Practical Tips for First-Time Visitors to NYC

I often hear from old friends who want some tips for their first visit to NYC. In case you’re planning your first trip to the Big Apple, here are some thoughts to get you started!

  • Buy a pretty guidebook: Ok, sure, everything is digital these days, but if you’re old school like me, you’ll still enjoy thumbing through a book with pretty pictures to inspire you for your journey.  I often take short trips, and I’m a big fan of the DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 books.  They provide a great, quick overview to ensure you catch all the highlights. Buy a book and review it before your trip so you know what not to miss!
  • Consider buying a New York Pass: Shortly after moving to NYC, my mom came to visit and we did a two-day New York Pass, which gives you free admission to more than 100 NYC attractions (and even lets you skip the lines at about a dozen). If you’re trying to see a lot in a short amount of time, this will likely save you some time and money, though you should research pricing for the attractions you most want to see to ensure you’re really getting a deal. Also, check opening times for attractions and group your visits geographically so you can spend more time having fun and less time traveling back and forth.  And if the pass price is a little too steep for you, don’t worry.  There are plenty of free attractions in NYC to keep you busy.
  • Go to Times Square…briefly: If you’ve never been to NYC, you should certainly go to Times Square.  You’ve seen it on TV, and it’s even crazier in person, so go and take your pictures and soak it all in.  But then go see other places! NYC is so much more than Times Square, and you want to have enough time to see as much as possible. (You should go back at night for a Broadway show, though.)
  • See NYC from the water: One of the best things about NYC is its skyline, which is best viewed from the water. The Staten Island Ferry is a great (and free!) option to see the skyline and the Statue of Liberty all in a one-hour round-trip ride. Circle Line and the Yacht Manhattan also offer trips that circumnavigate Manhattan in about three hours if you’re interested in seeing views of the city that most new visitors will miss. And if sailboats are more your thing (or if you want your money to support a nonprofit organization), check out the South Street Seaport Museum’s Schooner Pioneer, built in 1885. (Bias alert: I actually moonlight on Pioneer so I may be slightly biased, but if you book a sunset sail, you won’t be disappointed.)
The NYC Skyline and the historic Schooner Pioneer as seen from the Staten Island Ferry.
  • Visit a park: New York has a lot of parks, and they’re a great (free!) way to experience NYC. (Apparently, 99% of New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk from a park!)  For many of us NYC apartment-dwellers with no yards, parks are where we go to unwind, enjoy a bit of nature, and put our toes in some grass.  And since New Yorkers are a diverse and fascinating group of people, parks offer excellent people-watching opportunities (and the occasional star-sighting as well). You’ll also often find a wide variety of amateur music and dance performances, in addition to movie screenings and high-profile concerts. You really never know what you’ll see in an NYC park! Central Park is a great choice for your first visit to NYC, and so are Washington Square Park, the High Line, and Battery Park.  If you’re feeling adventurous, walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to visit Brooklyn Bridge Park or take the NYC Ferry to the new Domino Park. (Most parks also offer public bathrooms, which will come in handy when you’re running all over the city!)
  • Take the subway: If you didn’t grow up in a city or with any public transportation at all, you may find the idea of riding the subway intimidating or even terrifying. However, it’s an inexpensive and (usually) easy way to see much more of the city in a short period of time. Keep in mind, though, that the system is over 100 years old, which means there’s a lot of construction at night and on the weekends.  If you’re taking the subway on the weekend, ask an MTA employee at a ticket booth how best to get to your destination. Failure to ask may result in you riding the 2 train on the 5 line or the 5 train is on the 2 line (yes, that happens…)
The Manhattan skyline and Brooklyn Bridge Park as seen from the Brooklyn Promenade.
  • But also learn how to hail a cab: Taxis have a light bar on top with a number in the center and the words “off duty” to the right and left of the number.  If those numbers aren’t lit up, that cab isn’t going to stop for you! Don’t wave your hands at that taxi or every other taxi you see. Wait until you see a cab with its numbers lit up, put your hand up in the air, wait for them to pull over, get in, and tell them where you want to go (preferably with cross streets and not a numbered address).  
  • Avoid any store/restaurant/coffee shop you visit at home: Look, if you’re going to murder someone if you don’t start your day off with a Starbucks coffee, I get it. But NYC has amazing food and shopping, and it would be a shame not to sample it while you’re here.  The NYC Gap stores carry the same clothes as your local Gap (but with a higher price tag). Literally, any independent pizza place is going to be better than Sbarro’s.  And a vendor at a street fair or a boutique store will have unique clothes and jewelry that you can’t find anywhere else. Ask your hotel’s staff for recommendations for places where THEY would actually eat or drink (and not just where they send all the tourists).  Or you can just wander. Most restaurants post their menus outside, so it should be easy enough to find something that looks tasty and fits your budget. Travel should expand your horizons, so try something new!
  • Have some situational awareness: Have you ever heard that New Yorkers walk fast?  Let me ask you this. When you drive to work or run errands, do you ever speed?  Yes? Well, most New Yorkers don’t drive, so walking is how we get from Point A to Point B.  For us, walking quickly is no different than when you speed in your car.  As a visitor, you don’t need to walk quickly yourself but do try to avoid blocking someone’s way, standing on the left side of the escalator (which is the walking side), or stopping in large groups on sidewalks.  Move to the side and let people pass and you’ll avoid some angry looks.  (For a humorous take on walking in NYC, watch this.) Also, if you’re in crowded areas like Times Square or Chinatown or an overstuffed subway, be sure to keep an eye on your belongings. NYC is incredibly safe, but that doesn’t mean that bad things never happen.  Just be aware of your surroundings, take note of the rhythm and flow of the city, and you will have a safe and enjoyable trip.
  • Ask New Yorkers for help, we ARE actually nice!: If you get lost or really don’t know where to go or what to do, ask a New Yorker!  When you live with eight million other people, you tend to keep to yourself, but if approached, most New Yorkers will be happy to give their opinion on the best way to get downtown or where to find the best slice of pizza.

And yes, NYC is expensive, but there are plenty of cheap and free ways to experience the City!


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