Stephen Bailey
Discover New York City with Photography Guide Jessie Festa
Discover New York City with Photography Guide Jessie Festa
Stephen Bailey

Unorthodox Travel speaks to New York local and photography guide Jessie Festa about The Big Apple, exploring the sights, sounds, secrets and special places in this famous destination. Jessie is the founder of NYC Photo Journeys.

What makes New York so special?

New York is my home and also my favourite city in the world. Do you know Friends and How I Met Your Mother? How it seems like everyone lives together for their whole lives? That is sort of how it is in New York because people end up in the same neighborhoods and then you all end up meeting in a park, or meeting up at this corner bar, or just all walking out together. 

There’s just a really good sense of community and there’s so much to do. It’s so easy to just meet up with people and enjoy the many amenities of the city. 

Interesting, because sometimes you watch a TV show and it’s nothing like the real deal. So this is a big city with a neighborhood feel. Which neighbourhoods are most interesting to visit?

The cool thing about New York city is you could just weave in and out of the different neighbourhoods on foot. And a lot of them are typically smaller than you think. 

Like you could easily walk through Soho, Chinatown, East Village and West Village all in the same afternoon. You just stop in a cafe here, stop anywhere you like. 

For example, you could walk down Bleecker street in West Village and go to a place that’s been open for a hundred years. It sells Italian delicacies and then a hipster place next door sells bagel balls.

What neighbourhoods are mostly popular with visitors?

So there’s all these different little neighbourhoods with their own personalities, but you can explore a lot of them quickly. I’d say Midtown is probably where most tourists go. IAlmost all of my guests stay in the Times Square – Midtown area.

There are attractions and they’re popular for a reason. But after you do those big attractions, I recommend checking out the West Village, East Village, Lower East Side. I live in the Upper East Side. A lot of tourists don’t visit htere. They might go to central park, but my neighbourhood is really beautiful.

A Yankee game is always fun, but I really love a place called Arthur Avenue. It is like being transported to Italy. It’s small, but there are so many delicious little Italian restaurants and delis. 

Then there is Staten island. There is actually really great stuff to do there too, like camping. 

How was it in your neighbourhood during the pandemic?

During this whole pandemic I was really thankful to live here because we have so many parks up here and it’s on the water. So it’s really easy. Like every night at 6:00 PM, I go take a walk along the water. 

I actually ended up getting married during Covid on this little island called Randall’s Island which has a beautiful view of lower Manhattan. 

There are also tons of neighborhoods right in Manhattan. But the other thing I’d say is don’t forget the boroughs. There’s so much to do in Brooklyn. There’s so much to do in Queens. A lot of people don’t go to the Bronx, but there is a lot to do in the Bronx for tourists.

Biking on Randall’s Island

What is a typical stay in New York if you’ve never visited before? You mentioned these places in Midtown, do you think they still hold value or should visitors just be going out and getting to these neighbourhoods?

Places are famous for a reason. I do think the Empire State Building is worth a trip. Personally, my favourite viewpoint is Top of the Rock – you get a really good view of Central Park. 

Out of all of the paid attractions the Statue of Liberty is one of my favourites. They have a really good audio tour and there’s a lot of history. 

I would say maybe you don’t need to do every single viewpoint or attraction. I think a lot of people will really enjoy the neighborhoods and learning about the history there and the different things you can do. 

I mean, people don’t even realise that in Queens you can go whale watching. 

Whale watching in New York ! That’s incredible! I suppose these things are how you go out and explore the city? Can you also be a tourist in your own city?

Yeah, for sure. We are picnicking all the time. There are so many great parks here and it’s not just Central Park. I mean, all the boroughs have amazing parks and many of them have free events, concerts and shows. 

And then pre-Covid we would also be exploring the many different events. There’s a really fun nightclub in Brooklyn called Brooklyn Mirage that we would go to all the time. And then there’s Broadway of course – it’s like a once a year thing. 

You mentioned Covid. How is the situation at the moment? 

It’s definitely starting to feel normal. Things are opening up. And with the warm weather and everybody being outside it’s gradually feeling normal for sure. 

New York has done a crazy good job at having these really elaborate outdoor seating areas that have been open all year long, so people can still visit restaurant and bars. So that’s been cool to see, and I think restaurants are going to be able to keep them. 

I really like them. I also just love eating outside even when it’s not Covid. So it’s neat that now there are so many of these like outdoor, heated patios.

That’ll also hopefully bring restaurants more money because you know, once everything’s at capacity, they could have the indoor and outdoor seating. So hopefully that will also help these businesses out too.

Eating outside though, is it not really, really cold in winter? Is the climate as bad as some people make out and when is a good time to visit New York?

The winters definitely get really, really cold. But when you live here, you kind of get used to it. I have a really good negative degree coat. So it doesn’t bother me so much. I know for some people it might be a bit of a shock. So definitely dress warm and bring those little hand warmer things.

If you visit in spring and fall it will be way more comfortable than summer. It’s just summer is so much fun, there are just so many free, fun things to do outside. It is very humid though. 

So just, you know, be prepared to be very sweaty, but you know, no one’s going to think you’re weird if you’re just profusely sweating when you walk into a place. We’re all kind of in it together with warm weather.

Jessie and her husband in New York

How about a day trips – what would you recommend if you want to escape the city for a day?

There are so many options. If you want to go out east there is an amazing wine country. It’s truly the countryside. I have a friend who owns a giant pumpkin farm and my dad hunts on it. 

There are wineries, there are farm stands, there are great farm to table restaurants. Our east you could go on a seal hike.

Yep. You can go hiking with seals. I mean, it’s seasonal. There’s also a lot of revolutionary war history and shipwrecks. So if you’re into diving, I mean the water’s not clear, but you can actually see shipwrecks. 

Then if you go north from the city there are the Catskills and the Hudson Valley. I did a local honeymoon last year because of Covid and we ended up hiking up Mount Marcy, which is probably my favourite part of New York outside of the city. The mountains are amazing. 

Lake Placid is lovely and the town there has a lively feel. It’s small, but like right on the lake and there are great restaurants and bars and lots to do.

There is a place called the Thousand Islands that is in New York and Canada – they share it. And it’s almost 2000 islands that mostly are uninhabited. There’s a lot of water sports up there and you could do a little boat cruise. Actually they might have some skiing up there as well.

Tell us also a little bit about your New York photography and the photo journeys you organise.

I was actually a travel blogger first with Jessie on a Journey. And I had a lot of readers ask me to show them around New York City. So I got licensed as a guide and then I worked for other companies just to get experience working with guests from all over the world.

There are so many tourists in New York city and so many great tours. I was doing photography because of my travel blogging and I just wove the two together. 

When you travel the one hard thing, especially when you’re by yourself or even if you’re with your family, it’s hard to get a picture of your whole group. And sometimes you don’t want to give your camera to someone else because the photos are no good – sometimes your head’s not even in the picture! So I started NYC Photo Journeys. 

I have suggested itineraries, but we can always do custom things. And we go to different areas of the city. I give a little bit of history, but really it’s meant to be like exploring with a friend and they leave with photos. 

So I take photos of everyone and then I edit them a bit. And then I send them digitally afterwards, so it’s a New York tour, plus the photos. 

That’s amazing, what a great idea. Do you have some final words of advice for people coming to New York?

Definitely try to seek out local experiences. I still do this and become a tourist in my own city.

There’s this one experience called League of Kitchens and you can go into a local immigrant home and spend four to six hours cooking all day with them learning about their culture.

It’s such a neat experience. You’re in New York, but you’re also seeing this local side of New York, you’re also traveling across the world to another country at the same time.

So keep an eye out for these really unique experiences. Book that Statue of Liberty cruise, for sure, but just make sure to go beyond that and really get to know this deeper layer of the city.

Jessie Festa, founder of NYC Photo Journeys, was speaking to Stephen Bailey. 

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