Northern BLT with Trek America: New York

Pre-tour New York Adventure

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!

Southern BLT Day 21: The End of the Road

Philadelphia and New York City

My first Trek America Experience Part 8

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!

Going It Alone My first solo travel adventure Southern BLT Day 1-4

Southern BLT Day 5-7 Southern BLT Day 8-10 Southern BLT Day 10-12

Southern BLT Day 12-14 Southern BLT Day 15-17 Southern BLT Day 18-20

New York, New York

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.

Arriving

Getting Around

Where to stay

Getting the most out of your visit

Empire State Building, Top of the Rock or One World Observatory

Broadway

Times Square

Rockefeller Center

Shopping

Central Park

TV and Film Locations

Venturing out of Manhattan

Museums

The Statue of Liberty

Sporting Events

Other notable sites

Eating out

Arriving to Manhattan

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.

Getting Around

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.

New York subway art
Subway art

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.

The Empire State Building in New York
The Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan

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.

Broadway

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!

Times Square

Times Square 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.

Rockefeller Centre

30 Rock

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.

The NBC store

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.

Shopping

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!

Macy’s

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. 

At Dylan’s Candy Bar

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!

Central Park

Bow Bridge in Central Park

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 times!!

Cherry Hill Fountain

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!

Balto, one of the Central Park sculptures

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!

Attempting to row around the boating lake!

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.

The ‘Friends’ apartment block

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.

View of Manhattan from DUMBO

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 Times Square!

Casinos line the boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ

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!!

Museums

The Metroplitan Museum of Art

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.

Dinosaur at the Natural History Museum

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.

On Liberty Island

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.

Ellis Island Immigration Museum

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.

Sporting Events

Citi Field – home of the New York Mets

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 to.

New York Public Library

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!

Washington Square Park and Arch

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 months.

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.

Eating Out

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.

Pancakes at the IHOP

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 instead.

A ‘medium’ (18″!) pizza

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.

Traditional pizza in Little Italy

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.