An East Coast road trip: NYC

Spending 3 nights in New York City

We’d been on the road in the USA for weeks travelling through Florida with visits to Miami and Disney World, on to Savannah, GA, up through the state of South Carolina to visit Charleston and Congaree National Park, on to Atlanta, GA, into Tennessee to visit Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, spent a day in Washington DC before arriving in Baltimore, MD. Now, it was off to New York City and after a stressful drive through New Jersey state, we were breathing a huge sigh of relief to finally arrive at our motel accommodation in Jersey City, just across the river from Manhattan.

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.

The view of downtown Manhattan from the Top of the Rock observation deck

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.

On the Top of the Rock observation deck overlooking Central Park

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.

The view of Manhattan from the Statue of Liberty Pedestal

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.

Downtown views from a pier along Hudson River Park

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.

The sun setting over the River Hudson

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.

Interviewing my travel mascot, Mr Ted, at the NBC Studios

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.

Off to shop at Bloomingdales

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!

Visiting Serendipity

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.

Above, and below, dinner at Ella’s Stardust diner

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.

New York at Christmas

View of the Empire State Building from Herald Square

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!

Off to Santaland in Macy’s

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!

Macy’s
The Manhattan skyline from the boat to Liberty Island

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 Statueof Lierty

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.

Store display in Little Italy

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.

Looking up at the roof inside the Guggenheim
Classical sculpture in the Met

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!

The famous Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

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!

Bryant Park
Christmas Tree and market stalls in Bryant Park

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!

Houses decorated for Christmas

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!

Tiffany’s, 5th Ave

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.

The Rockefeller Centre

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.

St Patrick’s Cathedral opposite the Rockefeller Centre

Top of the Rock

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!

Rockette costumes

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.

Dinner at Dallas BBQ

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!

The Rockefeller Tree at night

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!

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Manhattan

Display at the 9/11 Museum

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: