Tourism Is Not A Dirty Word

When I was standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, looking out at tiny cars and minuscule people, one of the most incredible sights I had ever seen, and experiencing something that still moves me to remember even now, it struck me that I almost didn’t take the time to go there at all. I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could find fault in something as breathtakingly beautiful and moving as standing high above all of the life beneath you and looking down on everything around you. It was like stepping out a door and finding myself on top of the world, almost literally, and looking out at the horizon and knowing that millions of souls are within my eye line. Seeing thousands of cars, hundreds of thousands of lights, and more landmarks than can be counted in one glance is a humbling experience like no other. History, culture, life, and art all within one line of sight is an incredibly moving experience. It was an experience I will never forget, and one that I was warned by the travel blogs I looked at while I packed my bags not to bother with because it was just a “tourist trap”.

Last summer, I went to New York to visit my friend, Amber. Though she lives in Brooklyn, we decided to stay in a hotel in Midtown Manhattan so that we were within walking distance of most of the best tourist destinations. She has lived in the city her entire life, but she had never done most of the touristy things before that week. Our hotel was on 32nd street, only two blocks from the Empire State Building, and one of the things I wanted most was to go to the Empire State Building before I had to come home. I had read many travel blogs to get ideas of what to do on my visit, and many of them decried it as an over-rated tourist trap, “A waste of your money and time,” one particular blog stated, but I remember seeing the Empire State Building on TV and in movies all my life, and I knew that, if we did nothing else, I had to go up to the observation deck and see the view at night.

One thing I didn’t know was that, in summer, it rains almost every day in New York. Most nights, the view from our hotel was of the low clouds glowing eerily in whatever color the Empire State Building was lit up that evening. Finally, on the fourth night of our visit, the skies cleared after a summer shower so that we looked into the sky to see the white lights clearly. The Empire State Building allows trips to the top until 2 a.m. so we went around midnight. It was strange for me to see people filling the sidewalks after midnight, because coming from a small town, even on the weekends, everything is closed by ten. But this was New York City, and I was on my way to the experience of a lifetime.

When we arrived, we walked past the doormen and doorwomen in their historical attire, a costume of deep burgundy with gold accents, and entered a lobby that words simply cannot do justice. The ceiling was so high it felt like walking into a cathedral, and every surface was gilded. The floor was a marble waxed so thoroughly it was like walking on glass, and at the far end from the doors was a large, metal mural showing the building itself that gives any who enter the first, unavoidable taste of the art-deco decor that was to come further inside. After taking an escalator to the second floor, we entered a maze of velvet ropes, clearly laid out for the larger crowds of the daytime. The words “tourist trap” came to mine after all, but we were already there so there was no reason to not continue with our experience. After purchasing our tickets, the price of which also added to the idea of a “tourist trap” since it was an incredible thirty-seven dollars each, we joined with a small group and began our way to the museum-esque part of the trip. From the second floor we went through an exhibit about the sustainability of the building itself as well as the green movement in New York City, a clear ploy to advertise and appeal to the eco-friendly tourist. It was just another reminder of the dreaded words, “over-rated experience”.

The real magic began when we stepped up to the elevators and waited for our turn to be taken up to the observation deck. The elevator doors were decorated with a gold and silver relief much like the mural in the lobby, and beyond those doors we found the fastest elevator ride of our lives. It took us less than a minute to go hundreds of feet. I could feel my ears pop on the way up, it was such a fast elevator ride. When we exited, I was thrilled to discover that, in addition to the sustainability exhibit, prior to going to the observation deck there was an entire floor dedicated to an exhibit about the construction and the history of the Empire State Building. There were exhibits showing the purchase orders for the initial steel to begin construction, photos of the building in construction and the workers walking on the steel beams high in the sky, and even article clippings about the building being completed. A plaque near the end of the exhibit stated that the Empire State Building was built in exactly one year. I could hardly imagine such a feat.

After lingering as long as my friend would let me, we entered the final elevator to the top. I had butterflies I was so excited. I had dreamed of that moment for most of my life, and I was about to see the view from the top of the Empire State Building. When I exited the elevator, I was momentarily distracted by the beautiful artwork on the ceiling and floors from inside the observation deck. Like most of the art-deco styling of the building, there was this beautiful tile-work on the floor, and these metal sculptures that looked like clockwork gears hanging from the ceiling. It was hard to take our eyes off of those things since there was little to distract from them at that point. Through the windows, there wasn’t much to see, just blackness of the sky, and we had to try twice to find the door to the outside rather than the doors for those outside to come inside, a clear side effect of excitement. When we finally found the correct door, we walked out onto a ramp, and the first thing I could see was the spire atop the One World Trade Center building. When we approached the bars that separated viewers from a certain death fall, I started to feel a rush of energy, an overwhelming excitement at what I was about to see. I knew immediately that there was nothing over-rated about that moment, no matter how, apart from Amber, everyone else up there was a tourist to the city just like I was.

The quiet was what hit me first. I wasn’t overwhelmed with anything, because it was so very quiet up there. Instead, the moment I took a look out at the city, I was overcome with the strangest sense of calm. It was the most peaceful moment I had experienced since I got on the plane to head to New York. It was windy and cool and I honestly couldn’t imagine a more peaceful place in the entire world at that moment. Everyone was so quiet. Nobody up there spoke above a murmur. It was as if we could all sense that same odd, overwhelming peacefulness and felt that if anybody spoke too loud the spell might be broken. The view was magnificent, but the emotions are what I remember the most. I could see so much of the world from that spot, I knew intellectually that there were tens of millions of people within my sight line, and instead of feeling anxiety at how small I was in the great big world, I felt like I was a part of it.

Looking out at the cars below us, so tiny that they looked like toys, and at the people on the sidewalks who looked like ants, I felt like in that moment we were so incredibly human. Amber and I were the most human we had ever been. Every person out there, all the millions of people in the thousands of buildings below us and across from us, even the ones in tourist traps, was a human being the same as the two of us. I felt connected with humanity and it was just such a beautiful feeling. We stayed and took photos until our phones died and when we reluctantly left that platform, I remarked to her that I really felt that, had we done nothing else besides make that single visit to that single landmark, I would have been entirely happy with my vacation.

It was almost a spiritual experience to see the world from that point of view and, it raises the question of whether or not “tourist spots” are really the great dark mark on travel that the travel writers describe them as. Thrillest’s travel section listed the Empire State Building on its list of “America’s 10 Worst Tourist Traps To Avoid”. The words they used to describe the same experience I had was, “you will literally spend hours of your life (that you will never, ever get back) slogging through a crowd of Europeans and honeymooners from Western Pennsylvania for a view of the city that you’ve seen a thousand times on TV.” As someone who did spend hours of my life there, but hours I will never forget, I find it incredibly misleading that some people will read that and decide to miss the experience that Amber and I had. It seems to me that people who write about travel often have this entire angle in which they really stress the good of “going off the beaten path” instead of tourist destinations in the places they visit, and yet I was in New York with a native to the city, and both of us had a better experience at a so-called “tourist trap” than any other destination we visited. Online there is even this bad view of sorts when it comes to going to popular tourist destinations. People brag about how they travel to places where “the people are” rather than go to the tourist spots. The problem, however, is that we didn’t want to meet “the people”. Amber lives there, she knows “the people”. We wanted an experience we could always remember.

In my experience, the tourist things are almost always the best part of any trip. There’s no shame in having fun doing the most stereotypical, touristy things when you travel anywhere. Yes, there are some tourist traps that are no fun, and yes I understand the people who live there are driven crazy by tourists getting in their way, but it strikes me as something incredible that the “tourism shaming”, for lack of better words, can reach the point to where travel blog writers praise going to eat at a deli that’s no different than a dozen others because it’s not the usual tourist thing when you could, instead, visit a museum, a historical landmark, an amusement park, or just an interesting tourist attraction. In New York, I visited neighborhood places off the beaten path, and yes, it was fun. It was great walking around with a New Yorker so it wasn’t obvious I was a tourist. We saw some things I would have never seen were it not for traveling around with a New Yorker to show me all her favorite places. However, they were all things that could be experienced almost anywhere. Every city has its local eating places. Everybody has a fun little coffee shop they love to frequent. Everybody has the pizza place they claim is “the best in the world” and some quirky local shop with a zany owner. It strikes me as odd that travel blogs expect you to travel places to experience the same things you have at home but in another city. I enjoy those things, yes, but I enjoyed the Empire State Building more than L&B’s pizza, that’s for sure. Even my New York Native best friend had the same oddly spiritual experience that I did visiting the Empire State Building, tourist trap or not.

The most fun we had was seeing the sights like stereotypical tourists, because though she had lived there here whole life, there was so much she had never done. We went to kitschy tourist stops, we spent far too much time taking selfies in Times Square, we even went on a sight-seeing boat ride with all the other camera-and-fanny-pack-laden tourists. Eating at her favorite pasta place near where she went to college was fun, as was visiting her favorite independent book store, but there was nothing disappointing about tourist traps, and most of all, there was absolutely nothing over-rated about the Empire State Building. So next time you travel, think twice about the warnings from travel blogs about avoiding tourist traps. You never know which one will end up being the best part of your trip.