This post is the result of a braindump I did on the weekend about stuff I learned when we were in New York last September. Disclaimer: I’m one of the least seasoned travellers I can think of.
Don’t get a pre-packaged SIM from a no-name electronics shop in Midtown. It will likely be expired or faulty and the staff will blame your phone, not give you a refund and try to sell you a dodgy phone. Yes, we were jetlagged, and, yes, this was an archetypal NYC tourist experience, and there’s no reason you should go through it too. My gut feeling is that SIMs from vending machines would have a chance of beeing dodgy too.
We got one from the T-Mobile store on Broadway near Times Square, which is what a work colleague had suggested we do. They have cheap 30-day plans. They will still try to upsell you.
Australian PayWave cards work where there’s PayWave. We have chip cards, which worked fine in modern bank ATMs, but did not work in older wall-ATMs or the small free-standing ones in bodegas. There are also even smaller ATMs bolted to building walls that look kind of like condom dispensers: we weren’t game to try those.
Almost everywhere puts a recommended tip amount on the bill. In restaurants with table service, you fill out the tip amount on the bill after they’ve taken your card and then it gets charged to the card (this is weird to Australians, here we add the tip and then do the credit card amount after that).
Most counter-service places with credit card payments have some sort of touch-screen where you choose a tip from a range of pre-calculated options. If it’s cash, tip 20%.
Leave $2 in the hotel room for housekeeping each night, and about the same for the guys who look after your luggage at the hotel.
The subway is good: we used it every day for two weeks and only had one major screwup. Avoid wearing open-toed shoes because you can get stepped on or have a shopping trolley roll over you on a ramp. If your card doesn’t work and the station officer tells you that the card’s faulty, hang on to it and try at another station. This happened to me and the card was fine.
Our chip debit cards didn’t work in the subway ticket machines so we had to use cash.
Getting from JFK to Manhattan was a bit of fuss – there’s an airport train which connects to the Long Island Rail Road and the subway. We took the former because we were zonked and thought it might be easier than learning how the subway worked when jetlagged, but it probably would have been much the same. We came out at Penn Station, which is terrible. Getting a cab or an Uber might have been easier.
We didn’t eat at nearly as many restaurants as I’d planned – I had a whole spreadsheet – but really only went to the three we’d booked from Australia: Enoteca Maria ($$), Le Bernardin ($$$$) and Osteria 57 ($$), all of which were good. We seemed to run out of time to book more when we were there, and often ended up eating things like Fresh & Co (a salad bowl chain) because it seemed cheap and healthy. That’s how I learned that eating salad bowls for two nights does not provide me with enough protein and carbs to be an energetic or happy tourist.
Eighth Avenue in Midtown has decent, cheap places to eat that don’t need a reservation.
It’s customary for Australians to gripe about American coffee but what we really missed was Australian cafe breakfasts. We’re both used to having big, low-GI morning meals – muesli or oats or something – and an everything bagel doesn’t cut it. Many cafes don’t have anything other than pastries until brunch. We started relying on Pret-a-Manger and Le Pain Quotidien, which are two chains that open early and have relatively healthy breakfasts. The Great Northern food court in Grand Central Station opens early and is excellent. There was also a really good breakfast buffet in downtown Brooklyn which sold food by the pound.
The coffee was fine, except that americanos are almost exactly like long blacks but upside-down and terrible, they actually turned me off coffee without milk permanently, so I drink lattes now.
Bodega sandwiches are good.
Three very different but equally good places to get Jewish comfort food: B&H Dairy in the Village, Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side and Juniors in Times Square.
Ole and Steen is an outstanding Danish cafe not far from Grand Central.
Peaches in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn was near our bed and breakfast: really delicious modern Southern-style cooking.
All the food we got in Central Park was good, if not too cheap.
The museum cafes were pretty bad.
Movie and TV Locations
We didn’t do this other than visit the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (twice) because it’s in Angels in America. Manhattan probably has more places to do this than anywhere else on the planet, but we decided after a bit of research to not go down that road because even though it’s dense, it’s still really big, and you could spend a lot of your time on the subway getting to places just to take a selfie. And you don’t have a lot of time.
It’s worth emphasising that Manhattan will mess with your sense of scale and wear you out. It’s both walkable and enormous: from top to bottom is about the same distance as Sydney’s CBD to Parramatta.
What’s really, really, cool, though, is the reverse: just spending time there and then watching all the NYC films and TV shows you can find, and recognising little parts of the city which aren’t especially famous, but which you’ve been to.
Grand Central Station
Don’t miss it, it really is amazing, and the Great Northern Food Court is a good spot for breakfast, although it gets busy.
Bigger, better, more beautiful than I expected. Even the buskers are good.
The Chrysler Building
OK, I lied, this was another location visit, because Matthew Barney staged a demolition derby in it in one of the Cremaster films. It’s lovely. They will politely ask you to stand in a little rectangle taped to the floor once they figure out that you don’t work in the building.
The Brooklyn Bridge
Brilliant, crowded with tourists taking selfies and local cyclists and joggers getting annoyed at the tourists, doesn’t matter because it’s spectacular.
The Staten Island Ferry
We took this because we had a restaurant booking at Enoteca Maria in Staten. (The meal was great: it’s old-fashioned slow Italian cooked by actual nonnas.) People talk it up because it’s a free boat ride and you can see the Statue of Liberty but honestly, she looks tiny from the ferry, and the rest of the scenery is not good. The trip is half an hour each way and they don’t let you ride the same boat back so unless you have a restaurant booking or want to go shopping at the new factory outlet they’ve built next to the ferry wharf, it would be a waste of an afternoon. It’s also crowded, because it’s full of people who work in the City and faintly disappointed tourists.
As a hip-hop fan, I enjoy the fact that I’ve been to Shaolin, and was thinking of visiting the newly inaugurated Wu-Tang district, but it’s a twenty-minute subway ride from the ferry. We didn’t have time before our dinner, so I bought a polo at Banana Republic instead.
The ferries are amazing if you like huge public transport boats (the biggest ones make a Manly ferry look like a bath toy) and the inside was plastered with ads for the new HBO miniseries about the Clan, so that was fun, but you can just hang out at Battery Park and watch them from there.
The New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library
Both of these are beautiful and worth seeing if you’re a bookish person and in their neighbourhoods (Midtown and Prospect Park). Bryant Park, next to the NYPL, is also really good.
In Greenwich Village, almost festively busy on a fine day just with people hanging out.
The locals complain about it, because it’s awful, like an alien spaceship made out of nuclear-powered shopping malls crashed in Midtown and started assimilating everything in sight. The only place we ate there was Juniors: it’s pretty good if you like cheesecake and diners and big hamburgers.
If you’re stuck there and you’re not hungry but want somewhere to sit in peace for a while, the clothes stores are good for that (Levis is comfy and relatively quiet).
We were staying in a hotel very near Times Square, which wasn’t great and I wouldn’t do it again. We did it to be near the Theatre District but it would have been better to stay downtown and get the subway.
Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Harlem
We went to the earliest of one of their two Sunday services and it was really good – it gave us the kick we needed when we were quite travel-fatigued Some of the Harlem churches have a congregation service and a tourist service but Convent Avenue is mixed and very friendly.
The High Line
An elevated railway line planted with garden beds that runs from Chelsea up between the buildings to Hudson Yards at midtown. It’s a long walk but you don’t have to do the whole length (there are exits at intervals along it) and the vistas of the city are great. It gets insanely crowded on weekends.
We got 7-attraction CityPasses, where you pay something like $US180 up front and then get to pick seven things from a big list which includes most, but not all, of the museums and galleries and the big tourist bus things. I don’t know if we saved that much money, but it felt thrifty because we didn’t have to pay when we were there. Here’s what we did:
The Met – everyone says this – is A Lot, and if you like museums you should go, but plan ahead and decide what you want to see, and then trim that list down a bit, because it’s huge.
The Breuer is much smaller and focused and modern, and do-able in an afternoon.
The Cloisters is not as good as a museum (I’m not a medievalist but my medievalist friend makes fun of it) but the location is amazing, it’s worth the relatively long subway ride uptown. We saw a groundhog!
I loved it but I was so jetlagged and starstruck by being in NYC that who knows. If you’re a modernism fan or an architecture fan, it’s worth it.
The Frick Collection
A Gilded Age mansion on the Upper East Side with a small but beautiful collection of European paintings and interiors, including Hans Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.
The Big Bus (midtown and downtown loops)
The guides felt like they’d come from a casting call to get the Most New Yorkers and it’s touristy as hell but a good way to get a sense of the city.
Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise
We were tipped off not to go to the Statue of Liberty itself – you’ll just stand around in queues – but to see it from a sightseeing cruise, which was a good move. At low tide this cruise goes all the way around Manhattan: at high tide, when we went, it goes up the East River, down again, then up the Hudson, because the bridges on the Harlem River are too low. The guide’s knowledge of New York architecture and urban infrastructure eventually wore out my patience, and that’s saying a lot, but it was still fascinating, and it’s a city that looks incredible from the water.
The more touristy a thing you do in New York, the more the people around you are Americans rather than other folks from overseas. I kind of exasperated a lady from Wisconsin by pointing out things like the UN building and noting that we were near Spanish Harlem — “how do you know all these things and you’re not even American?!?”
The Brooklyn Museum
This was great although it felt like we didn’t have time to do it justice. Really strong on African-American, gay/lesbian/queer/trans and feminist history. The pass included entry to the botanical gardens, which are also lovely, but Prospect Park (just up the road) is free, bigger and better.
The Color Factory
An art installation / Instagram trap in SoHo which was honestly a lot of fun, but we may not have bothered had it not been on the pass.
The 9/11 Museum
This was good, but it took much longer than the two hours recommended for it, and it’s sad, in both the obvious ways and in strange, hard-to-articulate ones.
We didn’t go to the Empire State Building or One World Trade: instead we booked a table at Bar Sixty-Five in 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which isn’t up quite as high but has great views, is a beautiful space and doesn’t have an entry fee. We just had an expensive drink, rather than an expensive meal. Even if you have an inside table, you can go outside to take selfies.
The outside tables have a minimum spend of something like $80 a head. It rained a bit when we were there and the staff ordered all the outside customers in and kept them there: I don’t know if they still insisted on the minimum spend but I hope not.
Don’t get cheap tickets in Times Square, you’ll waste half a day in a queue in Times Square. There’s a far better cheap tickets place at the Lincoln Center with the same shows as Times Square but no lines, the queues are inside, and it’s a much nicer area.
But the best way is TodayTix, which is an app you buy tickets on and then pick them up from a concierge outside the theatre.
Going to the theatre in NYC is far less leisurely than it is in Australia: there’s much less hanging around in foyers and many theatres don’t have one to speak of. You show up, you go in, you see the show, that’s it, get out. This is good! You’re a tourist, you don’t have time to dawdle! We saw no curtain calls but everything got a standing ovation, which is the opposite of Sydney crowds.
The audiences are ON THEIR PHONES ALL THE TIME. I say that to Sydney people and they roll their eyes and go “like in Sydney” and I say, no, you have no idea how much worse it is. But the are also very friendly and chatty, especially if they hear an Australian accent, and will ask you what you’ve seen and what they think you should see. Everyone told us to see Oklahoma! and they were right, it was terrific.
If you know who John Zorn is and like his sort of stuff, The Stone is his curated venue: the main location is now at the New College in the Village. No bookings, $20 cash on the door, a very friendly crowd, and even if the show doesn’t come off (as improv/experimental often doesn’t) the chat from the regulars will make it worthwhile. I didn’t see as much music as I’d planned to but the show I saw here (Zeena Parkins, Ikue Mori and William Winant) was amazing.
The Hush Birthplace of Hip-Hop Harlem and the Bronx tour was not too cheap but an absolute highlight of my trip: they also do bus and walking tours of Brooklyn.
The way Australians pronounce the letter ‘a’ is inaudible to Americans. You have to say “water” in an American accent for them to have any idea what you’re asking for.
Compared to Australian capital cities, New York is a friendly town, but it moves faster.
New York City doesn’t have enough public toilets. I thought the ones at the Port Authority bus terminal on 42nd would be awful, but they were surprisingly good. Toilets in parks were all surprisingly decent although the older ones in Central Park are really old, so they’re pokey, if clean. The worst I used were in Penn Station, but no-one would try using them unless they had to go inside Penn Station.