afternoons. As well as
taking you through the Grand Central Building, the tour will take you into
other building in the area, some of which you wouldn’t ordinarily get access
Another impressive building that is free to visit is the New
York Public Library not far from Grand Central and Bryant Park (see below). The
building is a National Historic Landmark and worth a wander around or if you’ve
time, look into taking one of the free walking tours to learn more about the
building and it’s history.
If you need a rest from all the walking in the city then try one of New York’s many public parks and squares. You might find it difficult to find an empty seat in Times Square so try one of the other quieter areas. Bryant Square is not far from Grand Central and as well as plenty of places to sit and rest your legs there’s a seasonal café serving drinks and snacks. Herald Square is the pedestrian area just outside Macy’s filled with tables and chairs. Madison Square Park is another small park situated right by the famous Flatiron Building and full of art and with plenty of places to sit and rest. A bit further south is Washington Square Park where you’ll find Washington Square Arch, which again, you will probably find familiar from various films and TV shows. The park has a fountain in the centre and plenty of places to sit and watch the World go by. It is near the university so often buzzing with students and is also near Greenwich Village with Bleecker Street being just a few blocks south.
One if Manhattan’s newest ‘parks’ is the Highline, a reclaimed elevated rail road line which has been converted into a green space with almost 1.5 miles of path to wander along on the city’s west side. My one visit to the Highline was on bitterly cold March day and I don’t feel it was the best time to make the most out of my visit so I’d definitely like to revisit sometime, maybe on a guided walking tour and definitely when it’s looking less wintry and little greener!
If you’re downtown in the financial district then you probably won’t be far from Battery Park, located at the southern tip of Manhattan and departure point for the Liberty Island ferries. As well as having great views of the Statue of Liberty, there’s often a variety of street performers to watch from street magicians to people dressed up as Lady Liberty herself.
While on the subject of downtown and the financial district,
this is an area worth stopping and exploring other than just a visit to the
Statue of Liberty or One World Observatory.
A short walk up Broadway, you will find Wall Street with its bronze
Charging Bull statue – a statue it took me years to have a photo with as huge
crowds often form around it and I could never be bothered to wait! Wall Street
itself is really nothing but a street with a famous name but worth a photo stop
and a walk down to the New York Stock Exchange for that reason alone. A short well-signposted walk to the east side
you’ll find access to the Brooklyn Bridge and just south of that, I really
recommend a visit to the Seaport District – there’s great views of Brooklyn
Bridge from Pier 17 as well as great shopping and plenty of bars and
restaurants where you can sit out and enjoy the atmosphere in the summer
I can’t mention the financial district without talking about
the World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorials.
My first visit to the city was in 2005, less than 4 years after the
atrocity and to this day I remember how horrific it was seeing the huge pit left
where the Twin Towers once sat and the surrounding damaged buildings, made
worse by the numerous street vendors selling, in my opinion, extremely
inappropriate souvenirs and smiling tourists posing for photos in front of the
area. Things have changed a lot since
then and it’s been interesting seeing how the area has been redeveloped as I’ve
visited every year or so since, watching the construction of the new Freedom
Tower and seeing the opening first of the National Memorial and then of the
neighbouring Museum. Visiting the museum
and memorial is a sombre-ing experience.
I also found the nearby small 9/11 Tribute Museum to be very
moving. If you get chance, try to visit
Trinity Church and St Paul’s Chapel, both churches in the financial district
who have moving stories to tell about that day.
I’m not into fine dining or Michelin starred restaurants.
For me, the main objective when looking for somewhere to eat in New York is keeping
the cost down. This along with finding somewhere with food that suits my rather
plain tastes along with something that suits my often vegetarian or fellow
fussy travel companion! More often than
not, the room rates for New York hotels I’ve stayed in have not included
breakfast – the exceptions being the 2 motels I’ve stayed at outside of
Manhattan. For breakfast, I’m a big fan of the city’s Café Metro chain offering
a range of bagels and various healthy options and also one of the few places I’ve
found where I can get a proper cup of tea. (As a side note, I find that
whenever I’m in the US, I need to specify that I want HOT tea and also the type
I want – black tea/English breakfast tea – depending on where I’m ordering it
from!) If you’re also a bagel fan, there’s
plenty of places to find them, from street vendors to bakeries and chain stores
such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. If
you fancy a bigger, American-style breakfast, I find Denny’s in the financial
district or the IHOP (International House of Pancakes) a good bet for cheap and
cheerful pancakes, eggs and bacon type breakfasts. There are a few diners about offering similar
fare if you want a more authentic New York feel – while I’ve never been for
breakfast, Andrew’s Coffee Bar in midtown has a quite reasonable menu – but many,
such as the Tick Tock Diner near Penn Station, are part of a hotel and
therefore a bit pricier. While talking
of prices, it’s worth remembering that like most of the US, New York State doesn’t
include taxes in prices so what you end up paying for your food will be more
than the price on the menu. Remember you will also be expected to tip – 18% is
the expected gratuity for good service.
A slice of pizza is a good bet for a lunchtime snack. Pizza is mainly sold by the slice in the US –
I’ve been laughed at a few times for trying to buy a whole ‘pie’ especially as
the sizing is rather different to here in the UK. Here, I’d order a medium pizza to myself
expecting to get an 8/9” whereas in the US, even a small is made big enough to
share. The Chef at one of the many Ray’s
Pizza outlets when gave us enough paper plates for a whole party of us when we
once ordered a medium pizza there and looked at us like we were crazy when he
realised we were ordering just for the 2 of us! If it is just a slice you want,
you won’t have trouble finding one from the $1 ‘hole in the wall’ pizza stops
(again, it’ll actually cost you slightly over the dollar with tax!) to Sbarro
and the many non-chain pizza cafes. If it’s sandwiches you’re after the you’re
sure to find many deli’s about. I
mentioned Katz’s Diner famously featured in the film When Harry Met Sally
earlier and I highly recommend it for it’s huge deli sandwiches. Make sure you request a table as you go in –
it’s take away system was crazily busy when we went and there didn’t seem to be
a queueing system that made any sense so we ended up having table service
Another good bet for a snack is Chelsea Market, located near the Highline in the Chelsea district on the west side of Manhattan. The market’s food hall has a wide range of vendors selling food to suit all tastes and budgets!
If you’re trying to keep costs down for your main meal then
my main advice would be to avoid the Times Square earlier. The main chains there – Hard Rock Café, TGI’s,
Applebees etc are all way overpriced so unless you have some kind of money off
coupon, like the one I mentioned I once had for Planet Hollywood earlier, or
you’re going for the novelty experience – see Ella’s Stardust Diner also
mentioned earlier – I’d look elsewhere.
Little Italy is a good bet for traditional Italian fare –
and a ‘normal’ sized pizza for one! – and while Chinese food isn’t my thing, I’ve
heard there’s good food at bargainous prices galore to be had in
Chinatown. If it’s casual American food
you want but not in the form of fast food outlets like McDonalds then in
addition to the diners I mentioned before, I also had a good meal (of the
burger and chips variety!) at Big Daddy’s Diner, a typical 50s type diner with
branches around the city. For American BBQ
food, I liked Dallas BBQ. We went to a lower midtown branch but again, there
are various outlets around the city.
On my last visit to the city, I vowed to tick off a visit to
Serendipity from my ‘things to do in NY’ list.
It’s somewhere I’ve always read about, heard about and said I’d go to
one day but for some reason, just never had. So this time, while in the
vicinity of Central Park, I made a special effort to go. I’d heard to expect to queue around the block
but instead there was no one about and we walked straight through the door and
were seated without any kind of wait! The one item on the menu I’d heard so
much about which was one of my reasons for wanting to visit, was it’s Frozen
Hot Chocolate so when our server came to take our order, that’s what we
requested – between us as it’s pretty big.
The server immediately pointed to some small print on the menu of a
minimum spend per table – which our order didn’t fulfil! – so we decided on
ordering a portion of fries to make up the money. To be fair, everything on the menu looked
delicious but we already had plans for our ‘big’ meal of the day later on so didn’t
want to order much here. We just wanted
the drink! When it arrived, I’m sorry to
say it wasn’t even particularly worth it. It was basically just an expensive
chocolate milkshake. But don’t let that put you off visiting. Serendipity
itself was a really lovely, quirky café and I’d like to go back in the future
and order one of it’s main menu meals and hopefully have room for one of it’s
delicious sounding desserts too.
So that about covers my experiences of and advice for a trip
to New York City. If there’s something I
haven’t covered then feel free to ask. It might be that I’ve done it and just
forgot to include it here. Or of you have any questions about something I have
mentioned, feel free to get in touch and ask.
If it’s advice specific to Christmas time in the city then have a read
of my post here for advice.