Post Overview: Helpful tips for visiting New York City for the first time
If you’re visiting New York City for the first time you might be wondering about helpful New York City travel tips. I’ve lived in the Big Apple my entire life and have definitely learned a few tips and tricks about properly visiting the Big Apple.
As a local, I can tell you that we truly appreciate folks that do their research before visiting New York City for the first time. Kudos to you for striving to be a responsible visitor!
I want your trip to New York City to be as enjoyable as possible and would like to share my personal recommendations and New York City travel tips. This is the exact list I share with my own family and friends, read on for everything you need to know.
Visiting New York City? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our helpful guide on Where to Stay in New York City (The best neighborhoods for first timers +2 to avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s our favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.
Helpful New York City Travel Tips
So I went to New York City to be born again. It was, and remains, easy for most Americans to go somewhere else and start anew. I wasn’t like my parents. I didn’t have any supposedly sacred piece of land or shoals of friends to leave behind.Kurt Vonnegut
Travel Tips for New York City (Let’s Talk Transportation)
A taxi might be cheaper than Uber or Lyft
If you’re flying into JFK don’t make the assumption that an Uber will be cheaper than a taxi. Taxis from JFK offer a flat rate to Manhattan, which is often cheaper than taking an Uber or Lyft.
The flat rate is $52 (+$4.50 rushhour surcharge weekdays between 4pm – 8pm), plus 15-20% tip. All told, I typically pay around $75-80 to get from the airport (steep prices but this is New York, baby!)
Getting to Manhattan from the other two airports (LaGuardia and Newark) might be cheaper using Uber because taxis will charge standard meter rates. If you’re curious, here’s the standard meter fare for taxis in NYC.
If helpful, I take the subway into the city 90% of the time unless I have a lot of luggage with me. It’s cheap and pretty easy to figure out using Google Maps.
Further Reading: Getting to New York City from the Airport
NYC travel tips for hailing a taxi
Hailing a taxi seems romantically easily in movies, but in real life it might require some elbow grease. Here’s some tips for hailing a taxi like a true New Yorker:
Look at the light on top of the cab, if the middle light is on then the cab is free to hail. If the end lights are on then the cab is carrying a passenger.
When you see an empty cab you can flag it by standing on the curb and raising your hand in the direction of the cab (make eye contact with the driver). They’ll pull over to pick you up, but take note: taxis cannot stop at bus stops.
Also, you may notice green cabs in New York City –the green cab program was launched to address a discrepancy in ride availability outside of Manhattan (the most popular area in NYC). As such, green cabs are not allowed to pick up passengers within Manhattan (unless you’re in Harlem). You can read about the green cab program here.
The 7-day metro card is typically worthwhile
More often than not, the 7-day metro card is worthwhile, especially if you plan to take the subway from the airport. The pass is only $33 (+$1 activation fee) and gives you seven days of unlimited access to the efficient subway system. If you choose to forgo purchasing the metro card you will be charged $2.75 every time to hop on the subway, which adds up faster than you think.
Whenever my friends and family visit me in NYC, this is the first thing I recommend they purchase.
The subway is the best way to get around
A lot of people love to hate on public transportation (this isn’t unique to the Big Apple), but the subway is truly the best way to get around. In fact, sometimes the subway is also the fastest way to get around because of the notorious traffic.
Here’s a few things to keep in mind while using the subway during your first visit to New York City:
Avoid empty trains: There’s typically a reason they’re empty – the AC might be broken, their might be a terrible smell or an individual causing a ruckus.
Don’t hog seats you aren’t using. If you brought a large item onboard place it in your lap. If you’re taking the subway during rush hour you probably won’t find a seat, in which case make sure to hold on to the handrails because sometimes the train jerks out of the station.
Know the difference between express trains and local trains. Local trains stop at every stop while express trains skip a handful of stops. Google Maps does a great job telling you which train to hop on, follow the directions careful.
Don’t stress catching the wrong train. Getting on the wrong train is not ideal, but it happens and at worst you’ll lose some time. Simply get off at the next stop and hop on the train going in the opposite direction (or follow the directions on your phone).
The New York City Ferry is a GREAT way to rest your legs
One of my favorite things to do with first time visitors to NYC is to take them on the NYC Ferry. The NYC Ferry is part of the public transportation network within NYC, so the rides are only $2.75 per person (same fare as the subway).
Riding the ferry is a great way to rest your legs while soaking up incredible views of NYC. Just keep in mind that this is an official mode of transportation and not a tourist attraction.
Therefore, if you need to get from one waterfront to the next, hop on! I especially love the short route between DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and Wall Street.
Download an offline Google map before you visit NYC
One of the most important New York City travel tips is to download an offline map (using Google Maps) before your first visit to NYC. It’s a free service and pretty easy to do. There’s seldom any cell service in the subway and having access to a map while you’re en route is invaluable.
Ask for directions if you’re lost (yes, really)
New Yorkers get a bad rap for being rude, but we’re not — we’re just busy. Speaking from personal experience, please don’t hesitate to approach locals and ask for directions if you’re lost. Find someone that looks approachable (isn’t glued to their phone or walking at blazing speeds) and approach them.
The key is to get right to the point, rather than trying to exchange pleasantries (sounds strange, but trust me).
When you approach a New Yorker say something along the lines of “Hello, I’m looking for the New York Public Library, can you point me in the right direction?” No small talk needed.
More often than not, it gives us great joy to help people out (we want to be a good representation of the place we call home!). Plus, nothing makes you feel more like a New Yorker than knowing where to point people without picking up your phone — it’s a win-win for all. 😉
Helpful New York City Travel Tips
“I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it.”– Truman Capote
Comfortable walking shoes are non-negotiable
One of the most important tips for first time visitors to New York is to bring comfortable walking shoes. Most of my out-of-town visitors average 15,000 – 20,000 steps per day, simply because there’s so many great things to do in New York City.
The subway is efficient but sometimes it’s better to walk between places to absorb more of the city. There’s no denying that the skyline is euphoric and the streets are always buzzing with energy. Bring your most comfortable pair of shoes because you’ll be getting those steps in, I guarantee it.
If helpful, here’s the only walking shoes I purchase.
The best views of the city are from Top of the Rock
I dare you to show me a more mesmerizing skyline than New York City’s. And if you’re looking for the absolute best view of New York City, it’s hard to beat the Top of the Rock Observation Deck, especially at sunset.
Visitors can access three separate indoor/outdoor observation decks on the 67th, 69th, and 70th floors. The subsequent panoramic views from this iconic building makes this one of the most popular observation decks in NYC. As such, you can expect crowds practically every hour of the day.
But trust me when I tell you the crowds are worth it. The large glass panels offer unobstructed views the NYC skyline, unlike some of the other observation decks in NYC that use fencing — an inexcusable offense!
From Top of Rock you will see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, Flatiron Building and the One World Trade Center.
Further Reading: 18+ JAW-DROPPING Views of New York City (For All Budgets)
Treat the sidewalk like a highway
Nothing bothers a New Yorker more than a person that stops smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s inconsiderate and you’re guaranteed to garner eye rolls. There’s two ways you could inadvertently hog the sidewalk: walking side-by-side in a large group and stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, effectively preventing access.
If you don’t want to look like a tourist during your first visit to NYC, make sure you step to the side of the sidewalk if you need to stop.
Eat at the local joints
One of the best things about living in the Big Apple is having access to the epic food scene. NYC is a foodie’s paradise so one of my biggest New York City travel tips is to avoid chain restaurants altogether. You’ll be in the land of carbs (pizza, bagels and pasta!). Take advantage of the awesome local joints for all your meals in NYC.
Further Reading: 15 Mouthwatering NYC Bagels that Validate the Hype
Tipping is expected in New York City
Since some of these tips for visiting New York City apply to foreign visitors, it would be inexcusable to skip a quick recap of the tipping system in America. Unlike most foreign countries, tipping at restaurants is expected in the US. The rule of thumb is 20% and anything below 15% risks coming off as insulting.
My rule of thumb is as follows: If I sit down at a table I expect to tip 20%. If I’m grabbing something from a counter (like a bagel, etc.) I’m not expected to tip. However, I’m so used to tipping in NYC that it’s hard to leave without tipping wherever I go, but use your own discretion.
New York City is expensive
I know, understatement of the century, right? But bear with me. New York City is the 7th most expensive city in the world. Let that sink in. Expect everything to cost more, from your daily coffee to a meal at a restaurant. The highest sticker shock tends to occur with cocktails, it’s not uncommon for a single drink to clock in around $18-22 before tip.
As such, one of my New York City travel tips is to make sure you budget accordingly before visiting New York City for the first time. It’s too easy to get carried away and end up spending more than you planned. Make a list of your top 5-10 can’t-miss spots, but don’t expect to experience everything in one go (unless your budget allows, of course).
To that end, you can most definitely visit New York City on a budget because some of the best things to do in NYC are completely free. For example, spend an easy-going afternoon at one of the 15 most iconic parks in New York City and you’ll instantly see why folks enjoy living here so much.
Try to find a hotel outside of Times Square
Most people visiting New York City for the first time end up staying near Times Square. It’s hard to blame them because there’s a plethora of hotels to choose from, deals to be had! But the problem with Times Square is that it’s a tourist trap to the nth degree. In my opinion, it takes away from the overall experience because it’s always so noisy and loud.
If you can, try to find a hotel in another neighborhood. I highly recommend staying in the Upper West Side.
Further Reading: Where to Stay in New York City (+2 Neighborhoods to Avoid)
Escalator etiquette is a (real) thing
This is a simple New York City travel tip that catches first-timers off guard. In NYC there’s an efficient way to use the escalator — stand on the right, pass on the left. Those that block passing access are in breach of escalator etiquette and are bound to hear loud sigh directed at them.
The reason folks get annoyed by those that don’t follow proper escalator etiquette is because New Yorkers are quick walkers. We have places to go and people to see and we’ve learned the way the sidewalks and escalators work. Whenever we see tourists standing on the right and passing on the left, we sigh a little sigh of relief and appreciate the effort.
Make an effort to visit at least two boroughs during your first visit to New York City
Something a lot of folks don’t realize is that New York City is comprised of five separate boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island). These boroughs collectively are known as New York City. However, when most people think of NYC they only think of Manhattan, but I won’t let that happen to you.
One of the most important New York travel tips is to make sure you explore more than just Manhattan during your first visit to NYC. Luckily, it’s very easy to see the two most popular boroughs (Manhattan & Brooklyn) in one day. The best part? Reaching Brooklyn from Manhattan is an experience in itself!
Walking the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most memorable things to do in New York City. The bridge spans one mile and takes about 15-20 minutes to walk across, but you should allocate more time because you’ll want to take photos (you can see the Statue of Liberty from here!).
You’ll end up in Brooklyn after getting off the bridge. Head towards the Brooklyn Promenade and take a leisurely stroll while soaking up some of the best views of the epic skyline. Brooklyn Promenade is especially beautiful in the evening, so bookmark this place for a romantic evening — it has the potential to turn the most arduous platonic relationship into something more.
But no promises. 😉
This helpful itinerary for 4 days in New York City covers the two most popular boroughs in NYC. It took our team two weeks to write it, so you can bet it’s full of great NYC travel tips.
You should make time to visit a museum
New York City is home to a plethora of world class museums and you should make an effort to see at least one during your first visit to New York City. Yes, even if you’re not “into” museums.
Best museums to visit in New York City
The Met: Founded in 1870, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) is often considered the best museum in New York City. With more than 2 million pieces of art spanning 5,000+ years, the Met is the largest museum in the country and the fifth largest museum in the world. Averaging 6 million visitors per year, it’s also the most visited museum in New York City.
MoMA: Home to world-renowned paintings like Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and notable works by Warhol, Basquiat and Dali, it’s no wonder MoMA is constantly crowded with happy visitors.
The American Museum of Natural History: Considered one of the greatest natural history museums in the world, the American Museum of Natural History is arguably the best museum in NYC for kids. This incredible science museum is home to 33 million specimens, yet only 3% are on display (and even that amount can get quite overwhelming!).
Need help deciding which museum to visit? 15 Best Museums in NYC (+What to See at Each).
Restrooms are not easy to come by
This is a New York City travel tip I can’t stress enough — restrooms are hard to come by! Whenever I show folks around town I make a mental note to track public restrooms along the way and point them out. Plan ahead and use the restroom at restaurants you’re patronizing. If all else fails, your next best bet is to run into a nearby mall.
The New York CityPASS might be worthwhile
There are two New York City Passes to choose from: the standard CityPASS ($129 per person) gives you access to six attractions over the span of 9 days and the C3 Pass ($87 per person), which gives you access to three attractions in 9 days. Depending on how long you plan to stay during your first visit to NYC, you may not get the full use out of the standard pass.
I say this because visiting 6 places during your time in NYC may eat up your entire schedule! On the contrary, the New York City C3 Pass is worth considering. Based on my math, I suggest getting the New York City C3 Pass if you plan to visit at least three of the following places: (plus, the ability to skip lines is invaluable!)
- Empire State Building
- Top of the Rock
- The Statue of Liberty
- 9/11 Museum
- The MET
- The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
To sum it up, if three of the places listed above are on your must-see list then the C3 pass will save you money.
A Broadway show, however, is always worthwhile
Yes, Broadway Shows are expensive, but the experience is unforgettable. I would suggest budgeting at least one show during your first visit to New York City.
Something I wish I knew earlier was that certain Broadway Shows have a lottery system where you can apply to win free tickets in advance. Seems like a long shot, but one of my coworkers won two tickets to Hamilton!
Maybe you can get lucky too. Another way to save money on tickets is to purchase “solo” tickets if you’re okay not sitting next to your friends. I did this last time and paid $99 for a $200 seat!
NYC Travel Tips (Post Summary)
I hope that this list of NYC travel tips helps you avoid mistakes people make on their first trip to New York City.
- A taxi might be the cheapest option from the airport
- NYC travel tips for hailing a taxi
- The 7-day metro card is typically worthwhile
- The subway is the best way to get around
- The NYC ferry is a GREAT way to take a break
- Download Google Maps before you get here
- Ask for directions if you’re lost
- Comfortable walking shoes are non-negotiable
- The best views of NYC are at the Top of the Rock
- Don’t hog the sidewalk
- Eat at the local joints
- Tipping in New York City
- New York City is expensive
- Try to find a hotel outside of Times Square
- Escalator etiquette
- Make an effort to visit at least two boroughs
- You should make time to visit a museum
- Restroom are not easy to come by
- The NYC CityPass might be worthwhile
- A Broadway show is always worthwhile