Visiting New York for the First Time? 23 Things to Know to Have the Perfect Trip
It’s the “Big Apple,” the “City of Dreams,” the “City That Never Sleeps,” and maybe even the “Greatest City in the World” (at least according to Lin Manuel Miranda). They call New York City the Crossroads of the World and once you’ve been it’s easy to see why.
There’s just soooooo much going on in a relatively small geographical area that it can be overwhelming to the senses.
But it’s quite a city and once you get your bearings, there’s no place quite like it.
Visiting New York for the First Time?
Here’s what you need to know…
The Lay of the Land
1.New York City is comprised of five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island) and each one is really like its own city. For context, Chicago (arguably America’s second greatest city) is roughly the size of Brooklyn.
2.Manhattan is where first time visitors will spend most of their time. It’s where pretty much everything you’re coming to NYC to see is located, and it’s so densely populated with hotels and restaurants.
3.The city is laid out in more or less a gridlike manner. North/south streets are numbered and the numbers get bigger as you go north and smaller as you go south. There are areas where things get a little twisted, but it more or less holds.
Getting There & Getting Around
4.There are three major airports in the NYC area: 1) LaGuardia (LGA) in Queens, NY, 2) John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in Queens, NY, and 3) Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) in Newark, NJ. They’re all major airports and which you fly in/out of largely depends on where you’re coming from and what airline more than which you prefer. Newark is a United hub, JFK is largely an international airport, and LaGuardia is where most domestic flights land (I always fly into LaGuardia on Southwest).
5.There’s not a super convenient way to get public transportation from any of the major airports into Manhattan. From all three airports you’ll have to take a combo of a bus/AirTrain to a subway or train and then a pretty lengthy ride into the city. NYC definitely isn’t up to par with other major cities that offer great public transportation options from the major airport right into the city. Your best option is to take an Uber/Lyft/taxi from the airport to your hotel.
6.But besides the airport situation, the New York City Subway works great! It’s definitely my favorite way to get around the city and if you’re able to read a map or work your phone’s map directions and be observant then it’s not hard at all to figure out. I’ve heard some people say it’s too complicated, but I think it’s just because it’s so extensive. You can rely on your phone’s map directions, but I think it’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with a subway map before you go so you at least generally know how it works.
Each line has a different number or letter name and they use a color system to make them more easily recognizable. And they use the name of the last station on that line to let you know which direction the train is going. Also, instead of using directions (north, south, east, west) they’ll use terms like uptown, downtown, or Queens bound to indicate direction. Just remember…uptown is going north, downtown is going south, and Queens and Brooklyn bound are going east.
Where to Stay
7.For your first trip to NYC, it’s hard to beat staying in Midtown. It’s so convenient since most of the big tourist attractions are in the area and transportation to other parts of the city are so good. I personally would avoid Times Square because it’s super hectic and not at all a vibe that I enjoy. I usually prefer to stay on the east side of Midtown or farther north along Central Park.
8.Know what to expect with NYC hotels. Generally, they’re a lot of $$$ with very little space. $250 is about as cheap as I ever find a place that I would stay (I like saving money, but I won’t risk staying somewhere questionable that I dread coming back to after a long day out exploring the city) and a lot of nicer places (we’re not even talking crazy luxury) start at $700-800/night. I almost always save up some Marriott points to use in NYC because they’re such a good value. I can’t stomach paying $1000/night for a city hotel, but it’s nice to have a good hotel to come back to every night ; )
9.Choose your hotel location based on where you’ll spend the most time or by Subway lines. Even if you’ve narrowed it down to Manhattan (or even Midtown Manhattan), that’s still a pretty big area. If you’re going for a specific event, pick a place that’s either nearby or has access to a Subway line that will get you there easily.
What Is NYC Famous For?
10.Besides all of the attractions of a major world city, what makes NYC so unique? New York is famous for Broadway theater, for baseball games at Yankee Stadium, for concerts at Madison Square Garden. For New York style pizza, bagels and delis, hot dog carts and stands, trendy cupcake and cronut shops. For being the setting of countless classic movies and TV shows like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Friends, and my personal favorite, You’ve Got Mail. For icons like the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and Central Park. And for the lights of Times Square and the bells of Wall Street.
11.There’s an endless list of noteworthy sites and attractions in NYC and even if they’re “touristy,” here’s the deal: most of them are worth seeing and experiencing. At least once.
Here are the big ones:
Empire State Building
Statue of Liberty
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Museum of Natural History
9/11 Memorial & Museum
12.So many attractions require booking in advance. Besides just needing to buy a ticket, a lot of places (from museums to the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building) require a timed entry ticket and during busy travel seasons (pretty much all of the time in NYC) they can sell out or at least be booked up until late in the day. So don’t make the mistake of assuming you can just show up, buy a ticket, and go inside. Like everything in the post COVID world, travel now requires more planning. But the positive side is that capping capacity and spreading visitors out throughout the day helps keep the mega crowds, lines and waiting to a minimum.
Trip Planning Logistics
13.It’s always a good time to go to NYC! But some times are definitely better than others. Weatherwise, spring and fall are pretty ideal. The holidays are a SUPER popular time to go, but it’s cold (and so so so crowded) so I would only recommend that if seeing the Christmas sites is the sole purpose of the trip. Summer is hot, but at least predictable.
14.You could spend two weeks in NYC and not lack for things to do, but for your first trip, I think 5 days is a solid amount of time to spend in the city. Personally, after four days or so I’m ready for a change of pace. It’s possible to find pockets of the city that are more relaxing, but it’s still one of the world’s busiest cities.
Things You’ll Be Glad to Know
15.It doesn’t always smell great. Trash pickup is curbside instead of in alleys like some other cities so that plus just everything that comes with life in a huge city can make things…interesting. Just be prepared for an assault to your senses ; ) That’s true in major cities in general, but I think in New York more so than others.
16.Wear good walking shoes. Yes, it’s a fashionable city, but even the locals don’t get caught out on the streets in questionable footwear. It’s just so much walking. And standing!
17.The hardest part about city trips for me is the fact that you leave your hotel room in the morning and have to carry everything you’ll need for the day (and everything you buy ; ) around with you. So you’ll need the right kind of bag. A small backpack always works best for me. And I like to wear pants/shorts/dresses that at least have a pocket for my phone.
18.Dress for the weather. Sounds obvious, but when I’ve been to NYC in cooler weather and planned to mostly do inside things, you’d be surprised how much time you still end up spending outside in transit.
19.Be aware of your surroundings. For safety, yes. But also just to make sure you stay out of the way. Always check for traffic when you cross the street. Always walk on the right side of the sidewalk. Don’t just stop in the middle of the sidewalk to check directions on your phone, take a picture, etc.
20.Don’t be afraid to ask for help with directions, etc. Yes, New Yorkers have a reputation for being unfriendly, but it’s mostly just that they’re in a hurry or in their own little bubble. Most people are happy to help with directions or other quick questions. If you need help, find someone who looks approachable and follow this routine: eye contact, quick smile, polite but succinctly worded question. No small talk necessary!
21.Use GPS on your phone to map out walking routes and transportation but generally have an idea of where you’re going before you set out. When I first started visiting NYC, we didn’t have smart phones so figuring out directions was a much bigger deal, but now everybody walks around with their phone out so it’s way easier to find your way around without looking like a major tourist.
22.Take a battery pack or phone charger. Because you use your phone for so much (GPS, camera, etc.) the battery will drain sooooo quickly. A charger only does you so much good because then you have to find an outlet and sit by it, so I recommend traveling with a rechargeable battery back (the good ones now can charge your phone several times over) and the USB cord so you can charge on the go.
23.Public restrooms are hard to find. This is perhaps the most annoying thing about visiting NYC (and increasingly any major city), but there is a major lack of public restrooms. You’ll find them here and there (Grand Central, certain parks and public spaces, but they’re usually a little questionable). Starbucks is your best spot in a pinch (but you’ll probably have to buy something and there may be a line), but in general I would just recommend always being super aware of the restroom situation and planning them around your hotel, restaurants you’re at, museums and attractions, etc. Basically if you’re somewhere and there’s a restroom, USE IT.
Want to read more about New York City?
MET vs MoMA vs Guggenheim: Here’s How NYC’s Top Art Museums Rank
Empire State Building vs Top of the Rock vs One World Observatory
Spend the Day along NYC’s High Line: Chelsea Market, The Whitney & Hudson Yards
Visiting the 9/11 Memorial & Museum and One World Observatory