So you’ve decided to plan your first trip to New York… yay! It’s one of my favourite cities and I love the energy there. But it can definitely be overwhelming. So Many People. So. Many. Things. To. Do.
After nine visits, I’ve figured out a few things though. I sometimes wish I could go back to my 2007 NYC-newbie self and give her a few pointers to smooth out the path.
The next best thing? I’m going to give my pointers to you!
Travel tips for New York first timers!
1. Transit: Don’t be afraid of the subway.
New York traffic is the stuff of nightmares. So in the name of all things holy, do not rent a car if you’re visiting the city. You’ll get caught in traffic jams and have to remortgage your house to just afford parking. So not worth it.
Instead, get familiar with public transit, mainly the subway. Sure, it might be hot in the summer but there’s no more efficient way to get most places you want to go. You might try to be brave and walk everywhere but you’ll regret that decision after a day or two. Trust me, you’ll do enough walking, even with the subway.
If you’d asked me before 2019 about the best tickets or cards to get for the New York subway, I would’ve pointed you to the 7-day unlimited MetroCard or the pay-per-ride card. But there’s a new kid in town.
The simplest method for paying for public transit now is OMNY – New York’s contactless fare payment system. There’s no app to download. No card to load up with cash. Just tap your smartphone (with digital wallet enabled), a wearable, or a contactless credit or debit card on the OMNY reader and you’re good to go.
They cap the fares for frequent riders. When you take 12 OMNY trips with the same device or bank card in a calendar week (12 a.m. on Monday and ends at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday. ), you’ll automatically ride free for the rest of the week. Otherwise, it’s $2.75/ride.
Don’t get into an empty subway car
This tip deserves its only little section. It’s that important. Do not get into an empty subway car. Ever. There’s always a very good reason that it’s empty. Typically it’s because the AC is broken or because there’s some foul odor or an unstable individual riding that you don’t want to be alone with. Follow the crowd on this one.
2. Pick the right shoes
For your days of exploring, think comfort, comfort, comfort. Leave the heels for dinner or a show. Or if you really need them for a photo, throw them in your bag. You’ll have no trouble getting your 10,000 daily steps in New York.
Make sure your shoes are broken in and you’re confident they won’t rub and give you blisters. Made that mistake on my first trip. If you end up like I did there’s a CVS on every other corner that can sell you blister pads, polysporin, and Advil but I still don’t recommend it.
You don’t have to sacrifice your style though. Sneakers have been a staple in every fashion girl’s wardrobe for years now. If you can get your hands on a pair of Adidas Sambas you’ll not only be the envy of the fashion crowd, your feet won’t be in agony by the end of the day. In general, a slim white sneaker will go with everything you might pack for your trip to New York.
3. Learn the grid system
In the majority of Manhattan the streets will follow a grid system (that gets thrown out the window south of Houston Street but that’s when Google Maps is your friend). Avenues run north-south with numbers that increase from east to west. Eg. 1st Avenue is closest to the East River and Brooklyn while 11th Avenue is closest to the Hudson River and New Jersey. Street run east-west with numbers that increase from south to north. Eg. 1st Street is just outside the boundaries of the Lower East Side while 145th Street is up in Hamilton Heights in Harlem.
It’s not uncommon to get turned around when coming out of a subway station so my go-to is to just start walking and take a look at the street signs, you’ll figure out if you’re heading the right direction before long.
How to give a cab directions
Instead of giving an exact street address, in New York, you refer to the cross streets. For instance, if I wanted to hop in a cab and head to Pod 51 which is at 230 E 51st St (and has a great rooftop bar) I would ask them to drop me at 51st between 2nd and 3rd. Or alternatively I might ask to be dropped at the closest corner. Since most Manhattan streets are one-way, alternating direction every block I’d pick the one that was closest to the way I wanted to go. If was coming from uptown to the Pod I’d ask to be dropped at 51st and 2nd, while if I was coming from downtown I’d probably go with 51st and 3rd.
4. Learn the sidewalk etiquette
Things move fast in New York, and that includes pedestrians on sidewalks. It can be really tempting to slow down and take it all in or to stop for photos, but if you’re not careful, it’s a surefire way to piss people off.
Think of Manhattan sidewalks like a highway. Slow lanes to the right, closest to the buildings, fast lanes to the curb. If you want to stop, tuck in somewhere out of the way (next to sign posts, against a wall, etc.) and not in the direct path of walkers.
It’s ok to walk two abreast but if you’re in a group, don’t bunch up and hog the whole sidewalk, especially if you’re not hustling.
5. Cross the street like a pro
Might as well keep going with the traffic and transit theme… if you want to know how to tip people off that you’re a tourist? Wait for the walk sign to cross the street. Instead, locals will stand off the sidewalk, in the street, and watch for a gap in traffic. When they’re confident they won’t get smoked, they motor. They’ve got places to be and things to do. Even if the walk sign is on you’ll still need to look both ways and be especially careful crossing bike paths.
6. Plan downtime
There is so much happening in New York that you’ll never see it all, so don’t try. Especially on your first visit. It’s so tempting to pack your days full of activities. It’s exactly what I did on my first trip. Five days in, I was exhausted and short-tempered. Don’t do what I did. Make sure that you give yourself ample downtime each day. That could be just sitting in a park and people watching or grabbing a coffee from a boutique cafe or even taking a nap back in your hotel. New York is a marathon, not a sprint.
7. Book your accommodations far in advance
There’s no getting around it, New York is an expensive city to visit. You may be the kind of traveler who wants to wing it rather than planning an itinerary, but this isn’t the place to leave your accommodations until the last minute. Not unless you want to pay a premium. So as soon as you know the dates you’ll be visiting, book a place to stay. You can look for hotels that have generous cancellation policies in case something changes.
Keep in mind that short-term vacation rentals, like AirBnB, are prohibited in New York City. You’ll still be able to find them on rental sites but they are technically illegal rentals, so keep that in mind and look for a hotel instead.
Don’t stay in Times Square
First timers to New York always gravitate to Times Square but I’m here to tell you, it’s not where you’ll want to stay. While there are some nice boutique hotels like the Casablanca Hotel nearby, the general chaos of Times Square doesn’t lead to a great vacation. Trying to wheel your suitcase through the throngs of people makes it a no for me.
Instead, try getting outside of Manhattan. You’ll likely find more affordable accommodations a little further afield as well. On my most recent trip to New York I stayed at The Local in Queens and it was only 3 stops from Grand Central Station. Convenient, affordable, and not a zoo of people. Brooklyn also has some really excellent boutique hotels and is a cool borough.
8. Visit Times Square, but don’t linger
As much as I’d recommend you not stay in Times Square, if it’s your first time in New York City, it’s still worth a look. Just be prepared for sidewalks crammed with people, a lot of lights, an overwhelming number of glowing billboards, tourist trap souvenir shops, and people dressed in costume who all want your money for a photo. It’s a bit of pandemonium but at least you’ve seen it with your own eyes…and move on.
9. See a Broadway show, but don’t pay full price
There are few places on Earth like Broadway. Even if you don’t think you’re a theatre person you owe it to yourself to see a show. There’s always big production musicals like Hamliton, The Book of Mormon, or Wicked and straight plays starring at least one name you’ve seen on TV or in the movies. While it will be hard to get any discounts on the most popular shows, you can always check the discount list on Playbill.com or head to the TKTS booth in Times Square. They sell same-day discount tickets and inventory can vary. You’ll need to purchase in-person and there’s always a line. A discount’s a discount. You can also try the TodayTix.com app, which won’t tell you which seats you’ve booked until you’ve paid but has better prices than the box office. Finally, you can try your luck at the BroadwayDirect lottery. A limited number of steeply discounted tickets are available for each show. If your name is drawn you’ll have a set amount of time to purchase your tickets. Think $35 tickets.
10. Take a free walking tour
One of my favourite things to do in new places is to take walking tours. Whether it’s a general tour to get familiar with a place or something more specific like a street art tour or a history tour, they’re a great way to explore and meet people. Believe it or not, there are several free(ish) options available in New York. The (ish) is there because, while there’s no set ticket price, the idea is that you’ll tip your guide at the end of the tour with whatever you think the tour was worth to you (typically $20-$40). There’s no obligation and you can just walk away at the end but that’s not a great look. Guides will work hard to show you a good tour and rely on tips. Whether it’s the Lower East Side, Harlem, DUMBO, or Grand Central Station, pick a neighbourhood and get walking.
11. Don’t snooze on the museums
On a hot New York summer day, take refuge inside a cool, climate controlled museum. The city has over 145 museums so there will be something that will tickle your fancy. My go-tos for first visits are The Met, MOMA, and The Museum of Natural History – all world-class with amazing artwork, historical artifacts, and so many learning opportunities. If you’ve never stood next to a 70 million year old T-rex skeleton or wandered into an Egyptian temple or scrutinized the brushstrokes on a Van Gogh original, you need to get to a New York museum. The museums are big so I recommend planning on spending at least half a day in whichever one you choose. You can book guides to give you a condensed tour or use apps for a DIY approach to hit up your must-sees, or just wander at will and take it all in.
12. Visit Top of the Rock instead of the Empire State Building
Visiting the Empire State Building is iconic. You’ve probably seen it in countless movies. So it’s natural to want to visit and I think visiting at least one really tall building in the city is a must. But you know what will be missing from your photos if you’re at the top of the Empire State Building? Yep… the iconic landmark itself. So I recommend booking a ticket to visit Top of the Rock, 70 floors above Rockefeller Centre, instead. It’s a bit less crowded than the Empire State Building and you’ll get those same breathtaking city views, but this time you’ll get that classic New York landmark in your photos.
13. Walk the Brooklyn Bridge but start in Brooklyn
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is one of those NYC moments I think everyone should have on their first visit to the city. The bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened 140 years ago and it’s just as magnificent today. It’s fun, free, and gives you great skyline views. Unless you want to walk the length of it twice (for a 3.6km roundtrip), my top tip is to take the A/C/F subway to High Street station in Brooklyn and start there. That way you’ll have the Manhattan skyline in your view the whole walk. Look for the Washington Street stairs by Prospect Street. You’ll walk under the onramp and in the middle of the underpass you’ll see the opening for the stairs. When you get to the top of the stairs, make sure to watch out for fast-moving bicyclists. Then veer left to stay on the pedestrian side of the path. Enjoy.
14. Be prepared for some grime
New York is many things, but clean is not one of them. Come prepared with wet wipes and hand sanitizer. It’s a city of 8 million people so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that you’re going to find garbage, dirt, and weird smells. Touching anything in the subway is like shaking hands with 10,000 people.
15. Use the bathroom every time you’re in a restaurant
Public washrooms in New York City are about as rare as hen’s teeth. So be sure to use the facilities every time you sit down to have a meal. If you find yourself in need otherwise, look for a coffee shop or cafe and buy something since washrooms are typically for customers only. You can try a Starbucks but cleanliness is quite hit or miss.
One of my tricks is also to walk into the lobby of a larger hotel like I belong there or I’m a guest. These types of hotels typically have washrooms on the main floor, though there’s a chance they could be locked. So try this trick at your own risk. Worst thing staff will say is no.You can also download the Flush app to help you find public washrooms, like the one in Bryan Park (which even has its own Atlas Obscura entry).
16. Look for free things to do
New York is an expensive city so it’s always a good budget-stretcher to look for some free things to do in the city. I love just wandering the streets and exploring neighbourhoods or people watching in Central Park. But there are others things you can do without forking over cash. Brooklyn Brewery has free tours on Sundays. Art galleries in Chelsea will often dish out free wine and cheese while you browse artwork. A number of museums have free admission times as well. You may even be able to snag free tickets to see a taping of a big network show like Saturday Night Live. You’ll be surprised at how much you can find when you look.
17. Only use bank ATMs
Unless you want to play fast and loose with identity theft, only use ATMs located inside banks. While that random machine in the back of the bodega or dive bar might seem convenient, keep on walking. Instead look for a Bank of America, Chase, TD, or a Wells Fargo.
18. Eat local
There are over 25,000 restaurants in New York City. While it would take you over almost 23 years to try each one, you deserve to experiment beyond the big chains like McDonald’s, Olive Garden, or TGIFridays. You’ll be able to find a locally owned restaurant instead that serves up anything you can think of. Want amazing vegan food? Done. Mouthwatering pizza? Done. How about a restaurant that serves 14 kinds of mac ‘n cheese or over 20 flavours of rice pudding? Done! Do yourself a favour and skip the chains, even for your morning coffee.
Just be sure to look for the sheet up paper that should be pasted by the entrance from the Health Department. Only eat at places that score an A grade.
19. Use a crossbody bag with a zip
While I don’t believe that New York is inherently any less safe than any other major city you still need to use some common sense. Don’t walk through parks at night. Be aware of your surroundings. All of that stuff. I would also recommend that you take some caution when choosing your travel handbag. I prefer to use a crossbody (harder to snatch) with a zip (harder to pickpocket). I especially love my PacSafe bags because they’re loaded with safety features like a slash-proof strap, locks, and an RFID-blocking pocket. Though a simple zipped bag will be just fine. When you’re somewhere crowded keep your hand on it and keep it in front of you and you should leave the city with everything you brought there.
20. Don’t go without travel insurance
You might think you’re healthy and a safety-conscious person so why would you need to spend money on travel insurance? You never know what can happen and having insurance is just a smart, responsible thing to do. I didn’t expect to need to visit urgent care for stitches in NYC or to see an orthopedist in Austin but it happened. I was so glad to have my insurance so I knew it wasn’t going to be a big bill when I got home. I’ve heard too many stories of travel friends who’ve had unexpected accidents or came down with an illness like appendicitis while traveling abroad. And with the price of American health care, you don’t want to roll the dice for the sake of $50 or $100 for coverage.
Aren’t you so glad you have finally made it to the bottom of these NYC travel tips? I know that planning your first trip to New York can be really overwhelming so I hope that these travel tips have helped make the process and your vacation a little easier. I hope that these New York City travel tips help you have the most amazing time in the city!
Book Your Trip to New York
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Expedia. It's one of my favourite search engines because it allows you to search for and compare flights from multiple airlines.
Book Your Accommodations
You can book your hotel with Booking.com as they have the most comprehensive inventory so they are best for booking a hotel. If you want to stay in a vacation rental or cottage in New York, use VRBO to find the perfect place for the whole family.
Book Your Car Rental
New York City has extensive transit so a rental isn't necessary. But if you want to see beyond the city, be sure to book your car rental with Discover Cars early.
Book Your Travel Insurance
While New York is generally a safe city for tourists, you never know when something could happen. Be prepared with travel insurance from SafetyWing. Travel insurance has certainly saved my butt before.