Sunday, February 01, 2015

New York City Tips For Tourists


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. Details change all the time. Don't assume the info below is up to date. Check the websites of whatever attraction, service, restaurant, Broadway show, museum I mention for the latest guidelines. 


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 weekdays in the city as possible. You can still do stuff on the weekends, but I would save those days 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. If you MUST have nice shoes for the theater or some restaurant, carry them in a bag and change right before the event. If you're a guy, urge any women you're traveling with to follow this tip. They will thank you later. 

HOW SHOULD YOU GET AROUND? -- Public transportation. Or cabs if you must or it's 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 most situations.

BRING YOUR PROOF OF VACCINATION CARD -- Actually, don't. You've probably done this already. But take your proof of vaccination card to a Kinko's or UPS store. For $2 or so, they can make a credit card-sized copy and laminate it. Get two! Leave your actual vaccination card safely at home. You'll need this proof for restaurants, theater, museums, etcf. 

PHOTOGRAPH ALL YOUR TRAVEL DOCUMENTS -- Keep them on your phone and maybe have them in a safe space online or on your laptop if bringing that with you. Your driver's license and or passport. Your vaccination card. Stuff like that. So if you lose your wallet and such, you'll at least have a copy you can show. 

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 about 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,  not NYC in particular. But again, never hang your bag/purse/messenger bag on the seat so it’s behind you and out of sight. On the floor is not so smart either, but between your legs on the floor so you can feel it is not so bad. But best to keep your stuff within eyesight and in front of 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 (you do have a subway map downloaded onto your phone, right? you can also get a paper copy in major subway stations), 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 behind you. 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 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 itself. 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 with this free ride on a ferry, 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 -- the same view immigrants had when arriving at NYC for the very first time. You can skip the laborious all-day journey to the Statue or an expensive, time-consuming Circle Line boat tour of the city for a journey that’s quick (less than 90 minutes) and free and great fun.

(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.) 

BUSES -- I've walked the avenues of Manhattan from 100th street down to the bottom. It's a great way to see the city. In London, you might want to tour on a double decker bus, since one can jump on and off. In NYC? If you have a Metrocard (and you should), just jump on a bus heading up or down a major avenue when you need a break. Sit by a window or in the back and just gawp at the city while resting your legs. You'll end up somewhere. Just make sure it's a local when you get on or you'll be zooming 40+ blocks in a stop or two. 

THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING -- Go at night! During the day, you’ll often find very long lines. Then when you get to the observation’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 usually find short lines after 9 or 10 and  ZERO lines after 11 pm. 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. Say hi to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan while you're at it.

THE 9/11 MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM -- The 9/11 Memorial is free and open to the public seven days a week 10-5.  ALWAYS check the website for anything you plan to do in NYC before you map out your trip. Right now, you don’t need a ticket or have to arrange a timed entry for the memorial. It’s open all day from 10-5. 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, though I hear it's well done. The 9/11 Memorial is def worth a visit -- it’s just a terrific work of art and elegantly simple and moving, much like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial in DC. I honestly had no interest in going whatsoever, but found it moving and aesthetically pleasing and am glad I went. Also, friends say the guided tour and view from the observation deck are good if you want the full experience.


If you go in the winter (Jan-Feb) or 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 about performances on Friday and the weekend is not fruitless, esp for single tickets. Check in Monday at the box office for Tuesday and so on. You get the idea. But no, I can’t get you house seats 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 fun 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. Still, 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. That screams tourist. So it’s hipper to be dressed nicely; but khakis and a dress shirt or even a tucked in polo for a guy will be fine. Of course, Friday and Saturday night are dressier than week nights, matinees 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 backpack/bag/purse and replace the sensible walking shoes you've had on for heels 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, you should 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 a 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 may be trapped and take ten minutes just to get to the back of 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 after arriving at your seats. 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.

Where's my theater? -- Google Maps! Type in most Broadway shows (not to mention most long-running Off Broadway shows) and Google Maps will find it for you. Type in "Hamilton" and they'll pinpoint the Richard Rodgers at 226 West 46th St. Very handy!

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 you 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 people and with good reason. 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. 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, free admission made it different from most every other major museum in the world and I will fight to have that happen again. If you're with a New Yorker, they can bring a guest in from out of town and both can pay what they want or nothing. So make your NYC friend join you at the Met if you've got one. As I write this, the Met is closed on Wednesdays. And if you're from out of state, you MUST reserve a ticket in advance. 

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 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 the city, 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 in the theater distric) and kids books (Books Of Wonder on 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, near the West 72nd St entrance. 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 have, that will spark some suggestions. But these 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 there, 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 after 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.