If you’ve ever watched a movie in your life, chances are you’ll at least have a rough idea of what New York looks like. Walking around the metropolis is like walking round one big movie set. Surrounded by skyscrapers, you can grab yourself an incredibly watery coffee ‘to-go’ and wander off into the concrete jungle shouting ‘I’m walkin’ here!’ at the mass of yellow cabs, safe in the knowledge that you’ve managed to blend in seamlessly. Spend the first afternoon walking around in awe at the sheer scale of your surroundings, generally looking up until your neck hurts.
You may have had a friend proudly teach you that, due to the Dutch arriving in the area first, New York used to be called New Amsterdam. This is only half true. While the place was once called New Amsterdam, it was first visited by an Italian in the 1500’s, who claimed the area for France (for some reason). Furthermore, before an actual citadel was constructed, it was known as New Netherland. Nowadays, New York is made up of immigrants from close to 200 countries, making it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
Generally, the cheapest and best way to get to know the city is to walk around. You may decide to take a ride in a cab at some point, but doing so frequently will leave your wallet a lot lighter. When your legs get tired, you can take some underground shortcuts with the help of the Subway system, however, it’s not as pleasant as walking and most of the stations are ugly, even by world metro standards. The pace of your average New Yorker is a fair bit quicker than that of someone from the Mediterranean. Being stuck behind slow walking tourists is annoying in any town or city (especially Main Street when a cruise ship arrives) but you definitely don’t want to be ‘that guy’ on the streets of New York.
The list of things to do here is endless, so start off with a couple of must-see attractions. The Empire State building is known around the world and harbours beautiful panoramic views of the city from its viewing deck. After you’ve taken a couple of lifts up to the 102nd floor, you only have to climb one set of stairs to reach the circular balcony. From up here, the other gigantic structures look like Duplo blocks and the shape of Manhattan Island is clearly visible. Looking into the city, you have a great view of Central Park, which cuts into the otherwise all-encompassing cityscape, allowing you to fully appreciate it in all its green expanse. It’s as though some divine park of the gods occupies the central space of the island whilst all the buildings crowd around, peering over each other in order to sneak a glimpse.
A short walk away will see you arriving in another recognisable landmark, which fortunately for the locals, also doubles up as a train station, Grand Central Terminal. In the middle of the vast, ever-busy main concourse, on top of the information centre, is the four-faced brass clock you may have seen in films. Dodge the crowds and make your way to the Oyster Bar, which opened at the same time as the station and has remained open ever since. If oysters aren’t your thing, just marvel at the tiles and arches. The archway in front of the restaurant has its own architectural quirk; a person standing facing one corner can hear someone whispering in the opposite corner. On your way out of the terminal, look up at the astronomy themed ceiling. In the 80’s, this was almost completely obscured by a layer of a black substance, thought to be caused by coal and diesel smoke, on closer inspection, it turned out to be tar and nicotine from tobacco. During the renovations, a patch was left on the ceiling to remind people of how grimy the place once was. Huzzah for the smoking ban.
Having seen Central Park from atop the dizzy heights of the Empire State, it’s impossible not to want to go and have a wander within it. Allow yourself half a day to saunter through in the sunshine, marvel at the boulders dropped by Ice Age-old glaciers of the past (apparently, the place was blanketed 1000 metres deep in ice), or stop to admire the various sculptures, perhaps step into one of the restaurants for another weak coffee ‘to-go’. There’s also a zoo for those who don’t mind the capture and retainment of animals in confined spaces. End to end, the park is about three miles long, but a relaxed saunter and an amble around the lakes and you’ll be walking a lot further. It’s a great place to relax and stare at the sky and the ducks (where do they go in the winter?) and forget that you’re in the bustling city that never sleeps.
Central Park is also home to John Lennon’s memorial, ‘Strawberry Fields’. A 2.5 acre landscaped section of the park containing the famed mosaic disc; inside, a single word: ‘imagine’. Adjacent to the park, you’ll find the Dakota apartments where Lennon lived, and was shot dead tragically in 1980. Beatles fans can stop outside the south entrance of the building, although, it’s just a building. Albeit widely-renowned, an incredibly expensive building. The infamous Lennon apartment has been on and off the market for the best part of eight years, probably in part due to its hefty 14. 5 million dollar price tag. However, even if you do have the goods to purchase apartment 46, there’s a chance you might not be able to buy it. Celebrities from Judd Apatow, to Billy Joel and even the queen of pop herself – Madonna, have been denied the opportunity. Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow (they married in 1969, in Gibraltar no less!) still resides in the building and has even claimed to have seen Lennon’s ghost there! When asked by CNN why she hadn’t left the Dakota, she replied: “Because it was our home. You don’t just leave home. Every room is where he’s touched. How could we leave that?”.
Leaving the park (most people don’t visit New York for the tranquillity), you can become one of the 50 million people a year to visit an area rather arrogantly referred to as the ‘crossroads of the world’: Times Square. For full effect, wait until night falls and stand amidst the lights shining from this world famous landmark. All things American can be found around here in the form of neon lights; The Disney Store, The Hard Rock Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Coca Cola, all enticing you to succumb to their capitalist desires.
A full day is needed to explore lower Manhattan, which harbours your standard grand scale buildings as well as few notable sites, which you’ll want to photograph. After you have tried to recreate the many famous photos of Brooklyn Bridge (probably best to take the photo from Brooklyn rather than Manhattan in order to capture the famous Manhattan skyline), you can turn your attention to that old monument gifted to the USA from the French, The Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, trying to see the statue from the shore will prove difficult – the use of the zoom function on your camera will come in handy here. Obviously, for the best view, and in order to gain the full effect of the Lady, a boat trip to Liberty Island is required. Perhaps even more unfortunately, the ferry queue is frequently astronomical, which combined with the boat ride will take up most of, if not all of, your day. Fortunately, you can turn around and head into the city to see some more famous sites. Wall Street is in the area. Slap on your $3000 suit and bluetooth ear piece to fit in with the hot-shots on the street that boasts the New York Stock Exchange. For those uninterested in rich people making money, Wall Street is still worth a visit for its historical attractions, for example: Federal Hall, where the first president of the USA, George Washington, was inaugurated. Still in Lower Manhattan, you can walk to a memorial site which acts as a reminder of the day New York’s skyline changed forever and around 3000 people lost their lives. The newly built One World Trade Center now stands as the tallest building in New York, The States, and the entire Western Hemisphere.
As you walk along 41st street on your way to another site in lower Manhattan you might recognise from blockbuster films, you may notice some bronze plaques on either side of the road. These are inscribed with quotes from famous poets and writers, which are purposefully placed in an attempt to rouse your literary interest on your way to the New York Public Library. This eye catching piece of art constructed from stone and marble has featured in the greatest movie of all time, Ghostbusters (1984). Say hello to the lions guarding the entrance apparently nicknamed Patience and Fortitude by mayor La Guardia, as he thought these were the personal qualities New Yorkers needed to embody in order to make it through the Great Depression. The library does more than hold a collection of over 50 million. In keeping with New York’s character, it offers public services to immigrants including free work and life skill classes as well as an abundance of non-English speaking materials to help them acclimatise to life in the US.
Who likes beer? The cool place to go out at night is in Greenwich Village. ‘The village’ started to become known for its Bohemian scene in the 50’s, with writers, students, poets, and artists all inhabiting the area. Nowadays, you’re more likely to run into hipsters with high flying jobs as the village has transformed into a place with a hefty price tag on the real estate. Walking around this part of town, you won’t be short of bars and restaurants to dive into, make sure you bring your ID though, even if you’ve got wrinkles and grey hair, you will get ID’d.
Shopping. For many of us, our knowledge of how to shop in New York is limited to the stores we have heard about in ‘Friends’. Macy’s is a shop. Barney’s sounds familiar… Fifth Avenue is a haven of all things shopping related. Bloomingdale’s (where Rachel worked), the World Nintendo Store, even that toy shop with the giant piano on the floor which Tom Hanks played on in Big. Another full day can be passed here, with something for everyone.
Throughout the city, there are many hotels, each with their own quirk, for example, The Museum of Modern Art has an actual piece of the Berlin Wall outside it, and the Jewish Heritage Museum has planned for a beautiful garden of the future by planting trees in rocks and watching them slowly break out. But, if you only have time to visit one museum on your trip, you should probably make it the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or ‘The Met’. Luckily, The Met is on a stretch of road known as Museum Mile (housing nine museums in one stretch), so you’re unlikely to have to choose just one.
Throughout the article, while referring to New York, all of the sites have been located on the island and most famous borough of Manhattan. There are, of course, four more boroughs to get your head around. In Queens, you can stroll around Gantry Plaza State Park. Up at the waterfront offers a lovely view of midtown Manhattan. It is also the borough to visit if you’d like to treat yourself to a baseball game as the recently constructed New York Metz stadium, Citi Fields, is easily accessible. There is an area in Queens, where it was perfectly legal to graffiti called 5 Pointz. The building was covered in murals of artists from all over the world until plans to develop the area led to its eventual demolition in 2014. You can still go to the site and shed a tear for the lost artwork.
Brooklyn is the most populous of the five boroughs and is especially known for, and proud of, its diversity, with its official motto being: Unity Makes Strength. Traditionally home to immigrants, the place is becoming gentrified, similar to what happened with areas such as Dalston and Shoreditch in London, with tech startups and men with unruly beards appearing more frequently. Pretty soon, ordering a coffee without ginseng or turmeric, or eating food from a regular plate will become things of the past.
Within Brooklyn, you’ll find Coney Island (no longer an island), which has a long history with theme parks. Currently, there are two amusement parks and a smattering of rides which don’t belong to either park. Mixing rollercoasters and rides from the modern era and the early 1900’s, you definitely get a feel for Coney Island’s heritage. Besides the rides, there are your standard throwing and shooting carnival games along with plenty of opportunities to practice your Skee-Ball skills (rolling a ball up a slight incline into walled holes).
Have you ever wanted to witness the natural beauty of Japan without the 14 hour flight? Or perhaps you like a more familiar culture? Welcome to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. After World War One, the Japanese gifted the botanical gardens a few cherry blossom trees, world renowned for their delicate pink flower, now there are over 200 of them and a festival is held every spring for the blossom. For your viewing pleasure, there’s also a Japanese pond garden, complete with a Shinto shrine, koi carp, and one of the cute little Japanese bridges. Like trees but sometimes feel insignificant due to their size? Enter the bonsai tree collection and feel like a giant. Each exhibition feels genuinely authentic and the gardens alone are a good reason to visit Brooklyn. They also have non-Japanese stuff too.
Throughout the 20th century, The Bronx was known for its gangs and its poverty; today, the best place for tourists to go in The Bronx is the zoo. The days of animals in bare cages are rapidly going out of fashion in most parts of the world, and Bronx Zoo choses to keep bars, walls, and fences to a minimum, using natural barriers such as cliffs, rocks, and water in their stead. The zoo hasn’t always been so progressive; in 1906, a young African named Ota Benga was caged with an orangutan as an attraction for the pleasure of the public. After eventually being released, struggling with ensuing depression and trying to find his way home, he eventually shot himself in the heart. The zoo is now known for its impressive collection of animals in both numbers and diversity. It comprises of a huge 265 acres of habitats including the River Bronx, which flows through the parks.
You can either chose to visit The Bronx’s other attractions such as its many museums or its botanical gardens (not as good as Brooklyn’s), or you can take the view of 20th century poet Ogden Nash, who wrote a short and simple piece expressing his thoughts at the time: “The Bronx? No Thonx!”
Sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten borough’, Staten Island enjoys relative quiet in comparison to its counterparts. An area often neglected by tourists, it hosts a collection of parks, museums, and historical sites that might pique the interest of the holiday maker looking to be far from the madding crowd. Even with leisurely two or three weeks in the city, one may not visit the borough, with the others offering more by way of tourist attractions. Feel free to cast your own judgment.
The words needed to fully describe New York could fill many books, and indeed they have. From vast parks to concrete skyscrapers, abject poverty to extreme wealth, the city is certainly diverse in more ways than one. There is so much more to see and do in New York that couldn’t possibly be contained in one article, so now it is your turn to take a bite out of the Big Apple.