The salvation army’s jangling bells, ice-skating in front of the Rockefeller Christmas tree, freezing winds on 5th Avenue, sunsets behind the statue of Liberty, close encounter with Jennifer Garner, Knicks strutting their stuff at MSG, Macy’s filled to the brim with happy shoppers, Will Smith’s movie locations, the best cheese cake in the world....this is a travel blog from New York City before Christmas.
A short summary
Planning the trip
Finding a hotel this time proved to be a bit of a challenge. We started out by checking the cheaper hotels on Manhattan but maybe we started looking too late...or maybe we were going at a busy time (weekend after Thanksgiving) but most of the hotels were above 300 USD/night. Even the Pod hotel added up to about 330 USD per night when taking all the taxes into account. In the end we decided to stay at Quality inn in Long Island City and that was “only” 160 USD/night. You can read my full review of the hotel here.
As we had been there before we didn’t buy a new guidebook. We brought our old Eyewitness Guides NYC and we also borrowed a Norwegian guidebook from the library in Stavanger :-)
The trip begins
So at about noon on November 28th we left a wet Stavanger with Eurowings and about two hours later we landed in Frankfurt. We didn’t have much time in Frankfurt but we stopped by the Senators lounge just to check it out...hey, I got to get some value for my gold frequent flyer card :-). Our flight from Frankfurt was on an older 747 model from Lufthansa with no personal entertainment in each seat. But the flight was only about 8 hours so it was not much of a problem. We came in for landing at JFK airport at about 8 PM and we had to circle for a while due to a lot of traffic at the airport. It was amazing to look out the window when landing and seeing all the planes being lined up for landing. When the plane was on the ground we had to drive for quite some time and we even crossed a couple of highways before we came to the gate. I think it is safe to say that JFK is a HUGE airport.
Arriving in America
We arrived at the hotel at about 9.30 PM and the taxi driver finished his phone conversation before we parked by the reception. I paid the driver 40 USD including the tips. We took a walk in the neighbourhood right away to find some food and to get a feel of the place. I have to admit that we were a bit sceptical...it was dark, the place was more or less empty, the wind was making plastic bags and other trash fly around...and there were hardly any stores or restaurants. But a few blocks later we did find a few fast food joints and some grocery stores at least :-)
How to get around NYC?
Manhattan is quite well laid out: you have streets that go east to west and avenues that go south/north directions. Lower Manhattan is a bit of a mess but from about Washington Square park (the area where 1st street starts) and north figuring out your way is less complicated. The same goes for the avenues and 1st Avenue is on the east side of the island.
To get around just find out which line to use and decide if you are going uptown (north) or downtown (south to lower Manhattan). Swipe your metrocard to get into the station and find the right line and platform. Note that some trains are express trains and don’t stop on all stations (hehe, even we had a few mishaps this time)...but even if you end up on the wrong train it is not the end of the world. Just get off the train and wait for the right one :-)
We didn’t have any problems taking the subway. In rush hour the trains can be quite full and the ride can actually be quite bumpy and noisy. But the cars are in good condition and trains run all the time. A few times we did run into people begging while we were riding even if it is against the law and we also ran into people that were talking and singing (or laughing hysterically) to themselves...but it felt like a safe way to get around town both day and night. Don’t be surprised if you see a rat on the subway by the way :-) We saw several rats (kitten sized) on the tracks on a couple of subway stations.
Use the subway map to check out the subway system compared to the map. I would also advise you to use tools as MAPfrappe and Gmaps Pedometer to get a feeling about how big the city is.
Symbol of hope – Statue of
Liberty on Liberty Island
We ended up at the South Ferry terminal where you can take the Staten Island ferry. We did this in 2004 and you get a great view while on the boat...and it is free. It was also a short walk over to Battery Park where you can catch the ferry to Liberty Island and Ellis Island (see the homepage of Statue of Liberty ferry). We bought tickets to Liberty Island and Ellis Island at Castle Clinton for 12$ each and we also picked up a free time pass to get into the Statue of Liberty . This pass allows you to get into the Statue of Liberty in a certain time frame but I will get back to that.
Before we got on the boat we had to go through security control and it reminded us of a regular airport check where they x-rayed our bags and took us through a metal detector. But the line was not very long but I can imagine what it must be like in the middle of summer. On the boat we had company of lots of other tourists and school children on excursions. Liberty Island was the first stop and it was only about 15-20 minutes but on the way you get great views of the statue and all the way to lower Manhattan.
We decided to go straight to the statue when we arrived on the island. Here we had to present our time passes, stash our backpacks in lockers and then go through a new security control which included a regular airport security check and a ‘sniffing machine’. But in the end we were finally ready to check out a bit of the inside of the lady :-). The first thing that met us inside the base was the original torch from 1886. We also got a guided tour from here and a ranger told us a bit about the history of the statue and how it was built. There is also a small museum where you can see old pictures from the building process, models etc. After this we proceeded up the stairs inside the pedestal and there are a few steps before you reach the top. But fear not...if you are not able to do it you can also take the lift. As we are still kinda young and healthy we went for the stairs and managed to warm up on the way up. The view from the top of the pedestal is spectacular...apart from looking up the robe of the statue you can also walk outside and get a view of the island and Manhattan. .
We were on the way out of the statue when it started raining so we used the opportunity to grab some fast-food at the restaurant at Liberty Island. Food was a bit on the cold side but they had a good variety of more healthful food. We also experienced some varying weather - when we left Liberty Island the sun was shining again and the golden torch of the statue was flaring in the sunlight and that gave us the oppertunity to take some better pictures.
Welcome to America –
As we left Ellis Island the sun was setting and lower Manhattan was glaring in the evening sun. As we approached Manhattan again the sun was setting behind the Statue of Liberty casting a truly unexpectedly amazing silhouette.
Skating and proposals – Rockefeller center
On our way back to the hotel one night we stopped by the Rockefeller center. We were walking up 5th Avenue looking at all the Christmas decorations but coming around the corner to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller center was a highlight indeed. I guess most people have seen the tree in movies and pictures but it seemed to be a bit different to what I have seen in pictures. Turned out they had added some blue lights. Nikki overheard an elderly lady questioning a security guard about the change - I guess not everybody liked the addition :-) This year they were advertising that the lights where being lit up by using solar panels on the rooftops of some of the buildings in the complex...so there is some focus on the environment in the USA. Anyway, the place was crowded with tourists of course - all trying to take pictures of the tree. Some were also lined up to try out their skating skills on the small ice rink in front of the Rockefeller center. It was actually quite entertaining just watching people skating. One guy was showing of his talent by doing graceful pirouettes...while most others were showing the world that they had no idea how to skate. It was quite a sight seeing a couple of orthodox Jews struggling to keep their balance as they were shuffled on the ice. As we were standing there a guy got down on his knee and asked the girl he was with to marry him. Judging by the cheering from the crowd he got a yes.
Top of the world –
Top of the
At the top you can walk around inside and outside and it was also possible to use escalators to get to 70th floor, if I’m not mistaken. As you can imagine the view from 260 meters above the street level gives you a good view of Central Park and Midtown and lower Manhattan. It was freezing cold at the top this day as it was about 0 degrees Celsius (about 32 degrees Fahrenheit), windy and snow in the air. As I was freezing my fingers off taking some pictures I felt pretty sorry for the two security guys that seemed to be posted outside at the top. So if you do go here in the wintertime, be sure to bring along a warm hat and gloves :-)
Close encounter with Roxane –
Cyrano de Bergerac Broadway show
We grabbed a coffee at Starbucks while waiting for the show to start - I can’t really recommend the Gingerbread latte :-). The line to get into the theatre was unbelievable so we just waited inside the entrance of the Marriott hotel next door until it was time. Our seats were on the 4th or 5th row but all the way to the left hand side so we didn’t have a perfect view to the stage. But it was still great to get this close to the stage and Nikki was a big fan of the TV show Alias so this was a real treat for her. In the middle of the show they ran into some technical problems and they had to stop the play. But the cast was pretty sporty and they came out on stage to answer questions to pass time while the stage hands were working on the problem. Of course the first questions were related to Jennifer Garner’s daughter and her relationship to Ben Affleck.
After the show was finished we waited outside for a few minutes and it didn’t take long before Jennifer Garner showed up and she took time to sign autographs for the people that were waiting. It must be strange for the others to be cast with people like Kevin Kline and Jennifer...people hardly looked at other cast members coming out of the theatre so it was clear to see who were the stars of the show.
It was expensive to buy tickets for the Broadway show but we decided that we had to do it this time as we never got around it the last time we were there. Cyrano de Bergerac was a good play and for me it was nice to see a story that I know (I have seen the version with Gérard Depardieu) and it made it easier for me to understand (as English is not my mother tongue). Nikki enjoyed the play but was disappointed by Kevin kline’s lack of stage voice - the show has been running for a while and he seemed to only really get into his role near the end. If you are going to check out a show you have to be early to get the cheap tickets...or use the TKTS Discount booths to get discounted tickets but note that they don’t have tickets to all the shows.
Under the surface – The Bodies
The show is all about showing the
human body and how it works. In order to do this they have taken the bodies
of Chinese “volunteers” and they have preserved them by drying, dissecting
and the covering them with some sort of silicon. This allows them
I found it pretty interesting and it gives you a great insight on the human anatomy. But I’m not sure that the kids that were there on a school excursion gave much thought to the fact that we were looking at what were once real people. The Bodies exhibition is different for sure...but you can find far “worse” stuff around the world. Try the Museum of Forensic history in Bangkok for instance (see the pictures in my Thailand trip report).
An evening in the Garden –
Knicks game at Madison Square Garden
The game started at 7.30 PM and we went there an hour in advance to pick up the tickets. Madison Square Garden is connected to Penn Station so it is not a problem getting there on public transportation. We just walked over there after a short stop at Macy’s. Once we came to the Penn Station area we were met by lots of people trying to sell tickets to the game so I don’t think it would have been a huge problem if we had not bought tickets in advance. Even as we were walking through the door to the ticket booths we were offered a ticket...I wonder if this is legal. There was a brief security control before we went in and they checked our backpack and we had to leave bottles of water. But that was not a problem as they were selling beer, soda etc outside the arena area. We didn’t have any problems finding our seats in section 338 (row K, seat 5-6) as it was clearly marked. I had fears that we would be so far from the court that I would not be able to see any of the action without a pair of binoculars from we found the view from section 338 to be great.
Before the game started they had the national anthem of course, presentation of some of the players etc. When the teams ran in I was of course cheering for the home team (oh, they were playing against the Milwaukee Bucks) but to my big surprise the home crowd was booing when the Knicks came out on the court. I think it was because they had lost to the Boston Celtics the night before...but still, I’m not used to this kind of treatment from a home crowd.
We don’t know all the details about the rules of basketball but it was still fun and exciting to watch the game. And whenever there was a break they would have some sort of entertainment in the form of Knicks City Dancers, kids playing on drums, people from the crowd trying to aim for the basket from the middle of the court etc. And of course there were some celebrities at the game and they were sitting ringside so to speak. The first one that was “discovered” by the camera was Masi Oka who plays Hiro Nakamura in the TV show Heroes. Next to him was also Sean William Scott. I guess I will always think of him as Stifler (remember American Pie?)
At half time Knicks were like 10-15 points behind the Bucks and again the home team faced a crowd that was far from pleased. But in the second half the Knicks seemed to get their act together and they were catching up with the Bucks point by point. A minute before the end of the came it was a tie 88 to 88. And to the home crowd satisfaction the Knicks were able to score again and they won the game 91 to 88 more or less in the final seconds of the game. At this point the Garden was boiling as the home crowd was in ecstastatic. Going to a Knicks game was a great experience and we could not have asked for a more thrilling ending.
As good as it gets? –
Cheesecake at Junior’s
Grand Central Station is still a beautiful place that is worth a visit. When we were there they had a special Christmas kaleidoscope show in the main hall of the station. This was a huge light show where they displayed images on all the walls and it gave the hall a completely look.
Beware of a glowing credit card
– Shopping in NYC
If you are looking for a new camera, camera equipment etc I would recommend a visit to B&H Photo Video located a short walk from Penn Station and Macy’s. We went there a couple of times and to our big surprise it was closed on Saturday!! (it is due to the Jewish owners). But I went back there on a Monday and I did buy an Olympus camera for Nikki. It is a camera that is waterproof by the way so expect underwater pictures from our next beach vacation :-) The prices were quite good compared to the prices in Norway at least and I also ended up buying a camera for my brother. The store itself doesn’t look that big seen from the outside. But when you get inside there are two huge floors with cameras, equipment etc. They have quite the system going on when you buy something. I first went over to the Olympus stand to say that I wanted the camera. He went into the system and then he told me to go to a new counter. At this counter I was asked if I wanted extra insurance etc. Then I had to wait for a minute or two and then the camera came rolling on a conveyer belt under the desk. He picked it up, scanned it and then asked me to go downstairs to pay. I went downstairs, paid and when I came to the last counter the cameras were already put in a bag for me and I could finally walk out. I guess they must have quite a warehouse to store all the cameras :-)
If you are into wristwatches you should make a visit to some of the places on 5th Avenue. I’m not convinced that they have the best prices but a place like Torneau has several floors of watches and here you can take a closer look at brands like IWC, Breitling, Panerai, TAGHeuer, Jaeger LeCoultre just to name a few.
I ride a Harley here in Norway and
I used the opportunity to make a stop at the Harley-Davidson store in Long
Island city. It was a bit like seeing American Chopper on Discovery Channel
as two of the employees were having a bit of a lively discussion when I was
walking into the store. But they had a very good selection of stuff for the
bike, clothes etc.
We also went to Union square and stopped by Paragon Sports again. This sports store has a great selection of all that you need...and a bit more. It you want to buy Nike stuff be sure to stop by the huge Niketown store located close to 5th Avenue. We also went to H&M - of all things. This is the brand that you can find all over the place here in Norway and traditionally it has been seen as OK and cheap clothes. They seem to have a name in the US and there were a few stores around on Manhattan. We also had to visit FAO Schwarz while in NYC. This toy store seems to be very popular and it was made famous by Tom Hanks in Big (remember when he played the piano with his feet?). The piano is still there but you have to line up if you want to try it out. We did end up coming out of the store with some Barbie stuff for one of my nieces :-)
Nikki’s summary of the shopping in NYC is “there was not enough time”. We came over with three suitcases and one of them was more or less empty. When we went back we had three suitcases that were stuffed.
New York stories
Traffic in NYC is not that bad for a pedestrian. But we did see a couple of incidents where cars and bicycles were involved. There was the furious cyclist at an intersection – from what we could tell a yellow cab had ran into him or had been close to running into him. The cyclist was yelling to the cab driver “Be a man and get out of the f%&+! car so we can settle this”. I guess they were not completely in agreement about the traffic rules in the situation :-)
On my way back from B&H Photo Video I was stopped by a young woman on the street. Her long red hair was everywhere in the strong wind and she was going through a long sales pitch. I was freezing my ass off so I told her with a smile “Look I’m freezing...why don’t you get to the point. What do you want from me?” :-) Well, it turned out that she was selling membership to GreenPeace and I tried to tell her that I was just visiting so I could not sign up but she said that it was not a problem as I would be signed up to the Norwegian chapter. In the end I didn’t sign up...I guess she lost interest when I told her that I had tried whale meat and that it was quite tasty :-)
Time to go home
I hope that this trip report has been of some help. If you are going to NYC you should get a good guidebook to plan your visit. Read the book and decide what YOU want to see and then try to build an itinerary based on how many days you have in the city. And you also have to accept the fact that you can’t see it all in a very short trip. In my opinion you should not have a minute by minute plan as this only makes a trip into a stressful event.
Some “useful” tips
Feel free to check out the next section: Eating and drinking in NYC :-)