I’m just back from my first trip to New York City.
I know lots of people who say they will never go to New York because they don’t like cities, they don’t like crowds, it’s too expensive, or there’s too much crime. Obviously, I never counted myself among those people, and always wanted to visit!
I have previously lived in Montreal and in the Boston area, and I could have gone to New York from there, but I didn’t want to travel with a young child and be limited to children’s schedules or activities. Link got the last laugh by going to NYC on a school trip long before I did!
There were always issues around cost and companionship – neither I nor any of my friends or family members could afford to go, taking into account airfares, hotels and childcare. I would hear about co-workers doing a long weekend trip to NYC and I thought they must be very “comfortably off” to be able to do that.
So it’s only now, with a spouse, two incomes, no kids at home, and sufficient vacation time, that I could finally plan a trip, unencumbered. I saved for a year so it could be a “bucket list” type trip, with lots of indulgences. But that is all relative! For me, that meant more than a weekend, direct flights, at least a 2-star hotel, and budgeting for concerts, plays, museums and restaurants. It definitely didn’t mean the Waldorf-Astoria, the Four Seasons, or coming home with anything from Kate Spade or Tiffany’s!
My original plan was to celebrate my 50th birthday, but the travel was deferred for a whole year. I decided what I wanted most was to experience what was unique and iconic about New York. I am not dramatically well-travelled, but I’ve been to some larger cities including London, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Boston, Washington DC and San Francisco. I wanted to focus on what was different about NYC, and for me, that was architecture (beautiful buildings and charming neighbourhoods), modern art, and the performing arts, especially music and theatre. I wanted to get a sense of what New Yorkers were like! I knew I couldn’t do everything in 5 days (which is how far my budget stretched) and I would be getting an overview.
So here is how I tried to make the most of it:
We took direct flights and then a cab to our hotel in Greenwich Village. We stayed in Manhattan proper rather than out in the (other) boroughs so we could get around quickly, on foot or by subway. We could walk out the front door to independent shops and restaurants, with no travel time.
We stayed in an historic boutique hotel at Washington Square Park so that we could walk around Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side and Noho/Soho at our leisure. It is a leafy, cozy, and just-hip-enough area, where people live and work and go to college, and walk their dogs and take their kids to school; that is, we got a sense of real people in a real neighbourhood.
We bought advance tickets to see the revival of Cabaret at Studio 54 (!) and to see the band Bombay Bicycle Club, who were in town for a CMJ show. We had extra time so we got last-minute cheap seats to another play. The money might have gone further if we didn’t pre-book anything and just took our chances, but we chose a couple of must-see shows instead.
Buying Fine Dining
New York is known for its bagels, hot dogs and pizza. Everywhere we went (and I mean everywhere), we smelled chopped meat from all the halal carts. A high proportion of restaurants were steakhouses, burger bars, charcuteries and Brazilian barbecue. So of course we identified vegetarian options in every neighbourhood we planned to be in: Noho, Nolita, Chelsea, Midtown, Times Square and the Upper East Side. We had 4 or 5 really nice meals (with $12-24 entrees) and were pleased to see a lot of places offered a prix fixe menu, even for lunch.
I tried to shop at stores that were New York-specific, but there were NY versions of all the chain stores everywhere. I am sure New Yorkers need their Gap and H&M like the rest of us, or is it just tourists who seek what they know? I didn’t succumb to the upscale department stores except the Soho Bloomingdale’s. My main purchase was a stack of Tshirts. (Does 5 make a stack? Or only if you put a hoodie on top, like I did?) I visited two chains for the first time, though: Anthropologie and Uniqlo.
A champagne brunch and a Broadway show are wonderful, but so are Central Park and the High Line; the main (Schwarzman) public library and the literary quotes along Library Way; walking into the concourses and plazas and lobbies of famous buildings; public art; the skyline; and people-watching. And it’s fun to see how everything works in such a big city, whether it is policing or construction or traffic.
I might have guessed that New Yorkers don’t dress or talk or act a certain way; how could any population as diverse as that? But I was surprised by how attentive everyone was, and unselfish – not pushing through crowds, deferring to others, being actually friendly and courteous – almost across the board. Being aware of everything around them, but unguarded. No crime fears, bags and backpacks hanging loose, police everywhere. Fewer openly homeless or panhandlers than in my home town. And the great crackdown on Elmos and Mickey Mouses so they no longer harass you!
A few surprises – better air quality than London – being offered tap water and not aggressively being upsold to bottled – not many tip jars at cafes and fast food places – hardly any pigeons (culled?) and a few little sparrows.
Does the city ever sleep? Yes, we quickly found out it’s a city of late nights and lazy mornings, with stores and restaurants in the village opening late morning or even past noon. Shopkeepers and doormen sweep and hose down the sidewalks in front of their buildings; cabs wait for you to cross the street; everyone walks down the block for their first Starbucks of the day. And that is my New York.
Next time: trip details day-by-day (for hardcore blog followers only; feel free to skip the “my vacation” slide show!)