A Pennsylvania Native Spends His First Day in Pittsburgh After 36 Years

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh.

When I meet someone who’s not from my home state, I tell them “I’m from Pennsylvania.” The east coast people tend to ask how close to “Philly” I am, while everyone else asks if I live near Pittsburgh. Until recently, my answer was that I’d never been there, as it’s on the other end of the state. I grew up in Luzerne County (eastern Pennsylvania) and can drive from there to the George Washington Bridge and back before I can get to Pittsburgh. I’ve always been curious, so for the first weekend of the New Year, I finally explored Pittsburgh. Lonely Planet served as a guide for what I would do there and there were enough sights and activities to easily fill a day.

I started off at the Duquesne Incline with the idea that I would ride one incline in the light and the other in the dark. The Duquesne is not operated by Port Authority and rides must be paid for in cash. When you get to the top, there are some exhibits as well as an observation deck with excellent views.

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My next destination was the Heinz History Center, which is on the southwestern border of the strip district. With seven floors (five open to visitors), you can easily spend a day there. Admission for an adult is $16. AAA will get you $1 off, but student admission is only $6.50.

The Clash of Empires: The British, French & Indian War 1754-1763, From Slavery to Freedom, Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation and We Can Do It: WWII were my personal favorites. I went through the museum in two hours, but you can easily turn that into three or four, depending on how fast you read and how varied your interests are.

From the museum, I walked to Penn Ave and through the strip district. There’s plenty of shopping there and different restaurants as well. Pittsburgh Popcorn Co is located on the corner of 21st Street and Spring Way. They have new flavors every week and offer samples. I bought a bag of cinnamon toast, which nobody else that was in front of me seemed interested in. Oh well, their loss, because it was delicious!

For lunch, I went to Stone Neapolitan Pizzeria, near the Gateway subway stop and then visited Fort Pitt Museum. Although the Heinz History Center is much more extensive, the area around Fort Pitt is great for walking and photo ops. At Fort Pitt, you can learn about the natives of Pittsburgh as well as how the 2nd largest city in Pennsylvania got its name. It was not named after Brad!

Pittsburgh skyline from Fort Pitt

I don’t believe that a visit to any city is complete without using some form or public transportation. I finally used the underground in Philadelphia last summer and since Fort Pitt is near the Gateway station, I boarded the train there and took it across the Monongahela River to the Station Square stop. The stops between Gateway and First Avenue are part of a Free Zone, but I had to pay since I was crossing the river to Station Square. Like the Los Angeles Metro, you buy a card, add value and “tap” when you enter the train. Before arriving at the First Avenue station, the train ascends above ground, so you get to see the river as it crosses.

From Station Square, it’s a short walk to the Monongahela Incline. It was dark by this time and the ride ($2.50 one-way, but only $1 extra if you make the return trip within three hours) only took a minute or two, just like the Duquesne. There’s an observation deck outside the upper station, where I took some excellent photos of the city at night.

After collecting my car, I headed to I Tea Café (Taiwanese) for dinner. They have one of my recent favorites (salt and pepper chicken) with different flavor options. I chose seaweed and also got French fries (something I don’t associate with Taiwan) of the same flavor as well as bubble tea. Everything was excellent and I had room for dessert, so I ordered glass jelly and homemade coconut toast. They are separate on the menu but go very well together. Try it!

Most decent sized cities have at least a bakery or two that sells French macarons. I found Gaby et Jules on Yelp and stopped there to get a box of six. They have the standard flavors as well as ones I’d either rarely or never seen before. I got nutella and salted caramel, which most places sell, but also tried Bailey’s Irish Cream and white chocolate basil.

Heinz Field

After spending my first full day in Pennsylvania’s second city, I can understand why it’s been voted the most livable city in America multiple times. It has professional sports teams, world class museums, a great food scene, more than ten colleges and universities yet does not feel overwhelming. Furthermore, my favorite bands usually stopped in Pittsburgh when they went on tour! Like most major cities, parking is a issue in the center, but unlike other cities with subways, you can ride theirs for free in the most congested areas. Pittsburgh has some great architecture along their ample waterfront, but it’s the inclines that really allow the visitor to fully appreciate it.

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Chinatown & Chelsea

I woke up to an amazing view of Pike Street and the Manhattan Bridge. Chinatown is to the west and if you are lucky enough to get a room that faces the Manhattan Bridge, you can have a wonderful view while showering.

I woke up to an amazing view of Pike Street and the Manhattan Bridge. New York City (especially Manhattan hotels) don’t have the best reputation as far as offering value for your money is concerned, but I highly recommend the Howard Johnson Soho. It has a modern look and convenient location, with East Broadway (F train) being the nearest subway stop. Chinatown is to the west and if you are lucky enough to get a room that faces the Manhattan Bridge, you can have a wonderful view while showering.

My first dim sum was at the Golden Unicorn back in June. I had a Chinese friend to guide me along and my last food tour started at Jing Fong. At the suggestion of Simon Tung (from Macaron Parlour), I tried 88 Palace, which is less than five minutes from the HoJo Soho. Although 88 Palace is not as well-known as Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn, it was extremely crowded when I arrived (just before noon). Tables are round and the place gets way too crowded to let any seats go to waste. Unless you are in a large group, plan on sharing a table with people you’ve never met.

The servers come around with their carts and you pick what you want. They can offer a basic description, but it’s way too busy for any of the staff to spend too much time on one person. I ate the things that I enjoyed the other times I had dim sum, most of which were made with shrimp. Like the other two times, I managed to spend under $20.

One of my favorite ice cream shops is Ice and Vice, which is just a couple blocks east of the East Broadway stop on the F line. That was my next destination. They have a very eclectic selection, but I narrowed it down to three flavors: tea dance, opium den and love & hate. As the names suggest, they tend to get creative with the ingredients. I enjoyed all three, but was upset that they discontinued gold digger, which was an olive oil and kalamansi sorbet. When I jokingly complained, I was told that it just wasn’t that popular.

Welcome to Chinatown Manhattan 12-27-2015

From East Broadway, I took the F train up to 23rd street for some snacking and shopping. La Maison du Macaron is just outside of the 23rd Street F M train stop as well as the PATH. Their flavors change, which can be good and bad. No blood orange or mango this time, but they had speculoos, which I’d never seen there before.

Chinatown Manhattan 12-27-2015

I’d read about LA Burdick before and wanted to try their chocolates. I went there next and bought a box of nine. When I saw their desserts, I wanted to try. I had a difficult time deciding between chocolate lemon and hazelnut orange cakes, so I ordered both. I had to wait a few minutes until one of the few tables became available. LA Burdick gets very crowded and has an upscale feel. Finishing two pieces of cake was not a problem since (like the chocolates I bought) they were small. Both were good enough to make me want to visit again.

My next (and final) stop was the Gansevoort Market, which I just discovered at the beginning of December 2015. Most of my favorite things are packed inside that small market. Luzzo’s Pizza, Royce Chocolates and Dana’s Bakery have stands there. There’s also a ceviche bar, creperie and gelateria as well as Thai, Mediterranean and other food options. I got pizza from Luzzo’s as well as a box of macarons from Dana’s and called it a day.

Eating Along the L Train & Going for a Boat Ride

As enjoyable as a walk around the East Village always is, riding the East River Ferry at night was the highlight of the day. I hope to visit Williamsburg next year and go further into Brooklyn on the L train as well.

During my first visit to Williamsburg, I walked across the Williamsburg Bridge and had lunch at Motorino. It was January 2015 and the weather was so cold that both my iPad and iPhone shut off. I managed to get some nice pictures, but it was not the most comfortable experience. Like much of the travel I do, I had an urge and was not going to let cold weather get in the way.

For my second visit to Williamsburg, all I had to wear was a t-shirt and light jacket. It was around 50 degrees the day after Christmas. I remember it being warm like that in Cleveland around December 2006, but for a lifelong East Coast guy, that’s still a rarity.

I started by taking the L train from 6th Ave to Bedford Ave. Normally, when I take the L train, I get off at 1 Av to visit my favorite neighborhood (East Village). This time, I took it one more stop (into Brooklyn). As soon as I arrived in Williamsburg, I realized it warranted further exploration. The area looked “up and coming.”

I stopped for lunch at Fornino which had been on my list of pizzerias to try since earlier in the year. I was there for their pizza, but they had some interesting appetizers and I had a friend to share with.

We started with eggplant rustica, then had baked clams, followed by portabella mushrooms (with goat cheese) and finally, a margherita pizza. For dessert, we shared the lemon & olive oil cake with strawberry sorbet. Nothing went to waste and I would be interested in trying their Greenpoint location next time I’m in that area.

Walking east on North 7th Ave will lead you to Woops (on Driggs Ave). They have around a dozen French macaron flavors and the place gets pretty crowded. Konditori (Swedish Expresso) has a location on North 7th Ave as well.

Artists & Fleas Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
Pin Your Home City

West of the Bedford Ave stop on North 7th Ave. is Artists & Fleas’ Williamsburg location (there’s another inside the Chelsea Market). Compared to the Cheslea Market, Williamsburg was much less crowded. I bought my favorite necklace (preserved dragonfruit) from Glitter Limes at the Chelsea location last year and it’s still my favorite.

East River from East River Park in Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015

East River Park is northwest of Artists & Fleas and provides some great photo ops. It’s not as impressive at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, but still worth a visit. Oddfellows Ice Cream is along Kent Ave, but they were closed for the holidays.

For a light snack, we stopped at Rosarito Fish Shack. The place looks very interesting from the outside and the same is true of the interior. We shared a salmon ceviche as well as the carne asada tacos (each order comes with two).

woman looking out at Manhattan from Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
The East River Ferry Arrives

The East River Ferry Terminal is northwest of Oddfellows. I decided that this would be a good (first) time to take a boat across the East River. It was getting cold outside and neither my friend, nor I felt like walking back to Bedford Ave to catch the L train. While waiting for the ferry, we walked around the Northside Piers and took some pictures. While walking, we saw a man showing his friends around explaining how back in the 1990s, cab drivers often refused to take people to Williamsburg. I heard a similar story while walking around Gantry Plaza State Park a couple months earlier.

East River Ferry Terminal in Williamsburg Brooklyn 12-26-2015
Northside Pier

Most of the East River Ferry stops are in Brooklyn. There is one (Long Island City) in Queens and two in Manhattan. Our choices were to go to either East 34th Street or Wall Street. We chose the first boat that arrived (Wall Street). The ride is quick. In our case, it stopped in South Williamsburg, DUMBO, then Wall Street. Although a ferry ride is more than double the cost of a subway or bus ride, it’s much more scenic. We got to ride under the BMW (or WMB since we were going south) bridges. It was dark outside, so the city was well lit.

It’s easy to get the M15 bus north from Water Street, which is just two short blocks west of the ferry stop at Wall Street. Our destination was the East Village (my favorite neighborhood). The bus stops at East 8th Street (Saint Mark’s Place) and 1st Ave. We stopped at Macaron Parlour at ended up getting advice from Simon Tung on where to go for dim sum in Chinatown.

potato shrimp at Ramen Setagaya East Village 12-26-2015
Potato Shrimp at Ramen Setagaya

There are great places to eat all along 1st Avenue, but 2nd Ave has plenty as well. After you cross 2nd Ave, you can have gelato at DF Mavens, Belgian fries at Friterie, bubble tea at CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice and ramen at Ramen Setagaya without even making it halfway to 3rd Ave.

As enjoyable as a walk around the East Village always is, riding the East River Ferry at night was the highlight of the day. I hope to visit Williamsburg next year and go further into Brooklyn on the L train as well.

 

Famous Pizza & Tajik Food Along the Q train in Brooklyn

Luzzo’s, Motorino and Franny’s are among my favorites. Although there are still several on my list of places to try (Totonno’s, Lucali and Fornino come to mind), I crossed DiFara off my list on December 20, 2015.

My most memorable trips to Brooklyn started with the Slice of Brooklyn tour on December 4, 2011. My cousin offered me her extra ticket and I gladly accepted. Before that, my only experiences in Brooklyn were driving to Coney Island to take a few pictures and having dinner at Tommaso’s Ristorante. The Slice of Brooklyn tour introduced me to Grimaldi’s as well as L & B Spumoni Gardens. I’ve visited both places several times since, especially the latter.

L & B Spumoni Gardens 12-3-2015
Sicilian Pie at L & B Spumoni Gardens

In the past couple years, I’ve gone to some of the pizzerias I’d been reading about in Time Out New York, most of which are in Brooklyn & Manhattan. Some have locations in both boroughs. Luzzo’s, Motorino and Franny’s are among my favorites. Although there are still several on my list of places to try (Totonno’s, Lucali and Fornino come to mind), I crossed DiFara off my list on December 20, 2015.

Margherita Pizza at Franny's in Brooklyn 11-8-2015
Margherita Pizza at Franny’s

I’d wanted to go to DiFara a couple other times, but it never seemed to work out. There’s so much hype and I just wanted to try a $5 slice to see if it was deserved. Nobody I knew that tried their pizza ever complained about the price (which is more than double most other places I’ve been to). Based on what I’d heard, I expected a bit of a wait when I got there.

DiFara 12-20-2015
DiFara Pizza

My plan for the day was to get a box of macarons at Bisous Ciao on Bleecker Street, have a late lunch at DiFara, an early dinner in Sheepshead Bay and dessert in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Just like when I visited Franny’s last month, I picked up the D train at W 4 St-Wash Sq and transferred to the Coney Island bound Q train at Atlantic Ave.-Barclays Ctr. I figured it would take about an hour to get a slice at DiFara.

When I exited the Q train at Avenue J, my first impressions of Midwood were that of a quiet (by Brooklyn/NYC standards) area with a famous landmark. The line outside the door at DiFara was less than ten people, so I didn’t get alarmed. The main dining area (which was smaller than I could have expected) was closed for a private party. Everyone had to go to DiFara Dolce Fatts Café around the corner to place their orders. I ordered one slice of round and one slice of square and was told it would be a 45 to 60-minute wait. This seemed longer than I expected, so I went for a slow walk around the immediate area.

Domenico DeMarco in DiFara  kitchen 12-20-2015
Dom DeMarco in action

While walking around the neighborhood, I noticed that the other pizzerias were almost empty. Since there’s not much to see in the immediate vicinity, I went back to Fatts Café and waited. The (very small) room had filled up in my absence and new walk-ins were being told there was a two-hour wait. After waiting another 90 minutes, I was told that my round slice was ready, but not my square. I decided to try the round slice and it was good.

round pizza at DiFara 12-20-2015
round slice ($5 each) at DiFara

After waiting another 30 minutes, I was told that the private party was over and I could go to the pizzeria and wait for my square slice. Even with a new iPhone 6S, loaded with plenty of great apps and books, I was beginning to get bored. I jumped at the chance.

Domenico DeMarco cutting basil at DiFara 12-20-2015
Dom DeMarco cutting fresh basil

There was something amazing about watching Dom DeMarco work. He moved extremely slow, but nobody seemed to care. How many other pizzerias could get away with this? After 15 minutes of watching Mr. DeMarco work, my square slice was ready. Unlike the round slice I had, I ate this one hot out of the oven. It was amazing. As good as anything I’ve ever tasted! Next time I go, I will bring a friend and order a square pie.

square pizza at DiFara 12-20-2015
While eating this square slice, I forgot that I waited nearly three hours. I was “in the moment”

It was already dark out by the time I left DiFara. I boarded the Coney Island bound Q train for the 10-minute ride to Sheepshead Bay. I’d first heard of Sheepshead Bay in the Aerosmith song “Bone to Bone (Coney Island White Fish Boy).” I knew from reading his recent autobiography that Mark Bell (Marky Ramone) used to live there as well. Since I’d been to Brighton Beach before, I decided to have dinner in Sheepshead Bay and then walk to Brighton Beach to catch the Q train back to Manhattan. Dessert in Chinatown would have to wait until the next time.

I found Dushanbe (named after the capital of and largest city in Tajikistan) on Yelp, after searching for “Russian food.” I’d had Georgian food in the East Village back on July 4, but never had any from the other former Soviet-bloc countries. Whenever I go to an ethnic restaurant, I try to find out how authentic it really is. For example, the Thai restaurant I tried in Lima last month didn’t have a single Thai person working there.

After sampling a fish platter as well as a lamb kebab with some of their amazing bread, I was glad I tried this place. The prices were extremely affordable, especially considering its still NYC. The fish platter cost $14.95. I would expect to pay more than that in Allentown or Harrisburg. The lamb kebab was the most tender I can remember having.

fish sampler at Cafe Dushanbe in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn 12-20-2015 Insta
fish platter at Dushanbe

On my way out, I asked what kind of restaurant I had just eaten at and was told that it’s the only Tajik restaurant in New York City. I enjoyed it more than the Georgian restaurant I tried back on July 4 and would consider going again. After leaving the restaurant, I walked across the Ocean Ave pedestrian bridge where a few different people were fishing in Sheepshead Bay. The houses along Shore Blvd are palatial. I was in the mood to walk a bit, so I took Neptune Ave to Coney Island Ave to Brighton Beach Ave and caught the Q train back to Manhattan.

Adding 2 days to my b-day celebration in NYC

For my 14th annual Thanksgiving/birthday vacation, I decided to do something different. Instead of going home the day I landed back in the United States, I spent two days in New York.

For my 14th annual Thanksgiving/birthday vacation, I decided to do something different. Instead of going to my house the day I landed back in the United States, I spent two days in New York. My flight landed after 8AM. I was out of the airport by 10 and had my car by 11. My friend that I was traveling with had never tried my favorite restaurant, which is in the direction of the hotel I chose for our two days in NYC.

Since going on the Slice of Brooklyn Tour on December 4, 2011, the Sicilian pie at L & B Spumoni Gardens has been my favorite thing to eat. Since I started flying in and out of JFK airport (which I’ve done for the majority of my international trips since November 2012), I’ve been saying that the thing I look forward to the most about a trip is eating Sicilian pie after leaving JFK Airport. I first said this during a trip to France in November 2012. Nobody agreed with me, but that’s my opinion and it hasn’t changed.

L & B Spumoni Gardens 12-3-2015
Sicilian Pie at L & B Spumoni Gardens

I’ve never ordered by the slice there and I’ve always had between one and three people with me when I’ve gone. This time, I knew my friend would not eat much and we would end up taking some home. If the quality of that pizza is a 10 on a 10 scale when you eat it fresh out of the oven, it goes down to a generous 5 when I reheat it my oven. I don’t have the heart to throw it in garbage and I never have.

After a quick drive there with very little traffic, we found a spot in their small but always accommodating parking lot. We ordered a Sicilian pie and like the majority of the dozen or so people I’ve taken there over the past few years, my friend enjoyed it, but not as much as I did. We (I) ended up taking five slices home.

From there, I drove to Fort Hamilton. I’d tried to visit the fort a few years earlier but they were not doing museum tours on the day I was there. This time, we got a nice (free) tour by an extremely friendly and informative gentlemen called Tom. He was very well traveled and full of information on Fort Hamilton, which is the only active military base in NYC. It’s named after the guy that’s on the $10 bill.

Our hotel was nearby and after dropping our bags off, we boarded the nearby R train at 86 St and took it to Rector St to visit Federal Hall. Like Fort Hamilton, Federal Hall is closed on weekends (the only time I’m usually in NYC). I’d been wanting to visit for years to see where our first President was sworn in. I’d visited his birthplace last summer and Mount Vernon in 2010. I wasn’t sure what to expect, we spent at least an hour. There are guided tours throughout the day, but it’s easy to tour on your own, which is what we did. What stood out to me was looking at the bible that our first President swore on while taking his Presidential oath.

George Washington at Federal Hall 12-3-2015
George Washington statue looking down at New York Stock Exchange

Down the steps from Federal Hall is the entrance to the Broad Street station on the J Z line. We took the J train one stop north to Fulton Street and transferred to the C line, which we took to 14 St. It had been several months since I’d been to the Chelsea Market and my friend had never been there (or in that part of Manhttan). I was hoping to treat myself to another fruit necklace for my birthday, but Glitter Limes was not there.

There’s a new macaron place I’d been hearing about at the Gansevoort Market, which I’d never been to before. The Gansevoort Market is just three blocks south of the Chelsea Market and much smaller and less crowded. They sell everything I like there: gelato, macarons, Royce chocolates, crepes and pizza (to name a few). Luzzo’s (which is my 2nd favorite pizzeria behind the previously mentioned L & B Spumoni Gardens) is there as well as Royce Chocolate (my favorite Japanese chocolate brand).

My only purchase was a box of 12 macarons (for $33) at Dana’s Bakery. Their flavors are as interesting as any place I’ve been to. The two I keep going back to are Bisous Ciao and Macaron Parlour. I also visit Macaron Café and La Maison du Macaron from time to time. After sampling a birthday cake macaron from Dana’s, I added that to my list of places to stop at in the future.

After a pretty quick visit to the Gansevoort Market, we took Husdon to Bleecker, where we stopped at Cones to get sorbet. My friend got lemon and I got watermelon. The lemon was good, but you can get that anywhere. The watermelon was amazing and I will stop back to get more next time I’m in the area.

Bleecker Playground in West Village NYC 12-3-2015

We wanted bubble tea, which we were unable to find in Peru. It was available in the Miraflores section of Lima, but we never made it there because of the notorious Lima traffic. Since we would be catching the train at the W 4 St station, we went to Fay Da Bakery, which is right near the entrance and has locations throughout Manhattan and Queens. I got a mango smoothie with coconut jelly and my friend got papaya and that (and the sorbet at Cones) was our dinner. When I have lunch at L & B Spumoni Gardens, I rarely have anything significant for dinner.

We stayed at the Best Western Gregory Hotel, which is located a couple blocks from the 86th Street R train station in Bay Ridge. The Verrazano Bridge is off in the distance. We exited at 77th Street to see if there was anything exciting north of the hotel, but there wasn’t.

The next morning, we got in the car and headed to Staten Island. There are two Italian restaurants there that I’d read about in Time Out New York and I’d been wanting to visit the Conference House for years.

It was lunch time by the time we crossed the Verranzano Bridge. We went to Joe and Pat’s on Victory Blvd. If Bensonhurst and Gravesend look different from Manhattan, then Staten Island really looks different. I’d been there a dozen times before, but driving past mansions and finding plenty of parking on one of the main streets was shocking to my friend.

Margherita Slice at Joe & Pat's Staten Island 12-4-2015
Margherita slice at Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island

I wanted to try the pizza at Joe and Pat’s but my friend was not up for it. I looked at their Instagram photos and picked what really stood out. I got a slice of the margherita and really enjoyed it. Only having one slice left room for other things on the menu. We shared the seafood antipasto and arugula salad. Both were excellent and made me want to return.

Seafood Antipasto at Joe & Pat's Staten Island 12-4-2015
Seafood Antipasto at Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island

Although I don’t like cold weather, I do enjoy all the different pumpkin related things that become more available once fall arrives. They had pumpkin tartufo on their dessert menu and it was amazing. Of the four things we tried, none were mediocre. Although I want to try Denino’s the next time I’m in Staten Island, I definitely hope to return to Joe and Pat’s someday.

pumpkin tartufo at Joe & Pat Staten Is 12-4-2015
pumpkin tartufo at Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island

It was a nearly 30-minute drive to the Conference House, which is located on the southwest corner of Staten Island. This area is even more rural than the north of Staten Island. Tours of the house are guided only. Our guide was originally from Toronto. I sensed it in her accent. She was certainly not from New York. As the custodian of the house, she is allowed to live on the premises. Although the house itself is not remarkable and had been neglected for a long time before restoration, the story behind it is very interesting. John Adams and Ben Franklin were part of an unsuccessful peace negotiation with the British there back in 1776.

Before crossing the Outerbridge into New Jersey, we stopped at Peri’s Pearl Tea, which we found on Yelp. They sell macarons from Dana’s Bakery as well as plenty different bubble tea and smoothie flavors. I got the mango (again) and my friend tried Pomegranate (not one of my favorite flavors).

Since Peru presented us with plenty of challenges (insane traffic in Lima, altitude sickness in Cusco), it was nice to spend two days in the familiar area of New York City before heading back to the Keystone state.