Going to NYC this summer? Act now!

There’s a lot of things in New York that you don’t need to plan for days, weeks or even months beforehand. Statue of Liberty is not one of them.

Statue of Liberty

Two years ago on our visit to New York, we would have wanted to climb up to the crown of the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, while I was asking my husband which time he considered the best for the trip, the tickets were sold out. Then we thought we’d visit just the pedestal, but we thought about it for so long that those tickets were also sold out. The frustration!

That experience taught me a lesson, so now for our September trip to New York, I started checking the Statue of Liberty tickets online already months before the trip. It’s now six months to our trip, and I noticed today that tickets for those dates had some on sale – and I didn’t hesitate clicking them to my shopping cart! If you’re going to New York in June, it’s already too late for the crown tickets, but you’ll still have time for a trip to the pedestal, which is half as high as the statue itself.

Tickets are sold online at Statue Cruises, and they always include a visit to Ellis Island, the place so many immigrants passed through in the first half of the 20th century on their way to New World. Both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are on different islands and the cruise that is included in the ticket will take you to both of them from either New York’s Battery Park or New Jersey’s Liberty State Park.

Statue of Liberty

If you’re too late to the game, you can still go check out the Statue of Liberty from nearby Liberty State Park, where the photos in this post are taken from. Another option is to jump on the Staten Island ferry from Whitehall terminal, South Manhattan. The ferry is a part of New York’s public transportation system, and it passes the Statue of Liberty close enough for photos.

10 Best North American Cities for a Holiday

Travel+Leisure published a while back their readers’ list of ten best domestic (incl. Canada) cities to travel to. I was delighted to notice I’ve visited six of them, and even more delighted when I realized the top destinations weren’t mega popular internationally well known cities but instead the smaller gems that I’ve only found out about after moving to the US.

So if you’re planning on a North American roadtrip this coming year, take heed of this list:

10. Asheville, North Carolina

 Asheville is one of the two cities in this list I’ve missed even though I’ve meant to visit. When we lived in Georgia, we were planning to go here, but only got as far as Cherokee before we had to head for Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains.

I had heard a lot of good things about Asheville’s whitewater rafting opportunities, and I was also aware of the city’s brand as a home of new age hippies in the middle of mountains. The city’s also known as Paris of the South, which title it has claimed surely thanks to Gilmmore Estate: this French renaissance style mansion is over 16 000 square meters and is the largest privately owned home in the US.

Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Estate is nowadays also open to the public. [photo: Blake Lewis]

9. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Victoria is a smaller city than the nearby Vancouver, but it still beats its big brother in a lot of aspects, like the weather: it rains only a third in Victoria of what it does in Vancouver. Victoria’s population is only around 80 000, and its downtown has a British vibe. I haven’t been to the Northwest corner of the US yet, but when I head there, Victoria’s going to be on my list.

Victoria night
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, and here’s its parliament. [photo: Annika / Live, laugh, explore]

8. New York City, New York

It’s a surprise to noone that good ol’ New York City is on the list. A surprise to me was its placement: only eighth! NYC is iconic, special, in its own division altogether, one of my favorite cities, but I gotta give it to you, it’s not the easiest for a tourist. Hotel prices are seriously crazy here!

If you do manage to find accommodation, New York City will have activities for every day of the year, and the restaurants are some of the best in the world. It’s in fact such a great place that this will be my third year in a row that I’m visiting: I just booked airfare for our first anniversary in September!

New York Street View

7. Chicago, Illinois

I’ve spent just one day in Chicago, back in 2007, and then the city really lived up to its nickname, the Windy City. Walking along the banks of Lake Michigan, I was freezing, and it was “only” October!

I was impressed in Chicago by the city itself. To start, I climbed Willis Tower (back then, Sears Tower) and stared at the city, amazed at skyscrapers pushing up from the grass of low-rises. Architecture and urban culture are reasons why Chicago has such a good rep these days, and reasons why I’m heading back some day, hopefully soon.

The bean - Chicago, United States - Travel photography
[photo: Giuseppe Milo]

6. Quebec, Québec, Canada

The most European city in Canada? That would be Quebec. The city and its namesake province must be one of the only places in US and Canada where you’d be better off speaking something else than just English. French is the lingua franca around here!

I haven’t visited Quebec myself, but I’ve wanted to since I realized the city’s a world heritage site. Old cute town centers just take my heart away.

Some old European town center? No, it’s Quebec! [kuva: Annika / Live Laugh Explore]

5. San Francisco, California

San Francisco might not be the warmest part of California – we visited two years ago in August and had to don our jackets for the first time on our roadtrip – but this doesn’t slow the city down.

What I loved the most of about San Fran were the neighborhoods, each with a distinctively different vibes, and the numerous hills with trams speeding up and down. We only spent two days in the city, and that was clearly not enough. Another city we must visit again!

San Francisco view from Lombard Street

4. Santa Fe, New Mexico

When I mentioned smaller gems in the introduction, this was exactly what I was thinking about. Santa Fe is far from everywhere, but this is a city you should make a bigger detour for.

Downtown of Santa Fe is built from adobe, and it feels like time lost its course some two centuries ago, never finding its way again. The city has numerous excellent museums, and after they close down, there’s simply nothing better than spending the evening way on one of the rooftop terraces, enjoying summer heat that lasts well into fall.

Santa Fe

3. Savannah, Georgia

I’d never heard of Savannah before our move to Georgia, and I fell deeply madly in love on my first visit. Every time we had visitors from Europe, we’d tell them go see Savannah!, and they all would, and they all loved it too. So what’s up with that?

Savannah is built of old antebellum mansions from centuries ago, gardens inbetween them, carriage houses behind them and all of downtown tied together by squares where moss grows on trees and makes the town look alive with ghosts of the past. The local art school, which happens to be one of world’s best, must have had a positive effect on the city, because the streets are filled with small galleries, design shops, cute cafes and good restaurants.

I’d go back anytime, darling, anytime.

Owens-Thomas House
2. New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans’s French Quarter, the official party town of USA, is alive 24/7 and especially during Mardi Gras. Who cares if sewages smell in the summer and rats having a party of their own? This is the Amsterdam of USA.

But don’t just stay in the French Quarter. Garden District has a lot of magnificent large mansions, and Saint Louis Cemetary is one of the more interesting ones to visit.

Bourbon Street at Night

1. Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston seems to hang around the top of almost every list: best places to travel, most romantic American towns, cutest Southern charm, best places to live… and now it’s even trying to get on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites!

…so of course I’m super bummed that we didn’t have time to visit when we lived in Georgia. One acquaintance said of Charleston: it’s a bit like Savannah, only nicer – which means I absolutely have to go and visit even if I don’t live around anymore.

Charleston, South Carolina
[photo: JR P]

Have you been to these cities? Which one would you like to visit?

3 affordable Michelin-star restaurants in New York City

If you’ve ever wanted to eat out in a Michelin star restaurant but have been kept back by the high prices, you should try New York. As Michelin stars are not as well known in the US as they are in Europe, prices for them in New York are not inflated, and especially Asian restaurants with the coveted stars provide affordable options for enjoying quality dining. Here’s three options I’ve tried:

Sushi at Soto, New York
Restaurant Soto – the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. This is the Uni Ika Roll, with sea urchin and squid.

Soto ** : unbelievable Japanese fair in Greenwich Village

So far the only two-star Michelin restaurant I’ve been to, the Japanese restaurant Soto lived up to the expectations. It’s located in Greenwich Village, and to find it, you need to know where it is, because there are no signs outside. The wait staff is quiet but keen-eyed to tend to you, and the food is of the “how on earth has this been done” type. Fish in Soto is guaranteed to be fresh, because the restaurant ships it in by air five times a week.

Food at Soto, New York
Cyu Toro Tartare, fatty melt-in-your-mouth tuna topped with silky avocado cream and garnished with caviar. The ponzu sauce rounded up nicely the dish.

The concept in Soto is to first taste the small and large dishes and then fill your appetite with sushi. The omakase menu (chef’s recommendations) would have been $170 per person, but we ended up picking our own dishes and the bill ended up being considerably less, even though we ate to our heart’s content. We shared six dishes with the two of us – a starter soup, two small dishes and three large ones – and ended the dinner with three nigiri and two roll sets per person, and it was more than enough. We thought the best dish was Cyu Toro Tartare, but every single dish was a good one, and one of my personal favorites was Ika Konowata (squid, sea urchin, quail egg), because fermented sea urchin turned out to be one of the most delicious ingredients I’ve run into in a while.

Soto, New York japanese restaurant
Soto has a line of tables and a bar.

Judging by reservations, Soto seems to be a pretty popular restaurant, so put yours in early. If you don’t, your other option is to just show up and try to get a seat at the bar, where they don’t take reservations. On a Saturday evening, it looked like locals were popping in for just a set or two of rolls, and even though seated diners were dressed in mostly business attire, diners at the bar were a lot more casual, and one of them seemed to come in straight from a run.

Soto Japanese Restaurant
The unmarked store front of Soto.

Restaurant Soto, 357 6th Ave, New York. Reservations accepted online.

Pok Pok Ny * : casual and tasty Thai at Brooklyn

Pok Pok Ny, Brooklyn
Dinner for two

On a Sunday evening, we were looking for something inexpensive but high quality, so we headed to Pok Pok Ny. This Thai restaurant in Brooklyn doesn’t stand out with its prices – but it does stand out with tasty food that brought it a Michelin star.

pok pok catfish larb
The dishes in Pok Pok Ny are made for sharing. [Photo: Krista / Goodies First]

For starters, we got deep-fried pork riblets (Naem Sii Khrong Muu Thawt), of which the only bad side was that they were only a starter. I wouldn’t have minded them as a main! We continued then with a shrimp mussel pork noodle salad (Sunny’s Yam Wun Sen Chao Wang), where the water had asked us if we liked spicy. We said yes, but it turned out to be actually too spicy for me, although Iiro loved it. We also had a noodle one-pot dish with king prawns and pork belly (Kung Op Wun Sen), and this for me crowned the evening, especially the green sauce that we only realized to mix in half-way through the dish.

Pok Pok NY
The bar where we ate. I think the wait staff was the same, too. [Photo: Edsel Little]

We didn’t have a reservation, and on a Sunday evening around 8pm, we got seats at the bar with zero wait time. We were asked if we wanted to wait a bit for a table, but we were fine dining more casually this time. The restaurant had the ambiance of a local diner, everyone was dressed casually and service was heartwarming. This was nothing like the fine dining experience you could expect from a Michelin restaurant in Europe, and that’s alright. If casual tasty Thai is more your thing, I recommend making the trip to Brooklyn – and maybe checking out the other locations, as Pok Pok is a small chain with restaurants also in Los Angeles and Portland.

Pok Pok NY
Pok Pok Ny is right next to the port area in Brooklyn. [Photo: Edsel Little]
Pok Pok Ny, 117 Columbia St, Brooklyn. You can make a reservation online, but around half of the tables are left for walk-ins.

Torishin * : Japanese grill master’s chicken skewers at Hell’s Kitchen

Tori Shin
Japanese chicken skewers à la chef Tori [Photo: Kok Chih & Sarah Gan / yaokui]

Torishin was our first Michelin star experience in New York, an unforgettable evening in a dimly lit smokey yakitori restaurant where the chefs were cooking the skewers right in front of our eyes. Since then, the restaurant has relocated from Upper East Side to Hell’s Kitchen, a more central location from a tourist’s point of view. A reservation is a must, and one should be prepared to interpret the wait staff’s heavy Japanese accents. You’ll get by the easiset if you take the chef’s omakase menu ($99 per person) and nod yes to everything they propose to you – and you won’t go wrong with that, because it’s all terrific.

Tori Shin
We sat right next to the grills. [Photo: Kok Chih & Sarah Gan / yaokui]

The menu at Torishin is mostly Japanese chicken skewers, from all possible parts of chicken, with all possible levels of cooking and spices. Giblets are visibly featured on the menu, and some of the skewers are left rare. If this bothers you, you can always say no, but half-done chicken is actually surprisingly good, and this is one of those places you can actually afford to try it without a salmonella scare. The menu also features vegetarian options, as does the omakase, so it’s not all chicken. The dinner is finished off with a donburi – rice with chicken, egg, or fish – which I could only taste as I was completely full at that point.

Tori Shin
Rice with eggs, both scrambled and uncooked. [Kuva: Kok Chih & Sarah Gan / yaokui]
 Torishin, 362 West 53rd Street, New York. Reservations online.