This summer my husband and I took a trip to Iceland, and before we left I connected with strangers on the internet who are Icelandic locals to ask for any tips for visiting their country for the first time. Some of the advice I received (i.e. “make sure your AirBnB host has black-out-shades to help you adjust to the 23 hours of sunlight” and “it may be summer but it’s going to be wet and cold”) were excellent reminders that seeing things from a local’s perspective is always going to be a bit more on point than a generic Google search of travel tips.
Below, I’ve corralled a few of my top tips for NYC visitors. I hope they make your visit a little more pleasurable!
1. Pack a poncho.
Whether you’re coming to NYC in the middle of a heat-drenched summer or the dregs of a wet winter, you will enjoy your experience so much more if you have a poncho on hand…just in case! I was reminded of this tip recently during an evening of Shakespeare in the Park. The show was to go off rain or shine, and sure enough the rain was coming down all day and into the evening. I popped into no fewer than three drug stores, but alas, they were all sold out of their ponchos (and umbrellas are not allowed at the event.) Even if you’re not sitting out in the rain for 3 hours during a show, you sure will be happy you have coverage if you get caught in a sudden downpour. Plus, it’s much easier to navigate the crowded sidewalks of NYC wearing a poncho than with an umbrella that knocks into everyone!
2. Use hotel lobby bathrooms.
I’m always shocked at the amount of tourists I see in Starbucks bathrooms in Midtown Manhattan. Not only is there a huge line for one stall, but I promise you those bathrooms are not as well maintained as the ones in fancy hotel lobbies (which you can basically find on every other corner in the touristy sections of NYC.) I use this hack all the time with my toddler–the bathrooms are more spacious, cleaner, and there’s never a line. Just walk into the hotel like you own the place (or at the very least like you might be meeting someone there;-) and ask where the nearest restroom is…but chances are you’ll find it pretty quickly. Space is not something we’re overflowing with here!
3. If you get lost, face North to reorientate yourself.
While busy and bustling, Manhattan is one of the easiest places to navigate once you hit the numbered streets (which start downtown in the East Village and go all the way up through Inwood.) If you get turned around, simply take a moment to reorientate yourself to North (i.e. if you are standing on 17th Street, you want to see 18th Street coming up next in front of you, and 16th Street facing your backside.) Once facing North, you’ll be able to think of the island like a compass (remember Never Eat Soggy Waffles from middle school?)–going North towards Uptown Manhattan, East to the East River (walking towards 1st Avenue), South towards Downtown Manhattan, and West to the Westside Highway/Hudson River (walking towards 12th Avenue).
And when in doubt, ask directions! Good bets are always people with strollers or dogs–chances are they live in the neighborhood so can quickly point you in the right direction.
4. Take the subway, but stay away from a completely empty car.
With so many transportation options these days, it can be tempting to Uber or Lyft or Via or yellow taxi it everywhere in the city. And to be fair, if you are traveling with four people and aren’t going too far, it actually could end up being cheaper or the same price as taking the subway once you split the fare four ways. However, with a Metrocard swipe being $2.75 for a ride (with free transfers within a two hour time frame of swiping), or $32 for an UNLIMITED 7 day card, chances are you’ll most likely end up saving a lot of money if you commute like the locals do. Plus, the underground of NYC is completely safe in my humble opinion, and you’ll get much more of a real NYC experience this way. Not to mention sitting in Manhattan traffic is nobody’s idea of a good time!
One caveat to this is to beware of empty subway cars. Especially if the rest of the train is packed, it is empty for a reason (most like a really awful smell or someone going a little nutso–don’t take your chances.)
5. All New York City Public Libraries have free WiFi.
Since I don’t have an International plan on my phone, I’m always on the lookout when I travel abroad for places where I can score free wifi. This comes in handy not just for posting your latest Instagram photos, but also to iMessage or Facetime family members back home, as well as to look up any directions, details about a museum you may be visiting later in the afternoon, or restaurant recommendations in a certain neighborhood so you don’t get stuck eating at a tourist trap. While there are some cafes in NYC with free wifi, it’s definitely not all of them, and you most likely need to purchase something to sit in the cafe or to even obtain the password (same goes for a lot of the hotel lobbies.) However, New York Public Libraries are located in basically every neighborhood of Manhattan and they all offer free wifi. So when in a pinch, pop on into one of them!
Also, some public parks such as Bryant Park and Union Square Park also offer free wifi!
And if you’re looking for even more tips and suggestions about visiting NYC from local New Yorkers, check out my travel guide Treat Yo’self in the City: NYC Authors Dish On Their Favorite Ways To Enjoy The City, Under $20.