Taming the big city is possible, just stay out of the way.
It can feel vast, loud, and confusing, yet New York City also can be manageable. There are simple and brilliant ways to not only survive each new day in the big city but to navigate and even enjoy its magnificent chaos. Best of all, the effort is worth it. Because every penny saved or minute spared can be applied to something delightful later.
In New York City, a compass might only confuse you. Study the Manhattan street-grid system instead. Forget north and south, and think uptown and downtown, along the avenues. Avenues are mostly one-way, with odd numbers pointing south and even numbers heading north. Streets run east and west (“crosstown”), generally linking the East River to the Hudson River. Their directions vary, but mostly odd-numbered streets are westbound. A few neighborhoods, like Greenwich Village, are not on the grid, so their streets are on funny diagonals and have names rather than numbers.
Broadway is the big boulevard that connects lower Manhattan to Inwood and the Harlem River. Fifth Avenue separates east from west street addresses (e.g. 25 E. 39th St. stands across Fifth Avenue from 25 W. 39th St.).
The Subway Is Usually Your Best Choice
Just like the streets, subways and buses generally run uptown, downtown, or crosstown. Usually, getting around NYC is best done via subway, away from vehicular gridlock and tolls. However, expanded bus-only express lanes make buses a good non-stair-climbing alternative; plus all buses have wheelchair ramps. In 2019, the subway and bus fares may rise to $3—which is still a bargain, especially at rush hour. Also, the websites subwaytime.mta.info and bustime.mta.info are now the ultimate transit accessory, tracking in real time when the next ride arrives.
The exception to taking public transit are off-peak times like late weeknights and weekends (especially Sundays) when subways are infrequent or suspended for tunnel maintenance. During those quiet times, yellow cabs and taxi apps can be the swifter, albeit more expensive, option. The bold may venture onto the blue wheels of CitiBike bike share, which is a great option for both time and budget—but only for seasoned urban cyclists.
Getting to the Airport Can Be Tricky
Access to NYC’s airports is cumbersome, slow, or expensive, and sometimes all three. Most travelers fly through JFK Airport, about an hour’s taxi ride and a flat rate of $50–70 to Manhattan; though the AirTrain to the A subway is a reasonable option for just $7.75 total and around 90 minutes to Midtown Manhattan. From Newark (New Jersey) Airport, wise travelers skip the pricey taxi and instead take the AirTrain to Newark Penn Station, then transfer to an NJ Transit train into Manhattan Penn Station. For LaGuardia, a taxi is best since only buses (not trains) provide its measly mass-transit option.
Of course, all airports are accessible through taxi apps, and with enough time, sharing a ride with Lyft, Via, or Uber can be smart. Or you can catch an airport shuttle bus like NYC Airporter or Newark Airport Express (around $30 one way). Just be aware that all of NYC’s airports are far away, so build in at least an hour more than you think you’ll need to catch your flight.
Learn Sidewalk Etiquette
It’s true, New York is a gorgeous metropolis. Between the architecture, the public art, and the landmarks, you can easily get lost gazing skyward and snapping photos with abandon. But please, we beg you, don’t get too caught up in your selfies and never, ever, walk with your eyes glued to your phone.
While it may seem obvious, NYC sidewalks are busy, shared public thoroughfares where pedestrians converge and occasionally collide. Think of them more like foot highways, made for motion, not stopping. In especially congested areas, like the Brooklyn Bridge walkway and High Line elevated park, pedestrians are wise to “pull over” from the flow before pausing for that quick pic. And know that any place you stop, somebody else probably wants that entrance you’re blocking.
In 2018, NYC once again saw crime rates fall. Mayor Bill de Blasio attributes that to continued neighborhood policing and community leadership across all five boroughs. But New Yorkers might just agree that generally, we look out for each other. Still, it’s a dynamic city of nearly nine million, and anything can happen—good or bad. The golden rule remains to stay ever aware of where you are and who’s around you. That applies on the street, in a bar, in an art gallery, crossing the Williamsburg Bridge, and picnicking in Central Park: pay attention.
Know Your Neighborhoods
Every NYC neighborhood has a character of its own. From Wall Street and Chinatown to Times Square and Lincoln Center, each one can captivate visitors with its particular atmosphere. Among the most notable are Greenwich Village for its Bohemian and LGBTQ scenes; Tribeca and Soho for their boutiques, galleries, and cobblestones; and Williamsburg for trendy restaurants. Visitors thirsty for nightlife may prefer the East Village or Lower East Side; while theater lovers should take Midtown Manhattan. Picking the right neighborhood for your interests can make a trip to NYC feel like your own special place.
The Ins and Outs of Dining Out
Fine dining is always on the menu in Manhattan, where scoring a table at a scorching-hot new eatery can top off a foodie’s perfect trip. The most reliable way to snag that dream table is to reserve it well in advance, either directly with the restaurant, or with an app like OpenTable. For last-minute attempts at a fully-booked restaurant, show up in person during non-peak dining hours (i.e. not at 12:30 or 8 pm), be very kind to the almighty host, and be patient in hoping for a canceled reservation. Also, know if the restaurant accepts credit cards, or takes only cash—because even in this modern city, old-fashioned cash can still be king.
Not All Street Food Is Created Equal
So you’re between meals, peckish, and spy a hotdog/knish/falafel cart. Can you trust its quality? Odds are that it’s fine—especially if there’s a weekday queue of workers, a telling mark of a well-kept cart serving something delicious. On the other hand, with so many great takeout shops and quality food trucks (especially downtown), you may be wiser instead to spend your $3 snack budget on a great slice of pizza, taco, or waffle to go.
Just like locking in a great restaurant reservation, catching the best NYC entertainment means planning ahead. So if your dream visit hinges on catching a top Broadway show, buy that ticket first, then buy your NYC flights to plan your trip around it. This applies to any show or other major attractions with high demand and timed-ticket reservations (especially in summer), such as the Statue of Liberty’s crown, the Top of the Rock observatory, or the 9/11 Memorial Museum.
If you’re too late for seats at a great show, last-minute tickets can always be grabbed through TKTS discount booths, and the NYC CityPASS lets you skip the line at several attractions. Or, just dig a little deeper and try for something different, like a live jazz or comedy show.
INSIDER TIPCheck out Fodor’s NYC Performing Arts tips for more ideas
Not Everything Costs an Arm and a Leg
High-priced admissions and show tickets can get old fast. Fortunately, this city has plenty to offer free of charge, starting with NYC’s best free cruise past the Statue of Liberty: a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. Similarly, grand views can be had for free on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade or crossing one of the East River bridges. Most museums here offer free-entry periods every week, and of course, the city’s parks and riverfronts offer free recreation, sports, and public art. In summer, free outdoor concerts, festivals, flea and farmer’s markets, film screenings, open-air theater, and other events turn the whole city into one of the country’s most affordable destinations.
Don’t Forget the Outer Boroughs
They’re less crowded, more affordable, and dotted with landmarks and amazing, authentic eateries: They’re the outer boroughs! That is Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. Whether by train, ferry, foot, or wheels, visitors should always allow at least one day to explore outside of Manhattan. It could take you to a botanical garden, ballpark, beach; or to a national landmark or a renowned museum. No matter where you wind up, it will feel like your own special discovery.