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The Tourist Gaze

By Katrina Bernhardt


The tourist gaze is defined by viewing sights with “an anticipation, especially through daydreaming and fantasy, of intense pleasures, either on a different scale or involving different senses from those customarily encountered.”[1] As many tourists have confirmed, the media constructs and sustains this anticipation for greatness in visiting these sites and attractions. The prominence and representation of the New York skyline in the media precedes the first-hand view of the skyline for most. The tourist gaze exhibits this anticipation, excitement, and particular interest “directed to features of landscape and townscape which separate them off from everyday experience.”[2] The tourist gaze offers an out-of-the-ordinary perspective on common sights and objects, a perspective that is not connected to any job, work, or normal daily life necessity. Tourism is defined by this division and separation from the ordinary, mundane that reveals the extraordinary.[3] The tourist gaze is “constructed through signs;” tourists are drawn to signs that are pre-established as tourist attractions, and these signs build up the anticipation and extraordinary quality of the tourist gaze. [4] The most important feature of the tourist gaze is that it can be “endlessly reproduced and recaptured.”[5] This is a major contributor to the durability of the view of the skyline. Most people do not get tired of seeing the skyline because it carries such depth in appearance and meaning, and it is constantly growing and developing. It is not a view that can be completely exhausted.

The tourist gaze is the key to digging deeper into the aesthetic value and attractive qualities of the skyline. Tourists in New York share a particular gaze of awe, admiration, and wonder as they look at the skyline of New York. However, the tourist’s gaze and perspective are always slightly different from a local’s perception and opinions because it is not a familiar atmosphere for them. They do not have the same emotional connections to places and things, but they offer a new perspective on the society and other aspects of the place. The tourist gaze reveals details that may be overlooked by locals, who passively experience the place every day.

The tourist gaze plays an integral role in characterizing the New York skyline, and specifically analyzing the view of it. When tourists view the skyline, it has a completely different meaning, symbolism, and personal connection from those of local New Yorkers. We’ve found and established that people come to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the Brooklyn Bridge Park to view the iconic skyline of Lower Manhattan and capture the memories first-hand. Both tourists and locals have pointed out that the skyline represents the history of New York. The skyline is certainly packed with a lot of stories, symbols, culture, and history with which locals may be familiar. However, since the tourist has this unique perspective on the skyline, and specifically, the tourist gaze, these undisclosed details from a foreign perspective add a unique aspect to the view of the skyline. What do they see in the skyline?


Like several other tourists, a French man on a trip with his family to New York pointed out that he saw a collection of “buildings across ages…we see 70s, and 80s, and 90s.”[6] An image of the skyline is not one single snapshot of New York at the present, but it contains glimpses of New York over a long period of time. A woman from Ireland on a tour with her friend from England said she saw evolution in the skyline, having been to New York before: “you can see the older and the newer.” The tour guide, a Big Apple Greeter from the Bronx, saw the “progress and change” in the skyline at an even deeper level because New York City is her home, and she has watched it develop through the years.[7]

Visitors from the United States also pointed out these same observations about the history of New York City represented in the skyline. A woman from Albany, New York, visiting a friend down here in New York City claimed that it’s the history portrayed in the skyline and its uniqueness that attracts people toward it. She further says that the skyline “really represents New York for tourists,” and it’s the collection of buildings that makes up the skyline, and no one particular building stands out to her. Similarly, a man from New Jersey, who was on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade producing a short film, described the New York skyline as unique because, “if you just go from left to right, it looks like it’s a different location in each spot.” The Manhattan skyline displays a compilation of many individual parts that form a whole collection of the history, events, and unique characteristics of New York.[8]

This man from New Jersey also claimed that he saw energy in the skyline; “something’s going on out there, whether you’re a part of it or not.” There is a certain energy that emanates from the compact city that contains and controls so many things. The fast-paced beat of New Yorkers commuting throughout the city gives the city energy and a life of its own. Several tourists, including women from Argentina, and the man and his mother from Brazil, mentioned that they see a powerful city in the New York skyline. The woman from Brazil strongly stated, “this skyline, for me, means the power of the United States.” Her son went on to say that “all of the context in which [the buildings] are seated; it’s very beautiful to see,” and it represents the “powerful and economical strengths that the United States, as a whole, has.”[9]

When asked what he saw in the skyline, a man visiting from Belgium with friends immediately mentioned the inner workings of the city. He said that he saw people working in offices at computers, doing their daily jobs and operating in normal routines. Further, he pointed out the great scales of New York, explaining, “what we see is something really different than Brussels, Belgium. It’s like the whole country for us now; the scales are so different. We feel really little, really small.” The size of the buildings and the number of them condensed on the small island of Manhattan is astounding, especially for those who come from rural, suburban, or even other, smaller urban areas. When they compared a map of New York to the size of Brussels before they came, they found that New York was large in comparison, and now, being in the city, it felt even larger. He described the scales as unhuman.[10] Similarly, a woman from Germany stated, “for me, it is incredible that all of it is manmade, and most of the buildings are so old already, and that the technology was there at that time, and [it contains] all of the different influences from different parts of the world and centuries.”[11] These incredible qualities of the skyline describe yet another aspect of the skyline that draws so many tourists and locals to view it.

When asked if the skyline reminded them of anything, the group of tourists from Belgium said it reminded them of board games and video games they used to play, specifically one called “Hotel,” which featured skyscrapers and busy cities. New York’s skyline is definitely a model skyline for depictions of generic cities in the media. Other tourists related particular buildings to icons of other cities, such as London’s Big Ben. However, most claimed that the Manhattan skyline is unique because it contains the major icons, such as the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building, that strictly define New York City. Nothing else can compare because the New York skyline is so iconic and universally recognized by people across the world. Some simply said that the skyline reminds them of New York. Both tourists and locals explained that New York City’s iconic skyline is distinct because of the history it illustrates that is unique to New York City.


Thus, the tourist gaze offers us a unique point of view of the skyline local New Yorkers see, pass, and walk through every day with out-of-the-ordinary perspectives and details. The tourist gaze and the tourist’s perspective provide these unique insights of the view of the skyline and the skyline’s significance and symbolism to people from all over the world. From as far as Brazil and France to as close as New Jersey and upstate New York, tourists desire to get this picture-perfect view of the downtown Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park. While each person’s perspective and connection to the skyline is different, all viewers of the skyline agree that New York’s skyline is unique. Most also agree that the skyline tells a story and contains a history, which, many will claim, is essential to New York’s identity and representation through the skyline.


[1] John Urry. The Tourist Gaze (SAGE Publications, 1990).

[2] John Urry. The Tourist Gaze (SAGE Publications, 1990), 3.

[3] John Urry. The Tourist Gaze (SAGE Publications, 1990), 11.

[4] John Urry. The Tourist Gaze (SAGE Publications, 1990), 3.

[5] John Urry. The Tourist Gaze (SAGE Publications, 1990), 3.

[6] In-person interview with French man and his family, October 18, 2014.

[7] In-person interview with Big Apple Greeter from the Bronx and two women from Ireland and England, November 2, 2014.

[8] In-person interview with woman from Albany, New York, October 18, 2014.

[9] In-person interview with man and his mother from Brazil, October 18, 2014.

[10] In-person interview with man and his friends from Belgium, November 2, 2014.

[11] In-person interview with woman from Germany, November 2, 2014.