I had quite a few preconceptions the city prior to my first visit to the city just over a month ago, but upon visiting found a number of things that surprised me about New York.

Having seen the skyscraper clad centre featured in an abundance of TV shows and movies, plus on the news and in documentaries, I thought I had a fair idea of what I should expect from Manhattan and its surrounding areas.  I also had no end of friends, family and co workers giving me advice and tips  from the moment I announced I was to visit the Big Apple, so I guess it was only natural that an idea of what to expect was well developed inside my head by the time I touched down at JFK late on a Thursday evening.

Things that surprised me about New York

Some of those preconceptions proved to be true.  New York was the city that never slept.  Anything really could happen in a New York minute.  The streets were lined with a moving sea of yellow cabs.  Central station and Times Square really were both crazy and beautiful in equal measure, making them both MUST visit attractions.  In some respects walking the streets of New York was like living out a very vivid dream I once had.

On the other hand though, I there were more than a few things which surprised me about New York.  Whereas I have been told and expected New York to be …

  • Difficult to navigate,
  • That it took a lifetime to get from A to B,
  • That food was expensive, and
  • That the city wasn’t the safest,

 

… I was somewhat shocked to find the opposite.  So whilst these things surprised me about New York, they were a pleasant surprise.  I am not saying that I was lied to, other people might have found New York to be all of these things, but not me.  I was more than surprised by what I found, but who doesn’t like surprises?

Here’s are my top 5 surprises for NYC.

1.  Tax

The USA is incredibly confusing when it comes to the purchasing of good and services in my opinion.  The whole tax added later thing just seems odd.  Having been lucky enough to visit the US on a couple of occasions previous to my visit to NYC I was however aware that the price on the ticket wasn’t the FULL price I would be expected to pay.  It wasn’t news to me that once at the cash register tax would be added … or would it?

What surprised me about tax in New York was not that it was added at the till, but that sometimes it was not added at all, or that it would only be added for certain items.  It seemed like pot luck, that store and restaurant owners alike would make up the rules in the spur of the moment, I just couldn’t work it out.  How?  What?  When?  Seriously, whats the deal?  For a shopping mecca like New York, I was totally surprised that there was no set standard on tax, that one minute it was added, the next it was nowhere to be seen, that a t-shirt would be taxable, but a fridge magnet would not.

I imagine it’s hard enough for the locals to work out and understand, but when you’re a tourist and trying to convert everything back to your native currency it’s even harder.  I am not a shopping fan, but when there seems to be no consistency in how things are priced it makes me dislike shopping even more.  I understand I will probably be lynched for that last sentence as I understand NY is a shopping heaven for most.  To be honest though, I found it more exhausting that usual, especially as I was trying to stick to a budget.

*It appears I am not the only one who felt this way about tax in the US.  My friend Simon seems to feel the same – http://www.manversusworld.com/5-insane-things-i-struggle-with-in-the-usa-travel/

2.  The cost of food

I love love love the food on the go mentality that exists within New York.  Food vendors on every corner offering hotdogs, pretzels, curry, pasta, pizza, hog roast, sandwiches, bagels etc etc etc, and all for around $5-10 (seemingly no tax added).  OK it’s not the same as sitting down in a nice restaurant and using fine china, but with so much to see in New York, who has time to sit down to diner?

Whereas I thought food in New York would take a huge chunk out of my budget, the street food around town was surprisingly affordable as well being delicious.

It’s probably just as well that I don’t live in New York as I would spend the vast majority of my days basking in the glory that is 99 cent pizza slices … unless someone else gets there first.  Pizza thief alert below.

3.  The subway

Wow!  Cheap and efficient, a backpackers transportation dream.  Yeah it was a little rough around the edges, but in no way was it as overly dirty or dangerous as some of my friends had made out.  A very nice surprise, and truth be told I actually came to quite enjoy my subway journeys around Manhattan and out into Queens + Brooklyn.  At $2.50 per ride, no matter the distance, its also a bargain, and a great way to to transfer to and from JFK aiport (added $5 fee for the skytrain section of that journeym, but still worth it over a cab/bus).

4.  The size of Manhattan

As you may or may not know, my trip to New York was in partnership with Travelsupermarket.  They set me the challenge of compiling an A to Z of New York over the space of 2.5 days.  This was a monster task, and one I had to put some serious planning into, but that said, once arriving in Manhattan, I was actually quite surprised by its scale and the ease with which I could travel from location to location. This owed a lot to the subway, but even then I was told that at its widest Manhattan is only 4km wide, I can run 4km in 25 minutes (probably … if I haven’t eaten a few slices of 99 cents pizza first).  I loved and was surprised by the ease with which I could visit so many great sites.

New York Skyline

5.  How safe I felt

Now I didn’t expect to get mugged or anything (does anyone ever expect to get mugged?), but I was under the impression that I would have to be a little bit streetwise whilst in New York.  My mother, as mothers do, had put the fear of god into me by telling me that danger would lurk around every corner. Friends also told me that using the subway and walking the streets late at night were not particularly bright ideas.  In reality though, at no point did I feel unsafe during my stay.  There was a single moment, when I first got off the train in Harlem, where I thought I might have to be on my toes, but any doubts I had in my mind how safe and welcoming the area might be were quickly put to rest as two lovely ladies helped point me in direction of the particular street I was looking for.

Just like most of the backpacking community, I enjoy exploring a new city by foot.  Had it not felt safe enough to be able to do so in New York, I would have missed out on a whole heap of incredible stuff.  Like this amazing piece of street art for example, which was tucked away down a side street on the lower east side.  Cool isn’t it!?  It pretty much sums up how I feel about New York now that I have spent just a few days in the city.

So there you have it.  Five things that surprised me about NYC.  Four nice surprises and one slightly confusing one.

Surprises are good though right?  For the most part anyway.  I appreciate that you could just as easily get a nasty surprise as you could a nice one.  New York however had no nasties in my experience, only the good and one slight confusing as mentioned.  What would travel be without surprises though?  If you knew what every single sight, sound, smell, taste etc would be like before even visiting a new destination, wouldn’t it take some of the fun out of your visit?  Wouldn’t the sense of discovery be lost?  I guess it depends on the manner of those surprises you experience, but wouldn’t you rather run the risk than know exactly what is coming?