I recently had a battle with myself to determine whether I was a traveler (the highest, holiest of wanderers) or a tourist (the dreaded, sneaker-wearing, English-speaking sort). I was in Mexico City on a media trip with some other journalists and was thrilled when I’d received the itinerary, packed full of hidden gems (rooftop urban vineyard, anyone?), local experiences (like eating a home-cooked lunch in an abuela’s garden), and hot new scenes (including an underground cocktail lounge). But, as we were shuttled by the historic Zócalo main square, arguably the city’s most famous site, with barely a second to spare, I wondered: Am I missing out?
I got my answer later that afternoon on a street food tour. After having grimaced at the word “tour,” a term I had otherwise associated with a herd of sheep-like visitors, I begrudgingly fell in line and ended up loving every minute of it. How else would I have tasted the best esquites, tortas and blue corn tlacoyos from tiny blink-and-you-miss it carts and corner shops? And what was the difference if I was enjoying it with a group versus on my own? Did I have to choose between an authentic encounter and a popular attraction, or could I have my pastel and eat it too?
This mentality followed me home to New York City, where I’ve lived for two years. It dawned on me that I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything it has to offer. Manhattan is full of world-class museums, award-winning restaurants, and top-notch theatre — and that’s just one borough! Yet, somehow I had managed to fall into the monotonous routine of brunching in the same packed and overpriced joint (the hipster kind in which avo toast reigns supreme), getting drinks at my favorite watering hole, where the bartender knows my order by heart, and rarely leaving the confines of my Lower East Side nabe. It was time for me to branch out.
So, I started looking at the city with wonder and awe, essentially through a tourist’s eyes. While researching activities, I stumbled across the New York Adventure Club, which offers a curated mix of unique excursions such as a trek through the city’s secret subway system, an evening soiree at a speakeasy, and a behind-the-scenes expedition in Grand Central. The founder, Corey William Schneider, created the community — now 5,000 members strong — to break out of his own “boring bubble” and help other curious residents discover spaces that are off-the-beaten-path.
It was hard narrowing down where I wanted to go first, but when I saw Ellis Island (plus a walk-through of its off-limits abandoned hospital complex) pop up on my screen, I pounced. I’ll admit, I’m a history nut, but that’s not the main reason why I found Ellis so attractive. It was more the irony of the fact that it’s one of the city’s — hell, the country’s — most iconic and important landmarks, yet no New Yorker I knew (even my coworkers, whom I polled to prove a point) had ever actually been there. And what was their reason? Because it was too touristy.
The day of, I showed up solo in Battery Park to meet the rest of the 20 people in our group, who surprisingly were all NYC natives as well. Together, we boarded the Statue Cruise boat, and my old doubts came rushing back. What horror to even step foot on such a ship. How could I consider myself a savvy city-slicker after paying $18 for a ride I could get for free on the Staten Island Ferry (with the same views!). Around me: a gaggle of girls posing with Lady Liberty; a Midwestern family of five, with kids wearing Statue of Liberty crowns and buttons that read I ❤️ NY; and of course, throngs of selfie-stick-waving oglers. I laughed as they rushed back and forth from port to starboard, shoving each other to get a good shot of the skyline.
But isn’t that the fun of traveling? Hadn’t I raced to the top of the Eiffel Tower on my first time in France, taking endless photos of the Parisian lights twinkling in the night? Why had I lost that sense of excitement just because I was still within the city limits?
With that in mind, Ellis Island way exceeded my expectations. Standing in the gorgeous main hall, where 12 million immigrants passed in the early 20th century, I was left speechless. And that was only the first half of the adventure.
Next, we donned hard hats and set off for the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, which treated nearly 1.2 million people before later being used as a WWII internment camp, a Coast Guard hub, and a military detention center, until it was abandoned in 1954. Following a $6 million restoration in the ‘90s, it reopened to the public in 2014.
The sick passengers who once lived here were long gone, but their memory still haunted the halls thanks to a site-specific art installation by French artist JR. He blew up 26 archived black-and-white portraits to life-size and plastered them across the buildings.
Their faces peeked out at me from spider-webbed stairwells and behind creaking doors as we made our way through the contagious disease wing, isolation rooms, psych ward, and morgue, gingerly stepping over wood slabs, glass shards and dusty debris underfoot.
Doctors appeared on the chipped white tiles in the surgery; a young woman seemed to rest on a rusted bed frame; ghostly faces of children scowled from shattered window panes. I felt like an explorer, unearthing a forbidden and forgotten place.
Had it not been for that outing, I would’ve never guessed any of it even existed. Not only did it refresh my perspective, but it was also a way to learn the stories behind the area. It gave the city layers, texture and life that I had taken for granted — all because I was too arrogant to join the rest of the crowds and too much of a cynic to think that the hype might not always be overrated. I was forced to swallow my pride and give the Nikon-toting sightseers more credit. Maybe, it’s not so bad being a tourist after all.