I grew up seeing American movies and television shows. I am a child of Oprah and Hollywood since middle school and up to this day, I even immerse myself in reading about American issues and politics. Suffice to say, the colonization of the “white man” has never left the psyche of my third world roots. Nonetheless, my aspirations as a 12-year-old kid to one day, stroll the streets of New York City, ear pods in tow and walking along with the rest of the modern world never left my mind. Twenty years later, I lived the dream.
After our successful attempt to getting a US tourist visa with my mom last 2016, I finally managed to utilize my visa last February. My mom, who retired in the Philippines last year, happened to be invited by her brother to go see him in Hawaii and tour the rest of the US on her birthday and I thought of coming along. We ended up meeting each other in Las Vegas but I’ll save that entry for later and talk about NYC first because that’s where I spent most of my time there anyway.
Ohhh, New York City, songs, novels and movies have been made with you as its muse. I can understand it now, the charm of the Big City. Initially, I was unimpressed with my surroundings and thought that perhaps the city has been too romanticized on screen that when I was walking along the subway and driving by the rest of the city, I felt that the streets were not that special after all. In fact, Riyadh may be wider and cleaner from what I’m seeing.
But because it is the concrete jungle, it is the beautiful architecture of both old and new buildings that led me to look up in awe. As I walked through places like the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Occulus, Brooklyn and Manhattan, even Ground Zero…the art, history and nostalgia that these places emanated just spoke volumes to me. It may not be cleaner, but it definitely had more character. More importantly, it was the energy of New Yorkers that clearly grasped my spirits.
I had a bucketlist of things I wanted to do when I went to New York and I do have to thank my childhood friends from Riyadh, Johanne and Cham for making them all happen and more! They hosted me in their homes, both in Queens and New Jersey and taught me virtually everything I needed to know about navigating New York. Special thanks to their mom and dad, Tita Fel and Tito Sam for their warm welcome.
Now for the purpose of being useful, I’ll try to keep my first entry to the US as concise as possible with some FAQs that I can give insight based on my experience.
When is the best time to visit?
Spring and autumn may be the best times to go to New York just because I felt that coming there during the cold season makes the city look gloomy and a little Gotham-like if you know what I mean. However, during my visit last February, there were a lot of light rainshowers and even a touch of snow. Heck on my trip back to Riyadh, there was a super storm coming in the city that all the flights at JFK were cancelled, except for mine! I was lucky to have had at least two days of sunshine during my stay there because it made for good photos. I can only imagine how all those parks and gardens in the city would be blooming with greens and oranges in fall or spring. The main reason I chose February though was because of my mom’s birthday.
What should you wear?
If you’re a Saudi girl like me going there on the coat tails of winter, then you are going to have to layer it up! My suggestion is just pack one decent and trusty jacket and if you want/need to, just purchase another from NY once you get there. It saves you from luggage space and at the same time, gives you a reason to shop at Macy’s or a Walmart. The funny thing is, me and the girls have a tradition of packing colorful outfits in our travels to make for ‘popping’ photos but when I got to NY, everybody was either wearing black or dark olive. I was like the unicorn in the subway wearing my sparkly, glittery pink sweatshirt. If there was ever a game of spot the tourist in the New York City subway, that tourist would be me.
How do you get around?
Google and a Metrocard. New York City’s subways may be old but they sure were helpful! I purchased an 7-day unlimited Metrocard to maximize my ability to roam around and it went for 32 USD. Uber and other ride-sharing apps are also widely used but it is way more costly than the subway. Also, these car services do not accept cash payment so you have to be sure your debit/credit card is topped up before riding. To get internet connection on the go, I got a sim card from AT&T that had 6 GB of data, practically good enough for two weeks and it went for about 36 USD. Having a mobile connection is very useful when you’re trying to find your way in the city and Google Maps is will save you from being lost. It will tell you in detail which train you need to look for and where to get off, etc. To know more about the Metrocard packages, click here.
What should you expect upon arrival at the airport?
I’ve heard a lot of stories about the Transportation Security Administration aka the TSA and I did my homework prior to arriving to my point of entry. I saw my fellow travelers bringing laptops with them at check-in so the myth that it’s not allowed is not true (for direct flights, that is). Make sure you are not bringing any food that is not commercially packaged and sealed. This is to avoid any hassle you may face at the security check. Make sure you fill up your entry form with the correct details. The arrival area at the JFK has an array of digital, self-service kiosks where you do most of the “check-in” to America yourself. Don’t be intimidated by it, just read the instructions. It will ask you to scan your passport and take your photo and will print out your data. You will then head on to the immigration officer who is in charge of stamping your passport. He/she might ask you a few questions. For me, he asked 1) How long will I be staying in America? 2) Where will I be staying? and 3) What is my work in Saudi Arabia? Afterwards, I checked my passport and saw that he gave me 6 months of valid stay in the US. Awesome!
When I got to the baggage claim area, I immediately looked for a trolley because I had brought with me two big lugggages It turns out trolleys are not for free and to rent one costs 6 USD. It’s another self-service kiosk wheere you can deposit single dollar bills or pay by card. Swipe I go and there goes my first ever purchase in the United States of America! PS. America prefers the use of cards. I highly suggest topping up your debit card (like I did) or have a credit card handy for smoother transactions.
What are the places to visit and things to do in New York City?
OH MY. That is a loaded question with a loaded answer. With such a huge and world-renowned city, there are countless of places to visit and it basically depends on your timeframe, budget and interest. For me, these were the places I visited:
A New York City Subway: The subway performers alone were one of the most inspiring things I witnessed. Yes it may be crowded and a few homeless people may not have showered in a while, BUT it is the easiest and cheapest way to go about and explore the city. And it will really make you feel “at one” with New Yorkers. Don’t miss out on the majestic, Grand Central Station as the classic NYC landmark.
Ground Zero and the Oculus: To pay homage to the lives lost in such a tragic moment in history and to admire the architecture that was built in their honor. The names of those who perished are inscribed all around the black panels that surround the fountain. The Oculus is also a major terminal station for the PATH system (New Jersey to New York trail) that was inspired to look like a dove bird in flight. It is a public spectacle for a train station but I suppose it serves as a symbol peace in a place that was once hit with such terror.
Greenwich Village: It’s a picturesque area, including the famous arc of Washington Square Park, the Friends’ apartment in Grove St. and Sex in the City apartment in the West Village.
Brooklyn Bridge: Walk along the iconic bridge over a mile long ang relish a great view of Manhattan and stare over the East River. Make sure you stay in the walking lane so as not to bump into the cyclists wheeling through the bike lane.
The Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn: I happen to love street art and the Bushwick Collective in Brooklyn showcases the amazing, vibrant talent of the locals with block to block artwork breathing life into the streets.
Central Park: This humongous park is 843 acres big! So research on which part you want to spend time in and take the closest entry point from there. For me, it was the John Lennon Memorial (Strawberry Fields), Bethesda Fountain Plaza, the Ramble and Lake, Bow Bridge and the Rat Rock. Lots of picture perfect spots in there too!
Staten Island Ferry: One of the many free things to do in NYC is to take a ride on the Staten Island Ferry that takes you back and forth Manhattan and Staten Island every 30 minutes. It’s also the most famous ferry in the world as it’s been seen in several Hollywood movies and TV shows like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Trainwreck and Spiderman: Homecoming. It will also give you a clear view of the Statue of Liberty from afar.
New York Public Library: Book lovers like me must dream of visiting this place one day. Sitting and reading in the Rose Main Reading Room is a moment I will never forget for as long as I live. Entrance is free but access to certain archives require an appointment and approval.
Harlem: “The best soul food is not found in the South, it’s actually in Harlem!” – that’s a direct quote from my African-American friend who applauded my decision to eat some real American fried chicken, gravy, mashed potatoes and collard greens. I was lucky enough to have dined at one of the Food Network’s chef’s restaurant, Marcus Samuelsson in Harlem called The Red Rooster.
Times Square: It’s probably the most crowded, most touristy spot in the entire city but if you’re a movie buff like me, we know that this is a place we just have to see for ourselves. The bright lights of the billboards are literally blinding and are on 24/7…Look for the iconic red stairs and do a lil’ people watching while you’re at it.
Broadway: Another dream of mine as a theater student was to one day watch a Broadway play. Hamilton is all the rave at the moment but the ticket prices are crazy expensive. I decided to go for a classic instead and chose Wicked to be the first ever Broadway show that I would watch. My friend, Johanne, treated me with some on-the-day tickets that were like 120$ and I went to watch it by myself. Guys, I was sobbing out of happiness and amazement from start to finish. Drama queen, yasss! What else do you expect from a thespian? Lol. But seriously, no visit to New York would be complete without watching a show on Broadway so I fervently encourage you to see one if you’re ever there.
Top of the Rock/Rockefeller Center: Another thing on my bucketlist was to watch the sunset on Top of the Rock. Now you might be thinking, why not the Empire State Building? Well, the thing is, Top of the Rock has a better view of the rest of the city skyline because you can have a level-view of the rest of the buildings, unlike when you’re at the Empire State Building, you would be looking down on everyone else. And besides, from there I can have a photo with the Empire State Building in the background. I also saw the studio for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and, I also saw someone get married right then and there at sunset! How romantic.
High Line and Chelsea Market: The High Line is an old railway that’s been turned into a park that stretches to over 1.45 miles long (and yes, I did walk it from point A to B). There are a lot of intimate views of the city from there and you can also find a lot of seating spaces for locals and tourists alike to bask in. Along the way, we made a stop to Chelsea Market which is, I believe, to be the hipster central of the city. We did a lot of food trippin’ there (Food post about America to follow later too) and was able to score some vintage vinyl records for keeps.
Madison Square Garden: It’s where the NBA regular holds their games and other major concerts are also held in this massive arena. During my visit, the Golden State Warriors had a game but I couldn’t afford the tickets. I just took a look around and browsed at the NY Knicks store.
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): My last day in New York was spent in MoMA and it was a day well spent indeed. I was able to experience the amazing art, photography and designs featured in almost all of the galleries. I felt so privileged to have seen the works of renowned artists up close. Art works by Henri Matisse, Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and even, Vincent Van Gogh.
New York City is really an inspirational place that’s full of guts and glory. Art and money seems to thrive in its streets, along with eccentricities and talent that blossoms from its fearless individuals. I understand now why it is what it is. And why I’ll probably keep coming back to it. I’m sure there are lots more for me to discover about it but for now, that was one hell of a trip that I will never, ever forget.
Up next will be my trip to the Sin City of Las Vegas! Stay tuned. 😉