New York City
The rushing water of the 9/11 memorial in downtown Manhattan is quiet now. The throngs of people who once surrounded it at all hours of the day and night are absent, driven away by a barrier that went up around the site in March, and by the fear that has kept most visitors out of Manhattan since it became the epicentre of a global pandemic.
A modest number of tourists will be back in the morning, admitted by security guards, face masks all round. When they finish, they might amble to nearby Wall Street, where office workers are slowly refilling the towers that were once heaving, or walk a little further to Manhattan’s southernmost tip where boats are once again taking tourists for close-up views of the Statue of Liberty.
They will find it easier to take their pictures at the financial district’s famous charging bull and to get a table at nearby diners and Starbucks. They won’t have to force their way into crowded subways or queue for the red double-decker sightseeing buses that whizz them around the island.
They will find new delights, such as the gorgeous terraces that have sprung up for outdoor dining in the Meat Packing District and elsewhere, and the exercise classes of all kinds in the parks and green spaces that dot the city.
They also will discover newly welcoming locals. Where once tourists were an inconvenience for those of us living in NYC’s TripAdvisor hotspots, now they are a welcome sight, a desperately needed source of income for cash-starved businesses and a sign of nascent normality after one of the most traumatic periods New York has known.
Today’s visitors may feel that New York is unnervingly quiet; rock star Jon Bon Jovi recently spoke about the “surreal” and “eerie” experience of filming a music video there. But those of us who were here at the height of the pandemic remember the city being even eerier.
I returned to New York from Dublin on the evening of March 16, hours before the US implemented a travel ban adding the UK and Ireland to
the EU countries whose travellers were (mostly) blocked from entering the country.
At the time, Europe was perceived as the coronavirus hotspot. Cases were already soaring in Italy and Spain, and other countries were getting worried. In my native Ireland, schools were dismissed the previous Friday and we were a few days into the world of social distancing and dousing everything with antimicrobial gels.
For my first few days back, New York mostly behaved as if it were untouchable. I had to work from home because I’d just returned from Europe, and the public schools had been ordered to close, but most workers were still in their offices. People were packed sardines-style into restaurants and bars; they kissed and hugged each other in greeting.
And then, everything changed.
By the end of the week, as the number of cases of Covid-19 climbed precipitously and some people became not just sick, but seriously ill and then died, New York shut down. They closed the bars and the cafés and the gyms and almost all the shops.
Broadway’s lights went out. Times Square’s lights stayed on, but there was almost no one there to see them. They kept the subway running but most people were too scared to go near it, unless they had no choice.
I live by one of Manhattan’s busiest arteries, West Street. For the previous year and a half, my flat came with the ceaseless (and often irritating) soundtrack of horns honking and engines roaring, and the soothing babbling of water from the 9/11 memorial downstairs.
By late March, the pools had been turned off, and sirens were my constant companion, as ambulances raced up and down the island, trying desperately to save patients at a time when hundreds of people a day were dying.
Where once the city seemed limitless, my New York was reduced to places I could walk or run to, since at that point even the city’s shared-bike scheme seemed unacceptably risky. I ran early in the morning, along the darkened, deserted Hudson.
In the evenings and on weekends, I walked — because walking was all there was left to do. Before Covid, I’d stuck to the riverfront, drawn to the water and the striking views of the Statue of Liberty on one side and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges on the other.
During the pandemic, the river had people, and people were to be avoided. I discovered the tangle of inland streets in lower Manhattan, beautiful courtyards, ornate buildings, a whole world I never knew existed. On the weekends I’d venture further, either along the Hudson towards Upper Manhattan, or through Brooklyn.
Some of my explorations were a reminder of what New York had become, others were an uplifting nod to what the city will always be.
On Easter weekend, I ran up the West Side, and turned in towards Central Park. The route took me past one of New York’s busiest hospitals. There were white cooler tents outside, the kind of tents they put bodies in, the kind of tents that make you want to run home as fast as you can, and stay there.
One Saturday I walked to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, a good six miles from my flat, through neighbourhoods where children drew pictures and stuck them in the windows of their brownstones, promising that “better times would come”.
My family, the only people I saw who knew my name, were my doormen, especially Louis, there to wish me a good morning on the worst of mornings.
I still remember the day my local Starbucks reopened. I remember queueing, almost furtively, in mid-April to pick up the drink I used to get daily and hadn’t had for five weeks. I remember chatting to the kindred souls who were also waiting for their online orders.
I remember thinking these were people like me, people who had stayed in NYC even as others fled in their droves, heading to their parents’ houses, their holiday houses, their Airbnbs.
I remember the cheery messages that the Starbucks staff wrote on our takeout cups for weeks afterwards. The Post-its in the windows of Starbucks and so many other reopening stores, with staff writing about how happy they were to see us back, about how this too would pass.
By early summer, the restaurants and bars responded to an extended ban on indoor dining by transforming the streets into European piazzas.
It was, and still is, beautiful and the city feels like it is rejuvenating, putting the horrors of the early pandemic behind it.
That determination to make the best of a bad hand, and New Yorkers’ spirit and solidarity, sustained the city through the pandemic and the looting and vandalism that followed the Black Lives Matter protests.
Still, the scars remain and many fear they will be lasting.
Six months after New York began to shut down, many bars, restaurants and hotels are still closed. Some will never reopen. People are leaving the city, not just to ride out the pandemic, but for good. Apartment vacancy rates are at all an all-time high, with 15,000 sitting empty in Manhattan in August. Tourists have never been more welcome.
When I ventured into central Rome for the first time after the lockdown was lifted in early May, I encountered what felt like a different world. Piazza Navona, the first place I visited — and one of Italy’s most famous squares — was almost deserted.
The typically bustling area was for once devoid of the usual tourists taking selfies in front of Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, artists selling their portraits and the inevitable street vendors. Due to the lack of footfall, grass had made its way between the cobblestones (or sanpietrini), providing unexpected colour to the piazza.
For the first time, I could hear the sound of the water gushing from the mouth of the travertine Tritons and the rocks under the obelisk at the centre of the square.
Like many others living in Rome, I felt selfishly happy to have this stunning place all to myself. It was suddenly hard to believe that Piazza Navona had always been regarded by locals as a place to avoid — a tourist magnet such as Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, with overpriced restaurants and disorderly crowds.
No one would have predicted that the tourists would stop coming one day — especially the owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazza.
But one restaurant, Camillo, seized the unique opportunity granted by the lockdown and quickly adapted to a new clientele: Romans who were starting to reclaim the empty city centre. When it reopened at the end of May, the old tourist menu had been replaced with a brand-new list of dishes, combining affordability, modernity and quality ingredients.
Main courses start at €7, smaller sharing plates are available and the owners also introduced the “Drinketto”, a takeaway aperitivo priced at €3.5 (compared with the €9 drinks served before lockdown) — a popular addition among the locals now venturing into the centre.
Dishes today still include Roman classics such as cacio e pepe, but a contemporary twist has been added to old favourites such as carbonara, which now comes in the shape of a fried crunchy cube — a real explosion of flavour — and “Lasagnetta Funk”, a small lasagne made with zighini, a spiced Ethiopian beef ragù.
Sitting with friends while sipping a glass of Barbera, a full-bodied red wine from Piedmont, Paolo Vaiano, a local resident in his thirties, says he’s glad to finally be able to enjoy one the most stunning places in the neighbourhood.
“Until a couple of months ago, it was impossible to think of actually spending time here, or eating something decent in one of these restaurants that seem to have been created exclusively for tourists with no knowledge of Italian food,” he adds. “But here we are — who’d have thought?”
At first, the streets of central London were quiet. Then came the skateboarders. They are indestructible, like cockroaches emerging after some nuclear catastrophe. Out they came, grinding along handrails and doing little jumps while their friends watched. With no tourists, and barely any workers in sight, the streets were theirs.
Later in the summer, Soho’s streets were reclaimed by drinkers and diners as pub and restaurant owners moved their tables and chairs outside. It was a relief to see Londoners out and having fun again after the abject dreariness of lockdown.
But what really struck me was a trip to the National Gallery in September. You have to book a slot and wear a mask, and the gallery has three one-way routes to aid social distancing. But after about 10 minutes wandering though the rooms — and I’ve been returning here since I first came on a school trip aged 11 — things felt normal again.
Or almost. “Isn’t it great?” I heard one visitor say to her friend in front of Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”. “No tourists!”
She had a point. A year ago, the room would have been filled with holidaymakers clutching their mobiles, “collecting” the gallery’s most famous paintings as if they were playing Pokémon Go. Without them, the gallery felt calm and quiet. And it was wonderful.
For a while. By the time I got to “Van Gogh’s Chair”, part of me started to miss the tourists. After all, people-watching at a gallery is first rate. I remember once at the Sistine Chapel seeing a teenage couple argue at the door, and then bicker all the way through to the exit; I don’t think they looked up once.
In the food court of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, I saw one of the funniest things ever: an old woman in a sari was trying — illegally — to fill up her water bottle at the self-service soda station, but couldn’t figure out how to nudge the mechanical arm that released the drink.
Assuming it was broken or empty, she went down the line, Sprite, Coke, Diet Coke, trying all the taps until, finally, she found one that worked — and covered the inside of her water bottle with a dollop of hot yellow mustard. I nearly fell off my chair.
Without tourists, the National Gallery, while more serene, felt just a
Before the coronavirus, the last stretch of my bike ride home from the office was a terrifying, high-speed obstacle course. Heading up Warschauer Street, I swerved to spare the drunken “lads on tour” who inevitably stumbled into the bike path.
Warschauer was the vomit-stained artery that moved hordes of visiting revellers between late-night döner kebab stands and the industrial-chic clubs and bars that Berlin is famous for.
For less-than-hip denizens like me, it also meant living next to the ultimate symbol of Berlin’s hedonistic nightlife — Berghain — without ever setting foot inside its hallowed, abandoned factory walls. I was no match for its infamously picky bouncers, and I didn’t want to have to face that reality after an hours-long wait alongside said lads on tour.
A tiny upside to the damage wrought by coronavirus is that now, biking home is carefree — and at long last, entry to the “church” of Berlin nightlife is open to all, wannabe hipsters and grannies alike. In collaboration with the Boros Foundation, which hosts an acclaimed modern-art collection, Berghain has reopened to host a contemporary exhibit called “Studio Berlin”.
The space offers much-needed work to the artistic community, and to club staff running tours. Our guide received more rapt attention describing nocturnal adventures inside the low-lit walls than for their explanations of the artworks.
Other attempted repurposing in Berlin has been more controversial. The flashy shopping street Friedrichstrasse, lined with designer stores, once greeted about 14m visitors a year. With central Berlin empty, officials have experimented with making Friedrichstrasse pedestrian only, widening sidewalks for restaurants and — this being Germany — adding bike lanes and potted trees.
Conservative politicians are vehemently opposed, while supporters argue more of the city should go car-free. Neither position can change the fact this locale is rather boring.
Most Berliners I polled said the best change has been a new-found appreciation for the parks and streets right in front of them, theirs to enjoy alone. But when a wobbly Warschauer pedestrian crossed my path last
week, I felt almost nostalgic for lockdown again.
Social distancing at Singapore’s Marina Bay waterfront promenade these days is not a challenge. The more than 3km stretch of land around the bay is known for its glitzy skyscrapers, boutique shops, bustling eateries and thousands of tourists taking selfies.
For most of the more than 5m residents of Singapore — among the world’s top five most-visited cities last year, according to Euromonitor International — the crowds made it a spot to avoid unless you had visitors in town.
But after Covid-19 swept through the city, you are more likely to see families on a bike ride, friends on walks or enjoying a picnic lazily by the water. Cycling through the city’s downtown core is a breeze.
Singapore is known for its outdoor eating so bars and restaurants have had to do little to adapt — aside from reduced numbers.
Grabbing a drink at one of the sky-high restaurants at the top of the famous sloping Marina Bay Sands, known for its infinity pool, is more pleasant now that they are not swamped with visitors. Getting a same-day booking at Spago Dining Room, the first international offshoot of Wolfgang Puck’s Beverly Hills restaurant with a superb view of downtown, is relatively easy during the week.
Even Singapore’s famous otter families have become emboldened by the reduced numbers of onlookers. The animals have been seen hanging around the Merlion statue in the centre of the bay or chilling behind the Mandarin Oriental — so watch out on your bike!
Not every resident is pleased with the otters’ new boldness, however — in particular the owners of a koi pond who had their fish attacked and killed by the creatures.
When Covid-19 struck Sydney, my local park quickly filled up with joggers and cyclists, as the “work from home” crowd began exercising in the suburbs. But I decided to stick to my daily commute and, in the process, rediscovered a green oasis in the heart of the city, which has been practically deserted for months.
The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney is just five minutes’ walk from the FT office and is a popular lunch spot for office workers and tourists. The 30-hectare park is located on the eastern side of the central business district and provides walking trails down to the Sydney Opera House and stunning views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
When I first moved to Australia I used to take the kids here to explore the trails, admire the gigantic fig trees and the plentiful ibis, which, due to their scavenging instincts, are called “bin-chickens” by locals. Later we would walk down to the opera house, which was always mobbed by selfie-snapping tourists, and queue for a coffee on the quays while watching ferries come and go.
With Australia’s borders still closed to international travellers due to the pandemic, the crowds have dispersed and a stroll through the parklands to the quays has become even more enjoyable. With fewer people around and less traffic, the sound of birdsong has become more noticeable and there are fewer joggers to dodge on pathways.
On a recent morning in the gardens, I heard the familiar laughing call of the kookaburra and spent a few minutes meditating by a huge clump of bamboo, swaying and creaking in the breeze.
Even though two of the bars at the Sydney Opera House reopened this month as people slowly began returning to their city offices, the quays have not yet become swamped by crowds. That may be irritating for café owners but an opportunity to rediscover one of the most spectacular harbour districts in the world.
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