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10 Things That Surprised Me in New York City

I (Heart) NY, NY, June 2012

The best part of travelling is being able to challenge stereotypes and see a place with your own eyes! Here are ten things that surprised me in NYC.

It’s actually affordable as a tourist!

One of the reasons why it took us so long to pay NYC a visit is that like most major world cities, it has a reputation for being expensive. This is true to a certain extent (a sky-high rental market, for instance), but there are ways to enjoy NYC on a budget—and stick to it. We chose to stay in Long Island, where hotels were much cheaper than in Manhattan. We bought an unlimited pass and took the subway rather than driving (free parking at the hotel vs. tolls to get into Manhattan and expensive parking fees). We ate ethnic food in Chinatown or Koreatown and grabbed snacks in inexpensive bakeries and small eats. And all in all, the four-day-long trip was surprisingly affordable!

Yellow cabs are everywhere

Ever seen pictures of these iconic yellow-painted taxicabs lined up in the street? “Wow, what a lucky shot!” I used to think. But once in NYC, I realized that streets were jam-packed with these taxicabs. Actually, I must have five or six “yellow cabs lined up at the red light” classic pictures. I’m still surprised NYC has so many taxis actually, considering the public transit network is pretty extensive and that fares aren’t that cheap (unlike in Beijing, for instance).

New Yorkers are nice

You know the stereotype about New Yorkers—like Parisians, they are often criticized for being rude, pushy, snobby, etc. Well, I’m happy to report that I found the locals much nicer than I had been told! For instance, I was surprised to see New Yorkers being quite polite in the subway, giving directions to lost tourists and—gasp!—letting passengers get off the train before boarding. Sure, it’s a fast-paced city so don’t expect people to greet strangers in the street (that will only be a shock if you are from a really small town). Other than that, New Yorkers are quite friendly. Now, I’m wondering about the cutthroat corporate culture depicted in books such as The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries and impersonated by “you’re fired” Donald Trump!

There were very few panhandlers

I’m into candid street photography, so I tend to pay attention to my surroundings. To be honest, I had expected NYC to be home to a massive panhandling presence, like in Paris, for instance, where aggressive begging is the norm in tourist areas. Of course, there are panhandlers in NYC, but much fewer than I thought considering the state of the U.S. economy. This is not such great news though, as I’m afraid the city simply cracked down on panhandling and push them out of the city rather than solving the problem at the root.

It feels pretty safe…

Another stereotype bites the dust! We felt very safe in NYC and we walked just about anywhere, day and night. I’m sure they are some bad neighbourhoods like in most cities, we just didn’t end up there. Even the subway felt very safe, much safer than in Paris where endless tunnels can be downright creepy and claustrophobic. And NYPD cops were friendly!

… and the city is relatively clean

I found NYC much cleaner than Paris, at least in tourist areas. Garbage cans do tend to overflow a bit (especially those nearby hotdog carts) but considering how densely populated Manhattan is, and how many restaurants and food places there are, it’s not bad. And the city didn’t smell either, despite the heat wave when we were there. Even public bathrooms were cleaner than expected (and again, much better than in France!).

You’ll hear some French…

I’m used to hearing French in Ottawa, a language spoken often enough by immigrants, Québécois and Franco-Ontarians. But even in Toronto, I’m most likely to overhear Punjabi or Mandarin than French. So imagine my surprise when I heard French in NYC! Some French speakers seemed to be tourists or expats, but there were also French-speaking locals, likely from places such as Haiti or the French Islands.

…and Spanish too!

I had fully expected to hear a lot of Spanish when we went to Los Angeles, but this is not a language I thought I’d hear much in Northeastern New York State. Well, I was wrong. Not only I heard a lot of Spanish speakers and saw Latino shops in various barrios, but signs were often bilingual in English/Spanish. Spanish is the second most used language in the United States, I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess!

Manhattan is very walkable

American cities are often said to be endless and soulless suburbs, and the U.S. is a car-culture country. The stereotype is true in some places, but Manhattan turned out to be surprisingly compact and walkable. We walked everywhere, including across the Brooklyn Bridge, and left the car parked at the hotel—the best way to visit the city, in my opinion.

Many attractions are free

Another good surprise! The only attraction we paid for was to go to the top of the Empire State Building, and it was cheaper than I thought: $25 for a visit to the Main Observation Deck, compared to $23.99 for the lookout and glass floor at the CN Tower in Toronto, and €14 for the top of the Eiffel Tower. We visited the MoMA on Tar­get Free Fri­day Nights, after 4 p.m., when admis­sion was free, and we saved $25. Most of the other “attractions” were free, such as Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, etc.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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