7 Tips for First-Timers That Will Help You Explore New York City
New York City is one of those places where it’s easy to be overwhelmed, turned around and lost, especially for first-timers. The city is essentially a maze of tall buildings, subway lines and long streets that stretch to eternity. But getting lost in NYC doesn’t have to be an overwhelming or scary experience for first-time visitors.
As I just came back from my second trip to the Big Apple and will be going back in less than a week, I thought I should share some tips that will help any first-timers navigate New York City like a pro.
7 Tips for First-Timers That Will Help You Explore New York City
1) Know before you go
Once you’ve booked days off work and have booked your flights to New York City, you need to know where you’ll be staying. For first-timers, I would recommend booking accommodations in Manhattan. It tends to be the more expensive option, but you’ll be closer to all the attractions and to a number of transit options. For returning visitors, I’d recommed either Brooklyn and Queens, as they are cheaper alternatives and provide a more unique New York City experience. But if you choose Brooklyn or Queens, be sure you’re staying closer to a subway line, as busses are often unreliable.
Next you’ll need to plan your days to maximize your time exploring. When I was a first-timer in NYC, I made the mistake of leaving planing to the night before. This often led to me packing too many activities in one day and then having to rush to whatever show or reservation I made that night. So to maximize exploring time, I recommend having a start and end point each day and fill in the gaps with stops in between those two points. Once I figured this out, it made planning days much easier. For example, Grand Central Station, New York Public Library, the Empire State Building and the Flatiron Building are all within travel distance of one another. Here is the best way to hit all of those stops without needing to double back on the subway line.
Speaking of subways, always be sure to factor in travel time as a train from downtown to midtown could take as long as 40 minutes. Once your routes have been planned, double check travel time a week before your trip, to make sure that you won’t be affected by track work.
Finally, check the weather a week before you leave and the day before. This way you’ll know what attire and toiletries you’ll need to pack (I’m looking at you, sunscreen) and this way you can plan certain indoor-based days for colder or rainy weather. I underestimated how much the rain affected my trip, as many of the places I wanted to visit were very busy when I tried to do them. For some ideas on how to plan for a rainy or cold day, check out my post on the best way to explore New York City in the Rain.
2) When to book reservations
Whenever I’m in New York City, I always try to plan something for the evening. Whether it’s a Broadway Show, a show taping, a comedy show, Top of the Rocks, or a performance, making a reservation is almost a requirement to get a seat.
When to book a Broadway show: Try to book a show at least one month before your trip. If you’re visiting during peak-season for tourists, give yourself at least a month and a half to snag those tickets. As a side note, if you’re buying from their website, prices are in American dollars so try to book them on a day where there’s a good exchange rate.
When to book a show taping: Show tapings for late night shows go by a lottery system, where it’s free to enter, but it’s better to enter your name a bunch of times to try and get a seat. I was unsuccessful in getting seats to Jimmy Fallon when I went, but your best bet is to try every day for different shows. Start entering your name at least a month and a half before you go.
When to book Shakespeare in the Park: Another free activity in New York City is Shakespeare in the Park. Again, this is based on a lottery system where you have to enter your name to get tickets, but you can also line up the day-of to get tickets. The latter isn’t the best option, as I was told that people line up as early as 6 a.m. to get tickets to the performance.
When to book a comedy show: Comedy shows are always a great fail-safe plan to have when visiting NYC. I would recommend booking the morning of or the day before you plan on going to the show. And if you can’t get in, there’s always more than one comedy show going on in the city and there’s always the possibility of getting tickets at the box office just before the show. Make sure you arrive 15 minutes before the show, as that’s usually when the box office will start giving away tickets of those who made reservations, but haven’t checked in yet.
When to book Top of the Rock: As you may have read in my post about how to avoid crowds in NYC, Top of the Rock is the best way to see the New York skyline. (Because this way you can see the Empire State building and the One World Trade Center in the skyline.) So check the weather and find the clearest day during your stay and book yourself in that day when the sun is setting. Just let the person helping you know that you’re wanting to catch the sunset. This way you can see the city in the daylight and when the city is lit up.
3) Buy a weekly metro pass
Possibly the most important tip I can give you is to invest in an unlimited weekly metro card. If you’re staying for more than a weekend, this card will be your best friend as the transit system is often more reliable than a cab or an Uber and it’s less painful than walking for miles every day. At only $31 for the week, you can not only get from A to B on the 1/2/3, but also the N/Q/R and the A/B/C/D.
4) NYC Subway App is your new BFF
Speaking of bad subway jokes, sometimes Google Maps doesn’t know what’s up in NYC and will send you on a roundabout route. I’ve made a habit of looking on Google Maps and seeing where the nearest subway stations are and the routes offered, then I’ll go to the NYC Subway App and follow the subway line(s) to make sure that the route I’ve picked doesn’t take me on an unnecessary detour. The free app will also let you know about any transit delays so that you have more time to explore the city, not the subway line.
5) Wear your walking shoes
Another important tip is to always wear comfy shoes when you’re in the Big Apple. I am forever underestimating how much walking I end up doing in a day, as I normally walk about 4 km (over 2 miles) to work or school from my apartment every day. And normally my feet will reward me for my underestimation with calluses and blisters, so comfy shoes people! Save your little toesies!
Also, another walking tip: A single avenue does not equal one street in NYC. Let’s just say I was grateful that the bus home was delayed because 3 avenues is actually closer to 24 streets and a bucket of sweat.
6) Use offline maps on your smartphone
When I first heard of offline maps, I didn’t really understand how to make one until I had to map out some parts of Toronto for a University course. It’s the easiest lifehack anyone could every ask for. Log into your gmail account and enter your destination in Google Maps. Click on the three vertical dots next to your destination and hit download offline map. There should also be an option to send the map to your mobile device. For an image by image demonstration, check out this post by How to Geek.
7) Always pack snacks
I am that person that goes from happy to hangry in 30 minutes, so snacks are a necessity for when I travel. Especially since finding gluten-free food in a new city isn’t always an easy task. My boyfriend caught on to this trend pretty quickly after our first trip to New York and made sure to break out the trail mix and Date & Nut Energy Bars whenever I suddenly became quiet and less smiley. Let’s just say snacks will not only save your from starvation, but they’ll also save your relationship.
Bonus tip for international travellers!
Are you visiting New York for the first time as a non-American? Here are some apps to make budgeting, communicating (if English isn’t your first language), transportation and living accommodations easier.
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What are your tips for first-timers visiting New York City?
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