I thought I was ready. I had picked the brains of good friends and clients that had lived extended periods in NYC or were born and bred New Yorkers. I researched the history, studied the maps, prepared my lists, made my reservations and, most importantly, conserved my energy and laid low for weeks before heading out to New York City with Fluffy Unicorn. It was our first major foray to the east coast and we were going to celebrate a pretty big milestone for us…25 years of wedded bliss.
During my preparations, I found that the New York City trip didn’t seem to have the mystique of other new places we’ve traveled over the years, primarily through Asia, the Pacific, up and down the West Coast and throughout the deep South.
Maybe it was because everything I ever needed to know about New York City I already knew…home of the gruff and arrogant metropolitan denizen, Times Square, Central Park, sidewalks jammed shoulder to shoulder with fast walking commuters, Western hub of global finance and influence. It’s the ubiquitous gargantuan, Gotham of lore, that seemingly gets a part or mention in every movie, TV show, book and publication ever produced. Really, what else was there to know that a quick review of Friends and Seinfeld re-runs along with a binge on the Die Hard movies (was it really five of them?) wouldn’t get me up to speed on…right?
Insert maniacal, screeching laughter here. Fine, I’ll say it out loud. Please give that poor, naive, imbecilic dolt a lollipop to keep him occupied while we attach the electrodes… I was so certain in my ignorance. But, now I’m enlightened.
Here’s a list of some of the things I learned about New York City that might help on your visit:
The People – We all know about the stereotypical New Yorker, the one that’s been depicted well past the point of caricature – loud, obnoxious, arrogant, know it all, brusque, indifferent and, did I mention, loud?
Maybe I wasn’t looking or listening hard enough (I was, mainly as a matter of self defense), but I didn’t see any of those stereotypical New Yorkers. What I did see was person after person get up from a perfectly good subway seat and offer it to my wife and myriad other women, children and seniors. What I heard was Fluffy Unicorn and I getting addressed as Mr., Mrs., Sir & Ma’am more often than an audio loop of Mom and Dad at etiquette school.
Maybe I was in all the wrong places and was getting the tourist treatment (I visited 4 of the 5 boroughs and outlying areas including Harlem and Coney Island). But, when I ordered one of the best pizzas I ever had at nothing short of an institution at Totonno’s in Coney Island during the off season, the chef/pizziaolo handmade it and delivered it to the the table himself. And, when I went back to the counter to tell him it was the best pizza I’d ever had, he smiled shyly and said, “Thank you. That’s so kind of you to say,” like he’d never heard the compliment before. C’mon man! Where’s my Brooklynite “Get outtah heah!”?
Maybe I just got lucky (I did, in more ways than I can count), but the couple of times I stopped someone who looked like they knew where they were going to ask for directions, I saw them go from a pre-occupied 60 miles an hour to a dead stop, listen to my question thoughtfully, and, in one case, actually walk with me to the closest corner while pointing in all the right directions and making sure I headed down the right street.
Honestly, I get treated worse by the local hipsters in North Park…
The Subway – This one was my biggest worry. Public transit in New York – fast paced, scary stuff to the uninitiated for sure. Most New Yorkers will tell you there are two main things to make riding the subways easier. I’m gonna say there are a few more, but it’s not a complicated list. Here’s what I learned as I fell in love with the New York City subway system:
- Get the 7 day unlimited ride card, even if you’re only in town for a weekend. It’s a little over $30, the equivalent to 11 rides, and, it’s the best deal you’ll find in New York City. You’ll need one for each traveler, as you can’t use the card more than once in the same station at the same time. Once you get the hang of riding the subway, it’ll be the only way you want to travel most of the time and with the unlimited card, you won’t have to worry about reloading at the most inconvenient time and missing your train. If you don’t use all 7 days on your card…pass it forward to someone who will. I promise, some kind New York City soul will be grateful for the free subway rides.
- Uptown, Downtown. In Manhattan, which is where most visitors land and stay, anytime you’re heading South on the island from any point, you’re heading downtown. Heading North? Uptown. Always. Keep an eye on the signs as you enter and walk through the station – they’ll guide you to the right track.
- Express, Local. This is somewhat important to know as the express trains will get you to where you want to go faster – but they skip a lot of stations to do so, which means if you accidentally get on an express train when you should have gotten on a local, you may not stop at your desired station and will have to double back. However, this one’s not as important as it used to be – keep reading.
- Subway maps – is there anyone that knows how to read those things? I tried. I won’t try again. Don’t waste your time, there’s a better way…
- Boarding/De-boarding – The doors on the train open for about 20-30 seconds. Be ready to get on and off in a hurry. If the car you’re in is crowded, start working your way to the door as you pull out of the station before your stop. Also, if you see an empty car and no one’s getting in – follow the crowds. They’re probably avoiding that car for good reason – usually smell. Some of the newer trains have nice digital signs telling you the upcoming stops and stations. The older ones don’t. Keep an eye out the window as you pull into each station. All of the columns are marked and there are signs on the walls telling you where you’re at.
- Google Maps – This is, hands down, the most important tool you’ll have in New York City. If you don’t use it on your smartphone now, download the app for your visit to New York City. Punch in your destination and click on the public transit (bus/train) icon and it will give you all of the available train lines, including transfers and walking directions, to get you to your destination. This is also the best way, period, to navigate your way around New York City in any mode.
Uber, Lyft, Taxis and Self-Propelled Transport – Late night, early morning or when we were farther than we wanted to walk from the nearest subway station were the only times we used these options. They’re neither convenient or time savers in most cases, as surface street traffic in New York is ridiculously congested most hours of the day.
Taxi – This is probably your fastest option as they are always around and you simply need to flag one down and head off to your destination. However, they’re at least 2-3 times more expensive than Uber or Lyft and, if you don’t know the city, the drivers can take you for more of a ride than you bargained for.
Uber/Lyft – Whatever amount of time the app tells you it will take for the driver to reach you, double it. Keep your eye on the app, as the drivers do have a tendency to cancel during peak times if a closer ride comes up. Try to request a ride from an intersection at least a block or two away from heavily congested areas with a street heading in the general direction you’re heading. Addresses are hard for the drivers to find, especially in the business and shopping districts, so, as you’re watching your app, don’t be surprised to see the driver stop two blocks away. Be prepared to receive a phone call or make one to the driver when the app shows him stopped – you may have to talk him in to your location.
Walking – Like its West Coast sister (San Francisco), New York City, particularly Manhattan, is a walking town. In my opinion, it’s easier to walk Manhattan than San Francisco because it’s not as hilly. A brisk pace will have you covering 12 blocks in 15-20 minutes and a 12 block walk in Manhattan will have you ending in a different galaxy than you started out from. And, on the way, you’ll see any variety of sights including parks, urban gardens and local shops that may end up being a refreshing part of your visit that you didn’t plan on. Of the 20 lbs I gained, I figure 10 was new glute muscle.
The Culture – If America is the world’s “melting pot,” then New York City is America’s “salad bowl.” Is there a nationality, religion, creed or culture that is not represented in volume in this city? Yet, it’s not like the whole world got thrown in a blender and one big, happy, non-specific colored American cultural smoothie was created. All of the cultures and people in New York City might live in the same “bowl,” but they retain their own identities, unique, complete with their own neighborhoods, foods, styles, beliefs and languages. The next great personal and cultural interaction you have in New York City is as close as the next person you meet and strike up a conversation with. Oh, and you’re probably going to be the only one in the conversation that only speaks one language.
The Landmarks and Monuments – I was completely unprepared for the sense of majesty, dignity, history and the ensuing emotional impact exuded by the landmarks and monuments of New York City. Pictures, movies, documentaries – none of them can come close to capturing the real, up close and personal thing. In fact, the grandness and immensity of everything in New York City will likely live up to your wildest expectations. Here are some of my top picks and tips:
9/11 Memorial – Similar to the way my parents talked about JFK’s assassination, I remember precisely every moment of the 9/11 attack – where I was, what I saw on TV as the coverage unfolded and how I briefly considered re-enlisting in the Marine Corps almost 20 years after my first go-round. Nothing could have prepared me for the poignancy, the throat tightening and the somber emotion that viewing the 9/11 Memorial imparted during our visit.
Times Square – We stayed in a room on the 36th floor 1/2 block from Times Square with a view of the New Year’s Ball. I won’t do it again and it got old after the first couple of days. Times Square is incredible…once. I felt like I had to stay there on our first visit – and you probably will, too. But, it is the singularly most impacted, crowded, noisiest place we visited in the city. Walking through the sheer mass of humanity on the sidewalks and streets here make molasses oozing in the wintertime seem like a world record 40 yard dash.
Empire State Building – Unless you’re into long lines and waits, maybe skip going to the top here…you can’t actually see the building from the building. Instead, go the the Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) to get the best views of the Empire State Building, Central Park, all 5 boroughs and New Jersey. There’s virtually no line and you’ll actually be able to get a picture of the ESB…
Statue of Liberty – The Staten Island Ferry is another one of those great New York deals. It’s free and is about a 20 minute boat ride each way between downtown Manhattan and Staten Island. From the ferry, you’ll have great views of the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn bridge.
When you walk into the terminal, you’ll most likely want to turn around and walk out immediately, ’cause you’ll think there’s no way all of the waiting people will fit on the boat.
The ferry is as big as a football stadium. Rows and rows of seats literally disappear into the distance on the main level. For the best views when you get on the ferry, go to the lower level. The ferry doesn’t transport vehicles anymore, so the entire vehicle bay is generally pretty empty and allows you to get right up to the open railing for unobstructed views and photos.
Central Park – I think Central Park is best visited after spending a few days in the hustle and bustle of New York City. Only then will you truly appreciate the significance of escaping into the magnificent urban oasis that it is. Head north in the park – it’ll get you out of the tourist areas and you’ll find plenty of lightly inhabited paths, benches and open space to help you feel like you’ve escaped the crowds and the city.
Coney Island – One of my favorite pop cult movies of all times is The Warriors. That little gang of badasses traversed from the farthest southern end of Brooklyn and New York City to the northernmost borough of the Bronx and then fought their way all the way back home on the subways. I’ve always wanted to make that trip.
The “season” in Coney Island is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which is probably when you want to stay away if you don’t like crowds. We missed it by a couple of weeks which was perfect for us. We had no lines at either the Original Nathan’s for the best dirty roller dog on earth or Totonno’s pizza (Mr. Totonno was the original pizzaiolo at Lombardi’s in the early 20th century and pretty much the guy who put pizza on the map in this country) and we checked off a bucket list item…riding an empty subway car. It’s an easy hour ride each way from midtown Manhattan with a lot of the ride through Brooklyn above ground. It’ll make you feel like a real New Yorker.
The Metropolitan Museum – there’s a bar and Man art. ’nuff said!
The Brooklyn Bridge – We never planned on walking it. But, after eating our way through Brooklyn, we were left with a choice – hang a right to the bridge or a left to the subway. I’m happy we took the right. Give yourself 20-30 minutes and walk from Brooklyn into Manhattan…you’ll get a truly unique pedestrian experience with some of the greatest views of Manhattan available…all at your own pace.
The Food and Dining – Obviously food was my main thing going into the trip. I’m not sure when it took a backseat to everything else. Actually, it never really took a backseat. The food in New York City is just so omnipresent it is always a part of the experience. From street carts, delis, izakayas, markets, districts and restaurants, I don’t know if I walked down any street or through any area in New York City where I was more than a few steps from something to eat.
I’ll talk about the food more in future articles, but during the trip we ate halal, mexican, spanish, french, polish, korean, japanese, thai, chinese, italian, southern, soul, irish and good ol’ meat and potatoes…and I feel like we barely scratched the surface as, throughout our explorations, we seemed to continually spot restaurants boasting cuisine from places I’m not sure are even on this planet.
If you’re from the West Coast, 10:00 p.m. is the perfect time for dinner. All the Broadway shows let out at 9:30, so the restaurants are still cranking at full speed and the real New Yorkers are out and about. It’ll also help keep you on schedule so that when you get home, you won’t feel the jet lag as much.
And now, a week after our return, I still can’t stop thinking about New York City. About all the food I didn’t get to taste. About all the magnificent buildings I didn’t get to visit. About all the people I didn’t meet. About the neighborhoods I didn’t explore. About what my plan will be next visit, now that I’m a veteran.
Give me a shout if you’re headed that way, ’cause all I need is an excuse to talk and reminisce about that town. Cheers, my friends!