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30 New York Tips To Ensure a Smooth First Time in NYC

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If you’re planning your first trip to New York City, you’re probably slightly overwhelmed. New York has been the subject of so many films and stories that you’re likely coming to it with a ton of preconceptions and a fair bit of trepidation.

I lived in NYC for 9 years, but I remember what it was like when I first moved to New York. It was terrifying – everyone seemed to follow some set of rules that I didn’t know and had to ad lib along the way. But eventually, you learn the choreography of the city, and the city slowly becomes less overwhelming and even, dare I say, a bit familiar?

I’m here to share with you all my best New York tips to make your trip run smoothly, distilled from my cumulative years of knowledge of this intoxicating, immense city. Don’t be freaked out by the sheer volume of this post — I have a lot of opinions — but I wanted to make this a solid, thorough resource for those traveling to New York for the first time.

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, or suggest things I haven’t covered!

New York Tips for Sidewalk Etiquette

Practice proper sidewalk etiquette or prepare for death stares

Even though I said New Yorkers are actually pretty cool people and that whole “rude New Yorker” thing is overblown, there’s one crucial exception: do not fuck with the sidewalk.

There are few things guaranteed to elicit the X-ray glare of New Yorkers faster than messing up basic sidewalk etiquette. Luckily, it’s pretty freaking simple – basically, follow normal escalator rules, and don’t be an idiot.

Keep it moving

This is a New Yorker’s #1 pet peeve and my top NYC tip for tourists. Absolutely do not stop in the middle of the sidewalk to text, take photos, or check directions.

If you really need to stop and figure out directions or respond to an urgent message, stand on the curb or by a storefront so that you’re out of the line of people walking. Simple.

Single file, please

If you’re part of a couple, don’t walk holding hands at an insane distance taking up all the sidewalk, or if you’re in a group of 3+, don’t walk in all in one horizontal line. Both things make it impossible for people to easily pass you.

Trust me, it’s infuriating to try to weave past a pack of tourists who have inexplicably decided they need to walk at exactly the same latitude while you’re late for something (and let’s face it, New Yorkers are usually late because our subway system absolutely sucks — more on that in just a bit).

Keep to the right so people can pass

Let me dispell another myth for you: you do not need to walk like a bat out of hell to keep up with New Yorkers. We really don’t care if you walk slowly — New Yorkers are used to weaving past people they need to pass. In fact, I dare say we almost enjoy it.

But keep to the right and don’t zigzag around in an iPhone daze. This makes it easy for faster-walking people to pass you, and all will be well.

Don’t block the bike path and always look for cyclists

I biked year-round (yes, including winters, because I am insane) in New York City for 4 years. Naturally, I have strong feels about bike lanes. For one — they are not a place for sidewalk spillover. Yes, I get that the sidewalks are crowded, but cyclists need to use these bike lanes or else be at the mercy of hoards of sociopathic drivers.

This goes especially for the Brooklyn Bridge, where it’s so miserable for cyclists that many of us actively avoid it and go out of our way to take the Manhattan Bridge instead (where there still somehow manages to be pedestrians in our bike paths, despite having an entirely dedicated section, but I digress…). If you’re walking the Brooklyn Bridge — which is definitely a must on any New York itinerary — please avoid the bike lanes and keep an eye out for cyclists.

Even more importantly, if you’re taking a cab or Uber, do not open the car door without looking for cyclists first! One of my biggest fears as a cyclist was not being hit by a car, which I can do a decently good job of avoiding, but being “doored” by an unsuspecting driver or passenger, which is pretty much impossible to predict as a cyclist. Before opening the door streetside, check your mirror and blind spot. It could keep someone out of the hospital, or worse.

You can jaywalk, but don’t be a dick about it

New Yorkers are notorious for crossing the street at any time. Don’t overdo this and be a jerk who walks in front of cars who have the right of way. If you feel you must cross the street and a car is moving in your direction, you better freaking hustle. The basic rule of thumb is let the person who has the right of way use it, and don’t be an asshole who ruins someone else’s day.

I hope it’s getting better, but New York drivers are also awful about running lights and making left turns without looking for crossing traffic, so be cautious and keep your eye open when crossing — yes, even if you have the right of way. New York introduced the Vision Zero traffic safety program and it does seem to be working, but drivers can still be real assholes in New York… so always be cautious, even if you have the signal.

Save some time in your itinerary to just walk around

One of my biggest New York tips is to not plan too much. Some of the greatest joys in the city are just found walking around and making discoveries on your own. New York is such a vast and ever-changing city that even the best-planned itinerary will never encompass everything.

A few of my favorite neighborhoods to stroll around in are as follows: the West Village and Alphabet City in Manhattan; Greenpoint and Park Slope in Brooklyn; and Sunnyside and Jackson Heights in Queens.

New York Public Transportation Tips

The subway is hell on earth, but it beats the alternative, I guess

Don’t be fooled by people who claim New York’s subway system is great and efficient. It’s not, and it’s been spiraling downward for the better part of a decade (if you’re interested, read here to  learn how it got so bad).

However, traffic is also horrible, thanks to a huge number of bridge-and-tunnel commuters. So buses and taxis aren’t exactly great alternatives, either. Walking is my personal favorite way of getting around the city, but it’s not always realistic, as NYC is massive.

Factor in some extra time before anything super time-sensitive, like a Broadway show or getting to the airport. Literally, you may want to give yourself an extra 30 minutes to an hour, and I wish I was joking. Spend that extra time enjoying a coffee or going for a walk.

And for everything else, just accept that lateness has become a quintessential part of the New York experience. Can you really say you’ve been to New York if you haven’t been stuck underground for upwards of an hour on a crowded train? (Side tip: if you’re claustrophobic, bring your best anti-anxiety meds).

Oh, and that suspiciously empty subway car? Yeah, best avoided.

Follow a few basic rules to make riding the subway slightly less hellish

As decrepit as our public transportation system is, riding the subway is a New York must. It’s as iconic as it is maddeningly necessary. Here are a few simple tips to make your life — and the lives of those around you — a little easier. Also, rides add up, so I suggest buying a weekly unlimited card if you think you’ll take 3-4 rides a day over 3+ days.

1) Move into the car rather than standing at the edges blocking the door. You will be able to get off later, don’t worry.
2) If you’re stuck at the edges of the door on a crowded train, get off to let people get off the train more easily and get back on.
3) Never, ever get on the train before you’ve let everyone who’s exiting the train off first.
4) Take off your backpack and wear it in front while you’re on a crowded train
5) If possible, avoid taking the subway during the morning and evening rush hours. This is for your own sanity.

Please don’t tip “showtime” dancers

As someone who once had to take the Q train to work over the Brooklyn Bridge every day, let me tell you, there was nothing I hated more after a long day’s work than “showtime” — when people come into the subway cars blasting music and doing breakdancing and gymnastics routines on moving train cars.

It is legal to busk in the subway stations, but not on the cars, and frankly, it’s pretty dangerous — not to mention irritating — to do an intense, involved gymnastic routine on a moving subway car. But tourists eat it up, which is why this illegal and obtrusive trend continues. Feel free to tip buskers who are doing it legally (in the stations, in parks, and on the street), but don’t encourage illegal behavior on the subway cars. Our commutes suck enough as it is.

If you want to ride the bus, you better have a loaded MetroCard or $2.75 in change

Riding the bus in New York is ridiculously annoying if you don’t have a MetroCard. Our incredibly antiquated system requires you have exact change, which would only be mildly annoying if it weren’t for the fact that the U.S.’s largest coin is a quarter. Meaning you need at a bare minimum 11 coins to ride the bus. No bills are accepted, and the bus driver will not have change. There are precious few bus stations where you can purchase a ticket streetside, and most are in places where you can easily take the subway, anyway.

The easiest thing to do if you know you need to take a bus often is to purchase an unlimited or prepaid MetroCard. But honestly, there are precious few instances where a bus will come in handy compared to the subway, so I’d avoid the bus if you can.

Mastering the art of the MetroCard swipe is an acquired art

I’ll admit it — even after 9 years of living in New York, I suck big time at swiping myself into the subway, almost embarrassingly so. I think I always swipe just a bit too fast. Don’t be embarrassed if you can’t get your card recognized on the first go.

Our machines suck and do this to everyone (usually as a train is just pulling into the station while you’re on your way to a first date or an important job interview). Continue trying, slightly slower than you’d think you’d need to — that’s what works for me, at least. Give it a few tries, and if it’s not working, there’s no shame in moving onto the next turnstile. Sometimes the turnstiles can be a little finicky.

Please, get out of Manhattan and see at least ONE outer borough

Listen, New York is not just Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. I urge you to explore beyond just Manhattan and see what the daily life for most New Yorkers is really like. So many people say “I could never live in New York” — but really, what they’re thinking of is the hoards of people in Times Square and Midtown and Columbus Circle. Here’s the thing — most of us could never live there either. I’d have gone nuts far earlier than I did.

Visting Brooklyn and Queens and getting a bit off the beaten path, you’ll see how New York is far less busy and expensive than you think. Each neighborhood has a really distinct feel, almost more like a collection of towns than one large city. And of course, there’s also the Bronx and Staten Island, places which I still barely know after 9 years, which are also ripe for exploring.

Tips for New York Bars & Restaurants

Some places are cash only, so check first if you don’t have enough cash to cover you

For some odd reason, many restaurants in New York are cash only, which can be super frustrating if you’re someone like me who prefers to use a card. I don’t know what it is about New York, but it’s the American city that — to me, at least — seems to be the least friendly to credit cards.

I recommend carrying a small amount of cash at all times as ATM fees can be steep (often $3+ at a bodega, plus whatever your bank charges) if you have to take out cash unexpectedly.

Be prepared to wait in line for just about any place you’ve seen on Instagram

I don’t understand it, but people in New York seem to love waiting in line for the new, hot Instagram-food sensation. As in, those ridiculous Black Tap milkshakes you’ve seen? Sure, go for it if you want to waste two hours of your life standing in line.

I’m incredibly impatient and personally don’t think there’s much in this world worth waiting for, especially in a city like New York when you’re so spoiled for choice. But I’m also not one to jump on the latest Unicorn latte bandwagon, so perhaps I’m a bit biased. I’d pretty much always rather eat dumplings.

If you’re from overseas, you have to follow our tipping culture – even if you don’t like it

Nothing is more ridiculous than American tipping culture, I’m aware, but quite simply: our absurd laws make it so that servers make just about $2 an hour without tips. As a result, the customer has to step in to make sure their server doesn’t starve.

Even if you had shitty service, leave a minimum of 15%, and for anything upwards of OK service, please tip 20%. I know it’s annoying, but that’s just how it is in America. If you short them on your bill, you are essentially stealing your server’s wages. I agree that it’s wrong that it is this way, and that it should be incumbent upon employers to provide a living wage. However, you aren’t going to change anything by not leaving a tip — you’re just taking food off your server’s table, i.e., the very person who is putting food on yours.

By the time you add tax and tip, your bill will come out to 30% more than you thought it’d be. Just factor that into your food buget, acccept it and move on. If you can’t afford to eat out, don’t sit down at a restaurant – take advantage of vibrant street food and takeaway scene. At bars, tip $1 per drinks — yes, even beer — and maybe $2 if you order a more involved cocktail.

Take advantage of our amazing ethnic food

The best thing about being in New York is all the cheap, delicious, and unique ethnic restaurants you could ever dream of — what, you mean you haven’t had Uyghur food before? — are at your disposal. Even better, they’re often cheaper than your standard ‘American’ restaurant.

Go for Himalayan food in Jackson Heights, Thai food in Elmhurst, Russian food in Brighton Beach, Korean food in K-Town, Chinese food in Flushing, Filipino food in Woodside… the list goes on and on. If there’s a certain cuisine you’re after, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you with my best suggestion.

Tips for Enjoying NYC on a Budget

Take advantage of free museum nights

NYC has a ridiculous amount of museums worth visiting, though the entry fees are often quite steep. Most New Yorkers know of all the free museum nights, and it’s rare for us to pay full price for admission (we’re usually spending 50% of our salary on rent). Here are a few of the most useful.

1) The Museum of Modern Art is free on Fridays from 4–8 PM. It will be quite crowded, though.
2) Brooklyn Museum is free the first Saturday of every month from 5-11 PM, but the admission is suggested, anyway, so you can pay what you wish anytime.
3) The Jewish  Museum is free on Saturdays.
4) The Neue Galerie (one of my favorites, actually – and it’s right next to the Met) is free the first Friday of every month from 6-8 PM.
5) The 9/11 Memorial Museum is free on Tuesdays from 5-8 PM.
6) Brooklyn Botanic Gardens are free on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 AM to noon.
7) The New Museum is free on Thursdays from 7-9 PM.
8) The Morgan Library is free on Fridays from 7-9 PM (combine with a visit to the nearby MoMA, also free on Friday nights)

There are others which you can find here. Please note that the Met used to be suggested admission, but now it is so only for New York State residents. 🙁

Get stellar views on a budget

One of the best views of the city skyline can be had from the Roosevelt Island cable car, which costs just $2.75. Likewise, you can glimpse the Statue of Liberty for free on the Staten Island ferry. Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Brooklyn Promenade offer stellar views of Manhattan’s skyline as well, also for free. Sure, you can go up to the Top of the Rock or the Empire State, but I prefer these sweet free and dirt-cheap views.

If you really want a good Manhattan rooftop view, one of my favorite rooftop bars is 230 Fifth Avenue because it’s right next to the Empire State Building. However, there are countless other rooftop bars worth checking out. Sure, it’ll be a bit of a pricey drink, but it’s way cheaper than paying $30+ for the Empire State Building or the Top of the Rock (plus, you’ll get to actually see both buildings!)

Don’t drink bottled water

New York tap water is some of the best in the entire country. It tastes delicious and it’s 100% clean. In fact, I have more trouble drinking water in other places in the U.S. because I was spoiled by San Francisco and NYC tap water my whole life.

Any café or coffee shop will be happy to fill up a reusable water bottle for you, so just ask. Plus, you’re saving unnecessary plastic from ending up in landfill or the ocean.

Follow the happy hour trail

Everyone bemoans the cost of drinking in New York, to which I want to tell them: you’re doing it wrong.

There are quite a few bars that do an extremely generous happy hour. In Brooklyn, my favorite is Night of Joy which has inventive $6 cocktails and $4 beers daily from 5 to 8 PM. In Manhattan, my favorite spot is Local 138 in the Lower East Side, which offers an incredibly generous $3 draft beer selection from 4 to 9 PM. It was always my pre-game spot before hitting up a “cooler,” more expensive bar later in the evening.

Choose your attractions wisely

Many of New York’s most iconic attractions are free, but many cost quite a bit of money. Depending on the kind of sightseer you are, the CityPASS will either be a colossal waste of money or it’ll save you a bundle. I don’t think you really need to go up the Empire State Building (lived there 9 years and still never went up it, in fact, though I finally did check out the Top of the Rock!), but if you disagree with me, a pass may be worth it.

Besides the museums I listed above which offer free admission on certain days, there are also plenty of always-free attractions… wandering Central Park, riding the Staten Island Ferry, gawking at street art, walking the Brooklyn Bridge, etc., so no matter what your budget is, you can plan an itinerary to match.

Don’t pay full price for a Broadway show

If you want to see a Broadway show, I recommend not booking your tickets in advance. Sounds crazy, right? But you’ll save a fortune if you wait until you get to New York to buy your tickets. There are four TKTS discounted show booths in NYC: one in Times Square, one in Lincoln Center, one in Downtown Brooklyn, and one in South Street Seaport (Downtown Manhattan).

At TKTS booths, you can get same-day discount tickets to evening shows for up to 50% off. You can check in advance to see what shows they will have tickets for. The TKTS booth opening times vary dramatically by location, so be sure to check opening hours online first before showing up.

New York Safety Tips

Street harassment is a reality for women

Now, I can only really advise about when I last lived in New York (2016), and I’m not sure if #TimesUp and #MeToo have had any impact on New York catcalling culture… but I kind of doubt it. Let me say that I have never been sexually harassed more than in New York City — not in even Morocco, which everyone told me would take the cake for harassment (it ran a close second).

If anyone harasses you, it’s safest to just ignore them. I’ve mouthed off and lost my temper to men who harassed me, and I’ve had my safety severely threatened as a result, with men following me and threatening to beat me. I hope that things are different now, but I can only offer my own experience. I love New York, but the constant harassment really got to me after a while and was a large part of why I left the city.

That said, violent crime is pretty low for an American city

America is not one of the safest countries on Earth, which is why I’m usually bemused when people ask me about if it’s safe where I live (Bulgaria) or if I’m worried about traveling Europe.

The reality is in New York that the majority of crime is concentrated in a few areas. These are mostly neighborhoods on the periphery of New York that you wouldn’t really visit if you were an outsider. If you’re looking for a hotel or an Airbnb, most neighborhoods in Manhattan or close to it by train are pretty safe (with the exception of some neighborhoods in the Bronx – and even these neighborhoods are not that dangerous in the grand scheme of American cities). Always read the reviews of your hotel or Airbnb (more on this in a bit) with an eye for location.

Watch your belongings and take a cab or Uber home if you’ve been drinking a lot

This goes without saying and is pretty normal for any city, but as safe as it is — New York is not immune to petty theft and crime. Like most places, most crime will happen at night, and most of the victims will be vulnerable in some way – alone, intoxicated, etc.

If you want to have a big night out in New York, it’s perfectly safe to do so! But plan on having a ride home. Your safety is worth the extra bucks for cab fare.

General New York Tips

New Yorkers are not that rude – in fact, I kind of think they’re lovely

Has anyone ever struck as much fear in the hearts of the public as the legendary “rude New Yorker”? It’s probably the most pervasive New York myth, but I’m here to tell you that luckily — it’s largely not true. Outside of a small bubble (which is, oddly, the exact shape of the Financial District — I kid), New Yorkers are a pretty easy-going bunch.

We’re opinionated, yes, busy, yes, stressed, sure, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re rude. Here’s the truth: living in New York City hardens you. Trust me, when you’ve seen a woman pee through her underwear in the middle of the sidewalk in broad daylight, you’re not going to get all pissy about a tourist asking for directions.

That said, no one will rise to your defense quite like a New Yorker. We’re generally a very helpful bunch and don’t mind answering questions, giving directions, etc. – just keep it short and sweet, because we’re usually in a rush (that whole being constantly late thing wasn’t hyperbole).

Choose the time of year that you visit carefully

The summer in New York can be miserable; the winter, too. Holidays can be magical (for people who like that kind of thing — I’m a bit of a self-admitted Grinch). If you don’t care about the weather and just want to visit New York on a budget, January through March offer the best deals on hotel rooms. But don’t come during the winter unless you’re prepared for all kinds of weather, including snow storms and frigid-but-freakishly-sunny subzero days.

I personally think early October is the best time to visit New York — families with kids won’t be traveling this time of year, prices will have gone down a bit from their summer highs, and the weather will be perfectly crisp and fall-ish. But be aware that by the end of October it’s not unheard of for there to already be snow!

Use the bathroom whenever you can

New York has a serious public bathroom problem. Anytime you have an opportunity to use a bathroom (like when you’ve just finished a meal, are visiting a museum, or are getting a coffee) — do it.

Trust me, your bladder will thank you later.

Please don’t rent a whole apartment on Airbnb

The way the law works with Airbnb in NYC is as follows: it is legal to rent out a single bedroom in a tenant-occupied apartment for any amount of time, but it is not legal to rent out an entire apartment for any period shorter than one month.

In other words… to use Airbnb legally in New York, you need to opt for a private room, not a full apartment. This is to protect locals suffering a housing crisis, which has been vastly exacerbated by people abusing Airbnb. I personally knew a few scumbags who made their entire living renting out their under-market value apartments to tourists. This perpetuates the housing crisis by taking usable apartments off the market and artificially inflating the value of all apartments in the city.

Even if you don’t care about contributing to the housing crisis, NYC is actively shutting down illegal Airbnbs, meaning that you may be left totally screwed if your illegal Airbnb gets caught before you arrive. I’ve heard anecdotes of this happening, so it’s best to adhere to the law and stick to hotels or private rooms in an Airbnb.

Avoid Dunkin Donuts coffee like the plague

I’m pretty sure I’ll lose my New York badge for this, but I don’t care: Dunkin Donuts coffee is some of the foulest coffee on Earth. I’m not a huge Starbucks fan, but I’d choose Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts a million times over.

You’ll get the same quality coffee (read: utter shit) from Dunkin Donuts at any bodega for half the price, if you really want some shitty coffee. But New York has no shortage of delicious coffee spots offering actual, quality coffee for not much more than a jumbo-size Dunkin Donuts in a gross styrofoam cup. So treat yourself 😉

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4 Comments

  • Reply
    tea
    March 25, 2018 at 10:43 am

    This will come in handy this summer. Also why is it that every metro swipe/check-in in system sucks?

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      March 25, 2018 at 10:34 pm

      So glad to hear that! I hope you have a great trip this summer — NYC in the summer is great (as long as you don’t catch one of our heat waves). And I have no idea!! I love contactless cards like the London Underground and Taipei MRT have. They are soooo much better 🙂

  • Reply
    Steffi
    May 14, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    Thanks for your great NYC posts. I found a lot of things to add to my to-do list for our next visit in 3 weeks. I love NYC and am always on the lookout for new things to experience and food to try!

    • Reply
      Allison Green
      May 17, 2018 at 9:28 pm

      Thanks so much, I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them. They’ve actually been really fun to write — I can’t stop myself once I start!

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