I glimpsed my first view of the Manhattan skyline as I approached the Lincoln Tunnel, from New Jersey. While driving under the Hudson River, through the world’s busiest vehicular tunnel, my friend suggested parking the car and using the subway but my pride dismissed this crazy idea. An hour later, after one of many wrong turns, we were back in the Lincoln Tunnel going the wrong way back to New jersey. Time to admit… I was in over my head.

After arriving at our hotel, I was eager to find as much information as I could about the subway. I’ve always thought of the NYC subway as a dangerous place and was relieved to learn how much it’s been cleaned up in recent years. Compared to costly parking and taxi prices, the subway proved the cheapest way to go. For $21.00, an unlimited, seven-day pass could be purchased on a metro card. Considering this and the fact that it’s the quickest way around, we were ready to venture underground.

Our first stop took us into Lower Manhattan and stepping out of the station, it already felt like experiencing different worlds that existed minutes apart. From the beautiful cast-iron and brick building in Tribeca, to the Corinthian columns and Venetian-Palazzo style buildings in Soho, this was the most impressive architecture I’ve seen. The cultures of the neighborhoods east of Broadway are as fascinating. After lunch in Little Italy in a place that cooked our food in a wood-burning fireplace, we took a walk down Mulberry Street. We were soon surrounded by a thriving marketplace filled with fish, produce, bakeries and restaurants that made me forget I ate a half hour ago. Chinatown’s streets and alleyways are deeply colored, filled with characteristic buildings, tea parlors and barbershops.

Back in the subway, headed for Midtown, we were impressed with how unique the atmosphere was. A lot of the stations were decorated with ceramic tile work, some of which dated back over a century. There were sculptures, mosaics and murals, as well as, light boxes filled with paintings and photography. The subway cars also displayed art in the unused advertisement slots. Between the artists, performers and musicians trying to fill their hats and instrument boxes with tips from passing admirers, there was never a dull moment.

The New York City subway system has come a long way in the 140 years since a 312-foot length was built to display an idea for and underground route. Forty percent on the system is actually above ground and wasn’t until 1904, when an underground line opened, thirty-five years after the first elevated line. The oldest structure still in use today is the BMT Jamaica line, in Brooklyn. Today, with 842 miles of track, 468 stations and over 5 million commuters a day, the New York subway is the largest in the world. The fact that it runs 24/7 also sets it apart from other subways around the globe.

Once in Mid-town, I was at a loss for words as I stepped out of the station in Times Square. When traveling, I set my expectations too high and am left feeling disappointed. Like viewing the Vegas skyline or the pillars of DC, for example. But when I stepped into the world’s busiest intersection, I was humbled by the size of my surroundings. I was an ant walking amongst the skyscrapers and bright lights competing for attention. It’s a surreal feeling to lay my eyes on places I’ve seen on TV so often. When in Mid-town, be sure to visit the Rockefeller Center, which seemed like a city of its own, the Empire State building, Grand Central Station and the beautiful St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

It didn’t take long to feel confident using the subway. Its easy. The system incorporates subway lines, marked by colors with routes that are distinguished with numbers and letters. This eliminates confusion when on the subway platform with a map that corresponds with large signs hung above the different tracks. The digital displays on the side of the cars and recorded announcements of the upcoming stops were also helpful.

After the interesting neighborhoods of Lower and the landmarks of Mid-town, time to explore Uptown. After emerging from the station and walking past all the places I wish I could shop, we came upon Central Park. A welcome sight after days of being surrounded by people and buildings. The 843-acre park is an oasis of rolling lawn, trees, flower beds and ponds. It’s a relaxing place to sit and watch interesting people doing interesting activities.

To the west side of the park, the Upper-east side had a laid-back family-oriented feel to it. It’s exciting to see where John Lennon once lived on 76th Avenue and to walk through the same strawberry fields he once walked with Yoko Ono. To the east, the Upper-east side was home to the upper class and yes, woman walking their well-tailored poodle, while wearing fur coat, I’m thinking came from a bear do exist outside of cartoons. Besides the upper-crust, this neighborhood offered world-class museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim.

While using the subway, we encountered countless fascinating characters and couldn’t help but be interested in the conversations going on around us, such as the film-maker talk of his work or the painter talk of her inspiration. From the bohemian, artistic types huddled next to the well-dressed yuppie, the subway seems to showcase the diversity of the city.

God knows where we would have ended up if I let my stubbornness compelled me to keep driving around Manhattan. The subway was the quickest and easiest way to explore the city and provided unforgettable and entertaining experiences while using it. When planning your trip to the Big Apple, be sure to take advantage of this world-class subway because it will make your trip to New York City all the more rewarding.

To help plan your trip, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, at www.manhattancc.org.tourism will offer you information on the cities neighborhoods, sites and attractions, shopping, theater, dining and night-life. To help you se it all, the MTA, at www.mta.org will offer subway maps, schedules and service advisories.