We went to America last year and people who are planning to go have been asking about our trip, so it's time to finally put this in a blog post :)
We started our trip here, as I had a work event to attend. Our extra contacts in SF meant we caught up with more friends and so on, which makes for a different experience in many ways.
Stuff we did, loved, would recommend...
- Alcatraz. Wow. We spent most of a day.
- Saturday morning Markets at the Ferry Building, on the Embarcadero. Great food (get a bacon and egg roll from Hay Street Grill; or a pork roll from 4505 Meats), great spot to watch the fog clearing from the Bay Bridge and get sunburned while freezing in summer. Whut?! Yeah. SF weather is a bit weird :)
- Taqueria Pancho Villa was a highlight of the trip. After our work event, a few of us headed out for food in Union Square; were thwarted and then suddenly found ourselves whisked off to The Mission and someone's favourite taqueria. So glad we went with it! It was cheap, loud and brilliant ;) An experience we'll long remember. I stumbled through ordering a burrito and was presented with some corn chips. I was a tad confused, then directed to the ...well, salsa buffet. Then the burrito was brought to our table, ruining us for anything in Australia labelled "burrito". We talked, drank our beers, ate our fill, then staggered off into the night past the somewhat "interesting" local inhabitants
- Golden Gate Bridge - see it, cross it, marvel at it, stand in the same spot as everyone and take your photo. Because you'll realise why everyone wants that photo to remember later.
- Haight Ashbury - we went shopping and got some great stuff in the Haight. If you like something a little less mainstream, this is for you.
- If you like tiki bars, head along to the Tonga Room at the Fairmont. Just remember that there's no RSA laws and your Zombie will be free-poured and lethally strong compared to the already-pretty-deadly ones you've had in Australia ;) But you should experience the weirdness of the lagoon and indoor rainstorm.
- Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. We looked in as we'd also gone to the gallery next to the gardens to catch the Jean Paul Gautier exhibition (which was really quite amazing, went for L but I actually enjoyed it too).
- Random things to see: Coit Tower, Lombard Street.
- Sweet barking cheese do not walk down 6th Street. I mean, ok, a dose of brutal reality isn't necessarily bad for your comfortable middle class existence; but it's not safe.
- The cable cars. Unless you fight off other tourists for a spot on the outside, it's just like any other public transport. Really wasn't worth the time we spent waiting to get on.
- Mama's cafe on Washington Square. Not worth the wait, ignore the reviews.
We didn't get to...
- Shopping in The Mission
- Several super-hipster coffee shops that I really wanted to try! There is some excellent coffee to be had in SF if you look for it.
- Head north to the redwood forests. So many people mentioned this! It does sound good.
- The seals
- ...etc :)
I used to wonder why so many stories are set in New York - books, musicals, movies... but having been there, I no longer wonder.
Stuff we did, loved, would recommend...
- Catch the subway as early as possible. It's awesome and gets you around quickly.
- Empire State Building observation deck at night. We went late on our first night and discovered if you go at 10pm, there's almost no line! The view is pretty amazing.
- Manhattan food cart walking tour by Urban Oyster. This is how we discovered our favourite food of the whole trip - chicken on rice with tamarind sauce, by Trini Paki Boys food cart. On our last morning in NYC, we had time to do one last thing before bolting to the air port. We went back to Trini Paki Boys for chicken on rice. Seriously, it's that good. The mexican place opposite Trini Paki Boys was also amazing.
- Brooklyn and Banksy graffiti tours by grafftours.com. We did the Brooklyn tour privately as it wasn't scheduled on the days we had available - and I don't regret paying the extra at all. There's no way we'd have gone to industrial areas in Brooklyn without a guide to show us straight to the good stuff :) The Banksy/ROA/Fairey tour was fantastic too, although there's no Banksy piece any more - they should update the name really.
- Staten Island Ferry - a great way to see the Statue of Liberty without lining up. By all accounts, do the ferry, skip the statue.
- Central Park - squirrels! Lakes! Places that seem weirdly familiar from four thousand tv shows! Don't miss it, it is not "just a park". We only had time to dive through quickly and want to spend more time next time.
- Guggenheim - we spent quite some time taking photos outside before even getting inside.
- Katz's Deli. Oh, the pastrami. Wow.
- The High Line - it seems like such a simple idea, but it's amazingly cool. We spent a couple of hours walking its length.
- L spent some very happy time fabric shopping in the garment district. If you are into sewing, do it. Mood Fabrics alone will ruin you for fabric shopping in Australia.
- Get a bagel (we went to Brooklyn Bagel & Coffee), accepting you'll ruin yourself for bagels outside the US.
- We enjoyed the diner experience at Johnny's Luncheonette. Cheap, cheerful and all food as big as your head. Should have eaten there more.
- Broadway show - we saw Spiderman, Turn Off The Dark and it absolutely blew us away. Brilliant.
- Grand Central is worth a visit.
- If you like taking photos, make sure you allow time for just walking around and soaking it all up.
- Shopping - if you want sneakers, you are in the right city. You can get custom Converse, hand-painted Nikes, or simply the biggest range of stuff that never finds its way to Australia. Also awesome shops we don't have like Uniqlo and Muji. Plus some astoundingly cheap department stores - I got an awesome major brand leather jacket for $70. Buy a second suitcase for the return trip. Don't feel bad ;)
- We particularly loved the Evolution Store.
- Go to a Momofuku Milk Bar and try cereal milk and a pork bun. Note: opinion is divided on the cereal milk. Also Baked By Melissa cupcakes.
Things we didn't do and will do "next time!!":
- Catch a gig - so many bands play NYC and it's amazingly cheap. We had tickets to go to a gig but L was sick and we opted for a quiet night in the hotel instead.
- Brooklyn Bridge - it was half closed due to maintenance work, plus we simply ran out of time.
- Museum of Modern Art was closed the day we tried to go there. Check opening hours ahead of time!
- We discovered too late that you must book ahead to get into the 9/11 memorial. While not a cheery thing, we wanted to visit. But it didn't pan out.
- We did not manage all five boroughs. Realistically, we did a tiny tiny tiny little piece of what NYC has to offer.
Random USA things...
- It's true: the food is gigantic and the coffee is dreadful. Cut your food in half when it arrives, try not to feel bad when you leave half (someone has since pointed out that locals can doggie bag the extra, so it's not wasted). If you want a good coffee you will have to go looking - it is there but tucked away. In desperation, Peete's is marginally better than Starbucks. Marginally.
- You'll quickly realise you can share lunch between two most of the time :)
- There's plenty of healthy food to be had, including pre-made food in grocers, easily available pre-cut fruit and so on... we went to Fresh & Co a few times when we needed a healthier hit.
- Tax and tipping are batshit insane. Get tipping apps. Add 20% to your budget. Do your best. Accept that people will think Aussies are cheap no matter how hard you try to get it right.
- Ensure you have a shit-ton of $1 and $5 notes for tipping (hotels are used to breaking notes for the uninitiated). Check you don't accidentally give two notes when you meant to give one, as the paper tends to "stick" and many a tourist has accidentally paid $40 for $20.
- Nobody knows what the coins are for, other than people who use quarters for laundry.
- Speaking of laundry, don't pay hotel rates - we got a bag load of laundry done in NYC for sod all money (helps keep your bag weight down).
- Use the black town cars with set prices to get to/from the airport.
- The toilets aren't broken, they really do use that much water and sound like a small explosion. Don't look at me like that, just about every Aussie coworker who went over on the trip commented about this! :)
- Americans are amazingly tolerant of having to queue for things.
- Consumer stuff is incredibly cheap. Don't worry about leaving things behind, you can buy one of whatever it is when you get there - much cheaper than you could buy one here.
- Get a traveller's card that works in ATMs; and you can get prepaid SIM cards for your phone (we used mrsimcard).
Most of all...
Go! San Francisco and NYC are awesome. Absolutely awesome.