In November 2017, I got the chance to take a solo trip to New York City and explore some areas where tourists fear to tread. Though that may seem overdramatic, it is a real phenomenon. In preparation for this trip, I read too many posts about people my age instagramming and yelping their way across lower Manhattan as if it were an Olympic qualifier. Solo travel days like this one are the perfect remedy for the check-list mentality many are guilty of adopting on vacations, myself included.
I am about to take you deep into the wilderness of Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and Washington Heights for an Alexander Hamilton-themed day of history, food, and navigational mishaps. If you are not already a Hamilton the musical fanatic, I would recommended at least listening to the life-changing, mind-blowing soundtrack. For the history buffs, I can also recommend working your way through Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow which is stuffed to the brim with historical tidbits, excerpts from letters, and slightly cheeky commentary.
Finally, if you are like, "Britt, I don't believe in your mad vacation planning skills, and I am too lazy to plan my own Hamilton-themed NYCstravaganza" then let me at least refer you to Jimmy Napoli, a tour guide that has been doing Hamilton way before immigrants were cool (jk). He comes highly recommended by the docent at one of the sites I will be discussing in this post.
I started my day off at Park Ave North Inn in Harlem, a clean and bare-bones hotel/hostel, which is basically all I could afford if I wanted to stay in central Manhattan. Using the CitiMapper app, I found a bus headed for the Hamilton Grange National Historic site. I arrived at 9am to snag a free ticket for the park ranger-led tour of the building, and then scooted over to Manhattanville Coffee to grab a some coffee ($2.50).
Though it was cold and windy, I was enchanted by the old winding stone steps in the nearby St. Nicholas Park. I took my coffee and one decadent gluten free scone to dine al fresco.
At 10AM, the tour of Hamilton Grange began. The mansion was Alexander Hamilton's refuge from the scandal and personal tragedies that shadowed his final years. It has actually been relocated twice, and if you are not quite sure what "relocating" a mansion looks like, it's complicated. They have a cool video on the process included in the tour. At the gift shop, they have a book cataloguing every piece of furniture in the home (I was curious about the chair in A. Ham's study below) and you can also get information on all the other National parks in NYC.
Leaving Hamilton Grange, I headed to the closest M3 bus stop in hopes of getting to my next point of interest, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, without freezing to death a la The Day After Tomorrow. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity, a man looking at his phone next to me threw his hands up in the air and informed me angrily that the next M3 would not be arriving for another 30 minutes. In a fit of shared frustration, I too threw my hands up in the air, fingers flicking like a cat's tail, and made a face of fatalistic disgust. Our eyes met briefly in mutual knowledge of the incompetencies of the NYC transit system, and then we both trudged out into the wind in opposite directions.
I thought this was the New York-est interaction I would ever have, but I was wrong.
Forty minutes later, I arrived on foot at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the oldest home in New York. Having walked up one long continuous hill - they call it "Heights" for a reason - I really took my time touring the museum ($10 self-guided). I chatted up the docent who had met Lin Manuel-Miranda (the creator of Hamilton the musical) and his parents personally. Lin wrote portions of the script in Aaron Burr's bedroom upstairs. There was also a Charles Addams exhibit which could have been it's own museum. There were so many hilarious cartoons of the Addams Family. I had no idea he was such a talented and creative artist.
Around 1pm, I headed over to Elsa La Reina del Chicharron in Washington Heights for some Dominican-style fried pork and tostones. I got a pound (what the hell was I thinking???) of fried pork belly and a side order of tostones. I have since eliminated meat from my diet and wish I could show you some vegetarian options, but if I'm being honest, this was a delicious and filling lunch in a busy working class neighborhood. The window was the perfect spot to people watch and think about what A. Ham would write about the state of modern New York.
In the afternoon, I made my way over to The Cloisters (a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) for a non-Hamilton side quest. Though it's technically free, a donation is requested. I paid $10 for my ticket and moved with mild boredom through each room until I found the outside herb garden. Too be frank medieval art, especially religious medieval art, is not my thing, but I could spend hours walking through a garden. This one had an assortment of special herbs used for food, medicine, poison, and magic in the medieval period, and I took home a paper list of all the herbs growing there. The MET occasionally posts about these gardens on their blog.
From the front entrance of The Cloisters, it's a short walk to the trails running the length of Fort Tryton Park. This park was an outpost significant to the Battle of Fort Washington during the Revolutionary War, but it's most notable in my opinion for being designed by the Olmsted Brothers who also redesigned and expanded Piedmont Park in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Because of its revolutionary history, I am including it in my Hamilton day, but it's a beautiful walk along the river that could be added to any trip to Upper Manhattan. (See my map below for more ideas.)
At the southern tip of Fort Tryton Park, I got lost trying to find my way to the closest A train station. There was a rickety looking service elevator that should have taken me to street level, but a not-so-helpful fellow tourist informed me it was not working. This lead me to a set of stairs that appeared to lead down to the street where I encountered two completely plastered grown men rolling around on the stone steps in front of me.
"Are you a hooker?!" They yelled, "Are you Russian?!"
"No, I am not a hooker or Russian," I said "but I am trying to get down to the train station. Do you know how to get there?"
And with the topic changed, they instantly both sat up, politely told me that the elevator was in fact working and that all I had to do was go down to the first floor and make a right. I thanked them, they told me to have a great evening, and all was right in the world.
This is the New York-est interaction I have ever had. You see, being the wife of a former New Yorker, I have had lots of opportunity to observe New Yorkers in the wild. They are hard on the outside, but soft on the inside. Finally, if there is one topic that consistently leads to a deep and passionate conversation between New Yorkers, it's the best way to get from point A to point B. Whether it's a Google maps route or your personal spiritual journey, New Yorkers are going to have an opinion on it.
I hope you enjoyed my Hamilton-themed day in New York City! Did I miss something? Did I get New Yorkers wrong? Is there something in my teeth? Let me know in the comments, and make some plans for solo travel today!