A Travellerspoint blog

USA

Road trippin' down Highway 1. San Francisco - LA

11 - 23rd November 2011

Our 7 day trip began on a grey and wet San Franciscan morning. Four hungover (but sober...) travelers; two English guys and two Scottish girls loaded with all their possessions made their way up to the top floor of the car rental centre to find their mode of transport for the journey; a Chrysler 300. A standard chice for American drug dealers, this American beast was huge and tank like compared to most cars in the UK, but we soon grew to love it and the novelty of four white kids driving around in it never grew old.

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A couple of hours or so down the road, we reached our first stopover; Pigeon Point lighthouse, a hostel right on the coast complete with the tallest lighthouse on the west coast of North America as well as dramatic views of the coast and waves crashing on the rocks. The bleak and somewhat un-Californian weather led to an evening of board games - convenient as our livers needed a night off.

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The next morning, we continued the journey 30 miles south down the beautiful and now sunny coast to Santa Cruz, where we stayed at the flat of a guy the others had met a few weeks before. After being shown around this intimate (everyone seemed to know each other...) and friendly sea-side town, we hit the town by night, which included a number of interesting encounters. The night began with a few drinks in a friends vinyl record store, which required self-restraint as I drooled over the extensive record collection and tried to not cover them in drink. From here we moved on to a couple of house parties; the highlight being able to play DJ with another well stocked record collection. Obviously, plenty of Michael Jackson followed and kept the party going.

The following morning, we lined our stomachs with a mountain of homemade banana and choc chip pancakes (a trend which continued throughout the week) before again hitting the road towards our next coastal stop; Monterey.

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Sleepy Monterey didn't do too much for us except provide a night sop over and another pancake brekkie. But following another beautiful day of coastal driving, we arrived at San Louis Obispo (or SLO); the homeplace of American nuisance Zac Efron. Even though we again found the town and it's night life to be a little sleepy, a sunny day out the nearby Avila beach; possibly the nicest beach of the trip made up for it.

Our next stop was Santa Barbara, home to the MJ paedophilia court case and his nearby Neverland Ranch (sadly missed out on this road-trip). Considering the area was also well known for its wine, we set ourselves the aim of finding a wine tasting in the town. After stumbling around for some time, we eventually found a wine tasting and all had a good time developing our palates.

The following morning we headed off to the final stop of the road trip, Venice Beach; a beach district of LA. We arrived to a beach covered with a thick fog, however we set about exploring the area, and the girls were keen to find the famous 'muscle beach'. The weather must have been dampening, as the only body builder to be found was a slightly soggy old man, and far more muscles could be seen washed up upon the shore. The rest of the beach provided a more entertaining albeit intimidating experience with locals on the streets in your face selling everything from weed to psychic visions. We passed on these and decided to hit the hostel bar and then sample the Venice Beach nightlife.

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The morning after saw a terrifyingly early start in order to make the 11am car drop-off in San Diego. Following a quiet drive and the certain puzzle of finding the car rental depot, we finally made it to our hostel on Pacific Beach, San Diego. We were welcomed by a lively party atmosphere and soon enrolled on an 'all you can eat and drink for $10' beach patio party. Being the final evening of our road trip, we took a tactical power nap and did our $10 justice.

The following day we made our way into San Diego and explored the quaint streets on the Gaslamp district and the extensive Bay area. To our dismay however, it was here we discovered that in fact none of the film Anchorman was filmed in San Diego; leading to a mass sense of betrayal and dampened group morale. Equipped with this knowledge, the next day we boarded our Greyhound bus back up north to LA. This was an interesting experience as we not had an encounter with US border control who had a difficult time understanding why 4 UK tourists who had just spent a weekend by the Mexican border were all heading to LA and leaving the US within a few days of each other. We however eventually pulled up into downtown LA which was prematurely dark with cloud and drenched in rain. Following a goodbye to our Scottish traveling companions over some burgers, Matt and I headed back to the coast and another coastal district of LA; Santa Monica.

Being in LA on the evening of a big match for LA Galaxy; the MLS final, we decided to head straight to a bar to get some of the atmosphere. Even though Galaxy eventually secured a win, it was clear from this bar at least that soccer hadn't quite fully infiltrated itself into American culture yet, as we found ourselves to be the only ones watching it in a room of yelling NFL fans.

Following a recommendation from home (thanks Bernie and Sarah) regarding staying in Santa Monica, it turned out to provide the perfect base from which to explore LA and chill out. With beautifully clean beaches and attractive downtown area, Matt and I both agreed that this was our favorite destination over the past week of travelling, and it created the perfect environment in which we could reflect about our past weeks/months in the USA before we both continued westward. What's more, we noticed an unusual abundance of English themed shops selling all sorts of home comforts, which led to a few cravings having to be suppressed.

Our final touristy duty whilst in LA had to be a tour of Hollywood. We decided to hit the gold-paved roads of the area with 'Rastabus'; a tour company who had converted a mini-bus in to a green, yellow and red beast which blared reggae and Beach Boys. Throughout the day we sped past various homes (and fences) of the rich and famous as well as palm tree lined streets and extortionate shopping districts. Perhaps the highlight included driving up to the LA observatory where a stunning, clear view of sprawling LA could be seen (rare because of the smog), as well as the famous (and firearm guarded) Hollywood sign. Another highlight was stopping over at 'The Original Farmers Market'; home to a maze of covered markets and food joints.

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  • If you ever get the chance - eat at 'Singapore's Banana Leaf' - served the 'top 3' noodles I have ever eaten *

After one more day of beach and shopping to update my wardrobe for the Australian summer (as well as one more Chipotle [Mexican grill sure to soon be huge in the UK]), the time finally came to leave the US and embark on the 14 hour flight west to Melbourne.

Overall, the combination of Californian coast, lifestyle and people made for an awesome week; and a sure contrast to that of the East Coast. The whole experience was however made great by driving down the coast with three other travelers who just wanted to take it easy and absorb the easy-going Californian lifestyle.

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  • CALIFORNIA TOP THREE *

1. Santa Monica - beautiful beach and great hub for exploring nearby Hollywood. (Good place if you miss home comforts ... loads of 'British' shops)
2. Santa Cruz - It's really not that far...
3. Driving Highway 1 - millions of beaches, windy roads and mexican restaurants.

Posted by tom_e_free 02:45 Archived in USA Comments (0)

San Francisco

7th November - 11th November

Following a 40 minute night bus journey into the heart of San Francisco from the Amtrak station in nearby Emeryville, and almost two and a half days of sitting down on the train, I decided to do the 30 minute city hike to my hostel in the centre of the city. I could feel the muscle in my legs coming back to life, and after a long shower, passed out in my greatly appreciated bunk bed.

The next morning, still keen to get active, I signed up for a San Fran bicycle tour with a few other hostellers. The six hour trip led to some of the best moments of the trip so far; the highlight being cycling over a sun drenched (rare for this time of year) Golden Gate Bridge and then down some mammoth hills into nearby Sausalito. I also learnt some interesting bridge facts: the Golden Gate Bridge is painted orange as it is the most visible colour in fog (very common throughout the year) and secondly, that there is a suicide off the bridge on average every two weeks, making it the number one suicide hotspot of the world. Fascinating, I think you'll agree.

For the rest of my time in San Fran, I was joined by Matt, a guy I'd met in Washington DC a few weeks earlier, and we'd agreed to hook up in SF and then with a couple of Scottish girls he'd met, drive down the Californian coast or The Coastal Pacific Highway following our jaunt in SF.

For three days, the sun shone and we spent it exploring (the huge, but not to be missed) Golden Gate Park and Alcatraz which despite it's eeriness was beautiful in the sun and fulfilled a long time dream to see 'The Rock'. Following our day at Alcatraz, the hostel decided to show the film 'The Rock'. If you ever have the opportunity to watch it, don't.

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On our final day in SF I decided to attempt to take Matt on the cycle tour I'd done earlier in the week. It didn't go quite as smoothly. Not only did I manage to get us quite lost in downtown SF, but Matts bike managed to pick up a puncture. However after eventually changing the bike, our reward came as we cycled down the famous steep and curvy Lombard Street, complete with tourists and locals convinced that they were about to witness us cycling to our deaths.

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It was also in SF that i ate my first 'In'n'out' burger; a staple meal on the West Coast. Simply put, it was one of the best and most juiciest burgers I'd ever eaten. We also later discovered that they have a secret language for ordering; allowing for mammoth burgers to be built and I'm sure also a number of life threatening outcomes.

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It was easy to see why pretty much everyone I had spoken to during my trip loved SF, with it's combination of beautiful but intimidating steep streets, as well as stunning parks and beaches easily accessible from the city. Unfortunatley however, a theme here I did particularly notice (and one which was common in all the cities I visited in the US) was the extreme number of homeless people wondering the streets.

On our final evening we headed out on a pub crawl to say goodbye to the city. The following morning we rose to grey skies to accompany our hangover; perfect as it was time to collect the rental car and start the 9 day road-trip chasing the sun down the Californian coast.

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SAN FRAN TOP THREE

1. Rent a bike and cycle around town and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Cycle down lots of hills, not up them.
2. In n out burger - A west coast institution and one if the best ways to shorten your life.
3. Alcatraz - Head to The Rock, just don't watch the film.

Posted by tom_e_free 01:25 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The California Zephyr. Chicago - San Fran by train. 56 hours

2438 miles, 7 states and 3 time zones...

Having been warned about the Amtrak diet of burgers, nuts and soda, I made sure to stock up on vitamins in the form of fruit and a gallon of orange juice before I boarded the huge silver, double-decker train. Upon boarding, we were ordered by some power crazed staff to 'follow orders' and sit in our designated seats (which was pointless anyway as we all moved during the 56 hour trip). Luckily, the said staff finished their shifts a few hours after departure, and the sigh of relief from the passengers could be felt.

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I had also been warned about a high likelihood of meeting 'crazies' on the train, and even though I got away with this, I did hear numerous stories from my fellow travelers regarding this train line being popular with drugs and arms smugglers because of the relatively low security. An interesting wake up call came on my first evening aboard the train when a half-naked drunken man I had earlier seen stumbling up and down the carriage was escorted off the train by several police officers. Amtrak seemingly maintained a zero-tolerance policy towards drunken or drugged passengers, and I later discovered that they will chuck you off at any point when the train stops, so it was a railroad in the middle of Iowa for this particular chap.

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Throughout the trip, certain people and faces became familiar, meaning that the train transformed into a little community; sharing travel stories and tales of the journey.
The highlight however was the scenery through which we passed during the 2438 mile trip through 7 states and 3 times zones. Hours and hours of corn fields were followed by a day of climbing the Rocky Mountains to 7000 feet and then the descent into desert and Nevada, and finally the green sun-kissed hills of California. It was also impossible not to be woken up by crimson sunrises and later huge sprawling sunsets.

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Even though I have no desire to board an Amtrak anytime soon, this experience certainly beat flying. I learnt just how huge and empty parts of the USA were, how to live off orange juice and bananas, and how to sleep in pretty much any position imaginable.

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Posted by tom_e_free 01:24 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Chicago

31st October - 5th November

all seasons in one day
View 7 months of places and faces on tom_e_free's travel map.

My overnight Amtrak train departed from Manhattan on the 31st of October, a bitter Halloween afternoon. Halloween fever had New York and America in a tight grip, and after feeling as though I'd already had 4 weeks of it, I wasn't too sad to be leaving it behind. My train left Penn Station discretely, through an underground tunnel which took us from the heart of Manhattan to some leafy New Jersey suburb where no trace of the metropolis could be seen. Again, in true American fashion, the double decker Amtrak trains were spacious, with wide reclining chairs and dining cars. The 20 hour westward journey to Chicago passed quickly, as my two reclined chairs made quite a palatial sleeping space. Even though I woke relatively refreshed, I could feel mt New York hangover setting in. At the same time however, I couldn't wait to explore and eat my way through Chicago.

After eating only snacks for the duration of the trip, I set my priorities and headed straight for one of the institutional Chicago pizza houses; Giardino's, who served the famous deep pan 'pie' pizza. It didn't disappoint - a 2'' deep crust packed with sausage, cheese and thick tomato sauce. It was like nothing I had eaten or seen in the Uk - and comparable only to eating a hardback book.
Together with a few mammoth burgers and famous Chicago 'dogs' (eating them with ketchup is a sin), I put on a good few pounds during my time in the city.

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Other than the food, I loved Chicago for its architecture and sculpture dotted throughout the city. Downtown Chicago where i stayed also had a great sense of character created by the 'loop' or suspended metro system which snaked itself around the city and past the window of my hostel communal area.

4 days in Chicago felt like enough, and even though I was lucky with some sun during my stay, an incredibly wet day was kept dry when a friend gave me their unused 'city pass' which allowed entry into the Chicago Aquarium (home to some Beluga whales who were awesome) as well as the history museum (home to the world's most complete t-Rex, Sue).

I also wanted to experience some music in Chicago, as it was famous for blues and jazz. On my second evening I ventured to a jazz festival which I stumbled upon. What I didn't know however was that the whole programme consisted of avante garde jazz. Even though I eventually lost my patience with the music, it was worth sticking around to see a number of sour faces in the audience and some overly serious ones from the performers.
On my final evening I decided to check out one of the most famous Chicago blues clubs; 'Buddy Guy's Legends Bljes Club', established by the blues legend Buddy Guy, who actually made a rare appearance on stage alongside a steaming funk-blues band.

On the next and final day in Chicago, with blue skies back, I decided to head up to the 103rd floor observatory at the Willis Tower, or the highest building in the Western Hemisphere. Even though I was accompanied by half a schools worth of kids, the views over the city and Lake Michigan were terrifyingly incredible, but were made even better by the 'sky deck'; a pane of glass which could be stood on allowing you to lean out over this massive drop.

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All in all, the 'Windy City' (utterly miserable when combined with rain) provided a lovely little stop-over on my way to the West Coast.

CHICAGO TOP THREE...

1. Chicago deep pan pizza (definitely check out Giardino's)
2. Millennium Park and 'The Bean'
3. The Willis Tower

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Posted by tom_e_free 01:23 Archived in USA Comments (0)

One autumn month in New York

* spelling is terrible as I'm an off-duty student on an iPad *

all seasons in one day
View 7 months of places and faces on tom_e_free's travel map.

As I flew off from the English autumn heatwave, my slightly delayed JFK bound flight was remedied over the tannoy by the captian announcing in true American style that we would just 'burn more fuel to get us into New York on time'. Sure we did, and as we approached the airport (and me being fueled up with complimentary wine and Ginger beer), a smoggy Manhattan skyline appeared in the distance. It was here that the reality of this 7 month solo adventure hit me. New York was a city I visited a couple of times when I was younger, and immediately fell in love with. Even though incredibly excited, I was slightly apprehensive as to whether it would live up to the memories I had of it as a teenager.

The airport shuttle battled it's way into rush hour Manhattan, which provided a glimse of the bustle as we dropped off other arrivals at hotels throughout the island. My hostel was last; the HI New York on the upper west side. Supposedly the largest hostel in North America with 600 beds, it's atmosphere like the streets outside was electric and on the evening of my arrival, a welcome party was hosted which helped overcome the jet lag and meet some of my fellow hostellers. This also gave me the opportunity to get used to the financially damaging custom of tipping in the US, which included giving a $1 tip for each drink ordered at the bar. It eventually became second nature, and usually resulted in stronger drinks and wads of $1 bills from bar staff who obviously wanted to encourage it.

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My first weekend in the city involved rambling the streets, finding my bearings and learning the ways of New Yorkers. My hostel was on 103rd street, so 103 blocks from the bottom, but the metro soon became an easy and exciting way to work my way around Manhattan and the three joining boroughs. I came to New York with a couple of aims to achieve during my stay. My first was to walk around as much as possible day and night to take in as much of New York life as possible. Areas of the city which stuck with me of course included Central Park, which became a second home to me during a brief heat wave we had during the first week of October. It became a great place to watch eccentric New Yorkers and their pets as well as row around its lake and spend hours getting lost in the ramble. Another favorite area in Manhattan became Greenwich Village, characterized by beautiful houses and streets and obscure shops selling everything from puppies in windows to baby human skeletons (really quite bizarre...). Nearby to this area was one of my favorite urban spaces; the 'high line', a converted suspended rail way line which used to bring food and post into lower Manhattan. Faced with demolition, it was converted a few years ago into an incredible urban landscape of green and sitting areas, allowing walkers to wonder through the lower streets of Manhattan suspended two floors above the city floor and bustle.

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A final favorite borough of mine was across the river in Brooklyn, and in particular an up and coming youthful area called Williamsburg. Again, this was home to plenty of great shops and bars; my favorite being 'Brooklyn Bowl', a bar complete with love music and bowling alleys.

My second aim was to watch and hopefully get the opportunity to play some jazz.
My first jazz experience came on the evening of my first Monday, at 'Cleopatra's Needle' jazz club near my hostel on the Upper West Side. Following a recommendation from my lonely planet, I headed over and watched a trio warm up the stage for what I then found out to be a late night jam session to come. Excited by the prospect I hung around, and after talking to one of the musicians, asked if I could play for a couple of numbers. Being a jam session, I was welcomed up as 'Tom the Brit', and we started playing one of my favorite jazz standards; 'Maiden Voyage' by Herbie Hancock. I got into it, and as I walked away it hit me that I had just fulfilled one of my dreams to jazz drum in New York. I walked home buzzing.

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This was the first of seven jazz gigs I would go to in NYC. Two other venues became my favorite jazz haunts. First, was Dizzy's Club Coca Cola (sell out name , Dizzy) which was located five floors above one edge of Central Park. A diverse range of jazz was accompanied by huge windows displaying the night cityscape scrawling out behind the stage. The other jazz club favorite was 'Smalls', an underground club in lower Manhattan which lived up to it's name. This was your stereotypical NY jazz club; accessed by a flight of steps from the above bustling street, and a place where the bar rumbled when a nearby metro train went by. Being so small, this meant it was also loud and their very own jazz cat could sometimes be seen scurrying away from the screaming band. Another loud jazz experience came during by visit to 'Birdland' jazz club, where I went to watch their awesome big band. To my surprise, I was sat next to the stage (which was great for watching the drummer and leader, Tommy Igoe), but even more surprise came when I saw the prices on the menu. I ordered the $10 cheesecake (for a slither), but it was certainly worth it.

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Another musical highlight came in my second week when I watched the re-vamped Brooklyn Philharmonic with Brooklynite rapper Mos Def. The set was awesome, but the real highlight came from the location which was the Winter Garden at the World Trade Centre; a huge greenhouse with towering palm trees in, overlooking the river Hudson on one side and the developing World Trade Centre site on the other.

Having a hangover from the student life, admittedly a lot of my time in this cultural melting pot was spent learning and mainly in the wealth of amazing museums NYC had to offer. During a few days of straight rain in my second week, I spent my time hovering between them.

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Particular favorites included the Tenement Museum in East Village; a 3 floor tenement preserved and fitted out in its original 19th century style. I also went on an interactive tour here which involved us tourists being asked to talk about our family and their experience of American immigration. I didn't have much to offer, but the Americans on the tour more than made up for it. I also stumbled upon several lectures during my time here (yes, I missed them from uni). Highlights included talks on mental asylums in the US (which was interestingly held in a church...) and also a talk on urban beekeeping (interesting as beekeeping had been illegal in NYC until recently). And I have some strange interest in bees.

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  • * Celeb watch - it was on this day I saw my only celeb in NYC ... A hairy Jake Gyllenhaal. **

A relatively solitary few days in museums was remedied by a visit from a dear old university pal, who came out to NYC for a week. I loved showing him around the city I had got to know, and he introduced me to Chipotle, a Mexican Grill chain who made addictive burritos. Thanks Niall, after our first encounter here, Chipotle became a regular haunt across all of the American cities I visited.
Niall and I shared a few more bromantic encounters over food. Notably, Katz' Deli which served mountains of pastrami held together by two tiny pieces of bread. A sweeter occasion came when we decided to visit Junior's cheesecake shop, famous for setting the cheesecake standard. Things quickly turned sour as for some reason we decided to buy an entire 10'' cheesecake, halve it, and see how much we could each devour. Taking my cheesecake seriously, I managed to eat half, whilst my challenger managed a modest slice. That was dinner sorted anyway.

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Perhaps one of my best times in the city came at the end, during my final five days following a lively weekend in Washington DC. Having already had 3 weeks here, I'd already done the 'best' bits, and felt like I knew the city pretty well, so just chilling out and taking in the city was on the agenda. I stayed at a lovely little hostel again on the upper west side, half a block from central park and the metro, on a quiet and leafy street. The hostel itself was an old house, with big staircases and rooms, and cozy corners. This was a stereotypical upper west side New York place.
Unfortunately, during my stay the hostel was 4/5 booked up with a French school trip, meaning that the backpacker population was poorly represented. Luckily however, the great staff opened up and looked after us (which included trying to inject some of the Halloween cheer into us).

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My final weekend in the city involved a number of exciting contrasts. Halloween fever took over the whole city, and a memorable experience came from riding the metro home after a night out, with each metro car becoming transformed into mini Halloween parties with singing and dressing up taken to the max. This was all quite different to what I would expect in London. It was of course impossible to resist a good old Thriller sing-a-long too.
The following morning I woke to good news; an unexpected distinction for my MSc. (I'm sure you're wondering how with some of the spelling mistakes in this post...). I was extatic, and on cue to help the high began a twelve hour flurry of snow throughout NYC. This was an incredible contrast to the day previously which was sunny and crisp, and I had spent with a friend at Brighton Beach; an incredible sandy beach 30 minutes from Manhattan. The snow transformed Manhattan into a freezing lake which brought it to an almost stand still. Streets also became littered with branches who were unable to take the weight of the snow, meaning that Central Park had to be closed and a greatly anticipated pumpkin festival cancelled.

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This, all topped off with some great company at the hostel provided the perfect end to my month in NYC before my trip continued westward to Chicago via a 20 hour train journey.

All in all, I feel I managed to fulfill everything I wanted to do in NYC and came away knowing the city and its corners in depth. I missed the city as soon as I left, but didn't come away feeling as though I could live there. I knew that being a tourist would be quite different to an inhabitant, and decided I missed the experiences with people I had met and the freedom I had as an external tourist the most.

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NYC TOP THREE - TO SEE

1. The High Line - Old suspended railway recently converted into awesome urban landscape above the city.
2. Williamsburg in Brooklyn - Trendy 'Billyburg', home to cool shops and bars such as Brooklyn Bowl, and an incredible view of Manhattan.
3. Smalls jazz club - tiny underground jazz haunt complete with their very own jazz cat.

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Posted by tom_e_free 01:22 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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