We just spent three days in Manhattan, where we walked everywhere and were constantly in a state of wonder. Total on-foot distance: 20 miles, more than half of which was at night. Our basecamp was the apartment of friends who live uptown, in Washington Heights.
We’d previously urban hiked in London, Paris, Rome, and San Francisco. All were exhilarating. But New York? It never appealed to us because, we now realize, our preconceptions were laughably distant from reality.
Driving into the city we were slightly on edge. Intending to walk extensively, we wondered how best to avoid getting mugged. That’s ridiculous. Common sense and basic street smarts were all we needed to feel and remain absolutely safe. On day two, our friends were pleased to hear us announce that “Affection has evicted trepidation.”
Aggressive, abrasive New Yorkers? We met none. They didn’t ride their car horns in traffic. Never did they bulldoze us off the sidewalk. None of our fellow subway passengers was pushy or intimidating. Whenever we engaged anyone, they were kind and helpful. Most were bright, open, willing to interact with us longer than courtesy dictated. Often we were touched by their warmth. Civility and civic pride are pervasive in NYC.
By the time we left, we agreed we wouldn’t have lived fully had we not explored this magnificent city. And that’s coming from a couple of wilderness zealots. It seems we’ll be feeling the impact of our visit for a long time. Having just left, here’s what we see when we close our eyes:
The Chrysler Building, whose celestial spire is utterly distinct among NYC’s dozens of astounding towers. From a distance, this sublime skyscraper looks like it links earth and heaven, as if it might be the conduit through which virtuous souls ascend to the pearly gates. It’s 319-m (1047-ft) high — a statistic that’s especially meaningful if you’re a hiker. And the lobby? Wow. An art-deco temple. Marble, onyx, amber, and gold leaf. Egyptian pharaohs adorn the elevator doors. Many contemporary architects think this is NYC’s most impressive tower. We agree, but we think the world’s most impressive building is…
The New York Public Library, at 5th Avenue at 42nd Street. It’s a shrine to books, to reading, to learning. When it opened in 1911, it housed more than a million volumes on 121 km (75 mi) of shelves. The Beaux-Arts structure is stunning inside and out. We find it more rousing than the monumental buildings of Europe, in part because it’s not merely a monument. It’s a functioning, public building. You can actually check out a book. Or settle into a magnificent chair at a grand table in the main reading room (the size of a football field) and concentrate in an inspiring atmosphere where literature is sacred. Among the library’s many startling features are the ceiling murals. Tilt your
head back, and you’re not assaulted by ridiculous cherubs or guilt-inducing biblical characters. Instead you gaze into a blue sky adorned with billowing white clouds, suggesting the unlimited possibilities available to an open, inquisitive mind.
Whatever your appetite, NYC will satisfy it. After several hours of walking, we were ravenous. But we continued passing alluring restaurants until arriving at the 2nd Avenue Deli, at 162 East 33rd Street, between Lexington and 3rd avenues. It was worth the hike. Our kosher pastrami-on-rye sandwiches were so thick, the top slices of bread were nearly vertical. Though utterly unadorned, they were delectable. Still, every couple bites we varied the taste by adding a spoonful of fresh, tangy mustard. Everything about the experience — the collegial staff, historic atmosphere, pickled green tomatoes — felt like we were participating in a venerable tradition. If we lived in NYC, you’d find us seated at the 2nd Avenue Deli’s marble counter at least once a week.
We were awed by Central Park, of course, but NYC is rife with parks: islands of nature punctuating the manmade environment. Some are tiny yet gorgeous, like the one sequestered near the U.N. building. Others are unique, for example High Line Park (www.thehighline.org). Built on an elevated 1930s railway, it was completed this summer. Tall, native grasses now sway in the breeze where trains once whooshed across Manhattan. Views are constant: over the Hudson River, toward Jersey City, and into an industrial district of historic, brick buildings. Most people enjoy the park as a promenade, but it also has wooden chaise lounges where you can relax.
From High Line Park, we began a long, rambling, evening stroll into West Greenwich Village. We were entranced by charming cafes, intriguing boutiques, and our fellow strollers. After staring up at skyscrapers all day, we were soothed by the human-scale village. The streets are narrow, leafy, and the brick buildings rarely exceed four stories. It reminded us of Amsterdam. We later learned this was indeed where the Dutch originally settled.
The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the Metropolitan Museum, the International Center for Photography, Times Square — each was engaging. For us, however, one experience surpassed them all: walking the Brooklyn Bridge.
Our first morning in the city, we began our tour by riding the subway to Brooklyn Heights and admiring the city across the East River while sauntering along the Esplanade (yes, we do occasionally, briefly slow down), then picking up the pace and entering the melee on foot via the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge has a broad, pedestrian walkway above the vehicle lanes, allowing you to enjoy the wondrous view in relative peace and security. The Statue of Liberty is far left. Wall Street is left. Ahead is the Woolworth Building. Right is the Empire State Building. And that’s but a fraction of what’s in view.
Our last night in the city, we walked from Central Park back to the Brooklyn Bridge and crossed it again, this time in the opposite direction, turning frequently to admire the illuminated cityscape. It was wondrous. We felt like time-travelling savages who’d wandered into the 21st century’s most vital metropolis. We were awed, reluctant to leave, yet compelled to return to our distant home in the wilderness.