I’m a proud New Yorker who was born and raised in New York City. When someone asks me what they should know when visiting New York for the first time, I don’t always know where to start as there’s so many things to do in New York. I’ve decided to take a different approach here with some NYC local secrets to help you navigate your trip better.
Expect some humorous tips for first time visitors to New York (although those on their fifth trip to NYC might find this travel advice helpful). I sincerely hope that these New York travel tips come in handy and help you avoid some of the mistakes that people make on their first trip to New York. 20 Insider tips for New York under the cut.
1. You have not seen all of New York City until you’ve left Manhattan.
Most people only associate New York City with Manhattan, however New York has so much more to offer, including four other boroughs. That includes Brooklyn and Queens.
I cannot tell you how many times people have told me that they’ve been to New York and they’ve done everything. When I ask if they’ve been to Queens, it’s always a no. (Hint: I grew up in Queens.)
2. NYC taxis are slow due to traffic and there is a proper way to call a taxi.
You know the movies where the hero calls a cab in New York and rushes to tell the one that he/she loves her/him? You won’t make it in time in real life.
Taxis are generally very expensive in New York and if you’re in a rush, traffic will make it about the same speed (or slower) than the subway. Sometimes, walking is even faster.
Side note: When you’re walking, you’ll see metal grates and cellar doors. Don’t walk over them. There’s always some horror story about them. Urban legend? Probably, but better safe than sorry.
If you want to call a taxi in New York City, this is how to do it: Stand on the curb NOT by a bus stop, put your arm confidently UP and stand there intensely looking at the cars.
3. The Public Transit in New York is great, including the subway.
Don’t be afraid of the subway in NY besides the handrails [more about this later]. I’m not really sure where the stigma of the subway comes from, but I promise you: I’ve never met a mole person (although I admit: count the rats is a real game that I play with friends). The week unlimited subway pass is worth it if you’ll be taking the train a lot over 4-5 days.
Subway etiquette includes NOT making eye contact. Like, you’re allowed to look around ~subtly, but don’t be that creep who stares directly at someone the whole time. It’s weird and creepy.
It’s only okay if someone has a kitten that they’re carrying on the subway. In that case, feel free to go crazy over it. (Thanks to Mae Ahern for this amazing photo.)
Express v. Local Subway Trains (or Buses). Don’t get on the express subway or bus unless you’re sure that it’s going to stop off where you want it to. The regular train will stop at majority of the stops (with skipping some) while the express trains will skip on average half the stops. Don’t get on the local train because it will take twice the time.
You need to know which entrance you need for the subway via the direction that you’re headed. Check before you pay to get into the subway station as you might need to exit to get to the other side.
East Bound/ West Bound and Uptown / Downtown can be a bit confusing if the endpoint is in a different borough, but a good subway map should help you figure out the endpoint.
4. Should you bring your car to NYC? No.
In general, I don’t recommend driving or parking in New York City. When my now husband drove with me to New York, he was shocked over the cost of the bridges, which are not cheap. You can’t really avoid them, so if you can find reasonable parking, it’s nice not needing to deal with parking and driving in New York City.
If you’re visiting New York City and you have a car, the best thing to do is to find a parking lot near a New Jersey transit station or Newark airport and park it there. It’s typical to pay at least $25 per day.
If you don’t have a choice, my dad swears by the BESTPARKING app for checking deals at various parking garages to find the cheapest ones and getting coupons by reserving a spot. The only thing is that you need to “reserve ” the spot then show your deal to the parking attendant.
5. Don’t walk everywhere.
I consider this one of my most important tips for first time visitors to NYC. It takes a while to get around New York, so take public transit in between neighborhoods.
Although you might think that walking is a good idea (and you can see a lot), your feet will be killing you by the end of day 1. 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.
When showing friends around, they worry that they’ll be missing out if they take the train, however if you take the train in some of the boroughs outside of Manhattan, you’ll have a very scenic train ride as the 7 train is above ground for most of its route in Queens!
Don’t worry: You’ll still be walking enough to burn off those bagels and delicious meals, 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 between SoHo and Midtown.)
6. Avoid Times Square unless you’re a Broadway fan.
I think of Times Square as a light bulb as it attracts the worst of NYC: the crowds, overpriced things, and chain restaurants.
Don’t bother visiting Times Square during the day or rush hour. Besides it being a must for most visiting tourists (especially at night), there’s only overpriced chain food directly on the Square.
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 its Christmas–everyday.
My insider tip is get a last minute ticket at the TKTS booth in Times Square for a Broadway production (clear your morning) and once you’re in a Broadway show, you’ll finally understand why New Yorkers endure this area. (You can also go to the less visited TKTS booth in Brooklyn!)
7. Check if restaurants have an “A” rating from the NYC health department.
Only eat at restaurants that have an A rating from the NYC Health Department. If you do not see an “A” posted outside of the restaurant, LEAVE immediately and do not eat there. To be fair, street food does not currently have ratings, so use your judgment in evaluating whether or not you want to eat at a place.
Simply: A non-A rating means that they do not have a clean kitchen and/or the restaurant received infractions on their cleanliness rating for something. My dad always looks at what the infractions are prior to committing to eat at any restaurant, but I can’t really say that it’s always appetizing to read these reviews….
8. Eat all the delicious food in NYC! Don’t eat at chain restaurants and don’t feel like you only need to go to the ~instagram cool places.
There’s about a million cool eateries and the best places to eat in NYC list is ever-changing, however there is something to be said for the foods that make me miss New York.
That list is fairly constant and includes bagels, pizza, and Chinese food. Just take out some cash as many cheaper New York restaurants that mostly cater to locals are cash only. You’ll easily find ATMs all over Manhattan, so don’t worry about finding one.
Food lovers, consider this a competition of how many you can try while in New York: bagels (with lox and schmear [cream cheese)), New York Style PIZZA (don’t ever let anyone tell you Chicago style is better), really good Dim Sum (Go to Flushing), Chicken & Rice (Halal Brothers), Bialy (the delicious cousin of bagels), Black & White Cookies, Cheesecake from Junior’s, Babka (delicious chocolate loaf cake), steak, pastrami sandwiches, knishes, hamburgers (Shake Shack), and delicious Ramen.
Note that rainbow bagels are not on this list as they taste like play-doh. There’s so many better foods to eat AND instagram while you’re in New York. Prioritize taste over appearance. It’s also great not having to wait in line for one treat!
9. Give New York enough time.
Wondering how long to spend in New York City? New York City is SO BIG and I usually recommend that you take spend 3 days in New York at minimum. I think this is the minimum for just going to the main attractions in Manhattan.
I consider 5 days in New York City to be the sweet spot for being able to explore New York without being rushed. If you have more time, seven days is great as you can take more time to see the outer boroughs! For more info on what to see, do, and eat over 5 days in NYC, click here for my insider’s guide!
10. The holiday season in New York is magical, but expensive.
New Year’s Eve in New York City….is definitely something to experience once. Personally, it wasn’t for me between the waiting, crowds, and lack of bathrooms, but some people love it.
More generally, the holidays are a magical time in New York City due to the Christmas windows at the stores, but you’ll pay a premium to be in New York around this time. That said, there is something about cozying up with a hot chocolate watching the Thanksgiving parade floats being blown up. I have a weakness for the Christmas windows along 5th Avenue myself… and for getting of the beaten path, Dyker Heights in Brooklyn is famous for their crazy Christmas light displays!
11. A cheap New York trip is possible if you do your research ahead.
New York doesn’t have to expensive, however you need to do your research ahead to know which museums you can get into for as low as $1 and which areas to stay in. Just book your hotel ahead of time and if you can, avoid using Airbnb.
Airbnb has been a mess in New York City and New York has been cracking down on illegal rentals. Given how tight the New York housing market is for locals and how Airbnb has not helped the housing situation, I encourage you to stay at a hotel.
You can save a lot of money by staying outside of Midtown in Queens, Brooklyn, or even Staten Island. Even now, there’s more hotels that are a mix of budget and luxury with great central locations although you will always sacrifice something if you find a cheaper hotel in New York City. I have a few recommended affordable hotels that I recommend staying in.
A lot of the best parts of New York involve just walking around and soaking in the city. A little glimpse into my favorite free activities: wondering around Central Park, walking around the Lower East Side, doing a self-guided food tour of Flushing (one of the best neighborhoods in Queens!), and strolling around the High Line.
12. Don’t obsess about the main tourist attractions in NYC; you can’t see everything in one trip.
Don’t feel like you need to do everything. A lot of my friends come to NYC feeling overwhelmed and like they need to see/do all the major attractions. As someone who grew up in New York, I can tell you: you will NEVER see everything. I’ve tried, but New York City never stays the same… That said, the major attractions remain there for your next trip.
Nothing remains stationary, so even if you live in New York, you’ll constantly be discovering new neighborhoods, museum exhibits, and eateries!
I think that one of the most important things to know when traveling to New York is that you can try and rush about to see AS MUCH AS possible, but at some point, consider what you actually want to see rather than ticking off every box off some list you found on the internet.
13. Don’t waste your money on a view only!
There are many rooftop bars in New York that vary in terms of how formal and crowded they are. I recommend looking into Pod39, which is one of the lesser known ones, where you can also buy a taco. In general, it’s best to dress up if you intend to get into a rooftop bar.
14. New Yorkers are not that rude.
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. Maybe we’re a bit more brusque than Midwesterners or Kentuckians, but we’re 99% human underneath all those black clothes (I kid; I own a red dress). Maybe we’re a bit more paranoid and skeptical of strangers, but we’re good souls who will talk your ear off given the opportunity about how amazing (and expensive) New York City is.
Please don’t give a 5 minute explanation if you’re asking for directions. I recommend avoiding people with headphones and those who are on the phone as they’re just busy! Look for someone who isn’t in a rush (the biggest barrier to being able to help!) and ask your question straight away, “Where is X?” or “How can I get to X using Y?” “Which stop do I get off at for Z?”
Even I’m guilty of getting impatient with visitors who tell me that they’re visiting from _____ and it’s their first time in NYC, but you will always find people happy to help if you’re not taking up a lot of time.
Some other tips not to piss off the locals:
- Don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to look up and/or take photos.
- Let fast people walk in the middle 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 in a group in a row blocking everyone from passing you.
- Don’t block the subway doors even if it’s crowded as people might be trying to get out of the subway doors.
- Let people exit the subway/bus before you get on.
- Asking me to say the word coffee a million times. Yes, I say it like a New Yorker and yes, people pronounce it like that in movies about New York.
I swear that we’re nice. Just give us a chance and don’t cut us in line.
15. Be aware of yourself: Safety tips for New York
I wish that I didn’t need to write this, but crime can be an issue in some areas of New York, especially compared to some very smaller towns that people visit from.
It depends on the neighborhood, so always look up the reputation of the neighborhood where you’re staying before you book. That said, do not wear your headphones at night and don’t flash all your electronics in public places.
New York is safe most of the time, but you need to use your common sense and not leave your items out unattended. Pickpocketing isn’t an issue like in Europe, but if you leave something out, someone will probably take it. Most importantly: use your spider senses. If you’re not feeling good about a situation, get out of there. I generally don’t like walking in parks late at night and I recommend using some caution if you’re considering that.
16. New York City is tough for solo female travelers.
NYC is not a cakewalk for solo female travelers. I love New York, but I’ve experienced some of the worst sexual harassment that I’ve ever endured anywhere…in New York. Even after traveling to almost 30 countries, I’m still shocked how many patronizing comments you’ll hear as a young woman just walking down a street by passing dudes. “Why don’t you smile?” “You look so sexy“
I once got harassed by a passing truck driver while I was wearing a puffy down jacket, baggy pants, and winter boots!? I take a strong stance that women should be able to travel without harassment, but still use your common sense.
If you’re uncomfortable, don’t feel like you need to be nice. I find just walking away is very effective although putting in your headphones works too. For the record, it does NOT matter what you wear. If anything happens, find a nearby cop or call 911.
17. Avoid the tourist traps in New york and don’t buy anything off the street!
There are a lot of tourist traps in New York and some people will tell you anything to get you in the door. If you’re walking through a heavily trafficked area and someone gives you a flyer for an attraction promising you that you’ll see Aziz Ansari (or any other comedian) for $0/$5, don’t believe it.
Those comedy nights rarely include anyone famous and many of them are cheap/“free” as long as you meet the $15 drink minimum. Similarly, there are a lot of restaurants that CLAIM to have authentic food, but the ones that are authentic don’t need to assert that they were the first or the best. The real ones will be FULL with locals waiting for a table, so use Yelp to find the real thing.
Don’t buy stuff, especially water bottles, on the street. I always check if the bottle has been previously opened, however paying more than $1 for a water bottle is a rip off. No matter how thirsty you are, keep walking to the nearest bodega. The CVS down the street as well as the local bodega are prefect places to buy an affordable water where they’ll take credit cards.
Similarly, if someone offers you something on the street, please don’t take it whether it’s drugs, fake designer purses, or an offer for a massage. You know it won’t end well.
18. You don’t need to be fashionable in New York, but it can’t hurt.
Wondering what to wear for your trip to New York? Don’t feel like you need to be a fashionista and wear comfortable shoes. Despite its reputation, nobody cares whether you look fashionable OR cool beyond not looking sloppy.
You can look cool (and black is always in), but go for comfy cool. Think black dresses with white sneakers or chic comfy flats, however if you want to wear the craziest outfit you have, go for it. If anything, someone might ask you for a photo as they love your outfit. Uniqueness is valued, so bring some fun clothes with you (or buy them here).
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!
19. New York is dirty.
After reading enough studies about subway handrails (touching one is like shaking hands with 10,000 people), I always carry antibacterial gel with me at all times and avoid touching the handrails/buttons everywhere. I strongly recommend that you do the same. Similarly, you will need to pay for a clean bathroom whether it’s by buying a coffee or a water or…just paying a fee. Starbucks is on every corner, but don’t use the bathroom of the one in Penn Station.
If you’re walking around, I generally do not recommend the public bathrooms and/or the bathroom at the local bodega (corner stone) most of the time. Pay for anything at a coffee shop or restaurant and trust me, it is worth every penny. My recent habit is to go into nicer looking bars (if you’re over 21+) as the women’s restroom is generally well maintained.
20. There’s not ONE New York culture; New York is ever changing
NYC might be famous for its skyscrapers, but at its heart New York is a city of immigrants. It’s estimated that more than 800 languages are spoken in New York and all that matters for being a New Yorker is that YOU call yourself a New Yorker.
Most New Yorkers are not born in New York City (I’m an exception), let alone the United States, but this means that we have a common bond: our love of this gritty, dirty, noisy, iconic city that we call home.
If you come to New York looking for the New York that you see in movies/TV shows, you’ll find it. But, I think it’s far more important to see the real New York that inspired it. You’ll understand why people fall head over heels for this dirty city (I warned you), you need to experience the uniqueness that defines New York: the many different groups that coexist here side by side with their own distinct bits that they contribute to New York’s culture.
Whether you’re after knishes, Chinese food from a region next to the Korean border, Colombian areas, Yemeni tea, Himalayan food, cannolis, or even New York cheesecake, you’ll quickly understand why we love this city before dinner time.
New York City is just magical. You know that saying: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN IN NEW YORK? Well, it’s true, including the fuzzy feel good stories that made Humans of New York famous, people carrying around kittens on the subway, seeing some of the world’s best fashion on the street, spotting celebrities walking into your neighborhood deli, impromptu dancing in the street, and even getting discovered by modeling agents (it happened to Jennifer Lawrence).
New York City can wear you down, but if you allow it to show itself to you with all its quirks, beauty, and charm, you’ll fall in love with New York (or just really hate it). I hope you get the chance to judge it for itself.
Have you been to New York? Did you fall in love with New York?
5 Days in New York: Your Ultimate Guide by a New Yorker
New York City on a Budget
The Best of NYC for the Holidays
Your guide to the New York City Subway by a New Yorker