With a couple of days to explore, New York within driving distance and 80% of the family never having visited, we took a trip to the Big Apple early October. It was Thanksgiving in Canada and beautiful weather in the States. We’d booked a hotel in New Jersey situated next to the Path (a Subway line running underneath the Hudson river). It meant we could leave the car behind, enter the city by public traffic and explore on foot.
Because it is both my and the kids first visit, of course, we have to hit some of the highlights. But we also want to find some lesser known and interesting options too. With three days to fill, we list our wishes and plot them on the map. Depending on in what part of the city (well, Manhattan really) they are, we divvy it up per day – Midtown – Downtown and Uptown.
On Foot – Day 1 – Midtown
Day 1: UN – Chrysler Building – Empire State Building – Grand Central Terminal – Times Square – Garment District – Macy’s – Flat Iron Building
After a mere 20 minutes on the subway that first day we exit on 33rd Street. Time to take to the streets and walk to the United Nations headquarters.
The sun is bright, it isn’t too hot or cold and with breakfast scored from a patisserie on a corner, we can’t ask for more. Seeing a city one step at a time makes you realize how close a lot of highlights truly are.
The Empire State Building stands basking in the Sun, beckoning us to visit its observation decks on the 102nd floor. It’s a beautiful building and a prime example of the industrious development of early last century New York. Building a floor a day in the thirties was no mean feat. As our visit of choice for today is the United Nations, we walk on.
As recommended, we check in an hour beforehand for the security check, at one of the buildings the organization rents across the street. The row on the street is managed by an officer who allows 10 to 15 people to be inside. As someone leaves through one door, another person is permitted in at the other.
Visits which include a tour at the UN can be pre-booked (here) which saves time and is your best bet you actually make it in. Once vetted and a picture taken you make your way across the street.
The UN intrigues me. The idea of a worldwide internationally independent organization as a general compass to keep humanity alive feels reassuring. It was set up in San Francisco after the second World War to try and avoid such a disaster again.
When deciding on where to base headquarters, naturally San Fran came to mind first. A number of other cities volunteered to host too but a sizeable donation of $8.5 mln by Rockefeller helped swing the vote to New York. The city helped this along and donated the former industrial dockside alongside the East river.
Ambassador to the public
Making our way over we walk by gifts from member states. ‘The sphere within a sphere’. The pistol with the knotted barrel, the protest against gun violence and we make our way through the nickle and bronze entrance doors which, we find out during our tour, have been donated by Canada.
In the entrance hall which is high and wide, we run into a statue of Nelson Mandela and more gifts among which is a pendulum clock by Rietveld donated by the Netherlands. A lot to see until our ‘Ambassador to the Public’ picks us up for our tour. We visit the different councils, sit in the chairs and learn how they work.
The United Nations is an independent international organization and for that reason, has its own tax system, security and postal service with their own stamps too.
For the cost of a coffee
We make our way through sections of the buildings. It’s shocking to see a ‘clock’ of sorts that every 24 hours counts upwards to $6 bln. That’s how much is spent on security and defense every day. Equally horrifying is the snuff box sized landmine. For the cost of a coffee ($3) it is designed to ‘just’ rip off limbs.
The UN itself does not have an army, instead, whenever military force is needed, a request is being made for personnel. Member states then volunteer their number of troops. On a map we see where the Blue Helmets maintain livable areas in war torn countries and where else in the world the organization is working. It’s brought into focus when, about 10 days later, we watch the news and see the UN’s warning about the deplorable situation in Yemen.
On our way out, after the excellent tour by the lovely and knowledgeable ‘ambassador’ we view all the gifts from member states with renewed respect.
Meet me at the clock
It’s early afternoon and after a quick sandwich we keep walking and see Grand Central. In the spirit of all the movies filmed here, those tearful reunions and goodbyes, or the get-togethers after a cryptic ‘Meet me at the clock’, we make this a special occasion too. Our eldest will forever remember this place for the promise of getting a mobile phone. After all, it is his birthday.
Even if you’re not waiting for a movie worthy meeting or return of a lover, this building is amazing. It oozes the sense of movement, travel and new horizons whether that is at the start of a work day or a new adventure.
We walk on another kilometer, through Bryant Park and then up to Times Square. Even if you know and have seen on a map that this is a misnomer, you need to experience it to truly feel it. It’s not a square. It’s not a triangle. It is intersected in so many ways that there hardly is any real space to stand still to take in all the flickering, changing and colourful bill boards. But you do it. Just like every other tourist. And feel good about it.
to the flat iron building, we know we’ll pass by Macy’s. Along the way though, on 7th and between 41st and 35th street, we hit the garment district. What a fun surprise and a great part of the history of the city.
It started out as the area for theaters and what now would be nightclubs. It attracted a mix of shady people and businesses ranging from sex trade to betting and bootlegging, earning it the nicknames the Tenderloin and/or the Devils Arcade.
When early last century saw an influx of Eastern European Jewish people, this was the only affordable option for them to live in. The increased need for shirts and uniforms for both war and the booming economy resulted in this garment district. The combination of business acumen, the existence of the sewing machine and adaptation skills of the then immigrants quickly turned the area around. The shadier goings-on were pushed out in favour of first basement and then loft factories. Around 1910, almost half of the city’s workforce was employed in the garment industry.
Much like LA’s walk of fame, plaques have been added to the sidewalk to celebrate those who have been a great influence in the fashion industry. Suddenly Macy’s at 34th makes a lot of extra sense.
The Cowcatcher – the Stingy Piece of Pie or the Flatiron building
All three of these names were used to describe the triangular shaped flatiron building. Circumventing a bunch of zombies, out to promote their new film just outside of Madison Garden, we make it there.
Similar to the Empire State building, this one too was build at an amazing rate: a floor per week.
Unfortunately, the building can’t be visited but does have a few fun facts. For instance, did you know that it once housed a bar in the basement? Or that a lot of original features still exist, like the cast iron staircases, the elevator and the coal boilers? And that among others Mr Poppers Penguins was filmed here? Want to know what flying hats and a 20-minute elevator ride have to do with it? Check this website.
At the end of an interesting day on foot, we head to the nearby Subway Station at 23rd. Time to sit and make it back to New Jersey.
What fun fact do you have about New York? What else should we go see, next time?