So, we had arrived in New York late the previous January afternoon and, due to the tall buildings, it starts getting dark relatively early. For that reason we hadn’t really had chance to look out of the hotel window yet. Day 1 dawned with beautiful clear blue skies and bright sunshine. So far the city hadn’t felt as ‘different’ as I’d would have expected, being in a different country and all. But, looking across those rooftops, I spied something quintessentially American (and it wasn’t The Chrysler Building in the distance, peeping out from behind a more non-descript skyscraper). Weirdly it was something I hadn’t really given much thought to until I saw them with my own eyes. Roof-top water towers! Honestly, I just thought they were something from the past or only found in comic books like Spiderman! But there they were, dotted across the roof tops, with not a scarlet and blue web slinger in slight!
I knew we had an early start on Day 1 and had been worried about getting up due to the long day travelling the day before.
Needn’t have worried! The time delay meant that getting up at 7am, even whilst on holiday, didn’t feel like a chore. We were quickly up and dressed and on our way to The Rockefeller Centre as we had early tickets for the Top of The Rock. Partly due to the weather and partly so we could see more stuff, we decided to walk the three block west to 5th Ave and then straight up to Rockefeller Plaza. On the way, we got to see some more iconic New York staples, food trucks, steam rising from manholes in the street and our first of many fire trucks racing through the downtown streets with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Upon rounding the corner from 28th St and on to 5th Ave, we caught our first sight of The Empire State Building, looking magnificent in the morning sunshine.
Our plan for the day was:
- Top of the Rock
- St Patrick’s Cathedral
- Central Park
- Guggeheim (exterior)
- Natural History Museum
But, as we approached The Empire State Building, it soon became apparent that something out of the ordinary was happening. At first we noticed that a lot of the streets that crossed 5th Ave were closed off by traffic police. This started near The Empire State Building and, as we walked up 5th Ave, the number of police cars and officers increased. Initially this was a little alarming but the closer we got to The Rockefeller Centre and St Patrick’s Cathedral, the more officers were in dress uniform and we realised that this was an event rather than an emergency. By the time we got to The Rockefeller Centre the streets were crammed with police and fire dept. officers. It really was as a sight to behold. We had assumed it was a police funeral but found out later that isn’t wasn’t just any cop. This was the funeral of Officer Steven McDonald who had been shot and paralysed in 1986 but who had publicly forgiven his attacker and had gone on to be an international voice of peace. Understandable why the turn out was so huge and a real credit to the man that he would be remembered in such a way. Later, as we arrived at the southern corner of Central Park, we could see 10 helicopters circling over the park. Shortly afterwards, they lined up and flew straight down 5th Avenue, past the cathedral. Absolutely awesome sight and we felt very privileged to have been in the right place at the right time to see them fly overhead.
But back to the itinerary! We had tickets booked for Top of the Rock so despite everything that was going on outside, we weaved our way through the crowds and into Rockefeller Plaza. We’d been warned about queues but had been advised that going early was a good way to beat the crowds so our tickets were for 8:45am. Think that means during high season! On a crisp, Friday morning in January, 8:45am is an excellent time as there seemed to be less than a dozen people there! The only queue was to go through the obligatory metal detectors and bag searches and then wait for the lifts. Once at the top, we were free to roam around in relative solitude. The weather couldn’t have been better! The blue skies, bright sunshine and cool air meant that visibility was very high and we were treated to one of, if not the best, panoramic views in the city. Uptown, the whole of Central Park was spread out before us. But even this view didn’t give us a real idea of just how big it actually is! More on that later. Downtown, The Empire State Building was slap bang in front of us and in the distance we could make out One World Trade and The Statue of Liberty. Peaking out amongst the forest of skyscrapers we could make out the tops of the illuminated billboards of Times Square and over to the east, there again was the beautiful Chrysler Building, all lit up by the brilliant winter sunshine.
Next was a quick look round Rockefeller Plaza and time for some breakfast. We’d missed the famous Rockefeller Christmas Tree by a couple of days but the ice rinks and fairy lights were still there. The Plaza and ice rink were actually a lot smaller than I’d imagined but I’m sure it looks impressive with the tree. Breakfast was a bagel in a sandwich shop, tucked away in the corner of the Rockefeller Concourse, called ‘Wichcraft.’ Genius name and good food, namely a peanut butter and berry jam bagel!
It was whilst we were in Wichcraft that the funeral procession must have arrived and gone into the cathedral because all of a sudden what had seemed a fairly quiet and empty part of the concourse, was packed with cops grabbing coffee and getting out of the cold for a bit. We knew the cathedral was off limits today so decided to have a bit of a mooch around the Plaza and shops before heading off towards Central Park. The pavements outside were still chockablock with cops and onlookers as the roads were still closed so we decided to detour and head over to Madison Ave and then head north towards Central park and cut back to 5th when the roads opened up. As it turned out 5th Ave was closed all the way up to Central Park and beyond, approximately 30 blocks. It really was quite impressive that a city as busy as New York could and would close down such a large section of a major road for an entire morning for the funeral of a normal citizen. The detour did mean we got to see Tiffany’s and their funny pink dinosaur window displays and we avoided Trump Tower (bonus!).
Standing outside the architectural glass box that is The Apple Store was where we got to see the helicopter fly-by. Well worth the detour and perfect timing!
Central Park & The Big Bus Uptown Tour
We knew Central Park was big and certainly hadn’t planned to walk the full length of it but we had hoped to get as far as The Met! In hindsight though, I don’t think we’d factored in how much additional walking we had done or just how far the major sites are a part. We saw a bit of the zoo (well the bits you can see for free from the road!) and then cut through to see The Bethesda Terrace and waterless, as it turned out, Fountain. Then round to the Loeb Boathouse before getting lost in The Ramble which was unexpectedly hilly! Highlight was seeing an actual Blue Jay, foraging around in the undergrowth. Such striking colours, especially against the dead winter foliage, that I didn’t think it could be real at first! Then around the bottom part of the lake, with its funny little ice ladders (just how often does the lake freeze and people are daft enough to go walking on it??), and then across the very pretty Bow Bridge. I think we lucked out with the weather. The bright blue skies and winter sunshine lit up the park. On any other normal January day, I expect it would have looked cold and, in some places, a bit spooky. Understandably many of the concessions and attractions were closed and visitors were pretty scarce, making thin pickings for the many bike tour operators.
By the time we’d walked around the park for an hour or so and my Fitbit was in danger of overheating as it had never logged so many steps, we opted to cash in one of our tourist pass options and hop on one of the city’s many bus tours. As our feet had given out before we could get there, we chose to go on the Uptown route so that we could see The Met and Guggenheim, at least from the outside, with the added bonus that we’d also get to see The Cathedral of St John the Divine, Riverside Church and Grants Tomb. Our guide was really good, very knowledgeable but seemed shocked that the Brits on-board didn’t know the ins and outs of the War of Independence! Was tempted to point out that in British schools we have a few thousand years of British history to cover not just a few hundred so some bits gets ‘glossed over.’ Whilst it was cold, especially by Riverside Church and The Hudson River, it was well worth it as we got to see far more than planned and saved our feet for more sight-seeing the next day.
Top of the Rock at Night
The morning visit had been brilliant and we’d decided prior to leaving the UK to opt for the Sun and Stars ticket which meant we could return again the same day, after dark. As it was such a clear day we figured the night time view of New York would be pretty spectacular, with the city all lit up. Whether it was just because we were, by now, both tired and hungry, the queuing and then the crowds on the observation deck did detract from the experience some what. The city did look magnificent but you just couldn’t get close enough to the glass to get many clear shots. Lots of photographic numpties wondering why their pictures weren’t coming out, only to have it pointed out to them that having the flash on whilst pointing at highly reflective glass wall will obliterate anything you are actually trying to shoot!