NYC Visitor’s Cheatsheat: 50 Things You Really Need To Know When Visiting New York City

Tips to help you have a fun and safe visit to New York City

New York City travel tips - things to do in NYC

New York City is an amazing city full of historic landmarks, tantalizing restaurants, iconic stores, Broadway plays and much more. But a trip to New York City can be a bit overwhelming, especially for first-time visitors. Here are 50 things you should know to help you have a fun, safe and affordable trip when you visit New York City…

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Part 1. New Yorkers

things-to-do-in-New-York-City-F-3217938041_5450d0cb43_zDespite their curmudgeonly reputation and outward appearances, New Yorkers can actually be rather friendly. What seems at first to be rudeness or indifference is actually just a byproduct of their busy, frenetic way of life. New Yorkers tend to pride themselves on their direction-giving skills. So this means…

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

They’re just used to keeping to themselves and expect everyone else to do the same. While they may react rudely if you get in their way, they tend to be quite nice and helpful, as long as you know how to ask for help. Just remember, when interrupting a busy New Yorker, you need to get to your question as quickly as possible.

Do NOT say: “Excuse me, sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you have a minute. I’m not from around here. I was hoping I could ask you a question…” Just ask it! If you say, “Excuse me, which way to 5th Ave?” Most people will stop and gladly help you out. But you have to get to the point ASAP. And don’t forget to say “thank you” when someone takes time out of their busy day to help you.

2. Don’t ask for directions to a specific location or street address

Unless it’s a famous landmark like Grand Central or the Empire State Building, the average New Yorker probably won’t know what to tell you, and will dismiss you if you’re too clueless and needy. Most New Yorkers are not walking street maps. They tend to think in terms of intersections, districts and neighborhoods, and should be able to point you in the general direction. It helps to have an idea of where you’re going. Try: “Excuse me, which way to the West Village?”

3. Try not to sound like a tourist

Just because you’re a tourist doesn’t mean you have to sound like one. To people outside of New York, the City is commonly referred to as “The Big Apple.” But if you say this to a New Yorker, in New York, you’re a clueless tourist and will be treated as such. Other phrases to eliminate from you vocabulary include “Only in New York!” and “In a New York minute.”

“Houston Street” is NOT pronounced like the city in Texas. It’s “HOW-ston.” The popular district known as “SoHo” refers to the area south of Houston St. And even though the street signs say “Avenue of the Americas,” New Yorkers refer to it by its number, 6th Avenue.

When specifying an intersection, give the street name first, followed by the avenue. This only applies when referring to locations in Manhattan. If you’re going to 10th Street and 5th Avenue, say “Tenth and Fifth,” never “Fifth and Tenth.” Remember: street first, then avenue. Most New Yorkers also say “Ave” instead of the full “Avenue.” And when you’re in Manhattan, don’t refer to “North” and “South.” It’s “Uptown” and “Downtown.”

4. Keep your criticisms to yourself

Red Sox Nation
Red Sox Nation – Boston’s Finest

If you complain about New York City and the things which are representative of NY (e.g., pizza, sports teams, subway system, unusual smell, lack of cleanliness), don’t expect to make many friends. New Yorkers are a proud bunch.

If you’re not a fan of a New York based sports team, it’s best not to get into an argument with someone if you support their rival. It can get ugly. We’re looking at you, Red Sox Nation.

5. Be mindful of personal space

Try not to touch anyone. New York is a very crowded place. If Texas had the population density of New York City, the entire world’s population would fit there. The way New Yorkers and those who work here deal with this is to create their own personal space bubble. New Yorkers really don’t like to be touched. It’s almost comical to to see how irate they can become if you accidentally bump into or touch them on a crowded street or subway.

Robert DeNiro on the subway
Are you talkin to me?

6. Be respectful of celebrities

There are a lot of famous people strolling, eating, living or just hanging out in NYC. They’re trying to enjoy their day just like you. If you absolutely must ask for a picture or autograph, do so politely. They don’t owe you anything. They’re just people, not zoo animals.

7. Go to the back of the line

If there is a wait or bottleneck to get to something, don’t mob it — form a line. And if you want to avoid verbal and possibly physical confrontations with angry New Yorkers, then do NOT try to cut the line. Lines are sacred. When in doubt, just ask if there’s a line. Seriously, don’t think you can sneak to the front without anyone noticing. You’ll be noticed. And it won’t be pretty.

8. Don’t discuss 9/11

Unless a New Yorker brings it up first, it’s usually best not to bring up 9/11. This is a sensitive subject. For many, the wounds are still open and raw. If they bring it up first, that’s your invitation to gently inquire or contribute. Unless you’re visiting the 9/11 memorial, don’t be the one to casually initiate conversation on such a painful subject.

9. It’s OK to talk about real estate prices

As in most places, it’s considered poor taste in New York to talk about how much money you make or have. This is a place where billionaires and minimum wage workers share the same streets. But ironically, you should feel free to talk about where you live and how much you pay for it. New Yorkers tend to be obsessed with real estate. Not only do they not mind it, but most people who live in New York actually enjoy questions about how much they pay, their building and amenities, their neighbors, etc. New Yorkers are weird that way.

Part 2. Getting Around New York City

new-york-city-taxi-cab-F-5458872772_e73e2f2d5f_z10. Don’t drive in NYC

Only New Yorkers and crazy people drive in New York City. The real estate here is some of the priciest in the world, and those costs are reflected in parking costs.  You’ll save your sanity, your money and a lot of time by not driving here. There’s no reason to fight traffic or search for exorbitantly expensive parking spaces.

Don’t rent a car in New York if you don’t have to. It’s expensive and complicated. Walk, take the bus or subway, or hail a cab or an Uber. Anything’s better than driving in New York City. They have an efficient and relatively inexpensive public transportation system that runs 24/7/365. Do yourself a favor: Use it!

11. Know where to find a restroom

Finding a clean, publicly available restroom in NYC can be challenging. But thanks to the proliferation of fast food restaurants and caffeine addicted coffee junkies, it’s gotten easier the past few years.

CUNY Baruch college student, Aleksey Bilogur, crunched the numbers and determined that if you find yourself somewhere in Manhattan, you’re only an average of 5.6 blocks (or 1335 feet) from the nearest Starbucks. While not every location has a working bathroom, most do. Same goes for McDonald’s.

If you’re brave, consider strolling confidently into a hotel lobby as if you’re staying there and make use of their facilities. Other reliable restroom options include some of the larger department stores (e.g., Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, etc.). A useful tool for tracking down other bathroom locations in New York City is NY Restroom.

12. Bike around NYC, if you dare
New York City developed the country’s first bike path in 1894. And recent trends have the city at the forefront of a national trend to make bicycling viable and safe. But bicycling around NYC is not for the faint of heart. Dozens of cyclists are killed each year, and hundreds are seriously injured in accidents.

Citibike NYC bicycle rentalBut if you’re feeling brave and insist on biking around New York, you can either bring your own or rent one from the CitiBike bicycle sharing system. With more than 6,000 bikes available for rent, it’s the largest bike sharing program in the United States. Either way, it’s helpful to have an up-to-date copy of the New York’s bike lanes which can be found here:

13. If you’re in a hurry, avoid the bus

Most buses in NYC are usually clean, comfortable and cheap. There are many convenient routes that make it easy to get to where you want to go. But… NY buses are notorious for not running on time. If you’ve got time to kill, or if it’s too cold, hot, rainy, etc. to walk — then sure, take the bus. Otherwise, taking a cab, the subway or remaining on foot are better options for arriving on time.

Walking Around New York City

New York is a walking city. Like it or not, you will be walking… a lot. So bring comfy shoes. Sore, aching feet and blisters will ruin your trip. This isn’t the time to be trying out those new dress shoes. You get the most authentic feel for a city only if you experience it like a local, and that’s on foot.

Very few attractions in NYC are located directly on public transit, and most journeys will require that you do at least some walking. Very often it’s the fastest way to get to your destination. And it’s obviously the healthiest, cheapest, and most environmentally friendly option for getting around. Here are a few things to keep in mind when strolling the streets of The Big Apple:

14. Manhattan is laid out in a big grid

  • Avenues run north-south, and streets run east-west.
  • Streets are closer together than avenues.
  • Even streets run east. Remember “even equals east.” Odd streets therefore run west.
  • Numbers go up as you go north and west. This means 9th Avenue is west of 6th Avenue, and 70th street is north of 42nd Street.  You can easily remember this by thinking of the “A” and the “v” in the word “Avenue” as arrow heads pointing north and south. (Keep in mind that some of the streets have names instead of numbers.)
  • Street addresses use “east” or “west” depending on where they’re located in relation to 5th Avenue, the dividing line.
  • 157 E 68th Street and 157 W 68th Street. A rookie mistake is to walk the wrong direction along a street because you’re looking for the address on the wrong side of 5th Avenue.

As a general rule or thumb, walking in New York is just like driving on the highway. If you wouldn’t do it on the highway, don’t do it on a New York City sidewalk. This means…

15. Keep to the right, no sudden stops

Unless you enjoy plowing into and angering New Yorkers, you need to mindful of where you’re walking. Most New Yorkers walk with a purpose, and you should do the same. Aimless meandering can get you and others hurt.

Watch where you’re going and stay to the right unless overtaking someone slower in front of you. This applies to escalators as well. So be mindful of bags, strollers, etc. Many people are in a hurry will need to pass you on the left.

New York City visitor attractionsDon’t suddenly stop in the middle of the sidewalk to admire the sites, look at a map, check Facebook, etc. Slowly pull over to the right, being mindful of the flood of foot traffic right behind you. If you’re lost, please step aside when asking for help rather than blocking traffic on the sidewalk, escalator, etc.

16. Go with the flow

You’re expected to walk at a brisk pace on a busy sidewalk. If you can’t, stay to the right and out of the way so others can easily pass. Be sure to quickly glance over your shoulder before you pull over or attempt to overtake someone in front of you. Someone may be barreling down behind you, and failing to pay attention to could result in a collision — or worse.

If you’re with a group of people, don’t all walk side by side taking up the entire sidewalk. If you insist on walking abreast or holding hands, you’re going to have trouble. Don’t worry, you won’t get lost in some crowd. Just ease up a bit and go with the flow.

17. Don’t stand or walk in bike lanes

And remember not to walk or stand in bike lanes. At the very least, you’ll be the scorn of some very aggressive, fast-moving bicyclists (think: couriers and commuters). At the worse, you’ll be another accident statistic.

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The New York City Subway System

NYC SubwayIn New York City, the underground train system is known as “the subway,” not “the metro” or “the T.” The New York City Subway runs 24/7/365, and is the largest rapid transit system in the world by number of stations (469). Trains run every 2 to 10 minutes during rush hours, every 5 to 10 minutes during midday, and every 5 to 12 minutes in the evening.

Subway lines are referred to by their designated number or letter, not color. This means you’d say the “3 train”, not the red line. Uptown trains head north, downtown trains head south. Follow the signs for the subway route you want to take. At the platform edge you’ll find signs indicating which trains stop there and the direction they’re going.

Here are some helpful tips to remember when riding the New York City subway system:

18. Buy a MetroCard

NYC Subway MetroCardGet a Pay-Per-Ride MetroCard if you’re only here for a day or two. Purchase the card in through a vending machine in the subway station, and load it with a minimum of $5.50. For each subway, Staten Island Railway, or local bus ride, $2.75 will be deducted. (The cost of a SingleRide ticket is $3.00.)

19. Get an Unlimited Ride MetroCard for longer stays

A 7-Day Unlimited Ride Card costs $31, and gives you unlimited subway and local bus rides until midnight on the seventh day following first usage. This is probably your best bet if you’re visiting New York for more than a day and you plan on seeing as many NYC attractions as possible.

20. Make sure your MetroCard is ready and valid

A great way to infuriate New Yorkers and commuters is to block a turnstile because you can’t find your MetroCard, or you don’t have any credit left on it. Make sure you load it up at the vending machine before you line up, and have it ready to go when you go to catch your train.

21. Stand back from the platform edge

While the NYC Subways are generally safe in Manhattan, one of the biggest concerns is falling or being pushed from the platform. 146 people were struck by trains in 2011, and 47 of them were killed. Keep a safe distance from the tracks while awaiting your train.

22. Rush hour is hectic and crowded

The seats will all be full, and people will be standing shoulder to shoulder. You may not want to bring small children or strollers on the train during rush hour times. Stand aside to allow people off the train before entering. If you’re near the door when people are trying to get off of a crowded subway car, step outside the train for a moment. Don’t worry, you’ll get back in.

NYC Subway
Share the pole!

23. Don’t lean on the subway pole

Even if you were there first, you don’t get the pole to yourself. People need something to hold onto when it gets crowded. Hogging the pole is great way to send exhausted New Yorkers and commuters into a frenzied rant.

24. Keep the volume down

Despite all the people, NYC subway cars are surprising void of conversation. It’s OK to talk, just remember that others aren’t interested in hearing what you have to say. If listening to music, use headphones and be mindful of those around you.

25. Don’t block the steps or door

Remember the sidewalk rules above, step aside and let traffic pass. Don’t stop at the top of the subway stairs to consult a map. Once aboard the train, don’t stand and block the door. Move to the inside of the subway.

26. Avoid the mysteriously empty car

If all the other subway cars are crowded, but one is empty, resist the temptation to get on it. There’s a reason it’s empty, and it usually has something to do with a foul stench and bodily fluids.

27. Only take up one seat

Unless your body absolutely needs more than one, there’s no reason to use more than one seat on a crowded train. Put your bags on the floor. You can stretch out at home.

28. Get a subway app for your smartphone

Here are a few good ones worth downloading:

Hailing a cab in New York City

New York City taxi cabsWhile we’re slowly transitioning into a new age of Uber and Lyft, that doesn’t mean you should ignore a good old-fashioned taxi ride if you need to get somewhere in New York. On a dollar-per-mile basis, NYC taxis are the cheapest taxis in the US. Here are a few things to keep in mind when catching a cab in the city:

29. How to hail a cab

You want to look for taxis with a numbered sign on the roof that is illuminated. The little “off duty” sections located on both sides of the number should be dark. No need to yell “Taxi!” Simply use your hand to flag them down.

30. Get in and indicate your destination

Once you’re in the taxi, tell the cabbie where you’re headed. Don’t tell them before you get in, as they might not want to drive to where you’re going, and might try to refuse to take you. Don’t give an exact address such as 320 5th Ave. Instead, provide the nearest cross streets (e.g., 42nd and 5th).

31. Lights Off = “Cab Occupied”

If the lights on top of the cab are off, it’s occupied. Don’t waste your time. Put your hand down and wait for another cab. Or call an Uber.

32. Don’t steal a cab “upstream”

Taxi possession in NYC runs on a territorial, first-come, first-serve. Someone trying to hail a cab on the street has already established his territory. Don’t infringe by trying to hail a cab in the same area. But you also can’t simply go a few feet up the street to try and grab one first. Proper etiquette dictates that you go up a block or more from the other person. Anything less, and you can expect to get an earful (or more) for trying to steal their cab.

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Part 3. Eating in New York City

Entire books have been written on where to eat in NYC. So we’ll skip specific recommendations here, and focus on general guidelines for eating your way around New York City…

33. Avoid the chain restaurants

Best New York City RestaurantsThere are thousands of unique and wonderful places to grab a bite or a meal in New York. Some of the best restaurants in the world are found here. Why eat at a restaurant you can find in local strip mall?

You came to experience the city in all its glory and all it has to offer. Why go to Red Lobster, Pizza Hut or Olive Garden? Instead, do yourself a favor and patronize local restaurants. Pull up Yelp or Trip Advisor on your smartphone and see what other visitors have enjoyed and recommend.

What are you in the mood for? There’s something for everyone in New York… Middle Eastern food, Caribbean food, Mexican, Italian, Polish, Chinese… you name it. Search for restaurants by price, number of stars, type of cuisine, etc., and live a little!

34. Yes, it’s safe to eat “street food”

Street food vendors play an important role in feeding the millions of people who roam New York City’s streets every day. They’re legit and licensed. Grab a hot dog or pretzel and eat it on the go. You’ll save time and money.

35. Don’t ask for it “to go”

If you get a hot dog from a push cart, don’t ask the vendor to put it in a bag unless you’re obviously ordering a bunch for a lot of people. Street dogs are meant to eaten as you’re walking.

36. Street food prices vary by locationNew York City food cart

Vendors charge more or less money depending on where they’re located, because vendor permits vary depending on location. The owner of the pushcart at Fifth Avenue and East 62nd Street near the Central Park Zoo pays the city’s parks department $289,500 a year to sell food there! Obviously, he must charge more to make a profit. So if you’re looking for a bargain, don’t eat at the busiest locations.

37. Street food vendors charge different prices to different people

Unfortunately, if you look and act like a tourist, you’ll be charged the “tourist rate.” Act like a New Yorker, or at least someone who isn’t easily suckered. Feel free to negotiate. Here are a few tips:

38. Ask the price before handing over your money

If you want a bunch of hot dogs for the family, ask “How much for a hot dog?” If he says $3, tell him “OK, how about four for $10?” Don’t worry, he’s still turning a profit. It’s part of the game. But if you order your food and then hand over a $20, don’t expect much change. He can (and will) charge you whatever he wants, and you can’t do anything about it.

39. Don’t pay more than a buck for bottled water

When getting a bottle of water or can of soda, don’t ask how much. (They’ll tell you $2, at least.) Just hand the guy a dollar and take the water. New Yorkers do this all the time. We’ve never heard of anyone being stopped and asked for more.

40. Tip like you’re in New York, not at home

How much to tip in New York City?The people who (hopefully) make your New York experience better — the cab drivers, waiters, etc. — are paid a sub-minimum wage pittance by their employers and depend on tips for a majority of their income. It’s not cheap visiting New York. So just imagine how hard it is to earn a living here.

In many parts of the US, 15% is the standard tipping rate. In New York, it’s an insult. An 18-20% tip is the standard. Tip 20-25% for outstanding service. Of course, if the service was really bad, adjust your tip accordingly. But if you fail to tip at New York rates for decent service, you are failing to pay for that service.

41. Get breakfast at a deli

Skip Mickey D’s and Burger King. You’ll save money and get a better meal by grabbing a bagel or breakfast sandwich with coffee at any deli. It beats the chain’s combo meals in both price and quality.

42. Try CUPS if you’re a heavy coffee drinker

If you need a steady dose of caffeine throughout the day, sign up for CUPS and save 15%+ on every cup. This is a flat-fee coffee membership subscription where you pay once a month for unlimited coffee at participating indie coffee shops. There are quite a few NY locations. The more coffee you drink, the more you’ll save. But the less you’ll sleep.

And if you order a coffee from a sidewalk vendor or deli and you’re asked if you want a “regular,” this doesn’t mean black. It means two big spoonfuls of sugar and some milk or cream.

43. Don’t ask for “New York style pizza”

New York Style PizzaIn New York, it’s just called pizza. Most New Yorkers don’t even know that “New York pizza” is a thing outside of New York. Just go to the local corner pizza shop and grab a slice or two. You won’t be disappointed (unless you’re from Chicago).

If you’re looking for good Italian food, skip Little Italy. For an authentic and more reasonably priced experience, either go to Brooklyn or Arthur Ave. in the Bronx. Little Italy is for the tourists.

Part 4. Things to do in NYC

You could spend the remaining days of your life trying, but you’d never find enough time for all of the fun and interesting things to see and do in New York City. This isn’t a list of the top NYC attractions, just a general overview of how to best spend your time in New York. For specific recommendations and more information, be sure to go over our list of the top 25 New York City attractions and the top 10 fun things to do in NYC on a budget.

44. Venture out past Manhattan

Staten Island Ferry NYCSure, Manhattan is what most people think of when they think of New York City. But there are five boroughs in New York City, and Manhattan is just one of them. If you stick to just the main island, you’ll be missing out on all the adventures that can be had in Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx.

These other boroughs have their own unique charms, neighborhoods, landmarks, parks, museums and ethnic communities worth exploring. They’re all easily accessible via subway. A trip to Staten Island is especially delightful via a ride on the Staten Island Ferry — and it’s free, too! As an added bonus, restaurants and shopping tend to be cheaper in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan.

45. Don’t skip a museum because you’re on a budget

A little known about many of New York’s museums (including The Met) is that the admission price is just a suggestion. This means you should feel free to pay what you can afford. The suggested price may say $20, but give them $5 or just $1 if money’s tight.

46. Skip Midtown and SoHo for shopping

Most of the stores find in these areas are no different than what you’ll find in any other city. Except they’ll probably be more expensive and crowded. So why waste your time? If your desire is to shop in New York City, you’ll find the most interesting items in the independent boutiques of NoLIta, the West Village, the Lower East Side and Williamsburg.

47. Don’t forget about the smaller museums

If museums are your thing, of course you want to check out the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re some of the finest art institutions in the world. But don’t forget about the other, lesser-known options. The Brooklyn Museum has over a million pieces in its permanent collection. The Morgan Library and Museum is home to incredible medieval and Renaissance treasures. The Museum of the Moving Image is a movie lover’s dream. And the gorgeous Neue Galerie showcases early 20th century art from Germany and Austria.

48. Avoid the High Line on weekends

New Yorkers and visitors alike love the High Line, especially on weekends. This means that the elevated walkway feels more like an over-crowded conveyor belt of humanity when everyone’s not at work. If you want to enjoy this urban wonder, go on a weekday or as early as possible on the weekends.

49. Don’t pay full price for Broadway Shows

Broadway & Times Square - NYC

The Theater Development Fund operates three TKTS Discount Booths in New York City, including their flagship location in the heart of Times Square. TKTS Discount Booths are the perfect way for everyone to experience the arts in New York City without going broke. Choose from a wide array of Broadway and off-Broadway musicals, plays, and dance productions — at 20% to 50% off regular the regular ticket price.

Ticket availability and inventory changes quickly throughout the day. Your best bet for getting tickets to popular Broadway shows is to go to a TKTS Discount Booth early in the day if possible.

50. Consider going “Off Broadway”

Broadway is the hub of New York’s theater scene. But there’s also a vibrant world of plays and musicals awaiting you Off Broadway (and even Off-Off Broadway). There are many smaller theaters located near Times Square. But you’ll also find theaters scattered throughout Manhattan, including parts of Brooklyn. Some of the most reputable Off Broadway theaters include Signature Theatre, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theater, and New York Theatre Workshop. Check the TKTS booths for discount off-Broadway tickets.

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Photo Credits

The following photos used with permission per CC 2.0 license:

Robert DeNiro on Subway by Martin Schoeller