I’ve always wanted to visit New York City, and recently I got the chance with a four-night trip to the Big Apple over Halloween. It’s been booked since January, so there was a lot of build-up and precise planning involved, and I thought it might be entertaining to read my impressions of the city. All coming from the perspective of someone who’s never lived in a big metropolis, so I’m very aware that living somewhere is different to going on a long weekend trip (where you’re spending an inordinate amount of time doing as much as possible).
The New Yorker Hotel
I stayed at the New Yorker Hotel. It wasn’t my first choice, but I wasn’t quick on the draw when weighing up options and I missed a better deal elsewhere. But, I was happy enough with my choice. The New Yorker is an old hotel that closed for awhile, but was re-opened in 1994 and has recently been renovated. From their website it looked like the kind of place you’d be happy to stay in. Some sources say it’s a three-star establishment, others four-star, and I’m now inclined to believe the former. Like many big hotels in NYC (as I found out during a bus tour), they look impressive outside and have very ornate lobbies, but the size of the rooms are often very small because you’re dealing with 1920s architecture. I wouldn’t say my stay there was bad, but the toilet was ridiculously noisy when it flushed, the plug sockets weren’t very centrally located, it wasn’t particularly warm in the room, and the bedside clock-radio didn’t work. On the plus side, the hotel had a very useful ‘business room’ where you could use the internet and printer for 30-mins, plus a restaurant and gym onsite. (I only made use of one of those, so guess which one).
Our first adventure was early afternoon on the Friday we arrived, about an hour after hotel check-in. The New Yorker Hotel is a 15-minute walk from the world-famous Times Square, so it made sense to head there and take in the sights.It certainly makes an impression, as you’ve simply never seen these many billboards on this scale. It’s like Piccadilly Circus got very out of control. I’ve also never seen so many buildings this tall, for the most part, although the novelty of seeing lots of skyscrapers clustered together does ease off. And one downside is that so many streets are freezing cold to walk down, as sunlight gets blocked from so many angles during the day! Anyway, Times Square is one of those must-see places that looks a lot better in the photographs you take (see above). In reality, you’re walking around a very crowded area snaked by busy roads, being hassled by street vendors and conmen. (Beware the people in costume who want you to take a photo with them, as they then expect payment.)
Big Bus Tour
Firstly, I highly recommend getting a New York City Pass. There are different types to suit your particular needs, but we chose one that gave us two-day access to over 80 tourist traps. But, fair warning: to be cost-effective, those 48-hours are going to be very busy.
The Big Bus Tour is part of the City Pass package, and I think it’s one of the essential things to do while you’re in NYC. You’ll never see as much of the city without going on a tour, frankly. It’s a treat to sit back and watch the city go by, listening to the spiel of the very personable tour guides. I learned a great deal about NYC just from the two or three buses we jumped on. Although it does become clear that 95% of the information you’ll hear about NYC is in relation to either money or celebrity. The common joke is that America is a young country without much history, and it’s tough to disagree after going to NYC. A lot of what you’ll hear concerns movie trivia and celeb gossip, and there didn’t seem to be many people who famously invented something that came from NYC. Or many historical stories, beyond the odd thing with a celebrity angle — like being shown where John Lennon was murdered.
The 9/11 Memorial & Museum
A major highlight. It’s impressive what they’ve done to tastefully honour those who died on September 11, 2001. The ‘footprints’ where the Twin Towers once stood are wonderful, with a cascading waterfalls falling into a square hole, and the perimeter’s engraved with the names of 9/11’s victims. The museum between them is also worth a visit, as I didn’t realise it’s located beneath where the World Trade Center stood — so you actually see the sewage pipes that connected to the fallen building. 9/11 was such a tragic event that has shaped our world and our lives, so to actually go there was an unforgettable experience.
The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
This was the best part of the trip, in terms of two things: iconography and real historical value. The Statue of Liberty sums up NYC to me, as it’s so recognisable, unlike a few of the city’s other popular structures. We took the cruise to the island itself, and it was a relief to find that Lady Liberty’s bigger than she appears from the southern tip of Manhattan. Did you know her torch isn’t the original, but it was replaced? Or that the crown has only recently opened up for visitors again? Or that she’s only green because the original bronze colour’s come away over time?
Ellis Island is a separate place, also part of the boat tour, and was the trip’s main source of historical nourishment. We all know that immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, but being shown exactly what happened and how the many millions of people shapes the US itself was very enlightening. My only gripe is that the queueing takes awhile and there’s airport-style security to get through. Try and get there early! We did it around 10 a.m. and the queues were ludicrous by noon when we arrived back.
The Rockefeller Center
I still don’t quite get The Rockefeller Center. There are shops and restaurants and TV studios inside (they film The Tonight Show there), but it’s hard to get your bearings. I’m used to buildings having a specific purpose behind them, but the Rockefeller Center just seems to be a very tall building with multiple reasons to exist. Anyway, we mainly went there to see the iconic outdoor ice skating rink, and do the ‘Top of the Rock’ (an observation deck towards the very top, where you can peer out across Manhattan — see below). It was recommended to me that you do this at daytime, mainly because there are views of Central Park, and leave the Empire State Building for night. I agree.
Seeing a show on Broadway wasn’t part of our original plan, mainly because you can see most of the shows in London’s West End. We’d decided to target only things exclusive to NYC, but I’m glad we decided to see something anyway. This was largely driven by getting a good deal on tickets for Matilda ($90 for third row seats, a saving of 40%). Tip: take the bus tour to Brooklyn Bridge and go to the theatre ticket kiosk nearby, as they sell the cheapest tickets in town. All the other suckers buy around Time Square or at the box-office itself, which costs a fortune.
Matilda itself was very good. I don’t get to see a lot of professional theatre, so there’s a chance I’m just easily wowed by seeing real actors performing right in front of you, but the play was entertaining and captured the spirit of Roald Dahl. I appreciated they kept it very British, too, considering the 1996 movie Americanised the story.
The American Museum of Natural History
Again, not something we’d planned, but it was free entry (well, they “suggest” you pay $22) and on the bus tour. This is also the museum from Night at the Museum, but bares very little resemblance to anything going on in that movie! I was slightly disappointed by that, I must admit. It’s a good museum that’s deceptively large, but it’s very badly signposted and perhaps not the thing to be doing when you’re under time pressure. But I’m glad we went, as it was worth seeing just for the life-size model of a Blue Whale suspended from a ceiling and the various dinosaurs.
It’s amazing how much of an oasis Central Park feels like after a few days walking around NYC’s streets. It’s entirely man-made and there’s lots to see, even if you just like people-watching. Quite a few places you’ll recognise from appearances in various movies, too — like the large fountain from Giselle’s song-and-dance routine in Enchanted. Uh, just me? There’s also a zoo there, which we didn’t have time to visit. I did, however, spot a very weird thing there:
Yes, it’s Big Bird. Just sitting on a bench, minding his own business. I didn’t imagine this, there’s photographic evidence.
Madison Square Garden
I didn’t expect it, but watching ice hockey at Madison Square Garden was very entertaining and a good insight into America’s approach to sporting events. It’s an impressive venue, and I was delighted our comparatively cheap seats still delivered a fantastic view. (Seriously, don’t buy the $400+ seats nearer the front, you’re almost better off further back and spending $70–100). The funny thing about this evening was seeing first-hand how different sporting occasions are for Americans, as it’s less about the sport and more the entertainment and gimmicks that surround it: T-shirts being bazooka’d into the crowd, funny dog viral clips, people dancing, kids playing hockey at half-time, all kinds of bespoke videos and pop songs. If there was ever a second when nothing was happening on the rink, you can bet your bottom dollar you’d be distracted by something on the jumbo screen.
I came away with the distinct impression that sport in America is more about spectacle and passing time in a fun way, than anything to be taken too seriously. Or maybe that just goes for ice hockey? It was also noticeable how much of the atmosphere isn’t created by the crowd (who chant the same thing every few minutes), but by whoever’s controlling the screens and speakers. While I enjoyed the experience, I got the distinct impression the Americans at MSG would be astonished by the wholly fan-created atmosphere and more tangible enthusiasm you get from a football match.
The Empire State Building
For me, second only to the Statue of Liberty, this is the iconic structure of NYC. It’s exactly how a skyscraper looks in my imagination, and it was a big treat to go inside and visit the observation level. We did this close to midnight, so there were no crowds and less bustle. I recommend you do that same, as it doesn’t close until 2 a.m.
Circle Line Cruise
We did this cruise on the very last day, which takes you on a 2.5-hour trip around Manhattan island. You see some of the buildings you’ve probably already seen at ground-level, or been inside already, but there’s a lot more to Manhattan than all the tourist destinations… and this tour offered a good insight into some of the more day-to-day places. The tour guide (a middle-aged baseball fan called Chris) was very good and a veritable fountain of knowledge. Very pleased we did this, even if it touched on things we’d already done or seen. You get a completely different perspective on things from the water, looking in at Manhattan as a whole. It was also the only way we got to see areas like Harlem and many of the bridges.
Not very glamorous, but you have to hail a yellow cab in NYC, right? And did you know the shield on all their bonnets (sorry, hoods) cost $250,000 a year? It entitles them to take fares to places like airports. This is why there’s a brouhaha with Uber, who don’t have to pay such overheads and are seriously eating into the Yellow Cab’s business. So, while I know Uber’s cheaper, what would NYC be without the yellow cabs? Use one if you go!
Macy’s Department Store
I didn’t take photos inside, but “the largest department store in the world” (which isn’t even true) was a crushing disappointment. It’s just a very large Debenhams. They put all the most impressive brands on the ground floor, but there isn’t really much there the further up you go. Again, it was poorly signposted and seemed to get progressively shoddier the higher up you went. Literally, the elevators become wooden monstrosities after a few levels. Sorry, NYC — give me Harrods any day of the week. Macy’s seemed very geared towards women, too.
- Well, it’s expensive. Our trip cost about £1,500 each for four nights (including spending money), and that was booked months before Brexit sent the £-to-$ exchange rate tumbling. While there, we were easily spending $100 a day on food, drinks, tips, and little extras. The City Pass was a godsend, or we’d have been bankrupt paying $20–30 each for most of the things we did.
- I don’t like tipping culture. Just increase the wages of people in the service industry, America. It would save your customers a fortune.
- Hate how many items in shops don’t have a price tag, so you have to take things to the checkout and (a) accept a ridiculous charge, or (b) accept mild embarrassment by not paying for something and returning it to a shelf.
- Is it really so unthinkable to include the tax on things in shops, America? You’re forever having to do a bit of mental arithmetic on the things you buy, or just accept that your ‘minor purchases’ will be inflated at the till.
- New York hot dogs and pizza taste no different to British hot dogs and pizza, and I went to (supposedly) the best place for pizza.
- Like many US cities, NYC’s streets are based on a grid-system, which in theory should be very easy to navigate. And yet, the similarity of the streets themselves often had me questioning where I was. Uniformity isn’t always a plus!
- I don’t like Madame Tussaud’s. You suddenly think, when faced with a roomful of celebrity mannequins: what am I expected to do here? It just felt very odd to me.
- $10 for a medium Coke in a Broadway theatre! Smuggle in a carton of drink and some sweets, trust me.
- The manhole covers really are that large. The average NYC sewage worker has a bigger waistline? Or it’s because of the Ninja Turtles?
- Yes, smoke does randomly billow up from places in alleyways.
- And yes, we heard a New Yorker say “hey, I’m walkin’ here!” after some beeped their horn at him. It really does happen. Or they play up to the stereotype.