New York City. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. Empire City. Call it whatever you like, there is no denying that it is an iconic and fascinating place. As an American living abroad, you hear lots of references to NYC: People talk about having been there or wanting to go there, and they sometimes ask if you’re from NYC or, if not, how far away your hometown is from it. For better or worse, it is a place that outsiders view as being representative of the US.
That’s why I hate to admit that I’ve never been the biggest fan. Truth be told, I’m not the biggest fan of any city, so it’s not really anything personal. That said, I do have an extreme fondness for some cities (Prague springs to mind), so sometimes my innate dislike of built-up areas can be overcome. So why have I never really bonded with New York? Did I visit at the wrong age? Spend time in the wrong parts of town? Go at the wrong time of year? Travel with the wrong group of people? It’s inhabited by 8.5 million residents and visited annually by millions more, so surely I have been missing out on something.
This summer, I traveled to NYC as a tourist for the first time since I was 10 years old (other more recent trips had been more functional and shorter-term), and I hoped I might discover that “something” that keeps everyone raving about the city. I spent time with three different types of people, sometimes simultaneously: my parents, Sasha, and Sasha’s sister and some of her NYC-dwelling friends. That meant that I had the opportunity to engage in many different sorts of activities over the course of my five days in the city.
On the first day, my parents and I hopped a train from New Jersey, where we’d spent the night after the long drive from Ohio the day before. We dragged our luggage to the rental office for the small apartment we were sharing in Midtown; Sasha met us there, having just wrapped up this year’s ISBE conference. My parents were not impressed at the facilities that their money had bought, but I didn’t think our little place was too bad. The location was incredibly convenient, the kitchenette allowed us to provide our own breakfasts, and the AC unit drowned out the noise from the traffic outside. The only thing I found bizarre was that the bedrooms were so tiny that our double beds not only took up nearly the whole of each room, but also had to be positioned sideways–leaving us sleeping parallel with the “headboard” rather than perpendicular to it. However, because we packed so much in to each day of our visit, the strange orientation did not prevent me from sleeping soundly through the night.
Our first outing was to the High Line, an elevated public park that runs between Gansevoort and West 34th Streets on Manhattan’s West Side. It comprises a walkway, gardens, seating areas, and art installations–all located where a train line used to run from 1934 to 1980. I wasn’t sure if the High Line would be of interest to anyone else, so I was pleased when my proposal to visit was met with enthusiasm all around.
I love innovations that introduce green spaces into urban areas, and I am particularly impressed when those innovations also involve the reclamation of structures/areas that are historically interesting and might otherwise be left to decay into unwanted eyesores. It’s such a satisfying win-win.
By the end of our stroll, we’d worked up enough of an appetite to justify visiting Eataly for both lunch and sightseeing purposes. Along the way, we passed by this lovely piece of architecture:
As I mentioned elsewhere, Eataly was a treat for the senses, but, generally speaking, torture for the bank account. However, I have to admit that all of New York was pretty darn expensive. $8 for a tiny bag of granola? $6 for a box of tea? I don’t know how anybody manages to get by on those sorts of prices. They must fast a lot. Or dumpster-dive.
We took the rest of the afternoon off so that we could rest and gear up for our big night out on the town–the classical dinner-and-a-show duo in which all NYC tourists should partake. While walking to db bistro moderne for our meal, we came across a quintessential cityscape:
I’ve already described our wonderful meal, but I haven’t yet mentioned what we did afterwards: Head to the Shubert Theater for a showing of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I usually have a hard time mustering much enthusiasm for stage productions (yes, I appreciate the irony given that I used to perform in them), but I love Roald Dahl and have always been a fan of this particular story, so I was actually looking forward to seeing this performance–even though it was that most dreaded of genres, the musical.
Our walk to the theater took us past Times Square, which I’d never previously visited. If you’re in NYC, it is definitely worth spending a few minutes in Times Square if for no other reason than to observe the sheer spectacle. There were topless women in body paint and cabaret headdresses; there were people dressed as superheroes and comic book characters, posing with tourists for money; there were food vendors and people with cheap knickknacks and artists selling their work; there were lots of really bright lights; and, of course, there were thousands of people taking selfies.
There was quite a crowd outside the Shubert, but we got inside quickly and found our way to our very well positioned seats. My mom and I were immediately drawn to, and impressed by, the Scrabble tile-themed backdrop, which was only one of many reasons to appreciate the aesthetics of the theater. It was a fairly small venue with an intimate (but not cramped) feel, decorated with tastefully ornate carpets and chandeliers with gold accents. It was the kind of place that the average person can actually afford to visit, but which still makes you feel special for the evening.
The performance itself was very enjoyable, though I think we were all fading a bit by the end–no fault of the performers. The young actress who played Matilda had quite a set of pipes, but Craig Els really stole the show as Miss Trunchbull. He deserves an award, or a raise, or at the very least another great role after Matilda finishes its run.
On our relatively short walk home from the theater, we were treated to a pleasant view of the moon and Empire State Building battling it out for the honor of being the brightest object in the sky:
We took it pretty easy the next day, hanging around our apartment until mid-morning. We found ourselves with an awkward amount of time in between our departure and our lunchtime reservation in lower Harlem, and we decided to fill the gap by taking in the scenery at Rockefeller Plaza. This wasn’t new to my parents or to Sasha, but I either hadn’t been before or didn’t remember my previous visit, so it was nice to see the iconic location in person.
We did quite a lot of metro-riding on our second day–between our apartment and Rockefeller Plaza, between Rockefeller Plaza and Harlem, and from Harlem back down to the World Trade Center area. I remember riding the subway when I was younger–not only in NYC but also in DC, Boston, and, later, London–and being absolutely amazed at how my parents, and all the other commuters, somehow magically knew how buy tickets from the automated machines and then how to hop on and off at just the right stops, switching fluidly from one line to another in order to get where they needed to go. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my parents had meticulously consulted metro maps prior to our journey, and that the locals had memorized their routes after years of daily use. This being the 21st century, and me being the tech-loving girl that I am, I decided to trade in maps for apps, and rely on a series of free programs (TripIt, Moovit, and good ole Google Maps) to tell me the quickest and easiest way to navigate between destinations. I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself that travel is so much easier in the smartphone era than it ever was before.
The last time my parents visited New York, the Ground Zero area was not much more than a hole in the ground; much of the major rubble had been cleared, but construction of the new building and museum had not yet begun. They were eager to revisit the site in order to see the progress that had been made. I always feel a bit weird about “dark tourism” (to borrow a term from my geography colleagues who take their students to NYC to study this very pilgrimage, among other things), because it seems a little voyeuristic. There is, however, something powerful and moving about going somewhere in order to bear witness to something that has happened there, and, in so doing, connect with the people who were–and still are–affected.
The truth is that One WTC is an impressive building; it is the tallest in the city, with lovely clean lines and a sparkling reflective facade. It is a bold but elegant response to the tragedy that occurred on that site 13 years ago–a clear statement that the people of New York would not be intimidated, and would pick up the pieces and carry on. I have to respect that.
By the time we’d made it around the base of the WTC, we hadn’t left ourselves too much time to get to our next destination–the southeastern entrance of Battery Park, through which we could access the ship on which we’d booked a harbor tour. We eventually flagged down a taxi driver who was willing to take us the minuscule distance, and we made it to the waterfront with a few minutes to spare. As a result, we were able to watch the deckhands prepare for our journey.
The ship didn’t actually sail all that far out into the harbor, but it went out to the one destination that is at the top of the to-do lists of probably 99% of all NYC tourists: the Statue of Liberty. We approached the statue from the east, which meant that our initial view was pretty poor thanks to the fact that we were looking straight into the setting sun. Our skipper, however, knew the needs and desires of his passengers, and made sure to swing around so that we could snap good photos to our hearts’ content.
It was a very pleasant evening, if a bit breezy (probably I should have worn something other than a short skirt that was particularly susceptible to blowing about in the wind). We’d walked a fair amount throughout the day, so it was quite relaxing to sit in the sun and sip cocktails while being gently rocked by the waves. If I were wealthy, I’d live someplace tropical and spend every evening that way.
Other than our farewell dinner at Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar, the boat trip was the last outing we had with my parents before they took off the next morning for their own adventure in the Finger Lakes region. Sasha and I, on the other hand, were due to stay in the city for another couple of days in order to visit with his sister, who was flying up from New Orleans that evening. We decided to spend our free day doing a Ghostbusters walking tour–not an official one, since I couldn’t find a single company that took visitors exclusively to Ghostbusters locations–but an informal one using an itinerary I crafted with the help of my travel agent (aka Google).
We started by dumping off our luggage at our very swanky hotel right next to Grand Central Terminal. I’d chosen it because they had in-house masseurs that would come to your room and give you a massage. Unfortunately, the prices for that service were too exorbitant even for indulgent little me, but at least the rest of the facilities justified that choice of venue. It certainly was convenient to be adjacent to the train station, where we hopped a southbound train in the first leg of our journey to Hook & Ladder 8, the site of the Ghostbusters’ headquarters.
Although it was no problem to find the correct neighborhood, it took us a while to reach the station itself because we didn’t realize that Broadway and West Broadway were two completely separate, more or less parallel streets in the same area of town. This led to much backtracking and walking in circles as we tried to navigate using only my phone–with the added difficulty that it was practically impossible to see the screen in the glaring sunlight.
There was one other geeky couple also on a Ghostbusters pilgrimage, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves. Once we were done collecting photographic evidence of our visit, we trekked up to Washington Square Park. Although normal people might visit the park for other reasons, we were there because a gigantic ghost appears near Washington Square Arch in Ghostbusters 2. During our visit, we encountered no supernatural creatures, though we did find a group of…hippies? nudists? feminists? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that they didn’t have shirts on. We sat on a bench in the park for a good 10 minutes before I realized there were naked people behind us, at which point Sasha then noticed an older gentleman sitting nearby with a video camera. Classy.
Although our feet were beginning to hurt from all the walking, we pushed on in the hopes of wandering past somewhere that looked like a good spot for lunch. Frustrated at seeing nothing but retail stores, I eventually pulled out my phone and searched for restaurant recommendations. I was particularly interested in hot dogs, because Sasha had a craving that needed to be fulfilled. Shake Shack came highly recommended, but when we arrived in Madison Square Park we discovered quite a long line despite the fact that it was already 2 PM and well past the typical lunchtime. We waited for five or ten minutes while I did some more Googling and found us an alternative: a Five Guys a few blocks away. It wasn’t exactly on par with the rest of the dining we did during the trip, but it did taste good–and it’s not exactly like hot dogs are a gourmet food item, anyway.
Having satisfied our rumbling bellies, we took a brief detour to indulge in that most American of pastimes: shopping. It’s impossible to visit the US without stocking up on things that we needed but couldn’t find back home in Falmouth. After getting a couple of shirts for Sasha and a belt for me, we hopped back on the subway and made our way to Columbus Circle for what turned out to be our final bit of Ghostbusters-themed sightseeing. First and foremost was a visit to Dana’s apartment building:
From there we popped across the street to the Tavern on the Green, where Louis became the Keymaster. I would have taken a photo, but I couldn’t get a very good angle, and there were lots of people out having drinks and food; I wasn’t sure they’d appreciate inadvertently being my models. A bit more Googling informed us that we were very close to supposedly one of the best gelato places in the world, so we found our way to Grom for some late-afternoon sugar. I’d hoped to make one more Ghostbusters stop (the New York Public Library) en route to the hotel, but we just didn’t have the energy. Next time.
Over dinner, we hatched plans to spend the following day at the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival. I only knew about the event because of my dad, who had stumbled across it while doing research about things we could do while in New York. The timing didn’t work out for him or my mom, but, luckily, it did for Sasha, Tania, and me. We made our way out to Flushing Meadows Park without any incident, but then had difficulty navigating our way to the site of the dragon boat racing. We knew the general direction in which we needed to go, and we incorrectly assumed that there would be signage pointing the way–or, at the very least, streams of people making their way to the celebration. However, there were no signs, the path forked in an unexpected and inconvenient way as soon as we entered the park, and we couldn’t find anyone to follow.
We proceeded to spend the next hour or so wandering around, trying and failing to use Google maps to get us to where we needed to go. At one point we followed some promising celebratory noises, only to find ourselves at a festival of Ecuadoran culture. We also serendipitously located some architectural remnants of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs:
Eventually, we did find our way to the lake on which the dragon boat races were taking place. By that point, frankly, I was no longer all that interested in the races, and simply wanted to eat. Luckily, there were many food options available, and they all looked and smelled delicious. As you might imagine, given the event, there were quite a few vendors selling Asian food, and I ultimately opted for an order of potstickers–which were so good. I could easily have eaten a second batch, but I satisfied myself instead with a roasted ear of corn.
After we ate, we went to the water’s edge and saw two whopping heats of races before heading back into the city.
(Please excuse the tilt; it was so bright that I couldn’t see what I was doing when I was filming the race.)
Given the fact that we didn’t know anyone who was competing, I’m not entirely sure that the boating events themselves were worth the trip (especially considering the epic route that we took), but it certainly was an adventure, and the food was delicious, and the outing gave us time to chat and catch up. All’s well that ends well.
Sasha and I had the evening to ourselves, and so we had a date night in the city–dining at Sakagura and then following our meal with the incredibly romantic and emotionally gripping remake of Hercules. (*ahem*) We paused en route from the restaurant to the movie theater in order to admire the sight of the moon rising over the East River.
The following morning, we spent our last bit of free time in New York on the other side of the water, eating in Brooklyn Heights and then wandering along the river up towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Along the way, we gawked at the tiny apartments and discussed how incredibly expensive they are despite the fact they’re barely bigger than closets. It was a topic that came up because we passed several people–during both that walk and others we had taken during our time in the city–who were discussing property locations, square footage, and soaring rent prices. I am glad not to have to worry about such things.
In fact, I’m glad not to have to live in New York. I’m also glad I don’t need to visit the city on a regular basis (unless you count my routine stops at JFK Airport during trips between the US and the UK). The Big Apple is, undeniably, a fascinating place. It’s got a lot of history, a wealth of beautiful buildings, tons of interesting things to do, and delicious food to eat, but it is just too much for me. Too many people. Too much noise. Way too much garbage sitting out in plastic bags on the sidewalk, stinking up the place. Too high a cost of living. Inconveniently large amounts of traffic on the roads and highways. It’s more stimulation than I need or want, even over short periods of time.
However, I can see where other people–those who like action and excitement and socializing–would see it as a paradise. It’s definitely a place that is worth visiting at least once. If you go when you’re young, as I did, it’s also worth taking second trip when you’re older and can see it from a different perspective. The whole time I was there, I kept thinking about the University of Exeter geography students who were scheduled to visit the city just a couple weeks after my departure. As much as I knew that I’d be happy to get back to my relatively sleepy little corner of the British southwest, I also recognized that those guys were probably about to have the time of their lives, exploring that huge, exciting city and experiencing all sorts of new things. Maybe some of them would fall in love with the place and hope to find a way return for careers or holidays; maybe others would be like me and appreciate the short-term experience on a cerebral level but look forward to the quiet of Cornwall once it was all over. Either way, one thing I can virtually promise is that each of them found at least one thing to enjoy during their visit, just as I did. After all, there are many ways you can describe New York, but one thing you cannot say is that it’s boring.