The Big Apple
Garth’s been to New York City a couple of times, but it was Phil’s turn to take his first bite of the Big Apple. We reckon sightseeing doesn’t get much better than NYC as this giant metropolis must boast more iconic landmarks than any other city (well perhaps Rome?). New York City plays a huge part in our popular culture – especially in film and TV, so you feel like you know it as soon as you arrive.
New York City was the first capital city of the USA, it’s now the largest. It began life in 1624 as a Dutch colony ‘New Amsterdam’ later captured by the British in 1664 who renamed it ‘New York’ after the Duke of York. Many of the original Dutch names are still here albeit evolved – Haarlem (Harlem) Breukelen (Brooklyn) de Brede Weg (Broadway). New York City is made up of 5 diverse boroughs – Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Bronx and Manhattan. NYC shouts out everything that’s great about America – liberty and multiculturalism, 800 languages are said to be spoken in this city. We chose to spend our 5 days discovering New York City’s smallest borough – cosmopolitan Manhattan Island and a couple of parts of Brooklyn. Don’t be surprised to find Manhattan is one crazily populated island where accommodation is expensive because space is a premium, it reminded us of our visit to Hong Kong.
We felt like film extras looking up to the soaring skyscrapers from the streets, trying to recognise what movies they may have been featured in. The first skyscraper was the 22 story triangular shaped Flatiron Building, built in 1902. You’ll notice many of the skyscrapers have a block and step design, this is down to a law that was introduced in 1916 to allow more air and light to reach street level. Our other favourites included The Woolworth Building, Chrysler Building and The American Radiator Building, concrete has never looked so beautiful!
Empire State Building
Of course, one skyscraper stands out as New York City’s most iconic and most famous – The Empire State Building. Completed it 1931 it was once the world’s tallest building until 1970, today it’s the world’s 35th tallest, but remains one of the world’s most beautiful. With 102 floors, this magnificent building feels romantic as soon as you step inside. The main lobby is a splendid example of 1930’s Art Deco design. The giant mural in gold and aluminium leaf depicts the building with rays of light from the mast, the Art Deco lifts are also gorgeous.
There’s 2 x 360 degree observation decks with views inside from the 86th floor and outside on the 102nd floor. Ideally choose a nice clear day and head on up to yep more queues, so go early morning or late in the day for the shortest ones. Thankfully the old Skyride flight simulator has been replaced with exhibits about the history of the building.
The building’s exterior lighting is now recognised around the world for using different colours for times of celebration and remembrance. Oh and don’t forget to look up to the giant transmitter mast, where’s King Kong?! Yes it’s very touristy, but you can’t leave New York City without doing this classic must do.
There’s No Business Like Showbusiness!
At the centre of the theatre district in Midtown is Times Square, it’s a real visual feast for your eyes where gigantic flashy advertisements and street performers all clash with each other for your attention. It’s exciting, chaotic and busy, 24 hours a day this place never stops. 42nd street has the giant screens and neon lights even the Subway and NYPD signs are adorned with lights. All these bright lights and signs reminded us of Akihabra in Tokyo. Times Square is the entertainment hub of the city with tourist-trap bars and restaurants, cinemas and of course live theatre.
Some of the world’s finest theatres are on Broadway, whilst others are located on the streets ‘off Broadway’ where the saying comes from if the theatre has less than 500 seats. Phil loves live theatre so we decided to take in a big Broadway musical and watched Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre. Tickets are expensive, so the best option is to queue from early afternoon at the ‘tkts’ booth underneath the Coca-Cola sign for the cheapest on-the-day tickets. The queue is lengthy but moves quickly, well worth the effort for the discount.
For one of the best views over Times Square head to the R Lounge at the Renaissance Hotel. We sat here for an hour over a few beers and wine and just watched out over the panoramic views. If you hang around long enough, walk past the theatres after the matinee shows and do a spot of celebrity spotting, we walked past one stage door at the right time and caught Bette Midler coming out!
Also in Midtown you’ll find the Rockefeller Centre, another monumental Art Deco triumph. The exterior is rich in art and has many gorgeous Art Deco motifs full of symbolism. From the bronze sculpture of Prometheus at the famous plaza in front of the main building to icons on the British Empire Building symbolising Britain’s worldwide strength in the 1930s. There’s a lot to see and do around here, from getting up early to see NBC’s Today breakfast show been filmed outside Studio 1A from 6.30am or taking a backstage tour at Radio City Music Hall which is what we did.
Radio City Music Hall
We’ve done various backstage tours, and we can tell you this one is just brilliant! as there’s no phoney setups for tourists, everything you see is authentic. Entering the lobby is like stepping back in time – glamorous, with a sense of awe. Garth thought the Art Deco architecture and design looked just as contemporary today as it must have done back in the day. It was once the biggest theatre in the world and was an escape from the dark days of the depression, you can tell from the scale and luxury these beautiful surroundings they were designed to have impact on people. Amazing to hear it closed in 1978 and was nearly demolished, but saved by public outcry, thankfully it’s now listed.
Backstage our guide showed us the the stage raising machinery which was kept secret because the concept behind it was used on aircraft carriers and during the war government officers were stationed here to protect the technology.
It was also really exciting stepping inside the theatre for the first time as they were setting up for the Tony Awards, which we later watched on tv. Before we left we got the opportunity to meet a real life ‘Rockette’ one of the famous precision dance group girls who have performed at the Radio City Music Hall since the opening night in 1932.
Probably the world’s best known urban park – Central Park was once a bog land, it was visionary and a bold move to create this vast park on a wealthy piece of land. We took a walk but soon realised to get the most out of the park you really should rent a bike. However that didn’t stop us spending a couple of hours on foot exploring different parts like The Great Lawn, Alice in Wonderland and the quiet corner of Strawberry Fields with the Imagine mosaic – a tribute to John Lennon, a little piece of Liverpool in Manhattan.
The Central Park Boathouse is the perfect place to stop for a rest and some cocktails! Garth had his first Manhattan, well their signature ‘Boathouse Manhattan’ The Boathouse is in a beautiful setting right on the lake, we loved the people watching here who kept us amused hiring rowing boats and working out which way to paddle.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City has great museums to choose from, Garth’s favourites are Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met). We chose The Met which has an unbelievable 2 million works of art. Even if you’re not an art lover like Phil, you’ll find it hard not to be impressed by their exhibits, there’s everything from Ancient Egyptian, American, Modern, Old European masters and much more, you really need to give it a full day to appreciate it. We loved the exhibit on the Terracotta Warriors as we reminisced seeing them in Xian, China.
Grand Central Station
Another great place to watch daily life go by is Grand Central Station. It’s busy as you would expect from a major railway station and it’s beautiful. After two years of restoration this place now looks better than ever before. Look closely for a small patch on the ceiling that shows how it used to look – a dark brown colour caused by cigarette smoke.
Before you go make sure you try out the Whispering Galleries, located downstairs next to the Oyster Bar. No idea how it works, but it must be down to the acoustics of the ceilings, you stand at opposite corners and talk into the wall. Despite the distance you can hear each other perfectly, amazing! it even works if you talk quietly to each other, great fun!
The Financial District & Wall Street
Wall Street is the financial hub of New York City. The New York Stock Exchange is here, where at 9.30am the ‘opening bell’ is rung to signify the day of trading. You can’t go inside but you can marvel at the exterior. Look down on the street and you can see markings showing where the original protective wall stood in the 17th century. It was built by the Dutch to keep out Native Americans and the British.
‘The Charging Bull’ statue is also worth a look if you can get to it through all the tourists. Originally an art installation, the unlicensed statue was placed outside the stock exchange as a gift to the city but the police convisgated the piece. After public outcry they later installed it as a tourist attraction on nearby Bowling Green. In 2017 another unlicensed statue ‘The Fearless Girl’ was placed opposite the bull, she’s still there, despite opposition from the artist who created the bull, saying it alters his depiction of the bull of ‘American strength and power’
Opposite the stock exchange is Federal Hall, built in 1842 on the original site City Hall once stood. The previous building served as the US first capitol building, and was where the first presidential inauguration of George Washington took place (there’s a statue of him outside the entrance.)
The 9/11 Memorial features 2 recessed pools of waterfalls built where the North and South towers once stood. It’s a sad and somber place but a chance to reflect on life and the lives of the 2,983 victims. Their names are engraved into bronze parapets that surround the pools. You may notice a single white rose against a person’s name, these are placed by memorial staff every morning to remember the birthday of a victim. Garth found it quite moving as he’d previously visited the World Trade Centre and spent many hours sketching them. In the gardens of the memorial you will find the ‘Survivor Tree’ it was removed from the rubble of Ground Zero and cared for before being replanted in 2010 – a living reminder of resilience and survival.
America’s First Lady – The Statue of Liberty
‘Lady Liberty’ was a gift from France and first welcomed generations of immigrants to the United States as they sailed past Liberty Island before being processed next door on Ellis Island. Opened in 1886 she stands 93 metres tall and was designed full of symbolism. Her copper skin is very thin and took 30 years to turn green. The torch is a symbol of liberty and enlightenment. In her left hand she holds a book of laws, inscribed with July 4th 1776 in Roman numerals – the date of American Declaration of Independence. The crown has 7 points representing the 7 oceans and 7 continents of the world. Her sandals represent the common person and the broken shackles represent American freedom. The original torch was replaced in 1984 with newer copper torch covered in 24k gold leaf, you can see the original one in the museum here.
After being closed for years and wanting to visit for a long time, it was exciting to finally see her close up and the arrival by ferry was fun too. If you want to go all the way up to the Crown then you’ll need to book your ticket 6 months in advance. Getting to Liberty Island is not quick, there are huge queues and airport style security before you board the ferry, it’s understandable so you just have to be patient. We got into the queue at 1.20pm and arrived back to Manhattan at 4.20pm, we had about an hour and 1/2 to look around. If we had more time we’d have visited the Immigration Museum on Ellis Island, which is included in the ticket price. If you’re on a tight budget take the free Staten Island commuter ferry which sails past, the journey takes about 20 minutes each way where you can get some good shots of the statue if you have a good zoom lens. It’s also a memorable way to see the New York City skyline.
As it was Phil’s first visit in New York City we had to take a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge over the East River – it’s a must for any first timer! We walked from Manhattan to Brooklyn so we could spend some time on the other side. The Brooklyn Bridge is just so iconic, we reckon it must have featured in every Hollywood disaster movie! It opened in 1883 (all these dates also make you think how recent New York history really is.)
We kept walking until we reached the stairs down to the neighbourhood called Dumbo “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass”. Once Brooklyn’s busy warehouse district, today it’s where the hipsters hang out in this artsy area. Essentially old warehouses have been turned into galleries, bars and boutique shops.
Dumbo is a great place for a walk along the bank of East River, it even has its own beach – Pebble Beach, a really great photo spot.
One of our favourite moments of this trip was watching the sunset over Manhattan and seeing the lights switch on, it turns into a magical night time skyline. Just grab one of the free table and chairs in Brooklyn Bridge Park. We spent a few hours and also loved the people watching here – from professional models and photographers to couples taking selfies and even wedding photos. It took ages to turn dark, in hindsight we should have grabbed a takeaway pizza like others were doing from nearby Juliana’s or Grimaldis Pizzerias.
We took our tripod so we could spend some time experimenting with long exposure shots to create silky smooth refections in the water. Make sure you go to Pebble Beach too to get this classic shot of the Brooklyn Bridge crossing through the skyscrapers.
Top of The Rock
After exhausting the camera in Dumbo, we headed back over the river to Rockefeller Centre and to our favourite night time spot at Top of The Rock.
It was our favourite observation deck because the view includes the iconic Empire State Building and has very few obstacles on the outdoor viewing decks. We don’t often love urban views, but this one is magical with all the millions of lights twinkling back at you. When they say “Top of The Rock” the really do mean just that – standing at the very top of the Rockefeller skyscraper! Never before have we been to the very tip of a building, it has 3 viewing levels with full 360 degree views of the heart of Manhattan, which are incredible, if a little scary! The queues are lengthy, so be prepared for that, but definitely worth the wait. We’d say if you had to choose just one observation desk to visit – our choice would be Top Of The Rock.
After taking lots of snaps we headed back down to earth and had a feast at Bills Bar & Burger just a couple of minutes walk off Rockefeller Plaza – great atmosphere and ‘real tasty’ American food.
Chelsea Market & The Meatpacking District
Having done all the big tourist sights by ourselves we wanted to explore some of the many different neighbourhoods in New York City, from experience we decided the best way to do this was to take a walking tour. We’ve done walking tours in other cities and loved them because you get to see lots in a short amount of time, and can fire lots of questions to a local who will also give you their recommendations. After some research online we chose Streetwise New York Tours and met our guide Dan along with some residents of the Pod 51 Hotel, who get tours included with their stay.
Dan started our tour with a subway ride to the Chelsea Market for a quick coffee. A large food hall of independent shops offering food and drink in a relaxed environment, you may have seen it featured on The Food Network – as they have their offices here (so does Google, opposite) The market used to be a biscuit factory and was where Oreo was invented, the raised railway line outside used to deliver goods to this building and neighbouring warehouses back in 1934.
Dan explained the old railway line was abandoned in the 1990s, then re-invented and re-opened in 2009 as a high rise walkway and nature spot. It features botanical gardens and a walking path from the Meat Packing District to Chelsea, great urban views day and night it’s 1.45 miles long, we loved it here!
The Standard Hotel is located here, it may look like it was built in the 1960s, but it was designed with this appearance and built in 2009. It’s a popular hangout for celebrities and exhibitionists apparently!
Many of the slaughterhouses moved away in the 1980s, but despite the area’s trendy appearance there are three meat packing companies still here.
Next we walked to the delightful and bohemian neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. This is where you’ll find some of the highest property prices in New York City. We noticed the street signs are brown, which means it’s an historic neighbourhood. The terraces of Brownstone houses don’t have back gardens and you can see the old servants entrances below the front door steps. Sex in the City, Carrie Bradshaw’s apartment was depicted here on at 245 E 73rd Street, even today it’s still a popular photo spot.
Stonewall Inn located on Christopher Street played an important part in LGBT history. Originally run by the Mafia it was the largest gay bar in New York City, the police raided the premises frequently during the 1960s which led to days of rioting in 1969. These events gave rise to the gay rights movement which began a year later with New York City’s first Pride march starting at the Stonewall Inn and ending in Central Park. In Europe Berlin’s Pride, called “Christopher Street Day” is named after Stonewall’s location.
Washington Square Park
A short walk from Greenwich Village was our final stop – Washington Square Park. It’s surrounded by buildings of the New York University (NYU) As we entered there are dozens of outdoor chess tables lined up, where you can pit your skills against a master player for $5 a game.
Dominating the square is the Washington Square Arch and fountain, where you’ll find a famous local guy,’The Pigeon Man’ who interacts daily with the pigeons, they really do love each other!
Dan was a great guide, engaging and knowledgable bringing fun info to different locations and even pointed out film and tv locations for Garth. Phil enjoyed the local stories of scandal, and appreciated Dan explaining the etiquette of tipping, which is a nightmare for us Brits as we’re not used to it. We’d loved to have done another tour, especially the Streetwise Queens, but we’ll have to save that for a future visit.
Classic NYC Eats
New York City’s diverse migrant population means you can literally eat your way around the world by visiting different neighbourhoods, but we wanted the NYC classics. We’d already eaten bagels, cheesecake and pizza, but wanted to try one more so we headed over to the Lower East Side to Katz’s Delicatessen for Pastrami on Rye.
Katz’s Delicatessen is a no frills deli that’s been serving gigantic Pastrami sandwiches since 1888. Ok they’re steep at $20 but are they worth it? – Yes. We made the right decision and just ordered one to share, I think we’d have struggled to finish one each, they serve alcohol too, so we ordered a couple of pints of Brooklyn Lager. Garth absolutely loved this place, it’s like a time capsule, Americana at its best. Walls are plastered with old photos of celebrities and the neon signs above the cutters are stunning.
Katz Deli was also made famous (where isn’t in NYC?) by the movie When Harry Met Sally. It was the setting for the infamous fake orgasm scene! “I’ll have what she’s having!”
Other eating & drinking recommendations:
- Pizza – Adriennes in the financial district on an historic cobbled street. Delicious thin crust, huge portions and reasonably priced.
- Cheesecake – Juniors in Times Square for possibly the best cheesecake in the world? The original is located in Brooklyn.
- Romantic Evening – The Little Owl in Greenwich Village (the building featured in tv’s Friends) thanks Ricky and Leah for the tip!
- Burgers – Shake Shack – a NYC institution that started out as a burger cart, restaurants all over Manhattan. We loved the milkshakes.
- Cupcakes – Magnolia Bakery – 5 locations – the original store in the West Village was made famous by the tv series, Sex in the City.
- Breakfast – Bubby’s located at the High Line – tasty American home comfort food with nice atmosphere.
- Cocktails – Bubby’s – Can you tell we love this place? their Tribeca bar has great cocktails, Garth’s been returning on every NYC trip.
- Cocktails – Lucy’s Cantina Royale near Penn Station – crazy Beergaritas! Corona and frozen margarita, thanks Adrian for the tip!
Getting around by Subway
Getting around is easy as Manhattan is built on a grid system, taxis are cheap for short journeys which we used a couple of times, but we mostly opted for The Subway – the city’s (and the world’s largest) underground system.
The Subway is old – built in 1902 so expect lots of delays and trains stopping, there’s a lot less maintenance compared to London’s Underground. However the tunnels are not deep like London’s Underground, so it’s really quick to get from street level to the platforms. Navigating is fairly easy – each line is colour branded with letters or numbers and the direction is labelled “Uptown” – which is northbound towards the Bronx or “Downtown” – southbound towards Brooklyn. You’ll know when the train is coming when you feel the breeze rush down the platform, just be aware different trains often leave from the same platform. We made the mistake of getting on an ‘Express’ train and missing our Central Park stop, ending up in Harlem before we could turn around.
Trains run 24 hours a day and the carriages are air conditioned and feel safe. Whilst stations may not be as clean as other undergrounds we’ve been to like Barcelona or Tokyo, what’s great is the free wifi on offer! We bought a MetroCard and just topped it up each day from the machines, if you’re familair with the Underground it’s just like an Oyster card.
Garth loved all the Subway art, especially the tile art. Since 1985 each station has to put aside 1% of its budget to public art. We saw a great example of this at 14th Street station called ‘Life Underground’ by Tom Otterness. Quirky little bronze characters of the Subway are designed to be touched and interacted with. Other artists like to use tiles because off their timeless quality.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 New York City Tips
- Tip #1: Choose a good day for skyscraper observation decks – as views are massively limited on cloudy days.
- Tip #2: Save money and buy a New Your City Pass – 6 attractions for $122, it worked out loads cheaper.
- Tip #3: Tip everyone! Bartenders/waitresses 15%-20%, Porters/bellboys $1–$2 per bag, Taxis 20%, Tour guides $5–$20
- Tip #4: The Subway has free wifi and you don’t need to enter station to pick it up – try outside or just going down a few steps
- Tip #5: Accommodation is really expensive in Manhattan, so look at options in nearby Brooklyn.
How we did it:
- We visited in June, which for annoyingly for us was unseasonably cool and damp for that time of year.
- The cheapest deal we found for flights with United was on Travelbag. We also looked at using Icelandair’s free stopover option.
- You’ll need to apply for a visa waiver if travelling from the UK.
- We stayed 4 nights at the Row NYC – perfect central location for walking to attractions, but very small room and pricey.
Disclaimer: We received the Manhattan Tour with compliments of Streetwise New York Tours, a big thank you to Dan! All opinions, as always are our own.