This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.
We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.
After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.
It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.
The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.
From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.
It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.
The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!
Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.
After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.
As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.
From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.
That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!
It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.
On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.
As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.
Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.
Day 4 of our coast to coast Trek America tour and we were up early to leave our Ohio KOA cabins and begin our journey to Chicago.
Our first stop to day was just across the border of Indiana state in the Amish town of Shipshewana. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but it wasn’t what we got. Shipshewana was in many ways a typical American town like any other I’d visited. Except for the occasional horse and cart rolling down the streets and the odd person in traditional Amish dress passing by. With it’s Amish market selling handmade food and crafts and the opportunity to take a ride on the traditional horse and carts, it felt like a very touristy look at Amish life rather than getting an accurate snapshot but we enjoyed wandering around and especially enjoyed the homemade ice cream we purchased before leaving to continue our journey.
We had one more stop before arriving in Chicago, Illinois – at the childhood home of Michael Jackson in the town of Gary, Indiana. The house had become something of a shrine with fan messages and gifts covering the gates around the house.
Then it was on to Chicago where we were staying at the HI Hostel in the Loop area. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived so as we got ourselves settles into our rooms – it was a really nice hostel and us girls had our own en suite dorm! – deep dish pizza was ordered in from a nearby Gino’s East area which we ate down in the common area. Having had Gino’s deep dish fresh at the main restaurant in the past, I didn’t enjoy the take out pizza as much and many of the others in the group were unimpressed.
That evening most of us had taken up the option to take a bike tour of Chicago, something I’d not done on my previous 2 visits to the city. Short on time, we caught taxis uptown to the headquarters of Bobby’s Bikes where we were each provided with hi-vis jackets, helmets and a bike before setting off to follow our tour guide. Our first stop was on the shore of Lake Michigan but unfortunately the fog had moved in over the city obscuring any views we should have had. Then we rode uptown to see some of the huge mansions including the original Playboy mansion.
We were all a bit nervous when told we’d be riding on the main road alongside all the Chicago traffic for the next section of our tour but it was less scary than it sounded and we paused for photos down by the Chicago river before cycling back lakeside and down to Millennium Park to see the amazing Cloudgate sculpture then further south past Grant Park to the museum campus where, completely coincidentally, fireworks started going off at an event being held there just as we arrived.
Bike tour over, we walked to the Hancock Tower where the rest of the group were having drinks in the sky bar. We joined them for a drink but left shortly after as the cloud meant there was zero visibility and it was an expensive place for drinks when there was no view! Instead, we walked back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening in the common room playing table tennis and pool.
The next day we had a full day in Chicago to do what we liked. Most of us decided to use it to try and see as much of the city as we could in a day and as I’d been before and vaguely knew my way around, I lead the way. We started at Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the World. The queues for the viewing platform weren’t too long so we bought tickets to go up and spent some time enjoying the views over the city.
Next, we walked back towards the lake and visited Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. There was a food festival going on in the park so we stopped for a few free samples as we walk through towards Millennium Park. At Millennium Park, we stopped to see Crown Fountain, also known as the ‘spitting’ fountain as digital faces each end appear to spit water out at regular intervals. Then we walked back to the Cloudgate Sculpture which we’d seen on our bike tour the previous night but is always a fun place to visit in the city as you can see yourself reflected in it!
Next up was Navy Pier where we had lunch at the huge food court before taking a boat cruise on Lake Michigan. The pier has a few fair rides so as lunch had gone down, we took a ride on the flying chairs.
From Navy Pier, we walked back alongside the Chicago River to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. Similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, this is where all the big stores are and we spent a while browsing in the shops as we went past.
Getting hungry again, some of the group decided to go to the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Tower for food while two of us decided to give deep dish pizza another go, this time at Gino’s East restaurant. Eating the pizza at the restaurant made a huge difference and this time, it was just as good as I had remembered!
It was evening by the time we all met up again and the sunshine had disappeared and been replaced by big, black clouds. As we walked back down Michigan Avenue, it started to pour down with rain causing us to decide to call it a day and run back to the hostel to shelter. But we’d had a fun day sightseeing in the city and managed to fit a lot in in a short time.
If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.
I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.
As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.
The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!
My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!
What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!
I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!
So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.
Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!
It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.
To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.
After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.
The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.
Watch my Vlog of my time spent in Santa Monica before the tour here:
That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!
6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.
So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.
It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!
After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.
I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.
Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.
Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.
The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.
So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!
I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.
So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!
I’ve been lucky enough to make a few visits ‘down under’ and 4 of my 5 trips to Australia have included a stop in the city of Melbourne, Victoria. Partly because a good friend of mine moved to the suburbs of the city 10 years ago so whenever I’m in Australia, I like to try and visit but also because, it’s a great city and a good base to explore the surrounding area.
The city of Melbourne and the surrounding area certainly has plenty to offer visitors.
If it’s shopping you’re after then Melbourne won’t disappoint. As well as department stores and shopping malls aplenty, you’ll find great souvenir shopping at Victoria Market, outlet stores at the relatively new Dockside area and boutique stores hidden down narrow lanes. In need of a coffee after? Melbourne is famous for its cafe culture and you’ll find independent coffee shops around every corner!
Melbourne’s CBD area is easy to get around, it’s layout borrowing heavily from the American grid system. The city offers a free trolley service which loops around the outside of the CBD, passing Federation Square, the Dockside area, Victoria Market and Melbourne Museum amongst other places of interest and even includes a recorded commentary for tourists! Another free bus service runs along the river Yarra towards Melbourne’s Cricket Ground and back. These services are mainly used by tourists and can get busy, especially the circle line trolley.
Federation Square is a good place to start exploring Melbourne from. The Square is a busy meeting place in the city with large open spaces often hosting events and exhibitions and here, you’ll find the city’s tourist information centre.
One of my favourite places to stroll in Melbourne is its Southbank area. From here you’ll find great views of the city looking across to Flinders Street Station across the River Yarra. Street entertainers often line the pavement and there’s the huge Crown Casino complex alongside the Southbank with its many shops and restaurants to explore too. Boat trips are offered along the River Yarra from various companies along the riverside, some offering roundtrips with a commentary, others taking you out at sunset or ferrying you to nearby Williamstown.
Looming over the Southbank, you can’t help but notice the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The tower has an observation deck at the top with 360 degree views across the city and Victoria state.
A short walk off the Southbank you’ll find Alexandra Park and the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens. The parks are definitely worth a stroll through and you can walk down to the Shine of Remembrance at the south end of the park.
Just outside of Melbourne city, and easily reachable by tram, is the beach suburb of St Kilda. St Kilda is a lovely place to stroll around, grab a coffee and cake on Acland Street, walk along the pier from which you can make out Melbourne City skyline on a clear day, visit it’s Sunday flea market or for a bit more excitement, visit Luna Park, it’s amusement park with its huge clown-face gates!
Fans of the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours can pay a visit to ‘Ramsay Street’ or Pinot Court as it’s actually called in the suburbs of Melbourne. While it is possible to drive out to the street yourself, tours are available daily from the Neighbours store in Melbourne’s CBD. These tours are great fun with clips from the show being played on the bus as you drive out and locations such as the school being pointed out along the way. On weekends, tours of the set are also offered so you can have photos with the exteriors of Lassiters, Harold’s General Store etc as well as the houses on Ramsay Street. While the infamous ‘Neighbours Night’ (a weekly club night attended by various cast members) is no longer offered, sometimes cast members do pop along to greet tour buses and have photos!
Like I mentioned before, Melbourne is a great base for exploring more of Victoria from. If you don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of companies offering day tours out of the city. My favourite tour to take is to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins.
This tour can be done as a full day trip or as a half day afternoon trip, depending on how much you want to see along the way and at Phillip Island itself. Most tour companies offer a stop at a wildlife park along the way where you can hang out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals before crossing into the beautiful Phillip Island. Full day tours will usually give you time to explore beaches and coastal walks at various parts of the island while even afternoon-only tours will usually stop at the Nobbies where you can follow the boardwalk for amazing coastal views. Whichever tour you take, the final stop will be at the Penguin Parade where you will sit on the beach and watch as the Little Penguins swim in and run across the sand to their burrows. It really is incredible to watch!
Another popular trip out from Melbourne is Great Ocean Road. Running along the coast all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide, the distance is too far for one day but you can at least make it as far as the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations and back although it’s a long day!!!
I first travelled Great Ocean Road using public transport, catching a train to Geelong then picking up a bus which stopped at Apollo Bay then at the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations, giving us enough time at each stop to get off and take photos before dropping us at a station to catch a train all the way back to Melbourne. It was a cheap way of doing it and we saw what we wanted to see but without a tour guide to provide a commentary or the social aspect of a small group tour, the day felt even longer than it was.
I have since taken a guided small group one day tour of Great Ocean Road and while this was also a long trip, especially the drive back to Melbourne at the end of the day, and we didn’t make it to as many of the rock formations as on the independent trip, I found this to be a much more enjoyable option. We made many stops along the way to break up the journey at pretty bays and towns, at a rainforest boardwalk, a lighthouse and even somewhere to see koalas in their natural habitat before stopping at the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge rock formations.
Trips to Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley wineries are other popular options for easily reachable days out from the city.
Overall, Melbourne is a great place to visit but make sure you take the opportunity to get out of the city itself as Victoria has a lot more than Melbourne city to offer!
I’ve lived in Birmingham all my life so to me it’s just home. These days, I rarely even visit the city centre despite it just being a 10 minute drive or 15 minute train journey away but after making friends from all over the country and even from around the World while travelling, I’ve had a lot of them visit me here expecting to be shown around everything Birmingham has to offer. Which got me to thinking, what does the UK’s second city (yep, it’s Birmingham, not Manchester as many assume!) have to offer it’s visitors?
Here’s my take on the best things to do in my home city and surrounding areas!
A library might not sound like the most exciting place to start a visit to a new city but this relatively new addition to Birmingham’s city centre is housed in a rather interesting-looking modern building. The gaudy boat-like design has divided locals but is certainly eye-catching. As well as thousands of books inside, there’s a cafe and 2 roof-top gardens providing great views over the city.
If interesting architecture is your thing then Birmingham has plenty to offer. As well as the Library Building, our famous Selfridges building (see the section on shopping!), and the Bullring’s Rotunda, you might be interested in seeing The Cube, so called for it’s dice-like shape and home to a few shops, restaurants, apartments and even a hotel. Visit Marco Pierre White’s skyline Steakhouse Bar and Grill for views over the city as you drink and dine.
Birmingham is said to have more canals than Venice and you can experience these without leaving the city centre as the central canal system network is easily accessed from the Mailbox shopping centre and Brindley Place. Take a stroll along the towpath or, in the city centre, sit out at one of the canalside bars or cafes.
If you want to get out on the water, you can catch the water taxi or there are barges offering sightseeing and dinner cruises all departing from near Brindley Place.
Right next to the canal at Brindley Place is Birmingham’s National Sealife Centre which along with the usual ocean life, has exhibitions on the wildlife found in Birmingham’s canals!
If shopping is your thing then Birmingham is the place for you! The main shopping centre, Bullring, is home to another of the city’s most recognisable buildings, Selfridges, as well as 3 floors of high street stores and restaurants.
Look out for ‘Bully’, the Bullring Bull sculpture outside the centre and often dressed up to mark special occasions such as Christmas, St Patrick’s Day and Birmingham Pride and, in complete contrast to the modern mall, St Nicholas’ Church, still standing in the square below.
Just across from the church, you will find Birmingham Markets selling a variety of fresh produce, household items and clothing at bargain prices.
Next to the Bullring shopping mall is High Street, home to the World’s largest Primark store. This recently opened store hosts 5 floors of fashion as well as a beauty salon and 3 cafes, including the much talked about Disney cafe!
If you arrive to the city by train then you’ll more than likely find yourself at New Street Station, home to the new Grand Central shopping centre. The centre is mainly home to slightly more eclectic stores than Bullring but also a large John Lewis store. There’s also a food court with plenty of eating options.
If your tastes are a bit more high scale, then head to the Mailbox, also a short walk from New Street Station where you’ll find designer stores including Emporio Armani and Harvey Nichols. (It’s also home of the Birmingham BBC Studios which you can book a tour of!)
Visiting at Christmas? Then you might be in the city in time for the annual Frankfurt Market. Sellers from Germany descend upon the city each year to set up a traditional German Market which runs all down New Street and up into Victoria Square. This year, the market will be back, bigger and better than ever, running from November 7th through to December 23rd.
Just outside of the city centre, this area is full of jewellery factories – a good proportion of the UK’s jewellery is made here – and independent jewellery shops. The area has been rejuvenated over recent years and is now a popular place to visit. As well as the many jewellery shops, there is a museum where you can learn the history of the Jewellery Quarter and take a factory tour and a growing number of bars, restaurants and cafes. There district is easily accessible by train, tram or a walk along the canal from the city centre.
For culture vultures, Birmingham is home to plenty of museums and galleries. Walk to Chamberlain Sqaure, past the Town Hall and Council House buildings and you’ll find the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Free to visit, the museum houses a large collection of art, an Ancient Egypt collection, exhibits on local history, a natural history collection and various temporary exhibits.
Nearby, just off Broad Street, is the Ikon Gallery. Also free to visit, the gallery houses 2 floors of contemporary art.
If science is more your thing then head to Thinktank, the Science Museum at Birmingham’s Millennium Point. The museum offers interactive exhibits on Science, Industry and Natural History that will keep kids entertained for hours. My personal highlight is the outdoor Science Garden – an educational playground!
For a bit of Birmingham history, visit the National Trust owned Back to Backs. The last surviving 19th Century back-to-back houses have been restored and can be toured by appointment.
Birmingham is famous for producing the UK’s favourite chocolate, Cadbury’s, and no visit to the city can be complete without venturing out of the city centre to Bournville Village, home of the original Cadbury Chocolate Factory. Cadbury World is home to interactive exhibits on the history of the factory in Birmingham and allows you to see inside the factory where the chocolate is still produced today. And best of all? You get a load of free chocolate to try along the way!!!
Cadbury World is easily reached by a short train journey from the city centre’s New Street Station to Bournville and the pretty, old-fashioned village itself is well worth a look around while you’re there.
Cannon Hill Park
I’ve always felt one of the things missing from the city centre is a green space, a park for workers to sit out in in their lunch break or to visit after work or a place for visitors to enjoy between shopping trips…we’ve plenty of nice open Squares but where’s our Hyde Park, Central Park or Boston Common?!
While not in the city centre itself, Cannon Hill Park is worth the short trip out to the suburb of Edgbaston. With plenty of open grassy areas for picnics or ball games, woods to wander through, pretty flower-filled gardens, a large boating lake on which you can hire pedalos, a fun park with children’s rides, a land train to take you around, an adventure golf course and two well-equipped children’s play areas, you can easily spend a day here. The park is also home to the Midlands’ Art Centre or MAC, host to various exhibitions, galleries, small theatre shows and a cinema usually showing cult classics and independent films.
Next door to the park is the Birmingham Conservation Park, known locally as the ‘Nature Centre’ where for a small fee you can see a variety of mammals, reptiles and birds including red pandas and monkeys!
There’s plenty of parking at the various entrances to the park in Edgbaston and Moseley but my favourite way to enter the park is to park up on Moor Green Lane opposite the Highbury pub and walk through Holders Lane Woods (entrance next to the Moor Green Lane Medical Centre) which leads into the south side of the park.
Birmingham was home to JRR Tolkein, writer of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and you can wander around much of the area that inspired the lands he created in the books. Head to Moseley Bog and the nearby Sarehole Mill, now part of the renamed Shires Country Park where you can pick up a leaflet detailing the sites that inspired him and follow the ‘Tolkein Trail’!
Further out of the city, but worth the journey into South Birmingham in my opinion, is the vast Lickey Hills Country Park offering well-marked woodland and parkland trails and rewarding views across the city from it’s highest peaks.
If you want to party the night away, then there’s really only one place to head in Birmingham – Broad Street is lined with bars and clubs and drunken students and is your best bet for a lively night out. For something a bit more sedate, or a few drink before hitting the clubs, try the canalside bars at Brindley Place or the popular afterwork bars at the Mailbox.
One of the best things about living in Birmingham is it’s central location and proximity to other cities and attractions. From the city centre, day trips can easily be made to Stratford-upon-Avon for all it’s Shakespeare attractions and beautiful riverside setting or to Worcester, a cathedral city situated on the River Severn. For some child-friendly fun, West Midlands Safari Park and Dudley Zoo are in easy reach for animal lovers or try Alton Towers and Drayton Manor theme parks for thrill seekers. The Black Country Museum is also close by for some living history where costumed actors show visitors what life was like in Victorian times.
While on a recent city break to Munich (read about it here), we decided to take the train to Salzburg, Austria for the day. So how did we spend 1 day in Salzburg?
Getting to Salzburg was really straight forward. We booked our tickets in advance and purchased a Bayern Ticket – a travel ticket that can be used on all regional transport including visits inside Bavaria but which also allows travel to the first stop across the border meaning it was valid to travel to Salzburg. The ticket can be purchased for individuals or groups and for 2 of us, worked out at just €32 or €16 return each!
Seats on the train couldn’t be reserved so we arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof 30 minutes before departure to give us plenty of time to find our platform and get a seat on the train as soon as it arrived. The station was easy to navigate and we soon located the departures board and found our way to the platform to board the train. It took just under 2 hours to reach Salzburg station from Munich!
From Salzburg Station, it was an easy, straightforward walk towards the city centre. It took about 15-20 minutes to reach Mirabellplatz, home of the famous Mirabell Palace and Gardens.
While it is possible to go inside the palace, we decided we probably wouldn’t have time with just a few hours in the city so instead we spent some time strolling around its beautiful gardens, famously featured in the film The Sound of Music. Unfortunately the weather was drizzly and the some of the paths were blocked by large puddles but the rain did nothing to dull the bright colours of the flower filled gardens.
From Mirabellplatz, we passed the small museum at Mozart’s former residence and crossed the pedestrian ‘Love Lock’ bridge from the new side of town to the old town.
The street running alongside the river was lined with touristy souvenir stores, pretzel-filled food counters and cafes so we took one of the narrow side roads off the street and found our way to Getreidgasse, a shopping street where ornate signs hang over the store doors. At the far end of the street, we stumbled across the Sound of Music store and museum from where you can take a location tour. Having never actually see the film, I didn’t do this but I have friends who are fans of the movie and have taken the tour and highly recommend it!
Further along Getreidgasse, you will also find Mozart’s Birthplace, now another museum about the composer.
As we wandered up and down the side streets in the old town, we stumbles across Universitatplatz where there was a small market with stalls selling, among other things, souvenirs that were a bit cheaper than in the stores we’d passed. There was also a food van selling giant pretzels in various sweet and savoury flavours – perfect for a lunchtime snack!!
Not far from University Square is Residenezplatz, where we got our first glimpse of Salzburg Cathedral, and the adjoining Mozartplatz where a statue of the composer stands proudly in the centre. We followed the road leading around the cathedral, past a game of giant chess going on in Domplatz, to the cathedral entrance and went to have a quick look inside.
Next to the Cathedral, was St Peter’s Abbey. We wandered through its grounds, the Petersfriedhof or St Peter’s Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the city of Salzburg and which, along with the Abbey’s catacombes, also featured in The Sound of Music film.
Behind the abbey, was the terminus for the funicular railway which takes visitors up the steeps hill to Fortress Hohensalzburg. It is possible to hike u to the fortress but we decided against this and instead bought a value ticket which gave us a return trip on the funicular railway as well as entrance to all parts of the fortress and its museums.
The main reason for visiting the fortress has to be the stunning views over the city from the fort’s grounds. We took the audio tour of the salt rooms which took us up to one of the towers for a 360 degree view of the surrounding city and the mountains looming in the distance.
The fortress museums did not take long to look around and in all honesty, our ticket upgrade giving us access to the state rooms probably wasn’t worth it as there really wasn’t a lot to see in the couple of rooms this allowed us into although there did seem to be a few sections of the fortress closed off for renovations on the day we visited.
As we left the fortress, the drizzle turned to a full on downpour. We abandoned our plan to walk down the hill back into the city and instead made use of our return ticket to ride the funicular down. Hoping it would be a passing shower, we made our way back to Mozartplatz and went for tea and a slice of traditional Sacher Torte chocolate cake at Glockenspiel Cafe. Being in a touristy area, the refreshments were a bit pricier than usual but the cake was so light and absolutely delicious!
With the rain not abating, we walked back to Getreidgasse and spent some time shopping to keep dry before it was time to walk back to the station for our evening train back to Munich. While we could easily have filled another day or so in Salzburg taking a walking tour, visiting the palace and its many museums or, in better weather, taking a riverside walk or a river cruise, a day had been long enough to see the main sights and get a flavour of the pretty city. And it’s definitely a city I’d like to return to someday.
Last week, I flew out to Munich for a few days. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s not my first time in the city. On my last visit though, 11 years ago now, I was there less than 24 hours and had only 2 of those hours to get out into the city – and then the main aim was finding somewhere for dinner, not sightseeing!
So this time, while the reason for my visit – a Backstreet Boys concert! – was the same, I wanted my experience of the city to be very different. With this in mind, we booked 4 nights in the city giving us 3 fulls days and 2 bits of a day at either end of the trip to explore.
Travelling to the city from Munich airport
We had investigated in advance our options for getting to our hotel from the airport – taxi, bus or S-Bahn train – and decided to opt for the train. We easily followed the green ‘S’ sign out of the arrivals terminal and to the train station and the ticket machines could be put into English and were straight forward to use. Again, from a bit of pre-planning, we knew which station we needed to get to and the ticket type and price we needed so we could see that the price and details that came up on the screen matched what we expected. For those of you not comfortable using the ticket machines, you could queue for a counter service instead.
The S1 and S8 trains both run in the direction of the Hautpbahnhof – Munich’s Central Station and while our hotel was walkable from here, we got off one stop away at Hackebrucke station which was slightly nearer. We had noted down directions to our hotel from here and found it straight away without any problems.
Where to stay in Munich
We could probably have done a bit more research on this. On my first visit to the city, we had stayed in Hotel Mirabelle which offered triple rooms and was walkable from the station. This was slightly out of our price range this time. Our search concentrated on hotels within our budget which included breakfast and were walkable from the main station so that we could get to the concert easily. We booked at Hotel Munich City which fulfilled both criteria but being west of the station was a slightly longer walk from the main part of the city – about 30 minutes stroll from Karlsplatz, 15-20 mins walk from the main station – than we’d have really liked and not quite close enough to the metro train system that it made using this instead of walking time efficient. Apart from this though, the hotel was fine for our needs. The room was on the small side but we didn’t spend much time in it anyway and breakfast was excellent!
Sightseeing in Munich
After booking our trip and doing some research on the city, we found that maybe we’d overestimated how much time we’d need in Munich as it’s quite a compact city with less touristy things to do – that appealed to us at least – than we’d thought. Therefore we decided to book a few trips out of the city to fill 2 of our full days there (I’ll review these is a separate post when I get the chance!).
Upon arrival at our hotel, our main priority was finding food. Being a Sunday evening, this wasn’t as straight forward as it sounds, especially when you’re two fussy eaters who don’t want to go near the various sausage-filled Bavarian cuisine most touristy restaurants that were open were offering!! While wandering around looking for somewhere that served food that we ate at a price we could afford, we found ourselves passing many of the city’s main squares. Karlsplatz and the shopping street leading from it’s gate, was familiar to me from my last visit although this time the huge fountain in the middle of the square was switched on. The square is surrounded by various shops and fast food restaurants and if you follow the subway escalator down you’ll find an underground mall with more eating and shopping opportunities.
After strolling down the high street from Karlsplatz, we found ourselves in Marienplatz, home of the Rethhaus or Townhall. This square is famous for its Glockenspiel Clock which chimes at certain times throughout the day. We arrived just in time to see its last display of the day. While it was fun to watch at first, it went on for a long time!!!
We also wandered past Munich’s Cathedral with its twin towers and past Promenadeplatz, randomly the home of a Michael Jackson Memorial set up by fans in front of a hotel he once stayed at, before settling on L’Osteria restaurant for dinner, an Italian chain serving huge pizzas.
The next day, we had booked ourselves on a Segway Tour of the city with Fat Tyre Tours. We have taken segway tours in a few US citied over the last few years and always find them a fun way of seeing the highlights of a city. We figured we could return to anywhere that looked interesting after the tour had finished and spend more time there.
The 3.5 hour tour started at Karlsplatz and then took us up though the Old Botanic Gardens into Konigsplatz and past some of the city’s museums before a stop in Odeonsplatz to visit one of the beautiful Theatine Church and a ride around the courtyards of the Munich Residenz Palace. Later, we rode into the Englischer Garten Park where we stopped for coffee and watched surfers riding the ‘Munich Wave’ on the River Isar. We followed the river back into the main part of the city and battled our way past the busy Viktualienmarkt and Petersplatz before returning to Karlsplatz.
As well as getting to see a lot of the city in less time than it would have taken walking or using public transport, we also learnt a lot including where the famous ‘biergarten’ had originated from!!
After a lunch stop, we decided
to return to the Viktualienmarkt area we’d earlier whizzed past and spend a bit
of time going around the market and visiting it’s biergarten. The market is a
great place to visit if you’re after some cheap souvenirs or want to grab some
food and there was a great atmosphere at its busy biergarten.
That was all we had time for in the city that day as we had to get ready to go over to the Olympic Park for the evening’s concert. The Olympic Park can be reached easily by train from Odeonsplatz and is home to a few of the city’s tourist attractions. It is where you need to head to if you’re into your cars and want to tour the BMW Factory and Museum and is also home to the TV Tower with it’s observation deck. We had thought about heading out a bit earlier so we could go up to the observation deck but unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and we decided there wouldn’t be much of a view at that point!
After spending the next 2 days doing trips out of the city, we had a few hours on the last morning of our trip to do some last minute sightseeing. With the rain finally stopping and the sun coming out, we decided to get the train to one of the stops near to the Englischer Garten and explore the park a bit more. We walked in to the park from the west side and followed the main path towards the Monopteros, a Greek style circular structure on top of a hill in the middle of the park.
We climbed up the hill to the tower and sat and enjoyed the sunshine and view across the park for a while before wandering through the park up to the large boating lake and past its biergarten. Before we knew it, it was time to return to the city centre and walk back to our hotel to collect our luggage before returning to the airport.
I’d enjoyed my trip to Munich and having more time to see the city this time around and would definitely recommend it as a short break destination!
“There’s nothing there.” “It’s dirty.” “I didn’t like it.” “Hollywood is a dump.” “I wouldn’t bother.” Just some of the comments I’d heard about the City of Angels, Los Angeles. But I’d seen it in the movies – Hollywood, the Walk of Fame, the beaches, the mansions, the glamour, the Californian sunshine – what wasn’t there to like, right? And so, I floated the idea to my friend of possibly spending a few nights in the city of dreams on the way back from the trip we were planning to Australia, making our flight ticket a round-the-world trip, and the next thing I knew, we’d booked it and were planning our stay. Truth be told, I was as excited about our few days in Hollywood as I was about our 2 weeks in Australia – if not more so! – and despite the various warnings? I loved it. I’ve been back multiple times and still love it. I’ve taken family and friends there and made them fall in love with it. I’m going back there for my 6th visit this summer. I really have no idea why so many people I talk to don’t love it!!
So here’s my guide to LA!
Where To Stay and Getting Around
“It’s impossible to get around LA without a car.” I read or was repeatedly told when investigating my first trip there. Time consuming and complicated at first, maybe. Impossible? No. I’ve not had a hire car on any of my trips to the city and I’ve rarely even used taxis or ubers and yet I’ve still managed fine and seen everything I’ve wanted to see each time. And looking at the traffic in the city, there’s no way I’d ever want to drive there! The trouble with LA is it’s such a big place. Everything is spread out and unlike in New York, although improving, the metro system is currently not comprehensive enough to make getting from one place to another as quick or easy as it should be. Instead you need to make use of a combination of buses and trains. Choosing the right place to stay goes a long way to making getting around easier. I’ve always said that in an ideal world, I’d spend a few days staying in different areas – downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills…but assuming you’ve got just a few days to a week in the city then you need to choose just one area to base yourself in.
For most of my visits, I’ve based myself in Hollywood, as close to the corner of Hollywood and Highland as possible. From here, most of the Hollywood sights are walkable, you have plenty of entertainment options to keep you occupied in the evenings along Hollywood Boulevard and the red line metro can be accessed easily. This is the line that runs downtown to Union Station in one direction but also to Universal Studios and City Walk in the other direction. Anything not accessible by metro, you can probably catch a bus to it from Hollywood! If you plan on using the hop on/off tourist bus to get around, then 3 of the routes – the Hollywood route, downtown route and Hollywood Bowl bus – all have a stop on Hollywood Boulevard.
I have stayed a couple of times in Santa Monica – which I absolutely love – but it’s not as convenient as Hollywood for getting around. The first time I stayed there we planned on taking the hop on/off bus to Hollywood the one day but it took so long to get there -it’s not even direct, you have to hop off at Rodeo Drive and wait for the Hollywood bus from there! – that we got less time than we thought we would there so decided to go back again the next day – which meant catching the hop on/off bus all over again! (Since then, I should point out that a new metro line has opened connecting Santa Monica with downtown and hopefully making the journey between there and Hollywood a bit easier – I’ll let you know after my trip this summer!) The second time I chose to stay there was for a quick visit before starting a tour which was meeting nearby, so a visit to Hollywood wasn’t on my itinerary and Santa Monica was just more convenient for my plans than Hollywood happened to be.
For my upcoming visit to LA this summer, we looked at possibly staying downtown as prices were a bit cheaper than Hollywood and from there we could easily catch the metro into Hollywood or the new line to Santa Monica. But not knowing the area as well, we were unsure which of the cheaper hotel options were in an area where it was ‘safe’ to stay – especially if we were out late and had to walk from the metro back to our hotel in the evenings. So we’ve plumped for a motel just off Hollywood Boulevard again, sticking with what we know!
These buses run from the airport to most of the main touristy areas of the city – and slightly further a field – and I’ve found them to be a convenient, relatively cheap and easy way to get to and from the airport in the past. If there’s larger group of you then a taxi might be more cost effective and convenient .
If you’re arriving by train into Union Station then the metro is the cheapest way of getting to Hollywood or Santa Monica. Having tried it once, I wouldn’t advise the public buses as not only do they take forever in the LA traffic but there’s not much room to take a giant suitcase on there!!
To use the buses or metro system in LA you’ll need to get a $2 TAP card which you then load with cash or metro passes (you can add a one-day, 7-day or one-month pass). While cash fares are accepted on buses (exact fare only), you must use a TAP card on the metro so if it’s likely you’ll be using both forms of transport, you may as well just purchase a card. To plan your route, use the journey planner feature on the LA metro site. https://www.metro.net/riding/trip-planner/
Just don’t expect to get to travel between places as quickly as you can in other big cities – the last time I caught the bus from Hollywood to Santa Monica, it took a good 2 hours to get there. I’m hoping the recent metro extension will cut this down a bit when I try it later this year but looking at the journey planner on the metro site, it won’t be by much!
Whenever I’m doing a city break, I always weigh up purchasing a ‘tourist card’ where multiple attractions are included in one price against paying for the attractions individually. The problem is, a lot of the time many of the included attractions were never on my ‘to do’ list to start with but when I see them all listed on the card’s website, it seems too good value not to buy it as long as I can fit everything into my visit so I end up actually spending more by buying the card than I would have if I’d made a list of what I wanted to do and just bought admission to those things individually! Not that that’s always a bad thing – sometimes there I things included on these cards that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered going to but because I’ve purchased a card and I’m in the area I’ve popped in and actually really enjoyed then attraction!
Anyway, there are a few tourist card options for LA. On my first visit, we had just a few days stopover on the way back from Australia and were based in Hollywood but wanted to see a bit of Beverly Hills and the beaches too. Starline Tour’s Hollywood Pass was perfect for what we wanted – it included Hollywood attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum and Dolby theatre tour, a Star Homes Tour which took us into the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the Hop on/Off bus pass which we used to get to Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica from which we walked to Venice Beach and back. We even had time to do a loop on the Downtown Hop on/off bus route – albeit without getting off to explore – on the last morning before we headed to the airport. Starline still offer similar passes now as well as add-ons and tickets and tours to many other LA attractions. https://www.starlinetours.com/
The hop on/off bus tour run by Starline/Citysightseeing in LA will often offer tourist bundles as an incentive to sell tour tickets. When staying in Santa Monica, we enquired about bus tickets but were quite non-committal about it only for the cashier to suddenly offer to throw in a Madame Tussaud’s ticket in with every pass we purchased! Many other tour companies will off various combo packages on attractions so it’s definitely worth shopping around to see what discounts you can get.
The company offer all inclusive cards valid for set number of days or you can build your own card starting from 2 attractions – the more you add, the more you save. In my opinion, the all inclusive card is only worth it if you’re staying for upwards of 3 days and you are going to spend one of those days at Universal Studios as this is one of the more expensive attractions to visit and goes a long way to getting your money back on the card and ending up in profit on what you’d have spent paying for attractions individually. Even with a visit to Universal, you need to plan your trip well to fit enough in to get the full value of it but if you’re planning to do one of the studio tours and a few of the Hollywood based attractions then it soon adds up.
As LA is such a huge city, I’ve written separate pages on different parts of the city and things to do:
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.