Over the years, I have been asked for a lot of New York City tips. As a native, I get it: it’s a tough city to dive into, so I’ve made a collection of tips for visiting New York to help you out and prepare you for what to know before you go to NYC.
I’m a New Yorker: born and raised. I grew up in Manhattan and now lived in Queens for over 10 years. I taught English as a Foreign Language in Chelsea, Manhattan and get asked for any advice for visiting NYC quite a lot by my students.
Any New Yorker worth their salt has a couple of ideas in their back pocket when asked about any tips for visiting New York City. This city is so big and varied and ever-changing, though, how do you even begin?
Starting from the most important point, which, in my opinion, begins with the subway: I’ll go into advice on transportation in New York. It’s the beginning and likely end of all journeys.
If you want help on what to know before you go to NYC, you’ll need to know some general facts about the place and what to stay away from. I’ll go into that as well.
Traveling Around New York City
There are a number of different travel options in New York:
- The Subway
- Your own Car
- The Bus
Trying to wrap your mind around this 472-station system is daunting for anyone. There are different colors, numbers and letters. They are not intuitive (and most of the time, not well marked either!).
There is no way to avoid the subway, though. As dirty, smelly, crowded and frustrating as it can be, it is absolutely necessary for getting around. My first biggest piece of advice for visiting NYC is: buy a metro card and get going. This system goes pretty much everywhere at all times.
Is the subway safe to use?
Yes. But, here’s a NYC tip: Just make sure you look at the seat before sitting. Any of us locals can tell you a story about sitting in something kind of gross, so make sure you don’t collect your own “squish and tell” story!
Before riding in the NYC subway or on any public transportation in this town you will be required to wear a mask. NYC was, at one point, the Covid-hotspot of the USA in 2020 and we take this virus very seriously: you should, too. Wear a mask.
On the subway platforms you will be reminded of wearing your mask and to stand 6-feet apart. It’s a little post-apocalyptic to hear the droning overhead announcement over and over, but it’s the right thing to do anyway.
Here are a couple things to know before you go to NYC for the first time and use the subway:
It’s Name is the Subway
Please don’t call it the Underground. The Metro. The El.
It’s the Subway in New York.
Refer to the Subway Lines by their Number and Letter not their Color.
If you ask a New Yorker where the “yellow line” is, no one will know what you want or need. For example: the N/Q/W/R trains are all yellow, but go to different places; go express; and go local, even though they are all yellow. It’s confusing, I know, but it’s how we do it here.
If you need a specific train ask for that letter or number only. For example:
“Excuse me, where is the A train?” or “Where can I get the 4, 5, 6 trains?”
Trains go Express and Local
Looking at the subway map, you’ll see a plethora of little black and white dots representing the 470+ stations around the city.
A black dot = local station.
A white dot = express station.
Do be aware of what station you need to get to. Don’t get on an express train hoping to get off at, say, 77th street in Manhattan because you will not get off there. You’ll blow past it on your 4 or 5 train and wind up at 86th street (an express stop!).
Paying for the Subway
New York City has been working hard to upgrade their system from the classic Metrocard (a thin, flimsy plastic piece that gets lost the minute you drop it and never biodegrades) to the OMNY.
The thing to know before you go to NYC is that the public transportation has slowly upgraded all of their payment methods to the OMNY (thank you public transportation gods!). OMNY (One Metro New York) is a computerized system that will charge the fare to your credit card with a pay wave. Easy. Simple. Much faster. No need to buy a Metrocard!
You can learn more about what OMNY is here.
Subway Schedules Change Frequently and Sometimes without Explanation
I wish this wasn’t true. It is, though.
Expect service changes on the weekends, during the night, and off-peak times. This means that unless it is between the rush hours of 7am-10:30am and 3:30pm-9pm check service announcements for any changes that could affect your ride.
This is an ongoing problem that even local New Yorkers can’t keep up with. It is incredibly frustrating and confusing.
The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) will post updates on their twitter account which you can follow here.
Please note that due to the Corona Virus and regular cleaning schedules, the trains can also be affected by that.
The Subway Goes Pretty Much Anywhere You Want to Go
Despite its shortcomings, the subway is an incredible resource.
The Subway is one of the most extensive and practical public transit systems in the world. It runs 24 hours a day, everyday. It’s safe and cheap.
Taxis are Slow and Expensive
Don’t fall for the charm: they’ll gouge you. Also, traffic in this town is no joke. You’ll crawl at 5 mph and it’ll cost you .50 cents a minute. Ouch.
There are a Number of Options
Uber, Lyft, Yellow and Green cabs and any number of other ride-share options you can think of exist in New York. One of the biggest tips for NYC is that you should try to avoid taxis if you can. The traffic here can be awful – especially if it’s raining or any kind of bad weather.
Here’s a tip for visiting New York: Taxis are just not worth the cost, in my opinion.
What’s the Difference Between a Yellow and a Green Taxi?
A Yellow taxi will service all 5 boroughs of the city, including downtown Manhattan. You’ll usually find them cruising the streets looking for people.
The Green taxis are the outer borough taxis that service Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and North of 110th street on the West Side, and 96th Street on the East Side of Manhattan. This doesn’t mean that they won’t take you into mid-town Manhattan, they can, they just can’t cruise that area for more pick-ups; only drop-offs.
The price of a ride in a green and a yellow taxi are the same.
How Do I Hail a Cab?
This is pretty easy: simply stand on a corner or street edge and hold up your hand deliberately.
Do NOT stand in a bus stop to do this, people will get really annoyed at you if you hail a cab and block a bus. A big piece of advice for visiting New York City is to try not to tick people off by getting in their way (but more on that later).
Taxis that are available will have the light in their taxi ID (located on the top of the car’s roof) illuminated. If that light is not on, the car is off-duty or in use.
Don’t Bring your Own Car
Parking is insane. You’ll pay an arm and a leg for a garage! That said, here’s a tip for visiting NYC: use SpotHero if you need to bring your car. It’s a good resource for helping you find a garage to park in at a reasonable rate. This is not an affiliate link: I just highly recommend them.
Traffic, like I’ve said before, can be insane. Just, don’t do it.
If you do drive into New York City, expect to pay tolls. Tolls can be upward of $16 one way.
Here’s some advice for visiting NYC: take the train.
If you get nothing out of this set of advice, and only come away with one thing about what to know before you go to NYC, it should be to not bring your car.
People Honk. A lot.
This place is super noisy. The sirens, alarms, honks and screeches can really get overwhelming. We still haven’t been able to figure out why people honk so much in this city. It’s aggressive and stupid and they do it all the time. If you need a break, go to a park and relax. Central Park is lovely.
Drivers in the city can also be really aggressive. They don’t mean it personally, it’s just cut-throat out there. The good thing is that if you have to drive through the city, you’ll never go very fast so as long as you are deliberate and careful, you’ll get where you need to go!
Tips for New York City driving: take it slow, be deliberate, and don’t be polite: take what you need and move along.
New York City is incredibly walkable. The grid system in Manhattan makes navigating very easy. Most of the city is very flat and the sidewalks are well maintained, so you can walk without having to look at your feet!
You don’t have to walk everywhere, but on beautiful days you might want to! One of the biggest NYC tips I like to give is to walk to places that are off the beaten path. This means, visiting neighborhoods that are outside the big tourist hubs.
You can walk in and around any number of parks that are in New York.
I’d recommend visiting:
- Central Park
- Riverside Park
- Prospect Park
- Battery Park
- Brooklyn Bridge Park
- Flushing Meadows
- New York Botanical Gardens/ Bronx Zoo
- Fort Tryon Park
To name a few…
A lot of people don’t realize that one of the biggest things about what to know before you go to New York is that Buses are sometimes your only option, especially if you are coming in from LaGuardia Airport.
Buses in New York can be hit-or-miss. Sometimes they are real time-savers and sometimes they can wholly suck.
There are several bus systems in the city:
- Select Bus Service (SBS)
- Regular/Local Bus Routes
- Express Bus Service
SBS (Select Bus Service)
The Select Bus Service works like this: you pay at a machine at the bus stop and the machine gives you a receipt. This is what you take when the SBS arrives. You don’t pay as you board, simply present your receipt if asked.
You may enter the bus at any entrance.
The LaGuardia buses, like the M60 and the Q70 are SBS buses and you must pay before you get on. The fare is the same as the local buses: $2.75.
SBS buses have the highest ridership among bus routes in the city. Converting to the SBS makes the bus route faster as passengers can get on and off without inserting their Metrocard one at a time (this saves a lot of time – let me tell you!).
The regular buses will criss-cross the entire city (like this one of Manhattan), covering any gaps in neighborhoods that the subway won’t reach.
I would not recommend taking the bus in Manhattan below 66th street: things can get pretty hairy down there and traffic snarls are commonplace.
The regular buses, like the M96 and M4 are pretty great because they cut across Central Park and can get you from the East Side to the West Side (or vis-versa) relatively quickly. (Although the M79-SBS and the M86-SBS are a bit faster!).
On regular buses, you pay your fare on board the bus with either a Metrocard or change (no paper bills!).
What Does the ‘M’ or ‘Q’ Before the Bus Number Mean?
If you see a letter before the bus number that generally corresponds to the borough that the bus services. So:
- M = Manhattan
- Q = Queens
- Bx = The Bronx
- B = Brooklyn
- S = Staten Island
Citibike has now spread around the city and offers visitors and locals a chance to rent a bike to get around. This is a great alternative to walking or any other form of transportation.
In the past few years, New York City has made a lot of efforts to increase bike path access and increase safety for bike riders. I’ve been genuinely impressed with the effort to get more people on bikes and it shows. As of 2019, there are over 1,300+ miles of bike lanes around NYC, pretty sweet! Here is a map of them.
There are also a number of bike rental stores dotted around the city if you feel to rent a bike for the day. Simply doing a google search for the name of the park you want to see and “bike rental” will give you a healthy list of options.
Now that you have some transportation tips for visiting New York, you need to:
Learn the Best Way to Do Manhattan
If you haven’t read our other blog post about 7 Off the Beaten Track Places to See in New York, then you should check it out. Manhattan is really awesome, but I think some of the best food in the city is in Queens. Also, there are far fewer tourists in other boroughs (there are 4 other than Manhattan!).
Going to the farther flung places in New York City can be scary for some people, which I get. Here are some things to know before you go to Manhattan:
Avoid Times Square
It’s in a lot of movies, but this is a place locals hate and for good reason: it’s packed full of tourists, it’s noisy, and it’s over-priced.
As far as New York City tips go: If you must see it, go at night.
Times Square is a destination I am asked a lot by my international students. It’s iconic. I hate it. Don’t ask me to go with you.
A Broadway Show is not Cheap… but There are Other Options
I hate this about Broadway, it can be prohibitively expensive. That being said, here’s one of those New York City tips: you can go see a show for as little as 30 bucks if you try to enter a lottery or get to the theatre really early to pick up rush tickets at the box office. It’s all a gamble, but worth saving your wallet $100/ ticket.
There are alternatives to Broadway that include off-Broadway, independent theatre, and the Fringe Festival in the summer.
NYC tip: When I look into going to Broadway, I try to go during Broadway week, a deal offered by the city twice a year. If you can schedule your trip in that time period, you can get 2×1 tickets!
Don’t Eat a Hot dog from a Street cart
One of the biggest mistakes my students make is eating a hot dog from a “dirty-water cart”.
Here’s a big thing to remember about what to know before you go to NYC: Locals don’t eat the street vendor dogs.
If you want a good ‘dog, go to a Papaya joint (Grey’s, Mike’s) and get a recession special (2 ‘dogs and a papaya juice for a couple bucks) there. I wrote about some of my favorite places to eat in NYC if you want more info.
Stay Away From the Chain Stores!
Here’s a thing to know before you go to NY: this city has no Walmarts and THANK GOD.
Part of what makes this such a fantastic town is the diversity of shops, stalls and stores. For the love of local goods: shop there! You’ll find them all over the place, but especially in Brooklyn and the outer boroughs.
Buy Necessities at a Pharmacy
Pharmacies are more of a one-size-fits-all store in New York.
You can get medicine, but also snacks, school supplies, feminine hygiene products, and beer. If you need something in a pinch, you should look in a pharmacy. (One of the tips for visiting New York my students are perpetually baffled by! Aren’t pharmacies where they only sell medicine? Ha!).
Give NYC Enough Time
One week won’t even scratch the surface. I know a lot of tourists come into midtown, branch out and see some of lower Manhattan, and then go home. They’re totally bemused by New Yorkers’ ability to live in a city like that.
The truth is: very few New Yorkers live like what you see in mid-town. You’re seeing one of the busiest places on the planet! I’ve lived here my whole life and still have more to explore. It’s a beautiful place, but it is HUGE.
It’s Possible to do NYC Cheaply
Despite the stereotype, you can do New York on a relatively small budget. Take a look at my post about cheap nights out in New York to get some ideas.
Don’t Obsess Over the Touristy Things: You can’t See Them All.
Many of my students get CityPass and then rush around trying to see all of the sites before the expiry date. The sites are nice, but there are SO MANY OF THEM. You’ll just have to come back another time!
Go to a Rooftop Bar
These are everywhere in New York and they provide spectacular views of the city for the cost of a drink. I highly recommend getting your beautiful butt to one of these and sip a martini as you contemplate the majesty of the skyline.
One more of the (many) things to know before you go to NYC: go to the rooftop bar at sunset, that’s the best time to see New York light up.
New Yorkers Can be Nice
Lost? You can ask for directions. Forgot your bag at a restaurant? It’s likely still there. New York is safe and the people who live here are willing to help you. However, if you are an idiot… see below.
Be Aware of the Space you are Taking Up
Please DO NOT EVER STOP in a corridor of the subway. Don’t zone out on your phone as you cross the street. Don’t take up a sidewalk street with your friends with selfies. New Yorkers have very little space to share with each other and we will get nasty if you take up more than your fair share.
New York is Dirty
Like, super dirty. Get used to it and get ready to jump those nasty puddles.
The Real NY is not in a McDonald’s
I can’t stress this enough. Thou shalt not come to New York and then eat at Micky D’s!
Some Laws Apply, Some Don’t
I wish I had a better way to put this, I don’t know how to fit this into snack-sized tips for visiting New York. Technically, you are not allowed to cross the street until the light says you can. But, like, everyone does. It’s more of a “if there are no cars, cross; if there are cars, cross faster” kind of attitude here.
People Assume you Speak English and You Live Here.
This is always one of the first things to know before you go to NYC I give my students: Act like you live here. Walk with purpose! And if someone asks for directions you know you’ve won. tips for visiting New York
Observe Covid Precautions and Get Vaccinated
I realize that for some people this is a big pill to swallow, but this is the reality: New York has enacted several ordinances and laws about visitors’ vaccination status.
What to know before you go to NYC? Where you can and can’t go if you are unvaccinated. I wouldn’t recommend coming to New York if you are not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as you won’t be allowed to eat indoors, go to museums, events or the theatre.
For more information about that you can check out this Covid vaccination status site that goes into more details about what to expect.
Here’s a tip for visiting NYC: bring proof of vaccination.
Anything I left out? Any other tips for visiting New York you wish you had known?