When considering a city break in America, many people think of New York but in my mind, Chicago definitely rivals it for atmosphere, World-class museums, tall buildings, history and sheer amount of things to do. And its setting on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes, makes it one of the prettiest cities to visit too.
I first visited the city for 4 days at the end of a 2 week multi-city trip to the States which had also taken in New York and Washington DC. Of the 3 cities, Chicago was the one I knew least about and I was unsure what to expect but I fell in love with the city and have returned again and again since – I’m currently weighing in at 6 visits in total but expecting that to go up in the future.
So what is it about the city that keeps pulling me back and what is there to do?
Chicago lies on the west side of Lake Michigan, a lake so big that, looking out at it from the city, you could easily mistake it for the ocean! Lake Shore Drive runs north to south alongside the lake and is worth a stroll, jog, bike ride or even segway along.
Beaches sit on the lake’s edge and, whenever I’ve been in the summer months, are crowded with sunbathers and volleyball players and while I’ve never seen anyone taking a dip in the lake, people must do as lifeguard stands stood along the main beach!
From Navy Pier, you can choose from a variety of boat trips out onto the lake and once out there you can enjoy unparalleled views of the Chicago city skyline.
The Chicago River runs through the city from Lake Michigan at Navy Pier. A river walk has been created which runs alongside, lined with shops, bars and restaurants or you can take the Chicago Architectural Tour, a boat ride along the river with a commentary about the multitude of architectural styles of buildings that make up the city’s skyline.
This Chicago institution juts out over Lake Michigan and is an entertainment hub for the city. Entry onto the pier is free and once there you’ll find a huge food court and plenty of entertainment and shopping opportunities to keep everyone amused for hours.
Many of the boat trips onto Lake Michigan launch from here and you’ll also find a couple of museums – the Children’s Museum of Chicago and the Museum of Stained Glass.
One of the big draws of Navy Pier is it’s small amusement park. While it mainly offers rides aimed at young children, there’s also a carousel, flying chairs and, of course, the Chicago Ferris wheel offering views over the city and lake.
In the summer months, firework displays usually run twice weekly from the pier!
The Miracle Mile
Chicago is a great place to shop. Michigan Avenue, also known as the ‘Miracle Mile’, runs down the centre of the city and here you’ll find a mix of high street stores and top fashion houses all on one long road!
If museums are your thing then you’ll be spoilt for choice in Chicago. Down at Museum Campus, you’ll find the Field Museum – Chicago’s Natural History Museum – home to one of the largest collections of dinosaurs in the World including Sue the T-Rex who stands proudly in the museum entrance hall. Museum Campus is also home to the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium and even if you’re not planning on going to the museums, it’s worth a visit to the area for the views across Lake Michigan!
For art, head to the Art Institute of Chicago situated near Millennium Park. This museum houses some World renowned works of art including Grant Wood’s America Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks as well as impressive collections of ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and artefacts.
For something a bit more unusual, head upstairs at the city’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds” where you’ll find a small McDonalds’ museum with old advertising, Happy Meal toys and other merchandise!
A bit more out of the way, in the North part of city at Lincoln Park, but definitely worth the trip, is the Chicago History Museum containing displays and exhibitions from the city’s past – and what an interesting past it is! From the Great Fire of Chicago to the city’s close links with President Abraham Lincoln, from its hosting of the World Fair in the late 1800s to it’s Prohibition era gangsta connections, there’s plenty here to learn about this great city.
Prohibition era Chicago
While on the subject of Chicago’s links to prohibition era mobsters, there are plenty of companies offering guided tours of the city talking about this. My favourite is the ‘Untouchable tour’ where you are driven around in a battered, bullet-hole covered mini-van as 2 actors dressed appropriately for the era recount the grisly stories of the city’s past and point out the scenes of the crimes in an informative but humorous way. Fascinating stuff!
The City Parks
The first place I like to head to on any visit to Chicago is Millennium Park to see my favourite outdoor works of art, Cloudgate and the Crown Fountain. Cloudgate, also known as the Silver Bean, is a huge silver bean-shaped sculpture which lies in a square in the centre of the park reflecting the city skyline and the many tourists who crowd around, and under, it! It’s great fun to stand facing the sculpture from different angles and see if you can spot yourself in it!
Not far from Cloudgate, also in Millennium Park, is the Crown Fountain which also has another more descriptive name – the spitting fountain! The fountain has a huge pillar at each end broadcasting the faces of actual Chicago city-dwellers who, once every 15 minutes or so, appear to spit water out of their mouths. I once made the mistake on a very hot day of thinking it would be a good idea to stand under the jet of water being spat out while wearing denim knee-length shorts. Despite the heat, it took forever to dry out again!!! Great fun for the kids though.
A short walk south from Millennium Park is Grant Park where you’ll find another famous Chicago Fountain, Buckingham Fountain. Try to visit on the hour as the water spouting from the fountain jumps impressively higher into the sky!!
The city’s largest park is Lincoln Park, named after President Abraham Lincoln.
This park is situated on the Northern edge of Lake Michigan and is also home to the city’s zoo!
Chicago is famous for its Deep Dish Pizza and there are a few restaurants in the city all claiming to have the best. My personal favourite is Gino’s East. Expect to queue for a while outside it’s flagship restaurant on Superior and then to wait at least an hour for your pizza to be cooked and served but it’s definitely worth the wait.
The restaurant allows customers to graffiti its interior – any surface, the tables, chairs, walls, ceilings etc, can be scribbled on – so while waiting for your food to arrive, keep yourself amused by reading through the messages left by previous customers and leaving your own mark on the place!
The Tall Buildings
Chicago is home to many skyscrapers and there are two offering visitors a viewing deck on the upper floors. The most famous of these is at the building formerly known as the Sears Tower (many native Chicago dwellers still refuse to call it anything different to this, so synonymous with the city is the name), now known as Willis Tower.
The building was once the tallest in the World and it’s Skydeck, offering visitors the opportunity to stand on a glass floor above the city, is situated on the 103rd floor. On a clear day, it is possible to see 4 states from here!
As it is situated closer to Lake Michigan, I personally prefer the views from the Chicago 360 observation deck in the city’s John Hancock Building from where you can look down at the beaches running alongside the lake. This observation deck also offers Tilt, a kind of Observation Deck thrill ride where you lie against windows that slowly tilt outwards over the Magnificent Mile!
All of my visits to Chicago so far have been in the summer months and I’d imagine it’s a very different city in the harsh winter months but it really is a wonderful city and if you get the chance, I definitely recommend a visit!
Spending time in the party capital when you don’t like to party!
Las Vegas was never high up on my list of places to visit. But visit I have – 4 times now – and I’m pretty sure I’ll return again at some point. My reason for booking my first trip out to Las Vegas was for my friend’s wedding. She had long been a huge fan of the city and had said she would one day get married there ever since I’d known her and long before she met her husband to be!
As our taxi drove out of McCarran airport and around the back of the Strip towards our Circus Circus hotel, I can’t say I was immediately impressed and I wondered how I was going to fill 3 full days in a city of casinos, bars and clubs when I don’t gamble or drink! But as I found out on that visit and subsequent visits, first impressions can be wrong and there’s a lot more to Vegas than that. So why go to the party capital of the World if you don’t like to party?!
It would be strange in any other city, but in Vegas, the themed hotels that line Las Vegas Boulevard, or ‘the Strip’ as it’s often referred to, are one of the city’s main attractions and you can easily spend days just wandering along the strip, exploring these. You can literally – as I’ve found out more than once – lose yourself in these huge complexes.
Take a trip around the World and see France, Italy, Egypt… without leaving the city. In the Venetian, you can visit replicas of the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceiling and a miniature version of the city of Venice where you can even ride a gondola along the canal; see replicas of classic Roman sculptures in Caesar’s Palace; walk through the streets of Manhattan at the New York New York hotel and see a mini-Sphinx at the Luxur. See flamingos hanging out in the gardens at the Flamingo hotel or clowns and acrobats performing at Circus Circus. And it doesn’t matter where you are staying – while I’d never just wander into a 4 or 5-star hotel I’m not staying at in any other city, in Vegas, all the hotel casinos, shops, food courts etc are open to all visitors, not just residents.
The Bright Lights
One of the main reasons I wasn’t immediately enamoured with Vegas was that my first sighting of the Strip was in daylight hours. Wandering down the busy strip in the 40 degree heat is not particularly fun. But after a few hours, when the sun had gone down, the lights had all come on and it had cooled down to a more bearable heat, it looked and felt like a different, much more magical, place and I started to enjoy it a lot more. The Strip at night is just one of those things that has to be seen to be appreciated but the whole atmosphere of the city shifts when the sun goes down!
For a birds eye view of the Strip, in daylight hours or all lit up at nights, there are a few options, the most expensive of which is to take a helicopter ride over the Strip while its all lit up. But if you’re not a fan of helicopters or your funds don’t quite run to that then another good bet is one of the Strip’s two observation decks. At Paris hotel, there is an observation deck at the top of its ‘Eiffel Tower’. It’s situated right in the middle of the Strip and across from the Bellagio meaning that if you time it right, it is possible to watch the Bellagio Fountain show from up there.
Further along the Strip is the tallest building in Vegas, the Stratosphere, with it’s indoor observation deck with floor to ceiling windows to look out of or the outdoor rooftop, also home to the thrill rides mentioned below.
The newest option for views over the Strip is the High Roller, a huge Ferris Wheel outside the Linq hotel. Here you ride in a pod with other visitors – or for a bit more money, you can hire a private pod with a bar – and enjoy the views as you slowly circle up to the top and back down to ground level.
Hint: It’s worth looking out for coupons and promo codes to cut the prices of all these attractions before going to the box office or booking on line!
The Big Shows
I never saw a show the first time I visited Vegas, there just wasn’t time any of the three nights I was there, but I was certainly aware of them with the huge billboards adorning the hotels everywhere. And I’ve made up for it since, seeing a Cirque du Soleil show, Britney’s Piece of Me show and the Backstreet Boys’ during their Planet Hollywood residency on my subsequent visits!
There’s always plenty to choose from and something for everyone from mind-boggling magic shows to the Cirque shows’ gasp-inducing acrobatic displays to chart-topping musicians or top class tribute acts. If you’re not too fussy, a lot of the show tickets can be bought at discounted prices on the day at TKTs booths and it’s even worth turning up at the box office for the show you have in mind and enquiring as we got our Britney tickets, to stand right in the front pit down by the stage, on the day of the gig for less than they’d have been in advance online seeing as we didn’t have to pay as much in processing/ delivery fees etc in person.
The Free Shows
If you’ve not got the time or the money to see one of the big shows then there’s plenty of free ‘shows’ along the strip that shouldn’t be missed. Head to the Mirage Hotel to see the huge volcano outside erupt every hour, pop to the shopping complex at Caesars Palace to see Atlantis, a moving statue show or go to the Bellagio for, probably the most well-known of these free shows, the Dancing Fountains.
If you’re downtown, the Fremont Street Experience offers free live music and a laser show most nights.
The Thrill Rides
If non-stop thrills are your thing, Vegas has plenty but they don’t come cheap! The New York New York hotel is home to one of my favourite roller coasters ever. You board inside the hotel but soon find yourself outside whizzing around the famous Manhattan skyline! If one roller coaster isn’t enough then head further up the Strip to Circus Circus hotel which is home to an amusement park with rollercoasters, family rides and other thrill rides. And if you’re feeling really brave, catch the elevator to the top of the Stratosphere Hotel to ride it’s three thrill rides 350m above the Strip!! Definitely not for the faint-hearted!!
Las Vegas is home to no end of shopping malls and outlets. Pretty much all the hotels have a shopping mall attached and if it’s too hot to walk along the Strip to your destination, many of these link up so you can walk from hotel to hotel without ever having to go outside! Most of the malls are home to a range of stores from well-known high street stores to mid-range stores to high end designer stores. Themed stores like the M&M’s store, the Hershey’s store and the Coca Cola store are always fun to look around and there’s no end of shops offering Vegas souvenirs. If you’re looking for a bargain then catch a bus or taxi to one of the Outlet Malls just outside of the main city.
Few people would say the were heading to Vegas to check out it’s museums but actually, the city has some really great ones! The Neon Museum, or Neon Junkyard as it’s sometimes known, is one of y favourites. Situated near the downtown area of Vegas this museum is host to many of the retired signs from old Vegas hotels. Tours can be taken throughout the day but at night, some of the signs are switched on so you can see exactly how they once looked!
Another museum worth visiting in downtown Vegas is the Mob Museum. This museum tracks the rise and fall of the Mob in Las Vegas and its surrounds and is a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours.
If it’s art you’re after, then the Gallery of Fine Art at the Bellagio Hotel, right on the Strip is a good call. TheBellagio is not the only hotel to contain a museum, visit the Luxor to find an exhibition of artefacts from the ill-fated Titanic or The Venetian to find good old Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.
The Old Town
While most visitors choose to stay in a hotel on the main Vegas Strip, staying Downtown in ‘Old’ Vegas can be a much cheaper option and even if you don’t stay there, it is definitely worth catching the Deuce bus there a few hours. As well as they already mentioned Mob and Neon Museum, downtown is home to some of Vegas’ most famous hotels such as the Golden Nugget as well as tourist attraction The Fremont Experience. Fremont Street is the main street that runs through the downtown area and most nights there’s live entertainment and a free laser show beamed hourly onto the street’s ‘roof’.
If you’re feeling adventurous then you can fly down Fremont Street on the SlotZilla Zipline!
The National Parks
While the city of Las Vegas itself offers plenty to keep you entertained, it’s also a great base to reach some of the USA’s top National Parks from. The most popular to visit from Vegas is the Grand Canyon and if you don’t want to hire a car and drive yourself there, tour companies offer plenty of options from all day coach trips to scenic flights there and back.
If you want somewhere a bit different or to explore a bit further then Utah’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are also in easy reach along with Death Valley National Park in California. Again, there’s plenty of tour companies offering guided tours out to these parks if you don’t want to drive yourself.
If it’s the great outdoors you’re after, there’s many opportunities closer to Vegas – hiking at Red Rock Canyon or hiking, biking and boating at Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities in Las Vegas which I’ve not mentioned and if nothing else, the city is just one of those places that just has to be seen! So, even if partying and gambling is not your thing, the Vegas is definitely still worth a visit!
After a fun day exploring Chicago, we were heading to one of those break-up-the-journey, middle-of-nowhere stops today somewhere in the state of Minnesota.
Just before leaving the state of Illinois, we stopped in the town of Des Plaines to see the Original McDonald’s but unfortunately, when we arrived we found it was closed so instead of going inside and visiting the museum, had to make do with taking photos from outside.
Our lunch stop today was in Wisconsin at a place called Wisconsin Dells. As we drove through the Dells towards the main street, we were all very excited to see various water parks, amusement rides, adventure golf courses…followed by all sorts of tacky attractions including a Mirror Maze and Museum of Torture along the main street so when we were told we’d only be getting just over an hour to explore and get some lunch, we were all a bit disappointed. We spent our time browsing in the many tacky souvenir stores with most of us grabbing lunch from The Cheesy Tomato Cafe which specialised in menu items containing Wisconsin cheese. I went for their ‘famous’ Donut Grilled Cheese – a grilled cheese sandwich but with a jam doughnut being used where the bread usually goes! It was just as sickly as it sounds.
The rest of the day mainly consisted of sitting on the van as we entered Minnesota state and drove past seemingly endless fields, farms and red barns until we reached out motel in Albert Lea.
After dinner in the motel restaurant, we went out to the cinema for evening where we were pleased to find that the bags of popcorn were just as huge as they appeared to be on TV!!
The next day was to be another long drive day as we aimed to reach the state of South Dakota but first we had one more stop in Minnesota, one that the whole group had been looking forward to. We were off to visit the Jolly Green Giant in the town of Blue Earth. Unfortunately, it was raining heavily by the time we arrived so we didn’t spend as long as we probably would have taking photos. There was a small gift store by the statue with all kids of random Jolly Green Giant themed items and we spent most of our time in there rather than outside with the Giant himself.
After seeing the giant, we were dropped off just around the corner at the Jolly Green Giant Museum, an unexpected stop. Here we learnt all about the history of the Jolly Green Giant and found more Jolly Green Giant merchandise on display than we ever thought possible! It was such a fun place to visit.
Then it was back onto the van to continue our journey through Minnesota state towards the border of South Dakota where we’d be spending the next few days of our trip.
Watch my Trek America adventures in Wisconsin and Minnesota here:
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.
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.
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.