You’re coming to NYC? Here are some of the general suggestions I share with friends and friend of friends headed to the city for some fun. Private tours available on request. People write entire books on this stuff but these suggestions come up again and again so I thought I'd write them down.
NEW YORK CITY TIPS FOR TOURISTS AND THOSE WHO DON'T WANT TO LOOK LIKE ONE
WHEN SHOULD YOU VISIT? -- During the week. Anything and everything is busier and more difficult on weekends. So any time of the year, if you are lucky enough to swing it, spend as many week days in the city as possible. You can still do stuff on the weekends, but I save those for events you need a ticket, like the theater. If it’s tourist sites and museums and the like, weekdays are much easier. And don’t drive in the city. Driving is easy but having a car is a pain and will add mightily to your stress.
WHAT SHOULD YOU WEAR? -- Comfortable shoes. Seriously. You’ll be walking a lot.
HOW SHOULD YOU GET AROUND? -- Public transportation. Or cabs and Uber if you must or its raining. If you’re in the city, a weekly MetroCard gets you access to buses and subways everywhere. Definitely the way to go and it’s FASTER than cabs in a lot/most situations.
IS IT SAFE? Yes. New York City is the safest major city in the US. Crime has fallen over the world in developed nations to 50 year lows, so NYC is not alone. But it’s safe even by those standards. You’d have to struggle to find an unsafe area in Manhattan and I could tell you bout Brooklyn but I can’t afford to live there. I assume it’s safe too. :) One tip: never hang your purse or bag on the back of your chair in a cafe or restaurant or bar or anywhere. Keep your stuff in FRONT of you and visible. Between your legs (not pushed back towards the aisle) or on the table. Don’t put your cell phone down anywhere and just step back to the counter to get some extra sugar. A cell phone is very easy to snag and go. This is true everywhere in the world, though, not NYC in particular. But again, never hang your bag/purse/messenger bag on the seat so it’s behind you.
THE STATUE OF LIBERTY -- visiting the Statue can be an all-day affair. Never go on weekends. You can book tickets in advance if you want to lock yourself in and are really determined to go. But since going up the statue is another long wait of hours once you reach the island and half the time it is closed for one reason or another anyway, I don’t recommend going. (If you want Ellis Island, you can go directly there. It’s nice for the historic feel of the place though the actual exhibits on display are pretty thin stuff.) Instead…
THE STATEN ISLAND FERRY -- this is a FREE ferry leaving from the bottom tip of Manhattan. During the day it leaves every 15 minutes. Late at night it leaves every half hour and then every hour in the wee hours of the morning before dawn. Want an up-close look at the Statue of Liberty without all the bother? This is the way to go. You head down to the bottom of Manhattan, clamber into the big room bustling with people and jump on the ferry. Here’s another tip: work your way to the front of the crowd of people waiting. Jump as soon as the doors open and head immediately to the right/starboard side of the boat. Head right away to the outside area and move towards the front of the ship and stand right at the rail. Don’t sit down on the tempting benches because other people will show up, stand at the rail and block your view. Stay at the rail for the entire short journey to Staten Island and you’ll get a great, camera-worthy look at the Statue. You can get off at Staten Island (the only stop) and make an immediate u-turn and get on the next ferry headed back to Manhattan. Not much to see on Staten Island unless there’s a minor league baseball game and that’s your thing. On the way back? Head to the absolute front of the ship as if you’re impatient to get off. Stand on the side so you can hold onto something. (When it stops, you’ll get a jolt and the tourists fall over and look silly and the locals sneer.) You’ll have a terrific view of the Manhattan skyline from the water as the boat slides into its slip. So for a free ride, you get a great view of the Statue of Liberty, a glimpse of Staten Island and a great view of the Manhattan skyline from the water. You can skip the laborious all-day journey to the Statue and a Circle Line boat tour of the city for a journey that’s quick (less than 90 minutes) and free.
(On the 1 train you want the South Ferry stop, the last one in Manhattan headed downtown; check which stops on which lines you want since not all are terribly close to the ferry. And a special note: you want to be in the front of the train on the 1 line, the first five cars, when getting off at South Ferry because it’s an old station. They’ll make an announcement about a hundred times as you get close, so no worries.)
THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING -- Go at night! During the day, you’ll often find long lines. Then when you get to the observation deck...you’ll find crowds of people. But the Empire State Building is open until 2 am. (Hey, it’s the city that never sleeps.) The last elevator going up is at 1:15 am, seven days a week.) So wait for a night when you’ve got a little energy and after dinner or a show when the weather is nice and you’re up for a quick jaunt, head to the Empire State Building. You’ll find ZERO lines, go right up to the observation deck and there you’ll find people, but not the massive, stuffed crowds you would during a sunny day. You get a gorgeous glimpse of the city at night, it’s romantic and fun and best of all it’s quick and easy.
THE 9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM -- The 9/11 Memorial is free and open to the public. You don’t need a ticket or have to arrange a timed entry. It’s open all day from 7:30 am to 9 at night. As with anything and everything in NYC, weekdays are better than weekends. There’s also a museum -- you need a ticket and must choose a date and time in advance. I’ve never gone so can’t speak to it. The 9/11 Memorial is well worth a visit -- it’s just a terrific work of art and elegantly simple and moving, much like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. I honestly had no interest in going whatsoever to either one, but found it quite moving and aesthetically pleasing and am glad I went.
If you go in the summer, you can get lucky. Lots of shows have cheaper tickets and better seats. Or you can at least GET a ticket. The absolute hottest shows are always expensive and difficult. (Unlike London, where the West End is always cheaper and more convenient and easier to access, even for red-hot shows.) So if you’re a theater buff, plan in advance and buy your tickets to that one show you want way in advance. If you’re on a budget or just want to wing it, enjoy a morning wandering the theater district and hitting some box offices and the TDF booth in Times Square. Hint: sometimes great seats are available for that night’s show or the NEXT day. Checking in on Thursday for Friday and the weekend is not fruitless. Checking in Monday for Tuesday and so on. You get the idea. But no, I can’t get you tickets to [fill in name of the hottest show everyone wants a ticket to]. Off Broadway has great stuff too. In general, I’d rather see a new show with the original cast than a long-running show with their second or third or fifteenth cast, but everyone is different and every show is different so have fun and do what works for you.
Enter lotteries. Why not? You can always turn them down. If you’re in the city during the summer, you can enter the lottery for Shakespeare in the Park. That’s an awesome event in and of itself and a great NYC tradition and a way to enjoy Central Park at night.
What should you wear? Wear what is fun for you. If you spent a lot of money and want to wear a nice suit or dress, go ahead. You’ll look great, even at matinees. But yes, the days of dressing to the nines for a Broadway show are a thing of the past. When you’ve been schlepping around all day, sometimes you don’t have time to get back to your hotel and change. It’s ok. Shorts and flip flops aren’t cool and many people are so dressed down you’d think you were in line to go to a Chuck E. Cheese. So it’s nice to be dressed nicely; but khakis and a dress shirt or even a tucked in polo for a guy will make you stand out and look sharp. Of course, Friday and Saturday night are dressier than week nights, matiness are more casual and family shows more casual still. If you must wear fancy shoes (and in my book, the higher the heel the lower the IQ), but again if you MUST, carry them in your back and replace the sensible walking shoes you've had on at the last minute. Do NOT walk around all day in heels, ever.
Bathrooms -- here’s a good tip. If you have tickets in hand, arrive at least half an hour before show time. If you are picking them up at the box office, arrive 45 minutes before show time. An HOUR before showtime, stop drinking. No water. Nothing. Especially women but men too. Broadway houses are getting a little better. But often you are talking about a very small number of restrooms and a lot of people trying to use them during the 15 minute intermission. Women make up a majority of theater-goers and at a female-centric show like “Wicked” the numbers go even higher. Depending on where you are sitting (people on the aisle can jump up and run; I’ve done it) you can be trapped and take ten minutes just to get to the very long line for the restroom. In short, you do not want to use the rest room during the intermission. Stop drinking at least one hour before showtime. Arrive at the theater early. HEAD TO THE RESTROOM even if you don’t have to go. A lot of shows are two and half hours long. Some are 90 minutes...but have no break. In either case, use the restroom before the show. Enjoy looking around the theater and the sense of occasion. (And don’t sit down right away in your seats for a while. Just stand there because you’re about to be sitting for two plus hours.) Smile when other people start leaping up for the rest room or to grab a drink at the bar or to buy a souvenir. (Don’t bother. Drinks are super expensive and you can buy souvenirs if you want before or after with no rush.) Just stand and stretch and relax and enjoy the break while you people watch.
AMY’S BREAD -- the BEST slices of cake (and sometimes pie) and fresh bread and baked goodies. Before or after a night at the theater or for dessert, try Amy’s Bread. They’re on Ninth Ave between 46 and 47th Street. Check the hours of course for everything I say but they are open seven days a week: till 9 pm Sundays and Mondays, till 10 on Tues and Wed and till 11 Thur-Sat. The perfect end to a night, especially if go see “Waitress” and the constant smell of baking pies has you hungry.
THE MET MUSEUM/FRICK -- The Met Museum is a must-see for many and for good reasons. There are LOTS of museums in NYC and let your interests be your guide. The Folk Art Museum is fun and not overwhelming. (Closed Mondays) The Tenement Museum is great for history buffs. (Make sure you get a walking tour and make sure you ask them or friends who have gone or look online -- some tour guides are a lot better than others.) The Sex Museum, sadly, is no great shakes. MOMA of course is as iconic as the Met. And one could go one.
I’ll stick to the Met. If you’re from outside New York State, you have to pay. This stinks since it was free to everyone until a minute ago. It’s also no big deal since tourists almost always thought they had to pay and did anyway. Nonetheless, its free admission made it different from most every other major museum in the world and I will fight to have that happen again. They’re open seven days a week from 10 am to 5:30 on Sundays-Thursdays and 10 to 9 on Fridays and Saturdays. Some museums have free access on certain evenings but they tend to be jammed year round. Go on a Monday! And don’t spend more than two to three hours. You can spend days looking at everything but after a few hours, it’s definitely a question of diminishing returns. Leave and wish you could stay longer rather than stay and feel your feet dragging.
And here’s a tip: the Frick Museum. It’s located near the Met Museum. (Closed Mondays.) It’s a nice little pocket museum and a great way to start. You can dip in, see some art, it’s usually not crowded the way the Met and most museums are (especially on weekdays) and they’ve got some marvelous Vermeers. You can go to the Frick and in two minutes be standing in front of a Vermeer and soak it in at your leisure. (Like most art, images of them in a book don’t do justice.)
Finally the Met annex called The Cloisters is a great visit way up in Manhattan. You’ll swear you are in another world from Manhattan, get a good glimpse of nature and if you like medieval and religious art, it’s a must.
BOOKSTORES -- THE STRAND/BOOK CULTURE -- You can find some indie bookstores here and there throughout the city. God bless them all. There are theater book stores (Drama Books at 250 West 40th St) and kids books (Books Of Wonderon 18th St and hole in the walls everywhere. But they are fading away, I fear. It’s all about two remaining giants: The Strand at Broadway and 12th St open till 10:30 pm seven days a week. It’s bursting with new books and especially endless aisles of used and rare and out of print books on three giant floors. If you love books and browsing, a quick stop inside can last hours. Very similar but less well known is Book Culture at 112th St between Broadway and Amsterdam and near Columbia. It’s an unofficial student bookstore so you’ll find lots of course books piled here and there. But like the Strand it also has a huge collection of used, rare and out of print books in every conceivable category.
CENTRAL PARK -- It’s great. Go! Strawberry Fields by the Dakota is a must-see. Otherwise, wander to your heart’s intent. One great thing to do when you’re heading to the Met museum from the West Side or vice versa is to explore the park simply by going across it. There are buses at certain streets to jump across the park but no easy subway lines. So at some point, if you wanna be there instead of here, just walk across the park and enjoy.
Food. Music. Neighborhoods. Walking tours. Other boroughs. Movies. A thousand things come to mind and if you tell me what interests you that will spark some ideas. But the above are the tips I provide time and time again to friends and friends of friends headed to NYC for the first time. When I moved, I was staying on 103rd Street and Broadway. I started walking down Broadway one day and went all the way to the bottom of the island. The next day? Fifth Avenue. The next day? Ninth Avenue and so on and on, just to see the changing neighborhoods. It’s as fun and engaging as anything you could plan out reading Fodors. Don’t schedule yourself to death! Take the time to just wander and relax and feel like a New Yorker. Curse if the mood strikes you. We won’t mind.