Embracing Being a Tourist in New York City

Embracing Being a Tourist in New York City

I applauded when the New York Times new travel editor announced that the travel section would pursue a new direction in order to deliver the authentic experiences that travelers crave. By hiring writers who live and know the cities being featured, they can better suggest experiences that capture the intrinsic heart of a place. Anyone who has read an article about their hometown understands the frustration when an article suggest an outdated restaurant or visit to a landmark that while nice, should not be prioritized. I can recall countless insipid pieces about Washington, DC that made it seem as if there was nothing to the city beyond the Mall. These articles never portrayed the young, vibrant Washington, DC that I loved, but perpetuated the stereotypes of a staid city where everyone wears a suit and espouses political jargon. And yet, imagine visiting DC and not wandering by the Lincoln Memorial. Embracing being a tourist is about embracing exploration instead of expecting that upon arrival a place will let you in on all of its secrets. 

On my mother-in-law’s inaugural visit to New York City we embraced being tourists. This trip was not about experiencing the city as a resident would, but about going to the top ten sites found in a guidebook. Our first stop was The Met. Besides Central Park, this is probably the one place many New Yorkers and tourists alike voluntarily frequent. Instead of setting off to visit an exhibition as a resident might, we meandered with no particular defined plan. This approach meant we spent more time than normal in the Egyptian wing looking at the mummified animals and statues. We passed the Temple of Dendur that occupies a cavernous space that also showcased Central Park in all her autumnal glory. After visiting the Modern and Contemporary galleries, we exited through the African gallery so we could visit one of my favorite pieces, Between Heaven and Earth by El Anatsui.

The brisk weather lent itself to aimless wandering through Central Park. It was a glorious day and all of New York seemed to be enjoying the sunshine. While it can be easy to march through the park in order to tick it off the list, I recommend blocking a few hours to get lost. Grab a coffee at Tavern on the Green’s to-go counter. Sit on a grassy knoll and people watch. When your feet are sore and it is time to find a place to sit for an extended period of time, it is time to exit. We happened to pop out on the Southwest corner and were lured toward the lights of Times Square.

Times Square is maddening place if you are actually trying to get anywhere, but as a tourist you give in and soak up the kitschy ode to consumerism and theatre. As the light declination changed and more of the street was in the cold shade, it was time to find a bar where we could watch rugby. No matter where we are, if the South African national team is playing, we watch rugby. In this case it was a good excuse to feed our bellies with some fried food and rest our achy feet at an Aussie Bar in Midtown. After the match, we headed back to the hotel for a complimentary glass of wine and to preen before our evening with Billy Joel. Billy Joel has taken up residence at Madison Square Garden and it is only fitting to see him play in New York City. 

We began day two by heading South to the Lower East Side for sustenance – a toasted bagel with lox and cream cheese. Russ and Daughters Cafe already had an hour wait time so we went to the original shop on Houston. Grab a number, smoosh in with the regulars buying feasts and bagel-loving tourists, and wait, and wait, and wait. We waited nearly an hour for our number to be called and while some in our party (Callum) doubted the wait was worth it, it absolutely was.

We took our bagels to-go and rushed off to our next destination, One World Observatory, where we had timed tickets to the 102nd floor and a bird’s-eye view of Manhattan. After our 42 second theme-park-esque ride to the top, we were given tablets that pointed out iconic landmarks and buildings from whatever direction you were facing. From the Statue of Liberty, to planes landing at Newark, to the skyline, this is the place to get a sense of just how compact and yet expansive Manhattan is. Perched above the skyline, we jostled for precious window space and marveled. Upon descending, we exited through the Oculus transit hub – Santiago Calatrava’s ribbed, white marvel. We found some seats to devour our melt-in-your-mouth lox and the perfectly chewy bagels. 

From the World Trade Center we walked past Wall Street and the Charging Bull facing off with the Fearless Girl on our way to Battery Park. We joined another long line and waited to be screened before boarding our ferry to Liberty Island where the Statue of Liberty occupies some of the best real estate in the New York City Harbor. The water views from the boat beat the sky-high ones from One Observatory and this trip is worthwhile for that view alone. While a boat trip to the Statue of Liberty may feel hackneyed to New Yorkers, there is nothing like approaching the iconic statue from a boat. Now more than ever it felt important to contemplate the values and symbolism of the statue, especially since those sentiments feel lost in America right now. After a coffee to warm our bones and loop around the statue 305 foot tall, we returned to our hotel to get ready for a Broadway show. 

We arrived a tad early so that we could squeeze in a hot dog dinner of questionable provenance from one the ubiquitous carts that line New York streets. A gourmand experience it was not, but it was on the list of my two South African tourists.

I love the theatre and nearly every visit to the City includes a show. We chose Chicago because my mother-in-law’s childhood friend was staring a Velma Kelly. As we waited in line, the women behind us inquired if we were here to see Cuba Gooding Jr. to which we replied that we were here for Amra-Faye Wright. After the show, we were ushered backstage and then on to the stage where we chatted briefly with the stars of the show. What a thrill to experience the stage from the vantage point of the actors.

Our last morning in New York was grey and cloudy and less than ideal for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. We woke early and took the Subway to Brooklyn so as to walk toward the city. Given that our trip to New York was about embracing being a tourist and not seeking out the authentic, quiet bits of the city, we were joined by approximately all of the tourists visiting New York that weekend. Whilst appreciating the view, we had to dodge obnoxious selfie-snappers that are emblematic of all that is wrong with social media.

The city is an architectural marvel. The monotone color pallete makes the city instantly recognizable strikes a sense of awe every time I see it. Yet, awe is often a private moment. While trudging along the bridge my sense of wonder was punctuated by annoyance and downright hostility towards humankind who seemed more intent on proving they were in New York City than appreciating the the city. 

Our last stop before taking the train to Newark Airport, was Grand Central Terminal to be transported back to a time when travel was an elegant affair. In all my time in New York, I only walked through the terminal when I needed to get somewhere nearby. I never stood and appreciated the beauty of what always seemed like a functional transportation hub.

Perhaps, the biggest take-away from embracing being a tourist in New York City was that the most touristy landmarks have value. I lived in the City for two years and have visited countless times, but many of these stops were places I had previously shunned. While it is true that our trip did not represent how people who live there experience the city, it was representative of New York. Yes, it did mean waiting in long queues and those private moments of wonder were few, but when in Paris, you go to Eiffel Tour. When in Cape Town, you take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain. Authenticity in travel is important, but so is exploring the landmarks that define cities while leaving time for meandering and getting lost. Travel writing cannot exclude iconic destinations because they have been covered extensively. Travel writers need to find a way to connect them to the authentic experiences they recommend.

Where to Stay

Hotels in New York City are expensive. I searched high and low for a hotel that would comfortably accommodate all three of us in a single room without us tripping over each other or our luggage. Since we were three adults, the room also had to allow for privacy – ie no visible shower from the bedroom. Hotel Giraffe ticked all the boxes and then some – spacious rooms (by New York standards), proximity to the subway, and a daily cold breakfast and early evening wine and cheese hour.