New York has many names: The Big Apple, The Empire City, The City That Never Sleeps, Gotham, The Melting Pot, even the humble moniker The Capital Of The World. When the opportunity to visit was offered to us via our round-the-world ticket, we jumped at it. How could we pass up a chance to finally see the city that looms so large on the world stage? So we scheduled a week there, and while we did enjoy our stay in Gotham we learnt that doing it on the cheap is not necessarily the best way to visit. We certainly want to return there in the future, but next time we will stay in Manhattan and ensure we have plenty of cash on hand to get the most out of New York. Our attempt at budget living backfired, and indelibly coloured our experience of that great city.
There’s no way to avoid the fact: if you’re a traveller without a friend’s place to crash at, then staying in New York is not cheap. A quick search of hostelworld.com shows that even the cheapest dorm bed in a hostal will cost at least $25 per night per person, and a proper hotel room much more. And if you want a quality hotel room in Manhattan – ie. one that is quiet, comfortable and doesn’t double as a by-the-hour brothel most of the night – then you’re looking at $200 a day and up. That was simply too much for our budget, and we didn’t want to stay in a dorm for the whole week, so we scouted around for cheaper options.
We’ve written previously about using Globalfreeloaders.com, the website that offers couches, beds and rooms for free to travellers willing to stay in someone else’s home. We have had some excellent experiences using this service in Europe, and remain in contact with Lillian in Norway and Santosh in Switzerland. However we decided not to try it in New York City. While I’m sure there are heaps of places on offer, I had an unspoken feeling that there was a risk of becoming a storyline in a future episode of Law and Order if we used this service in NYC. That left airbnb.com, another website that offers beds and rooms (or even whole apartments) in private houses – but for a fee. It seemed like the best option overall. You get very cheap accommodation, and though you are staying in someone else’s house, because you’re paying for the privilege there would surely be a reasonable degree of freedom and courtesy on offer as well. Or so we thought…
Even using airbnb.com, staying in Manhattan was out of the question due to price. However we found a place in Queens, one of the other four boroughs of New York, that was only five minutes walk to the subway and then a twenty minute train ride to Manhattan. And the price was very cheap: just $35 a night for a whole room. This particular house had plenty of positive reviews on the website and was available for the dates we wanted, so we booked it months in advance to lock in the deal. Commuting to and from the suburbs didn’t faze us in the least; I mean we are from Sydney, where a minimum one hour journey to work (each way) is the norm! We arrived late on a Friday night, and after some dramas getting from Newark Airport in New Jersey to Queens (including a taxi driver who blamed us for not knowing where we were going) we headed straight to bed once we arrived.
Waking surprisingly early the next morning, we did some quick checking online using the room’s free wifi connection to see what our sightseeing options were. We decided to buy the New York Pass, a tourist ticket that offers entry to dozens of New York’s top sights and attractions for a one-off fee. It was pretty steep at $180 per person for the week, but when we added up the entry fees for all of the things we were likely to see and do it was a great saving. So we headed out into the morning sun to pick up these passes and see what New York had to offer. And discovered that Queens, or at least our tiny corner of it, was a rundown shambles of a place that had few, if any redeeming features. The road was crumbled and irregular, the only places to eat were variations on fast food joints, and we were stared at quite openly when walking down the street. We were dressed casually in normal traveller clothes, but somehow we stood out enough to draw the eye of many a passerby. We must have looked like we didn’t come from these parts, I guess. Oh well, we thought, at least it’s cheap and we headed underground for our trip to the city.
Getting out of the subway at 8th Avenue and 14th St, we headed north and found a simple yet tasty deli for breakfast. Continuing up 8th Avenue to the pickup venue for our New York Passes, we found the streets quite deserted on a Saturday morning. After a very long queue to pick up the passes, we headed to the famous Times Square for a look around. “Square” is not necessarily the right term to use for this landmark. Extending in a long skewed rectangle for several blocks towards Central Park, on the weekend it is a bustling market area that was beginning to get busy when we arrived. After spotting the Ball that drops at midnight on New Years Eve and taking some photos of the neon signs and billboards that dominate the plaza, we wandered up towards Central Park.
Partly we wanted to see Central Park, of course, and partly we wanted to sit down and decide what were the main sights to see during our week in New York. We walked for quite a few minutes before finding a suitable spot next to a baseball diamond, thinking we’d walked a fair way into the park (but in fact it was barely a tenth of it!). Our list of want-to-dos was long: go to the top of the Rockerfeller Centre during the day, and the Empire State Building at night; cycle around Central Park; do a walking tour of the West Village; a twilight cruise around the southern half of Manhattan, and a 3-hour whole island cruise; visit MOMA, the Met, and the Museum of Natural History; go to the 9/11 Memorial and associated Visitor Centre; go to the Intrepid Science and Space Museum; the Spy! Exhibit near Times Square; doing a Bronx or Brooklyn walking tour; and going to the largest Cathedral in the world on 112th St. All these things were included in our Pass, and the hardest part was working out when we could do them! There were plenty of other second-tier options as well, such as visiting Madame Tussaud’s, the New York Skyride and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which we pencilled in as maybes if we were in the area. Plus there were other non-Pass options, like seeing a movie or a Broadway show, seeing a live band and visiting some choice bars recommended by Glenn, and of course eating in some of the countless restaurants that inhabit the city.
Resolving to try and lock in a few of these when we returned to our room, we crossed Central Park to the Upper East Side and caught a train downtown to the East Village. This is a rather trendy area filled with bars and restaurants, and we had a particular Japanese restaurant in mind for lunch. Souen is a macrobiotic restaurant that offered excellent set lunch options, and we would happily return there again if we could! Afterwards we headed west toward West Village and Greenwich Village, but lost the desire to wander after a while and opted instead to head home early. To keep the budget intact we planned to self-cater most meals, so we headed to the supermarket nearest our local train station for supplies.
After such a wonderful time feeding ourselves via supermarkets in Europe, shopping for groceries in Queens was a rude shock. In all the countries we visited in Europe the supermarkets offered excellent fresh produce and quality foods. Even the low-priced Aldi (or it’s offshoot Hofer) and Edeka stocked good products, and if you went to a premium place like Kaufland or Carrefour then the options were nearly limitless. And the range of prepared foods in supermarkets in England (eg. at Sainsburys or Waitrose) was so tasty that we had trouble choosing our favourite meals. Such choices are a world away from the bargain-basement feel of that first supermarket in Queens.
The mood was set when a burly security guard insisted we deposit our bags in the locker room. We had never had to do that before (although we have since encountered it several times in Ecuador). The range of highly processed food was extensive, the selection of fresh food limited and of rather dubious quality. Even the bread was disappointing. We knew already that American tastes favour sweetened bread, to the point where they add copious amounts of sugar to ordinary loaves of bread to make them sweet. We did not want that, so chose what we thought would be a sugar-free option: wholemeal bread (we were wrong). In the end we chose fruit and yoghurt for breakfast, ham and cheese to go with our (sweet) bread for lunch, and a couple of cans of chilli con carne for dinner. Even when we discovered a slightly better supermarket the next day, our options didn’t improve much and we ended up eating out more often than not that week.
Back to the house to make some plans for the following day, and what we thought would be a good night’s sleep. We didn’t interact much with our hosts the entire time we were there, in large part because their pattern of living was very different to most peoples’. The place was quite quiet until 9pm or 10pm, then they seemed to come alive and fill the house with loud talking, the crashing sound of dishes being washed, taking showers, and most surprising of all the sounds of their four-year-old son talking and playing until after midnight. Our sleep was interrupted that night, but it was a Saturday evening so we assumed (and hoped) that it was just a weekend thing.
The next morning, a Sunday, was our busiest and one of our best days of the whole week. Predicting that going early would beat the queues, we got up at the crack of dawn to get to the Rockerfeller Center when they opened at 8am. It was worth the effort: there were only a handful of other people queuing to visit New York’s highest observation deck at that time. The views were spectacular from the top, especially with the sun still low on the horizon, and we got some great photos in all directions that morning! Next mission was a visit to the docks on the west side of the island to pick up some tickets for a couple of island cruises later in the week. It took quite a while to walk there (there are no subways servicing that part of Manhattan) and back to Times Square, and we actually had to rush to make it to the start of our West Village walking tour.
This tour, scheduled for two hours but which in fact lasted almost three, was one of the best things we did in New York. James, the tour guide, was highly informative and entertaining as he walked us around just a handful of streets pointing out where famous actors, writers, painters and other artists lived or live. “Marlon Brando lived in this apartment when he first came to New York” (and then many others), or “Dustin Hoffman was living next door when the bomb went off” were some of the gems I remember! Interspersed with this was a surprising amount of info about the historical development of New York: from why the streets are numbered the way they are, to why a particular orientation of the bricks in your building indicated how wealthy you were during a certain period of time, to why people moved so frequently from apartment to apartment in previous decades, to how having an “active driveway” in New York today is a sign of extreme wealth. Combined with some rather negative commentary about New York University and a potted history of Washington Square Park, we were thoroughly entertained and informed and really glad to have been able to do this tour.
Because it ran over time we had to rush to our next appointment, grabbing a cab downtown so we could visit the 9/11 Memorial. While entry is free, you have to book for tickets for a particular timeslot so they can ensure an even flow of visitors and we just made it in time for our slot. They are still building the new World Trade Center towers but the Memorial is now finished, and it was a very moving and respectful experience. Where the bases of the original two towers stood there are now vast and deep sunken excavations, each faced with black marble and with water flowing constantly down the inside surfaces towards the bottom. From the edge you can’t see where the water ends and the effect is of an infinite and peaceful cascade. Around the edge of each section of the monument are the names of those who perished, and the rest of the park area is neatly landscaped with paving stones and trees.
Feeling in the mood for a drink afterwards, we followed up one of Glenn’s recommendations and headed to Ginger Man. This is a pub that is very serious about its beer, and I sampled a couple of very fine artisanal American drops while Kristen tackled some interesting Japanese beers (including one that tasted for all the world like a cold espresso coffee!). A great place, but we were aware that we still had a long journey to get home so after some snacks and a couple of drinks each we headed off. But we got a second wind on the train courtesy of some excellent platform buskers, and instead got off at Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn in search of a live band and found a wine bar instead. We met a local woman who was up for a chat, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing New York, Australia, the world and other random issues.
The next day was deemed a rest day, and we stayed in our local environs in Queens. Technically it’s just a few hundred metres from the border with Brooklyn, but it was a rather depressed area nonetheless and we decided this was the day to sample American fast food. Maccas was the first choice, and (perhaps not surprisingly?) it was tastier than in Australia! Dinner was brought to us by KFC, and the less said about that debacle of a meal the better. It was American fast food at its worst, so bad that Kristen couldn’t even finish it. And I know the food was prepared fresh because I had to wait 15 minutes for it to be cooked! Walking around the local area, I discovered that I could have started practising my Spanish, because we heard more of that language than English on the streets. Overall it was a day to catch up on a few administrative details and watch a lot of television via our laptop, but yet again the night was disturbed by our hosts. Neither of them worked during the day, and once again the place was quiet until 9pm or so when the animal spirits stirred and the noise resumed. I slept okay that night but Kristen reported they were up, talking loudly and washing dishes, until after 2am. To get the most out of our New York Pass we had to get up early, so we were deeply unthrilled about the limited sleep.
From this point on we did a lot less each day, partly due to lack of sleep but also due to Kristen becoming sick for a couple of days. With our weekly metro passes we had unlimited access to the subway and buses, but even with this you still need to do a lot of walking between attractions, subway stations and more subway stations to get around. Normally not a problem, but very tiring when sick. On the Tuesday we headed first to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art. Though very well laid out and with an extensive and representative range of modern art, there were only small sections that we actually enjoyed and appreciated. It has a small but well-chosen selection of Impressionists, for example, and a handful of the social realist paintings sparked our interest. But many of the works from the 20th century left us cold, especially the abstracts. One particular work, Painterly Realism of a Boy with Knapsack – Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension by Kazimir Malevich, made Kristen extremely angry. It consisted solely of one black square of paint and one red square of paint on a white background – that was it (see it here). How on earth could something so simple be considered a work of great art? It was a giant wank, quite frankly, and to us it was an example of just how ridiculous modern art can be. The fact that similar paintings can sell for millions of dollars just underlined the point (a day or two later I read that another abstract work, considered highly significant and also consisting only of some variations in colour, was going to auction and was estimated to be worth US$50 million). We left the place after a couple of hours, satisfied that we had seen it but without any increased love for modern art.
After a cheap lunch at a decent pan-Asian restaurant near MoMa we visited a couple of our second-tier choices, Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, because they were close to each other and “free”. They were both interesting enough, but we wouldn’t have done either of them if we’d had to pay the exorbitant entry fee in cash. As the weather this day was wet and windy we didn’t stay in town for long, instead opting to return home in the hope Kristen would feel better the next day.
On Wednesday we got up early again and headed into town for breakfast. Choosing to wander the East Village but not knowing where to go, we wandered around a bit before settling on Veselka. This Ukrainian restaurant is a bit of an institution in New York, so it turns out, and the authentic food was very tasty and filling. Suitably replenished, we headed out to complete the main mission of the day: shopping. For the preceding six months we’d lived with clothes that were suitable only for warmer climes, and with South America just around the corner we needed some cold weather gear quickly. We’d deliberately left shopping for such things until New York because we knew it would be cheap, and we weren’t disappointed. Armed with the addresses of several outdoor stores we traipsed around SoHo for hours, in the end buying everything we wanted in one session.
After lunch at a nearby restaurant we headed to a bar-café for an hour, then it was off to the docks again for the twilight boat tour. The weather was better than the previous day and the sun was out as we set off, heading south towards the bottom of the island as the sun was setting and providing ample photo opportunities. We rounded the island and set off up the East River for a while, then back for a closeup of the Statue of Liberty before returning to the dock as darkness fell. This was another highlight of the whole week, and strongly recommended to anyone in New York if the weather is good. On this day we also met a stranger on the train, got chatting and discovered that his wife used to live on the street we were currently staying in in Queens! He recommended we walk along the Brooklyn waterfront for its fine views of Manhattan, and we resolved to do just that the following day.
We headed home for the evening, for what we assumed and hoped would be a quiet night. Wrong. We’d had some more late night noise issues the previous evening, but this night was extra special with the young boy breaking out his recorder and electric keyboard for a solo jam session – at 11pm at night. The noise continued until after 2am and neither of us could sleep, but nor did we feel we had the right to tell someone to be quiet in their own home. It was so bad that we used that forced awake time to search the internet for other accommodation, as we didn’t think we could stomach two further nights of disturbance. But as noted earlier there simply aren’t any cheap places to stay in New York, and those few that were vaguely within reason got very bad reports on various travel websites. We simply couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars a night on a really good hotel, so it was a case of “suck it up sunshine” and just persevere.
The next morning (despite our tiredness) we headed to Brooklyn with the plan to walk along the waterfront, as suggested, and then over the Brooklyn Bridge to the city. Unfortunately virtually the whole waterfront is under development right now and mostly we could only see a huge construction zone. Kristen was still feeling a bit weak after her illness, and with half of the Brooklyn Bridge under covers for renovation we decided against walking over it. With most of the morning gone due to our Brooklyn excursion, lunch beckoned again and we decided to return to the bar-café we’d visited the previous day and in the end spent quite a few hours there chatting and planning. As this was the last night we could do anything late in New York we were keen to find a bar or club with live music, but neither of the friendly bar staff could offer us anything concrete to aim for. After much umming and ahhing we decided to simply head to Brooklyn again and follow our noses, hoping to find something of interest. We briefly visited another of Glenn’s bar recommendations, Barcade (a large bar with dozens of 1980s video games around the walls), but it wasn’t the right vibe for the night so we didn’t stay. After an appallingly dismal burrito meal at a nearby restaurant (nearly all of which was left on the plate), we reached the conclusion that there was no point flogging the horse and simply retired for the evening. But “retired for the evening” doesn’t mean we had a quiet night. Back at the ranch, and the locals were again keeping up their nighttime shenanigans. The young boy again brought out his musical instruments, and the adults were talking loudly, and all this was coming in clearly through our bedroom window. Just one more day, we consoled ourselves, one more day…
Our final day in New York, and again we rode with the masses on the morning train to Manhattan. We had a couple of options to fill our time that morning (The Met? The Museum of Natural History? The Intrepid Technology Museum?), and eventually chose to start the day with a visit to St John the Devine Cathedral followed by the Museum of Natural History, as they are both relatively close to each other and also close to subway stations. The ride there was probably the most entertaining part of the whole morning. The young man who announced the next stop and the usual safety warning about the closing doors spoke with the most unusual voice. He emphasised words in a very distinctive way when speaking: “please stand clear OF, the closing doors OF, the train. The next stop IS, 57th St.” Each emphasised word was almost shouted followed by a strange pause, it was like he was channelling Bill Cosby! The line we were on was the only one that went to the Bronx, and we never encountered this speech pattern on any other train, so perhaps it’s a very regional dialect?
The Cathedral looked very unattractive from the outside, and when we arrived we wondered why on earth we bothered to visit. Neither of us are religious and we’d seen more than enough churches in Europe, yet we were drawn by the fact it is apparently the largest Cathedral in the world. The inside was much more impressive, and the size truly vast. After a short wander around we hit the train again and headed south to the Museum of Natural History. We had high hopes for this place as we are both very interested in nature and the world, and the reality of the “museum” was massively disappointing.
In the movie Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller has to negotiate numerous display tableaux that come to life after dark. So we knew that such “still life” recreations were part of the museum and were not surprised to see some. But we expected there would be much more to the place, not just an endless series of frozen and rather dull window displays. Even the descriptions aside each were very short, and in the case of some of the native American scenes rather racist as well. It was clear that few if any of them had been modified since they were installed, and the whole place looked like it was frozen in a time warp where the 1960s and 1970s idea of a “museum” prevailed. It was entirely passive, not interactive, and even the handful of computer presentations in one small area failed to raise much interest. We left after barely half an hour, disappointed but glad that we hadn’t paid in cash the exorbitant $25 entry fee each (it was included in the New York Pass) for such a stultifying experience.
With some of the morning still to go, we decided to finally head deep into Greenwich Village and see what it has to offer. The walking tour of our second day was great but covered just a very small area, and this time we wandered from 14th St southwest. The shops here are “boutiques”, not stores, and the whole place is lined with trees and reeks of wealth. We really enjoyed wandering this area, as it felt so different to the other parts of Manhattan. We were also idly hunting around for somewhere to lunch and settled on Spasso, a charming bistro on the corner of Hudson St and Perry St. What a find! The food was exceptional and pretty cheap for its quality, and we wished we could have stayed there all afternoon just relaxing in the sun with a wine or three.
But as it was our last day we felt we should move on and keep sightseeing, and headed north again towards the High Line. This former elevated railway was disused and dilapidated for decades, before a movement for its renewal grew in the late 1990s and 2000s (supported by such local luminaries as Edward Norton, who now sits on its Board). It is now a landscaped public space that is very popular, if narrow, and offers great views of southern Manhattan. We’d heard about it during our West Village walking tour and were interested in seeing it, but it slipped off our radar during the week and it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across it. From it we spotted another landmark alluded to during the Village walk: the ultra-modern apartment building that houses, amongst others, Nicole Kidman’s New York pad. From there we headed home again for an early night, as we had to be up at 2.30am the next morning to prepare for our early flight to South America.
Overall we didn’t do anywhere near as much in New York as we had expected, and probably didn’t get great value out of our New York Pass. But that was due to a number of factors: limited sleep thanks to our hosts, poor weather on some days, Kristen being sick on others, and being based in Queens which added at least an hour a day to our plans. As the week progressed we also remembered our usual desire not to rush, something we have avoided doing for the entire year until we got to New York. But because of the Pass, plus the fact that this would be our only chance to visit New York for at least several years, we felt obliged to run around a lot trying to fit everything in. By the end of the week we were over that urge and frankly rather keen to leave New York, and we were simply looking forward to getting to Quito so we could relax.