Recently I fulfilled a long-held dream of mine: to travel alone. I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my time but never in the company of just me, myself and I.
There are a number of reasons for this. The primary reason is straight up anxiety. I’m not a fearless explorer who spontaneously continent-hops, living out of a backpack and surviving on pennies and new friends alone. I’m a panic attack-suffering, easily overwhelmed and even more easily sunburnt traveller with a tendency to push herself too much and end up crying in public places. I want to fulfil my dream of seeing the world, but it’s hard to do that when my head is constantly telling me, this is too much, I’m not safe, I need to be in control.
Sound familiar? I know many people experience the same thing. But if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to be defeated by that anxiety. You want to go out there and do your thing, feeling the fear and doing it anyway. That’s why when a friend suggested that I write travel guides for people who experience anxiety, I thought it was a great idea (thank you Charlotte!). Given some of my relatively tragic experiences, I know I’d appreciate knowing more about the “anxiety friendliness” of a place before I visit.
So let’s kick off with this Anxious Traveller’s Guide to New York City. To manage my anxiety, I’ve previously always travelled with other people, often on organised trips. New York was my first solo trip so it was a great opportunity to reflect on what makes me feel safe and calm when travelling. Drawing on my lived experience and what I know about anxiety in an academic sense, I’ve drafted some criteria that people who experience anxiety might consider when planning a trip.
The Anxious Traveller Criteria
- Accessibility – is the location easy to get around, or will I need extensive research to work out A) how to get to places and B) if I can physically access them?
- Affordability – will the cost of the trip stress me out and limit my options, or can I do what I want/need to do without worrying about money?
- Food variety – are there plenty of options for both challenging and safe foods, or will I need to bring familiar foods with me?
- Peace and quiet – can I retreat if I need to, or will I need to extravert non-stop?
- Environment – will I feel safe and healthy on this trip, or will I need to be prepared to face some difficult experiences in terms of safety/hygiene?
- Political escapism – will this trip provide a bubble of relaxation, or will I be bombarded with harsh political realities that may trigger catastrophising thoughts?
I’m going to rate the city against the above criteria using the following *super* scientific scale:
- Dire straits – this place is truly tragic
- Scraping by – not awful but not good either
- Middle of the road – pretty good, could be better, could be worse
- Pretty fab – no complaints, this is great
- So awesome it hurts – the best you can get
So how does New York City fare?
Accessibility – Pretty fab
New York is a walker’s dream. The grid system design of the city combined with the fact that every street is numbered north-south and east-west makes it wonderfully easy to navigate. If, for instance, you’re currently at City Hall and you want to visit the 9/11 Memorial, it’s a simple case of counting 4 streets west and 3 streets south and voila, you’re there!
Public transport is also decent, with frequent subway trains and some buses too. Train and bus coverage isn’t as extensive as it is in London, so in some areas of New York you need to walk quite a way to reach a subway station or bus stop. The subway is 24 hours though (take notes @TFL). Taxis are everywhere and the city is served by both the iconic yellow cabs and apps like Lyft and Uber.
In terms of physical accessibility, it’s a mixed bag. Shops, museums and hotels have elevators and escalators pretty ubiquitously, however many have steps in the entranceway. If you’re staying in one of the city’s older and cheaper apartment buildings, you’re likely to have to contend with steps into the building and several flights of stairs inside. Many subway stations are also only accessible via steps.
There are some public toilets that are alright, but these are few and far between. Luckily the vast majority of restaurants, cafes, museums, theatres etc have restrooms that you can use. Be aware that a lot of businesses reserve restroom access for customers only.
Affordability – Dire straits
There’s no beating around the bush here: New York is £££. That can make this trip pretty stressful if, like 99% of us, you need to watch your wallet. Hotels are upwards of £150 per night in Manhattan; AirBnbs are generally cheaper, but not by much, with whole apartments costing about £150-200 per night and private rooms in hosted apartments costing around £70 a night.
Eating out also isn’t cheap. Prices on menus often aren’t stated with tax included, so you might get a nice 20% top up on the menu cost when the bill arrives. Also tipping is the done thing in the US, and typically you’re expected to tip about 15-20%. This means that a main course alone in an average restaurant is going to cost around $20 (£16 as of today’s exchange rate). Food can be cheaper if you self-cater and buy food at supermarkets, but even then groceries aren’t as cheap as they are in the UK.
Also, heads up for Brits: culture is not free. We’re spoiled over here with free access to museums, art galleries, open mics and pubs. New York is not so kind. Expect to pay for entry to everything, including bars and comedy clubs.
On the plus side, public transport is pretty cheap. A ride on the subway costs a flat rate of $2.75 – so you could go from Yankee Stadium to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (very far) for the same price as from the Guggenheim to the MoMA (not far). Getting to Manhattan from JFK airport in Queens is also very affordable, costing subway fare + $5 for the AirTrain.
More good news is that the island of Manhattan is not very large – at least the central area where most tourist attractions are. This means keen walkers can get pretty much anywhere within 1.5 hours. This saves you pennies and enables you to tick off key sights with ease. I walked from my AirBnb in Soho all the way up Fifth Avenue to the Met one morning and it was wonderful – I saw everything from Washington Square Park to Rockerfeller Center to Central Park.
Food variety – So awesome it hurts
I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in the world with more choice of where, when, what and how to eat. New York is a multicultural city and it shows in its cuisine. Several neighbourhoods are named for the immigrant communities who made a home there, and accordingly you’ll find great food in Koreatown, Little Italy and Little Brazil. There are even a whopping nine Chinatowns.
New York also has a strong Jewish food culture. Blending influences from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia with distinctively New York-esque flavours, this is pretty special.
There’s something for every dietary requirement, too. Street food carts advertise halal burgers; bakeries offer gluten free donuts; veggie and vegan options are available in most restaurants. With many big chain restaurants too, you’ll be sure to find allergen menus to make sure you’re getting the right food for you. If you’re concerned about getting fresh fruit and veg and wholegrains, there are several “health” food restaurants and markets too.
If your sleep schedule is a bit skew-whiff or if you’re looking to avoid an anxiety hangover after a night out, fret not. Restaurants are typically open late and there are many 24 hour and late night food joints too.
Peace and quiet – Dire straits
This is NOT a retreat destination. New York is very much live, 24/7, which makes it really exciting but also exhausting. Be prepared for an intense, loud holiday.
Manhattan is redeemed only by Central Park and the Highline yet even these are busy and commercialised; they really lack the peacefulness you get in parks in a lot of European cities. In fact, there are very few locations where you can sit for a few hours and just chill. Coffee shops are either big chains that are super busy (Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts), or tiny indie affairs with one table outside. The New York Public Library is a blissful exception and you will find a moment’s peace in the quieter galleries of the Met.
The grid system works against the city where peace and quiet is concerned. Unlike London, where turning the corner off a busy road can lead you down a side street where you could hear a pin drop, you won’t find a quiet street anywhere. Traffic noise goes on into the night so unless your hotel room is on the 50th floor or has uber-glazed windows, you’ll definitely need earplugs.
Environment – Middle of the road
Like many cities, New York is a bit of a beast. Pollution is real with so many cars and trucks on the streets all day, everyday. I was also surprised by how much rubbish is on the streets; bin bags pile up outside of businesses and restaurants and on hot days, they really smell.
On the other hand, if you’ve got the usual vaccinations recommended for most travellers, the risk of illness here is low. The worst most of us would have to contend with is a spot of food poisoning, and that’s only if you’re unlucky. It’s still worth reading up on the UK government’s (or whichever country you hold citizenship for) health advice just in case, and definitely get travel insurance that will cover US medical fees.
In terms of safety, New York is pretty much like London. As a young woman travelling solo, I felt very comfortable. I was a bit spooked by the presence of armed police, and also just by the idea that guns are legal there, but perhaps this is more to do with my over-consumption of superhero movies and crime thrillers!
Personally I didn’t feel comfortable staying out too late, but I was travelling alone and being out alone at night is an anxiety trigger for me. I imagine another person would feel comfortable, especially if they were travelling with friends/meeting up with people.
Political escapism – Middle of the road
If you find your anxiety is triggered by ethical quandaries, environmental degradation and global political nonsense, a trip to New York might not be easy. It’s very much a plugged-in place with plenty of students, businesses, media pundits and politicians fuelling a constant cycle of debate and evolution. This makes it an incredibly exciting and vibrant place to visit, but if you’re looking for an escape from politics (which you’re entitled to on holiday, we all need a break) this may not be the place for you.
The only reason New York gets “Middle of the road” instead of “Scraping by” is that it’s totally possible to plan a trip that almost completely avoids political issues. New York boasts plenty of luxury hotels, bars, sports, entertainment and shopping opportunities. It’s also a visibly LGBTQ+ friendly city, being the home of the Stonewall Inn, which gives respite for many from at least one facet of life as a political animal.
Yet like any major capital, New York is plugged into the global news cycle 24/7. Newspaper stands are on every corner, news channels are on many a TV screen, and WiFi is omnipresent. Not to mention if you use your phone while you’re there you’ll get emergency alerts from the NYPD. At 3am one day I was woken up by my phone buzzing, and I checked it to find I had a notification that read, “ALERT: CHILD ABDUCTION IN YOUR AREA”. It’s pretty real stuff. You can turn these alerts off but note they’re automatically on if this is your first visit to the city.
New York is home to key political institutions such as the UN headquarters. It’s also a centre of political history and activity. I visited shortly after the anniversary of 9/11 and everywhere I went, there were posters and advertisements saying “Never Forget”. One evening I ended up walking through an Elizabeth Warren rally in Washington Square Park, and a stroll along the Highline revealed a number of buildings with political artwork on their bricks and windows – again, all great stuff, but not exactly a retreat. Perhaps the most daunting thing for me was walking past Trump Tower and seeing riot police with machine guns outside.
On top of the political noise, it’s a harsh place to live. Staying in an AirBnb with a New York local, it hit me how tough merely getting by in the city is for many people. My host worked several jobs to keep a tiny apartment in an old building that barely got any sunlight. This real estate reality, combined with the privatised healthcare system in the US, means the level of visible homelessness in New York is intense and upsetting.
The structural racism in the US is also pretty evident in New York, even to a tourist. The majority of blue collar and hospitality workers I came across were Black and Latinx; the majority of tourists and white collar workers were White and East Asian. This is an oversimplified measure of racial inequality, but it gives a sense of how the political structures play out on the ground. If you’re someone with a keen sense of injustice and find yourself easily overthinking about privilege and identity, be aware that New York will make you think.
Should you go to New York City?
YES! I don’t believe that people with anxiety are any less capable of travelling than anyone else – we just need to do things a little differently.
New York is a very intense place so do go armed with your self-care toolkit. For me that meant downloading plenty of fun podcasts to my phone, writing in my journal, checking in with family and friends regularly, and making sure I got plenty of sleep. It also meant I didn’t push myself too much where food was concerned. I stuck mostly to vegan food, which feels safe to me.
The only time I’d say don’t go to New York is if you’re not in a good place with your self-care right now. This is not an easy trip for someone with anxiety so I would recommend waiting until you’re in a better mental health place to visit.
All images here are my own – please ask permission before using