Taking in the Sights (and Sounds, and Tastes)

The more I travel, the more I realize how much I detest playing tourist. I like to soak in a city by hanging out with local friends, immersing myself in daily life, instead of rushing off to snap photos of whatever architectural or natural wonders are touted in the travel guides.

When I went to Puerto Rico two years ago, my friends and I stayed in a small surfing town. While I was slayed by the bright sun and the heat, there’s no denying I loved gawking at the blue waters at my own pace and grabbing a “Muscle Sandwich” from a roadside stand. This past weekend, in Toronto, I didn’t beg my pals to take me to the CN Tower or the museums. Instead, we spent much of our time on pub patios and walking around the Church Wellesley Village. I felt like I absorbed Toronto through the sidewalks, the streetcar rails and the pointed lack of jaywalking. We went to the movies, ate at a Greek restaurant in The Danforth, and took the subway. I made no plans beyond “eat, drink, sleep,” and it was a great vacation. That’s not to say that I’m completely against seeing things. You bet your ass I’d want to check out the Parthenon in Greece, Christ the Redeemer in Rio, and the Vatican. But I don’t need to check things off a list to have a good time. I’d just as soon camp out in a (shaded!) park for an hour, with a book, and people-watch.

On the flight back from Canada, I heard (okay, eavesdropped on) the guys behind me discussing going to the Empire State Building, and it took everything I had not to turn around and go, “No! For the love of God, don’t do it!” Walk by it all you want, tilt your head back and get a neck ache from staring up its facade, but unless you want to blow four hours standing in line…? Forget about going in. A much better, swifter, bet is the Top of the Rock Observation Deck at Rockefeller Center.  You get a gorgeous view of the city, especially if you go at night, and it doesn’t eat up all your time.

There are any number of things I would suggest for visitors to New York, rather than the typical tourist traps of the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and going to Times Square just to stand in the middle of the sidewalk and gape at the lights like you’ve never seen electricity in action. (Okay, that last one is purely self-serving… I hate having to elbow through the crowds between 42nd Street and 50th just to get anywhere.)

Instead of crowding into the chain restaurants in Times Square,  people can venture out to 9th Avenue or the East 40s and Murray Hill. There are tons of little bars and restaurants just waiting to be discovered. I also love the little stretch of Indian places on Lexington Avenue between 26th and 28th Streets. If someone really has a hankering to see Lady Liberty, they can hop on the Staten Island Ferry! It affords a beautiful view of her!  And while you’re downtown, you can stroll through Battery Park, enjoy the winding, cobbled streets of the Fi-Di, and then make your way to the South Street Seaport. More than anything, I would tell people to just walk. Whether it’s in Central Park or around the Upper West Side, wandering around is the best way to experience New York. (And possibly also to get mugged, but exercising caution is just common sense!) And I’d also advise getting out of Manhattan. Take the subway down to Brooklyn: Check out the Botanical Garden and Coney Island. Visit Astoria in Queens!

My New York isn’t all that exciting — it involves a lot of commuting, a lot of mariachis, and way too much pub grub — but there’s definitely fun to be had. Just like there was in Aguadilla and in Toronto. Treating a vacation like a scavenger hunt and crossing off items as you get them… sometimes it can make you overlook the hidden treasures!


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