Mark Nicholls crosses the Atlantic and takes a wander around New York for a fresh perspective of the Big Apple.
Unseasonably warm with blue skies, sunshine and a balmy mid-60s on the thermometer, it was a beautiful late October day in New York.
My first visit was a long time in coming but once in the Big Apple I was ready to absorb all it could throw at me.
“Everywhere you go, you see sights you’ve seen in the movies,” a friend told me before I flew across the Atlantic.
But rather than succumb to the bright lights, razzamatazz, rumbling subways and blaring horns from yellow taxis, I first wanted to wander around this mesmerising metropolis on foot and allow it, instead, to seep slowly into my psyche.
I found my personal ‘walking tour’ the perfect way to absorb the ambience of the city at my own pace and, expecting to see little sunshine and sky enroute between the skyscrapers, I was pleasantly surprised.
From my hotel in Midtown Manhattan, I plotted a course Downtown toward the Brooklyn Bridge, along 7th Avenue, and past the flashing neon lights of Times Square with its touts and hot dog sellers on every corner.
Yet a few blocks on, I was in leafy squares with streetside cafés, and a slower pace altogether.
After Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, I branched off along the southerly reaches of Broadway and into Madison Square Park, where New Yorkers sat beneath yellow parasols sipping coffee with the famous Flatiron nearby and the Empire State Building in the background.
An occasional whisp of breeze carried a hint of cooler temperatures just around the corner as I continued into Union Square where a farmer’s market was in full swing, with stalls selling fresh fruit and veg, honey, duck eggs and liquors. At the southern end, romancing couples and dog walkers enjoyed the warmth, while men hunched over small tables, smoking and playing chess.
The rumble of subway trains intermittently rose through metal grates, and steam escaped from grills in the street, but in New York today, there is a new aroma alongside the smell from of hot dog and burgers and gyros from food vendors.
This is the whiff of cannabis, now legalised in New York, and smoked openly, with adults over 21 permitted to possess small amounts for personal use. You can’t fail to notice.
Crossing Canal Street towards the grandeur of City Hall brought me to the waterfront and Brooklyn Bridge, the historic span across the East River linking two New York boroughs.
As the path swept around, the twin arches came into view. With cars speeding below, and a separate cycle path, the unhindered walk took me across wooden boardings under a mesh of taut steel cables supporting this historic landmark structure, which opened in 1883.
The view is incredible; of Brooklyn before you and the Manhattan skyline behind, dominated by World Trade Center One and other skyscrapers and Manhattan Bridge nearby.
The High Line
They say crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is a rite of passage for New Yorkers, and also those who visit.
A steady stream of walkers headed in both directions, exercising that rite, absorbing the view over the East River and out towards the waterway towards Staten Island.
As you pass beneath the towers on the Brooklyn, you can head into the borough, but for many it is simply the experience of crossing, of admiring the view, and turning around for the return to pass back under the massive towers topped by US flags.
This was a New York I hadn’t expected; a walking city where you can take in the great sights at your own pace. Another free, on-foot, experience in Manhattan is The High Line where you can wind your way through the skyscrapers on an abandoned freight rail track that has been revived as an above-street-level pathway.
About a mile-and-a-half long and lined with trees, shrubs and art installations, it offers views down to street level between high-rise buildings. With several access points to The High Line, you can pause at Chelsea Market for something to eat or browse the independent stalls.
Contrast that with the open expanse of Central Park, the enormous green lung that replenishes New York, and you can walk for miles as you realise just how much of New York you can enjoy on foot.
While on foot may offer one perspective of New York City, another dimension is from the water.
The 25-minute crossing on the Staten Island Ferry from the lower tip of Manhattan is another great New York experience that won’t cost you a cent.
What it will give you is the most amazing views of Manhattan. Make the journey at night (the ferry runs 24/7), and an illuminated Manhattan panorama is one of the most memorable views of New York you’ll take away with you.
You’ll see the green illuminated glow of the Statue of Liberty too, but that’s worth a daytime visit via Statue City Cruises from the Battery Park dock. You get equally spectacular views of the statue and the Manhattan skyline during the day but can also fully appreciate the scale of the Statue of Liberty close up and walk around the monument, or even go up.
New York sightseeing
The crossing to the Statue of Liberty is covered by the New York CityPASS, which costs $129 and offers admission to a range of attractions.
With so much to see in New York, a CityPASS can help you pick your highlights, with savings on several major attractions.
These include the Top of the Rock observation deck at the Rockefeller Center near the Radio City Music Hall for amazing views, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum near World Trade Center One, the Empire State Building, and various museums and galleries, such as the Guggenheim.
It’s best to book in advance but you can change your bookings if, for example, it’s cloudy when you plan to ride the escalator up 86 floors to the Empire State Building viewing platform.
Even when its foggy at the top, there’s interactive displays and an exhibition about how it was built, as well as a reminder that the sun doesn’t always shine in New York!
New York has so many iconic buildings, all to be admired for their enormity and architectural beauty but make time for Grand Central Station and its echoing halls and dining area.
A must, for so many reasons, is One World Trade Center and the 9/11 Memorial.
The attack on September 11, 2001, changed New York City forever, but there is an overriding theme of remembering and recognising those who died, were injured, and the emergency services who responded.
The museum covers every aspect of the attack, sensitively, but in an informed way with artefacts and items that portray the event and those it impacted. There are particularly moving final messages from those on the aircraft and in the towers, as well as reflections from rescuers and survivors.
It is harrowing, yet honest in its presentations and portrayals, complemented by the two memorial pools where the original towers stood with the names of all those killed etched into the border. You can also take the elevator all the way to the top of One World Trade Center, for a view across Manhattan and beyond, visibility permitting.
New York has many more museums and galleries from The Met and Guggenheim to the American Museum of Natural History, the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
What you will come away with is memories of a city that will stay with you forever. New York gets into your pores; it truly challenges the senses, mesmerises and leaves you awestruck by its scale and size.
For me, it was my sixth visit to America after previously visiting Colorado for skiing, an Arizona health resort, Disney World in Florida and Los Angeles.
I felt as though I’d been to America, but never ‘quite got the t-shirt.’
That was until I finally made it to New York. And wow, was it worth the wait. It was love at first sight.
After seven days in the Big Apple, it was time to shop – the obligatory baseball cap, hoodie, presents to take home… and for me, the classic, cliched, I Love New York T-shirt. I felt, at last, I’d qualified for it.
The New York CityPass costs $129 and covers leading New York attractions, with savings of around 40 per cent on same-day admission prices. For more information, please visit: www.citypass.com/new-york.
Mark Nicholls stayed at the Sheraton Hotel on 7th Avenue and flew London Heathrow to JFK in New York with British Airways.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls
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