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New York -- A first timer's experience

  • Story Highlights
  • Arriving in New York for the first time results in a long line at immigration
  • The city's grid structure makes it very easy to navigate without getting lost
  • The must-see museums include the MoMA and the Natural History Museum
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By CNN's Jacqueline Head
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- How do you tackle a city like New York in the space of five days? I prepared an empty suitcase, a good guidebook, a well-credited bank card and the will to ignore aching feet in my quest to pack in one of the world's biggest cities.

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Walking along 42nd Street allows you to see some of the city's main sites.

A proposal of marriage was hardly the first thing I expected upon entering JFK airport. But after a hot humid wait in a long snaking line for non-U.S. passport holders, the possibility of obtaining a green card was rather tempting. Unfortunately the immigration official offering his hand was more than old enough to be my father.

Despite having to force a smile and give a polite "thank you but no thank you," I was heartened by the friendly nature of my first encounter with a real New Yorker, especially as I had been previously warned that the city's inhabitants could be somewhat brisk.

So when a man offered to take my suitcase and show me to a cab I assumed this was all still part of the greatly unreported generous Big Apple attitude. Not so. My guard quickly went back up when the seemingly chivalrous man told me not only that it would cost $100 to get to Manhattan in his black cab, but also thought I was gullible enough to believe that New York's famous yellow taxis only serviced Brooklyn and Queens. Did he think I had never switched on a television set or been to the movies?

After a brief confrontation -- suitcase and wits firmly back in my grasp, I got hold of the real deal yellow thing, at half the cost, and set off for the sparkling lights in the warm night.

On crossing the Queensboro Bridge and entering the sleek glittering landscape, I genuinely felt I had entered Gotham City. Towering Gothic architecture mixed with the eerie effects of light pollution in the midnight sky and the city's eternal buzz seeped into my veins and kicked me back awake from the long flight. I hadn't expected to feel nearly so excited.

For a first-time visitor, New York is utterly overwhelming. Five days is barely enough to see the major attractions, let alone fit in shopping and have the energy at the end of the day to explore the city's nightlife.

One fortunate side to the sprawling metropolis, however, is that it is unbelievably easy to navigate.

The grid system of the streets, along with their numbering and recognizable names, means you can never really get lost. For those who like a challenge or to explore secret narrow alleyways, it can be a bit disappointing. However, it still isn't enough to detract from the wonder and excitement the city holds.

New York, New York

Wanting to see as much as possible, I decided to walk to most places. Although this plan allowed me to experience a great deal of the city, it did cause fatigue to set in early. So unless you've got a lot of energy or some good walking shoes, it can be worth hopping on the subway or a bus. Or, if you've got a bit more cash, make use of the city's endless supply of cabs.

My first route involved walking up 7th Avenue to 42nd Street, past Times Square, onto the impressive Grand Central Terminal and the iconic Chrysler Building. Already feeling I had seen a bulk of the city's offerings, I decided to leave America and step into international territory, by calling into the U.N. headquarters.

An incredibly intimidating structure built in the 1950s, its imposing nature continues throughout the interior, where the weight of the world's problems pervade the corridors. Tours allow visitors to see the Security Council and General Assembly, along with famous bars where world leaders, diplomats and journalists rub shoulders or talk heatedly.

After an hour, in need of some lightening up -- and also wanting a postcard panoramic view -- I headed for the Rockefeller Center. The Top of the Rock, some 67 floors up, provides not only a spectacular view but also allows you to gaze upon the Empire State Building -- the traditional place for a vertigo-inducing view. I had been hoping for some champagne at the top, but this is something the managers have clearly overlooked.

Over the next few days I squashed in numerous other sightseeing highlights -- the Staten Island Ferry, crossing Brooklyn Bridge -- yet another excellent vantage point for a view of the city's skyline. A walk down Wall Street and the financial district provided the scene for more tourist snaps. Ground Zero, which at first I had been unsure about visiting, was an incredibly sobering experience. Although now a large construction site it holds an intensely spooky atmosphere -- there is a sense that a large dark cloud of grief is hanging over the vast empty space.

As a tourist, New York has some must-see museums. Although hearing much about them, I hadn't expected the scale or standard I was presented with. The Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Arts and MoMA were staggering -- not only for the exhibits they contain but also for their architecture and beautiful layout.

My highlight, however, was the American Museum of Natural History. However I only managed to see the tip of the iceberg of the permanent exhibitions, stupidly allowing myself a mere morning there.

I dedicated most of my time to its current featured exhibit -- Mythic Creatures. The show is an inspiring display of supernatural beasts such as Unicorns and Dragons, with an insightful look at how these fantastical animals may have evolved in the minds of our ancestors -- and also how they permeated different cultures and still impact on people's lives today. It was a refreshing change from the norm and showcased the more inventive and creative side of the museum.

Exhausted from my traipsing, I spent half a day in Central Park. With an iPod and a good book it was a serene place to relax and feel a slight escape from the main hustle and bustle of the busy New York streets.

Once refreshed, I attempted to make use of the weak dollar and hit the shops. Unfortunately it seemed the rest of Europe had a similar idea, with tourists packing the shopping districts.

Department stores were first on my list.

A trip through Bloomingdale's had been a little underwhelming -- until a group of actors dressed as bloodied zombies decided to wreak havoc through the building. Apparently promoting a theatre production, we were informed this type of performance was not unusual. A trip to Macy's wasn't quite as eventful and didn't hold the glamour I had somehow been expecting.

Tired of department stores and Uptown's larger-than-life shopping streets, I headed south to Soho and the Lower East Side for some boutique shopping action.

This area, seemingly quite trendy, felt a bit more manageable than the imposing storefronts of Fifth Avenue.

A visit to the Patricia Fields store -- the woman said to be behind Sex and the City's flamboyant ensembles, plus several boutiques down Bleecker, Mott and Mulberry streets quickly emptied my purse and renewed my faith in the city's retail stocks.

The main highlight was Market NYC -- a gymnasium on Mulberry Street where each Saturday up-and-coming designers sell their wares. A permanent collection of 65 designers is located around the corner on Bleecker Street. Not too busy, the market is fantastic for finding something a bit different yet still well made, and at very reasonable rates.

One of the things I had been looking forward to most in New York was the food.

Tales of gargantuan portions, creative menus and fresh produce had whet my appetite. My first foray into the endless options for dinner happily lived up to expectations. I discovered Frank's, a small Italian bar and restaurant in East Village/Lower East Side (88 Second Ave, between 5th and 6th Streets). Run by 'some guys from Naples' as their sign states, the food is incredible. I opted for some mouth-watering steak that had been marinated in balsamic vinegar for 24 hours then seared and served on a bed of greens. My companion went for a vegetable lasagna that was equally sensational on the taste buds.

For breakfast I stumbled across Pershing Square, a large eatery underneath a bridge opposite the Grand Central Terminal. Its dark colored booths and decor provided the perfect setting for a large New Yorker breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, juice and coffee - or for the sweet tooth - brioche with caramelized banana, strawberry and maple syrup.

Lunch took me to the numerous cafes of Soho and East Village, where a more gentle, relaxed atmosphere greets you, but the food continues to maintain a high standard.

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Nightlife was not so forthcoming due to the exhausting nature of sightseeing and shopping. But once I had eventually mustered up the energy to stay awake beyond dinner, I headed to the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village - apparently one of the oldest jazz venues in the city. The $35 entrance fee was a bit cheeky, considering you are shuffled out at the end of the one-hour set, but the music and ambience was worth it.

When it was time to leave, I felt I'd barely scratched the city's surface. But the next time I go to New York, I think I'll be opting for long lunches, leisurely shopping and people watching, and much less of the strenuous sight-seeing. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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