I have wanted to ‘wake up in the city that never sleeps’ for what seems like my entire life. Ever since the Kids from Fame danced on top of a NYC yellow cab. From that you’ll guess that a) I’m a child of the 80s and b) I’ve never been to New York.
Despite being pretty well travelled and NYC being top of my list since legwarmers and leotards, it’s never been the right time for me to go. My son (now 15) was either too young or other holidays have better suited our needs at that particular time.
When the clock struck midnight last NYE, I promised myself that this would be the year that I start to live some of my life long dreams. Bringing up a child on my own has meant that many of my dreams are still floating above me like helium balloons, strings dangling above my head, some within reach, some too high. Kids come first always. That’s the way it should be but as children get older, you start to find that there is more common ground, more opportunities to do great things together, get a bit of chat, have a laugh, get on a plane, go to New York!
I wanted my son to be old enough to experience absolutely everything that New York had to offer. Not just the tourist attractions, but life in New York. Life as a New Yorker. To have the balance of a holiday and ‘life’ experience. The fun bits and the ‘toughing it out’ moments. A mix of awe inspiring wonderment, exhilaration, excitement and occasional jaw dropping disbelief. To see and feel the real energy of the city as it is. The views from the top of a skyscraper to life on a late night downtown train.
So where do you begin in all of that?
We didn’t want to go for a typical touristy hotel experience staying in Midtown. I was after a more authentic New York experience where I could live like a local; shopping for groceries every day, getting ourselves about on the subway, throwing myself out on to the mean streets of Manhattan early in the morning for my daily run, grabbing a coffee at my local place, putting down some very short term roots and getting a proper feel for a place rather than a transient hotel experience.
We chose the Wall Street AKA Apartments, in the Financial District. FiDi has cast aside its suited and booted, Gordon Gekko image and become one of the hippest areas of New York for creatives, techy and fashion types. The hotel is on a quiet street next to Wall Street (which is way, way smaller than anyone would think) and a short walk from the cobbled streets, wine bars, restaurants and food markets that stretch up from the river at Seaport where you can catch any number of ferries over to Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hoboken or Staten Island.
Our two bedroom penthouse is all beautiful, minimalist whites and greys; Egyptian cotton linen, state of the art appliances, super kingsize beds, fluffy bathrobes, Bulgari toiletries and enormous, sparkling bathrooms. As I take my first photo from the balcony with the One World Trade Center towering above me, I can hardly believe that I’m here.
Breakfast most days is not of the enormous pancake type. Since I’m living like a New Yorker, I’m taking the opportunity to sit on the spacious roof terrace of the apartment with a copy of the New York Times surrounded by a choice of granola bars, endless cups of amazing coffee and lots and lots of sunshine. The ideal start to the day.
After breakfast it’s a sunny stroll down to catch the famous Staten Island Ferry which is an attraction in itself. For zero cents, you can do the 25 minute sail from St. George Ferry Terminal to Staten Island, taking in the Statue of Liberty and the views of New York Harbour and the Manhattan skyline on the way. A great first day activity and you’ll get your bearings a bit more and start to piece your action plan together for exploring the city.
Our objective for the week was to cover as much ground as possible, see what’s what, what’s where, get a bunch of landmarks in and get a proper feel for New York. The best way to start off? On an open bus tour of course and for that we chose the Big Bus Tours, TripAdvisor’s top rated NYC bus tour and the only bus tour with live commentary and hop-on-hop-off access at 25+ stops located all over the city.
Take the downtown red loop and explore lower Manhattan, passing through the Flatiron District, Union Square, Greenwich Village, Chinatown and the Financial District then head uptown on the blue route, exploring the Upper East Side, 5th Avenue, Central Park and Midtown. The third route takes you to Harlem past the sights and sounds of the Upper West Side. We did all of it! Sunshine, sights, sounds and a potted history of every street, landmark and attraction as you go.
To experience the real New York, you have to travel a few times on the subway. The first subway experience we had was taking the C line subway Fulton Street, just round the corner from our apartment up to 59 Street, Columbus Circle, a huge traffic intersection with a statue of Christopher Columbus in the middle, the gateway to Central Park on one side and New York’s premier shopping mall on the other.
A ten minute walk on the Upper West Side of the Park takes you to the American Natural History Museum, one of the largest museums in the world and home of show stopping displays such as the 94-foot whale and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, thousands of artefacts and interactive exhibits. Don’t forget to take a virtual joyride through the universe at the Museum’s planetarium
If upscale shopping’s your thing, head back down to The Shops At Columbus Circle for a wander around the 50+ shops. Hungry? You’ll find Michelin starred restaurants and world famous eateries such as the Porter House Grill, voted the Absolute Best Steakhouse Restaurant in New York by New York Magazine, Momofoku Noodle Bar, Bouchon Bakery and the Bluebird Café.
We’re not in the habit of going anywhere too too fancy, so it’s down to the basement of the mall to visit the enormous and deliciously overwhelming WholeFoods where pretty much all of my foodie dreams came true. You’ll find the most enormous selection of fresh, healthy (ok there is pizza…) good food, from soup to sushi, pasta to pastries, doughnuts to dim sum, salads to sandwiches, ramen to risotto. Grab a box, weigh, pay and go straight across the road to Central Park for the ultimate New York picnic.
You could spend a day in the city’s playground, walking, cycling, boating, picnicking, lounging… We spent an afternoon wandering with several ice cream stops, past the statue of Robert Burns, all the way up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to sit on the steps and do some people watching, my son not being the hugest art fan in the world, certainly not enough to be doing any art watching.
A super casual dinner to follow our day uptown. Burritos (apparently the best in the city) at El Luchador, an Airstream on Seaport’s South Street whilst watching the sun go down over Brooklyn Bridge, a stone’s throw from our high rise home for the week.
The best way to do the city’s attractions is with an NYC City Pass. For $126, it’ll get you into six attractions/experiences such as the Empire State Building, the Top of the Rock Observation Deck, Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and many more. That’s a 42% saving on what you would spend if you visited the various ticket offices of the attractions, so it’s an absolute must do!
We did them all and as part of the pass, you can also take one of the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises.
We did ‘The Beast’ speedboat ride, New York’s only jet thrill ride attraction from Pier 81 over to the Statue of Liberty at sunset. 30 minutes of non stop thrills and laughter and a bit of a soaking thanks to the heart pounding twists and turns!
There is so much you can do for free in NYC – in fact you can have a whole day on a budget and still have amazing fun. One day we did the High Line, a public park built on a historic freight rail line situated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side (stop off at La Newyorkina ice cream cart for the most incredible Mexican ice creams and lollies). It runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street and with lots of drop down points, it’s a fantastic way to explore Chelsea (visit Chelsea Market, one of NYC’s top spots for food lovers and shopping addicts) and take in the amazing street art, red brick buildings, industrial landmarks and towering structures. Go see the Chelsea Hotel if you’re a music geek like me – the world’s most notorious rock n’ roll hotel… You won’t get in obvs, look above…but just being there is special, pondering the lives of all of those who visited, lived and died there.
A trip to Grand Central Terminal on 42nd street doesn’t cost a thing either and you can while away a good hour or two taking in the stunning architecture, gazing at the zodiac constellation above you, the four sided clock in front of you while commuters rush by you on the main concourse. Everything about Grand Central Station says ‘scene from the movies’. There’s also huge choice of restaurants to visit, from the famous Oyster Bar that’s been there since 1913 to Shake Shack and the Magnolia Bakery on the Dining Concourse.
Another ‘to do’ for absolutely no dollars whatsoever is a morning run over Brooklyn Bridge. The best time to go is before 7am if you want an easy, collision free straight jog across the bridge – after that it gets busy with commuters, tourists and the cyclists just seem to come from nowhere. The views are breathtaking and there are plenty of great stop off points to capture the Financial District on one side and the sun coming up over Manhattan on the other.
With Tribeca just ten minutes away from the apartment, I took the opportunity to head up there one morning to for a run, and to grab a post-run coffee in one of it’s most popular coffee hang outs, Kaffe 1668, a cozy, friendly Scandinavian café on Greenwich St.
The highlight of our trip however was the world famous Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour (in fact, I would go as far as to say it is one of my Top 3 tourist experiences ever!). You board a coach at Union Square and travel all over Brooklyn, from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where you’ll get the best photos of Brooklyn Bridge and skip the hour long queues to Grimaldi’s, home of what’s often referred to as being the best pizza in NYC, stroll the famous Coney Island Boardwalk and visit the most famous locations from movies shot in Brooklyn such as Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas and The French Connection. Oh, you’ll learn a ton of stuff about the mafia too…
The tour is completely ‘made’ by our guide Marc, a Brooklynite whose sharp, slick comedy and detailed knowledge of the history of the borough takes the words ‘tour guide’ to a whole new level. We laughed for four hours pretty much non-stop, gained so much knowledge and by the end of it Brooklyn kind of felt like home.
The American author, Thomas Wolfe said that “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
This for me encapsulates everything I feel about the concrete jungle I dreamed of visiting for such a long time. A lifetime. We went there to experience as much as we possibly could, whilst living like locals and trying not to stick out like sore thumb tourists, and that’s really what New York’s magic is. Everyone fits in and there’s a place for everyone. You can never feel out of place in New York.
In terms of our mum and son travel experiences over the past 15 years, this is without a doubt our best one. Ok Melbourne was also our best. We have two bests. So, how do we beat that?
Easy, go back again next year and do everything we didn’t fit in this time. I’d go back in a New York minute…