11 Tips for Visiting New York City for the First Time
Need some tips for visiting New York City for the first time? Look nowhere else! I got you awesome travelers covered (as always), and hope you have an amazing upcoming trip to New York City!
Now disclaimer: New York is one of my favorite cities in the entire world. I’m lucky to live nearby so I visit New York several times in a year. I’m biased, haha. The zipping yellow cabs, insane number of skyscrapers, models walking the streets (haha), abundance of international food options, variety of neighborhoods, never ever ever get old.
All in all, I’m always pumped to take a day trip or weekend to explore “the city.” I don’t think I’ll ever run out of new foods to try and new museums to explore.
As a fan, my New York tips are comprehensive, but I also try not to let my bias show through my writing too much. Hopefully I accomplished that goal!
I Have 11 Tips for Visiting New York City for the First Time
As you already know, New York City is understandably high on many travelers’ wish lists. I hear fellow travelers say “visiting New York is my dream” all the time on my adventures around the world. And why wouldn’t it be?
New York is the darling star of many major movies and television shows. In its bustling metropolis of over 8 million people, you can embrace yourself, flaws and all, and no one will think twice about it. I always feel as if I can achieve anything on a visit to New York City. Anything.
So I hope these tips for first time visitors to New York help make your vacation a beautiful one! Backpacking in New York is a trip everyone ought to take.
Welcome to the City that Never (Ever!) Sleeps. Have a blast!
1. Don’t Be Scared to Use the Subway
One of the best tips for visiting New York has to do with effective transportation. In short, don’t avoid using the subway because you’re scared of getting lost or seeing rats (haha). The subway is actually a gift for tourists. Now the classic yellow taxis are fantastic, but they’re a lot more expensive than sucking it up and using the metro, so you want to hail taxis sparingly, especially if you’re staying for longer than a weekend.
Now don’t get me wrong. Navigating the New York City subway might seem overwhelming, but I promise you’ll be okay.
All stations are equipped with maps to help you. Just make sure not to take an express train if you want to take a local. Otherwise you’ll be doing a bit of extra walking.
Furthermore, it’s essential for tourists to keep in mind that some trains don’t run on weekends. I know. I hate it too, but it’s reality. For example, current (2018) services prevent the L train from running for 15 weekends straight. So always do your research ahead of time to avoid disappointments when you arrive on the tracks. Those pink ribbons roping off platforms aren’t a pleasant sight. Believe me.
2. Tip All Your Taxi Drivers and Wait Staff
Another one of the most important tips for visiting New York for the first time has to do with appropriate treatment toward service workers. This is a big deal for me. Like anywhere else in the United States, tipping is the norm. I understand the political and social arguments for paying a living wage, but don’t launch into a lecture and explain to your cab drivers or wait service why you simply can’t tip. You won’t win any battles here.
New York tips range anywhere from 15% – 20%, which you determine from the total cost of the bill. Feel free to exclude tax when determining gratuities. Generally, Americans always tip unless the service was atrociously horrible (which thankfully doesn’t happen very much).
Ultimately, even if you disagree with the tipping system, make sure you still give a little extra to show your appreciation for good service.
3. Go to the Top of the Empire State Building at Night
I’m a sucker for “classic New York,” so unsurprisingly the Empire State Building ranks at the top of my list. I want to go back soon. However, you don’t want to visit this famous building at any ol’ time of day. Save the Empire State Building for a clear night.
Sure, visiting the Empire State Building is an expensive view. The standard pass for the 86th floor is a whooping $37. Yikes, right?
Nonetheless, seeing New York’s many skyscrapers illuminated against the night sky is priceless, in my humble opinion. Definitely go if your budget can swing the cost of a ticket. I hear visiting at sunset is also fantastic, but the timing might be a challenge, especially if several people have the same idea.
Honestly, after scaling the Empire State Building, I somehow feel small and larger than life at the same time. It’s empowering. Do it.
Need more tips for visiting New York City for the first time? Then pack your Lonely Planet Guide to New York City
4. Don’t Assume New Yorkers Are Rude
New Yorkers sometimes are curt. Why? Think about it. They work long hours, pay insane amounts of rent to their (occasionally slimy) landlords, encounter multiple tourists a day, and combat rush hour crowds on the subway. New York City is wonderful, but those conditions wear down any normal person’s patience.
Truthfully, you won’t encounter rudeness if you need assistance in New York City. Look for someone who doesn’t seem overwhelmed or distracted, and try your luck with that person. However, you need to practice your manners too when asking for directions or advice. I personally cringe when I’m stopped with an abrupt “hey! where’s Central Park?”
Remember most people you come across do not work in the tourist industry and are under zero obligation to help you.
So smile. Say “excuse me” and “please” and “thank you.” Basic manners go a very long way for your first time in New York.
5. Mentally Prepare Yourself for Penn Station
Again, a lot of my tips for visiting New York City for the first time have to do with public transportation and navigation. For example, if you’re arriving from New Jersey, such as Newark Liberty International Airport, then you’re bound to experience the – ahem – joys of Penn Station. The Long Island railroad also cuts through here, as do many subway lines.
I’ve complained about Penn Station on this website a few times. Sorry to sound like a broken record. However, I hate Penn Station. Hate it. And I’m used to it! So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Penn Station massively overwhelms first time visitors to New York City and therefore deserves special attention.
Penn Station is crowded. People will crash into you. No one knows where they are going. They will blindly walk right into you. There are men and women in full military uniform with guns. Strange dudes may hit you up for cash “for the train.”
Mentally prepare yourself ahead of time.
Now Penn Station isn’t dangerous, I promise. I’ve never once felt unsafe. However, it is a headache, and I feel like you should know that to avoid unpleasantness. I promise the rest of New York City is much, much better. Well. Except for Port Authority Bus Terminal. No redeeming qualities there, I’m afraid.
6. Eat Alone and Enjoy It! You Have Plenty of Choices!
I may have a fear of eating alone in public, but I’m slowly improving with each trip. It’s great to gain some confidence in that department. And I think New York City is a great place to tackle a solo meal.
Well a solo person isn’t an unusual sight at New York’s many diners and bars. No one will judge you. No one will stare at you. Of all the bizarre things New Yorkers see on a weekly basis, I promise you someone eating alone at a restaurant won’t even register on most people’s minds. So go for a great meal!
As always, if you’re nervous eating alone and don’t feel as if you can do it, then book yourself on a food tour. You’ll make friends, I promise. Tours take you through Greenwich Village, Chelsea Market, Harlem, and much much more. Honestly, you could take a new tour every afternoon of your stay in New York City.
7. Remember: New York is More than Manhattan
Manhattan is incredible. No doubt. But New York has five boroughs. Manhattan. Brooklyn. Queens. The Bronx. And Staten Island.
So don’t limit your stay to Manhattan when going to New York alone for the first time. For that matter, don’t limit your stay to Manhattan and DUMBO in Brooklyn. Yes, I know the view of the Williamsburg Bridge is amazing, but breaking away from the tourist crowds is valuable. You want to see “real” New York, right?
Go deeper into Brooklyn and Queens, and make special discoveries that you can share with friends and family or even by yourself. For example, one of my favorite neighborhoods is Astoria located in Queens. You’ll thank yourself for the effort.
8. Sleep in on Sundays
New York City may be the “city that never sleeps,” but Sundays are perfect for sleeping in. Perfect.
Most shops don’t open until noon, and brunches usually take place after nine in the morning. Not to mention, plenty of people are recovering from their exciting Friday and Saturday nights. So why not take advantage of the quiet? I always do it.
You won’t miss out on much if you take your time on Sunday mornings. So, another one of my New York tips, is the more you save your energy, the better you will be for an epic sightseeing adventure in the USA’s biggest city.
9. Show Respect at the 9/11 Memorial
Visiting the 9/11 Memorial and Museum isn’t for everyone, but if you want to pay your respects, please come here to reflect and learn about this fateful and horrible day in American history. 9/11 still deeply scars New Yorkers who lost family and friends in the terrorist attacks.
I know I’ve already spoken about this subject. But it bears repeating (groans). So …
Don’t act like an idiot at the 9/11 Memorial. On my own visits, I have seen many tourists taking inappropriate photos here and just acting in a blissful and ignorant manner. You need to remember 9/11 wasn’t that long ago. I mean. Think about it for a second. Families of the deceased still come to the memorial to reflect on their loved ones – who frankly died a painful, unexpected, and horrific death.
The 9/11 Memorial is beautiful without a doubt. On a sunny day, you see rainbows in the fountains where the Twin Towers once stood proud and tall. Feel free to take tasteful photos. But, please please please, show respect.
10. Be Mindful of Your Travel Budget
Honestly, one of the things I hate about New York City is that I always spend a boatload of cash. It’s stupidly easy to whip out your credit card and splurge on food, drinks, clothes, museum tickets, Broadway shows, anything. My credit card hates visits to New York City.
Try and stay mindful of your budget when visiting New York City for the first time.
Instead of spending at random, research ahead of time where your spending will go. For instance, you might want to invest in the New York CityPASS to save some money on major attractions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Top of the Rock Observation Deck, and cruises to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Furthermore, explore your hotel options in New York City and don’t book the first price you see during your search for accommodation.
And go window shopping instead of actual shopping. You don’t need to buy everything under the sun.
11. Explore. Have Fun. Ditch Any Paranoia.
Don’t fret too much about your wellbeing on your first visit to Manhattan, Brooklyn, and beyond! New York City is a very safe destination even for solo female travelers.
I’ve walked alone a lot in New York City. Sometimes at night. I rarely feel uncomfortable due to the fact that the streets are usually busy with other pedestrians, including members of the NYPD.
Violent crime is rare especially in areas frequented by tourists. Sure, keep a close eye on your personal belongings, but you would exercise those same precautions in any large city.
My biggest suggestions for staying safe in New York City have to do with your physical health. Wear comfortable shoes. You’ll walk massive distances (think six or more miles a day). Stay hydrated especially in the hot and humid summers, and bring warm coats and gloves in the winter months. Don’t overexert yourself. You don’t need to “see it all” as a first time visitor in New York City.
Tips for Visiting New York City for the First Time (Bonus): Take a Break if You Need To
As I’ve said, New York City is a metro consisting of over 8 million people and that’s not including the many tourists from all over the world.
Make no bones about it: New York is a crowded and intensely busy place.
It’s important to take breaks whenever you need them particularly if you’re someone who feels anxiety while traveling. My advice is to enjoy one of New York City’s many beautiful parks such as Central Park, Bryant Park, or Battery Park. On rainy and snowy days duck into a coffee shop or cafe, and read a book or listening to a soothing Spotify playlist.
I adore New York City. But hoards of people cause high stress. Take your time and savor the city. As I’ve already said, you don’t need to “see it all.” I still need to accomplish that goal and I live close by!
So take a break whenever you want to.
I hope you enjoyed my tips for visiting New York City for the first time. Don’t forget to pack your guide and have a great time!
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