On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

“So what do you want to see while you’re in New York?”

I got this question from everyone my first week in the city—from my flatemates, my coworkers, my mother, the barista at the coffee shop… Okay, I’m lying about the barista; but he probably would’ve asked if he’d thought of it.

My answer was the same every time: “Well, uh, I don’t really know…what are you supposed to see in New York City?”

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So I googled “what to do in NYC” and, overwhelmed by so many suggestions, shut the whole thing down and drank a few cups of coffee. For a few weeks, I forced myself out of my flat every weekend. I dutifully visited the Museum of Natural History and got lost in Central Park. Then I stopped sightseeing, overwhelmed by the number of options, exhausted by the constant movement, depressed by seeing sights alone.

And then Emily came. I picked her up at the airport, escorted her onto the wrong bus, course corrected half an hour later, and helped carry her suitcase up four flights of stairs to my apartment.

I like to think we saw the entirety of New York City in one week of meandering down sidewalks and up subway station stairs. And I think our adventures translate into good sightseeing advice no matter where you’re visiting.

  1.  From the Statue of Liberty: Live beyond a lens.
    My camera phone is generally great, but skylines and statues aren’t really its thing. So I tucked the phone away and spent the ride to Staten Island and back leaning on the top railing of the ferry, breathing in salty air, and taking in the surprisingly diminutive Lady Liberty dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers, marvelling at the waves and the seagulls and the glints of gold on sailboats. Instead a two- by five-inch screen, I saw the water and sunset stretching as far as I could see, the colours more vivid and real than my phone will ever show me. Don’t be so concerned about getting a photo that you miss an experience.
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  2. From the Museum of Natural History: Call it quits.
    Museums are fantastic, and New York City has more than its fair share. I’m thrilled that they’re here and that people enjoy them, but I don’t. Once I’ve seen one stuffed lion or unearthed pottery shard, I figure I’ve seen them all. And I refuse to feel guilty for that; I can always read a book or watch the history channel, and there are dozens of alternative things to do. I gain far more by doing something I actually care about than by trudging through a museum just to say I did it. Don’t visit a place out of obligation; spend your time on what matters to you.
  3. From Mezzrow and Smalls: Empty your pockets.
    I’m skint and stingy, so $60 for drinks and a show chokes me. But I spent the money, and I spent the evening listening to truly fantastic jazz piano and one of the best quartets I’ve ever heard. I packed in with people wearing evening formal and people wearing shorts and t-shirts, and we all had nothing in common except for the blue chords and smooth saxophone, and I’ve yet to regret it. A year from now, I’ll remember not the rent or the groceries but the memories. Shell out your money where it counts.
  4. From the Brooklyn Bridge: We came, we saw, we conquered left.
    We took the subway to Brooklyn and wandered through the park, along the pier, under the bridge. Then we got back on the subway and left. Most things besides museums don’t take as long to see as people seem to think. It’s important to pause and marvel; we all need a little wonder in our lives. But pausing and marvelling can be done quickly if that’s what you want. Don’t be afraid to stop, stare, snap a photo, and then leave.
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  5. From Piano in Bryant Park: Improvise.
    We put off our afternoon plans to walk the Highline in favour of sitting on rickety chairs in Bryant Park, eating sandwiches, and listening to a ragtime piano concert. A free concert in the park is nowhere in the “must do in NYC” blogs I skimmed, but to us, an hour or two of rag tops a half hour of walking along a repurposed train track any day. Yes, the Highline is more famous, but we prefer Scott Joplin to a different view of the same skyscrapers. Decide what matters most—not what will impress your friends, but what you’ll look back on with a smile. It might not be the most celebrated experience, but what matters is that you celebrate it.
    Bonus: From Gilmore Girls: Put your feet up.
    Don’t get so caught up in the tourist scene that you forget to rest. We spent two evenings lying on the couch eating ice cream and scones and shouting at watching The Gilmore Girls. If you need to bum it with smoothies and Netflix…that’s okay. Let’s face it: if you’re too tired to care, you’re not going to enjoy seeing the sights anyway.

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I know there’s a ton of New York City I still haven’t seen, but I’m satisfied, and that’s what matters. Seeing the world isn’t about crossing items off lists but about adding them—adding the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, that little street where I got lost and never did find the museum I were looking for or the tiny cafe where I had a cheap coffee because the famous restaurant was too expensive. In the end, any sight is worth seeing if I look for the novelty, the history, or the beauty in it.

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About Elizabeth Syson

While consuming tea and coffee at an alarming rate, I read and write everything I can and pursue my unnatural love of copyediting. My hobbies include learning new instruments and languages, riding horseback, sketching very badly indeed, and periodically recommitting to doing yoga regularly. View all posts by Elizabeth Syson

3 responses to “On Sightseeing: Lessons from New York City

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