I visited New York City for the first time in December of 2013 and took several hundred pictures of the city - and, honestly, I wish I could have taken more. Manhattan is a beautiful place if you appreciate architecture, history, and, in December, Christmas and other yuletide decorations.
The Trip of a Lifetime
Flying the five odd hours to the city on a red eye was a minor annoyance compared to my joy at visiting this majestic place. I stayed with my sister and father in an apartment we found on AirBnB.com, which represented a significant savings compared to the very expensive hotels in the area. If there's one annoyance with staying and, undoubtedly, living in New York, it's the small housing for the average populace.
Two major highlights of the trip included touring and taking pictures from atop the Empire State Building, as well as viewing a showing of Matt Stone and Trey Parker's riotous and blasphemous comedy musical, The Book of Mormon. The former was a great history lesson on the advanced building techniques of the early 20th century. I doubt I'll ever forget the powerful words uttered during the audio tour, "With the Twin Towers gone, the Empire State Building has almost gained a sense of importance and defiance." It's an inescapably beautiful building, and the view from up top is absolutely spectacular. This is coming from a person who hates heights, but there's no place better to peer at the seemingly endless high rise buildings and skyscrapers that spread out around the city. I definitely felt akin to Ted Mosby here, wondering if I could just approach the building and talk to it in intimate therapy sessions.
Viewed on Broadway, the Book of Mormon is just incredibly well acted and amazingly funny. In the months since I've returned home from New York, I can't count the number of times I wish I could reference the play with others who've yet to see it, but whom I know would love it. I don't want to spoil a thing about the play, except that it, of course, deals with the Mormon faith and how difficult it might be to work as a missionary in Africa. It's touring the country this year and next - don't miss it!
Attractions Abound for Foodies, History Buffs, and Artists
One of the first places I visited in New York was the American Museum of Natural History. If dinosaur bones, human evolution, rocks and minerals, or even astronomy interest you, you have to visit this astounding and particularly large museum. Plan to spend at least 3-4 hours viewing the exhibits. The dinosaur displays there were a dream of mine to see since I was a kid, particularly the towering Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. Consider buying a City Pass to visit other local museums, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art is particularly cool as well if you enjoy classic artwork. My favorite artist there was Balthus, whose Girls and Cats exhibit seemed like a purrfect (sorry) fit for Reddit.
The food in New York is delicious. From the best bagel I've had in my life (at Best Bagel and Coffee - an accurate name), to the ever present Sabrett hot dog stands, Manhattan has plenty of food for both cheap eaters and fine diners. I don't think I've ever had better pasta than at Da Gennaro in Little Italy, as the gnocchi specifically was delicious. Finally, we did manage to visit Katz's Deli, a famous Jewish deli in a more working class neighborhood in southeastern Manhattan. Come hungry to this place, as the sandwiches are huge, and don't forget to bring a fair amount of cash, as it's not cheap. Despite the long wait and so-so service, it was definitely worth it to see what all the fuss is about.
One place I have to admit being somewhat nonplussed about is the legendary Guggenheim Museum. While I did marvel at the building's architecture courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright, the artwork on display when we were there was the challenging work of Chirstopher Wool, a graffiti-like word artist. The history of his work and his influence is quite intriguing, but an entire gallery of graffiti word paintings is a bit hard to swallow. It's also very crowded there, and God help you if you need to use the restrooms or check a coat. Still, it's hard not to recommend the historic museum provided you are interested in the current art gallery on display.
Playing in the Park, and Dealing with the Weather
As an Arizona native, it's easy to discern that New York is quite cold in December. While I've actually experienced similar temperatures here in the Flagstaff area, it's a different world in the windy ocean-side city. The ferry trip out to view the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island was definitely the coldest part, with the wind whipping off the water and stealing any body warmth I might have smuggled onto the boat. On the other hand, day walks in the city can be fairly comfortable in a peacoat if the sun is out. The biggest annoyance, overall, is the complicated process of taking coats, gloves, and scarfs off when entering a building, which always feels boiling hot compared to the outside temperatures.
Central Park, while often covered in snow and chilly in the winter, is another of my favorite spots. This universally known park is huge, taking up over 2 miles of area not far from the center of the city. While the rest of the city is an urban jungle, Central Park is quite charming and a welcome break from the skyscrapers. It was quite amusing to go from the densely crowded streets to see children sledding up and down the park's snow-covered hills. Be sure to check out the park as the sun sets, if at all possible, as it's a very pleasant experience.
My Overall Impression
I had really high expectations going to New York for the first time. The city has been featured so prominently in media and popular culture that it's hard not to wonder if it's inherent coolness is real. From my perspective, Manhattan certainly is. There's so much to do and see that I feel like I didn't even make a decent-sized dent. I missed visiting Brooklyn and touring Coney Island, and I probably could have used another slice of pizza and another bagel for breakfast. While many people associate New Yorkers as being rude, I found that to be largely untrue, with a few exceptions. The streets and subway are quite busy, and people don't have a lot patience, but that's simply a result of the busy lifestyle these people lead.
Manhattan is busy in December. Many tourists, including myself, come to visit attractions like the Christmas Tree at the Rockefeller Center. The tree is nice, and snow was indeed falling while I admired it's glowing beauty, but don't even bother trying to ice skate at the adjacent rink. I think you'd have an easier chance of seeing a Beatles reunion with John Lennon and George Harrison alive again. People seeking Christmas presents can visit the iconic FAO Schwarz toy store, which I found also has a gigantic candy selection. Truly, there's plenty to do and see in New York City in December, and I didn't get to see other holiday season events, like the ball drop in Times Square (a touristy place with too many chain restaurants and department stores) or, a personal favorite, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm a bit in love with New York, the idea of it, and think it could be a great place to live, at least for a few years. It's definitely expensive and might require some sacrifices in terms of personal space and the freedom of owning a car, but, in the end, it may very well be worth it. I find it hard not to look back on these pictures, or even think about the trip in general, and wonder why I'm not already there sipping a coffee and riding on the subway to whatever the city might hold for me. It's distinctly American, culturally diverse, a bit gaudy, crowded, loud, proud, dirty, and a living, breathing place. It's no desert.