Sightseeing, bike rides & cheesecake in New York

The Big Apple, The City of Dreams, The City So Nice They Named It Twice…we’re all familiar with the idealist accolades of romance and magic surrounding New York City. In excess of 65 million visitors a year flock to see one of the world’s most famous cities in the flesh (or concrete…). So, you could be forgiven for thinking NYC could perhaps be too good to be true, and may be little more than an expensive and overrated tourist trap.

Before I first visited New York, people told me I would either fall in love with it completely, or hate it. Fortunately, it was one of the most awesome cities I’ve ever set foot in. Of course, growing up I had caught many glimpses of New York City in various films and TV shows, and had always longed to go there and see if it was really how it seemed ‘in the movies’. In some ways it was like stepping straight onto a filmset seeing the hanging street signs and fire escape-clad apartment buildings, while in others the modern, metropolitan side of NYC shone through the classic New York exterior.

While I was in New York, I made it my mission to see as much as I possibly could in the four days I was there – managing to get round the majority of must-see sights, some of which were worth queuing for a lot more than others. There are a thousand and one ways to explore a city like NYC, but here I’ll talk through how I went about getting the best out of my short trip, and hopefully give some tips on the best things to see and do if you only have a few days here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

New York is a crazy, busy and incredibly fast-paced city to visit, and it can be somewhat overwhelming when you first arrive. To save wasting precious time on your trip spending too long figuring out what to do, where to go, and how to get there, plan your trip in advance to remove the stress and allow yourself to relax and get on with your travels.

If sightseeing is your thing, and boy is there a lot to see in this city, then I would suggest investing in a sightseeing pass before you go. Depending on which one you choose, it will give you access to a whole host of landmarks, sights, day trips, bus tours and even deals to certain restaurants, among other things. I chose this one, and it saved me over £100 on entry fees as well as removing the faff of queuing up to buy entry tickets. It also has an app where you can create your own custom itinerary, a really helpful tool that allows you to plan each day exactly how you like it.

You can waste a lot of time in New York going backwards and forwards between places, especially if you’re a Brit like me and haven’t quite mastered the grid system (although it is pretty foolproof). New York is also made up of five boroughs; Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. I tried to group together the things I wanted to see and do geographically, to save sitting on one of the open bus tours going round the same loop again and again just to get to the other side of town. Even Manhattan itself can feel like a concrete jungle.

Perhaps start by splitting it into Downtown, Midtown and so on. Alternatively, if planning isn’t your thing and you prefer to wing it then be my guest – you will probably stumble across many of NYC’s hidden treasures while wandering along your own path. So, without further ado let’s jump straight in.

Downtown

  • The Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
  • Ground Zero & 9/11 Tribute Museum
  • One World Observatory
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • Wall Street
  • Staten Island Ferry
  • Battery Park
  • South Street Seaport
  • Downtown bus & walking tours

There’s an abundance of things to see and do in downtown New York City. Historic and iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge rub shoulders with more recent additions Ground Zero and the One World Observatory, making it the perfect place to start your exploration of NYC.

And as well as seeing the sights, take time to walk through the hustle and bustle of the Manhattan Farmers Market, stroll along the harbour or take respite in one of the many coffee joints in the area.

Midtown

  • Empire State Building
  • Top of the Rock at the Rockefeller Centre
  • Times Square
  • Macy’s
  • The Vessel
  • Broadway
  • Bryant Park
  • Grand Central Station
  • Radio City Music Hall tour
  • New York Public Library
  • Madison Square Garden
  • Flat Iron Building

We were lucky enough to stay in Midtown Manhattan, just off of Times Square (Luma Hotel) which provided a great base from which to get around the city, but also offered a multitude of things to do.

TIP: If you have limited time and want the best view of NYC, then make sure you go up the Top of the Rock – from here you can actually see the Empire State in the skyline, and you get a better view of the city from the top.

In addition to visiting all the sights on the list above, we had a brilliant time exploring the nightlife here – ending up in Swing 46, a super cool Jazz club with an awesome live band playing. Dallas BBQ is the place to go for a huge and hearty, and reasonably priced, American feast (we’re talking wings, steaks, burgers, corn bread, you name it – they’ll have it!), while Juniors is the best place to go for cheesecake.

If you eat anywhere in Midtown Manhattan, though, make sure it’s Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Here, hopeful Broadway stars serenade you over your pancakes with musical favourites and pop classics – it really is a fantastic show, and the food’s great too.

Uptown

  • Central Park (Strawberry Fields, Bethesda Fountain)
  • Central Park Zoo
  • Harlem
  • American Museum of Natural History
  • Museum Mile
  • Carnegie Hall

My favourite part about Uptown Manhattan was by far Central Park. We hired some bikes and cycled round the whole park, stopping off at John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields and Bethesda Fountain, as well as the odd ice cream on the way round. It was like being transported to a calm, peaceful oasis – I truly didn’t feel as if I were in one of the busiest cities in the world.

We also traveled past Uptown Manhattan into the Bronx to watch a baseball game at the Yankees Stadium, which was pretty cool. I would definitely recommend doing this if a game is on when you go – tickets were cheap and there’s a great atmosphere in the stadium!

New York city captured my heart and imagination like few others, and although it’s been less than a year since I last visited I’m already aching to go back and explore some more. I’m of the opinion that you could visit New York a hundred times and still find something new or surprising each time. This is a definite bucket-list destination, and one that will leave a slightly different imprint on each person who walks its streets.

The Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra & Jaipur

The North of India is by far one of the most beautifully diverse places I have had the pleasure of visiting. India’s so-called Golden Triangle is perhaps the first, and most obvious, sightseeing tour many people think of when contemplating a trip to India, and in my opinion, it is one that should absolutely not be missed.

The Golden Triangle refers to three areas situated in the North of India which (funnily enough) resemble a triangle shape if you were to join the dots between them. Delhi, India’s bustling, vibrant capital, forms the northern-most tip of the triangle, with Agra, home to the ivory-white Taj Mahal, situated to the southeast. The capital of India’s Rajasthan state, Jaipur, also known as the Pink City, makes up the southwest point and rounds off the tour known by travellers far and wide as: The Golden Triangle.

This tour made up the first leg of my India journey, and was a fantastic introduction to the breathless pace and beauty of this crazy, intriguing country. My best friend and I spent just under a week navigating through Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, and while we could have happily spent far longer exploring these places we felt that this was still enough time to see the best of the sights on offer, and sample some pretty special cuisine, too.

Delhi

India’s capital, Dehli is a bustling metropolis which seamlessly blends the ancient and the modern; an absolute must-visit if you’re planning a trip to India. There’s so much to see and do in this city, and you could spend hours simply people-watching as the locals go about their daily lives.

If you’re here to sight-see, then don’t miss a trip to the Qutab Minar, the tallest brick marinet in the world towering at 72.5 metres. Commissioned by the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, the detail and design in the brickwork is incredible. If architecture is your gig then Delhi won’t disappoint, as there are hundreds of buildings across the city serving as hallmarks left behind by Delhi’s multiple rulers of the last millennia.

You should also check out Humayan’s Tomb commissioned in 1562, the first garden tomb built in the Indian sub-continent which used red sandstone on a large scale. Although visitors can’t stop there for long, make sure you drive by the iconic India Gate and President’s House. The Red Fort, which served as residence for the Mughal Royal Family, is also worth a look, as is Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Ghandi.

If you want to get in and amongst the hustle and bustle of Delhi, then there is no better place to go than Chandni Chowk; home to the busiest market in Old Delhi. Tour around the noisy, busy streets in a cycle rickshaw – super cheap, this is the best way to get around and experience the inner twists and turns without getting lost or haggled at every turn.

After wandering through the stalls full of spices, dried fruits and jewelry, stop in along Paranthe Wali Gali, a street famous for its incredible Parathas, an Indian flatbread served with multiple toppings and Dals (soups and dips made from dried, split pulses and flavoured with a multitude of spices). Street food is incredibly cheap here, with parathas and a cup of Lassi setting you back less than 80 rupees (£1). Soak up the buzz and craziness of the market from here, and you’ll start to get a real feel for everyday life in Delhi.

Accommodation can be pretty cheap across the city, with a dorm bed in one of the many backpacking hostels in New Delhi available for between 400 and 900 rupees (£5-10) per night. Hostelworld or Booking.com are good places to start your search. If you would like a little more luxury on your trip, then a decent hotel will set you back around 5,000-7,000 rupees (£50-£70) per night.

Agra

The next stop on the Golden Triangle Tour is Agra, known mostly for being the setting of the world-famous and UNESCO world heritage site, the Taj Mahal. One of the most famous landmarks not just in India, but the across the world, you can understand why some might worry the Taj will be underwhelming when you see it in the flesh (or marble…). But from my experience, it was truly one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen.

To catch the Taj in it’s best light, go just before dawn on a clear day. As the sun starts to rise, its rays dance across the white marble making it shimmer and sparkle in the early morning sunlight. It really is ethereal.

The story behind the Taj is one of love and loss; Emperor Shah Jahan had the mausoleum built as a symbol of his devotion to his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their 14th child. The Taj took 21 years to complete, and is now the resting place of both the Emperor and his queen.

Travellers flock from all corners of the globe to visit the Taj Mahal, the place symbolic what many deem the ultimate love story. But if tales of love and romance don’t float you boat, the beautiful architecture and sheer scale of the Taj warrants a visit in itself.

The Taj is open from 6am-7pm every day except Fridays, when it is closed for prayer. It is also open for night viewing every full moon from 8pm-12:30am, plus the two nights before and after.

If you would like to hear all about the history and story of the Taj, I would definitely recommend hiring a guide – they can also take that picture-perfect photo of you and your fellow travellers! But if you would rather take in the beauty of the Taj while wandering round on your own, then you won’t find a more powerful, reflective place to be alone with your thoughts (save from the crowds).

The entry fee for foreigners is 1,100 rupees (around £12) which can be purchased at the gate but be prepared to queue. If you’re planning to go before dawn, get there at least half an hour before the opening times, or you will miss the magical sunrise moment while queuing for your tickets!

Agra isn’t just home to the Taj Mahal, though. The Red Fort, commissioned in 1565, is a handsome example of Mughal architecture and definitely worth a trip to. Also not to miss is Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO world heritage site, home to many historical buildings and also to the Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti which enshrines the burial place of the Sufi saint who used to live there.

Jaipur

Also known as the ‘Pink City’ Jaipur’s picture perfect architecture can be found featured across many celebrities’ Instagram accounts, famous for its colourful culture, forts, palaces and lakes.

Set in the traditional state of Rajasthan, Jaipur is the must-see third stop on the Golden Triangle Tour.

Take a trip to the Old City of Jaipur, painted completely pink, to walk through the endless winding markets to practice your bargaining skills and sample some of the delicious street food on offer.

If you want to find out more about the history of Jaipur (and discover who chose to paint an entire city pink), you can hire a guide to show you around the nooks and crannies, alternatively just wander through the narrow streets to take in the pretty decor of the facades and the general hustle of everyday life here.

Jaipur’s Amber Fort is also worth a visit. Built in the 16th century and a named UNESCO world heritage site, the fort is constructed from a mixture of red sandstone and marble and lies on the top of a hill just outside of Jaipur. The main way of getting to the top is on elephant back, however the hill is easily scalable so you can walk to the top instead, if you’d prefer to avoid riding the elephants.

Side note: When I went, our guide had booked us on to the elephant rides without us knowing – although they looked as if they were fairly well looked after, you never quite know how the animals are actually treated. If animal welfare is something that concerns you, the walk to the top is steep but not very far, and you get to see some truly beautiful scenery on the way up!

Other sights not to miss while you’re in Jaipur include the beautiful Hawa Mahal, also known as ‘Palace of the Winds’, and a trip around the City Palace where you can take a look in the armoury, browse traditional dress worn by ruling families of Jaipur dating back hundreds of years, and other cool parts of the palace. If you have time, stop in at the Jantar Mantar Observatory, home to huge traditional geometric devices used to measure time.

Getting started…

Booking a Golden Triangle tour is a great way of seeing some of India’s most famous sites in a short space of time, and is perfect for travellers who don’t have a lot of time, or are embarking on a trip for the first time. There are lots of tour companies out there which will offer you different variations of the tour, as well as different add-ons such as flights, guides and extra excursions, so make sure you do your research before booking. We booked with a local travel agent who put together a private all-inclusive tour to suit exactly what we wanted, at a good price – we were travelling other areas of India after this under our own steam, so booking a tour to get the ball rolling made perfect sense to us. Also, it meant this was one less thing for us to organise.

Alternatively, you can go it alone and follow the route as you see fit – the distance between each destination is relatively little and there are a number of different transport options available to get you from A to B. This can be an exciting, freeing way to travel as you’re not restricted by timings, and can choose to do however much sightseeing, relaxing or partying you like. If you’re an experienced traveller or are looking to get off the beaten tourist trail, then this a great way of experiencing the best that Delhi, Agra and Jaipur have to offer.