Warning - this is pretty long!
My sister (60, from Rhode Island) and I (56, from Florida) decided it would be fun to spend Memorial Day weekend in New York City, specifically in Manhattan. She had been there once for a short visit and I had never been there – at least, not outside of the airport. Neither one of us are particularly “big city” types of people, but wanted to see it and experience it just because it’s one of those places I think everybody should see at least once in their life. There is no way I would get my DH to go, so I was happy that my sister was excited about going with me.
The first hurdle was choosing a hotel. Without being familiar with Manhattan it was hard to narrow down the search. My sister stayed in Times Square when she was there before, and although she liked it she felt it was really busy and would prefer a quieter location. We finally settled on the Upper West Side between Central Park and the Hudson, since that seemed to be a more residential area and might be a bit more low-key than Times Square. My personal big fear was bed bugs so I checked every hotel we considered with bedbugregistry.com to make sure we would be OK in that regard. We were also hoping to keep it below $300 a night, which narrowed down the search considerably. My first discovery was how many NYC hotel rooms only contain 1 bed and if you want 2 beds you’re going to pay a premium price. I love my sister and we could share a bed if we needed to, but we really preferred separate beds.
Finally we settled on The Lucerne Hotel at 79th and Amsterdam. At a rate of $300/night plus 15% tax it was the upper end of our range, but for two beds it was the best deal we could find – and it had perfect reports on bedbugregistry.com. This turned out to be an excellent choice! It is a relatively small hotel, not new but the rooms have been refurbished. We were in room 521. Some of the furniture had some dings in it from careless guests and/or housekeepers, and the carpet wasn’t the newest, but it was clean and very comfortable. The décor was tasteful and we both loved the character of the hotel and the room – lots of crown molding, textured wallpaper, etc. The room wasn’t huge and would’ve been pretty tight for a family for 4, but for the 2 of us it was more than adequate. Not a lot of counter space in the bathroom, but there were 3 hooks for hanging clothes, toiletry bags, or whatever. Our view was the wall of the building next door, but what do you expect for a mere $300 a night? LOL! We weren’t in the room enough to care about the view anyway. The staff was super friendly, although the concierge was extremely talkative to the point of starting to waste our valuable vacation time but she had a lot of great information. The location was AWESOME! Two blocks from the Natural History Museum, with Central Park right behind that. One block to subway station and bus stop. Tons and tons of eating places right by the hotel and within a couple of blocks. Definitely a more relaxed location than Times Square.
Although the hotel has a restaurant that usually had a lot of people eating in it, we never did try it. The menu was just too frou-frou for us and we preferred simpler fare. So dinner Friday night was at St. James Gate, an Irish pub about 3 blocks from the hotel. It was a tough decision to choose from all the restaurants around the hotel, and we chose this place pretty much at random. Excellent choice! It was loud, but the food was great and if you like Irish music you’ll be in heaven. Some of the patrons sang along with some of the songs and it felt like a “real” Irish pub, as opposed to what passes for an Irish pub in the Florida town where I live.
Breakfast Saturday morning was at a bagel shop ½ block from the hotel. It was fine, but nothing to get excited about. It was a cloudy, rainy, dreary, cold day so we decided it was a good museum day and headed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was basically straight across Central Park from the hotel. Due to the weather we decided to take the bus instead of walk. When we got to the Met we realized we really should have done some homework to see what the exhibits were and what we were most interested in seeing. The place is HUGE! We wandered thru the Egyptian exhibit and the American exhibit and that was a small fraction of what is there. One thing my sister really wanted to do was visit The Cloisters, which is included with the admission to the Met but is way up at the north end of Manhattan, and it closed at 5:15 as opposed to 9:00 for the Met. So we decided to leave and go there. We were warned that it’s a 45-minute to an hour bus ride, but we went anyway. Not our best decision of the weekend. If you are really into medieval art and architecture, or you are in the area anyway, it would be fine. But I can’t recommend going all the way up there otherwise. And definitely don’t go if you are hungry and don’t have the time, energy, or weather to walk down to the restaurant – there IS a small “café” located in The Cloisters itself which is a couple of tables in the corner of a courtyard selling a couple types of pre-made salads and sandwiches and by 3:30 the selection is pretty bad. But anyway, we discussed our next move and my sister said there was an Impressionist exhibit at the Met that she really wanted to see so we decided to go back there (do NOT ask why we didn’t just go there the first time we were at the Met – as I said, we didn’t exactly plan that part of our trip very well). Our options for getting back were the same 45 to 60 minute bus ride, or a series of bus/subway/bus transfers that would theoretically save us about 10 minutes. We opted for the return bus ride as it was simplest and 10 minutes wasn’t enough reward to risk getting lost in the transfers.
So now we were back at the Met. We found the proper exhibit and I have to say I’m very glad we went back. I have found a new favorite artist – James Tissot. Actually, I don’t think I had a favorite artist before but I do now. I won’t go into the details, but from the very first painting of his that I saw I was hooked and could easily pick out his work as we wandered through the gallery. Getting through the gift shop was a challenge, as always, but we escaped without doing too much damage.
At this point I should mention the concierge at the hotel had sold us a tour package with Skyline tours, a hop-on hop-off bus that included a Night Tour, a Downtown tour, an Uptown tour, the Empire State Building, and a Harbor Tour. If I understood correctly, it saved us $10 over buying the tickets separately, but in retrospect I would have not purchased the package and just bought things individually as we decided to do them. We just didn’t have time for everything and never did do the Uptown or Harbor tours. Another lesson learned. Also, we never did get to a Broadway play. The ticket prices were just too high for the ones we would have liked to see and we couldn’t convince ourselves to do it. I know cheap tickets are available in Times Square but I never felt like waiting in the long lines to see if there was anything left that I’d want to see.
Anyway, now that we were finally done with the Met and it was nearly 6:00 we decided to head to Time Square to check out our tour package. After we started trudging to the proper bus/subway station in the blustery weather we suddenly decided it was time to splurge on a taxi. There was a line of them in front of the Met so we hopped in one and off we went. I must admit taxis are much more exciting than the bus or subway. LOL. The taxi dropped us off at the corner at Time Square where the bus tour begins and we spoke to the people at the bus. The Night Tour was going to leave in about 30 minutes so we ducked into a food court type of place right there on the corner and grabbed a slice of pizza. Nothing exciting, but a bajillion times better than the lunch we had that day! It was finally time for the Night Tour so we got on the bus and I insisted on sitting on the top level. My sister fussed that it was cold but she finally agreed and then admitted it was a MUCH better view. It was a bit chilly but there was no rain until almost at the end of the tour. Overall I found the tour to be interesting but it wasn’t nearly as long as the daytime tours even tho it is the same price, and I don’t think I would have been happy if I had paid full price for it rather than having it as part of a package. By this time it was getting pretty late so we walked across the street to the subway station, figured out which train we needed, and headed back to the hotel.
Sunday morning my sister wanted to try a coffee shop across the street from the hotel and although I’m not a coffee drinker I do understand most people are and was very happy to go with her. (I was able to satisfy my morning Diet Coke addiction out of a machine at the hotel….) It was a nice place, and we were able to get pastries and eggs and get a good start on the day. Then we hopped on the subway and headed back to Times Square to catch our tour bus. This time we got on the Downtown Tour. The weather was a bit windy but the sky was blue and the temperature was perfect. We admired the hustle and bustle of the city streets. We got off and wandered around Macy’s for a little bit and decided the line outside the Empire State Building was too long and we would come back to see it at night. Got back on the bus and got off again at Little Italy. Again, wandered around a bit and poked into a couple of nice shoe stores. By then it was getting to be time for lunch so we wandered down Mulberry Street where it was one restaurant after another, looking at the menus and what people were eating. We finally went back to the first one we saw, which was Da Nico’s. Another excellent choice! We expected to sit at one of the tables by the street but they had a garden area in the back that is beautiful with trees and was quiet and peaceful. The food was very, very good and I ate until I was totally stuffed. The staff was friendly and very Italian. This was probably my favorite meal for the entire trip.
After more wandering we headed back to the tour bus stop. We must’ve just missed it because it was probably 40 minutes before the next one came along. We got off again at the next stop (we might have been able to walk there faster, but had no idea how long it would be until the next bus came) and walked over to the Ground Zero/Freedom Tower area. The Freedom Tower is really a beautiful building, and I loved how the sky and white clouds reflected on it. We couldn’t really see Ground Zero because there was a fence around it and you had to wait in a long line to get inside so we just kept on walking. We ended up at Battery Park, where there were a lot of orange construction fences set up that really kept it from being as attractive of a place as I’m sure it usually is. We couldn’t really see the Statue of Liberty very well from there, but we were hoping the Harbor Cruise we had signed up for would get us closer. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the tickets for the Harbor Cruise and decided the concierge had not printed them out. After some confusion we figured out where to get back on the tour bus and decided to just ride the rest of the way.
The tour bus brought us back to the starting point in Time Square. By this time it was around 6:00 so we decided to head back to Macy’s for a little shopping and hope for a shorter line at the Empire State Building. We took the subway and got off a couple of blocks from Macy’s. For those who have not been there, Macy’s has 9 floors plus a “cellar”. If you are from out of town you can go to the cellar and get a coupon for 10% off your purchase. You will also find a lot of old wooden escalators still operating – it was fun to ride on them and feel their bouncy, clackety ride (yes, I am easily amused). We shopped for a while – one entire floor is dedicated to shoes!!! – but never did buy anything. It was a much wider selection than what is available in the Macy’s we have at home, but nothing worth paying New York prices for and then having to carry home on the plane.
We headed for the Empire State Building, where the line wrapped around the corner and a little ways down the block. We were getting hungry by then so we decided to get some dinner and hope the line got shorter while we ate. We went to Heartland Brewery, located in the base of the Empire State Building, and had a decent meal. American-type food but good. When we came out the line was, if anything, a bit longer than before. We decided to wait anyway and it did move fairly quickly. It took about 20 minutes to get to the door and into the lobby of the building. Now we were getting excited – the line went through the lobby, around a corner and up some stairs to the 2nd floor where SURELY the elevators were waiting to whisk us up into the sky! Silly me – I have been to Disney World often enough that I should have been prepared for the trick – the 2nd floor was a big room where the line was snaked back and forth to make sure every square foot of floor space had a person waiting. It was the old “make sure they can’t really see the line until they’re inside and can’t get away” scam. It’s a classic Disney World move – I suppose they feel you’ll walk away if you can see the entire line, but once you do find out how long it is you already have so much time invested that you feel like you have to stay. So we waited. Got through Security and then we could skip the ticket line because we had bought ours in advance (and paid $2 more than what it would have cost us there, btw), but once we went around the ticket line and got back into the elevator line the same people who had been in line directly in front of us now showed up directly behind us – so we couldn’t possibly have saved more than a couple of minutes by pre-purchasing our tickets. Finally, after a 2 hour wait, we got onto an elevator. I’m not exactly sure which floor it let us out on, but it wasn’t the observatory floor. We were met by a guy who was telling everybody we had to either walk up 6 flights of stairs to the next elevator, or we could wait in line for another elevator to take us up those 6 flights. The younger, hardier, and more fit people in line headed for the stairs and us normal people waited for the elevator.
After 2 ½ hours of waiting, we finally stepped out on the observation deck on the 86th floor. It was dark and the just-past-full moon was rising and it was gorgeous. Of course you couldn’t see much because of all the people crammed up against the railing, but if you tried hard enough somebody would move a ½ inch and you could worm your way in there and admire the view. It was pretty cold and windy but we were expecting that. After about 20 minutes we decided we had seen enough, and we didn’t want to wait in ANOTHER LINE for the elevator that would take us to the 102nd floor so we left.
Maybe if it wasn’t Memorial Day weekend it wouldn’t have been as crowded, but I will never again go to the top of the Empire State Building. Take my advice – buy a postcard of the view and spend your time doing something else. After this adventure we were too tired to even take the subway so we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the hotel.
Now it was Monday, the day we were both heading home. I needed to head back to JFK around 1:30 and my sister was taking the train to Rhode Island so she just planned to leave when I did. Our original plan was to get back to Times Square by 8:00 a.m. Monday so we could do the Uptown Tour that we had gotten as part of our tour package. The other option we considered was, since we had found the tickets for the Harbor Tour that we originally thought the concierge failed to print, to head back to Battery Park and do that. However, on the taxi ride back from the Empire State Building at 11:30 at night we suddenly both agreed that we were willing to skip both of those tours, sleep in, and walk over to Central Park instead. This turned out to be another excellent decision!!!
Monday’s weather was the most perfect I have seen in a very, very long time. Clear blue skies, perfect temperature, low humidity – it just doesn’t get any better. We walked the 2 blocks to Central Park and wandered aimlessly, admiring a performance by the Afrobats (you can find them on YouTube but they were absolutely hilarious), and a Chinese man playing a Chinese instrument that I don’t know the name of, and a woman playing the violin accompanied by a CD player playing classical music. We ate a hot dog from a truck while we sat in the park listening to the violin lady and I could have happily sat there all day. But nothing lasts forever and we finally returned to the hotel to pick up our luggage. The doorman waved down a couple of taxis and I headed off to JFK and my sister headed off to Grand Central and the trip was over.
So now I’ve been to New York. Some random observations:
Lots of people and traffic. Heard countless different languages. Saw some beautiful architecture, both old and new. Also lots of rundown, dirty, and downright boring buildings. Getting around is generally pretty easy, but sometimes requires confusing transfers between buses and subways – taxis are easiest but not cheapest. Central Park is a jewel! Never felt unsafe, but used common sense to avoid obviously dangerous places. You have to tip practically everybody.
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Warning - this is pretty long!