New York City can be an intimidating place. It’s loud, crowded, and there seems to be some kind of unwritten code of conduct that only locals can understand. Lucky for you, we’ve written it down. Here, our tips and rules for making your way around town like a real New Yorker.
Know What ‘Downtown’ Means
In New York, when someone says “downtown,” they don’t mean the commercial center of the city. In New York (in Manhattan, specifically), downtown means “in a southerly direction” or one of the neighborhoods below 14th street. So, if someone says “I live downtown,” it means that they live in one of those neighborhoods. But if we were standing on 79th street and I said, “I’m heading downtown,” I could mean that I’m making my way towards anywhere between 78th street, one block down, and Bowling Green, at the southernmost tip of the island.
“Midtown” means the neighborhoods in the middle section of Manhattan, between 14th Street and 59th Street, which also happens to be the busiest, most office-building-filled part of the city. And “uptown” means “north” or any of the neighborhoods in Manhattan above 59th Street. So that’s “I’m taking a cab uptown,” (when you’re going anywhere north of where you currently are) and “I live uptown” (if you live on 98th Street, for example).
To make things more complicated, there’s also a neighborhood in Brooklyn known as Downtown Brooklyn, which sort of corresponds to the traditional notion of the word in that it’s busy and there are a lot of tall buildings there. But it’s not “the center” of the borough by any means. Making sure you’ve got this all down will only help you avoid confusing the locals when asking for directions.
Sidewalks Have Traffic Rules
OK, not rules that will land you with a ticket if you don’t obey them, but important if you don’t want to get run into by an irritated local. People walk with purpose, and often at a pretty good clip. When in doubt, treat walking down a busy sidewalk like you would driving on a highway: keep right, don’t come to any abrupt stops, and if you’re distracted, moving particularly slowly, or just need to stop to snap a photo or check directions, pull over to a spot that’s out of the way. Same thing applies to escalators.
Follow Taxi and Ride Hail App Etiquette
For yellow cabs: If the numbers on the roof of the cab are lit up, it’s available to give you a ride. If the light is off, there’s someone in it. Also, you don’t need to shout “Taxi!” like they do in the movies. Just stand on the curb and stick out your hand. And make sure if you’re hailing a cab, you don’t accidentally “upstream” someone. What’s “upstreaming”? We’re so glad you asked: If someone was already standing on a street corner—or a little farther down the block, within view—with their hand out, waiting for a cab, they get first dibs. People get very upset when this happens, so make sure you check your surroundings before flagging down the first cab you see.
When it comes to Uber, Juno, Lyft, Via, and the like, the most important thing to do is to make sure you have the right car. The city is full of black Toyota Camrys and Honda Pilots with license plates that start with the letter T, so triple check the plate number and say your name as soon as you get in the car—and don’t make them wait more than a minute or two.
Know Your Bikes and Scooters
Those rows of blue bicycles you see docked around the city are Citi Bikes. A day pass costs $12, and a three-day pass costs $24. They’re meant for quick trips: Once you’ve unlocked a bike, you have 30 minutes before you need to dock it again, at any location, otherwise you’ll get charged extra $4 for each additional 15 minutes. If you already have a Lyft account, you can pay for and access a bike from within the app, which just incorporated Citi Bike into its system. Otherwise there’s also Citi Bike app.
The city still has a long way to go when it comes to building a comprehensive network of safe, designated bike lanes, so navigating the streets on two wheels is not for the faint of heart. Wear a helmet (you’ll need to bring your own), be aware of your surroundings, and don’t go the wrong way down a one-way street.
Revel, an electric moped sharing startup, recently launched in Brooklyn and Queens. They don’t have designated docks, but you’ll see them parked on the street. Once you download the app and unlock one, there’s a one-time $19 fee to verify your identity and safe driving record, and then it’s $1 per person, plus $0.25 a minute to ride and $0.10 a minute to park and pause. Two helmets are included in the case mounted on the back.
Riding the Subway
Because owning a car in the city is expensive, parking is impossible, and traffic is hellish, most people in NYC get around using the subway. It’s inexpensive (If you have a Metrocard it’s $2.75 per swipe, including any transfers, $3.00 if you’re only purchasing a single ride) and, when it’s working properly, fast and convenient. If you’re here for a week or more, consider getting an unlimited seven-day card for $33, which you can buy at a kiosk in any MTA station. A tip for new riders: swipe your Metrocard more slowly than you think you need to. The card readers can be a little finicky.
Also, if you’re riding on the 4, 5 or 6 lines (those are the green trains that run on the East side of Manhattan, through Grand Central station) you may notice little glowing screens on the Metrocard readers. These are the initial rollout of a new payment system called OMNY that will let riders pay for rides with a contactless debit or credit card. The full rollout won’t happen until fall of 2020, so honestly, it’s probably best to just ignore these right now and continue swiping your Metrocard like you do everywhere else. If you’re a new rider to the New York subway it can feel stressful, and the last thing you need is to complicate matters by thinking about multiple ways to pay.
Once you’re on the train, you should keep in mind a few important dos and don’ts:
Do let people off the train before you get on.
Don’t play loud music or speak at a volume louder than the level you’d use in an open-plan office—especially during the morning rush, commuters tend to stay pretty quiet. Talking loudly and playing music without headphones will get you death stares from your fellow passengers.
Do try to take up as little space as possible—especially if the train is crowded. Take off bulky backpacks and hold them in one hand, or rest them on the floor between your legs. If you’re sitting down, don’t “manspread,” and if you’re standing, don’t lean your entire body against the standalone pole—lots of people are trying to hold onto it.
Do give up your seat to the elderly or anyone who is obviously injured or pregnant.
Don’t eat any food item that requires either a napkin or a fork.
Don’t assume that an empty train car in an otherwise full train means you got lucky. There is always a (usually very bad-smelling) reason that it’s empty.
Do make way for “Showtime!” If a group of teenagers with a boombox gets on the train and starts to clear the center of the train, just go with it. They’re about to do some crazy acrobatics. Don’t worry—you won’t get kicked in the head. (If you do watch and enjoy the show, it’s always nice to tip).
Taking the Bus
They aren’t used often by tourists, but especially if you’re trying to go crosstown (East to West) or a short distance in an area that isn’t well-serviced by the subway (say, Crown Heights to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, or from The Met to MoMA) buses can come in handy. (During rush hour, however, you may find yourself moving at the same pace as the people walking on the sidewalk next to you.) There are a few different types Standard Buses, which are only for intra-borough transit cost $2.75 and you can just swipe your Metrocard when you board to pay. “Select” buses, marked with the letters SBS, operate on particularly busy corridors, like crosstown routes, and are also $2.75. However, you have to pay with your Metrocard at a kiosk at the stop before you board. Express Buses cover longer distances between boroughs. They cost $6.50, do not accept unlimited Metrocards, and are marked with capital letters for the boroughs they stop in (as in: QM1 for Queens and Manhattan or SIM2 for Staten Island and Manhattan).
Oh, and There’s Also a Ferry!
The NYC Ferry (formerly known as the East River Ferry) isn’t always the fastest option, but on a beautiful day, it really is picturesque. Pivotal scene in a rom-com levels of picturesque. It costs $2.75 for a one-way ticket, and it’s often more pleasant than dealing with multiple subway transfers if you’re trying to get, from say, Greenpoint in Brooklyn to Wall Street. There are a few commuter lines, all of which connect to downtown Manhattan: North Brooklyn, South Brooklyn, Astoria, Soundview (in The Bronx) and the Lower East Side, plus seasonal routes to Rockaway Beach and Governor’s Island.
The Staten Island Ferry is a separate thing: It’s a shuttle that only goes between the southernmost tip of Manhattan and the Northern tip of Staten Island at St. George. It’s a great way to do a flyby tour of the New York Harbor (where the Statue of Liberty is) and it’s free!
A Note on Clothing
The terrain is not that difficult to navigate. And that old thing about New Yorkers wearing wearing all black, all the time? Not entirely true, but you do see a lot of it during the winter months. If you’re going to a theater, concert hall, or upscale restaurant, check their website or call in advance to see if there’s a dress code. Occasionally, the super high-end (or super old school) spots will require jackets for men. At most places, though, you’ll see a mix that ranges from jeans and tee-shirts to dresses and heels. When in doubt, go a little dressier. If you’re wearing zip-off hiking pants to lunch in the West Village, you won’t be treated badly, per se, but you will be treated like a tourist.
How to Talk to Strangers
People will think you’re crazy if you say hello to them while passing in the street—even if you’re the only two people on the street. Most people are happy to help with directions, but a breezy “Good morning!” is considered… eccentric. Maybe it’s something about living in such a crowded place; there’s so little actual privacy that we try to create some semblance of it for each other when we can.
If you do need to ask for directions, the best way to stop someone is to wave them down with a simple, straightforward “Excuse me, could you help me with directions?” People are generally conditioned to ignore everyone, so don’t be discouraged if a few people walk by with their headphones firmly in place—someone will eventually stop to help out.
Don’t Wait Three Hours for a Table
Generally, going to any new-ish, well-reviewed restaurant downtown without a reservation at peak times (7-9 p.m.), results in a bit of a wait (30-45 minutes). But there are some, often beloved, restaurants that frequently command wait times longer than two hours and won’t take reservations. (Lookin’ at you, Via Carota and Kiki’s.) It can be discouraging—infuriating, even!—especially when you’re not prepared for it and haven’t made a backup plan. If a buzzy restaurant you’re excited to try doesn’t take reservations, try calling mid-afternoon to get a sense of how long the waits get at peak times. If you absolutely must eat there, one way to do it is to go at 5 p.m. to put your name down, then do some shopping and have a drink nearby. Just keep your phone handy—they’ll give away your table if you’re not there within 15 minutes of when it opens up.
When it comes to those flash-in-the-pan, Instagram-famous foodstuffs: that cup of raw cookie dough/vegan doughnut/rainbow whatever-it-is is probably not worth the three-hour wait, especially if you’re only here for a few days. It’s just not!
Pizza and Silverware Do Not Go Together
New York pizza slices are meant to be eaten with one hand, folded lengthwise. Period. End of statement. No exceptions.
So, About Times Square…
It’s a billboard-littered hellscape that has very little to do with the rest of the the city. Nobody hangs out outside the M&M store. Locals pass through as quickly as possible on their way to a Broadway show. Get out of there.
Celebrity Spotting 101
Celebs tend to fly pretty under the radar in New York, unless they’re attending a movie premiere, fashion show, or some other event that’s equally mobbed with cameras. If you see a famous person in a restaurant, walking their dog, checking out an art gallery or grocery shopping with their kids, the New Yorker-y thing to do would be to leave them in peace and to pretend they’re not even there. This ain’t L.A.
Remember There Are Five Boroughs
Are there some Manhattanites who rarely venture across the East River and refer to anything they cannot reach out and grab from the steps of the Bedford Ave. stop as “deep Brooklyn”? Yes. Are there Brooklynites who believe you will fall off the edge of the Earth if you attempt to cross the East River? Uh huh. But you shouldn’t aspire to be like them. No matter how much time you spend in the city, take the time to explore every borough. Go to an all-day dance party at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, eat some of the city’s best pizza at Joe & Pats on Staten Island or explore the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Each borough is unique, filled with things to see, do, and eat, and easy to access by subway or ferry.