New York City is astounding in its cultural activities, ethnic neighborhoods and historic sites… its constant hustle-bustle and pulsing energy… its flashy Times Square contrasting with Central Park’s green oasis.
I’d always been to “The Big Apple” on business trips in the past. So while I became familiar with one aspect of this metropolis, I’d never experienced it solely as a tourist until a recent trip. I finally visited must-sees such as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History – and surprises such as the “Treasures” exhibit at the New York Public Library.
To start, I went to the “Top of the Rock” for a bird’s-eye view of the city – rather than the Empire State Building or One World Observatory. This 70th floor of Rockefeller Center may not be as high, but its upper mid-town location offers sweeping views in all directions – and timed tickets make entry much faster. It’s an excellent orientation to Manhattan’s layout, especially Central Park north and all the landmark buildings south.
Rockefeller Center also includes Radio City Music Hall, home of the famous, high-kicking Rockettes. Take the tour to see the Music Hall’s exquisite Art Deco theater, learn how hard Rockette dancers work and have your photo taken with one.
Next, I took the ferry from the tip of Manhattan to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island’s National Museum of Immigration. The Statue of Liberty was gifted to the people of America from the people of France in 1884 to celebrate freedom and democracy. Liberty Island opened a museum celebrating the statue’s history in 2019 — an informative alternative if you can’t reserve tickets in advance to enter the statue.
Ellis Island proved fascinating – its immigration station opened in 1892 and processed more than 12 million people coming to America until closing in 1954. The Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration tells the story of these immigrants – where they came from, why they were seeking a new life, what their processing experience was like. In the huge Registry Hall, all were checked for communicable diseases, mental competency and potential employability. About 20% were detained initially, but only 2% were ultimately sent back to their country of origin as unfit.
Don’t miss the top-floor Treasures from Home exhibit. It displays later-donated items that immigrants brought as their most valuable possessions – and they were limited to one suitcase. The native costumes, china dolls, wedding photos and unlikely items (a large silver samovar) brings the immigrant experience vividly to life.
Returning to Manhattan by ferry, I visited the 9/11 Memorial site. Where the Twin Towers once stood is now Memorial Plaza. Two reflecting pools and waterfalls serenely occupy the 1-acre footprint of the towers. Underground, the 9/11 museum documents the tragic day on which four separate airplane attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. Advance reservations are necessary, and security is extremely tight.
New York City boasts a wealth of museums ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) to numerous ethnic and special interest museums to the American Museum of Natural History. Having never been to The Met (the largest museum in the Americas), I chose to spend most of a day there. It is a huge, sprawling series of buildings – founded in 1870 and added onto repeatedly. Its collections span more than 5,000 years, starting with 26,000 objects from ancient Egypt. The largest collection outside Cairo, this includes the entire transported Egyptian Temple of Dendur.
At The Met, you can see masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Gough, Picasso, Salvador Dali and other acclaimed artists among 2,500 European paintings. You can also see the most comprehensive collection of American paintings, decorative arts and sculpture. Artistic treasures from every corner of the world include paintings, arms and armor, costumes, decorative arts, musical instruments and extraordinary photography.
Don’t miss the rooftop deck – I took several exhibit-viewing breaks there to enjoy lunch/snacks and another stunning view of Central Park and New York City.
The other major museum I focused on was the equally fascinating American Museum of Natural History. Founded in 1869, this museum has been both a preeminent scientific research facility and top museum for paleontology, zoology, anthropology and — more recently — astronomy. It just opened its new Gilder Center, featuring an insectarium, butterfly vivarium and the “Invisible Worlds Immersive Experience.”
I was intrigued by the dinosaur collection on 4th floor – approximately 100 fossil specimens ranging from ferocious T-rex to the titanosaur, a life-sized cast of a 122-foot-long sauropod dinosaur discovered in 2014.
The dazzling Hall of Minerals, Hall of Ocean Life and Hall of Planet Earth also beckon, along with the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins and the Rose Center for Earth and Space. As with The Met, one visit begged for another.
A real surprise was the New York Public Library, which features a free and marvelous Treasures exhibit. From its 56 million items, 250 Treasures are exhibited at one time, one-third of them rotating every six months. Highlights when I visited: Shakespeare’s First Folio, the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon’s Birds of America, Charles Dicken’s desk and chair, the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. The most popular exhibit seemed to be a Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends display of the original stuffed animals.
Just a few blocks away is historic Grand Central Terminal, built in 1913. Take the time to stroll over and admire its Beaux Arts interior décor, restored in the 1990s to its original grandeur. Trendy shops, food markets, restaurants and the famed Oyster Bar make it an ever-bustling hub. Even if you’re not going anywhere, Grand Central is a trip in itself.
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— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.