My journey to America, to New York City and Washington DC, was like a dream to me. I woke up the first day and pulled up the drapes, the Empire State Building still laying there, right outside my window, along with the rest of the Manhattan’s skyline. I had to pinch myself several times that morning, especially when getting my first American breakfast at Magnolia Bakery.
The trip to the location at Penn Station was like a dream. I was not sure I was there, that’s how surreal it felt. Here I was, roaming the streets of the Big Apple, just like I’ve seen so many others do in my favourite movies. The cold air woke me up right away, unscrewing my screwed self from a sleepless, jet-lagged night. And the banana pudding from Magnolia? Damn perfect!
Getting back to the hotel, I walked by a White Castle, a Chipotle, as well as an Arby’s. The names were so familiar, it felt like I was in a TV show. With the jet lag killing me, killing me softly, I decided to enjoy my sugary breakfast and then head straight out for a Central Park walk. And I did so well on that walk that I nearly fell into the lake. But that’s when I’d finally woken up!
In this guide:
The US visa
I’ll take you back in time for a bit, just so you understand the process of getting to America in the first place. It all started in 2022 when I applied for a visa and then got a spot for an interview really fast. You see, as a Romanian, you need to get a tourist visa first if you want to go to the promised land. The visa requires you to go to the embassy in Bucharest for a short interview.
After filling up the form on the website and then paying the $160 fee (Washington DC must thrive somehow, right?) I got to the embassy and my visa was approved within 2 minutes. It was more of a 2-hour wait, 2-minute interview situation. Many people were rejected before me so naturally, my confidence diminished the more I waited with my numbered ticket in my hand.
When it was finally my turn, the interviewer focused on my work, my intentions while in America, if I had any friends there (to which I replied “no” as I don’t have friends but some acquaintances) and then… done, “your visa has been approved, give us your fingerprints and passport and you can go”. Two days later the passport was back at the house with a 10-year US visa in it. Magic!
Now first and foremost this was supposed to be a Las Vegas + New York trip. Yet because of things, and life, it changed after I got my visa for a New York (and DC) trip. Ugh, details. The flight and hotel were $2000 through a travel agency. I’m guessing they were about $1000 each, more or less. I flew Turkish Airlines from Bucharest via Istanbul, for about 11 hours in the air per trip.
While on the flights, everything went great. No delays, although days earlier Turkish Airlines had to cancel the New York flight due to a power outage at Terminal 1 of JFK Airport. Phew, it all got better before my trip. The food was simply delicious and plenty on these flights. The seats reclined and were comfortable, and the crew was helpful but discreet. Just amazing service.
NYC Taxi (and other forms of transportation)
Right, what do you do after spending more than half a day on planes and then reaching one of the largest cities on earth? You take a taxi to your hotel, that’s what you do. Regardless of its costs, yes. Even if it costs 90 bucks, taxes and all included, for a 39-minute ride. But is it worth it? YES, TOTALLY! Stress-free transfer from JFK to Midtown Manhattan during the night for the price of a good steak, I’d take that any day of the week, to be honest. And I’m poor!
Now surely, that’s just a one-time thing for me as my budget would’ve cried profusely if I were to rely on taxis and Uber all day. Instead, I did the New York thing and got myself on a train whenever I moved around more than 5 blocks. At $2.75 per ride, which is cheaper than London, the subway was reliable, fast and somewhat confusing at first. Ok, it stayed confusing up until my very last trip to Jamaica Station but still, I found my destination with the right train all day.
I never took an Uber or a taxi while in the city, as the prices would’ve been astronomical. I also said no to the idea of taking a taxi to JFK on my departure day, simply because I had 5 hours left until my flight and the train was easy to grab and cheap, at just $10.75 including the AirTrain from Jamaica Central to the airport. To summarize, go for the taxi only if you arrive late at night and then take the subway for city transportation. And walk.
There’s a special feeling when you get to your New York hotel, right in the middle of the city on the island of Manhattan. Those neverending skyscrapers, the flashing lights, the buzz and the smell of weed, all make for a great first experience. But the highlight of that first night was definitely the hotel room’s view. As far as check-in goes, it went as smoothly as possible. I was the first and only in line, arriving at the property at 8:30 in the evening.
After just a few seconds, I got my keys and was in the elevator towards the 34th floor. This was the highest I’ve ever slept in my entire life, naturally. Despite the elevators that were always full, the hotel was a great deal for the price, considering it is now 300 bucks per night in March. The highlight of the stay was no doubt the view. You’re not ready for this view!
Yes, that was my view from my room on the 34th floor of the Holiday Inn New York – Times Square hotel. My room was 3404, just so that you know, and I paid nothing extra for it although it was mentioned in the booking that it would’ve been a City View room. It was really hard for me to sleep the first night as I just stared out the window for hours. There was no breakfast at the property but this was New York so it was not an issue but a blessing.
… the one with the banana pudding, Kevin, the pastrami sandwich and Empire State Building.
Having no breakfast included in your room is a blessing in New York simply because there are so many incredible things for you to try, it’s a bit overwhelming. One example is Magnolia Bakery. Famous for its coffee, hot chocolate and cupcakes, I went to the Penn Station location first thing in the morning for hot cocoa and banana pudding. And yes, the banana pudding was simply spectacular. I will try to recreate that incredible test of childhood meets today.
When you’re in New York for the first time, rain won’t stop you from exploring the city. It should not stop you. It rained when I finished my pudding that morning but I was a man on a schedule, so I just boarded the subway and headed to Central Park. This movie sensation, Central Park is basically the lung of the city. It sits right in the middle of Manhattan island, going forever in all directions when you’re in the middle of it. I walked right through it from the subway hole.
If I were to describe Central Park in a few words… it looks exactly like in the Home Alone 2 movie. Dreamy, warm, vast, perfectly groomed. Ideal for running, biking, canoeing, and riding small RC helicopters. Good for feeding the birds or the squirrels. Well don’t do that, I’m not sure you can do that. Don’t get arrested. To me, Central Park was the perfect oasis for a stroll in the… park. Not just any park, THE park. And the right place to be if you’re into museums.
Speaking of museums, the MET has to be the most famous in all of New York. And if you have time for just one, it has got to be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Why? Because they’ve got a freaking Egyptian temple inside. Yes, the whole temple.
Besides this temple gift from Egypt to the great United States, there is an infinite number of treasures waiting to be discovered within this place. Admission is 30 bucks and it’s well worth it. Which I don’t say often about museums. I usually use museums for the free aspect of entry and for air-conditioning in the summer or heating in the winter. Not this one.
The pastrami sandwich
After a 2-hour stroll around the MET and then another hour or so walking in the footsteps of Kevin McCallister, I got as hungry as a dog on a leash. I put many locations in my Notes and Google Maps for me to try but I wasn’t dead serious on all of them but this one. The one with the pastrami sandwich. The legendary one. The place you must eat at when in New York, even if you’re in the city for just one hour. Katz Delicatessen is the place I’m telling you about.
The restaurant is located just outside the 2nd Avenue station in Lower Manhattan. By the way, subways are confusing in New York City but surprisingly, I’ve never boarded the wrong train out of the 20 or so trips over my 5 days there. Coming back, there’s always a line at Katz, which is normal considering this is the most famous restaurant in the city. It took about 30 minutes to get my food, my stomach growling seeing the humongous sandwiches on other people’s trays.
When it was finally my turn, I ordered a half-pastrami on rye with chicken noodle soup and a lemonade. Extra mustard because that’s the way I do it. The taste of this meat changed everything I ever knew about cooking, barbequing, smoking, steaks, cold cuts or hot cuts, Jesus Christ, the Obama administration, my progress with exercising more often, everything. It was life-changing. From the experience of getting it to the first bite, the incredible meat, the sublime bread and mustard, the hearty soup. All for 20 bucks. It’s a $20 ticket to pastrami heaven.
The Empire State Building
A heavy storm took over the Big Apple later in the evening, so my chances of seeing anything from the top of the most famous building on earth quickly dropped. By 6 PM I was sure I will not be able to see a thing, as it was already pitch black and rainy. I made my way into the perimeter, slowly crawling with hundreds of others towards the security check. Americans and their airport security, museum security, and Empire State security. I’m amazed they have none at Katz!
I’m also amazed by what I saw once at the top of this most famous structure ever made by humans. The view was SPECTACULAR. The $30 or so paid was worth every single penny. There’s no doubt in my mind, even on a cloudy day, the feeling of climbing this historic tower is simply an incredible one. I’d love it for my writing to be as good as for me to be able to make you feel what I felt once at the top, the wind blowing on my face to the point my eyelids froze.
But it’s not. And I’m happy I’m not that good of a writer. Because you should go and feel those feelings for yourself. Alone or with your loved ones but better alone. Touch, smell, see, and feel the Empire State Building, and its top floors. Ride the elevator. Think about the history and legendary status of the place. Enjoy every single millisecond of it. Block everything else out. You’re at the top of the world’s most famous building. And it surely lives up to the hype!
… the one filled with emotion, life-changing pizza and my first Broadway show.
The 9/11 Museum and Memorial
Americans have their fair share of wrongdoings in the world. That’s the truth but which country doesn’t? They’ve also had many tragedies happening on their own soil, including wars and attacks. One of them was the terrorist attack of September 11th, 2001, when multiple planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, as well as other landmarks. The memorial surrounding the events of that day was hard to go through. It’s emotional, very real, palpable. It leaves a mark on you, even if you’re not an American. I’m not going to go into many details as I’m not the right person to do so. But yes, this is a must when in New York!
The Shake Shack burger
I don’t usually eat bread because I’m gluten intolerant. If I eat too much gluten, my belly gets big and my stomach feels like it’s about to explode. Yet you can’t go to New York and not try a Shake Shack burger. So I did the right thing and, right after the 9/11 museum visit, picked myself up with a cheeseburger. A double cheeseburger, fries and some Fanta. I’m a Fanta guy, I never do Coke or Pepsi. I’m old-fashioned and I’m proud of it! So how is Shake Shack?
Amazing. I went for seconds, on my last day in New York, skipping Adel’s food truck that was noted in red on my eating schedule, that’s how good it was. That meat must be the best beef I’ve ever had in minced form. Simply FULL of flavour and juice, and with the soft bun and flavourful cheese, the combo was simply unbeatable. Even the fries were spectacular, although Five Guys still make better cajun fries. And better bacon. But not a better burger. Sorry.
How do you get over a cheeseburger and fries combo from Shake Shack? With a long walk through the famous Wall Street and financial area of Manhattan, New York! Follow me for more life advice. By the way, even now, weeks later after my trip and when writing this piece, it’s hard for me to grasp the idea that I’ve been to New York.
And just got to see the mayor of the city during a public appearance, just because news simply follows me wherever I go.
And walked through the rooms of the building where George Washington was made president.
And got to see the building where the world’s money is being split every day from 9:30.
And enjoyed the beautiful view towards the Statue of Liberty, along with a weird carousel.
The life-changing slice of pizza
Jet lag was a big thing for the first two days of my trip. So naturally, after my stroll around the city, I went back to my hotel for a break. Don’t get me wrong, this trip would’ve been great even if I were to stay in my room and order takeout for the week, considering my view!
Yet when the night started to come, I had to keep myself awake for some later activities. So I took a shower and went on a shopping spree for sweets at CVS. And then, on my way back, I stopped at one metro station too late, maybe out of tiredness but maybe not. And when I got out of the underground, I saw the entrance to NY Pizza Suprema and remembered the name from my friend Andy, a US citizen living in Timisoara. I just went in attracted by the smell.
Restaurants, and even the outside of them, smell incredible in New York. At this pizza place, one slice was 6 bucks. That’s not cheap but hear me out: the slice of sausage pizza was full of meat and as big as half a Romanian full pizza from back home. Which can now get to $10 for a regular at a fancier place in town so, who’s crazy here, us or them? Coming back to the slice in front of me, this was the very best pizza I’d ever had in my entire life. The legend about New York pizza being the best? Better than Italian pizza? Better than any pizza? 130% true.
Aladdin on Broadway
I went back to the hotel to drop off the bags of Reese’s cups and Almond Joys and then rushed back out for my first-ever Broadway show. And as a true Aladdin fan, seeing the play in London 5 years ago, it felt right to book the Broadway performance for my trip over the pond. Aladdin is the story that I love the most out of all of them, and this performance was nothing but incredible. The cast, the music, the costumes and the changing of the scenes. The flying carpet!
Yet it was not better than the London show. Unfortunately, something felt off, and now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure it was the genie. Don’t get me wrong, Michael James Scott is a great performer but he’s not as great as Trevor Dion Nicholas from the now-closed West End play. That guy was THE genie, up there with Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart, the previous Broadway genie. The performance was still spectacular, just with this one tiny setback.
I still went to bed happy and slept like a baby after the show so, very worth it!
… the one with frozen faces, silver balloons, the elephant in the room and a disastrous play.
The Brooklyn Bridge walk
I woke up fuzzy on my third day in the city. The weather never helped me get over the jet lag entirely as it was mostly cold and overcast. So I grabbed a pistachio latte from a Starbucks and walked the whole legendary Brooklyn Bridge that morning. That’s what you do when it’s 3 degrees outside, the European ones, and the wind is picking up with every step you take as fog envelops the skyline behind you. It was still worth it for the experience and the picture, no doubt!
I also visited Dumbo, a place from where all major influencers take their selfies with the Manhattan bridge in the background and the perfect alignment of the crossing with the Empire State Building through it. But then again, fog, cold, my face half frozen, no Building in the background. At least I’ve found an old guy selling cheap magnets and grabbed some for a few bucks for my folks back home. And another Starbucks to get a cookie, the best cookie, for $1.5.
SUMMIT One Vanderbilt
You know when people say about places that they’re touristy, just so that they could spare themselves a few bucks? Well, that’s the same I’ve heard about this place, the SUMMIT at One Vanderbilt. This is a huge skyscraper I could see from my hotel room window, right near the Grand Central Terminal. The highlight is of course the weird, inclusive, spectacular experience at the top, or the SUMMIT, where you get to see New York’s skyline… differently. All for $30!
First of all, there are mirrors everywhere. The moment you get off the elevator and pop your ears back, a bit dizzy from the flashing lights, everything is made out of mirrors on the floors of the observatory. Second, the Empire State Building is right there, just outside the window. It’s the best view of the skyline I think in all of the city. Third, there’s another floor with freaking silver balloons laying around, which make for a great effect and photos and… that was so much fun!!!
Steak at Keen’s
American beef is delicious. And I’m sure I’m about to piss off a ton of people here but I’ll keep it 100% with you all. When you get into one of the top three steakhouses in New York and order a fillet mignon, you expect it to melt in your mouth. To be able to chew it with no teeth. Unfortunately, at least my cut at Keen’s Steakhouse in the middle of the city, one of the most famous and expensive ($78 for my meal) restaurants in Manhattan, did not melt in my mouth.
It was flavourful, as flavourful as a fillet could be, which is not famous for flavour after all. But it was not as juicy and melty as I’d thought. Maybe I got an end piece or something or ordered the wrong thing, or maybe should’ve gone for rare instead of medium-rare… I don’t know. And I’m not disappointed, it was still a great steak alongside the DELICIOUS creamed spinach. But it was not the best I’ve ever had. Surely not the most tender. It was good but not legendary.
Grand Central Terminal and the Public Library
There are things in this city that I wanted to visit and then there are things that I just visited for the heck of it. Grand Central Terminal is one of them. It’s just a huge train station with great decorations that feels American, for lack of a better word. I liked it but it’s not really THAT great. Another one was the New York Public Library. This place is massive but barely open to the public. As in, you can’t visit the cool stuff if you’re not actually reading there. I managed to get a photo of one of the famous reading rooms but then got called for it. Not in a nice way. So I left.
Visiting a magic shop
Instead of checking places out just because, do some homework before you go to New York City, as there’s no hobby this city won’t cover. Everything you want to do or see, you can do or see here. Like… magic! I always wanted to visit Tannen’s Magic Shop, the oldest in the city, and I wasn’t going to miss it for the world. I loved the fact that I had to play detective to find the place, as there is no sign on the outside of the building towards the shop. I still don’t know where it is!
Once inside though, Charlie took good care of me and forever fooled me with a toothpick-through-matchbox trick. I still have no idea how he did it and I’m not googling it either. I want to be fooled. You’re supposed to be fooled, even as an amateur magician with 15 years of experience in the art. His other two tricks, I got. I then decided to take some pictures, have nice conversations with the staff and get myself some playing cards for back home. Awesome!
The Play That Goes Wrong
Right, on to play number two of my Broadway rundown, The Play That Goes Wrong. And it sure does! Besides the potent weed smell from the theatre, which was not really on Broadway but more of a back alley establishment, the show was simply spectacular. It was fun and brilliantly written and… it all goes wrong by the end. So wrong in fact that the entire set gets destroyed and at one point a huge cuckoo clock impersonates a character. This was my favourite play from my short trip to the city of stages, without a doubt. I’m still laughing at it!
… the one with a train ride, a demigod, incredible chilli and a small white house.
Day trip to Washington DC
I woke up at 5:30 the next morning, the freshest I’ve felt since leaving home on Sunday. It was Friday already and my jet lag was finally gone, with me being able to enjoy 8 full hours of sleep. Much needed considering I was about to board a train to Washington D.C. for a 3 hours and 30 minutes ride through the American countryside. Well, I mostly saw cities and a few villages but I did see a Lidl, in America, what?! My train boarded on time and left on time and arrived on time. For a $60 roundtrip, this was a great deal. Add $10 for a bagel and a pack of Doritos Cool Ranch, the best chips of my entire life, and that’s the start of my trip.
The first thing I did after leaving the beautiful Union Station was to go straight to the US Capitol, as it is minutes away by foot from the station. The Capitol is as imposing as one might expect. The building is the core of American democracy. The place where the law of the nation is made and where the great states debate the future of the United States together. It is also the place where a mob tried to overrun an election result not long ago, with people getting killed in the stampede. It was not long ago and you’ve heard about it on the news for sure.
Another place I went to is the Supreme Court, which was not open to the public. It was incredible to see it after watching so many CNN reporters broadcast live from those famous steps. Luckily for me, after a quick search on Google, I was able to book an entrance to the Library of Congress just next door for free, which was just perfect before my 12:00 Capitol tour. The Library is simply spectacular, with many rooms and sublime decorations. The highlight of the tour was the Gutenberg Bible, as well as the Thomas Jefferson Library. What a place!
Next up was the Capitol itself. I booked a tour online and got to see the inside of this temple of democracy. The highlight was surely the Rotonda with the famous “Apotheosis of Washington” painted at the top of it. These people made George Washington into a demigod, and after you learn about his story, you kind of give them credit for it. America would’ve been very different if Washinton would have done things differently back in the day. He is THE father of the nation.
With the Capitol visit done and after almost reaching the Senate chambers and getting into trouble because I got lost on my way towards the exit, I got on the metro. DC metro is very different from NYC’s. Everything here is more European, modern, cleaner, and on time. Sure, the NYC subway has its charm and I loved it, especially because I could just press my VISA against the trinkets and I was in but the DC metro is amazing. A few stations later I was in the borough of U Street, visiting Ben’s Chilli for a delicious bowl of chilli and some fries. Delicious food and warm staff, I loved it. And a guy asked me for directions towards a weed shop and I was able to help him as I saw the place right outside the metro station. I felt like a local!
For my final hour or so in the nation’s capital, I got to stroll around the most secure house in the world. The White House, which is completely white and smaller than on television, is the core of the executive branch of the United States government. It’s the place where Joe Biden lives and works as the leader of the free world. And he was home that day, ready to leave at 17:30, about the time my train departed from Union Station back to New York. Missed it by a bit!
You can actually visit the White House. All you have to do is ask for a slot with your embassy in the US no later than 20 days before your trip and no sooner than 90 days. And although I did that, and specifically told them that the House allows for tourist visits, my embassy simply didn’t care. Romanians, the same at home as in Washington DC. I also asked a Secret Service Police agent outside the entrance to the visitor centre about it, being offered the same answer.
How can they be nice but my own co-nationals can’t bother to give a damn?
Lastly, I got to visit the Washington Monument, the obelisk in the middle of the city. What’s an obelisk got to do with America, democracy and freedom? I don’t know but maybe you do. Well, I kind of know but anything you say about it can and will be turned into a conspiracy. So I won’t bother. I’ve seen the movies, “documentaries” and TV shows. It’s just a great sight to see and I’m mad I didn’t get to see the National Mall with the pool and the Lincoln Memorial as well. Or the Archives with the trio of America’s most important documents.
I’ll see them next time.
About last night…
I was back in the city that never sleeps and hungry, after a 3-hour train ride. As hunger started to make me impatient and somewhat confused, I ended up in Madison Square Garden where some Chris Rock comedy show was happening. I had no idea about that so I missed it. What I haven’t missed was the White Castle place just meters away from my hotel, so I ended the night with two sliders. I’ve been dreaming about eating at White Castle ever since the Harold and Kumar movie came out. And with that view from my hotel? I was dreaming, it was not real.
… the one with the square, the second burger, the Dementors and the fried chicken!
By this point in my trip, I realised I was about to leave the city and never actually visited its most famous square. Even though it was a few steps away from my hotel. Times Square is the place of flashing lights, Batman and King Kong interpreters, buzzing crowds and cheap theatre tickets. It’s also the heart of the city, and a place you don’t have to visit but should anyways. It’s alive, energising, engaging, movie-like, almost surreal. It’s the best place to be after a second Shake Shack burger in 3 days and before your 9-hour flight back to Europe. If Central Park is the lung of the city, Times Square is the heart of New York.
The Harry Potter play
It’s not easy to sit through a 4-hour play with just a butterbeer and a morning Shack cheeseburger. I did do that but it’s not easy, let me tell you. Even though the play was very good and the seat somewhat comfortable, this Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play is not for everyone. Why? Because it is a play, not a musical. It’s not that animated, as most effects are done by the cast. Yet how was it? Well… I LOVED IT! I first hated it because I felt something was missing. But then realised this was no musical but a play and I redid my evaluation.
Although long, the play was intriguing and very interesting. I’ve never read the book of the play (who does that?!) and that helped a lot as I had no idea what to expect. I’m not going to spoil it for you but do note that the events happen right after Harry’s kids go to Hogwarts. The story is spectacular, well done Joanne, and the theatrical production screams Harry Potter. The Dementors scene from the end of the first act was SURREAL. So yeah, it was well worth the $100 price, the time spent in that small seat, the $14 butterbeer, everything. Hats off!
Soul food before my flight
Despite some disruption on the subway that afternoon, I took the executive decision to head to Harlem for my last dinner in New York City. I had plenty of time for that as the play ended at 4 in the afternoon and my flight was to leave 15 minutes before midnight. It all went well, by the way. All the fears and the anxiety of going on my first over-the-ocean trip? All of them were in vain. Everything, from the flights to hotels, meals, touristy stuff, trains, DC, and every single thing I’ve booked and planned on doing went perfectly.
Coming back to Harlem now, I had to try some soul food, and Sylvia’s seemed like the perfect place to do that. For $20 I got myself a huge fried chicken leg and tight, some mac and cheese, collard greens (think green salad but made into a side dish, with bacon) and two pieces of cornbread. I had to go for takeaway as the place was full of locals during my visit and there were no tables left. Instead, the lovely ladies at the Wingstop nearby allowed me to eat my dinner in their lovely establishment. People were generally very, very kind in America!
I couldn’t have imagined a better ending to this life-changing trip. This last meal on US soil was both a statement of just how amazing the American culture is, as well as a promise for me to get back to the US, as soon as I can. I fell in love with America, the sights of the Manhattan skyline, the taste of crispy fried chicken and delicious banana pudding, the smell of Central Park and the harbour, and the feeling of simply being there. Just waking up, in the city that never sleeps.
Was it all worth it?
Yes. This trip cost me around $4000 with everything. It was by far the most expensive trip of my life, coming in at around $600 per day. But it was well worth it. The jet lag, the money, the fear of the unknown. The neverending excitement before and the surreal feeling that you are there, walking the streets, riding the taxis, and the metro. Going up the Empire State Building, visiting the MET and Central Park. Going to three Broadway shows. Eating delicious burgers in Manhattan, incredible bagels aboard your train to DC, and soul-warming fried chicken in Harlem. It was my American dream, my blockbuster movie, my story of “Yes We Can!”
And the best part is, this story will not end here. America, I’m ready to come back. I’m actually looking for my next adventure as I’m writing this lengthy article. I cannot wait for us to meet again. To see, feel, smell, taste and experience more of you. I’m ready to do that and excited about everything you haven’t shown me yet.
Until next time… see you later.
P.S.: Check my Instagram for more Stories from my trip.