This post was originally published on my first travel blog on 22 April 2014.
I’ve always been fascinated by the United States – as a teenager I bought imported US teen magazines and planned to go to UCLA for university (until I realised the costs involved!) – but have never had the chance (or funds) to visit. Sometime last year I impulse-bought a plane ticket to New York for this spring. I decided to spend a week in the city, by myself, and do a mixture of the typical tourist activities, and my favoured method of exploring a new place, wandering around and seeing what I found.
My plane touched down at around 5pm New York time, the trip having been nowhere near as bad as I expected for my first 8 hour flight. My initial impression as I walked off the plane along the corridor to the border was that JFK looked just like Heathrow; the same HSBC adverts plastered along the corridor, the same airlines parked up – to my plane-addled brain it felt almost like we’d not left! I’d been told that getting through the border and customs could be an arduous process, but it seemed quite quick and painless to me, although I did seem to arouse some suspicion when I said I was alone and the purpose of my visit was a holiday – the guy seemed surprised and started commenting on what a brave and unusual thing it was to do. I started talking about my previous solo trips within Europe and, just as I was starting to worry I’d be pulled aside for questioning, he let me through.
I used the AirLink shuttle service to get to my hotel – I’d not heard great things about these, but I didn’t want to fork out for a taxi and didn’t fancy trying the train and subway option with a large suitcase. I had to wait about 45 minutes for my pick-up but once I was on the bus the journey was fine; we headed over the bridge into Manhattan as the sun was setting and the city was lighting up; my first beautiful view of how impossibly vast it was.
It didn’t take long to reach my midtown hotel, which was Pod 51 on East 51st Street. Trying to choose a hotel had been initially overwhelming as there was just so much choice, so I sought recommendations from friends, and ended up here. Accommodation in NYC is pricey and there’s no getting round it; you have to compromise somewhere, and I chose to go with a shared bathroom for the sake of being able to stay right in the middle of Manhattan, rather than stay somewhere cheaper but further away from the action. The room was small but perfect for a solo traveller, and I never had any issues with the bathrooms, so I would definitely recommend this place (it has a wonderful roof terrace too!).
Upon checking in I was given a free drink voucher for Pop@Pod, the bar and grill next door, so after dropping my stuff in my room I headed over there for a glass of wine and something to eat – I went with fried cauliflower with chipotle and lime sauce purely because it wasn’t something I’d ever encountered before! However, despite the unusual food, the insistence on ID at the bar, the basketball on the television and the guy next to me shouting at it, and the attentive customer service (noticing I’d finished my glass and asking if I wanted another), I found myself thinking: “this could be London”. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the bar could have been any All Bar One or similar in central London – it hadn’t quite hit me that I was in America yet!
As I had expected, I woke up very early due to the time difference; not sure how early, but I felt like I had a substantial lie-in before I first looked at my phone to see 5.45am. I got up at 6am, thinking I may as well get a head start on the day, especially with the shared showers. By 7.30am I was ready to go and went in search of the roof terrace, finding that it didn’t open until 8am, so I went downstairs to the hotel café to grab a (somewhat-cliched!) breakfast of coffee and cream-cheese cinnamon and raisin bagel. At 8am I found the staircase open but the door still padlocked, so I had a frustrating peer through the window! Downstairs, the concierge told me it would be open at 9, so I decided to use the time to walk to one of the local subway stations and pick up a metrocard, as I would need one for the walking tour I was signed up for that morning. I headed out, coffee in hand, and now I felt like I was in America. My photos don’t do justice the size of Manhattan – the height of the buildings, their number, the vastness of the space. And the sounds – the constant honking of horns, the sirens, feet and voices, the clattering of the trains underneath your feet. It’s amazing.
I managed to get slightly lost coming back even though it was only two blocks (I’m good like that), but made it back in time to get up onto the terrace and enjoy the view from up high before it was time for the walking tour. Pod 51 offers free walking tours using the Streetwise company, and on Fridays it’s Greenwich Village, Chelsea and the High Line. We started by catching the subway down to 14th Street. The subway completely baffled me and I was glad to be able to follow Patrick, our guide, for my first attempt at it!
We had a good mooch through Chelsea Market and then walked along a section of the High Line, an urban park created where the old industrial railway tracks used to run, in the pouring rain. At one point we were just about able to make out the harbour and the Statue of Liberty, far in the distance, through the gloom – very cool and a bit surreal. Even with the poor weather we enjoyed good views of the Hudson River and New Jersey, including the arch which marks where the Titanic was supposed to arrive. I decided to come back later in the week to walk more of the route, hopefully in better weather!
Patrick then took us through the East Village, which is very different to Midtown; no skyscrapers, just the houses with the stoops, and lots of clothes shops, bars and restaurants. We saw some filming for Law and Order, but no celebrities. Some in the group were excited about seeing Carrie Bradshaw’s stoop – I’m not a SaTC fan so it meant nothing to me however!
The tour ended in Washington Park Square, where Patrick left us to explore further by ourselves. I usually find walking tours worthwhile and this was no exception – Patrick was full of useful and interesting information about the area and it was a great way to see some of the city and get myself orientated.
I wanted to send postcards to some family and friends back home, to arrive before I did, so I went off to find a shop to purchase some, walking past New York University and hatching my new Life Plan – become Director of the NYU Library, rent an apartment in Greenwich Village, and spend my evenings in the historic music bars on MacDougall Street! I located a suitable shop and encountered the first comments on my accent, with the cashier wanting to know if I lived anywhere near Glasgow as he had a distant relative there! It so happens that my mother comes from Glasgow so we had a chat, and he God-blessed me as he sold me some postcards and stamps to get them back to England.
After some lunch (Mac n Cheese) and postcard-writing, I headed off in search of the apartment which was apparently used in exterior shots of the apartment block in Friends. I found it, but wasn’t overly impressed – it didn’t seem as tall as it should!
I cocked the subway right up trying to get back to the hotel in time for the free Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) opening (4-8pm on Fridays); first I misread the card reader as refusing my card, then when I tried again it kept displaying “just used”, so I walked all the way back to 14th Street to get on there, where I managed to get a train travelling on the correct line, but not stopping at my stop (there’s no indication of which stops the trains visit, unless you’re on a new train with an electronic display – it seems you just need to know which train you need!), so I ended up six streets uptown and on the West rather than East side – may not sound far, I found out that it was! It was after 5pm by the time I was ready to head out to the MoMA but decided to go anyway, and I’m really glad I did. I was going initially because I felt like I should while it was free, and didn’t really have any expectations of what would be there, but it’s full of amazing stuff! Wander through a room of Picassos, past a Van Gogh, and oh look, here’s Monet’s Water Lillies! I saw some lovely Frida Kahlo paintings, Lichenstein’s Drowning Girl, and some Warhol, and Cezanne, Matisse, Pollock, and loads more. It was almost sensory overload. The place was packed, as I expected it would be.
Heading back to the hotel, I encountered Manhattan at night up close for the first time, and it was wonderful – again, I don’t have the words or photos to convey its size.
The weather reports on the morning television warned of a storm heading our way this afternoon and staying until Monday morning, so I got up early to hit Central Park before the rain hit me (hopefully). Good plan, but the rain started at about 10am so didn’t quite work! I covered about half of the park, starting at the bottom, seeing the main boulevard that you see so often on television and in films, the ice rink, Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon memorial (it was very hard to get a clear photo of this as so many people were posing on it for the same!), and the vast lake, before feeling I’d probably seen enough of it in the rain, so I headed off for an early lunch before next attempting to navigate the subway. A friend had suggested downloading an app, which I’d done so that morning before leaving, which actually turned out to be really helpful, with a route planner which helped me work out what trains I needed to take and where to change etc., and I successfully travelled all the way downtown to the World Trade Centre site, where I was going to visit the 9/11 memorial. I’d reserved my spot in advance, which was good as the queues for tickets (free but donations accepted) were massive, but also not so good as it was really not the ideal day to be on an outside visit – the rain was hammering down now and the wind was squally – it definitely felt like a storm straight off the Atlantic.
I arrived a bit too early so I went into St Paul’s Chapel, a church which is basically over the road from where the twin towers were. A sign in the churchyard explained that, after they came down, the yard was covered in debris, but the building itself was undamaged – hard to believe, as it’s so close by. Inside the church there’s a bit of an exhibition which is quite moving – the chapel essentially became a resting spot/changover spot/place of reflection for the rescue workers.
There is a lot of building work going on around the area; they’ve finished the new World Trade Centre skyscraper, and the memorial museum is due to be finished later this year; it’s evidently an ongoing project.
Getting into the memorial involved lots of queuing, security and bag-checks – over the week I’d realise to expect airport-style security at most places. I was struck while queuing by the mood of the people around me; I had expected a sober atmosphere, but people were chatting about everyday things, and a bunch of teenagers next to me were singing and joking around, with the adult accompanying them appearing not to be bothered. This continued as we reached the memorial. At the moment it’s the two pools which sit in the base of where the towers were, into which are engraved the names of everyone who died in the attacks on 9/11 and in 1993, grouped by who or where they were i.e. in one of the towers, on one of the planes, in a first response unit. The pools were bigger and deeper than I had imagined. I went round in the torrential rain and read every name on both pools. All were very sad, but some in particular wrenched at me; the female names accompanied by “and her unborn child”, and the number of first responders – not just fire and police, but guys who worked on the subway or for the Port Authority in other roles, who would surely never expect to go into that kind of situation in their work. I was 14 years old when 9/11 happened and it had a massive effect on me; it showed me how awful the world could be, and led to my politicisation. So I felt it was important to visit the memorial, to pay attention to every name, and to reflect quietly on what happened. Not many people appeared to be sharing my sadness though – they were running around, laughing, chatting, smiling for photos and selfies by the pools. I suppose the kids there wouldn’t remember it, to them it’s just history, but I was surprised by the adult behaviour too. I guess it’s not for me to judge, but it felt like for many of the visitors it was just another “attraction” to tick off the list on their New York visit.
Emotionally drained and soaked through to the skin, I decided to head back to the hotel to dry off and plan my evening. It became evident that the rain wasn’t going to ease, so I’d just have to brave it again if I wanted to experience Saturday night in New York City, which obviously I did! I initially wasn’t over-enthusiastic about going back out in that weather, but once I was out there, in my boots and umbrella, with dusk falling and buildings lighting up through the raindrops, it felt romantic and playful, as I trotted along to a local Italian to eat pizza and watching the view through the watery window. After dinner I took the subway to Greenwich Village and headed for MacDougall Street, home of the music bars where artists like Bob Dylan, Carole King and Joni Mitchell played their first gigs. The famous bars were reservation-only or had massive queues, so I wandered along for a bit and followed the sound of blues to a bar called The Groove, where I spent the evening drinking Brooklyn Lager (nice) and enjoying some amazing live bands.
Awake early again despite my late night, and decided to head to a diner I spotted around the corner last night, for a proper American breakfast. I wasn’t disappointed; diner-style booths like you see in the films, a massive pile of pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and the waiter coming round and refilling everyone’s coffee every so often.
It was still raining so I decided to just take the day as it came, aiming for things that didn’t involve been outside too much. It was just drizzling when I left the diner, so I headed for Times Square. I was sure it was most impressive at night, a view I’d not yet seen, but it was still brilliant in the grey morning – so much light, so many moving images, and so tall – I kept forgetting to look up and being surprised when I did. It was 10am-ish on a Sunday and yet the area was busy already – tourists exploring and taking photos, people touting the Broadway shows (including a lady in full Chicago gear walking along singing “All That Jazz”), and a massive queue at the TKT booth for discount Broadway tickets; I was glad I’d decided to get mine in advance – it was bitterly cold and it looked like they’d be there for hours, which to my mind was not worth the 40% discount I could have potentially gotten.
The rain was starting to come down again so, despite not being much of a shopper, I decided to pay Macy’s a visit. International visitors get a 10% discount here – head up to the mezzanine with your passport to get an international visitors’ pass which lasts for 30 days; you present it at the till and you get the discount on top of any sale discount. I enjoyed having a wander round, looking at the flower show on the ground floor, and the prom dress section – so much colour and glitter and lace! I ended up buying a couple of things (not a prom dress!) which turned out fairly cheap with my pass. The card reader at the till was a bit tricky to work out, and I found it bizarre how there is no chip-and-PIN; they still use the signature method, which seems old-fashioned and a bit vulnerable!
I went for a bit of a wander and then headed for the New York Public Library, which opens at 1pm on a Sunday. There was a queue to get in; a mixture of tourists and library users. My friends presumed I wanted to visit because I’m a librarian, but actually my main reason for going was that I’m a big disaster movie fan, and the NYPL is the principal setting of The Day After Tomorrow! It was great seeing the Reading Room, which looked just like it does in the film! The whole building is beautiful inside and I wasn’t the only one taking photos and admiring it. There’s a gift shop, which offers a 10% discount for librarians, teachers and students (take something proving it – I used my CILIP membership card to prove my librarian identity), so I bought a few gifts and got a tote bag to boast my visit!
Next, I headed up to the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway, which I’ve fancied a trip on ever since seeing it in the film Leon. I love the image of the cable cars gliding past the skyscrapers of Manhattan. It’s public transport so I used my metrocard to get on it, and it was fairly quiet, so I got a great view both ways. It was a grey and gloomy day but I loved soaring above the river. Definitely one to do again on a sunny day.
At this point I realised I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so I headed back to the hotel for a quick change, then out to a Mexican restaurant to stuff my face with enchiladas and rice and beans, before taking the subway to Greenwich Village again. This time I found myself in a bar called Vol de Nuit which specialises in Belgian beers. It was quiet but I had a fun chilled night chatting to the bar staff and writing in my journal.
I woke to the weather app on my phone telling me to expect “rain and flurries”, and the television showing images of snowflakes fluttering around a grey Manhattan, so I was expecting a cold one today.
I had a reservation for the Statue of Liberty at 11am, so after breakfast I headed straight down there – good job I allowed plenty of time as the subway was suffering delays. Security was high once again, with airport-style security both before getting on the ferry and again before entering the Statue. Lots of queues again too! The ferry runs on a loop from Battery Park to Liberty Island to Ellis Island. If you want to get onto either of the islands, even if you don’t want to go up the Statue, then you need to book with Statue Cruises, and I’d suggest doing it in advance – the queues were bad enough without having to queue to get a ticket first.
It was a lovely short ride to the Statue, standing on the open top deck (very cold!) for the best views. It was impressive, standing guard over the harbour, but didn’t seem as big as I had expected. The voiceover told us that we were seeing the same view as immigrants who arrived on boats back when people arrived that way would have seen, their first glimpse of the city, the Statue with the impressive Manhattan skyline behind it, after days or weeks at sea.
You need to book in advance if you want to climb to the Pedestal of the Statue, or to the Crown; Crown tickets sell out months in advance which I hadn’t realised, so I went as far as the Pedestal only. There was a bit of a queue again, but then it was a steep but pleasant climb up. And whilst I was climbing, the sun came out, for the first time since I’d been there! It was still bitterly cold but it was suddenly a beautiful day, and the views of Manhattan, bathed in sunshine, were fantastic. Looking up, standing just below Lady Liberty’s feet, she now seemed huge. After going back down to ground level I just spent ages staring up, thinking “that’s the Statue of Liberty” – I couldn’t quite get my head round it!
It was then onto Ellis Island, where immigrants would be processed; so again, following the route they would have taken. There’s now a museum about the history of immigration to New York there, although some of it is still closed due to damage from Hurricane Sandy. I didn’t find it overly stimulating but that was possibly because I knew a lot of it already due to my interest in that aspect of American history; I did however really enjoy standing in the hall where they used to process the arrivals, imagining being one of those people, just off the boat after so long at sea, the Statue visible through the window on one side and the Manhattan skyline on the other, unlike anything I’d seen in my home country, waiting to be admitted to the US and deposited in Battery Park to make my way.
I completed my shadowing of the immigrants’ route by taking the ferry back over to Manhattan. The visit had taken about four hours in total so it was mid-afternoon and still beautiful but cold, so I walked along the harbour for a while enjoying being by the water, before heading up through Wall Street and the Financial District to Chinatown for a wander around there. I was getting hungry now so decided I needed to sample some food here. There is no shortage of restaurants to choose from so I just picked one and headed inside, where I enjoyed steamed pork dumplings (amazing!), Peking prawns and white rice, and Chinese tea in a funky teapot. Chinese takeaways have a hell of a lot to live up to in the future! I’d heard good things about the Chinatown Ice Cream Shop which I’d passed on my way, so decided to head there for something sweet for dessert. The choice was overwhelming so I asked the server for a recommendation and he suggested Almond Cookie, so I had a little tub of that to enjoy as I walked along Canal Street to the subway – absolutely delicious!
Having been out every night, I decided a quiet night in was in order, so I headed back to the hotel and spent some time enjoying the night-time view from the roof terrace (so tall and vast and bright and unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before).
Getting ready for bed, I realised I’d got sunburnt on my nose.
So lovely to see the sun shining again this morning! Last night, seeing the forecast looking good, I’d booked a ticket for the Top of the Rock for this morning, thinking there was no point going up there on a gloomy day where I wouldn’t be able to see anything.
I set out early and picked up a coffee and scone from a local coffee shop, joining the throng of commuters walking through Midtown first thing. I loved the feeling of being just one of this mass of people, that no one knows I don’t live here, that I’m not off to work or college. This is one of my favourite things about travelling alone. You feel so free and like you can blend in and be anyone.
I arrived at the Rockefeller Plaza with plenty of time to spare so after eating my scone, I wandered around a bit, watching the skaters on the ice rink, admiring the Lego Rockefeller Plaza in the window of the Lego store, and joining the crowds peering through the windows of the NBC Today Show studio – I didn’t see anyone famous though!
The elevator up to the top spanned 67 floors, but it moved quickly and there was a light show of music and images on its roof so it didn’t feel that long, though my ears did pop! There are two observation decks which are glassed around, and then another one on top which has minimal glass (just barriers to stop you falling off!) so that’s best for photos. You can spend as much time up there as you like and it didn’t feel crowded at all; possibly first thing in the morning on a weekday is a good time to go.
It was glorious, clear, sunny morning – the best weather of the whole time I was there, so I definitely picked the best time to go. On the one side you could see lower Manhattan, with the Empire State Building presiding over the view, the new World Trade Centre sitting behind it, and in the distance, Lady Liberty guarding the harbour. On the other side was Central Park; seeing it from this high up really emphasised how big it is. It looked a bit brown though, which is not how I’d imagined it to be – but I guess it’s been covered in snow and blown around by wind all winter.
When I eventually decided it was time to come down, I took the subway over to Brooklyn Bridge, to walk over it to Brooklyn, enjoying brilliant views of the harbour in the sun. I spent the afternoon in Brooklyn, as a bit of change from Manhattan; had a cheeseburger and fries followed by cheesecake and wandered around Prospect Park. I think pretty much everyone else there was a local, taking the kids out for a wander or walking the dog, and again, I enjoyed that feeling of no one knowing I didn’t live here. However, as usual, my (lack of) sense of direction failed me when trying to find the subway, and I ended up wandering around a lot more of Brooklyn than I had intended (I found the library!) before finally locating a train that would take me back to Manhattan.
That evening I was off to Broadway and I had chosen Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, partly because I am a fan of her music, and partly because I wanted to see something I hadn’t seen/couldn’t see over here. It was a fantastic experience; the show was amazing, the actors were wonderful, the music was brilliant (shout-out to the often-forgotten orchestra in the pit from an ex-musician!) and the story gripping; sad, happy, vibrant. I loved the reaction of the audience too; the last few times I’ve been to the theatre in Britain, people have been playing on their phones and chatting throughout, then leaving before the curtain call – here, the audience cheered every time one of the classic tunes started up, applauded after everything, and everyone gave a standing ovation to the show’s star (something I’ve only ever encountered once in Britain). After taking their bows, the cast then launched into a rendition of “I Feel The Earth Move” and the whole audience was clapping and singing along and dancing – brilliant!
Thoroughly thrilled (and singing “The Locomotion” to myself), I mooched along to see Times Square lit up at night – as amazing as you’d expect it to be, so much colour and noise and flashing light, extending so high into the sky. I have no idea how I managed to sleep that night after all that excitement!
My last full day was a day of wandering around and revisiting things; the High Line (on which I got rained on again!), Greenwich Village, and the harbour. At the end of the afternoon I headed up to the American Museum of Natural History as I had heard that it was free in the final hour of opening; this was indeed true and so I had a bit of a wander around there. Too much to see in one hour of course, but I found my favourite animals, monkeys!
Once the sun starting setting I headed downtown to the Staten Island Ferry. This is a free commuter ferry which goes right past the Statue of Liberty, and I had decided to do the trip by night to see everything lit up. It certainly did not disappoint; the skyline and Statue were both as stunning as I had hoped, and the ferry over there had an open deck for the best views and photos. It was surreal to see people sitting inside reading the paper and plugged into their iPods, evidently so used to the view that they didn’t need to see it – I just can’t imagine ever not being wowed by it!
My final plan of the evening was to head to one of the famous music bars in Greenwich Village (The Bitter End – where Carole King first performed) but by the time I got there (9.30pm) the queue was massive. I had presumed the place would be less busy on a weeknight but I was evidently wrong! I made do with peering in through the window and adding it to my to-do list for whenever my next visit might be. I think Greenwich Village is my spiritual home!
I woke up thinking that I didn’t want to go home! I had a few hours before I had to catch my ride to the airport so I enjoyed a final breakfast of pancakes before going for a final wander around Manhattan, looking glorious in the sun.
I found my way down to the harbour and sat on a bench, looking out at the water and the Statue and enjoying my final meal in America, which had to be a hotdog! I was joined by office workers coming down to eat their sandwiches on the benches along the waterside; I can’t even fathom having the option of lunchtime down in New York Harbour! But then I think…the past day or so, the buildings haven’t seemed so tall, and catching the subway feels normal…am I getting used to being here? Perhaps it’s best that I am leaving now after all…I don’t ever want the magic of New York City to wear off…