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Want to blend in and live like a local while visiting New York City? Check out these tips and tricks on everything from how to use the subway to the best free things to do in NYC!
I have called New York City my home for over eight years, and while I may not have been born and bred here, I have certainly done a huge portion of my growing up in this town. I’m what they call a “transplant” in NYC, and I’ve certainly earned my stripes after enduring just about everything this city can throw at you. In my time here, I’ve discovered a few secrets, found some amazing spots, and fallen in love with the grit and glory of New York.
For a list of 20+ cheap places to eat in New York City, check out this post containing all of my favorites!
I’ve been slowly working on this post for months (no joke), and have tried my best to create a comprehensive inside guide to navigating and enjoying your time in NYC, whether you’re visiting for 24 hours or moving here for good! I hope that my experience can help you get the most out of your time here and fall head over heels for the city that (truly) never sleeps. Welcome to New York!
How to get around New York City:
- Public transportation (i.e. subways, buses)
- Ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft, and Via
- Ferries (more info on those here)
- Helicopters (only if you’re rich and fancy)
- Trains (not to be confused with the subway…these trains depart from Penn Station, Grand Central, and Atlantic Terminal and can take you outside the city if you’re looking to go to New Jersey or anywhere outside NYC!)
The subway is an excellent transportation option, particularly if you’re traveling on a tight budget. At just $2.75 per ride, it’s definitely the cheapest. (It’s now $3 for a Single Ride ticket, which means it’s an individual one-way ticket, not bought on a Metrocard.) The bus costs the same, and you can transfer between subways and buses within two hours if you use a Metrocard. If you’ll be exploring New York City quite a bit, I highly recommend purchasing a weekly unlimited Metrocard to save money (it’s $32 for unlimited rides on trains or buses, which works out to about the same cost as 11 rides – and they add up quickly). So it’s definitely worth it! More information can be found on the MTA website here.
Note: if you’re traveling with other people, you can only use the unlimited Metrocard once every 18 minutes, so don’t even bother trying to swipe in four different people one after the other at the same station! It won’t work.
I’ll be honest with you, taking the subway is an experience. Some stations are relatively clean and uncrowded, others are pretty disgusting and packed with people. It just depends on where you’re headed. Yes, you will see rats on the train tracks and smell funny smells (the legend is true: if you see an empty subway car, it’s probably empty for a reason, don’t go in there). It can be downright gross. New Yorkers have a love/hate relationship with the subway system, because we have to rely on it for our daily transportation, and the delays and issues that come with it can make getting around quite stressful. However, it’s something you should experience if you want to have a fully-rounded New York visit! It’s not all terrible, and saves a lot of money. Just bring your hand sanitizer.
A couple of other things to note when taking the subway:
- Make sure you’re going the right direction! The subway system (and getting around NYC in general) can be confusing, especially for newcomers. I still use apps to double-check my route options and check for delays or construction. My favorite transit app is Citymapper (it’s also available on desktop, but I recommend downloading the app to your phone for obvious reasons). It’s free and extremely helpful – Citymapper gives you different route options, tells you exactly how long your trip should take, and which station exit to use.
- Related: figure out which end of the train you’ll be exiting on, and do some “pre-walking” as you wait for the train to arrive, so you don’t waste time walking from one end of the subway station to the other at your destination. There’s even an app for that! It may seem frivolous, but especially during the hot summer months, avoiding long walks underground is a life-saver.
- Don’t make the mistake of getting on an express train (or bus) because those won’t necessarily stop where you need to get off. Express trains look pretty much the same as the regular (local) trains, so it can be easy to make a big mistake and end up going way farther than you need to. When the train arrives, quickly pop your head into one of the train cars (or ask the conductor if you see them) and ask if it’s an express train or ask “is this train stopping at ___?” Someone will gladly yell out the answer and help you. It can be nearly impossible to tell sometimes because local trains will often switch to an express route (or vice versa) due to construction or train issues. So pay close attention to that once you’re on the train as well.
- Let people off the train before you push your way onto it. Please, for the love of God. There is nothing worse than people shoving their way past you as you’re trying to get off of a train. Be patient, step aside, and let people out before getting on.
- Don’t be a rebel and try to hop over the turnstiles or sneak your way past them in order to save a couple bucks. There are cameras hidden everywhere and cops all over the place. It’s not worth the hefty ticket.
If you’ve ever seen a movie about New York City, you’ve seen someone hail a taxi. It’s a pretty simple process, but here are some do’s and don’ts. 1) Don’t upstream (that’s a jerk move and everyone will hate you). 2) You have to be confident – step out onto the curb, throw your arm in the air and stare into oncoming traffic. You don’t need to whistle or get fancy with your hand gestures, a simple arm in the air will do! Taxi drivers know what you want. Note: don’t do this at a bus stop, taxis won’t stop there. 3) Check traffic on the route you’re going before you choose a taxi. Unlike Uber, Lyft or Via, the cost of your ride isn’t set, and it will skyrocket if you’re sitting in traffic. 4) Know where you’re going before you get in the car, and tell the driver immediately using the proper terminology so you don’t waste their time and cause a traffic jam. For example, if you’re going to Carnegie Hall, you can just tell the driver and they’ll take off. However, if you’re going to a random restaurant on West 4th Street, don’t give the driver the exact address, just look it up beforehand and tell them the cross streets (i.e. “West 4th and Jones St please!”) Trust me, they’ll be much nicer if you’re not sitting there googling things after getting in their cab.
Another note about taxis: they often take longer than hopping on the subway due to crazy NYC traffic, so if you see a subway station nearby, you might be better off just taking the train. This is especially true in high volume areas such as Midtown or Soho. Weigh your options before committing to a potentially expensive cab ride.
Uber, Lyft, and Via are three of the most popular ride-sharing apps used by New Yorkers, with Via being the cheapest. Choosing to use Uber Pool or Lyft Line typically saves quite a bit of money on your ride, because you’re usually sharing the car with other riders. Via is the absolute cheapest, and probably my favorite way to get around when I’m on a tight budget. I have referral codes with discounts for all three of these services, so be sure to use them to save a little money! For Via, you get $10 off using the code sierra4z3. For Uber, you can get your first ride free using the promo code sierrad23. For Lyft, you can get up to $20 ride credit using the code SIERRA804075. Happy riding!
Take advantage of the freebies!
There are so many free things to do in New York City, and not everyone takes advantage of them. I’m working on a full post about all the free and cheap activities you can do in NYC, so keep an eye out for that! For more NYC money-saving tips, click here. (Pssst…my all-time favorite, secret spot for the best views in NYC will be in my next NYC post…just sayin’.)
In the meantime, here are some of my favorites:
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yes, really! Many people don’t know that The Met operates on a “suggested donation” basis. The suggested ticket price is $25. If you can afford to pay the full entry fee, please do and support the arts! But if you’re on a tight budget and need to spend less, all the way down to $0.01, all you have to do is go up to the ticket counter and tell them the amount you’re able to pay, and they’ll let you in. Bonus tip: go up to the rooftop for some incredible views of the city! Updated March 2018: The Met has changed its “suggested donation” policy a bit and now only residents of New York (and students from NJ/CT/NY) with valid IDs can choose this option. More here.
- Take in some art at the many galleries in Chelsea (bonus: some have free wine and cheese tastings!) Wandering through the galleries is always free and there are some really amazing exhibitions.
- Walk along The Highline. This is a popular tourist spot, and can get quite busy, particularly on the weekends. My advice? Go for a stroll early in the morning or later in the evening on a weekday for some peace and quiet.
- Take the Staten Island Ferry for a 25-minute free boat ride with incredible views of The Statue of Liberty and a glittering Manhattan! You can hop off once you get to Staten Island and do a little exploring or hop right back on the Manhattan-bound ferry and head back to the city.
- Visit Governor’s Island for a remarkably peaceful, quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Governor’s Island ferry is not the same as the Staten Island ferry, but they are located very near each other at the tip of Manhattan. If you go before 11:30am on Saturday or Sunday, the ferry is completely free! All other times, the ferry costs $2 roundtrip for adults, and children under 13 are always free. There are art exhibitions and events, bike rentals, playgrounds, food trucks, and historic buildings to explore on Governor’s Island, as well as plenty of open lawn space for picnicking and relaxing. Bonus: there is a hammock grove perfect for napping!
NYC isn’t as loud and crazy as you’d expect.
While it’s true that many areas are full of traffic sounds, ambulances, helicopters, and folks having a good time (or hollering at each other), there are so many places to find a little oasis even in the heart of Manhattan! Central Park is the most obvious choice, given its size and prominence in the city. There are lots of magical spots in Central Park to wander, relax and enjoy the city skyline in a more nature-filled environment, and I highly recommend checking it out. But if you’re in Midtown or another hectic, busy area of the city, don’t fret! You can still find some really nice little “pocket parks” and areas with benches and trees between all those big buildings. Comment below if you’d like me to do a whole post on the best pocket parks in NYC!
Another way to get some respite from the city noise is to go explore some of our beautiful libraries. My favorite is definitely the Bryant Park branch of the New York Public Library, also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It is an absolutely magical place to visit and relax, with an incredible collection and beautiful architecture. It’s also the perfect spot to duck into for a cool, shady break on a hot summer’s day! The Rose Main Reading Room is my favorite spot in the library (for obvious reasons – it looks like something straight out of a Harry Potter book) and I highly recommend checking it out.
New York City doesn’t just mean Manhattan.
You may or may not already know this, but NYC is comprised of five different areas, or boroughs. There’s Manhattan, Brooklyn (where I live!), The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. That is all considered New York City. However, if you’re a New Yorker, when you say “I’m going to the city today,” you’re typically referring to going over to Manhattan. If you live in Manhattan, nothing else matters and you never leave the island. (Okay, I’m mostly kidding…but there are a good bunch of Manhattanites who don’t like coming over to Brooklyn and it’s kind of a running joke that some New Yorkers “won’t come” to Brooklyn or other boroughs. I digress!)
There are so many different cultures, styles, and lifestyles represented in New York City. One of my favorite things about living here is how small I feel. I am continually surprised by how many different types of people I encounter, and I have learned so much about how to be even more open-minded and curious. Whether you’re visiting or moving here, I encourage you to keep an open mind and heart, and try to make connections with people you wouldn’t normally think to engage with.
You’re probably familiar with the fact that NYC has a Little Italy and a Chinatown, but did you know we also have a Little Senegal? With New York City being the huge melting pot that it is, we have a ton of different cultures and ethnicities represented here, and visiting these various neighborhoods is a fascinating, educational experience you can’t get anywhere else! Here is a list of 18 ethnic “micro neighborhoods” to check out if you’re curious. Take advantage of the wide variety of cultures we have in our city and explore! (Obviously, always be respectful and kind when venturing into each different neighborhood, as cultures and customs vary greatly.)
We really do have the best bagels (and some damn fine pizza).
Ess-A-Bagel (Manhattan), La Bagel Delight (Park Slope), and Bergen Bagels (Prospect Heights) are three of my favorite bagel shops. Juliana’s (DUMBO) is probably my go-to spot for true New York pizza. Many tourists flock to Grimaldi’s up the street, but I prefer Juliana’s (also, as a New Yorker, I’m sick of standing in long lines). The secret here is that the original owner of Grimaldi’s, Patsy Grimaldi, is actually no longer running Grimaldi’s, and started his own place (Juliana’s) named after his grandmother after selling Grimaldi’s to someone else. There’s a whole pizza feud history, but the gist of it is: Juliana’s is legit. Go there.
You can also avoid the ridiculously long lines for over-hyped items like cronuts and rainbow bagels. Trust me, they’re not worth it. Stick to the classics and then explore the wild variety of foods that this city has to offer. NYC is chock full of delicious cuisines from just about any country! You can get authentic dim sum, amazing fresh Italian pasta, Peruvian, Haitian, Tibetan, Indian…you name it, we’ve got it.
Here are 20 of my favorite cheap places to eat in New York City! So many gems on that list…it will surely have you drooling. And check out this post for even more of the best food in New York City. (Can you tell we love food here?!)
For a list of my Top 10 Favorite Food Spots in NYC, check out this post! I’ll be doing a Part Two soon, but if you’re curious about more of my favorites in the meantime, or have specific questions, drop them in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter, and I’ll happily help you out.
Don’t use the public bathrooms.
When you’re out and about and suddenly find yourself in need of a bathroom break, things can get dire pretty quickly, and you might find yourself resorting to using a McDonald’s bathroom or trying to find a public bathroom option.
Here’s why you shouldn’t: A) McDonald’s/Starbucks (et al) don’t always have working bathrooms available for public use (and Starbucks will typically make you buy something before you even use theirs – which means hopping in line to buy something you likely don’t need when you’re just desperate for a pee break) and B) their bathrooms are typically so overused and under-cleaned that you really don’t want to go inside.
This includes bar bathrooms (which are especially disgusting). Now, of course there are some exceptions to this rule, but in general, I’ve never found a McDonald’s or Starbucks bathroom in the heart of NYC to be both clean and available for use. In a major pinch, these might be your only real options, but I have a bit of a secret suggestion…
Find the nearest nice hotel, and stride right in. If you’re confident about it and walk right past the reception desk in search of their nearest bathroom, no one should give you a second glance. Act like a guest, and look for their lobby bathroom (or hop in the elevator to a different floor that you think might have a bathroom available). Nine times out of ten, doing this results in you getting a super nice bathroom (often all to yourself!) where you can do what you need to do, get refreshed, and avoid the grossness of all the other overused bathrooms you’d normally find while out and about.
Another place to look for decent bathrooms in NYC is nicer restaurants, but this can be a little hit or miss. If you ask to use their bathroom, they may tell you they don’t have a public one available. However, if you march in confidently, act like you’re “meeting friends” and walk towards the back in search of the bathroom, they may not bat an eye. I still recommend trying hotel bathrooms first! My favorite hotel bathroom is the one at the Mandarin Oriental near Columbus Circle because it’s beautiful and always empty, and close to the southwest corner of Central Park, which means you can avoid hunting down the public bathrooms in the park (which usually smell like someone has either lived in them for 10 years without showering or…like an animal has recently died).
In a nutshell: use public restrooms at your own risk.
Go to Times Square. No, really.
Before you run away from this post screaming, hear me out. My rule of thumb is this: avoid Times Square at all costs, except for once in your life, when you go stand in the middle of Times Square late at night or very early in the morning, when no one else is around. It is unexpectedly quiet during those late night or early morning hours, and taking a stroll through the flashing billboards and famous theatres is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of experience. I mean it when I say once-in-a-lifetime, because you don’t really need to do it twice, and I would never tell you to walk through Times Square any other time unless you had to. However, it’s a quietly magical place to be when no one is around! Safety note: use common sense. Standing in Times Square alone at 2 a.m. on an empty street corner is probably not the best idea ever. Bring a buddy, stay alert. There are always police officers patrolling nearby, and an NYPD station in the middle of Times Square, so no real need to worry, but don’t be silly about it.
A note about safety!
While New York City is much safer than it used to be, and far less scary than it is often portrayed on television, it is still a very big city with lots of people. With that comes an increased risk of safety issues. You don’t need to be paranoid, but there are some things you can do to improve your odds of staying safe:
- Don’t be flashy. In other words, don’t wave big wads of cash around, carry around tons of shopping bags from expensive stores all day, or show off your electronics unnecessarily.
- You’ll notice that most New Yorkers do walk around with their cell phones in front of them 24/7, and never get them stolen, but still – be careful if you have your phone out and keep your hands on it at all times.
- You don’t need to wear a money belt or anything, but I do recommend a cross body purse or bag instead of a backpack, and holding it in front of you versus on your back (for obvious reasons).
- We don’t really have a pick-pocketing problem here, but stay alert and aware of your surroundings and the people around you. If something feels sketchy, it probably is. Use common sense.
- If you’re a woman, odds are (unfortunately) that you’re going to get catcalled at some point during your time in NYC. I wish it weren’t the case, but many men here are gross and vocal about it. It’s unlikely that these men are going to follow you and hurt you, but still, be careful. Don’t respond when they holler at you, just keep walking. Doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a tight dress or a paper bag, the comments are always the same. If you feel unsafe or need assistance, look for another person nearby and ask them for help or to walk with you until you’re away from the area. And never hesitate to call 9-1-1 if you need to. Your safety and well-being are important!
Here’s how to blend in and be fashionable:
Wear all black. There you go! Moving on…
All kidding aside, dressing in black (or dark colors) really does make you look like less of a tourist. If you want to blend in and not out yourself as a newbie or visitor, that’s one way to do it. Dressing like a local serves two purposes: 1) people will bother you less (i.e. the street vendors trying to take advantage of tourists or those annoying guys trying to get you to “take” their mixtape or come to a free comedy show) and 2) your clothes won’t get as dirty. I know it may sound silly, but wearing dark colors in NYC is pretty standard and definitely helps you stand out less, which can be a positive thing in so many ways. If you stroll down the street wearing your Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt with a camera slung around your neck, it’ll be pretty obvious that you’re an easy target, and more people will try to sell you things and take advantage of you. Dressing like a local is the way to go, in my book.
Dark colors, dark wash jeans, jean jackets or leather jackets, scarves and boots are pretty much always in when it comes to New York fashion. (This may sound like a strictly fall/winter outfit, but I guarantee you, New Yorkers basically wear these items year-round!) I’m no fashion expert, nor do I know what I “should” be wearing each season, but I know those things never really go out of style!
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Probably my favorite shot of the trip. I cant even describe the view. The smell of the ocean and the feel of the breeze made this shot so much more pleasing. #NewYork #StatenIslandFerry #nofilter #EmpireState. Go at dusk of you toot ever get the chance. On the way back you'll get the night view. #Cities #Manhattan
Plan your trip wisely!
I’ve lived here almost eight years and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is an endless list of things to see, do, eat, and experience in New York City, so don’t try to do it all in one trip. Take your time to really enjoy the things on your list, rather than trying to cram everything in. It’s so much more enjoyable.
While it’s true that NYC is home to a bunch of amazing museums, there are a few that I think are do-not-miss: The Met (aka The Metropolitan Museum of Art), The Museum of Natural History, The Guggenheim and The Whitney. MoMa is also a popular stop for most tourists, but it’s just not my favorite. (I’m not the biggest modern art fan, full disclosure. I prefer classical art or historical museums. Just a personal preference.) Obviously, do your own research and tailor your visits to your personal tastes, those are just a few of my recommendations.
If you’re traveling with children and looking for fun things to do in NYC with kids, there are tons of different options, from educational museums to amazing parks, activities, shows and much more.
For me, the perfect trip involves lots of good food and being able to wander and explore on a more local level. There are some tourist attractions in NYC that I think are worth a visit, such as Central Park, and others (like the Empire State Building) that you can probably skip. Before you click out of here and call me crazy, hear me out: if you want to get that iconic photo of New York City that includes the Empire State Building, you have to go to Rockefeller Center and visit Top of the Rock! Check out some of the beautiful Top of the Rock views here.
Tickets aren’t cheap (they’re currently $34 for adults) but it is a pretty neat experience and beautiful vantage point. The Freedom Tower Observation Deck is also incredible (but always totally packed to the gills with tourists). I do have a secret hack for getting a free view of the city that will be in an upcoming post about cheap and free things to do in NYC, so keep an eye out for that if you’re curious.
If you’re a fan of the TV show Gossip Girl, here’s a fun guide to all the best Gossip Girl filming locations in New York! And here’s another great itinerary for anyone looking to maximize a short trip and make the most out of a weekend away in NYC.
Here are a few little things to know about New Yorkers:
- We don’t call it “The Big Apple.” You can if you want to, but we might roll our eyes at you. Fair warning. As I mentioned earlier, people who live outside Manhattan in other boroughs often refer to Manhattan as “the city,” but remember, all five boroughs are included in New York City limits!
- We aren’t all rude! New Yorkers get a bad rap for being unfriendly, unhelpful, and dismissive. We’re really not – we’re just busy and tired most of the time. I have stopped fellow New Yorkers on the street to ask random questions many times, and have never once been met with a rude response. If you need help, we will typically stop whatever we’re doing to try and assist you. However, be respectful of our space and time – if you see someone hustling down the street with their headphones in, looking upset or harried, don’t step in front of them and ask where the nearest Applebee’s is. Use common sense, ask direct questions, and I guarantee you, someone will stop to help you (and yes, even be friendly)! This leads me to my next tip…
- Don’t look people in the eye when you’re on the subway or stare. This may sound contradictory to my last point, but it’s not. When you live in a city with 8 million other people and are constantly bombarded by lights, noise and other intense sensory input, just getting from place to place can be exhausting. We typically pop in our headphones and listen to music, news or podcasts while we’re out and about, because it helps create our own little space bubble and provide some respite from the constant overload. When you’re on the subway and it seems like everyone is being rude or sullen, they’re usually not, they’re just in their own little world. It’s rude to stare or look people in the eye on the subway, because you’re in such close proximity and we’re going to assume you want something or have a problem with us. As silly as that may sound, it’s true. If you can tell someone is open to chatting or seems friendly, feel free to talk to them. But as a general rule: look out the window, read a book, or chat quietly with your travel companion – don’t openly gawk at everyone else and make them uncomfortable.
- We typically refer to the subway as “the train” and call each line by its letter or number, not by its color. No one will ever refer to the 3 train as “the red line” so don’t even bother using color names.
- We like to get out of the city on weekends so we don’t go too crazy! From quick trips to the Adirondacks to walking across the Canada/US border at Niagara Falls, there are lots of amazing, easy places to visit and take a break from the city.
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Do you ever just want to do ALL of the things at once and then realize you're only one human and should probably slow your roll a bit? Yeah. That's where I'm at today. Anyone else feeling a tad overwhelmed this week? (Tell me I'm not alone, y'all!) ✨ Quick side note: the second installment of my interview series is up on the blog now, featuring one of my favorite 'grammers, @jinchuferrer! Go check it out (it's a quick, fun read!) and let me know if you have any suggestions for a fun name for this series!
Some final NYC etiquette tips:
- If you’re with a group and you walk in a row, rather than walking in a line, you will get glared at and possibly shoved. There are too many people in NYC for you to take up an entire sidewalk. Be respectful of the limited space and walk single file on busy sidewalks!
- Please don’t stop in the middle of the sidewalk to snap a photo, I beg of you. Step to the right or left side and out of the way of foot traffic to do your thing. Everyone will silently thank you.
- If you want to walk slower, stay to the right. Think of the left as the fast lane, and the right as the slow lane. It’s fine to walk slower and take everything in, but be mindful of everyone around you and don’t create a pedestrian traffic jam!
In a nutshell…
New York City is a wild and wonderful place that I’ve come to love deeply over my nearly eight years here. Despite its shortcomings and the inevitable frustrations and challenges of living in a huge city, there is truly nowhere else in the world quite like it, and I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything. This place has grown me and shaped who I am, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.
I hope that by sharing all of these inside tips and tricks with you, I’ve inspired you to come visit or given you the confidence to explore the city as a brand new New Yorker! I’m always happy to help answer questions, so don’t hesitate to reach out on Twitter or Facebook if you’re wondering about something I didn’t cover in this post. I’d love to hear from you!
Travel Guide to Niagara Falls (the perfect weekend trip from NYC!)
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