A disclaimer before anything else: Everyone has a different way of doing things of course, and what I’m about to share here today are some tips that I have come up with after spending my days as a first time visitor to New York City. It’s always a learning experience when you create an itinerary entirely on your own for such a big bustling city, and while it does not make me an expert, it does give me more things to talk about! For whatever they’re worth. 😉
This was my first time visiting the East Coast and of course the first order of business was NEW YORK CITY! Coming straight from the West Coast during this trip, New York felt all the more like an entirely different beast from any major city I ever visited in California. But then again, I say that about every major city. They all have a unique vibe that makes them incomparable from each other.
To me, uniqueness is never a bad thing. But sometimes when you go to a new place it can feel a little overwhelming. The Big Apple can especially feel like a new environment for those who have traveled extensively in Asia, but the good news is, your first time in New York need not be intimidating or scary!
Before I go into my individual travel diaries, I wanted to make a list of things that might prove to be helpful in making the most out of your first time visit to this city that LITERALLY never sleeps.
1. Pack comfortable shoes.
This is CRUCIAL. If you’re like me and have few precious vacation days to spare, you’re going to pack your schedule with as much must-see’s as you can. That also means you’re going to do a lot of walking, because in New York City, you don’t want to be stuck in a car. Trust me! There’s too much to see and the best way to do that is by walking them streets.
In the four days I was here I walked an average of 20,500 steps per day, so I’m not joking about the shoes you guys. One day it even got to 25,000, and just imagine wearing heels and doing all that walking. I know a lot of people take this opportunity to snap great OOTD’s, but I just want to say, there are lots of nice sneakers available in the market these days that can complete your outfit. Have mercy on your feet. 😁
Walking is simply easier with comfy shoes (like the ones I wore), especially on a day when the people at the Empire State Building allow you to cut the elevator lines up to the observatory by climbing the stairs from the 80th to the 86th floor. Or when you make the trek across the Brooklyn Bridge!
2. Be conscious of where you’re walking.
New Yorkers have this reputation for being rude and whatnot, but my general impression is that they’re actually quite friendly. I was lucky to have encountered just two people who were in a bad mood in the four days I was here; most memorable was this guy walking down 47th right into a line of theatre-goers and muttering, ‘I hate tourists!’
I think maybe that “bad reputation” stems from the fact that New Yorkers take rush hour very seriously, and I can’t blame them if they give slow-walking tourists a bit of attitude during this time. I am a brisk walker on a normal day so I didn’t have any problems adjusting to the pace of their movements, but if you’re not used to that then you may find that the bit about New Yorkers walking fast is not a myth.
There’s a quick fix to that though, and it’s a common etiquette in many different places around the world: Always keep right. When you’re walking down the sidewalks or stairs, stay on the right so you don’t get in the way of people coming from the opposite direction. You can avoid running into anyone that could make your trip memorable in a way you won’t like by doing this simple thing.
And for your own safety, stand off to the side and away from the human traffic if you want to stop and take pictures. There are a lot of pretty buildings here after all.
3. Take the subway.
I feel like you don’t truly experience NYC unless you take the Metro, and why the heck not– it’s the most convenient thing ever! The flat rate going anywhere is $2.75 because unlike the subways in other countries, you just swipe at the entrance and not anymore at the exit.
Buying a new regular Metro card will cost $1, and you can add credits through the reloading stations. These types of Metro cards can be passed among passengers– as in you and your companions can use the same one card to get into the platform area as long as your credit is enough.
All subway stations have reloading terminals that are user-friendly. Before approaching the terminals get your cash or card ready, and don’t feel pressured if there are people standing behind you because that makes you more prone to mistakes. Calmly follow the instructions on the screen and you’ll find that it’s a piece of cake!
However, if you’re planning to do a lot of subway-riding throughout your stay, I suggest you get a 7-day Unlimited Metro Card. During my visit last May, the Unlimited Pass cards were a separate and completely different card. (Got mine at Jamaica Station after alighting the JFK AirTrain.)
Though it looks the same as a regular Metro Card, you actually cannot use them interchangeably. The 7-Day Unlimited card expires after it’s been used for the intended duration, meaning it activates on your first swipe and becomes unusable on midnight of the 7th day. I’m not sure if that’s changed now.
The 7-Day Unlimited Pass costs $31 and you can ride all you want (including the local buses!) as long as you don’t use it on the same station within minutes of each swipe. They want to prevent having the 7-Day Card passed among passengers since it’s already a value card. Doing the math, if you use the subway more than 2 times each day for the 7 days you’re there, you would’ve already saved a lot of cash. Use that cash to treat yourself to one of NYC’s more upscale restaurants! 😊
It’s easy to spot a Metro station in New York. Just look around for one of these orbs lights!
They are ALWAYS at the entrance to the subway stairs, and at night they are lit up like beacons (like this!) to help you find a subway entrance.
When in the subway, please do not run! The platforms aren’t that wide so it can be dangerous. Most trains come every few minutes, but not when it’s non-rush hour. It helps to check train schedules if you’re catching a meeting. Everybody tends to wait for the train at the head of the platform near the entrance, so walk all the way to the lower middle portion of the platform since it’s less crowded there. Sometimes you think the train’s full because of the way the first few carriages are packed, but then the tail-end of the train passes you by and whoops, it’s nearly empty! Happens everywhere.
4. Learn to navigate the subway like a boss, obviously.
So you’ve decided to ride the subway. Good for you! Before you do that (or go anywhere in NYC really), it’s best to familiarize yourself with the “lay of the land”. Always keep an offline subway map in your phone in case the service is bad underground! Looking at a map of the subway might seem daunting at first, with all the colours and numbers and letters, but give yourself a moment to really look at it and you’ll realize it’s actually straightforward.
Some stations service a lot of lines. As a first step, check the colours and see what trains run in those lines. Pay attention to the numbers and letters because not all of them will end up at the same stops. Some of the trains that run on the same line will branch out to a different stop, and actually, if you look closely at the new subway maps, all the stations actually have small letters/numbers written underneath their names to indicate which trains are your best bets.
For example, let’s use the map below as a guide. Let’s say you’re starting from 34th Street-Penn Station and you want to go to Musuem of Natural History, which has its stop at 81st St-Museum of Natural History. At a glance you’ll know you want to get on the BLUE line, which services the A, C, E trains. But which train do you get on?
Following the Blue line, you’ll see that it actually branches out at 50th St., and the E train ends up going off in a totally different direction to where you want to go. However the A & C trains head into the direction of the museum stop, so you can safely get on either of these trains and they will bring you to your destination. See, that wasn’t so hard right?
Another thing to be mindful of is the direction you’re headed. Open up a map of New York City and see if your ending location is above the station you’re getting on. Anytime that’s the case, you’ll want to take an UPTOWN train. If the destination is anywhere below your starting station on the map, DOWNTOWN is the train to take. So in the case of our example above, you’ll want to take an UPTOWN A or C TRAIN to get to the destination. (Left to right travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan islands are referred to as BROOKLYN-BOUND and MANHATTAN-BOUND.)
Take a look at the signage at every subway entrance, like this one. When the sign of the station indicates only the name and the line it services, then that means the platforms of the Uptown and Downtown lines separate once you get downstairs.
In some stations however, such as at 50th St. Station, Uptown and Downtown entrances are on opposite sides of the street. So if you’re headed Downtown and you happen to find the Uptown entrance instead, look at the sign above the stairs. An arrow and the name of the street where you can find the Downtown entrance will be stated there. Don’t worry, there will always be a sign at the subway entrance. The opposite entrance will also most probably be nearby.
Also, if you’re waiting on a platform that services several lines, listen to the PA announcements as to which train is incoming. If you’re nervous about getting on the wrong train, remember that the front and side of the train will also bear their letter or number code, so look out for that too. You’ll find that after your first try, it’s not as complicated as you think.
Inside the train, don’t forget to track where you are. The newer trains have these automated announcements, as well as the digital overhead route map telling you where you are. The older trains will require you to do more manual scouting. Just look out the train windows to see the signs on the station platforms. I like counting stops using the map before I get on for those times when I’m “resting my eyes” to fight off my jetlag haha!
I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of subway-riding in New York since my travels were mostly centred in Manhattan and a bit of Brooklyn, but here’s a really great and more detailed guide to the New York subway. If you want to learn more about Express Trains, other types of Metro cards, and the like, definitely check it out.
5. Use apps to ease your worries.
The beauty of traveling in this day and age? Everything is literally in the palm of your hands. Never leave home to travel abroad without Google Maps and an Internet connection, I always say. And frankly, navigation apps can save you so much grief it would be a sin not to use them!
When making your itinerary, Google Maps help a great deal in facilitating your routes. It will show you all the nearest subway or bus stations from your start to your end points, and you can pick a route you like. When you’re on the ground, Google Maps is still your friend. Their maps of the US cities are very accurate so use it to your advantage if you ever need help navigating the streets, especially when you’re in Lower Manhattan since the streets there aren’t in a grid pattern.
The CityMapper app is super helpful as well because it shows you train schedules, service interruptions (and alternate routes), how many stops to your destination, and even which exit to take that will get you nearer your destination. A 5-star app if I ever used one! Good news is it’s also available for various cities. 👍🏻
6. Always pay attention.
While you’re exploring NYC it’s important to keep track of where you are and what direction you’re headed. It’s actually easier to navigate Upper and Mid-Manhattan because its streets are numbered following the grid pattern, but it gets really tricky in Lower Manhattan. In any case, check the street signs to make sure you are actually going the right way.
Also, jaywalking is a common practice among New Yorkers, but if you’re not used to this kind of system just follow the traffic lights. When you’re crossing a major street, as in the really big ones, just follow the traffic lights altogether to be on the safe side.
When in the subway, also pay attention to signs and announcements. Sometimes there are route changes or trains that are not being operated on certain days. If an incident causes interruptions in certain stations, there’s a chance the train you intended to get on for the day might get affected. Notices will always be posted at station entrances, and someone will announce any operational changes over the PA system so keep your eyes and ears open.
I wanted to mention as well that since the weather in New York can be a little bipolar, you might want to check the local morning news before heading out so you can know if you need a cap or an umbrella or a jacket for the day. The news also sometimes makes mention of closed subway stations following any unwanted occurrences in the city. When we were there, there was a specific station that got closed off due to a fire that happened the night before.
Lastly, safety is always an issue among travelers, and to that I always say be vigilant, wherever you are. Try not to go around drawing attention to yourself. Avoid wearing too much bling on your body. When you’re walking and you find yourself in a neighbourhood that feels off, double back. If someone fishy stops you on the street, you don’t have to talk to them! Although I automatically become aware of my surroundings whenever I’m out– a habit I’ve learned from living in a city like Manila– I’ve never felt threatened while walking around in New York. Still, you should never let your guard down.
7. Live close to a transportation hub.
Because my self-made itinerary banked a lot on riding the subway, I had to find lodging that would make our travel easy. Luckily enough, I found a really good-priced Double Twin Room off Agoda for the Wyndham New Yorker, which shared a sidewalk with a subway entrance. To be clear, I’m not recommending that you stay in this particular hotel, just that you pick a hotel near some form of transportation that doesn’t involve Uber or a cab. I can’t stress enough how the subway saves you time and cash.
For illustration purposes, let me share with you how it was like to live in Wyndham’s New Yorker Hotel. First off, when we arrived in New York City via JFK, we took the AirTrain to Jamaica Station, then took the LIRR Express Train from Jamaica to New York’s Pennsylvania Station. (The one below Madison Square Garden.) This trip took only 20 minutes by train, and I hazard it would take hours by car.
The New York Penn Station is actually home to the subway, AMTRAK, the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), and the New Jersey Transit, so it’s a hub for going to a lot of places. This is where we got off after taking the train from the airport, and since it was just across the street and half a block away from our hotel (it’s nearer than it sounds, trust me) we didn’t need to drag our luggage all over the place. Also, New York Penn Station has a lot of places to eat, including a mini Magnolia Bakery. 😀
The hotel is simply in a very convenient location, just a few blocks from Herald Square Macy’s for shoppers and the Empire State for sightseers. Across the street you’ve got a CVS, a McDonald’s, and an Italian place. And the fact that it’s so close to New York Penn, where you can take the train to Jersey or Boston or even Washington DC, opens up a lot of possibilities. (If I had a chance to stay in the East Coast longer I would’ve gone to DC for sure.) We actually did end up going to New Jersey for the outlet mall via this train station.
For our daily forays into the city, we usually just took the subway at 34th Street-Penn Station. After a long day walking and a long night watching Broadway shows, it was a godsend to be able to get off the subway station and just turn a corner and be home. I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciated that as a traveler who never managed to get over jetlag!
8. Consider tourist passes.
I think it’s amazing that the US has these passes for tourists in many of their major cities. New York has several tourist passes to choose from, and the most popular are the New York CityPASS and The New York Pass. The latter is what my Dad and I ended up buying after the recommendation of his friends, and I must say, if you plan your itinerary well you can get a really great discount out of these things. Benefits of getting passes include a supposed fast-track entry, but I can’t say I really felt that bit. Since we bought the New York Pass, that’s the only one I’ll be talking about here.
First of all, the New York Pass website constantly offers different discounts and deals for a certain period, like 20% discount or value off on certain day passes. When I bought our 3-Day Passes it was on sale at 15% off (and then became 20% off a week later huhuhu…) so we paid $203.15 per person. Naturally, after shelling out that much money I knew I had to make this Pass count.
By the end of the trip, the value of the attractions we ended up visiting amounted to $274 per person. This includes the Empire State, Top of The Rock, Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island, etc. $140 worth of savings for the two of us while being able to check out all the major tourist spots is not bad at all!
Another great thing that I like about the New York Pass is that it allowed me to join things I normally would not think of joining. For example, walking tours. When my family goes abroad, we either join a big tour company or go off on our own. We never really join relatively small group walking tours, but after this trip that’s about to change.
I feel really compelled to mention how impressed I was by the walking tours organised by New York Tour 1. All our guides were funny, energetic, and they knew what they were talking about. You feel it every second you’re with them. I learned so many thing about the theatre district, and the mafi– I mean, the “family” that used to rule in Little Italy, as well as a lot of interesting bits about New York’s history.
Certain neighbourhood tours of theirs are available with the New York Pass, and they each cost a good $30 per head at full price. At that rate, it wouldn’t have been something I would think of joining on a normal trip; but what started as my attempt to get the most out of the New York Pass ended up being a discovery of a great experience! In fact, on my next return to New York, I’m definitely booking their One-Day Brooklyn Walking Tour.
There are plenty of other attractions this Pass offers that my Dad & I decided to skip (like sightseeing cruises and the Hop-on-Hop-Off Bus), but I still thought we had a very activity-filled trip thanks to this Pass. Anyway, you can find the full list of attractions on their website.
9. Buy Broadway tickets off TodayTix.
You know those people who fall in line at Times Square for the TKTS tickets? Well this is kind of the same thing, except you don’t have to fall in line. You just need to have the app on your phone to be able to buy “last minute” tickets for Broadway shows at insanely affordable prices. (The seats are pretty decent, by the way!) Then you simply pay with your credit card and meet with the TodayTix representative 30 minutes before the show to claim your printed tickets. That’s it.
My Dad bought Broadway tickets to see Fun Home and Waitress before we left for New York, and I really wish we had known about TodayTix before then. I have to thank our lovely walking tour guides for introducing this app to us though, because it allowed us to fit another show in the budget thanks to a discount of 60%. We chose to see The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time, and it is probably the best play I have EVER seen in my life. I won’t be forgetting that one.
It was as mind-blowing as the savings this app provides theatre-lovers. 🙂
The other two shows we watched we paid for in full. Fun Home has been running for some time so the price its tickets were being sold on the app was discounted for about 70%. (I cryyy.) But with Waitress, which is a relatively new one, the savings weren’t that significant when I checked. I think in general, the older the show the bigger the discount. No regrets about Waitress though. I saw it for Sara Bareilles’s music but I came out a huge fan of Jessie Mueller and the rest of the cast! Christopher Fitzgerald TOTALLY stole the show!
And YES you may be able to get tickets for Hamilton through this app, but at the time I was in New York, I checked and the tickets were selling for over $1000. Even in the app. I can’t imagine how much it sells in full.
10. Research places to eat.
New York is an expensive city. Anytime you go to restaurants or fast-food places, usually the prices on the menu are not the final price because you have to add on the taxes. To make the most out of your ka-ching, I recommend researching ahead of time the places you want to try out. And why not try food from one of the street vendors too?
If you’ve got a list of places to hit up, like popular Bouchon or Magnolia Bakery or Momofuku Milk Bar, I would suggest noting the must-try’s so you don’t miss out. I managed to visit Magnolia Bakery and their Banana Pudding is as good as everyone says it is! I’m not a big fan of their cupcakes though because I find the icing to be too sweet.
I am hugely regretting not making my way to Bouchon Bakery and Dominique Ansel though, but not to worry. I will definitely visit next time.
They say the three important things you must try in NYC are New York pizza, bagels, and cheesecake, of course! I ended up going to the following places after reading great reviews online: Coal-Fired Pizza at Julianna’s, bagels with Tofu Spread and Smoked Salmon at Brooklyn Bagels and Coffee, and finally cheesecake from Junior’s at Times Square.
I’ll tell you more about them as I churn out my travel posts, but know that despite certain people regarding some of these places as tourist traps, all of the food was delish!
11. Do your shopping at nearby outlet malls.
Unless you’re a socialite with a lot of cash to burn you’ll probably find shopping in New York to be expensive. I didn’t even bother paying a visit to Saks since I knew I wouldn’t want to buy anything there anyway. It’s not an issue of being able to afford it or not, but the practical side of me simply resists these kinds of places.
The good thing is, there are some tax-free establishments about an hour or two away from NYC you might be interested in. And boy oh boy, are the deals here superb!
Woodburry Commons is the most popular outlet mall in the area, and you have to ride shuttles or the Greyhound bus to get there. I have been told it’s a really nice place to shop as there are several factory outlets of high-end European brands here as well. The mall is located at Central Valley, New York some 2 hours away from Manhattan. Tickets for the Greyhound bus are expensive at above $30 per person, so we decided not to go to Woodbury.
Instead, we headed to The Mills at Jersey Gardens, which is located at Elizabeth, New Jersey. This one has mostly American brands but there are still so many shops, one day won’t be enough if you are set on a shopping spree!
You can take the NJ Transit from New York Penn Station to Newark Penn Station (about $5 per person one way), then take Bus #40 ($2.55 per person one way) from there all the way to The Mills. Remember to grab one of the discount booklets at the customer service area. We reserved all the shopping on our trip here!
The two malls are owned by the same company, just so you know.
12. Be in the moment and have the time of your life!
This one is pretty self-explanatory. I think I’ve blabbered a lot in this post already so I’ll keep this last one short. New York is one of the most vibrant cities in the world, so while you’re there, reserve a little moment to just stop and take it all in. Take your pictures and videos, yes, but remember to see the city with your eyes too.
Have fun! xx