Travelling Stateside

By Joe Vis (Stony Brook, The State University of New York, USA)

One of the main advantages of living so close to New York City is being within travelling distance of plenty of other major cities along the East Coast. I was keen to make the most of this and have managed to visit Washington DC, Philadelphia, Toronto and Boston during my time here so far. I enjoyed them all, but had surprisingly different experiences at each of them.

Washington DC

I visited the capital city quite soon after arriving with a group consisting of three Aussies, a Danish guy and Annabel, the other Manchester student. My residing memory of this weekend is always going to be the sweltering heat. The temperature was well in to the 30s all weekend and although I have seen this in parts of Europe before, the humidity that came with it was something new for me.

Washington is great in that the vast majority of the major attractions are contained in one small area of the city. We were lucky enough to find a nice, cheap hostel within walking distance of all of them.

Whitehouse

The White House was obviously something we were all keen to see. As it was Labor Day weekend, quite a big deal over here, I was expecting it to be extremely busy, but there was only us and a few other foreign tourists. Well, there were also a couple of protestors, one of whom – an old guy with a huge beard – is apparently there all day, every day playing the same recording on a loop. The complex itself was very impressive, as was the level of security. There was an armed cop or even more armed military personnel in every direction. The view of the White House is almost identical from both sides with high railings, a large fountain and immaculately kept grounds leading to the building itself. From the rear of the building, the huge Washington Monument is in clear view. This is a very tall obelisklike structure that was pretty much in the centre of everything we wanted to see. It had the White House to its right, the Korean War Memorial to the left, the Lincoln Memorial ahead and the Mall with countless museums behind. As it is raised and looking over all of these things, it was also the spot for probably the best views I’ve seen within a city. We spent time here and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King’s famous speech, deciding to save the museums for the following day. This turned out to be a good idea as there is a huge number of museums within such a small area, much more than we initially realised, and each on was large enough to spend a full day in (and they are all free!). Obviously we couldn’t see them all, but we did manage to fit in the Air and Space, American History and Natural History museums before heading to the National Archives. This was a highlight as it is where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are kept.

Lincoln Memorial

On the final morning before leaving, I woke up very early and did one of my favourite runs to date. I revisited the White House which was deserted, not even the beardy protest guy. I then looped around the Washington Memorial and up the Lincoln, again almost completely alone, before circling the Mall and heading home.

Overall, I would say that Washington DC was less busy, less culturally diverse and generally a lot calmer than the bustling streets of New York, which I found strange given it is the capital city. I don’t think this is the case in any of the European countries I’ve been too. It was a brilliant experience though and a big box ticked on my American to-do list.

Philadelphia

I went to Philadelphia with my twin brother who had flown over to visit me and his friend from Uni who was also in the States at the time. It is a much smaller city than either New York or DC and had less to offer in terms of quantity of major tourism landmarks. It did however, have both the Liberty Bell and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, better known as the place that has the steps that Rocky ran up.

Rocky

The area we were staying in was, according to the bus driver, not the nicest place in the city. On first sight I had to agree, but I tried not to be too judgemental and the hotel itself was nice enough. Walking back there late at night was, however, the least safe I have felt during my time in the States.

Whilst there, my American friends had advised me that I was obliged to try the local delicacy; the Philly Cheesesteak. Apparently they’re very proud of it, and we managed to find a local restaurant specialising in them. This claimed to be world-famous and to be fair, did have signed pictures of some pretty impressive people eating there. These included former presidents, famous sports stars and Denzel Washington. Needless to say, my expectations were high, but I was to be disappointed. The Philly Cheesesteak is basically a beef sandwich with some poor quality American cheese melted on top. I didn’t have the guts to say this to any of the locals though.

The nightlife in Philadelphia was a highlight. The barstaff and locals were all very keen to ensure that we had a great time and visited their favourite places, and just generally to look after their new British friends. Whilst I enjoyed my time in Philly, I probably won’t be revisiting it in the near future. It doesn’t offer as much as the other places I have visited.

Toronto

Quite a large group of the exchange students went to Toronto together. Some by plane, whilst others decided to brave a thirteen hour coach journey. By the time we had all arrived and checked in at the hostel it was early afternoon, so we headed out to explore the local area. Very close by was St Lawrence Market, a huge and very impressive multicultural food market with everything from Belgian chocolate to Indian spices. Just further was the Old Town; this looked almost Victorian and was very different from anything I had seen in any of the American cities. It included a bizarre sculpture, a microbrewery and the best chocolate shop I’ve ever seen.

Following this, we headed into the centre of the city to go up the CN Tower. I knew this was tall, but it towered over everything so much that it almost looks out of place in the skyline. We unintentionally timed our visit very well as the sun was setting, so we got both a day and night time view of the city. This was obviously a brilliant view, but the most striking thing for me was that, even from the top of the tower, Lake Ontario is too big for you to see the other side. It genuinely feels as if you are next to the sea because it’s such a huge body of water with its own ports, harbours and tides.

Toronto

The day after, we had booked on to a coach tour to Niagra Falls. This was about a ninety minute drive away. The Falls themselves were mind-blowing and it’s probably my favourite experience of travels so far, but I was disappointed by the surrounding area. It is hugely commercialised and organised into a main strip which feels more like Las Vegas than Canada. Luckily our tour took us to a nearby town, which was much more like what I was expecting. On the way back, the tour made a pit stop at a vineyard where we got to taste the local speciality, Ice Wine. The grapes are harvested when they are frozen in winter, meaning there is very little liquid and the wine is extremely sweet.

That evening, back in Toronto, we were able to sample the nightlife as a big group together. This hadn’t been possible so far due to some of them being under the drinking age (21 in US, 19 in Canada). It’s safe to say they made the most of it.

Niagra Falls

Toronto Island is a small island in Lake Ontario about half a mile from the city. This gave brilliant views of the city’s skyline. Apart from that though, it was a bit strange. There was a small “zoo” which basically consisted of some farm animals in a barn. There was also a roller coaster and log flume which were closed for the winter. Most intriguingly, although I didn’t check it out personally, there was a nudist beach.

Overall, I would say that Toronto is my favourite city to have visited. It’s a lot cleaner and calmer than New York, with the British and French influences it has a lot to offer culturally and the Canadian people in general are extremely polite and actively keen to help.

Boston

Me and a group of friends visited Boston over the Thanksgiving weekend. After avoiding the Black Friday crowds and enduring a four hour bus journey, we arrived to find Boston covered in snow. The city itself looked more European than anything else I’ve seen over here, with fewer skyscrapers and more old buildings like the town hall and countless churches. The hostel was perfectly located, close to just about everything we planned to do over the weekend.  First stop was ice-skating at Boston Common and Public Garden which is a small park in the middle of the city that had a rink set up for the winter. Despite being a lot worse than most of the people there, including most of the very young children, falls were kept to a minimum and serious injuries avoided. Mission accomplished.

The following day the hostel was running an unofficial tour of Harvard. Unofficial meant free, so we all signed up without hesitation. The campus itself was slightly underwhelming, and it was more the stories that the guide and other locals told us that made the tour interesting. Various souvenirs were bought and we decided to walk the two miles(ish) to MIT. This was vastly different to Harvard, with huge manufacturing facilities, technological hubs and multi-storey labs dotted everywhere around.

Boston State House

We had left our final day in Boston dedicated to completing the Freedom Trail. This is a three mile trip, marked out by a red brick line, which encompasses all the historical points of interest in the city. Many of these, including the City Hall, State House and various churches, all tied in heavily with when this area was under British rule. This was interesting, yet inevitably led to a few jokes aimed in my direction. The trail passed through Quincy Market; we had heard good things about this and weren’t disappointed. This a basically a giant food hall with stalls selling food from all over the world. We decided to sample the local delicacy, clam chowder, before crossing the bridge over the river and reaching the end of the Trail. This was close to the USS Constitution, a 200+ year old ship from the US Navy. It was only after I’d spent a good few minutes admiring the cannons that I realised this ship is primarily famous for the number of British ships it sunk. After this, a slightly more modern boat, a water taxi, took us back across the river allowing great views of both sides of the city. A final visit to Quincy Market and we battled the Thanksgiving weekend crowds back to New York.

USS Constitution

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