New York – A guide for the overwhelmed

Eleven years ago, I really wasn’t that fussed about seeing the USA. America just seemed too familiar to bother with. As a Brit, I’d seen so much of it in movies, music videos and tv shows, I felt like I’d already been there. My traveller’s heart was set on more exotic destinations: the forests of South East Asia, the fiords of New Zealand or the perilous African wilderness.

Truth be told, I’d rather be trekking in a rainforest than negotiating an urban jungle.

So, when the offer to go to NYC came up in 2007, I was a bit dismissive. What could possibly be enjoyable about visiting a huge, crowded city in a country that seemed about as exotic as Manchester?

Oh, the ignorance of youth.

Mark on the ferry to Ellis Island, NYC

The invitation of a trip to the Big Apple was presented by the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, where I was studying a degree in model-making. It was a big class excursion; a visit to some US architectural studios and design museums.

Oddly, I really wasn’t all that excited about going to New York. I resignedly booked my tickets with the rest of my class in a sort of FOMO way. Even on the plane there, getting sloshed on complimentary G&Ts, we joked about how utterly unenthusiastic I felt about it.

Imagine my reaction then, when I emerged (slightly hungover) from the New York subway and into a cityscape of iconic buildings and world-famous film locations.

It was like being smacked in the face with the Flatiron building.

Mark being mesmerised by Times Square, NYC

I went from being apathetic to awe-struck in seconds. The scale of the buildings. The spacious streets. The energy. The vibe…

NYC had cast its spell on me. I was so smitten with the place, I returned two years later, on a romantic break with my then-boyfriend Duncan. Each trip was a five-day itinerary, and I still didn’t manage to fit in everything I wanted to see.

When to go

NYC is one of those destinations that’s enjoyable at any time of the year, as there’s always something going on. That said, I’d say the most pleasant months to visit would be in the spring or autumn, when the temperatures aren’t so extreme. If you arrive in September and October, you’ll also see Central Park in a golden blaze of autumnal colour.

Photo by Ronile on Pixabay - Autumn colours in NYC

I’ve heard summers can be unforgivably hot in NYC, so consider the heat if you’re keen on doing walking tours. July and August are hottest, with temperatures climbing into the high 30s (around 80°F) but summer is also the season for open-air movies and festivals in the parks (think the Fourth of July, Gay Pride and myriad concerts). You can even do some kayaking on the Hudson.

I visited NYC in February, when there was ice on the river and the wind had knives in it. Although New York doesn’t really have an off-season, this time of year can be quietest after the Christmas buzz and New Year’s excitement.

A younger version of me, ice skating in Central Park

Winter is great for enjoying ice skating in Central Park. Both my visits to Manhattan included a frolic on the rink; there’s a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming feeling as you skate against a backdrop of skyscrapers in the centre of this city. Make sure you wrap up warm for long walks around Manhattan in the colder months. I recommend three layers of trousers and the kind of insulated headgear that’d make Scott of the Antarctic proud.

Lesson learned

On my first trip to NYC, the airline misplaced everyone’s luggage. We arrived in a freezing cold city with only our cabin-baggage and the clothes we were wearing. Some of my classmates had even boarded in London without a coat! Although we were all eventually reunited with our belongings, it was a good lesson to always take a spare set of underclothes in a carry-on bag, and to board your plane with clothes appropriate for the destination, not the place you just left (although why some of my classmates weren’t wearing winter coats in February in England is beyond me).

Ice on the River Hudson, NYC

See the sights

Despite my two trips and ten days in Manhattan, I only saw a fraction of the sights there. This post features a handful of the must-sees in New York, but you can also check out my list of “Further Reading” at the end of this post for links to some of my favourite itineraries.

Make time for Times Square

There’s something irresistible about Times Square. The bright lights and neon advertisements that dazzle all around you as you stand at its centre make you feel like a walk-on actor in a Hollywood movie. It’s such an iconic location. It was the first landmark I visited on my first trip to NYC and on my second visit I made sure I booked a hotel within walking distance of it.

Times Square, NYC

Some don’ts for Times Square: Avoid the open-top bus city tours that leave from here, as the traffic in mid-town Manhattan is so dense it’d be quicker (and less expensive) to get out and take in the sights on foot. And as romantic as the idea sounds, don’t bother with the half-day queuing to join the crowds on New Year’s Eve here, as the climatic ball-drop at midnight is quickly followed by hellish scenes of aimless revellers desperate to make their way to somewhere warmer and boozier. It’s a far from pleasant experience, according to a couple of people I’ve spoken to.

Birds-eye views

During our student trip, we made a beeline for the Empire State Building as the sun set, just catching the last rays over Manhattan from the top of this world-famous skyscraper.

NYC view of sunset

I remember staring out over the sea of yellow sodium lights that spread out all around Manhattan, completely awestruck by the vastness of human activity on our planet. The scale of this city is a sight to behold from the top of this tower. You can see a rather naff video of this experience at our YouTube channel here.

Entry for the 102nd floor viewing platform costs USD57 for adults and USD51 for children. You can book tickets at the official website for the Empire State Building – expect long lines for this landmark, especially at sunset!

View of NYC city lights at dusk

On my second trip to NYC, I made it to “the top of the Rock” at the Rockefeller Centre, and I have to say that I preferred this experience to the Empire State Building. While it’s not as tall, its position means you get a better view of Central Park and the other famous skyscrapers like the Chrysler. Into the bargain, you also get a view of the Empire State Building!

There’s a timed ticketing system that means you don’t have to wait in long lines to get in, and indoor and outdoor viewing platforms mean you can enjoy the incredible vista even in unpleasant weather.

NYC at sunset

Tickets for adults are USD32 (at the time of writing) while children pay USD26. Entrances can be found on 50th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 11pm is when the last elevator heads up. Head to https://www.topoftherocknyc.com/ for more information.

Whichever tower you choose to go up, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views. Art Deco lovers will also appreciate the stunning architecture at each of the buildings, and at the Rockefeller there’s even an Art Deco tour of the sculptures.

Give Lady Liberty a wave

Another must-do in NYC is a trip on the ferry to Ellis and Liberty Islands. Even if you don’t disembark onto the islands, you still get a fantastic view of Lady Liberty and the New York skyline from the boat. Tickets for adults cost USD18.50, children over 4 years USD9 and seniors USD14 – for more information about tickets and departures, head to https://www.nps.gov/elis/planyourvisit/fees.htm

My friend Louise and I didn’t get the time to check out the inside of Liberty’s head, preferring instead to lark about at her feet. Truth be told, she was a lot smaller than I was expecting, but still a sight to behold!

Mark next to the Statue of Liberty NYC

We heard from others that the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island is a really riveting place and a must-see for history lovers. If you have relatives in the US, you’re likely to find records of their ancestors’ arrival at this place; the centre tells the story of the 12 million immigrants who came through the gates on the island to populate America.

Photo by Colin (hodgesce13) on Pixabay -  Ellis Island Immigration Museum photo

Take a walk

We walked a lot in New York City. Not that we didn’t want to, mind you. No one forced us to march around at gunpoint. And it’s not like we were avoiding the city’s well-connected but rather grubby subway system. We just love taking in the sights on foot.

From Central Park to Brooklyn Bridge, the city is full of great walking tours, and I’d recommend allowing at least one day of your trip for strolling around this city and drinking in the sights. A great website to find free walking tours is http://www.freetoursbyfoot.com/new-york-tours/.

A view of Brooklyn Bridge NYC