first impressions of new york

First impressions: an Englishman in New York

After a lame attempt to kick this series off in June last year we’re going to do it properly this time. We even have guest posts ready for publication, believe it or not… The topic this time out is first impressions; a number of different authors tell us how it went the first time they visited a city or town. Did it live up to their expectations? Were there any big surprises, shocks or strange differences they weren’t expecting? Was there any truth to the stereotypes they had heard about? My first impressions of New York surprised me.

Despite the fact that we’re a relatively well-travelled bunch here it won’t be long before we exhaust the possibilities we personally have to offer; and this is where you, dear reader, come in. If you want to, of course. We’re sure you have a story to tell, that first time in Paris, Cape Town or Ouagadougou.

Why not share it with our audience? We’d love to hear from you with your ideas, for this or any other articles for the site as we are trying to build Grown-up Travel Guide into a community site with as much input from you guys as from us.

All you have to do send an email to and let us know what you’d like to write about.

In the meantime, we’ll get the ball rolling here with the tale of a Brit finally getting it together and grabbing a flight to New York after 40+ years.

My First Impressions of New York City

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

Watching the Big Apple turn over

Apologies to Carter USM for shamelessly stealing their title there. In May of 2011 I fulfilled one of my many travel goals by travelling to New York (and indeed America) for the first time. With a place to stay (a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, no less) for the first few days and a hotel booked for the remainder of my stay, I was really looking forward to seeing what the city was really like. Despite a rather rough flight over and the first signs of jetlag kicking in, my spirits were as high as I was in the sky as the skyscrapers poked through the clouds as we descended.

The approach to JFK

The views when circling the city and coming in to land at JFK airport are spectacular, having flown over Long Island I could clearly make out several of the most famous buildings of central New York. As I was right at the back of the plane I decided not to stress about getting out quickly; I took my time and was the last to disembark. Which was a mistake, as I was then at the back of the queue when we’d passed through the sweaty tunnels on the way to the immigration hall.

The immigration process

I could see it was going to take time as the entire human content of our 747 was waiting in line in front of me. Apart, that is, from the lucky Americans, or the even more lucky Americans who were members of Global Entry, a scheme through which they are pre-screened for an annual fee and get to sail through a fast-track procedure.

There was little to do except wait, we were at least entertained by a video selling the delights of New York on a continuous loop on one of several television screens. The actual passport check procedure was quick and painless, although I did find it unusual to be both photographed and finger-printed.

The view on the way from the airport

Terminal 7, which British Airways use at JFK is a little run-down but small and manageable. The first sight to greet me on exiting the baggage hall was of a Starbucks and a McDonald’s. Years ago this would have seemed like a ‘Welcome to the USA’ in itself but these days it could be practically anywhere in the world.

With both signs and announcements warning not to use dodgy taxis but to go to the taxi offices, I took the hint and found a classic yellow cab to take me into Manhattan at the standard fixed fare. Next time I’ll get things sorted in advance by using a company and pre-booking my transport. 

On the way I noted how most Americans drive the same kind of cars as we do in Europe, though a few big Jeeps, a couple of stretch limousines and lots of those vans favoured by both FBI agents running surveillance and serial killers abducting their victims. At least in the movies, that is. But the real ‘wow’ moment was when I saw that iconic Manhattan skyline as we crossed the Queensboro Bridge with the sun setting. I had arrived…

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

The skyscrapers

I woke early the next day in my mate Pete’s apartment. The view from the living room was certainly not quite what I was used to, being 29 floors up as opposed to, er, one. The Midtown location was amazing, right round the corner from the UN building and surrounded by even taller buildings. I think this is the first and most obvious sign of someone who has just arrived in New York – that they keep looking up all the time. Now it was time to check out the city in daylight – and with the benefit of a few hours of sleep.

The feeling of being on a film set

This is a classic cliché that most returnees from New York talk about – but like a lot of clichés it’s also true. The Big Apple is of course the backdrop to countless movies and TV shows and you’ll find something that you recognise or which looks familiar round most corners.  You’ll see those yellow fire hydrants, newspaper vending machines and ‘Walk/Don’t Walk’ signs but probably not hydrants spraying water onto laughing kiddies or steam coming up through the vents from the subway. It probably happens somewhere in the city though…

The sheer level of noise on the streets

When you walk along the busy streets of New York it’s like somebody turned the volume up to 11. It’s also (to my ears) amazing how people just do not care who hears their conversations, whether in person or on the phone. Or maybe that’s the point? In any case you get a fascinating insight into the private lives of New Yorkers in the form of ten second clips as you pass and they move out of range. Oh and they like to swear. Loudly. A lot.

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

The yellow cabs

Yes, the iconic ‘Taxi Driver’ style yellow cabs are being replaced by modern designs; but there are still plenty of the classic models as shown above; you can also see the apartment building where I stayed in the background (it’s the tall one on the left). It also shows that a super wide-angle lens is pretty much essential if you want to fit everything in your shots, and how distorted the end result is. But I kind of like that.

The size of the food portions

I thought about writing ‘the size of the people’ but dismissed it as a little callous. Let’s just say that you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that there’s a pretty clear cause and effect here. In the five days I was in the Big Apple I only ate twice a day and even then could not always finish off what was on my plate. As with most big, multicultural cities I’m sure New York is not representative of the country as a whole but it struck me that here it was one or the other – either people were borderline anorexics/fitness freaks or they took up two spaces on the subway.

At the time, Mayor Bloomberg seemed determined to get tough on oversize portions and bucket-sized drinks containers but I’m not sure it made a nig difference to be quite honest.

The subway announcement

Rather than the often curt (or unintelligible) announcements on the London tube the subway makes use of a very happy-sounding recorded message. I was planning to record it myself but of course it got forgotten; however it didn’t take long to track this down on YouTube, thus saving me the effort of describing it:


The whole tipping thing

You generally get fabulous service in restaurants and there’s a reason for that. They want – and need – your tip. You should leave at least 15% and if buying a beer in a bar add an extra dollar. I think I’d prefer it if staff got a decent wage and health benefits because if they gave the same service I’d tip anyway, but when in Rome and all that.

If it seems complicated, just double the sales tax which is on your bill and comes to 8.625% and bingo, you’re over the 15% level with margin enough not to be considered a cheapskate. Thanks to Pete for that lifesaver tip there.

The size of the toilets

Perhaps I have an eye for the slightly odd things, but American toilets are huge. I’m talking about the diameter of the bowl here. If I was being unkind I’d say it was all related to the whole food portion size / local person size formula I mentioned earlier, but that’s just conjecture. I guess it must be really easy for bullies at school, anyway…

The number of TV channels

What was that about “thirteen channels of s**t on the T.V. to choose from” Mr Waters? That’s one way the lyrics to The Wall are showing their age. I had at least 100 from my hotel room, and at times felt a similar urge to put something heavy through the screen and toss it out the window. Fox News is even worse than you can imagine and the way adverts appear without warning every few minutes is something else. Add into the mix that I was in New York when Bin Laden was killed and you can understand my desire to avoid watching the right-wing news. I should add that I didn’t witness any mindless patriotism at all after the event itself.

Image (c) Andy Higgs, Grown-up Travel Guide

The scale of the place

Finally, it’s only when you get up high that you fully appreciate how mind-blowing New York architecture really is. Both the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center (sic) offer fantastic views and both are recommended. Next time I’m planning to save my pennies for a helicopter ride over the city; that would be the ultimate way to see New York. As my plane left the tarmac for my return flight I was already thinking about coming back, this time with my family. New York lived up to and in fact exceeded my expectations – it should be on everyone’s list of places to visit.

As we mentioned in the introduction, we want your stories too! Let us know your first impressions of New York or any other city from YOUR perspective. Add your comments below and don’t forget to sign up for email updates so you never miss a thing from Grown-up Travel Guide!

Andy Higgs
Andy Higgs

I know what it's like to go from being a crazy backpacker without a care in the world, via being a vaguely sensible parent to being an adventurer once more. In other words, evolving into a Grown-up Traveller.

Like everyone else, I love to travel, have visited a lot of countries and all that but my big thing is Africa.

I also own and run The Grown-up Travel Company as a travel designer creating personalised African itineraries for experienced adventurers

Articles: 1259


  1. We landed at JFK late afternoon taking my wife on her 60th birthday treat.I’d booked a ‘sedan’ to take us to the hotel and waiting for it outside the airport first impression was the heat! Very humid and temp reaching mid 90’s (fahrenheit)this was late June in the Big Apple and had been warned it would be hot, but this hot?
    The ride to the hotel on Park Avenue was a sight seeing tour in itself, flashes of different films going through my mind as we passed the different locations.’Bullet’ ‘French Connection’ to name just two. At the hotel we were inundated with help and advice from various bell hops, attendants, car door openers, car door closers, direction givers etc all expecting the dollar tip .(or was it still a dollar as it nearly twenty years since i was last in the U.S. of A,)? The tipping thing really is tiresome sometimes, but what the hell the service was superb.
    We’d booked on the ‘hop on – hop off’ open top bus tours system and found it absolutely brilliant, well recommended and certainly value for money with the very informative tour guides on each bus which, incidently run every five minutes from the many stopping places along the different routes.
    The New Yorkers we came across seemed very brusque and off hand living up to their reputation it seems. All except the black guys who all gave you time of day with a beaming smile and didn’t expect anything in return but politeness. Going for a drink was quite expensive even in the back street bars, a pint of even local Bronx beer costing the equivalent of £5 (plus tip). Heh, we had a drink for refreshment there and not for enjoyment as in UK !
    I had put off visiting N Y for years despite recommendations, but really glad i took my wife now for that four day visit and could have stayed longer to take in more of the sights we had to forgo because of the time limit. A week would have been ideal looking back.
    If you are thinking of going GO and get it off your bucket list, you won’t regret it!

    • Dave, thanks so much for that great story and taking the time to share it here. I totally agree, New York has to be done and I’m sorry I waited so long too. But next time I’ll take my wife and daughter so that’ll be even more fun. And we’ll stay longer… 🙂

  2. Very envious Andy – not yet managed to visit NY. Your account is most refreshing giving a picture of the city as it is rather than what the travel brochures would like us to believe. Forewarned etc!

  3. Hi, New Yorker Here! So glad you came to our city and that you went to Rockefeller Center to get your view of the city instead of the Empire State Building. I work in that building for NBC Television and You really nailed it when you said that all of NYC is like a film set. I was also incredibly impressed that you found Tannens Magic Shop, That is really off the beaten path.
    But I wish that you had a chance to see a few more things, so for your next trip here are a few free/cheap things I think you would enjoy.

    A stroll along the Highline. an urban garden that made use of the old overhead railroad..from 34th street to the meatpacking district.

    A bike ride up the Riverside park bike trail. with a stop at Peir I for a burger and glass of sangria or beer and some easy people watching the sunset by the Hudson.

    Union Square Market..where most of the chefs shop

    Lunch at Mooncake Cafe..or a Korean Barbeque joint on 32th off Broadway.

    a cocktail at the Manderin Oriental hotel bar or at the Rainbow Room just to enjoy the view at night… very romantic.

    those are my thoughts, hope you return soon.

    • Hi Maggie and thanks so much for your tips – I may have to write a second article now! The Highline was (partially) open when I was there but I ran out of time; it’s definitely on the list for next time though. Love bike rides in cities too so will remember that one and the others are duly noted!

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