The Big Apple: Buildings, Bridges and Boroughs
Just these three seemingly simple city sights gifted us with some of our best memories of our trip to New York. Those, and of course, filling our bellies! So four things - buildings, bridges, boroughs and filling our bellies! Oh, and butterflies! And we can’t forget our first real taste of Kansas City style BBQ! There’s so much to New York, so much that we loved, and they don’t all start with ‘B’! In our last post, we described what it’s like to visit New York for the first time and how overwhelmingly huge it is. This is why this post is so difficult to write and why there’s going to have to be more than one! So, in an attempt to relive one of the best travel experiences we’ve ever had (and we never thought we’d say that about a big city), let’s start with the major attractions in Manhattan and how we got to see them all.
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Sightseeing with the New York CityPASS
Any major city like New York has top attractions and it usually costs money to see them. If you’re on a budget, it can be difficult to face the expense of seeing them all while not wanting to leave anything out of your itinerary. That is where the New York CityPASS came in handy. CityPASS kindly provided us with a complimentary pass each so we could share with our readers our honest opinions and experiences about using it. Honestly, we were delighted to discover how much money can be saved, without missing out on any of the main sights. At $132 U.S. per adult, initially it seems like a lot of money but it actually saves over 40% compared to combining the regular price admissions for all of the included attractions. Here’s the full list of attractions that the New York CityPASS gets you, valid for 9 consecutive days, showing the regular price of admission for one adult:
The Empire State Building which includes the 86th-Floor Observatory plus a bonus same-day evening return visit ($52)
The American Museum of Natural History which includes the Rose Center for Earth and Space plus the Space Show or a giant-screen movie ($33)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art which includes same-day admission to The Cloisters museum and gardens and the Met Breuer museum ($25)
A choice between Top of the Rock® Observation Deck ($38) OR Guggenheim Museum ($15)
A choice between Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island which includes admission to the Immigration Museum ($18.50) OR a Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise (Landmark Cruise is $37)
A choice between 9/11 Memorial & Museum ($26) OR Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum which includes the Space Shuttle Pavilion ($33).
Straight away you can see the savings if you plan on seeing even four of the top sights. Where there was a choice between two attractions we were a bit torn but a little bit of reading, prioritising and some local tips helped us to decide.
Top of the Rock - The Rockefeller Building
Top of the Rock was a given, as Neil had his heart and mind set on some compositions from high above the city, particularly at sunset and the blue hour. This had to be carefully timed with clear enough skies so we kept an eye on the weather to make sure we’d catch a decent sunset. Of course we should have realised that it wasn’t just us who thought that sunset would be the ideal time to get one of the best views of New York City! The queues were out the door and down the street but thankfully our line wasn’t as long with the CityPASS. We also didn’t know that sunset times need to be booked well in advance and cost an extra $10. It was looking like we weren’t gonna make it on time but the girl at the ticket desk was incredibly lovely to us and got us in on a cancellation. A recent cruise to Cobh in County Cork made her slightly biased towards our Irish accents. To be sure we made the most of it! At the top it was rammed with people and to be honest I didn’t fancy squeezing into the sunset side. I chilled out looking out over Central Park and Neil managed to get a spot for himself and his camera. Keep an eye out for our next blog post where Neil will be dishing out photography tips for New York and how to get shots like this.
Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island or a Circle Line cruise?
On one of our long walking days we found ourselves down around Washington Square Park, where we lingered to greet the inquisitive squirrels and watch art students perform in the dried up fountain. After building up a thirst, New York’s oldest pub, McSorley’s Ale House was only around the corner and sounded like our kind of place. Sure enough, with sawdust on the floor, a long dark wood bar, shared tables and a waiter that said, “Whaddya want?”, our souls knew we’d be happy here. He sat us down next to a couple of girls and after a little hesitation, not knowing what to order, he said, “You got two choices, light or dark ale that’s it!”. I got dark, Neil got light and out came two each! That’s apparently the only way they sell them!
We settled in, enjoying the atmosphere and realised we were sitting right beside photos and an article on the wall about Brendan Behan, one of Dublin’s famous writers. He was fond of the drink and of New York so he felt right at home in McSorley’s. It definitely reminded us of home. We got talking to the two girls who were from Canada and Australia and they’d both been to New York a few times. Sharing travel stories over one or two ales, we told them about our dilemma. They recommended the Circle Line Cruise over Ellis Island so our decision was made and sealed with a clink.
Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise - Landmark Cruise
At an hour and a half long, with a fantastically detailed narration by the on board tour guide, this cruise taught us so much about the history of the great city of New York. With unique views of every detail of the tour to go along with the narration, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend a sunny winter’s afternoon. Sailing right past the Statue of Liberty, we took a lot of selfies, delighted to be up so close to her. It was very cold up on deck but getting to glide under the glorious Brooklyn Bridge was well worth the biting wind.
9/11 Memorial & Museum or the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
Okay, here’s where I’ll have to admit that I’m a trekkie. Yes, laugh it up, I had the uniform, the phaser, a signed up member of the Dublin-based Star Trek Fan Club - the works! How could we not go to see the Spaceship Enterprise?! My only gripe was I didn’t get to sit inside the capsule...with my uniform on. Of course, that’s being ridiculous, the space shuttle is on display and nobody is allowed inside it, which is fair enough. We were awestruck when we saw it and the story behind how it was named and its pioneering flight that lead to the space shuttle program is inspiring, to say the least.
With our New York CityPASS we also had access to the inside of the USS Growler, the only American guided missile submarine open to the public. We had mixed feelings walking through it. Although it was a fascinating insight into the cramped and dangerous space the marine volunteers had to live and work in, the exhibition also explained the devastation and destruction caused by the two nuclear bombs that were mercilessly dropped on Japan’s population. On the top deck were more war machines and recognisable aircraft from footage of the Vietnam War and Desert Storm, that have been on our T.V. screens for decades. We finished our visit feeling both intrigued and uneasy.
Mesmerised by Manhattan’s Museums
Planning our time for the museums was a bit of a failure, in that we completely underestimated how long to give to each of them. We spent hours on our feet in both of these museums and barely scratched the surface. In the American Museum of Natural History we strained our necks gawping at the building-sized dinosaurs on display and were amazed to find out that the T-Rex here is a real skeleton, not just a cast from a fossil.
Our CityPASS tickets also included admission to the wonderful Hayden Planetarium Space Show, Dark Universe, which is narrated by none other than, Neil deGrasse Tyson who is Director of the Hayden Planetarium. The visuals were outstanding and the whole experience blew our minds. Exploring the Big Bang, dark energy and dark matter, we were engrossed in the wonders of astrophysics with footage from a NASA probe descending into Jupiter’s atmosphere and depictions of dark matter swirling on the enormous domed screen above us.
Our day at the museum finished with us standing in the Butterfly Conservatory, watching the most beautiful specimens flutter all around us in glorious kaleidoscopic displays. We caught the last 10 minutes just before closing, thanks to a really cool and friendly Museum security guard. Our Irish accent struck lucky for us again!
The next day we spent 3 hours in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the “MET”) without even leaving ground level. Our jaws were on the floor seeing that an entire Egyptian Temple had been relocated and precisely rebuilt inside a section of the building. Complete tombs, enormous sarcophaguses, and ancient artwork kept us busy and the audio guide that came free with the CityPASS explained everything in fantastic detail. We regret not going back over the next three days, which the ticket allows for, because the ground floor alone was fascinating, covering everything from Greek and Roman art, a thousand years worth of weapons to cultural artifacts of ancient peoples from all over the world. We wish we had planned it better but sure it’s one of the many excuses we have to go back to New York!
The Empire State, The Chrysler, Grand Central Station and New York Public Library
These iconic buildings, for us, encapsulate New York. Although most people probably find them very touristy, there just wasn’t any chance that we could leave these out of our itinerary. Our New York CityPass got us access to the Empire State Building. We loved chatting with the incredibly friendly and funny staff that guide you through the queues and the lifts. There weren’t many other tourists so we took our time. We were over-awed by our first elevator ride to the top of, what was once, the world’s tallest skyscraper and even though it was cloudy, the views still took our breath away. The story of its construction, nearly 100 years ago, is displayed with amazing black and white photos of workers on their daily precarious duties high above the city, no harnesses, nothing to stop them toppling over the edge of a steel beam.
As we said in our last post, the Chrysler Building acted like our homing beacon the whole time we were in New York. We kept seeking it out anytime we had a skyline view or even a peep down Lexington Avenue. Only gaining entry into the lobby as it’s still a private building, we still fell in love with the Art Deco interior and managed a couple of photos.
Grand Central Station was as impressive as what we had built up in our minds. Neil set up a few long exposures with me standing patiently in the middle of the station while everyone else buzzed around me. I didn’t mind at all because I was totally captivated by the massive mural on the ceiling made up of images of the constellations. Wandering down a level to seek out the Whispering Gallery, we had our doubts about whispering into corners, thinking it might be made up to make all us tourists look like fools. After a couple of attempts, the acoustic phenomenon actually worked perfectly and we could hear our quiet words from 30 feet away from each other.
It may have been our timing but we found New York Public Library to be the busiest sight in Manhattan, after Top of the Rock. The famous lions that guard the steps were swarming with selfie setups and rightly so. If you grew up in the 80’s with T.V. they’re ingrained in your memory! When we got inside it was even busier and unfortunately we only got a brief glimpse of the grandeur of the Rose Main Reading Room.
The exhibition, Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots was on while we were there. Knowing very little about the riots, we were presented with an extremely moving and insightful background into the struggles faced by the LGBTQ community and the pivotal events that lead to thousands of activists that still fight for their rights today. It was truly an inspiring and humbling history lesson.
Central Park drew us in twice for picnics and meanderings. The first time, we tried to cover too much and wore ourselves out but it didn’t detract at all from our excitement. The only thing I couldn’t help but be disappointed at was the fact that we were there in winter and nothing was as lush green as I had imagined.
Two days later, the travel gods blessed us with a beautiful covering of snow which was even better than seeing it in summer. It was more than feeling like we were in a movie, with white horse-drawn carriages adding to the Christmas-card scene. It actually felt like a fairy tale! We crunched along on the snow and played in it like little kids for about 2 hours, ignoring the cold and catching glimpses of blue jays and squirrels. The views across the half frozen lake towards the silver skyscrapers, shrouded in low clouds, framed by the white snow-laden trees is a treasured Manhattan memory.
Our favourite food in Manhattan
There was no way we could visit New York for the first time without splashing out on at least 3 or 4 or 5 (Okay, several) times on dinner out! In fact, we pretty much ignored the cries from our credit cards as we couldn’t resist what was on offer. Most of our dinners out where over in Queens and Brooklyn (which will be in our next post) but these two were our favourites in Manhattan.
Tacos in Blockheads Burritos on 2nd Avenue
Within 2 minutes walk of our hotel, we discovered Taco + Margarita heaven. They celebrate Taco Tuesday in style with $5 frozen margaritas, and 3 generous Tacos for $10. We tried the Pork & Pineapple and the Steak Chimichurri Tacos that turned us into total glutton-bots so we had another round of everything, twice! The staff were really cool and friendly and the atmosphere just made you want to order more frozen margaritas which is exactly what we did!
Proper pub grub in PJ Clarke’s on 3rd Avenue
Okay, we’re predictable, it’s an Irish pub but in all fairness, this isn’t just any old Irish bar. This place is an institution in New York and we just had to try the “Cadillac of burgers” as Nat King Cole described them. Buddy Holly, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and a heap of other famous people were regulars over the years, attesting to its reputation as Manhattan’s best saloon since 1884. Sitting in a leather booth in the corner (we hope it was Sinatra’s regular table) we ordered a couple of cold beers and tucked into the best fish and chips outside of Ireland and what truly was the “Cadillac of burgers” (Neil is an expert burger eater!). While red and white chequered table cloths, candlelight, and old-school dark wood paneling might sound cliché, it genuinely seems like this is the place where that ‘look’ was invented. You’d have to go back to Ireland to find a more authentic pub than this!
Leaving Manhattan for the Boroughs
As we said in our last post, we spent our last few days in New York, staying in Long Island City (“LIC”) over in Queens for a change of scenery. It was a fantastic base for exploring LIC, Flushing, Williamsburg and Brooklyn which will all have to go into our next post so stay tuned!