Adventures in Speed Tourism: How My Family Spent Nine Hours Sightseeing in New York City
Before we even get started, yes, I know that days, weeks, maybe months in New York City would not be too long. And we were only on Manhattan during our nine hours. Obviously, the other boroughs have a lot to offer. I plan on going back, and spending more time. So I'm not writing this piece to push a very quick trip to New York to the top of your list. If you've got nine hours, though, it is possible! And it was fun. This trip took place on a Sunday in July, 2012.
We got on a Northeast Regional Amtrak train at the BWI airport train station at 5:52 a.m. The station and parking are easy to get to and don't take much time. We got to the station way earlier than we should have. I think fifteen minutes early would be enough for anyone. My research indicates that Amtrak tickets get more expensive the closer you get to the travel dates. So check their refund policy and buy early if you can. I didn't, and I could have saved hundreds of dollars. The train ride itself was smooth and easy, but it did take 2 and a half hours to get to the Newark Airport train station. The Acela Express train is quicker but not by enough to tempt me, since it was a lot more expensive. I never got out of my seat, but my group got food on the train (bagels, drinks, candy).
We got off the train at the Newark (NJ) Airport train station, and there was no way out to the curb besides riding an airport tram to the airport parking and the airport terminals. This was my first hiccup for the day. I had made a car service reservation to pick me up at the Amtrak train station at 9 a.m., and the car service was out there waiting for me, but I couldn't walk out to the curb! This was a little confusing, and I'm still wondering if the train station worker gave me bad information.
You may be wondering why I hired a car service. Well, I'm a country bumpkin, and I'm not clued in on the ways of big city taxis. I went online, but never got firm confirmations on what I would find waiting for me on a weekend morning at the Newark airport's train station. And I needed a taxi that would take five people. My online research indicated that it's illegal for a "normal" sized taxi to take five people. They might do it if they felt like they wouldn't get caught, but they might not. So I needed a minivan or SUV sized taxi, and I wasn't sure there'd be one at the Newark train station.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
So, we rode the aiport shuttle thingie, didn't get off at the first stop, a parking garage, and got off at Terminal C at the airport. And of course, about twenty taxis were sitting at the curb, at least five of them minivans. So I didn't need a car service. But the car service drove over, and with a little help from me, he drove us to the Liberty State Park Statue of Liberty ferry terminal.
This gets to the first time-saver. If you're riding a train north to New York, and planning on going to the Statue of Liberty, starting on the New Jersey side will save a little time. The Statue of Liberty ferry in New York City is right at the southernmost tip of Manhattan, so if you ride the train all the way into the city, then you still have to get all the way down to the lowest point in Manhattan. Instead, we started in New Jersey, where the lines for tickets were non-existent, and the lines for the cruise were short.
From Liberty State Park, the ferry goes to Ellis Island first. We absolutely, positively did not spend enough time there. I could have spent the whole day just at Ellis Island. But we walked through several exhibits, and wandered around the building before getting back in line for the ferry to Liberty Island.
It was a beautiful blue-sky morning and the statue was beyond photogenic. At that time, however, it was being renovated, so we couldn't go inside. (Saving time, so I'm not complaining!) We walked around the island just to look at it, then went to the insanely crowded gift shop, then got back into a fairly long line for the ferry to Battery Park on Manhattan. I think it was about 11 a.m. at this point.
The ferry ride to Manhattan was lovely. At Battery Park, we had our second (minor) hiccup. During my online research, I went to New York's public transportation website and recorded exactly how to get from one tourist attraction to another. On the home page of their website, you'll see the Trip Planner+ over to the right. I used that, with only subway checked. Why didn't I take cabs? So many reasons. I'm cheap. I had five people in my group; supposedly a regular-sized taxi can't take five people. (On weekdays, it is probably faster, traffic-wise, by subway. But we were there on Sunday, so I can't claim traffic was a reason.) Most of all, the subway in Manhattan was actually FUN for us country bumpkins, especially the kids. I read somewhere online that the MTA offered a one-day unlimited ride card for $7. We couldn't buy one at the machine we used, so they might not exist anymore. If we could have bought a one-day pass, it would have been a money saver.
Anyways, back to the hiccup. The MTA instructions for getting from Battery Park to the Empire State building: "Subway to Herald Square: Approx Travel Time : 26 minutes. Walk 0.23 miles(5 minutes) South-East to WHITEHALL ST STATION R (UPTOWN). Take the 57TH ST - 7TH AV bound Train departing at 11:46 AM service advisory. Get off at 34TH ST - HERALD SQ (UPTOWN) N/Q/R at 12:02 PM. Walk 0.21 miles(5 minutes) South-East to destination (ESB)." These were a little cryptic, but in retrospect were 100% correct. Of course, we stumbled over the "South-East to WHITEHALL ST STATION." If you look at a map of Manhattan, you'll see that Battery Park, were we got off the ferry, is right at the southernmost tip of the island. I have NO sense of direction, which is why I allow my DH to come on these little excursions. I asked him, which direction is southeast? He pointed off to the right, in the water off the island. I was pretty sure all the subway stations were on land, so instead of heading to the right (like we should have), we followed the other sheep, heading north off the ferry. Then we look at a map and go east, then we look at the map and go south, and then we've travelled three sides of a square right back to within sight of the ferry, and we're at Whitehall station. Just as the MTA's instructions had said.
To native New Yorkers, the subway stations are probably as obvious as the noses on their faces. All day long, I was constantly looking for subway stations and not seeing them until I was on top of one. The ones I saw were just stairs heading down with not-very-large signs indicating the name of the station (Whitehall, for example.) I would have liked a symbol on a sign up above the stairs. An M or an S or something. The stations were dirty and old, but not scary. To make sure I was at the right station (different ones serve different train lines that go to different stations), I relied on the Travel Planner+ info from their website. If you know where you're going, they have signs in the subway stations to show the stops for different routes, but it was a little confusing. If you are a city mouse, you're probably laughing at my confusion. I'm proud to say that we never got on the wrong train, but I had my crib sheets.
The Empire State Building
Anyways, we rode up to Herald Square, then walked to the Empire State Building. The long lines and crowds of men trying to sell you tickets will clue you in that you're getting close. Because of my time constraints, I had purchased the main deck express tickets off their website. The stand-in-line tickets were $25 for adults; the main deck express tickets were $47.50 for all ages. If you're going first thing in the morning, I think you'll find tolerable lines, and you can probably just get the regular tickets. I got there at noon-ish, and the line was around two hours long. Even if I'd had two hours to spare, the torture of the line made the ticket price worth it. I held out my express tickets, and the ESB workers waved us along past all the crowds. Another option, however, is to skip the ESB and go to the top of Rockefeller Plaza. My research indicated that the top of the rock is less expensive, a great view, and a lot less crowded. Unfortunately, we were NYC newbies, who wanted that cachet offered by what is probably considered by some to be a landmark and others to be a tourist trap. The views were stunning, but it was hazy and the deck was SO crowded. The experience was more of a "been there, done that" than an actual delight.
Lunch at a four star restaurant? Ha! We had the kids along and no time. We asked the ESB worker at the door for the nearest Subway and off we went. Lunch was as you'd expect, except that their bathroom was out of order (maybe that is what we should have expected). So we made a pit stop at the McDonald's bathroom during our walk from the ESB to Times Square. The guide books say to go to Times Square at night, and it wasn't that big a thrill during the day. So that was another "been there." It was smaller to me than what I expected and I can't imagine all the people crammed into Times Square for New Year's. It must be crazy.
The Museum of Modern Art
From Times Square, we walked to the 42nd St/Bryant Park subway and rode to Rockefeller Plaza. (So we got to walk through the ground floor, if not to the top! And for free!) We walked past Radio City Music Hall (no stopping) on our way to the Museum of Modern Art. It's an expensive ticket ($25) to get in, but it was my favorite part of the whole trip, so worth every penny. Famous paintings, masterpieces, and interesting art exhibits are literally everywhere. I was intent upon seeing Starry Night, which is on the 5th floor. We get off the elevator on the 5th floor and there was Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth in the elevator lobby. I know, it isn't Starry Night, but it was such an unexpected pleasure to see a painting like that, so familiar from books. That was the feeling of MoMA for me: keep going. Go around the next corner. Go into the next room. You'll see something that you'll probably enjoy. On the other hand, my DH rested for a while in front of a Cy Twombly drawing, and let's just say he wasn't impressed. And one more thing about MoMA. I am an avid reader of the New Yorker. Again and again, as I walked through MoMA, I saw art that I'd read about in the New Yorker. Richard Serra's Delineator. The movie of trash blowing, I have no idea what it is called, showing by the escalator. I can't wait to go back. The only negative that I remember was the glass over many of the paintings. I'm sure it is to protect them, but it does detract a little bit from the experience.
At this point, the plan was to go to Central Park. It was four-ish. My group was sick of walking. We sat outside in the sculpture garden. I think they have ice cream sundaes upstairs somewhere. I wish I'd known right then! We rested and didn't walk to Central Park. Instead we walked to the 50th street subway station and rode the subway to Penn Station. Ate dinner there (Rosa's pizza -- pretty good). The Amtrak signage could be a lot better but we finally found the Amtrak monitor down away from the real Penn Station stuff. Unfortunately, our train was about half an hour late, but then it was smooth sailing back to BWI.
What will I do the next time I go? Central Park, a Broadway show(s), Radio City Music Hall, Top of the Rock, the Met, the Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Circle Line, eat at a decent restaurant or two or three, venture off Manhattan. But the bottom line is, we all had fun. Would I do it again? Yes! No luggage, no hotel room, no time to waste.
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