When someone asks me what they should know when visiting New York for the first time, I don’t always know where to start. I’ve decided to take a different approach here with some NYC local tips to help you navigate your trip better. They may sound quite humorous but after a few trips to NYC, quite helpful. So here are a few things to know:
1. You have not seen all of New York City until you’ve left Manhattan.
As much as I love Manhattan, spending most of my life in a small part of Chelsea (before the Highline), there is more to New York City. Meaning there are four other boroughs, that make up "New York City" aside from Manhattan, they are: Brooklyn, Staten Island, Bronx and Queens.
2. There is an unspoken public transit etiquette
Escalators: The left side is the moving lane, the right side is the standing lane. It should come to no surprise that many New Yorkers are on the move. Try not to get in their way, by standing on one side with your friend/carry-on/shopping bags/etc.. on the other side.
Subways: We're all stuck inside the subway tin for a while, so a few transit etiquettes to know;
Do let people off the train before you get on, it is the most organized way. They get off, meaning there is now space to get on. Don’t block the subway doors even if it’s crowded as people might be trying to get out of the subway doors.
Don't play loud music or speak super loud —especially during the morning rush. Loud talking and playing music without headphones will get you death stares from your fellow passengers.
Do try to take up as little space as possible—especially if the train is crowded. Take off bulky bags and hold them in one hand, or rest them on the floor between your legs.
Do give up your seat to the elderly or anyone who is obviously injured or pregnant.
Don't make eye contact with other people in your train car. It’s considered rude, you can look around, but don't be that creep staring at someone the whole time.
Don't assume that an empty train car is luck. There is always a (usually very bad-smelling) reason that it’s empty.
Express v. Local Subway Trains: It gets confusing I know, so always check which train to get on (even apple maps can tell you). Local trains take twice as long to get to the main stops, but express does not stop everywhere. Most sides of the street will lead you to the entrances; East Bound/ West Bound and Uptown / Downtown can be a bit confusing, but a good subway map should help you figure out the endpoint.
3. New Yorkers are not that rude, I think…
Okay so yes, a lot of people that I meet expect New Yorkers to be complete a**holes, but like anywhere, you might find someone you don’t like. Midtown is full of New Yorkers walking to/from work and in a rush, but if you head downtown there are so many good souls who will talk your ear off if given the opportunity. Just as there is escalator etiquette, there are a few tips to know when in New York:
Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look up and/or take photos. Try to move off to the side. We get you're excited to take photos, but stopping in the middle of the sidewalk causes a delay for others walking.
Let fast people walk on the right side and if you’re going slow, stay on the edges away from the middle.
If you’re with a group, do not walk all together hand in hand. You literally create a human wall blocking others from passing you.
I swear they're nice. Just try not to piss them off, give them a chance and don’t cut them on line.
4. Should you bring your car?
In general, I don’t recommend driving (insane traffic) or parking in New York City unless you know the parking rules like the back of your hand. Parking garages are expensive, luckily NYC has a parking app (Smooth Park) that highlights where you can legally park for free/pay meter. Check it before you go, if the map is basically red... you will NOT find parking.
It costs money to drive through tunnels, so take bridges when you can and be prepared to pay going to/ from other boroughs or New Jersey. Look up the carpool rules, crossing the Lincoln Tunnel/Holland Tunnel can go from a $12.50 EZ-Pass charge to $6.50 simply by having 3+ people in the car.
5. Don’t walk everywhere.
I consider this one of my most important tips for first time visitors to NYC. My husband complained the first time I took him around Manhattan, while I may be used to walking from Central Park to the tip of Battery Park. It takes a lot of energy and time, so take public transit in between neighborhoods. It’s good to see one neighborhood, hop on the train to the next, and then hop back on the train once you’re done.
You’ll still be walking enough, but you’ll be able to see so much more than if you decide to walk just for hours on end. (Also it gets tiresome to walk past the millionth office building in Midtown.)
6. Decipher the Grid.
There is a "cheat sheet" I suggest to friends, most look at me like I'm crazy but to me it makes sense. Manhattan is a simple grid (Uptown (North), Downtown (South), East, West), but if you happen to get confused while walking around here's a tip:
Streets vs. Avenues: Streets are shorter, going east to west. Avenues are longer, going north to south. 5th Avenue is the center point, street addresses west of 5th Avenue will change to (example: 123 West 25th Street) and vice versa.
East vs. West: Main streets like 14th, 23rd, 34th and 42nd street, cars will be driving in both directions, but typical streets alternate in one-way directions. On even streets, cars are driving east (E = East). So walking with the cars = East / Away from the cars = West... On odd streets, cars are driving west. etc. So if you're walking on 13th street and don't know where you're going, look over at the cars. If you're walking in the same direction the cars are driving, you are walking west.
North vs. South: This one gets a little trickier to explain. Avenues alternate direction, it goes North, South, North, South and so on. Main avenues to remember like (5th & 7th), cars drive South [5th = S and Seventh = S], so if you're walking in the same direction as the cars, you are walking South. 6th Avenue is in between 5th & 7th Avenue (they alternate, remember) so cars will be travelling North. Other main avenues like (8th & 1st), cars travel North [8 looks like balloons flying up, 1 looks like an arrow pointing up] - weird I know, but it helps you remember. So if you happen to be walking on 8th Avenue and don't know which direction you're going. Again look over at the cars, if you're walking in the same direction as the cars, you are going "up" North.
7. you can’t see everything in one trip.
A lot of my friends come to NYC feeling overwhelmed and feel like they need to see/do all the major attractions. I came up with a day-to-day travel plan to help ease the travel stress. But don’t feel like you need to do everything, consider what you actually want to see rather than ticking off every box off some list you found on the internet. Because the truth is you will never see everything. New York City never stays the same… so don’t obsess and just enjoy. I'm constantly discovering new neighborhoods, museum exhibits, and eateries! The major attractions will always be there, the Empire State Building isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
8. Don’t waste your money on just a view.
Speaking of the Empire State Building. I can't count the amount of times I've gone to Top of the Rock or the Empire State Building because my friends saw an instagram photo and had to go see the view. It’s beautiful, but if you’re looking to save some money, I started suggesting rooftop cafes and bars, because why pay $50 for the view when you can get that and a drink, for half the price, and they loved it. There are so many great rooftop spots in New York City, so if you’re looking for a nice skyline view, don’t feel that you need to go to the top of the Empire State Building.
A great spot is actually at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, if you happen to be in the museum anyway, pop up to their rooftop cafe. It has a gorgeous view of Central Park and Manhattan.
9. Avoid Times Square
I think of Times Square as a million light bulbs that attracts the worst of NYC: the crowds, overpriced things, and chain restaurants. I have friends who live in New York and have never been to Times Square, just as I have friends in Egypt who have never been to the pyramids. Strange, but true. New Yorkers avoid Times Square at all costs, but for visiting tourists it's considered a must see especially at night.
That said, I understand if you want to see it at night. Times Square at night is like daylight, so your photos will actually come out better and it’s quite atmospheric to see the entirety of Times Square lit up like it's Christmas everyday.
10. It's a Food Lover's Heaven.
It's been said that you can eat somewhere new everday in New York and it would take almost 23 years. There’s thousands of cool eateries and the best places to eat in NYC is an ever-changing list. There’s your usual TGI Fridays, but why eat there when there’s New York Style Pizza! (Don't let anyone tell you Chicago style is better... it's not).
For the best Dim Sum my friend took me on a trip to Flushing, Queens; and you can't beat 10th Avenue's Pizza, especially with their kosher pepperoni pizza. There are so many choices for unique eateries, so food lovers, consider this a competition of how many you can try while in New York. If you don't know how to avoid chain restauants, check apps like Open Table for a list of restauant options nearby.
11. Ah, The holiday season in New York is magical... but expensive.
Whether it's Christmas or New Year's Eve, the holiday season in New York is definitely something to experience at least once. It's a magical time in New York City; the store windows are decorated, there are children skating at Rockefeller Center as the tree stands beautifullly lit, and hot chocolate waiting at every corner of the city. It's my favorite time of the year, but you'll pay a premium to be in New York around this time. Plan ahead to find the best flights and hotel/Airbnb prices.
12. You don’t need to be fashionable in New York, but it Can Be Fun.
I love to dress up, it’s no secret that I love being a little fashionista. But if you’re wondering what to wear for your trip to New York, don’t feel like you need to dress up. Despite its reputation, nobody cares whether you look fashionable or cool. The beauty of NYC is you find all types of people with all types of fashion tastes — uniqueness is valued, so bring some fun clothes with you OR wear your comfiest, coziest clothes. Don’t be surprised if someone might ask you for a photo as they love your outfit, this is where street-style flourishes.
That said: don’t wear heels if you can’t walk for miles in them. You can always carry them in your bag if you want them for photos, but if your goal is to SEE as much as possible, I recommend a comfortable pair of sneakers rather than heels. You’ll be walking miles, even if you don’t intend to.
13. Give NYC Enough Time
Wondering how long to spend in New York City? I usually recommend that you take spend 3 days in New York at minimum. Which I think just covers through the main areas of Manhattan (read more). I consider 5 days in New York City to be the sweet spot for being able to explore New York without being rushed. Of course, the longer the better, as you can take more time to see the outer boroughs!
I could go on and on, but some things you learn when you visit, like the fact that there is no such thing as jaywalking, instead cross the street when traffic allows. I may be biased, but to me, New York City is just magical — it gives you that “anything-can-happen” feeling. New York City can wear you down, but it can also show you all its charm; from the stories that made Humans of New York famous, to spotting celebrities, finding the best food spots, and seeing some great street fashion — you’ll fall in love with New York (or just really hate it), but you’ll never know until you try it.