You're going on holiday to New York!
Great! It's a fun city with lots to do, famed in song, story and cinema. Here's the downside… you're going to be a tourist. Being a tourist in New York is tough, because everyone's looking to rip you off. There are a million ways to spend all your money and still miss everything good about the city. Not to worry though, because we're about to serve up some bite-size local knowledge for you, mixed in with advice to get the most out of your experience in the Big Apple, and avoid common tourist pitfalls.
1. You can eat cheaper than you think
There are great restaurants in New York. Every imaginable cuisine is here in some form or another. If you are on the island of Manhattan, you are probably within a ten-minute walk of somewhere that will change the life of your tastebuds. It runs into money fast though. $25 for your meal, $8 per drink, $10 for dessert… do that a few times a day and you can spend a fortune in a week. Here's the thing: you can pay less. Hot tip for paying less: don't eat in touristy areas. Times Square, Rockefeller, Central Park: all these places add a markup to your bill. Avoid them for eats if you're on a budget. Particularly the big chains. You can usually walk a block away from a tourist spot and eat cheaper. Local insight: try halal carts and dollar pizza. Locals survive on these two staples, and they can be found in almost every neighborhood. They're tasty, they'll fill you up, and they'll barely make a dent in your wallet.
2. Use the subway. It's scary, but the most cost effective way around
Any New Yorker will tell you, the MTA is a cruel mistress. It's filled with rats, garbage, delays, and bodily fluids you weren't expecting to see in a public place. However, cabs are expensive. Ubers and Lyfts are expensive. And Pedicabs? Fuhgeddaboudit. I legitimately do not understand why people think pedicabs are a good idea, or why they cost a fortune to ride in. The subway is less than $3 a ride (even less if you buy a weeklong pass, which I'd recommend), and it goes just about everywhere you need it to go. Beware: the subway map is borderline indecipherable to a beginner, but use an app like Google Maps or NYC Subway and it can break down journey planning for you nice and simply. You will save so much money on your trip, and you will get an authentic New York experience. Just remember basic Subway etiquette: move all the way inside the car if it's crowded, don't block the doors, wait to let people off before getting on. You'll get the hang of it, trust us.
3. Learn the unwritten laws of Times Square
There's a lot to cover here, so we'll move quickly.
Times Square looks cool. But everyone in Times Square wants your money. Everyone from Disney to the guy selling knock-off designer handbags. Everything is overpriced. You can buy everything you find in Times Square cheaper elsewhere. Everything.
Don't take a photo with a costume character unless you're willing to fork over money. $5 per character is standard.
Don't take a CD from a stranger; it is not free, and he is not a struggling musician.
Don't take a bracelet from a monk; it is not free, and he/she is not a monk.
If you get a sketch/caricature done, make sure you confirm the price beforehand. Sketch artist signage is often misleading.
If you buy a comedy club ticket, do not buy from anyone advertising a big name. Barkers will sometimes say that Amy Schumer, Louis CK, Chris Rock, Tina Fey and the like are doing standup at the place they're selling for that very night. What are the odds!?! Bad. The odds are bad. Big names don't need barkers to sell tickets. That's why they're big names. Tina Fey doesn't even do standup. Now, don't get me wrong, there are talented comedians at NYC comedy clubs who are worth seeing, but you're not going to enjoy Paul Emrich if you were promised Louis CK. Which is a shame, because Paul is great. By all means, go to a comedy show, but don't get conned in to it. Tickets are also cheaper online, check goldstar.com before you buy from some guy on the street.
Don't block the walkway! There are New Yorkers trying to leave Times Square, don't make their lives more difficult. Move to the side to take your photo, it's not hard. This is a good general rule for the whole city: Don't block the sidewalk, and walk quickly wherever possible.
The best place for your photo op is the red TKTS steps on 47th street. You are out of the way of traffic, and on a raised platform, you will get the best photo there. Also, costume characters aren't allowed on the steps, so you won't have to deal with an expensive photobomb.
If you need to pee in Times Square, the Marriott Marquis Hotel has the nicest bathrooms. Go to the eighth floor. It's open to the public, you can sit there for a quick break, and they have lovely bathrooms. You can also use the bathrooms at the Hard Rock Café, but the Marriott's are nicer. It's also just a really cool building to be inside of.
Take a flyer from a Chicago girl. Or anyone promoting a Broadway show. You don't have to talk to them. You don't have to go to the show. But those guys and girls' days go just a little bit faster if you take a flyer, and it costs you nothing. Just remember to recycle the flyer if you don't use it.
There's a lot to cover for Times Square, I have barely scratched the surface here, but this is a pretty good starter cheat sheet.
4. Know that local New Yorkers don't hate you
Well, they do hate you a bit. You're a tourist. You don't know how to "New York" properly. However, despite the stereotypes, most New Yorkers are actually quite happy to help you with directions, recommend their favorite bar or restaurant to you, explain the Subway system, offer their opinion on what to see or do in the area, and generally assist you in any number of ways. So long as you don't take up too much of their day. They are New Yorkers; that means they are always busy, and they probably have somewhere to be, but they are still human beings who enjoy pleasant interaction with fellow human beings who are polite and kind. For the most part anyway. Don't ask for help from someone who's obviously in a hurry, someone who's aggressively trying to sell you something, or someone who's shouting at the pigeons for kidnapping their sister. Use your judgment and common sense.
5. Learn about CityPass and get the 411 on New York's greatest hits
You want to see all the typical touristy stuff? Empire State, Rockefeller, Statue of Liberty? Save a bunch of money with a CityPass. For a CityPass you pay a larger sum of money up front and get unlimited access to all the key tourist attractions under the CityPass banner. Which is most of the big ones. Do the math on the length of time you want to get one for versus how many attractions you want to see, but chances are a CityPass is a good deal. If you don't go with CityPass, buy your tickets online, they are almost always cheaper, and make sure to Google "[Attraction] Discount Code" before you buy.
As far as New York staples go, here's the local lowdown… the view from Top of the Rock is better than the one from the Empire State Building. Empire State is more iconic, but you can't see Empire State if you're inside it. You can if you're on top of the Rockefeller building. Also, Rockefeller has glass panes you can take a photo in front of, so you get a great view behind you. Empire has a metal grate that makes it nigh on impossible to see anything in a photo. Also, if you do go to Empire, don't pay for the extra observatory level. It's the same view. Literally the same, and you just paid $20 extra for it.
The USS Intrepid is really cool; it's a bit of a walk to get to, but the exhibits are good, and extensive. You can spend a good few hours there. Madame Tussaud's is tacky, but it is fun in a 'guilty pleasure' kind of way, and the waxworks are technical masterpieces. The Highline is really nice, and is now so much easier to get to by Subway. If you want to get a drive-by shot of the Statue of Liberty and pay nothing at all, give the Staten Island Ferry a go.
Big note: You will not be able to do the whole Met Museum in a day. Or all of Central Park. Pick a few areas to look at per visit. It's all good. My personal favorites are the musical instrument exhibit at the Met and Belvedere Castle in the park.
My pet unpopular opinion: I think the Guggenheim is overrated.
6. Broadway is expensive! But you can make it less expensive…
Broadway shows are some of the most expensive in the world. Prime seats start in the hundreds, and tickets for top shows can go for thousands. It is ridiculous, but there are a few things you can do to pay less, depending on how adventurous you are. For starters, consult broadwayforbrokepeople.com. It will give you the lowdown on ticket lotteries, rush ticket policies, preview discounts, standing room tickets, and student pricing. All of those deals will be less than $50 a ticket. They won't be prime seats, and you may have to get up early in the morning to get them, but they are always the most cost-effective.
If you don't have the stomach for that, then the TKTS line may be for you. TKTS is the big booth underneath the red steps in Times Square. There are lines there, usually starting at 10am for matinees and 3pm for evening shows, and they will sell tickets for up to 50% off. You are not guaranteed the show you want (check the show list on the big electronic board, or on the TKTS app before you line up), but these will often be the best deals on prime seating. The people who work there are also very knowledgeable about theatre, and will be able to guide you to the best deals and the best shows. The lines at TKTS can look long, but they move surprisingly fast. You will likely spend less than an hour waiting in line. Just also bare in mind, although these are discounts they are still Premium Seats; you are likely to still spend $75 and up per ticket.
If you don't like waiting in lines, but are willing to walk around a bit, find a Times Square Broadway promoter. Not the guys in the blue coats asking you if you want to see a show (they're ticket scalpers and they drive prices up). Look for people like the Chicago Girls, people wearing the merchandise of the specific show you want to see. They will have flyers that are often discount flyers, and they will know what the cheapest prices for their shows are if you buy at the Box Office.
Keep an eye out online for deals. Prices tend to be better at the Box Office (TicketMaster's online convenience fees are borderline criminal. So much so that they were sued over them recently), but occasionally there are good picks online. Broadway Week is usually a good deal. As is 30 Under $30. BroadwayBox.com, TheaterMania.com, and Goldstar.com often have discounts. The TodayTix app will also have deals. They're not necessarily the best deals, but they are convenient.
Summary: research is key to getting the best deal.
7. Walk places
Manhattan is big! But a lot of the stuff you want to see is walking distance apart. You can walk from Empire State to Macy's to Times Square to the Intrepid Museum in the space of one day. You'll definitely max out your step counter, but you're walking through New York City! Pretty much every street corner here has been a movie set at some point, so get your fill! And take the time to do walking journeys that are an experience in and of themselves, like Central Park, or the Brooklyn Bridge.
8. Stray from the beaten path
You probably came to New York for the touristy stuff. And that's fine. You are, after all, a tourist. But there is a lot of New York that you won't find on a sightseeing tour. Broaden your horizons! Take a train uptown and visit The Cloisters. Head south and see a band you've never heard of at a skeezy club like The Bitter End or Arlene's Grocery. Try an Off-Broadway play, like Puffs. Try an Off-Off Broadway play, like… well, anything in a black box theatre you've never heard of (read the reviews first). See an improv show like On The Spot at the Broadway Comedy Club. Go to the boroughs. Go to Brooklyn. Try a cool themed bar like the Doctor Who/sci-fi world of The Way Station. Play dive bar mini-golf at the Bushwick Country Club. Go to Prospect Park. It was designed after they made Central Park, so it's technically better made, and they have free concerts there in the summer. Go to Queens. Check out the Socrates Sculpture Park. Check out the Museum of the Moving Image; they screen classic and foreign movies there regularly and your screening ticket is covered in your admission. Take the cable car to Roosevelt Island. There's not much to do there, but the cable car is cool.
There is a lot of New York to see! You will not get it all in one go. Heck, you won't get it all if you live here! But if you've maxed out on Midtown, just remember that there's a whole lot of city left for you to experience.
Being a tourist in New York doesn't mean you have to be a tourist. You don't have to spend your life's savings on a week's worth of novelty and generic souvenirs. You don't have to get stuck in an endless parade of people with selfie sticks. And you definitely don't need to have a cookie-cutter experience. You are the master of your own destiny and, armed with knowledge, you can enjoy the great city of New York in a way that feels unique to you. After all, that's what makes New York great: the fact that it can be all things to all people.