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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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/.
My two favourite strolls were the 30-minute crossing of Brooklyn Bridge (you can start at City Hall Park and take in the skyline as you make your way along it) and a leisurely ramble around Central Park. According to the Central Park official website, there are over 58 miles of trails all over the park, so there’s plenty to explore!
Iconic Meeting Places
Besides the Chrysler Building, the Flatiron and grand of churches like St Patricks in midtown Manhattan, there were two more buildings I had to see when I visited NYC: Grand Central Station the New York Public Library. Both feature in so many movies, and both have a certain energy about them in different ways. The gathering of people in these places for different reasons really caught my imagination.
Standing in Grand Central Station, you have to marvel at the volume of people coming and going through this space: Who are they and where are they off to? Once you’ve had your fill of people-watching under the starry ceiling, you can have a spot of lunch at the Dining Concourse. According to some residents, the Oyster Bar on the lower level is worth a visit.
In the New York Public Library (the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, to be precise), we saw an exhibition about the early days of the city, back when it was called New Amsterdam. Seeing the old maps and drawings from those pioneer days was a fascinating reminder of how humans can radically change their surroundings. It was hard to imagine that the New York skyline once just featured windmills! The collections in this Beaux-arts building frequently change but there’s always something to see, and best of all, entry is free!
Fun in Theaterland
Broadway is as much a part of a NYC experience as the Empire State Building or a Liberty Island ferry trip. On our first visit, we mistakenly thought we could just rock up in Broadway and spontaneously catch a show. Turns out that it pays to book in advance in New York, as most performances are sold out at least a day before. We managed to get seats for a show called “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, which turned out to be hilarious, even though none of us had ever heard of it.
The second time I visited NYC, I learned my lesson and made sure I booked our tickets for the hit musical “Wicked” well in advance. My then-boyfriend and I weren’t disappointed. Anyone who’s seen this inventive, flamboyant “untold story of Oz” will tell you that the songs are as fabulously camp as Dorothy in her Ruby Reds, and the costumes and effects are dazzling.
Head to the official Broadway website to check prices and showtimes of your favourite musicals and plays and book your seats in advance to avoid disappointment.
Feed yo’ face
Something that goes hand in hand with a night out on Broadway is a theatre dinner, and there are hundreds of places that offer pre-theatre menus all around Midtown Manhattan.
We ended up in an Italian restaurant, orgasming over tiramisu, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of the place. While I’m failing as a travel-blogger to recommend a personal experience, help is at hand in the form of the NY Eater, whose website ny.eater.com not only lists the best places to have a pre-theatre meal and drinks, but also includes a handy map to find them.
While you’re walking around NYC, I’d also recommend dropping in one of the countless diners and fill yourself with blueberry pancakes and limitless coffee. There’s something quintessentially American about eating out at these places. Most serve a menu of fry-up food that’s far from anything healthy, gluten free or vegetarian, but if you’re after some hearty comfort food, these venues are ideal. A favourite of mine is Manhattan’s biggest, the Tick Tock Diner on 8th Avenue.
A more sophisticated and memorable eaterie for me is Fraunces Tavern at no.54 Pearl Street, not far from the Whitehall St Subway station. We picked it out because I have a thing for historical, quirky places, and this 18th century restaurant is in one of NYC’s oldest buildings.
Art and culture
Like any modern metropolis, New York City leads the way when it comes to traditional and modern art. There are so many permanent and temporary exhibitions all over this city, it’s almost impossible to put together a list that won’t create a 5-page blog post. Instead, I’ve included my top three, plus a museum I really wish I’d made time to visit.
The Museum of Modern Art is one of those galleries that polarises art lovers, because there’s always going to be someone who argues whether a room where the lights go on and off every 5 seconds constitutes as REAL art (True Story: This piece was installed in the MoMA by Martin Creed in 2007).
But the MoMA does have some stellar pieces in there too, such as van Gogh’s Starry Night and Dali’s Persistence of Memory, not to mention other hugely important pieces by Picasso, Chagall and Monet.
When I was there in 2009, I saw a fabulous temporary exhibition about the director Tim Burton that featured his sketches, paintings and movie props, so it’s worth looking at the MoMA’s online calendar of events before you go.
Adult admission is USD25, students USD14 and seniors USD18, while children go free. For more information and ticket bookings, head to the MoMA website.
The Solomon R Guggenheim
This place is worth going to just for the striking architecture. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the circular structure houses masterpieces by Cezanne, Kandinsky and Gauguin. Once inside, you’ll find parallel levels tiered up to a glass spiderweb skylight, which gives the impression of standing in a shopping mall filled with priceless paintings, or a rather clean multi-storey car park.
Tickets for this gallery are priced at USD25, unless they are changing the exhibitions, when prices are lower. Every Saturday between 5.45pm and 7.45pm, visitors can pay whatever they want! For more information, visit the Guggenheim website.
Metropolitan Museum Fifth Ave.
This is a museum I missed out on, but I’ve read so many good things about it, I couldn’t not include it. As well as paintings by masters like Edvard Munch, David Hockney and Michelangelo, there are collections of beautiful objects from all over the world exhibited here. From Japanese textiles to Roman metalwork, there are weeks’-worth of stuff to gawp at.
You can buy tickets online at the Met Museum website, with adult entry at USD25, seniors USD17 and students USD12, but if you purchase tickets at any museum counter, you can choose how much you’d like to pay. Tickets also allow same-day entry for other museums such as the Breuer Gallery and The Cloisters. (NB: the photo below is NOT of the Met Museum, but the Flatiron one instead...!)
American Natural History Museum
Another place that needs a whole day to fully enjoy, the American Natural History Museum is full of the stuff that turns adults into big kids and kids into science boffins: huge dinosaur skeletons, meteorites and minerals, the story of early humans and a vast array of creepy stuffed animals. There’s a centre for Earth and Space with a huge planetarium, plus a discovery room for families with small children.
It’s open daily from 10am to 5.45pm, and tickets can also be purchased online. Adults pay USD23, students and seniors USD18 and children USD13. Special exhibitions require another ticket, so it’s worth heading to the website for the American Natural History Museum to see what’s on.
The city that never sleeps has a well-deserved reputation for nightlife. From traditional taverns and sports bars to tiki lounges and retro cocktail joints, NYC has bars for all tastes and budgets. Its club scene is still one of the most exuberant and indulgent in the world, with rooftop parties and basement dancefloors all over the city.