New York! A city about which songs have been written, films have been made, and which has been the setting of numerous TV shows and novels. So much has been said about it already that the thought of finding anything new to say is honestly quite a daunting prospect. So much so, in fact, that I’m just going to cover my ass here and say that there’s probably not going to be anything in this post that hasn’t already been said somewhere else 😉 But here, at least, is our tiny slice of the New York Experience pie:
Day 30: Tuesday 11th April
(Written by Anna)
It was only a two-hour drive or so from where we were staying in New Jersey to New York. After paying $15 to be allowed into New York (yup, there’s no avoiding it – by bridge or by tunnel you have to pay for the privilege of being allowed to enter by car) we took the Lincoln Tunnel and suddenly we were in Manhattan.
New York myth-buster #1: Driving and parking in New York is always horrible
We had been warned about the horrors of driving in Manhattan and had watched enough TV shows involving angry taxi drivers honking their horns and traffic at an endless standstill to be sufficiently terrified about the prospect of driving there. I don’t know if it was the time of day we arrived (around 2.30pm) or if we just got lucky, but actually it wasn’t nearly as bad as we were expecting. Gwynnie did a stellar job. The friend we were staying with had told us there was free street parking in Manhattan, which we found incredible, but sure enough there was! We had to drive round for five minutes or so to find a spot, but again that wasn’t anywhere near as bad as we were expecting. We just got lucky I guess! The only restrictions on parking are for street cleaning which is usually two hours once a week (the day and time differs by area). The area we were staying in on the Upper West Side usually had street cleaning on Friday morning, but because it was Easter there was no street cleaning that week so we were able to leave our car there the entire time – winner!
We really lucked out with where we were staying in New York. I was fortunate to have a dear friend from my London days who now lives in an awesome apartment on the Upper West Side and was kind enough to host us. I can’t even begin to contemplate how much it would cost to stay in a hotel or even an Airbnb in the same area. It was an amazing location and we are eternally grateful 🙂
After we parked the car and found my friend’s apartment, I was greeted with this lovely surprise:
We decided to look for somewhere with coffee, toilets, Wi-Fi and plug sockets for our laptops, so we wandered down Broadway. This proved to be a bit harder than expected as we tried a few Starbucks and other places that were missing one or another of the above list. But eventually we found a nice cafe called Filicori Zecchini Coffee which had everything we were looking for.
New York myth-buster #2: New Yorkers are rude and angry
Of course we knew all the stereotypes about New Yorkers being abrupt and unfriendly, but our first interactions with New Yorkers did not bear this out. As we were walking down Broadway to find a cafe, we stopped at a traffic light, and a sweet little old lady standing next to me said, “Excuse me, would you mind helping me cross the road?” So I gave her my arm and helped an old lady cross the road and I think that constituted all my good karma for that day. We chatted a bit as we crossed and she was so sweet and adorable, and I remember thinking, “Aren’t New Yorkers meant to be grumpy and disagreeable?” I half expected her to knock me over the head with a pistol and steal my bag when we got to the other side. (She didn’t.)
Then in the cafe, once our laptops were getting in need of some juice, a guy sitting at the table next to us noticed us looking around for sockets and offered to plug our laptops in next to where he was sitting. As we were moving tables, another guy came over to take our table, and we apologised and tried to move faster, thinking he was going to get angry and explode any moment, but he just said, “Take your time, there’s no rush, take as long as you need.” And we thought, “But we have been led to believe that New Yorkers are always in a rush!”
Of course, there is an outside chance that neither of these men were really New Yorkers (that seems less likely with the old lady). But perhaps the real lesson to learn from this is that people who don’t live in cities always think that people who live in cities are rude and unfriendly, and people who live in cities always think that people who don’t are simple hicks. The same stereotypes exist in every country I’ve been to, and are pretty easily dispelled.
After our injection of caffeine and some downtime on our laptops, we walked along the Hudson River to enjoy the sunshine. We had narrowly missed a snowstorm the week before, and apparently this was the first nice warm day of sunshine that year. Just one of the very good pieces of luck we’ve been fortunate enough to experience on this trip!
My friend had returned home from work by this time, so we went to meet her at her spacious apartment, and in the evening we went to Tavern on Jane in Greenwich Village (or just “The Village” – I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t confused) for dinner, where we had some delicious food and wine. There was paper on the table and a tub of crayons, so Gwynnie naturally got very excited and started to draw.
Afterwards, our host took us round The Village to see the apartment buildings used in two of our favourite TV shows, Friends and Sex and the City, which we were obviously very excited about. The Friends apartment honestly wasn’t that recognisable – the apartment buildings all look too similar for it to really stand out. But you could kind of tell. Maybe.
As for Carrie’s apartment from Sex and the City, I can’t claim to be a big enough Sex and the City fan to actually remember what her apartment looked like in the show, but apparently the steps are pretty recognisable. The owners of the building have put a chain across the steps and a little sign asking people to please not sit on them (I guess it got too annoying to have dozens of visitors a day coming and taking photos of themselves sitting on the steps à la Carrie.) Nonetheless, I was pretty excited by all this as it’s always pretty exciting to see stuff in real life that you grew up watching on TV, and we took some pictures (we are dancing in the second one):
Day 31: Wednesday 12th April
(Written by Gwynnie)
The next day, we decided to head to Times Square – both to check it out and so that we could try getting discounted Broadway tickets. Now, even discounted Broadway tickets turn out to be pretty expensive, but being a big fan of musicals I couldn’t in good conscience not see a Broadway show while in New York.
TKTS is a place where you can get cheap, on-the-day tickets for Broadway. There’s an app you can download so you can know ahead of time which shows and prices are available, or you can queue up in Times Square or one of the other locations. If you’re feeling lucky, you can also enter lotteries to win cheap tickets for some shows – for example, Hamilton where regular tickets are crazy expensive but you can win $10 tickets, or Groundhog Day (music written by Tim Minchin!!) where you can get half price tickets in the Lottery. We entered them for every day we were there, but didn’t win.
Times Square was big. What a deep, profound statement, I hear you say. Well, it was a little bit like Piccadilly in London – big screens everywhere, advertising loads of things, signs crawling up buildings several storeys high. It was a lot to take in, and there were people everywhere, yet somehow it just didn’t feel as crazy or overwhelming as I’d expected it to. It almost seemed calm. That might be because we spent most of our time there standing in a queue. It was raining lightly, and as we lined up we were offered $20 tickets to watch a comedy show starring Tina Fey. Why didn’t we do this? Timing, money, I suppose – but Tina Fey is amazing. Alas.
There are a lot of interesting shows on Broadway at the moment, and we were tempted by Groundhog Day (I had seen Matilda, also Tim Minchin, and it was great), Kinky Boots, and a few others. I desperately want to see Aladdin the Musical and a few others, but given the choices available we decided to see Miss Saigon at the Broadway Theatre – I had already seen it once, 12 years ago, but loved it and was happy to see it again.
Before heading into the theatre, we decided to grab some street food. Hot dogs from a cart and pizza by the slice are classic New York meals, so we got a little of each. The hot dog was as you would expect – warm and un-alluring, while the pizza was pretty good, especially when smothered in garlic powder.
Some musical nerdy notes: For any of you who know Miss Saigon well, I believe that this was a great performance of it. It’s Broadway, so as you would expect, they had the helicopter. The sets, the vocals, everything was spot-on. I was very surprised to see that Ellen’s song has been changed – it’s no longer Now That I’ve Seen Her but something new called Maybe. It was potentially a little rawer and more emotional that its predecessor, but the melody wasn’t quite as catchy, I don’t think. I was moved, as I always am, by a lot of the numbers – but somehow I hadn’t quite remembered The Engineer being such a massive part of the musical!
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed; to thank our friend for hosting us, we decided to cook her a roast dinner. We grabbed chicken, potatoes, carrots and parsnips from the local Westside Market and prepared it. Roast is one of those wonderful meals where you prepare everything and then wait for hours until it seems done, impatiently opening the oven to hopefully poke the chicken, which is still a bit pink because of how many times you’ve opened the oven door to check that it’s done yet. I had to be physically restrained from checking the chicken, but eventually everything started to crisp up. We smothered it in gravy and cracked out a bit of wine and enjoyed a night in.
Day 32: Thursday 13th April
(Written by Anna)
We were too stingy to actually pay to go up the Statue of Liberty, so we did the next best thing – got the free ferry to Staten Island which goes past it and offers pretty good views. To do this, take the subway to Battery Park/South Ferry Station and follow signs.
A free ferry is a fine thing. Staten Island itself is not so interesting, as this T-shirt admits:
So after looking round for about ten minutes and deciding, “Nah”, we turned around and got the ferry back the other way and did the whole thing again. As well as taking some more pictures of the Statue of Liberty, we got some pretty good views of that famous Manhattan skyline (see the pictures above).
We had picked this day to be our touristy sightseeing day, so we went and hit all the big Manhattan sights – the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center, Grand Central Station, and Central Park. However, we are also stingy tourists, so we didn’t pay to go up either the Empire State Building or to the roof of the Rockefeller Center. Apparently, you can go inside the Empire State Building to the lobby on the ground floor (or 1st floor if you’re American) without paying – it’s only the higher floors with observation decks (86th and 102nd Floor) that are ticketed and expensive (prices start at $34 for adults – we’re far too stingy for that!) – but we didn’t realise that, so we didn’t go inside at all. Admittedly, the Empire State Building from the ground isn’t really that impressive – actually we had a hard time even figuring out that it was the Empire State Building, and spent a while going, “Is this it?” before we finally saw the signs. Even when you look up you can’t really tell what it is because you can’t see that telltale spire.
After that we went to the Rockefeller Center and didn’t pay to go up that either (tickets for Top of the Rock Observation Deck start from $28 – still too stingy for that), but I was delighted to find that the famous ice rink by the Rockefeller Center was still there at this time of year – I thought it was only there at Christmas time. We popped briefly into a cafe called Tabletime on 42nd Street, mainly so that Gwynnie could charge her phone, and then had a brief look at Grand Central Station which was right next door.
I should say at this point – this is obviously not in any way a representative sample of all the things there are to do in New York as a tourist. But since we were trying to only do free or very cheap things, that significantly limited our options. There are dozens of museums and art galleries, including the world-famous MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), but again these all cost money, and after being in Washington DC where all the museums are free, we felt disinclined to spend any money on them (adult tickets for MoMA are $25). Admission is free every Friday evening between 4 and 8pm, but we figured it gets super packed during that time, and besides, we were feeling a bit museumed-out after DC (OK, admittedly I had only gone to two museums in DC and Gwynnie had only gone to one, but we just don’t like museums that much, OK?) so we gave it a miss. Point being – there is loads to do in New York if you have the money, but there are still some things you can do without it, and we still managed to have a nice time anyway.
After Grand Central we walked about 40 minutes to Central Park and happened to pass this hideous monstrosity on the way:
We popped our heads inside just to see. Everything was gold.
We met our host and another friend of mine from London by the Imagine mosaic in Strawberry Fields. I know both these lovely women from my choir in London, so of course we couldn’t resist the opportunity to record ourselves singing a song from our choir days (and when I say couldn’t resist, I mean we spent months planning and orchestrating how we could pull it off). Gwynnie did the recording honours.
Here are some pictures from Central Park. Note the fountain that appears in the credits for Friends (well… actually Friends is filmed in LA and they created a replica fountain for the scene):
After that Gwynnie and I parted ways (she went to meet a friend. Hilarious antics ensued but you’ll have to ask her!) – and I went with my two friends for dinner at Bodrum Mediterranean Restaurant. On the way we passed Al Gore – it was pretty exciting and several people stopped to gawk and everyone was asking each other, “Was that Al Gore?” I hesitated too long to take a photo so the end result was pretty unimpressive:
Afterwards we went for drinks at Dive Bar (that’s it’s real name, I promise!) It’s kind of like a sports bar with good beer.
Day 33: Friday 14th April
(Written by Gwynnie)
We had been on the lookout for some more cheap/free yoga since Austin, and much to our good fortune we found a pay-as-you-wish class about a 5-minute walk from where we were staying from Yoga to the People. The recommended donation is $10, plus $2 if you need to borrow a mat. It was a good work-out with a lot of vinyasas and we both felt our muscles aching a fair bit the next day!
We then grabbed some bagels from Absolute Bagels, where there are massive vats of cream cheese that you can choose for your bagel. I chose sundried tomato cream cheese (around $4) and Anna foolishly ordered the smoked salmon (or “lox”) which somehow cost $10! $10 for a cream cheese and smoked salmon bagel! Then again, being ripped off is surely part of the New York experience?
After hearing that Brooklyn was a cool part of town, we decided to check it out. You can walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, so we took the subway to the nearest stop and figured out how to get onto it as a pedestrian. Walking over the bridge is one of those things that loads of tourists want to do, as it’s free and iconic and gives you a good view of Manhattan as you cross – so walking along it wasn’t so much a pleasant stroll as it was drudgingly reminiscent of a morning commute. However, we did experience some small windows of air where we were able to take quick photos with nice backgrounds.
Once we had crossed the bridge (it takes a while) we wanted to explore more of Brooklyn. The area with the best reputation was Williamsburg, so we wanted to check it out. A Google map search revealed that our choices were either to walk for 55 minutes or to take the metro and change stops once – this involved actually going back into Manhattan and changing over to Brooklyn again, which we were assured by the locals was a totally normal thing to do.
After arriving in Williamsburg, we sort of aimlessly wandered around for a bit before settling at the Atlas Café for a while, where we did a bit of laptop stuff. The whole area was delightfully hipster, with lattes, hummus, and a place called “Banter Bar”. Our café even joked about charging more for rudeness (I think it was a joke, at least):
That evening, we were meant to meet our host over near the Village, so we headed over to meet her at a German bar called Lederhosen, where we were delighted to be able to get some German sausages and beer. The Village is also the home of the Stonewall Inn – which, if you didn’t know, was owned by the Mafia and was frequented by society’s most marginalised – the LGBT community, drag queens, homeless young people etc. It was subjected to a police raid on June 28th 1969 in the early hours; one of many routine police raids against gay bars at the time.
The raid was the incident that sparked the famous Stonewall riots, which were a series of demonstrations (dubbed “spontaneous and violent” by Wikipedia) by members of the LGBT community against a homophobic legal system, and from this time several gay activist and gay rights organisations were founded across the US and the world. The first gay pride marches took place on 28th June 1970 in New York, LA, Chicago and San Francisco, commemorating the first anniversary of the marches. The Stonewall Monument – a statue commemorating the riots – was put up outside the Inn just last year (2016).
After having a look at that, we went to a bar called Marie’s Crisis, which – and I (Gwynnie) have to catch my breath just to be able to say this – is a piano bar where everyone gathers around a piano and sings along to showtunes together!!! We got there for around 9pm, and it’s a one-out-one-in policy, meaning we were lucky to be able to get in at all as the queue out the door a few minutes later was massive.
Upon entering, we heard songs such as Season of Love (Rent), All That Jazz and We Both Reached for the Gun (Chicago) being played. An enthusiastic crowd gathered around the piano – maybe 50 people – singing along. For a while Gwynnie appeared to be in her own personal Utopia. However, after a while the pianist changed, and suddenly a bunch of musicals that we didn’t know where played – La Cage aux Folles, Follies, Bye Bye Birdie and other golden oldies. There was a bit of Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady, which was still great, but not quite as good as if they had all been ones we’d known. Still – singing in a group is always a fantastic feeling.
The only thing I have left to say is…
…ice creams are big in New York. Ask the price before you buy – this beast was $8.