Munching through the Big Apple

5 surprising observations on my first trip to New York City

Ah, America. It’s been a while. Actually, it’s been 13 years since an obligatory kids-visit to Disneyland Florida, so you could say it’s my first trip in living memory!

This time it wasn’t Mickey Mouse luring me across the pond, but rather an exciting opportunity to meet my team from work in New York City. For a week I was mainly based at the office in Midtown Manhattan, after which I bolted on another week to explore the city and Washington D.C.

I’ll admit feeling quite giddy after touching down at JFK. It had been a travel priority for all my adult life to head over to NYC and I had finally made it. Two incredible weeks later, as I recap on a highly enjoyable adventure; it doesn’t feel appropriate to write an extensive travel guide like I usually would. I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the city, so instead I’m going to share the five intriguing surprises on my trip.

1. The size of everything


Times Square. It’s like standing inside an incredibly dazzling cathedral of light

When people try to describe New York, usually the first thing they might note is the tall buildings of Manhattan which are of course iconic of the city. But when I refer to the size, this extends beyond the enormous skyscrapers in every direction, and manifests itself in different ways.

I’ll start with the obvious. The roads are much wider, and the cars and trucks can be huge. It felt a bit excessive to scoot around alone in the back 4×4 taxis, but in spite of the number and size of vehicles I was surprised how clean the air was.

The food portions can be super generous and in comparison make meals in the UK looks like they’re from the kid’s menu. I didn’t ‘super size’ any of my fast food meals but will always remember the extended-family size portion of nachos and guacamole that I wouldn’t have finished for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day!

Some of the public places and parks, such as Grand Central Station and Central Park, are deceptively large and the latter in particular can involve quite a trek to cross one side to another. The same goes for museums – you’ll have to set aside a large part of your day at each of them. I made this mistake with the 9/11 museum, sparing only a couple of hours to visit what was one of the best museums I’ve ever been to, in terms of presentation of exhibits.

It’s not just the tangible elements of New York that are larger. People’s personalities are bigger too, and I mean that in a positive way. The locals are generally more extroverted and approachable. I found this particularly after a few Jazz club visits while I was in the NYC and Washington – it was great to see everyone let go and not hold anything back (more on this later).

Of course, when visiting a new place for the first time it’s natural to feel small and intimidated by the city. But coming back to London afterwards, everything felt miniaturised and almost like visiting a collection of villages rather than a sprawling metropolis.

2. The variable weather


I was warned it would be cold. That was a bit of an understatement, to say the least.

It wasn’t just cold. It was mind, cheek and feet numbingly freezing!  I’ll forever remember the gust of wind in a deserted Central Park on a sunny afternoon that tingled every nerve in my body, and my difficulty to capture the incredible juxtaposition of the midsummer-like sunset from the top of the Rockefeller Center due to my phone suffering a bout of hypothermia.

In retrospect, early February really isn’t a great time to visit New York. Most sane people had figured this out to my benefit, as the queues to attractions were non-existent. Thankfully despite the cold it was largely sunny throughout my stay, with only light snowfall towards the end.

Not only was I taken aback by the cold, but also how variable the weather was day to day. The day the mercury had plunged to minus 18 Celsius (-28 degree wind chill factor, by the way), was followed up by a day of plus 15 Celsius, where I was left sweating in my three layers. Despite the variation the weather is generally decisive and rarely just grey, so there was never much doubt whether to pack shades or an umbrella.

3. The diversity


I was aware NYC was a melting pot of cultures but was surprised how mixed the pot is. It’s by far and away the most ethnically diverse place I’ve ever visited. The city is a shining example of a truly successful multicultural society, so on that basis it’s difficult to generalise but I’ll share a few observations.

Much like many other Britons, I’m the type of person who’s unnecessarily apologetic and self deprecating. It’s fair to say without a few drinks we’re somewhat reserved and conscious to not be overly expressive of our opinions.  On the contrary I found New Yorkers are much more open, honest and forthright – which took some getting used to! New Yorkers are more likely to boldly ‘tell it as it is’ whereas Londoners would murmur it with a few more words and apologies. Casual encounters are a more volatile experience than in London. The average person on the street has a higher chance of being exceptionally friendly or shrewd.

On the subject of casual encounters, during my stay I lost count of the number of strangers approaching me and bursting into conversation. I can’t recall the last time someone did that back home, and it almost made me feel ashamed to be so self-contained.  There were of course the less polite minority – to be expected anywhere – although as one of my tour guides put it, ‘New Yorkers aren’t rude, we’re just always in a hurry!’

4. The cityscape

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A stunning view of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry

Manhattan’s cityscape  is based around a highly logical grid system. Avenues stretch all the way up boroughs with streets numbered horizontally. It means navigating the city was surprisingly straightforward as travelling anywhere simply required a street and avenue co-ordinate. On the flip side, I didn’t find the city particularly pedestrian friendly, especially for tourists.  There are large distances between the key attractions, and the traffic signals every 75 metres can make a seemingly nearby destination feel further away. I also found it unusual that vehicles can still turn right when pedestrians are crossing, which almost put me in hospital on an occasion. Losing patience waiting for the white ‘walk’ signal and weaving through cars on roads, like I’m accustom to in London, almost resulted in the same fate. It’s downright dangerous in NYC, so I’d advise against it.

The metro system is larger, faster and runs 24hrs (hurray!)  but rather poorly signposted. On the frequent occasion I was lost, backtracking involved exiting the station and scurrying across the street to head to the opposite platform. Often this could be a block away and getting there could require a feat of navigation (on one occasion a cop even gave up trying to direct me). Like anywhere it takes some getting used to, but it would be a quick win for the city to better direct passengers considering the scale of the metro system and it’s high dependency for mass transit.

5. The dining experience


Stir fry noodles at Hangawi – a fully veg Korean restaurant in Midtown. Here you’d take your shoes off and sit on the floor before being served. It’s also quite dark.


Curried stuffed sweet potato at Blossom, another veggie restaurant in Chelsea. A bit pricey but the food is top notch.


I was taken aback by the number of independent restaurants in the city. It makes such a change from the endless chain restaurants dominating the high street in the UK and it’s great to see small businesses thriving in the heart of NYC. There’s also incredible diversity in food and dining styles. Interestingly, there were far fewer fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King & KFC then I expected; offset by an abundance of food cart stalls on the sidewalks.

Of all the experiences on my trip, the process of paying for meals was probably the most unlikely surprise of them all. In particular, the culture of tipping which I completely failed to comprehend. Generally in the UK I tip up to 10% for exceptional service at restaurants, whereas in the USA it’s standard to tip 18%-25% even after mediocre service. It’s seen as more of an obligation rather than a genuine gratuity.


Enjoying pomegranate guac at Toloache.

The method of card payment usually involves the waiter taking the credit card for processing at a terminal, then returning back with a receipt and pen with which the customer would be expected to sign a tip. Having failed to realise this procedure, it later transpired to me that payments are processed by swiping the credit card which is then charged again after the customer has signed the tip and left. My learning experience came too late for the brilliant but unfortunate waiter at Dos Caminos who didn’t get the tip he very much deserved (sorry!)

My trouble to undersand the tipping culture extended outside of restaurants too, such as when bellman at hotels would assist with luggage or after trips on taxis. Do I also tip the baggage handler for offloading my luggage from the carousel? Or airport attendant for waving down a cab? Because there is so little transparency into the compensation for those providing these and other services, I always ended up in a moral dilemma after anyone did anything polite or friendly, immediately assuming they were after some cash.

 Round up

So there we are. New York City, a city that will surely surprise and delight in equal measure after any number of visits. As the gateway to the USA it’s an astonishingly large and diverse megacity with something for everyone. Regardless of your personal interests, be it food, architecture, shopping or sightseeing  there is guaranteed to be something in the city that will take your breath away. I personally can’t wait to go back and venture off the tourist trail next time.


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