16 Things to Know About NYC Before Visiting

Brooklyn Bridge sunny day sarah funk

By Sarah

As a world traveler and native New Yorker, I understand what it’s like visiting a new city and not knowing your way around. It can be confusing, stressful, and expensive. You don’t want that – and neither do I! Let’s dive into things to know about NYC before visiting if you’re not from the United States.

We’ll cover everything from easy (cheap) transportation to getting a local SIM card. After you’re done reading this article, don’t miss my New York video series on YouTube where I talk about my favorite things to do in NYC! 

I also have a video and article on tourist traps so don’t miss that one! You don’t want to get scammed, do you?

Before I dive in though, make sure you check out my NYC e-book collection where you’ll find my recommended itineraries for visiting the city, neighborhood guides, and more. This will help you even more with things you need to know before visiting NYC.

If you’re looking to do a tour of the city, check out the tours that I offer. My NYC tours cover history, food, culture, and more. Plus I offer custom private tours with yours truly that include high-res photography of your trip to the big apple!

1. USE THE SUBWAY (IT’S CHEAP!)

You’ve seen the movies showing yellow taxi’s zooming down streets and dream of hopping in one yourself. It sounds intriguing, right? Well, the reality is that taxi’s aren’t always the best option because they are very expensive and traffic in NYC is HORRIBLE. For example, a 20 minute taxi ride costs about $40. It’s just not worth it, especially since the subway can often get you there in almost the same amount of time for under $3.

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The first step in using the subway is buying a metro card. Watch this video to learn how to do that. To navigate your way around, I recommend using Google maps. All you need to do is download the app, type in your directions, and select the transit option (it’s a train icon right next to the car icon). Google Maps is pretty up to date when it comes to subway changes. If there are other changes, there will be flyers pinned in the metro station explaining the changes.

Here are a few things you should know about navigating the subway:

  • It’s common for trains to run on tracks other than the ones that they normally run on. For example, a 2 train might be running on a 4 train line. When this happens, just listen carefully to the train conductor or follow the stops on the subway map located in each car. You can tell which stop your at by looking at the sign on the subway platform.
  • On the weekends, it is common for trains to be under construction, so on these days there are often train changes and delays.
  • Uptown is towards the Bronx.
  • Downtown is towards Staten Island Ferry, Brooklyn, or Whitehall.
  • Before swiping your card through the metro, make sure that the entrance you entered is going the direction you are traveling to. For example, there are entrances that give you access to both Uptown and Downtown trains, and entrances that only do one or the other. If you swipe on an “uptown only” station but want to go downtown, you will need to exit the station and pay again to enter the downtown side.
  • Overall, carefully read all of the signs and if you have questions just ask someone and they can normally help!

2. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS WHEN TAKING PHOTOS

If you want to take a photo, don’t stop in the middle of the street. Instead, step to the side so people can pass, and then you can take your photo. Tourists stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take a photo is one of New Yorkers’ biggest annoyances and why I’m including it in this article about things you should know about visiting NYC. This is because the sidewalks are normally crowded and stopping in the middle slows down all the busy people.

Do you love taking great photos? Then check out my guide to the best Instagram photo locations in the city or watch the video here.

3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP

If you need help, ask for it! Though New Yorkers often get a bad rap for being unfriendly, you’ll find that most of us will help you if you need directions to get around. Cops are great to ask because they are on most corners and in the subway. They know the city better than most locals!

4. BEWARE OF TIMES SQUARE

Times Square is a massive tourist trap. Go there for a quick photo or a Broadway show, other than that avoid it at all costs. 

5. GO TO LOCAL RESTAURANTS NOT CHAIN RESTAURANTS

Looking for a great place to eat? New Yorkers use Google Maps, and Yelp the most to find restaurant, cafe, and bar suggestions. Download those apps and you’ll find some tasty food. The great thing about both of these apps are that they let you choose the price range you are looking for. If you don’t want to spend more than $15 per person, select the single $ option. The $$ option is for places over $20 per person and the $$$ option is for places over $50 per person. Want suggestions on where to eat in the city, check out my video all about it here or join my NYC Foodie Feast tour!

Sarah Funk & Luis Yanes. Photo by Jason Gonzalez-Smith

6. IT’S EXPENSIVE

Unlike many all-inclusive vacations, New York can be expensive. Expect to pay an average of $14 per alcoholic drink, and $4 for a non-alcoholic drink. Lunch will be around $15 for one plate, and dinner averages around $25 per plate. However, there are places to get a cheap meal, such as, $2 noodles at Shu Jiao Fu Zhou Cuisine Restaurant, or $6 Latin-American dishes at El Sabroso. Watch my video below for tips on how to eat well for cheap.

7. BE STREET SMART AND AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS ALWAYS

One of the top things you should know about visiting NYC is that there are certain areas that you should be careful when visiting. In general, it is good to always be aware of your surroundings. Most places are safe, however, there are certain places I don’t recommend tourists visiting. For example, I don’t recommend visiting the Bronx because it is quite dangerous in certain locations. No matter where you are, make sure that the bag you bring is secured with a zipper and keep it within eyesight.

8. PICK UP A GUIDEBOOK

I always like to have a guidebook with me when I explore a city. I’ve used Marco Polo all around the world. They are fantastic and come with an app that helps your tour the city. In addition to that, they also have great suggestions on sightseeing, food & drink, entertainment, shopping, and helpful advice on things to know about visiting NYC.

9. AVOID ANYONE DRESSED IN COSTUMES

This is especially true in Times Square. When you visit the area you’ll notice a lot of Elmo’s, Mickey’s, and other iconic characters dressed in bootleg costumes. If you take a photo with them, they will demand payment even though they did not tell you in advance that the photo would cost money. I’ve seen them ask for around $5 a photo, which is outrageous, especially since the costume is often dirty and poorly made. Watch out for them jumping into your photo as well. They will also ask payment for this even though you did not ask them to take a photo with you. It is terrible!

On a similar note, in Times Square there are guys that will try to sell you their “mix CD”. This is also a scam. Do not buy it from them as it could be a blank CD. 

10. VISIT THE OTHER BOROUGHS!

Manhattan is just the tip of the iceberg in NYC. You should also visit Brooklyn and Queens. In particular, Dumbo and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, and Long Island City and Astoria in Queens are lovely. If you are visiting Astoria, I recommend having a meal at Queens Comfort. This award-winning restaurant has been on several TV shows though from the outside it doesn’t look like much. Avoid going on weekends when lines can be up to an hour and a half. 

Tina Lee in Dumbo, Brooklyn

11. TIP 15% – 20% ALWAYS

In NYC, tipping is essential. This is because waiters get paid very little and rely almost entirely on tips to afford living in this expensive city. You should never tip less than 15%, unless the service or meal was absolutely terrible. In general, I always tip 20%, as do many New Yorkers.

Tina Lee from @ofleatherandlace

You will also need to tip the taxi driver, anyone at a spa, nail salon, or hair salon, or any tour guides. Be careful with taxi’s though, the first option on the checkout screen is to tip them 30%, which is a way for them to get extra money out of you. In order to tip less than this, you need to manually enter the tip during the checkout process.

12. TO SAVE MONEY, DON’T EXCHANGE $$ AT AIRPORTS OR $$ EXCHANGE PLACES

If you need to exchange your money, I recommend just taking cash out of an ATM instead of using a currency exchange location. These often have the best rates, but first check with your home bank to see if they have a partnership with any banks in NYC. Do not under any circumstances, exchange your money at the airport or at currency exchange location near hotels or Times Square. The rates are terrible. Read this article for other tips on how to save money in the city.

13. BUT IN REALITY, YOU PROBABLY WON’T USE CASH THAT MUCH

The reality is that you will probably not need to use cash, unless you’re buying something off the street. Everywhere in NYC takes credit cards, so check with your credit card company about their foreign transaction fees. If there are none, then use your credit card everywhere. Always ask to be charged in USD (the local currency), this will save you money from a conversion fee.

14. GET A LOCAL SIM CARD TO USE YOUR PHONE ANYWHERE

You’ll want to be able to use your phone when in NYC, mainly for getting around. I recommend purchasing the T-mobile Tourist plan. This plan is $50 and gives you unlimited data for 1 month. To get it, head to a T-Mobile store when you arrive, and they will set it up for you. Before you leave your home country, make sure to call your cell phone provider and ask them to temporarily unlock your phone for the duration that you will be in the US. This is essential for making the SIM card work. Get the plan here. 

Or use the Skyroam Solis. This mobile wifi hotspot gives you fast 4G speeds in over 130 countries, and you can connect up to ten devices.

15. PUBLIC RESTROOMS (TOILETS)

An unfortunate thing to know about NYC before visiting is that it’s hard to find public bathrooms in New York. The best way to handle this is to always go to the bathroom before you leave your hotel or restaurant. If you’re walking around and have to go, you can either look for a Starbucks or visit Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station. Or you could use my special trick that never fails. Normally what I do is walk confidently into a popular bar/hotel and go straight to their restroom. It works every time!

You should also download the app Sit or Squat. It will tell you where the nearest bathroom to you is. Aim to visit the bathrooms in green because those are nicer (and, most likely, less dirty).

16. DRESS FOR THE WEATHER

It is no secret that New York’s weather can be unpredictable. This is why I recommend you read my guide where I show you what to wear by month in the city. The winter can be brutally cold, while the summer can be terribly humid. Read the guide here to make sure you’re comfortable!

Luis Yanes & Sarah Funk at Top of the Rock. Photo by Jason Gonzalez-Smith

Those are the essential things to know about NYC before visiting. Don’t forget to watch my New York video series for my top suggestions. Enjoy your visit to the Big Apple!

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