I touched down in New York City some time around 9am on a March morning, feeling rather frazzled after a sleepless flight spent sitting behind two babies who were clearly not big flying fans. The sun was shining and the air was rather on the crisp side, and combined they really helped to sharpen my senses and wake the hell up as I exited the airport, praise the Lord. The last time I visited the city had been seven years before; it was the final stopping point on a three month trip across the States, and on that particular visit we’d done a fair bit of full-on tourist sightseeing, staying in three different locations within the city- a hostel in Harlem, a hotel near Times Square, and a rather dodgy Chinatown hotel which could barely fit the bed inside the bedroom. So, this visit to the Big Apple would be rather different pals, because this time I knew people in the city. In my experience, it’s always better to visit a place if you know someone there, so I was ragingly excited not only to see my pals, but to see New York City from a local’s perspective. Four days in New York City isn’t long, but in hindsight I managed to cram a whole lot into my time there and it’s no surprise that by the time I made it to La Guardia airport on the fourth day I was very much up for some chill out time, ASAP Rocky.
To the city! How to get from JFK to Manhattan
After some time attempting to figure out which train I should take to get into the centre of Manhattan, a friendly New Yorker informed me that my best bet would be to take the LIRR- or the Long Island Railroad. Having already paid $5 to exit the airport via AirTrain (everyone will have to pay this if they’re trying to reach the subway or LIRR), the cost of the LIRR ticket to Manhattan was an extra $10…which is more expensive than taking the subway, but also a faster journey.
In just over half an hour I had surfaced at Penn Station, surrounded by the towers of buildings with countless columns of windows reflecting the morning sunshine, whilst on the ground people bustled purposefully past each other at a high pace. Police sirens blared, horns honked, and steam consistently puffed out from holes in the street as if there were small dragons just hanging out below ground. A homeless man in ragged clothing shuffled through at one fifth of the speed of the general flow of pavement traffic, but nobody seemed to bat an eyelid, just sidestepping around the culprit to return to their intended pathway along the grid of the city’s streets. He reminded me of a more confident version of Oliver and Company’s Fagin, except that he seemed a bit more aggressive and wasn’t carrying any cute ginger kittens. I sent a message to my pal Mark- ‘I’m at Penn Station, looking at the corner of Macy’s.’ Five minutes later, Markoo had arrived and we were off back to his apartment in Harlem.
Despite the overtiredness, I was obviously not going to waste a minute of my four days in the city, so when Mark headed back out to his auditions, I headed back into the city too. On a side note: I thought auditioning in London was full on, but the New York audition world is INSANE. Mainly because open calls are the norm here; several auditions a day are possible as opposed to several a month at home. In theory it means there are way more opportunities available, and in a macabre way, also more opportunities to get used to being told ‘no,’ which- call me crazy- but I think is surely a brilliant thing.
Day One: The High Line, Chelsea and Beyond
The High Line is a glorious place for a stroll…
So first on the agenda was The High Line, because the last time I visited, it didn’t even exist yet. An abandoned freight railway line which has been transformed into an extremely long public park; it is completely free to visit and is also really full on cool. The railway line is raised above New York’s streets, weaving around the sleek skyscrapers and red brick warehouses of Chelsea, and enabling you to get some really awesome new viewpoints of everything from above. Even in winter when the flowers and foliage were few and far between, I appreciated strolling down the old tracks past brightly coloured murals, at a bit more of a relaxed pace than on the sidewalks below.
Hudson Yards, a futuristic blob of awesomeness
At one end of the park is Hudson Yards, a brand-spankingly-shiny collection of architectural marvels housing restaurants, offices, shops and apartments. The current centrepiece is a rose gold never-ending staircase, currently known as The Vessel, which exists simply in order to look really intriguing, and for people to climb up and down it. Also still in development while I was there was a building which literally moves up and down the road, which sounds all a bit Harry Potter if I’m honest. Named ‘The Shed,’ the building’s roof (which is massive, and looks rather heavy), rolls out to form a covered event space. Bloomin’ brilliant, I tell ya!
For pizza near the High Line, head to Artichoke Basille’s
Before long I realised that my hands were beginning to ice over (the sky may have been blue but the trees were still very much skeletal in March and there was a mild chill in the air), and I was in actual fact ravenous. Lucky for me, Mark had recommended Artichoke Basille’s as a fine establishment to purchase and eat a classic New York pizza pie, and there was one right next to the High Line. Surely they call them ‘pies’ because they’re deeper than a classic steak-and-kidney affair, although my guess is as good as yours and I’m no expert. I pushed the door open in to the cosy corner establishment and ordered an artichoke pizza to eat/thaw my hands out on, and a coke (there are other flavours aside from artichoke, but given the name I just felt like artichoke would surely be the best choice of the moment.) The slice was probably about twice the size of my actual face, and after what felt like a good half an hour, it occurred to me that I’d actually given up on attempting to finish the mammoth hunk of pizza long ago and was in actual fact just watching the people in the restaurant coming and going, talking to the staff in either Spanish, thick New York accents, or occasionally the broken English of a wandering tourist. Conscious of potentially looking mildly insane, I covered the remains of the unmanageable slice with two oil-speckled paper plates and squeezed them into a bin before I headed back onto the street.
Related: Where to Eat in NYC
Browsing- and eating- at Chelsea Market
A little way up the same road from my pizza stop off is Chelsea Market, another reclaimed space which has been transformed into something new and interesting, like a beautiful red-brick-butterfly! Once upon a time it was home to the National Biscuit Company- where Oreos were invented, don’cha know- but nowadays it houses a covered market which takes up an entire city block, filled with upmarket market stalls (we’re talking retro jewellery, limited edition prints of New York and boutique skin care ranges), a massive selection of restaurants, coffee shops, grocery stores and wine bars, and a TV studio.
Bryant Park, Times Square…and Equity’s loos
Despite the chill in the air, the day was still so gloriously bright that I decided to walk from Chelsea Market to Bryant Park instead of getting some form of public transport, and I’m glad I made that choice, pals- aside from the fact that I appreciate taking in the scenery, walking helped me to fight tiredness as the day went on.
Bryant Park is a beautiful green square in Manhattan, home to a carousel, coffee and all sorts of random activities to get involved in. Game of chess, anyone? Storytime under the trees? Fancy borrowing a book? You can basically do it all there. Although, I was on the way to meet my good pal Rachel, fellow performer, strong travel buddy, and all-round gem. You may have heard about her from such stories as ‘Our Big Fat Greek Roadtrip,’ and ‘That Time We Accidentally Ended up in Italy.’ With the help of the trusty iPhone, we managed to locate each other (see the photo below for a ‘Where’s Wally’ style search for Rachel), and have our minds blown at seeing each other in Rachel’s ACTUAL CITY.
Although the plan was to eventually head to the bar that Mark was working in, the sun was only just beginning to set and we had some time to kill before it was really acceptable to be heading to a boujis bar for an evening beverage, especially when the day was so beaut.
Naturally the only thing for it was to head to Times Square to experience the true centre of the universe of New York City. Duh.
However, you know what it’s like when you’re desperate for a wee and there is not a toilet facility to be seen, particularly a facility of the free variety. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We were having one of those moments; and that is when Rachel’s Equity membership came in extra handy. (For those from the non-performing world, Equity is basically the actors union.) In London the Equity HQ is in Covent Garden, and in NYC it just so happens to be mere footsteps away from Times Square. Praise that Lord for Equity and their open-to-members toilets; we strolled in off the street, flashed our IDs and carried on up to some beaut bathrooms with not a care in the world. I always knew it’s better to see a place through the eyes of a local, and this incident was just one of the many reminders of that fact.
Mission complete and sun tinging the sky with a warm pink glow, we headed out towards Soho where Mark was hard at work pouring dranks with panache in his boujis bar. (I’d just like to add that it’s not his boujis bar; he is in fact a very brilliant employee.) 142 Sullivan is so very boujis that its name is literally just its very address– 142 Sullivan. Most of the interior is painted silver- which sounds odd but actually works- and it can probably seat maximum 20 people, the majority of whom are classic NY city kids splashing some cash. Rachel and I sat at the bar hoping we didn’t look too ‘daytime’- we looked pretty full on ‘daytime’- and having a jolly good time sharing stories with Mark whenever possible and generally having a right laugh. Good times. Good friends. Good.
Day two- all the eateries and some questionable accents
Ramen with Mark and Central Park
See what I did there pals!? Rhyming my little heart away, aren’t I!? We headed into the city for a late lunchtime ramen-sesh at what Mark explained was one of the most darn-tooting awesome places you could possibly head to, and I must say I truly support his bold claim. Not that I tried ramen anywhere else in the entire city of New York on my visit. And aside from the noodle soups, Ippudo has the best dumplings I’d tried in my entire life, so it goes without saying that this is high on my recommendation list too, pals.
Ramen ceremoniously slurped down, I bid my pal goodbye and set off for a stroll around Central Park. The thing which truly surprised me about Central Park the first time I visited was the sheer size of it; the park is basically a giant donut-hole of greenery in the chaotic grid of concrete that surrounds it, and technically it’s bigger than the world’s two smallest countries (that’s the Vatican and Monaco, FYI). Despite the fact that it was rather on the chilly side and the blossom hadn’t even begun peeking through on the trees yet, people were out in full force. Troops of private school kids in straw boaters, old men jogging at snails pace in full beige shell-suits, and Manhattan moms taking their babies for a stroll and a gossip. I people-watched-and-strolled intermittently between coffee-stops (naturally), until it was time to head to restaurant number two of the day. Because in hindsight I realise that my entire four day stay basically centred around friends and food.
Iconic food, iconic show
As well as Rachel (you know, from the night before), I was off to eat all the delicious food with the glorious James and Jared, at Central Park’s famous Tavern on the Green restaurant- once a sheepfold but evolved over time into the place to be seen. Roaring fires, white table cloths and with everything adorned with a very regal-looking sheep logo (I was a fan), the Tavern on the Green involved some downright delicious fare that I will not be forgetting in a hurry. Oh Lordy be!!
James is consistently the Man With the Plan, so as well as arranging the dinner shenanigans, he’d also managed to obtain us some last minute tickets to see My Fair Lady at the Lincoln Center. What an absolute gem of a guy. I really appreciate being shown around a place by someone who clearly loves that place and James also declared that we needed to walk a particular way in to the theatre just so I could get a full ‘wow’ effect. Now, that is true dedication. And I did indeed get the ‘wow’ effect, so kudos to him. Bidding goodbye to Rachel, we headed on in to the theatre to appreciate a true Broadway Show!!
In short- I really really loved it. The show was overall incredible and I was blown away in particular by the costumes and the set. But, here’s one mildly humorous element which was also mildly awkward. I’m not sure how big you are on musical theatre pals, but I had forgotten that obviously, My Fair Lady is a show set in London- and the entire plot line of the show relies consistently on the accents of every single character within it. Eliza Dolittle’s cockney accent is, let’s face it, a challenge even to an English lass. But as an English lass watching a show set in England and featuring several contrasting English accents, but performed by a cast made up of I’d say 90% US Citizens, the dialogue was increasingly difficult to understand and didn’t make a lot of sense at all. What a cultural learning curve, guys!!! I felt terrible, but I’m guessing it must be very similar for Americans who come to the West End to see English people perform with American accents!? Answers on a postcard please, because I feel terrible for criticising, I’m telling you.
Day 3- Reunion with my friends, and the realisation that Graham Norton is stalking me
Get yourself down to the NY Public Library!
Day three came around crazily soon, and it was once again a day mainly focused on meeting pals and eating food. This was an altogether far less touristy experience than my first time in the city, but also a far more fun one. With a wee bit of time to kill before I met my pal Jorge back at good old Bryant Park, and with the weather having taken an annoyingly damp turn for the worse, I decided-maybe strangely- to head to the grand old New York Public Library.
But I am REALLY GLAD I DID. Firstly because the building is absolutely STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL. (Look at the pictures pals, there’s no denying that it’s a stunner) Secondly, in ultimate geek fashion, I’ve got a strange but strong fascination with maps. And they have an entire very grandiose room dedicated exclusively to them. Maps, atlases, and giant globes, all sit side by side underneath walls adorned with even more maps. It’s oh so mappy, ya know.
The library regularly hosts free exhibitions which are completely open to the public, and so I found myself on that particular rainy afternoon wandering up and down an exhibit marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots (in case you don’t know, these were spontaneous riots at the Stonewall Inn, a bar which welcomed LGBT people at a time when few other places did). And who should I be looking at the exhibition with, but none other than Graham Norton. I am always bumping into that guy! And when I say always, I mean three times in the last seven or eight years. I’m starting to think he might be following me.
A rainy, bar filled evening
Library trip over, I headed back out into the rainy streets of the city to locate Jorge, who I hadn’t seen for two whole years. And it was as if we’d never even parted, pals. What a brilliant world we live in, don’t you think!? In a desperate attempt to get out of the rain as fast as possible we ended up in a sticky Irish bar filled with tourists (I mean, hands up Me, because I too am indeed a tourist), drinking cheap-for-New-York-but-still-actually-expensive wine and reminiscing about funny people from the ship. We wolfed down some Japanese BBQ (da bomb) at a restaurant around the corner, and next thing you know our elusive but incredible pal Frank had declared that he was in Harlem and we should definitely come and meet him and his boyfriend ASAP Rocky. So obviously that’s exactly what our next course of action was!! Oh happy day.
The little Mexican restaurant he was at immediately served us a gigantic basket of nachos and all the dips, plus all the frozen margaritas, and it was altogether a joyous occasion catching up with my jolly old pals. Im starting to get all gushy here, but don’t you think it’s just brilliant when you meet up with your friends and they’re doing really well and you’re just really full on proud of them? This planet is so gargantuan and yet so downright tiny and intricate.
Day 4: Italy, China and beyond
My final day in the city was more of a half day situation, but as befitted the rest of my time there, I didn’t let myself down in terms of paltime or food. No way Jose. Me and Markoo headed on over to Chinatown, surfacing not far from that dodgy Chinese hotel I’d once stayed in with my ex-bf, and strolling past all the exotic-looking foods, before crossing a road and all of a sudden basically being in Italy. Well. Little Italy.
We wandered into a deli and literally just stood inhaling deliciously pungent cheese-fumes for a minute before we realised that’s sort of a weird thing to do, and ventured further on to an actual restaurant. Aunt Jakes was the place of choice, and an extremely friendly waiter took our order and chatted to us in an accent so thick that we ended up doing a whole lot of gormless smiling and nodding- but still very much in an appreciative way, guys, I promise. The homemade pasta was insanely good- this is the place to go in Little Italy, for sure- and following that we headed further up the road to get some world famous cannoli from the apparently world famous Cannoli King at Caffe Palermo. Can’t argue with that, can you!? A couple sitting next to us ordered cannoli, took a photo of the cannoli, and left without taking a bite. Did my pal take the wasted cannoli for himself after they’d exited? Well yes, yes he did. And I kind of admired him for it. What an incredible waste of food that would have been otherwise. Oh Lordy.
By the end of our morning adventure I could barely move from overeating but it was about time I headed back to the apartment and onwards to La Guardia airport. Rushing through the turnstile at a subway station, I passed a homeless-looking man appearing to have a fit on the floor; he was foaming at the mouth and shaking uncontrollably on his side. I realised too late what I had at first just skimmed my eyes over in my franticness to get to the airport in time; not that that’s an excuse for not running back to try and do something to help the man. I felt mildly sick when I turned back and realised what was going on, plus the fact that the station was full of people and nobody was stopping. Including myself. There was an employee of the subway standing not far away from the shaking man, giving a woman directions.
I got on the train feeling mildly devastated and confused about the whole situation and my lack of having done anything about it.
New York is a crazy place, pals. The first time I went, I had zero human connection to the city whatsoever, and although I enjoyed my time there I was in all honesty mildly underwhelmed. (Controversial) Flash forward to this visit in 2019, and I based my visit entirely on the fact that I had friends there- which meant that I had an overall incredible experience. Without those friendships I reckon this city could be a bit of a lonely place, where to put it mildly it would be easy to feel lost, but on a more extreme scale, like the guy in the subway station, to feel completely invisible. So, soz to get all hippy dippy on you here pals, but I came away from this city not so much for a new appreciation for New York itself, but for the friendships I had within it.
Pals are important, pals!!
- Sales tax is added on at the till in America- and it varies from state to state. In New York it’s currently around 4% (2019)
- Don’t forget to tip. Otherwise it gets awkward. 15-20% is standard, or in a bar normally around a dollar per drink is ok. I think. I hope.
- If you’ll be in NYC more than a couple of days and are planning on using public transport a lot (especially if you’re staying slightly further away like I was, in Harlem), it’ll work out better for you to get a 7-day unlimited card than daily or single tickets. Currently (2019) this costs $33.
- I’m so used to the London tube that I genuinely found the New York system tricky; it took some time getting used to it. Just be aware that the network isn’t as extensive as in London; there a massive chunks of Manhattan that aren’t anywhere near a Metro station, with fewer lines connecting them! In times of need, buses and Uber are your friends!!