New York City in one post or less
April 10, 2008 12:24 PM   Subscribe

New Yorkers, please give a Canadian a crash course in your city.

I'll be arriving shortly, and it'll be my first first time there in a while. I already know a bunch of places I want to visit or revisit (but mostly plan to wander) - but coming from a city with only two subway lines, the thought of your transit system somehow gives me both claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time.

Advice on quickly orienting myself, and on getting around in general (I can't afford cabs)?
Things to generally beware of, and things to generally be on the lookout for?
How to live like a New Yorker (avoid tourist traps, tourist prices, etc.)?
Points of etiquette I may not be aware of?

And anything else you think might be helpful...
posted by regicide is good for you to Travel & Transportation around New York, NY (26 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
not a new yorker, but a canadian like yourself. The main thing that I found was to j-walk... all the time.. unless in immediate danger of being hit by a car. It was obvious who the tourists were because they WEREN'T j-walking, so that helped me a lot.

As a side not, and as a Canadian, go see the Virgin records store in Time Square. The classical music section alone is larger than the small-to-medium sized HMVs. It's impressive.

Have fun!!! NY is a great city.
posted by Planet F at 12:33 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Here's the answer to your third question:

How do I act like a New Yorker?
posted by spec80 at 12:37 PM on April 10, 2008

Most subway stations have a booth where you can ask for help or get a free map. But don't be afraid to ask for directions from your fellow travelers, people are usually happy to help. (But you may want to ask a couple of people before you decide what to do next-- sometimes your happy helpers obliviously give you the wrong directions.)

If you go to the top of the Empire State building after sunset, be sure to turn off the flash on your camera before you take any pictures; from that height and with our air pollution, it does you more harm than good. From my house, I can see all the twinkling lights at the top of it from all the tourists flashing, and it's depressing to know that this beautiful twinkle actually represents tons of wasted photos.

Congratulations, you picked one of the most beautiful times of year to come. Why not announce a MetaFilter meetup? (If you do, be sure to state where and when it should be, so we don't wind up with a free-for-all of locations, times, and dates to weed through.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 12:43 PM on April 10, 2008

another thing as a foreigner in the city: be careful of the fact that some trains with the same number or letter end up in different places! I ended up in.. Rockefeller something in an attempt to get to the airport. Thankfully, as Hermitosis said, the people are friendly, and I got kindly directed to the correct train (good thing I was a few hours early!!!)

Also beware that there are both "local" and "express" trains. The A-train that I got FROM the airport turned out to be an express, so I ended up about 30 streets away from where I wanted to be. Annoying, but easily fixable with a few stair climbs.

The subway maps are your best friends, because they have an overlay of the city streets on them, so you can use it for underground AND above ground directions.
posted by Planet F at 12:48 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Native New Yorker here.

1) Please remember that what is a fun excursion to you is daily life to us. Do enjoy the sites and the atmosphere but if possible do so while being aware of the situation around you. This is both for your safety (pickpockets aren't nearly as common as they are in some places but they do exist) and our sanity (y'all walk so slow).

2) North of Houston (pron. How-ston) the streets are a regular grid, avenues go up in number as they go west, streets go up as they go north. Odd numbered streets (usually) go West, evens (usually) east. The Empire State Building is on 35th street and can sometimes be a helpful landmark but don't depend on it. South of Houston all bets are off, the streets are much more organic and you will get lost. Fortunately you're never too far from a subway station. If you walk far enough you'll hit water so that limits how lost you can get. Have an idea of where the various neighborhoods (TriBeCa, SoHo, LES, etc) are and have your route planned out before you leave your home/hotel. Standing in the middle of the street/subway platform/road looking at a map is a bad idea.

3) Walking is usually the fastest way to get somewhere under about 10 blocks. After that the subway. Buses are a distant third. Cabs don't make sense unless you're drunk, in which case flag 'em down first, get in, and then tell 'em you're going to Queens and don't worry you won't puke on their seats. Not that I'd know anything about that...

4) Please don't drive here. No really, I know you're a great driver but please don't.

5) If it seems to good to be true, it is.

6) Come to a mefi meetup :)

Happy to blather on further here or in email.
posted by Skorgu at 12:50 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Copying and pasting from another post I wrote a while back)

New The Basics

How to Visit NYC: The Basics

Make sure you click over to, it's my indispensible resource for what's going on in NYC.

First off, you must read this Flyertalk wiki on Getting to Manhattan from various NYC airports, where it's broken down into what's easiest versus fastest versus cheapest. will give you point A to point B subway directions for anywhere you want to go, taking into account service changes (construction, etc). It's like Google Maps, but for the subway. Most trains run north/south. You can always grab a subway map from a booth in the station. They give them out for free. Sometimes they run out. You might want to check out one of the city's official tourism centers. They will also have free subway maps. My favorite guide book is the "Not For Tourists" guidebook.

Walk quickly, don't block the sidewalk, please tip well (20%), be aware of your surroundings, step out of the flow of pedesterian traffic if you must look at a map or orient yourself. It's OK for ask for directions, NYers are very helpful, but are busy, busy people. Eat bagels and lox, eat pizza, go to Katz's, people-watch.

As for seeing the city right...

- Top of the Rock over Empire State Building (shorter lines, view that actually includes the Empire State Building, facilities are newer, you're exposed to the elements as opposed to being in a big glass box, it's not crowded at all). Don't forget your camera. No tripods are allowed but you can stay up there as long as you want. I like to time my visits for just before dusk. You can see the city in the daylight, in the sunset, and at night. (If you do go to the Empire State Building, buy tickets online at, buy the fast passes, and look for info about the passes to get to the 102nd floor. It will be about 100 USD, but worth it if you want to feel like a VIP. Oh, and call to find out how long the wait is, visibility, etc. 1.877.NYCVIEW)

- Rockefeller Center, Museum of Modern Art, Times Square, Grand Central, and a peek at the exteriors of the Chrysler Building and New York Public Library (most of these can be combined into one or two days but MOMA will take a few hours to get through.)

- Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. These can be combined. You'll never see 100% of either in one day, so get a taste to satisfy yourself.

- Don't go to South Seaport. It's a giant outdoor mall with bad food.

- Be forewarned that a visit to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty will be time consuming, involve many lines, and both attractions can be very crowded. It's nice, it's interesting, it's not jaw dropping. If you do go to the Statue of Liberty, reserve a monument pass in advance! They do sell out. This pass lets you go inside the Statue. You are only allowed to ascend up to the viewing platform nowadays. Nobody gets to go inside the crown and torch.

- If you do go to Shake Shack (gourmet burger/hot dogs/fries stand in Madison Square Park), go on a weekday around 11:30am or 4:30pm as the lines are long these days. From the park you can also site around admiring the Flatiron Building and Empire State Building.

- Additional activities: walking through the Union Square Green Market, gawking at Church of St. John the Divine or Grant's Tomb, taking a walk down St. Marks Place, wandering around the West Village (say a stroll down Bleecker St.)

- But don't forget to schedule some down time with some good bench-sitting and people-watching!
posted by kathryn at 12:51 PM on April 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

How long are you here for? To live? Or just visiting? Definitely get an unlimited metro card for the amount of time you're here (they have 7, 14, 30 day unlimited passes), though the cabs here are a lot cheaper than the cabs in Montreal, if that's any indication. And don't be afraid of the buses, they can be a great way to get around, especially the East side. The M15 in particular....runs every 8 minutes or so up 1st ave and down 2nd ave. The reason I say unlimited is because the transfers from bus to subway can sometimes be confusing, not work, etc, but with unlimited you can switch all you want, both ways.

Also, just by looking at the map of the subway on a subway car with a confused expression, you will probably get 2 or 3 people asking you if you need help getting somewhere, unless you look TOO much like a New Yorker, then they won't want to insult you....
posted by Grither at 12:52 PM on April 10, 2008

Native New Yorker here.

Are you sure? :)

The Empire State Building is on 35th street

The Empire State Building is between 33rd and 34th Streets.

posted by nicwolff at 1:04 PM on April 10, 2008

Otherwise, excellent advice from Skorgu and kathryn.
posted by nicwolff at 1:06 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Easiest subway mistakes:

- Forgetting to notice if the entrance you're using only goes downtown or uptown.
- Hopping on the express train when you needed to go local. Local stops are indicated on the subway map with a closed circle, and it lists which trains stop there. Open circles are stops where all the lines going through should stop.
- Forgetting to look up the weekend changes on the trains because of MTA maintenance.
- Getting on a crazy busy train because you've been waiting a little while for it to arrive. If a train is packed to the gills, and a lot of people are waiting, there's a 70% chance (this statistic made up) that the next one will arrive shortly and be much, much calmer.
- Stopping in places where traffic is trying to move past, either to orient yourself or look at a map. Pull aside and find somewhere out of the way. This goes for tops of stairways and city sidewalks, too.
- Keeping your backpack on in the subway and whacking innocents with it blindly. Take it off and hold it out of the way.
- Not giving up your seat to people who need it more. I'm convinced that bad karma points are multiplied by two when you're on the train.
- Calling the subway lines by color instead of letter/number. It can seem like natives are just being asses about this, but lots of lines run on the same tracks for just a little while and then split up. The "yellow" line in Queens and the one in Brooklyn aren't the same trains, for the most part.
- Lots of trains run shorter paths at night or don't run at all. The bottom of the subway map tells you when and how things change on any given line.

You'll almost surely mess up on a lot of these; I do all the time. All part of the game, really.
posted by lauranesson at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2008

Seconding the "Odds go west" advice- it makes getting your bearings so much easier. You can remember this because odd people live in California.

Also, if you're going to be here on a weekend, check the MTA website before you leave. Subway construction is generally scheduled on the weekends and you never know if you're train is running express, local, or not at all. Signs posting this vital information can be scarce or non-existent. There isn't much to subway etiquette you can't figure out by just being a polite, considerate person, but you might want to make sure you're holding on to something before the train starts. Most start with a bump or a lurch and it's kind of a typical tourist move to go careening into someone and make a spectacle of yourself.

As for avoiding tourist traps, my advice would be to stay out of Midtown. Take a walk around Alphabet City, eat Greek food in Queens, Visit the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in Park Slope or the Promenade in my 'hood, take the bus all the way up the the Cloisters (it leaves from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), or go to Coney Island and check out Astroland before it's gone.

Have fun! New York is great this time of year!
posted by Thin Lizzy at 1:12 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Empire State Building is between 33rd and 34th Streets. um... 35 is easier to remember than between 33rd and 34th because it's a round number. yeah, that's it...
posted by Skorgu at 1:14 PM on April 10, 2008

As I was typing, all sorts of better and more detailed advice was posted but I'll submit anyway:

Be aware that you can have all the entertainment you need just walking around. Apart from a few small dead zones like 6th Ave in the 50s, the streets are full of life at all hours of day or night. There is always something to look at, often something amazing.

Read through the nyc and ny tags.

Buses are great for tourists - easy to figure out (every avenue has one going up and down and all the main cross streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, etc) have one going back and forth), and a good view. If you get an unlimited metro card, you can jump on and off.

Natives get lost on the subway all the time. It's not just you. No one can keep track of all the work they are doing and which lines are shut where today. You need patience and luck and a sense of adventure.

Most importantly, whatever you do, on pain of death, don't do what most tourists do and idly block the sidewalk or subway stairs!
posted by CunningLinguist at 1:17 PM on April 10, 2008

Don't go out of your way to change for us. I'm a native. I love tourists. I love when people come visit my city. It makes me proud. There are a million of them out on the streets at any given time. Just because you decide to not stand out doesn't mean I'm not going to notice the other 999,000 other tourists. Just come out and have fun. Be yourself. Canadians are awesome.
posted by cazoo at 1:39 PM on April 10, 2008

I second the unlimited metro card. Avoid travel of all kinds (metro, cab, foot) during rush hour in Manhattan. People are nice on the subway if you need to hit a stop on that line, but less so if you're looking for a random stop 60 blocks away on a totally different line. Most anyone will give you directions but ask directly, "How do you get to ___?" instead of trying to be polite and saying "hello, excuse me for a minute" etc.

Use hop
posted by shownomercy at 3:16 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: I'm a Torontonian moving to New York.

-If you're on a budget, you may be interested in NYC free and dirt cheap which has a pretty much endless supply of cheap things to see, do and eat (especially eat).

-Consider walking a lot, especially around this time of year. Easier and more fun than the subway. In business areas, especially during rush hour, people will push past you if you don't walk quickly, but elsewhere you can stroll.

-If you're interested in a less-"touristy" experience, try exploring Brooklyn. Brighton Beach is always surprising, and Park Slope (and Prospect Park to its east) is full of great surprises. Not even to mention Coney Island, which is a unique corny-sleazy-tacky-awesome experience, and which shouldn't be too crowded this time of year. Also, I'd spend most of my time in Manhattan south of 14th street, but that might just be me.
posted by goingonit at 3:47 PM on April 10, 2008

but coming from a city with only two subway lines, the thought of your transit system somehow gives me both claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time.

If you can handle Bloor-Yonge at rush hour, you can handle anything the Lexington Avenue line (the most crowded in the system) can throw at you. (At least I think you're talking about Toronto when you mention the two-line subway system. The Sheppard line says hi, and wishes people would actually use it.)

be careful of the fact that some trains with the same number or letter end up in different places! I ended up in.. Rockefeller something in an attempt to get to the airport.

There are only two trains that do this: the 5 and the A. The A has two different termini in Queens: Far Rockaway and Ozone Park–Lefferts Boulevard. During rush hour, some A trains start/end at Rockaway Park, and some 5 trains run on the 2 in the Bronx. Other than that, all trains run on their indicated solid-line routes (as indicated on the subway map) at all times. Some trains are extended during peak times (the extensions are indicated by dotted lines).

Also beware that there are both "local" and "express" trains. The A-train that I got FROM the airport turned out to be an express, so I ended up about 30 streets away from where I wanted to be.

The route of any given train is quite predictable based on what time of day and and day of the week it is. All A trains are express except for late nights, or during planned (or sometimes unplanned) diversions. The MTA is pretty good about posting current and upcoming service disruptions, so look for the pale orange signs at station entrances and on platforms, especially on weekends, when the subway does magically unpredictable things.

Please don't drive here.

Agreed. I've driven in Manhattan two or three times, only because I've needed to move large amounts of stuff, and it was mildly harrowing both times, and that wasn't even in midtown or during rush hour. You really don't want to drive here.

Many of the crosstown buses are very slow. The 14th Street bus is almost always slower than walking.

Most places that take American debit cards will take Interac too.
posted by oaf at 4:45 PM on April 10, 2008

Not a New Yorker, but as a Torontonian who just spent a weekend in're going to get lost. It's inevitable. I got lost about ten times in three days. No kidding. And I have a really good sense of direction. By "lost" I mean, turned around/heading in the wrong direction, hopped on the wrong train (and ended up in Brooklyn accidentally!), etc. The city is on a grid, it's pretty simple to navigate if you pay attention to the streets and read up on the layout beforehand. There are subway maps in every train, just stand/sit near it and keep an eye on where you're headed. If you're on the wrong train (or the train doesn't end up going where you think it's going), just get off at the next stop. Don't be scared to ask the transit workers, they will tell you what you need to do.

Buy a map first thing. I didn't succumb to the extreme need for a map until day 3 of 3. Just buy it, get one of those pocket maps from a tourist shop and such it up. No one will care if you use it. People have their own shit to worry about. Unless they're tourists, then they are looking at a map, too.

Have a plan of attack, use your time wisely. If you have access to a computer before/during, try to structure each day around a neighborhood (or more than one if you think you can squeeze it in). While some might disagree, I don't find Manhattan to be a good "wander around aimlessly" kind of place. So pick a store/venue/place you want to see, and then look up what's in the area. Budget your time loosely and always keep a couple extra tricks up your sleeve if somethings not as interesting as you thought (or too crowded, etc). Lastly, see if you can get together for a meetup if the nyc mefites are around. It's sure to be good times.
posted by SassHat at 5:17 PM on April 10, 2008

Oh yes, the unlimited day pass does not go 24 hours from when you purchase it (I was lead astray by some lovely nyc mefites...heh) - it ends at 2:59am. SO! Don't buy one at 11pm and think you're going to get your 7 bucks worth. You will not.

And yes, if you are in fact from Toronto you probably have little to worry about in terms of being the poor sack tourist sterotype (ie: walks too slow, uncultured, gawking people from the sticks). I was immensely flattered to be mistaken as a native in nyc...then again I don't say "aboot" so maybe that's why.

/gives the Sheppard line the cold shoulder.
posted by SassHat at 5:27 PM on April 10, 2008

- Keeping your backpack on in the subway and whacking innocents with it blindly. Take it off and hold it out of the way.

Sorry, Lauranessen, can't agree with you on this one. Note, I try my best NOT to whack others. Don't want to hurt anyone as I don't want them to hurt me. But I have a backpack to make it possible to carry what I have to carry, and that is double-important on the subway. It is very hard to dangle a backpack at ankle level, and either other people will step on it, or you'll trip them with it.

So I keep it on, and if I were a little fatter I would be exactly the same size without any backpack.
posted by JimN2TAW at 5:54 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

For navigation, I've always recommended the Streetwise Manhattan map. It's compact, easy to use and has everything you're likely to need on it (subway lines, points of interest, etc).
posted by workerant at 6:42 PM on April 10, 2008

The one-day pass ends at 3:00 the next morning, but the other passes expire at midnight.
posted by oaf at 7:21 PM on April 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing the Not For Tourists guide - i find it much easier to manage than a regular map.

My main trick for figuring out where the hell I am and where I need to go is to use one way streets as a guide - take the map, orient it so the arrows are pointing with traffic, and bam! North? East? Who needs that? :)

I've never been "lost" for more than one block in the City... "Oh! this is 7th Ave!" *turns and walks back a block and is no longer lost*

Compare that to here in Buffalo, where I've lived for 21 years, where I need my GPS nearly every day... :)
posted by sary at 8:48 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Native Angelena, NY resident...the Van Dam book has been my bible to navigate south of Houston and the boroughs since I first started looking for a place ten years ago. As far as I'm concerned, it's the NYC equivalent of the British A-Z's.
posted by brujita at 10:33 PM on April 10, 2008

Best answer: Don't worry. Have fun.

hint: you can use this same tactic almost anywhere else you go too. smiling helps.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:34 AM on April 11, 2008

It is very hard to dangle a backpack at ankle level, and either other people will step on it, or you'll trip them with it.

So I keep it on, and if I were a little fatter I would be exactly the same size without any backpack.

The correct answer is to put it between your feet.

Furthermore, if you were fatter, you would know where your whole body was. Fat people don't wack into others; backpackers do precisely because they are not used to being that large.

Don't be a jerk. Take it off.
posted by dame at 6:55 AM on April 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

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