If you’re visiting New York for the first time it can be thrilling… but also overwhelming. So many people! So many things to see! How will you get to see them all?
I present to you: a local’s guide to getting around New York City.
I’ve lived in New York for the last decade, and the day that I walked through Times Square without anyone asking me if I wanted to see a comedy show I knew I’d finally achieved “New Yorker” status.
I’ve only done one of the four things that the How I Met Your Mother characters claim makes a person a real New Yorker, and I leave you to guess which one. However, they were all correct in that to get around New York, you’ve got options: walking (Marshall), the subway (Lily), cabs (Robin), and busses (Ted).
But first, a compass cheat sheet:
Chances are you want to see more of New York than just Times Square (at least, I hope you do). Lucky for you, most of Manhattan is on a grid system, and it’s simple enough to understand:
Streets run west to east. Think of them as your latitude.
Avenues run north to south. Your longitude, if you will.
Fifth Avenue runs down the middle of Manhattan and divides the city into two sides.
West Side: anything west of 5th Ave.
East Side: anything east of 5th Ave.
Likewise, 59th Street runs across the middle of Manhattan and it separates up from down.
Uptown: anything north of 59th St. (Hint: the street numbers go up as you go North. Like 72nd, 86th, etc.)
Midtown: 59th St. to 34th St. (Hint: it’s where most of the iconic NY buildings are…smack dab in the middle.)
Downtown: anything south of 14th St. (Hint: the street numbers keep going down as you go south…until they disappear altogether.)
Broadway is technically an avenue, but it lives by its own rules and cuts diagonally across Manhattan, just to be special and confusing.
Got that all? Great, you’re ready to hit the pavement.
I’m going to side with Marshall and claim that the best way to get around New York is to walk. Stuck in midtown traffic? Get out and walk. Your subway train is sitting in a station for too long? Get out and walk.
New Yorkers have places to be and sometimes it’s just best to take matters into your own hands…or feet. (For this reason, New Yorkers walk unnaturally fast and never have trouble hitting our 10,000 step count.)
If you’re visiting New York for the first time, I recommend walking as much as possible. The city is twelve miles long and under three miles wide, and there is something fun or interesting around almost every corner.
It takes an average able-bodied person 15-20 minutes to walk a mile, so you could walk the length of Manhattan in four hours. (I’m not saying you should…but you could.) What I am saying is if you want to save some money, skip taking the subway if your next destination is only twenty blocks away.
Etiquette Tip: As I said, New Yorkers move fast. If you’re strolling along 34th street and have to take a photo of the Empire State Building and immediately post it, please DO NOT STOP IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SIDEWALK. Pull over to the side like you were driving because foot traffic in New York is still traffic. Stopping in your tracks is the one surefire way to enrage a New Yorker.
Alright, but what if you have your heart set on going to The Met (uptown) in the morning and having lunch at that cute place in the West Village (downtown) and you don’t want to walk eighty blocks. Totally understandable. It’s time to take the train.
Yes, the above heading says subway, but it is referred to as “the train”. (Amtrak, LIRR, and NJ Transit are all referred to by their names.)
The New York City Subway System is expansive, colorful, and can be a bit daunting at first glance. Even locals have to look up directions sometimes. The good thing is because it’s so massive, it can get you pretty much wherever you want to go.
And I’m going to walk you through it step-by-step like we were walking through the turnstile together. (But don’t actually do that- it’s illegal.)
If you are only taking the train once or twice: use the OMNY readers, and just tap your contactless debit or credit card at the turnstile. It will charge you the usual rate for a single ride and you can pay as you go. If you choose this option, go ahead and skip to Step Two.
Step One: Purchase a Metrocard
Step up to one of those kiosks at any subway station, and follow the instructions on the touch screen. It’s a dollar to purchase a Metrocard, and then you can put money on it like a debit or Starbucks card, refilling it if need be.
You can pay using a credit or debit card, or insert cash. (If using cash, don’t ask for change back unless you want a bunch of dollar coins.)
A single ride is $2.75. If you’re only going to take the train a few times, I recommend putting $10-20 on your Metrocard. Two people can share this kind of card- just pass it back to the other person once the first person has swiped through.
If you’re going to take the train more than a dozen times, I recommend buying the 7-Day Unlimited Ride Metrocard. However, this kind of card is only good for one person at a time; there is a time limit that prevents you from being able to swipe it twice immediately.
Also, always get a receipt. Seems annoying, I know, but I once knew a guy who purchased a monthly unlimited card that had a faulty magnetic strip when he went to swipe it for the first time. He couldn’t prove he’d just bought it, and was then out more than $100.
Step Two: Pick which train you want
I highly recommend either carrying a paper map or downloading the New York MTA subway map app on your phone. Here’s how to read all those colorful lines:
Train lines are referred to by their letter or number (not their color, sorry Boston) and by their final destination. (Example: a South Ferry-bound 1 train)
Remember when you were reading about uptown vs. downtown? Very important. Know what direction you are headed. North? Uptown. South? Downtown. Pretty much every station has an uptown platform and a downtown platform. Don’t worry, these platforms are labeled, so just follow the signs.
The longer train lines also go between boroughs, so if you are headed east, you’ll see signs like “1st Ave and Brooklyn” or “Uptown and Queens”.
Bigger stations have multiple entrances, so it doesn’t matter which one you swipe into. However, smaller stations may only have one entrance so double-check before you swipe into one. You don’t want to swipe into the uptown platform entrance when you really wanted the downtown side, and now you’ve wasted $2.75.
Step Three: Go ahead and tap or swipe through
Feeling confident about your choice of train? Good. See the little white arrows at the bottom of your shiny, new Metrocard? Point them in the direction you’re walking, swipe your card forward through the strip reader on your right, and march through that turnstile. As you go through, the turnstile will tell you how much money remains on your Metrocard.
If you’re using the OMNY reader, the light on the touchpad will go from dark blue to light blue and you can step through.
Express or Local?
Once you know which train line to take and which platform to wait on, what train do you take? Express or local?
Express trains go faster because they “skip” some stops. On the map, express stops are the little white station circles. (Example: the A train runs between 125th St. and 59th St. without stopping.)
Local trains stop at every station on their line. They’re the little black circles on the map. (Example: the C train stops at 125th, 116th, and 110th, etc.) If you’re in doubt, it’s always safer to take the local train to ensure you don’t miss your stop!
Oftentimes, express and local trains stop at the same spot on the platform, so check the side of the train as it comes in to see what letter or number is lit up on its side. Sometimes you’ll hear an announcement like “This is a Brooklyn-bound A train” but, as How I Met Your Mother demonstrates, these announcements aren’t always coherent.
Step Four: All aboard!
When your train arrives at the station, do not immediately stand in front of the door. Most likely someone needs to get off before you can get on, so give ‘em some space. When it’s clear, climb abroad, and move in to allow people behind you to board as well.
Note: while most stations now have wifi, there will be spots underground where you will not have cell coverage or internet. This is why it’s best to download a map of the subway, because Google Maps might not load underground. There are usually paper maps on the wall of the train car as well.
Know if and when you need to make a transfer. The big stations like Times Square 42nd St. connect multiple train lines. You do not need to swipe your card again, or even go above ground, but you’ll probably have to take some stairs or use the elevators. Just follow the signs for your next train.
Etiquette Tip: DO NOT lean on the single pole in the middle of the train car. If your back is against the pole, not only are you unstable, but you are hogging it. Hold on to the pole with one hand so that others may do the same.
Another etiquette tip: if there is an empty seat, offer it to an elderly or pregnant person before sitting in it.
Say you are dressed to the nines, and there is no way you are navigating the subway stairs in those heels. It might be best to just take a cab.
You can, of course, use a ride app like Uber or Lyft. But if it looks like they’re going to take too long to get to you, throw your arm out and hail one of those iconic yellow cabs. You can even whistle if you really want to. Just make sure the one you are trying to flag down has its number lit up on top. If the light isn’t on, that cab is already taken.
Currently, fares start at $2.50 and go up $0.40 every 1/5th of a mile. There are also surcharges during busy times like rush hour and nighttime.
When you get in a yellow cab, it’s best to give the driver your cross streets in addition to your actual destination address. (Example: “20 W 34th St. please, between 5th and 6th.”)
Also, it’s polite to tip your driver. Ten to twenty percent.
By bus, I mean the MTA busses, not tour busses (only because I’ve never taken a New York bus tour). And honestly, I don’t take the bus much here in the city…because I can walk faster than they move. However, we should honor Ted Moseby’s efforts.
You can use your Metrocard on busses as well, and for the same price ($2.75 per ride). There are two types of busses: regular local/express busses and Select Bus Service (SBS) busses. You can find bus schedules on MTA’s website here.
Bus stops are marked on the sidewalk by round blue signposts with a bus image. Some stops have shelters, but some don’t.
For the regular busses, you pay when you board the bus. Enter at the front of the bus, tap your card against the OMNY reader, or drop your Metrocard into the farebox near the driver, with the yellow “Metrocard” side facing you. The farebox will deduct the fare and pop your card back out.
You can also pay with exact change (not bills) by dropping it in the farebox.
For SBS busses, you pay at the bus stop sidewalk kiosks before you board. Insert your Metrocard into the ticket kiosk and it will deduct the fare and give you a paper ticket along with your Metrocard.
Busses are especially useful for getting across town/Central Park!
Now go forth and prosper!
I hope you found this guide to getting around New York City helpful. If you get lost or are unsure of when to get off the train, you can always ask someone. New Yorkers have a reputation for being mean, but I promise they are actually very helpful. Especially if you ask for directions on the subway- you’ll get at least two different opinions on which way is better/faster.
It is truly an amazing city, and I encourage you to see as much of it as you can, by any means…except in an ambulance (ahem, Barney).
Which is your favorite way to get around New York City?
Are you planning a trip to NYC? Pin this post in case you get lost!