When you grow up, like Abi and I did, watching all ten seasons of Friends over and over again after school, keeping up with the Kardashians like it’s your job and flicking between How I met your Mother and The Big Bang Theory every Saturday morning, places like New York will always feel like they’re not quite real. Stepping out the subway and seeing Saks 5th Avenue decorated for Fashion week, and walking past hot dog stands and yellow taxis and Bloomingdales kind of felt like being on the set of a movie. Every detail of American life has been so enshrined in my experience of romantic comedies and quirky TV series that I might as well have been in Narnia, or Hogwarts, or the Shire. It makes the whole thing pretty fun. Abi and I were like two big kids, pointing out everything we recognised from TV shows (which was pretty much everything), and getting excited over ordinary things like pharmacies, book stores, coffee flavours and street signs.
This made us pretty easy to please, and after arriving late the night before, we headed out on the first day with no plans except to ‘walk around’ and ‘look at everything’. We had managed to find a budget hotel just off Times Square, so we were really central, and of course Times Square had to be our first stop. People may tell you to avoid the place at all costs because it’s an awfully busy tourist trap full of overpriced coffee shops, miles of neon advertisements and cliché restaurants. To those people I say stop sucking all the fun out of everything and enjoy your $7 latte like the rest of us. Because seriously, touristy though it is, Times Square is quite something. The iconic brightly lit billboards light the whole thing up and make for a super vibrant and colourful introduction to the city. Maybe it’s something to do with the weather but compared to London, where everything feels perennially grey and a bit peaky, New York is filled with colour: greenery, red and brown stone buildings, bright yellow taxis and the huge blue expanse of the Hudson.
To continue with our plans to walk about and look at things, we headed south on Broadway, taking in the Empire State and the Flatiron building, looking into a few shops, eating bagels and generally enjoying the energy and life of the city. I wanted to visit a Goodwill store (NY’s version of charity shops), and so we took a few detours along the way to visit the many branches of Goodwill that exist in Manhattan. I was pleasantly surprised that the stores were generally large and impeccably clean and organised, and Abi and I both found plenty of t-shirts and sweatshirts that we loved. Every clothing item has a coloured tag and each week a different colour is 50% off. I got pretty lucky with the tagging system and got four or five nice pieces for around $15, and Abi found a vintage pair of Levi shorts (which I was immediately jealous of) for around four bucks. We also found a pizza-by-the-slice place (could this be any more New York?) where Abi ate a slice of pizza larger than her face for the undeniably bargain price of just one dollar. I held out and was most upset when I later ended up paying almost nine dollars for a salad.
The sun was out and the humidity was pretty high, so by the time we’d pounded the pavement all the way from Times Square to the southern tip of Manhattan, we were completely exhausted and had to sit down for a good long time, enjoying the view across the water to the Statue of Liberty. As it turns out, the Statue of Liberty is actually pretty far away and so in order to get a better look, but not prepared to actually pay for the privilege, we went to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, and waited to board the free ferry which runs approximately every half hour between Manhattan and Staten Island. Around this part of town is where we started hearing the ‘proper’ New York accent – where ‘coffee’ becomes ‘cwoffee’ and everybody sounds to me like Joey’s agent on the TV show Friends, who smokes fifty a day and always sounds like she’s trying to catch the attention of someone who isn’t quite listening. The ferry announcer had the best accent I had heard all day and we were able to lean over the railings on the side and get an amazing view of Manhattan’s colourful skyline, as well getting pretty close to Lady Liberty herself. Once on Staten Island, we simply boarded another ferry and went straight back, but you could certainly explore more if you had the time – I’ve heard that there are some great diners which would be worth checking out!
We’d walked at least 50 blocks downtown and we were extremely footsore so we opted to jump on the subway and head to Grand Central Terminal – just a few blocks from our hotel (can you tell that I’m loving saying ‘blocks’ and ‘bucks’? Just imagine me narrating this post to myself in my best Brooklyn accent…) The terminal itself is just a really gorgeous building with a lot of great details, like the original ticket booths and announcement boards which still hang in the main hall. There’s an area in one of the stone passageways where two archways cross diagonally, forming a square intersection. Apparently, two people standing in opposite corners of this square can whisper messages to each other, but Abi and I spent a long time with our faces pressed into the corners while people gave us funny looks, and I didn’t hear a single word Abi was whispering to me.
That night, we headed to Little Italy to indulge our love of Italian food, and visited a busy little eatery called ‘The Spaghetti Incident’. I wasn’t a big fan of the name because it made me feel as if something awful had happened with some pasta, but I did love the small, neighbourhood feel and the makeshift, candlelit atmosphere. The menu was short but impossible to choose from because everything sounded amazing, and the arancini and spaghetti dishes that we ate were absolutely delicious. Thankfully it was easy enough to catch the subway back to our hotel as we were still completely exhausted from our over-ambitious trek through the entirety of Manhattan.
The next day we found ourselves a proper New York breakfast in a proper New York diner, complete with train car style booth seating, a waiter topping up coffees with a glass coffee pot, and lots and lots of pancakes on the menu. We had a pretty big breakfast for about five bucks each, and then headed to Central Park. The park is absolutely huge, so we decided to rent bikes rather than exploring on foot. Even with a bike, it takes about 45 minutes just to cycle all the way around, and there are plenty of things to stop off and look at on the way. You’re only allowed to cycle on the one designated cycle route so we were always hopping on and off our bikes to go and see things. Annoyingly, there aren’t that many places to lock bikes up but we found a spot right by the Loeb boathouse and were able to wander around the lake, the John Lennon memorial, the turtle pond (with loads of sunbathing turtles!) and to get completely lost in ‘the Ramble’ – a set of twisting maze-like paths through a wooded area, which leaves you feeling like you’re truly in the middle of a forest, rather than in the middle of New York City.
The cycle route is quite steep in places, and can be a pretty hard uphill slog, but there are also huge sweeping stretches where you can freewheel downhill which is really fun. We spent almost the whole day at the park, heading into the city around 72nd street to hunt down a bagel for lunch, and then finding a flat rock in the sun near Strawberry Fields where we could lie down and rest for an hour or so. To be honest, my favourite thing to do in New York was just to chill out and pretend we were locals. We ate at the places we would have eaten if we lived there (neighbourhood delis and diners), we hung out in the park the same way we hang out in Victoria park where we live in London, and we shopped in thrift stores in the East Village as if we were just out for a Saturday morning wander.
Of course, we did a ton of touristy stuff too, but the next day we went to the Brooklyn Bridge and The Highline, and I feel like they’re both places that I would want to visit again and again, even if I’d lived in the city my whole life. The Brooklyn Bridge is so iconic, and just so cool to look at, we enjoyed walking from one end to the other, taking in the amazing view of Manhattan. The views of the bridge itself are pretty impressive too – all steel cables and huge archways, silhouetted against the sun. The pedestrian walkway and cycle lane sit above the flow of the traffic, so you can lean over the edge and watch all the cars pass by. It’s just a fun thing to do, especially on a sunny day like we had, and the views are really so incredible – the New York skyline just never gets old.
The Highline is an abandoned elevated train track which has been turned into a public park. Being a train track, it’s probably the longest and thinnest park you will ever come across, but it makes for a great walk as you’re above the noise and chaos of the city. There’s a lot of greenery, benches, great view points across Manhattan, and even spots where you can stop and grab gelato or enjoy a drink on the terrace. Abi and I wandered around until we were hungry for bagels, and then we spent the rest of the day exploring the East Village (which reminds me a lot of East London), looking into thrift stores, walking past the traditional brown stone houses and enjoying the street art.
By the last day of our trip, we were both completely exhausted and the prospect of running around Manhattan until we had to catch the train to the airport in the afternoon actually seemed kind of terrible. So we took it easy. We went back to the diner for breakfast and then took a very slow wander to some of the delightfully tacky ‘I heart NY’ tourist shops (say what you like but who doesn’t want a New York number plate with their name on it?), and then ventured a little way down Broadway to look in American Eagle Outfitters, Sephora and Macy’s. By the time we found a deli for lunch and began to think about heading back towards the hotel, we had only managed to drag ourselves about three blocks. Unable to do any more shopping (not that we’d made a very impressive attempt at it in the first place) we went instead to the New York public library. Guarded by two huge stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, the library is a beautifully designed haven of calm and solitude in the middle of fifth avenue. I was so fascinated by the building from the moment I stepped into the huge marble atrium, and Abi and I ended up doing a free self-guided audio tour and wandering around peeking into the reading rooms, the map room and even the children’s library, where the original Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys are on display.
Behind the library, Bryant park, a small green plaza, somehow manages to maintain the calm and unhurried library vibes, and is probably one of my favourite places that we found in New York. We were able to sit in the sunshine, drink tea, and enjoy our last few hours in the city.
There’s not much I can say about New York that hasn’t already been said, but what I will say is that I highly recommend visiting the city if you get the chance. If only to find out what all the fuss is about.