Updated: Sep 30, 2020
Back in January, I read about a festival in New York City called the Governors Ball, and I thought to myself; WHY NOT?
I booked flights and festival tickets and then I put the trip to the back of my mind, not really thinking about it again until a couple of days before leaving. At which point the fear of God struck me like a tonne of bricks! The realisation that my impulsiveness from January was about to catch up, scared me. For lots of reasons.
I feared being overwhelmed by the size of the city, of not feeling safe, that an American hostel wouldn’t be as friendly as the European hostels I had become used to, and that, maybe, I would be lonely.
Honestly? I was afraid that I had bitten off more than I could chew this time. But, despite all of this, I pushed my reservations aside and threw myself into the experience.
The result? I had the trip of a lifetime.
I landed in Newark airport and took the Airtrain to Penn Station, in central Manhattan. It is quite expensive to pay as you go on the subway, so on the advice of a guide I found online , I bought a flexi Metrocard. It cost $33 and I could use it as often as I needed while there (they last 7 days). On my first evening I found myself in the middle of one of the busiest depots – exhausted, hot and laden down with bags. Somehow I managed to find my way to where I was staying.
Any fears I had of about the hostel were quickly extinguished. HI Hostel was one of the most professional and well-run hostels I have ever stayed in. The artwork throughout the building gives it great character and it has a gorgeous outdoor courtyard. There were lots of organised activities to get guests mingling and it immediately felt like a safe base for me while I was in the city.
Once I had checked in I went for a walk to find something to eat. Thankfully, because I was by myself I didn’t have to join the queue at Suma Sushi . They seated me at the little bar in front of where the chefs were cooking and I was served almost straight away. The food was fresh and delicious, exactly what I needed after 17 hours travelling.
The next morning, with an hour to kill I decided to have a quick stroll around Central Park, which is only a couple of blocks from HI. The weather was fantastic for most of my trip, and when I walked into the park and saw how beautiful it looked in the sunshine it took my breath away.
There is something really special about Central Park. Maybe it’s the incredible combination of hills, lakes and architecture, or maybe it’s the stories & secrets you just know it holds in its pavements. Whatever it is, I now consider it one of my favourite places on earth. Truthfully, I welled up a little bit during that first wander – it’s hard to explain why. I guess I was just overcome with a feeling of gratefulness. Grateful that I was there and getting to see something so beautiful.
I didn’t really know where to begin in the city, so I decided to take my chances on a walking tour with Real New York Tours. The tour was $25 for six hours and I had my doubts (about walking tours in general). I silently hoped that I wouldn’t be wasting one of my precious days in the city.
IT. WAS. FANTASTIC!!
Our tour guide Greg, a New Yorker who despite only being in his 30s, has been guiding tours around the city for 17 years – you can imagine the amount of insider knowledge he has. One thing I have learnt about New Yorkers is that they are extremely proud and passionate about their city. Greg was the epitome of this attitude and it was infectious.
He called his tour the ‘Counter Culture Evolution Tour’ because it took us to areas that were off the beaten track and not your typical tourist haunts. He showed us lots of street art and spoke at length about different civil rights movements that had taken place in the city. He also squeezed in lots of artistic and rock ‘n’ roll hotspots throughout the day. It was by far the best $25 I spent during my entire trip, and made me feel like I had really gotten to see the city through the eyes of a local.
That evening I took the ferry to Randall’s Island, to the long-awaited Governors Ball. It’s irritating to have to admit this, but I was disappointed with that part of the trip. Now granted, I was by myself for most of it, which I have to say wasn’t much fun in a festival setting, but the festival itself lacked character. The crowd was extremely young and to top it all off the sound from the stage wasn’t great.
I stayed for a couple of hours and I did meet some cool people from the Bronx, but honestly, the event was an anti-climax. I cut my losses before the final act and headed home.
Getting the ferry back to the city at night, however, was spectacular. Seeing thousands of lights sparkle off the jet black water was magnificent. It was romantic and I really missed Brian at that moment, it would have been a lovely experience to share with him.. (Next time!!). Taking a night time boat trip along the river is a must if you are visiting.
Apart from the insight, I also gained something else from the walking tour – two new wonderful friends. Throughout the day, I chatted to Greg about this and that and we really hit it off. I’ll come back to that later.
Firstly, let me introduce you to Anna. We started chatting about half way through the tour and quickly realised we had a lot in common. She was also travelling in New York alone and was interested in all the same kind of stuff that I was. So we arranged to meet up the next day.
We signed up to the Citi Bike scheme that morning which cost $12 for the day. There are bike hubs on nearly every corner of the city and it is really convenient to use. Joining the other Saturday morning cyclists at the top of Central park, we made our way around the famous gardens enjoying the sunshine and views. It was an unforgettable moment, one that I will cherish for a long time.
Our first stop was the American Museum of Natural History. A great tip for this place is that all the prices are suggested, so although an adult ticket is $22 you can actually pay whatever you want – I paid $10. It is an amazing museum and the top floor is filled with real dinosaur skeletons. They are mind blowing – I imagine bringing kids to see them is a great experience. The museum also has a floor of African wildlife, a planetarium, and a life-size blue whale, but for me the dinosaurs were by far the main attraction.
When we left the museum, we cycled across the lower part of Central Park and out onto the Upper Eastside. We stopped for lunch in a place called Dig Inn – where I had the tastiest meal of the whole trip (although the hot dogs in Papaya King were a close contender!).
We really wanted to cycle across the Brooklyn Bride so we hopped on the subway and headed downtown. We made a quick stop to see the mighty Grand Central Station. It was a nice little bonus to get to see a couple having their wedding photos taken in the station while we were there.
On our way back to the underground we stumbled across the Grand Central market. Filled with lots of rustic foods and crafty bits, it is a little slice of country life right there in the middle of Grand Central Station.
When we reached the Brooklyn Bridge I expected to find a separate cycling section but they have it on the same path as people walking – which makes it quite a funny/stressful experience. We had to dodge people the whole way across and it is a miracle we didn’t hurt someone!!
But we did it, and Brooklyn Heights was our lovely reward on the other side. You can see the Statue of Liberty from here and the view of the Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan as it’s backdrop really would have you standing there in awe.
That night we decided to go to The Press Lounge, which boasts itself as one of the best rooftop bars in the world. We had to queue for an hour which was frustrating but in the end, we were delighted that we waited it out.
At 16 stories above the city, the views are jaw-dropping; albeit so are the prices of the drinks! If you had deep pockets you would stay there all night, but my backpacker budget, unfortunately, cut me off after two (exceptional!!) cocktails. Each drink cost $25 (including tip) so staying all night was not an option.
We enjoyed the beautiful skyline for an hour or two with a soundtrack of blues and jazz playing around us, before heading home. Although it was insanely expensive, we saw it as an experience that cost us $50 – with two cocktails thrown in, that’s better value than the Empire State Building (which is $54 just to go to the top) if you ask me!
The next day myself and Anna headed Downtown in search of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), walking through Time Square on the way. Lots of people had told me to avoid it before my trip but I couldn’t go all that way and not see it. It is exactly how I imagined; busy, tacky and generally not all that interesting. But at least it has been checked off the bucket list!
The MOMA was the perfect combination of recognisable artwork and outrageous modern pieces. From Andy Warhol to Van Gough to Frida Kahlo de Rivera – even if you are not an art nerd you will recognise some of the works in here. You could spend hours just walking around, and if you took the audio tour I am sure you would be taken on the artistic journey of a lifetime.
Once we had had our fill of art, we decided to visit the National September 11 Memorial. The wall around the memorial is engraved with all the names of the victims from the 9/11 attack, as well as the one in 1993 – over 3000 people are remembered here.
When you see how much space those names take up it really puts into perspective just how many lives were lost.
Amongst all the tourists taking smiley happy selfies, I noticed a girl, whose picture is below. She was wiping rain drops off a name with her hand, over and over again. When I looked at her face, her eyes were closed and tears were streaming down her cheeks. It is honestly one of the most heart breaking things I have ever witnessed. I sat down for a while to let it all sink in and gather myself. It was with a heavy heart that I left ground zero, I don’t think I will ever forget that girls face.
That evening we headed to a jazz bar called St Mazie in Brooklyn, that Greg had invited us to, to watch a live band. We arrived just as the music was about to start.
The musicians were crammed into a tiny space at the back of the bar and I quickly learned that they were all exceptionally talented. After a while, couples from the tables around us filled the space in front of the band and started dancing together. I was mesmerised by the music and movement.
The drinks in Brooklyn were much more reasonable and I tried a couple of Brooklyn craft beers, which were only around $6 each. Brooklyn is not dissimilar to Shoreditch in London, and it is much more relaxed than central Manhattan.
It was such a lovely evening. Getting to see a jazz band, in one of the birth places of jazz music was a sweet, unexpected cherry on top of my trip.
I was due to fly home on Monday evening and Anna left early that morning so I had pretty much written the day off. However, Greg had other ideas.
He had another jam-packed day in store for me!! Our first stop was the cat café. Rolling around with a load of cats, drinking coffee and eating macaroons – what’s not to love!? It was a really quirky experience and a very worthy place to spend a few dollars. The ‘cafe’ is basically a big foster home and each cat stays there until they get a forever home.
Later we popped into Daredevil tattoo studio, which is a tattoo history museum. They have an impressive collection of tattoo artefacts and thier focus is on the history of tattooing in New York City.
We also walked through the vibrant part of China Town – through a Chinese food market and I even got the chance to have a quick peek into an illegal Chinese gambling den – I could sense they were not as happy to see us, as we were to see them!
Throughout the day, Greg talked to me about the history of the different streets and pointed out lots of street art along the way. I soaked it up. I felt so lucky to have befriended someone who knew so much about the city, and that he was willing to share it with me.
Finally, we reached the Tenement Museum – a building that is still perfectly intact from the 1800s. We took the Irish tour and learnt about a family who had lived in the building in 1869. Their apartment is still structurally the same, with peeling walls and cracked ceilings, and the rest (furnishing etc.) has been curated by historians to make it as realistic as possible. It was an amazing insight into the life of Irish immigrants after the famine, and it felt like a very fitting way to end my trip.
Taking the train out to JFK on Monday evening, I had a lump in my throat. I had one of the most amazing adventures of my life and I felt quite tearful saying goodbye to this place that had suddenly made such a huge impact on me.
All the fear and uncertainty I had before going was replaced with comfort and pride. When it comes to solo travelling, I always tell people that you are only as alone as you want to be and New York is another perfect example of how that was true for me.
I came across one of my favourite sayings again this week while I was writing this blog. I always try to keep this in the back of your mind when I am trying to decide if I should do something that is going to challange me;
“I’d rather look back at my life and say ‘I can’t believe I did that‘ instead of saying ‘I wish I did that.‘”
Now I can always look back with a smile, knowing that I did it. And I am so proud of myself!
Written with love,