Updated: Sep 6, 2022
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New York City is without a doubt a must-see for lovers of culture, history, and travel. While walking the streets of Manhattan, dreams are awakened by bright lights and street art in various forms of graffiti or buskers looking to get noticed. Those who venture out into The Big Apple will definitely have a great time, but there are a few important things to know on your first time in New York. The following situations I address in this article are things that my husband and I have experienced in our own explorations, and I wish somebody would have filled me in before my plane landed at LaGuardia.
1. Don't accept help, take pictures, or stop for anybody who says their products are "free." On day one, I was hustled by a group of people dressed up as characters such as Elmo, Captain America and even people dressed as The Statue of Liberty. These people will likely be very friendly and will offer to take a photo with you. After the photo, however, they will demand a large tip for everybody in their group. The friendliness they displayed at first will fade if you refuse to pay them, and they may even become hostile. We were also approached by somebody who told us they wanted to send blessings for us to Buddha. He seemed genuine and we didn't think he wanted anything, but alas, he asked for a donation immediately after performing his ritual.
Also, never buy tickets from anybody on the street outside of major attractions. They will falsify the facts and talk you into paying a lot more to visit The Empire State Building than the official box office will. No matter how intriguing some "skip-the-line" deals may seem, you can't trust them unless they come from a reputable source. You can book several New York City attractions ahead of time on TripAdvisor.
Use the Subway
2. The subways are the cheapest and easiest way to get around. When we first landed at the airport and had to make sense of how to safely get to our hotel in such a huge city, we went to the first bus we found outside of the terminal. The driver ended up charging us $50 to go somewhere relatively close to the hotel. On the way back to the airport a week later, we paid only a few dollars to ride from the nearest train station, connect on a bus, and arrive at LaGuardia.
Underground trains are also a better idea than taxis for most locations. Besides the fact that taxi fees are typically high, subways don't have to sit through rush hour traffic, which seems to be present all the time in Manhattan. Taking a taxi may be convenient, but it is never the fastest or cheapest way to get from point A to point B.
The subway system is also easy to navigate. There are various maps posted on the walls that show which trains go to which place. As long as you have a specific station in mind that you want to get to, finding out how will be simple.
Walk for the Best Views
3. Manhattan is easy to navigate on feet due to its grid system layout. Streets and avenues count up and down in order, no tricks or gimmicks. Streets run east to west and avenues run north to south. The streets and avenues are easily labeled by road signs, so if you remember the street and avenue that your hotel is on, you will be able to wander off into the city and make it back safely at night. Because of this, most people walk from place-to-place in New York City. This is also one of the reasons I recommend flying into the city and leaving your car parked at home.
The other reason you shouldn't drive to New York City (besides the obvious traffic) is because you'll likely end up walking everywhere anyway. Parking is scarce in the city and when you do find it, it will be expensive. If you bring your car, you will be paying a heaping amount of money per day to only keep it parked somewhere. So, utilize Manhattan's amazing, walkable grid system to explore where cars may not be able to go.
Since you'll be walking long distances, it's a good idea to get a hotel close to some of the attractions that you're interested in seeing. Hotels right in the center of the hustle and bustle tend to be much more expensive than those in Brooklyn or the Bronx, but I truthfully think the convenience makes it worth it. I stayed at a Hilton Garden Inn just minutes from Madison Square Garden. The walk to Times Square was approximately 15 minutes, with many exciting views along the way. You can check out the Hilton Garden Inn here.
Bonus Tip: Times Square is located between 42nd and 47th street.
Eat Local (Mostly)
4. There's only one chain restaurant that I recommend eating at in Manhattan, and that is Shake Shack. Shake Shack is a New York based chain with locations in 20 states and 12 countries. Shake Shack specializes in burgers, hotdogs, and as the name suggests, milkshakes. Shake Shack started out as a hotdog cart in Madison Square Park in 2001, and has since grown to include 162 locations. During the holidays, the restaurant offers limited-time milkshake flavors that you won't want to miss.
Other than this one, I don't recommend visiting chain restaurants that can be found in your own hometown while visiting Manhattan. The food will be the same, but with an elevated price. Instead, check out some of the New York delicacies, such as street vendors with hotdogs and soft pretzels, as well as the numerous pizza shops lurking around town. I tried several pizza places while I was in NYC, and my favorite was Famous Amadeus on 8th Avenue. The restaurant offers large slices of New York style pizza, boasts cheap prices, and stays open late to accommodate the city's never-sleeping vibe.
Visit Around Christmas
5. Manhattan in the winter is absolutely beautiful. Walking through Central Park in the snow feels like you are playing a role in a romantic movie. However, believe me when I tell you that it is COLD, especially at night. You can check the weather before leaving your hotel, but that means nothing if you don't also check the wind chill. The large buildings create a funnel for air, making the already chilly winter even frostier. There's a reason there's often snow on the ground when NYC is in TV shows or movies.
To give you a reference, my husband and I arrived at the hotel after our first night out and could NOT get warm no matter what we tried. We took steaming hot showers, cuddled up with tons of blankets, put on layers, and nothing worked. Our legs were red and we felt like we'd be cold forever. The next day, we found a way to combat this by wearing sweatpants under our jeans and multiple layers up top as well as beanies, gloves, and scarves. If you are going to Manhattan in the winter, I suggest bringing long johns to go underneath your clothing, plenty of hoodies, and heavy jackets.
Additionally, I recommend that you get The New York Pass while you're touring about the city. The New York pass offers free entry to more than 90 attractions in New York for no more than the price of the card. At many attractions, you can even skip to the front of the line with the card. All you have to do is present the card at the ticket desk and go straight inside. It's truly an amazing time and money saver. If the Statue of Liberty is on your to-do list, check out tips for visiting the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
New York City is my favorite place on earth. It topples Caribbean beaches and European outings easily in my book. I look forward to visiting it many more times in the future and exploring the other boroughs that make the city so culturally diverse. I hope these tips are able to help you on your first time in New York.