How To Visit New York: The Basics

I get asked by a lot of people for tips on what to do when visiting New York City, and though I’m hardly an expert on NYC tourism, I thought I’d take the time to write up a lot of the tips and information that I share with family and friends when they come to town. I’m also hoping that people who read this and are inspired or offended by my suggestions or opinions take the time to write up their own recommendations. To start off the series, I thought I’d over the basics, most of which have to do with mindset and expectations about coming to visit New York.

To get in the right mindset about visiting New York City, there are a few things you need to really take to heart, and once you’ve absorbed these lessons, the rest of your trip will be much less stressful and a lot more fun. (This first post is aimed mostly at people who’ve never been to New York or don’t know much about the place.)

  • NYC has a different culture. If you’re coming from nearly any other place on Earth, New York City will be different from what you’re used to. Culturally, geographically, and socially, it’s distinct from any other place in the United States. You wouldn’t insist on people at Disney World wearing formal wear, and you wouldn’t expect people in Paris to all know English, so if it helps, think of New York City as a city full of Americans who speak English, but just happen to have a significantly different culture than the rest of the country. Once you look at it that way, you can stop being frustrated by your expectations and enjoy the differences.
  • Don’t go to the goddamn Olive Garden in Times Square. If you come to New York just to experience the same things you can get at home, you’ll find them to be… well, completely unimpressive. Yes, we do have really big gaudy versions of the restaurants you eat at back home, but the way fancy restaurants work here is backwards. In the small town I grew up in, going to the Red Lobster was fancy because it was a big national chain. In New York, it’s the opposite — the places we love most are those that are distinctly, and uniquely, of New York City.
  • Yes, it’s expensive. Speaking of comparisons to home, you’ll just drive yourself nuts if you are constantly saying “Hey, that only costs half as much at the Wal-mart back home!” From rent to food to clothing to parking, a lot of the staples of life cost more here. What you may be surprised to find is how often there are very, very good examples of these staples (especially food and clothing) that you can find for cheaper than almost anywhere else. Millions of us who live here started out being broke and barely scraping by, and as a result, there’s always a market for cheap eats and low-cost threads.
  • Get out and walk. The primary mode of transportation for all of Manhattan and most of the outer boroughs is a combination of walking and mass transit. We really, truly do ride the subways and buses every day, and even millionaires don’t own cars. Our Mayor Bloomberg is a billionaire, and he rides the subway to work, and it’s not merely populist affectation — it’s just that much more efficient. If you are walking on the sidewalks and get winded because you’re not used to hoofing it so much, be sure to get out of the way before you just stop; Pulling to a halt on a sidewalk is the equivalent of stopping your car right in the middle of traffic. Though the subways and buses can look a little tricky, they’re actually extremely convenient and inexpensive. But if you’re just too intimidated by them, grab a cab — they’re cheaper than taxis in any other American city, they’re really speedy except in the worst traffic, and NYC cab drivers are almost always pretty competent at getting you to any common tourist destination.
  • It’s not a theme park. This one is hard to stress enough. Though New Yorkers are overwhelmingly friendly, this is the place where we live, work, and play, and being treated like zoo animals while we do those things is one of the few things that can make us ornery to tourists. I used to work in the Empire State Building. While I never got tired of being wowed by the building, it got pretty tiring being asked questions like I was a tour guide about where to find bathrooms, or how old the building was, or did I mind taking someone’s picture when I was just trying to get to my office. Put yourself in the shoes of those around you, and be considerate of people trying to live their regular lives, and they’ll bend over backwards to help you enjoy the city.
  • It’s safe. I was raised with terrifying stories of how Central Park was where one goes to get mugged, and grew up believing all kinds of horrible urban legends about what happens to people in New York City after dark. The reality is, most places any tourist would go are incredibly safe. Violent crime in New York, as in all of the U.S., has dropped dramatically over the past decade and a half. You should, of course, take sensible precautions (be as aware as you’d be at any crowded area like an amusement park or an airport) but you don’t need to go around fearfully clutching your purse, like I see so many people doing in Times Square. The best way to make sure you never have to worry is to spend a little bit of time reading up on your destination and route wherever you go (all of the web-based mapping sites offer nice amenities like displaying NYC’s subway stops overlayed on the map) and being mindful of your surroundings.
  • The natives are friendly and helpful. Like everyone I know who lives here, I end up giving someone directions or information almost every single day. I don’t live in a particularly tourism-heavy part of the city, but there are always people around who are out of their element, and they’re fairly easy to spot. (You all dress funny.) If I’m not in a hurry and I think I can help, I’m always glad to answer a few questions, and that’s generally true of most people here. It’s even a good opportunity to talk to someone who is a little bit different than the people in your usual circle of acquaintances. No matter where you’re from, you should be able to find somebody in New York who seems strange to you — now’s your chance to go make a new friend.

To see all of the posts in this series, check out the archive of How To Visit New York.